Editor's note: CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo is spending several weeks in his homeland of Vietnam and will file occasional dispatches chronicling his adventures. To read stories from Dong's last visit, in December, click here.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam--Last December, I visited Ho Chi Minh City and discovered that while Wi-Fi was ubiquitous and the Internet was fast, it was incredibly hard to get across town.
Seven months later, the traffic here is still terrible. This time, however, I found that if you are in the right place, dealing with traffic isn't necessary at all.
The right place is District 1. Other than being the center of tourism with lots of hotels, famous landmarks, restaurants, and bars, D1 is also the site where you can get pretty much anything you need, especially when it comes to technology and digital entertainment. And it's all within a short walking distance.
I actually heard about this area during my last trip here. Jasper Waale, owner of Skeye, a GPS- and GSM-based tracking company operating in Vietnam and Laos--and an avid listener of the Inside CNET Labs podcast--insisted I check it out. I took a rain check till now.
We met at Cafe Centro, a trendy yet casual coffeehouse located in the middle of D1's most bustling section. According to Jasper, this is a popular place for ex-pats to hang out for both fun and business. It offers reasonably priced refreshments and, of course, free Wi-Fi.
(By the way, there are lots of cafes in Ho Chi Minh City, and pretty much all of them offer free Wi-Fi. My other favorite is Cafe Da on Alexandre De Rhodes Street. Also in D1: the best ice milk coffee and smoothies I've ever had. If you go there, make sure you try the "Dong Tim" fruit shake. It's so good, it has my name on it!)
"You'll find me at Centro at least a couple of times a week," Jasper said. Then, in a slightly show-offy manner, he pulled out his brand-new-looking Nikon D300 camera.
"I just got a good deal on this one. I traded in my D80 and got about 80 percent of new value to put toward this new one. You'll have to come see this place," he said.
I was intrigued, partially because next to his D300, my 4-year-old D80 looked somewhat pathetic. I've considered upgrading my camera for a while, but anticipating the whole hassle of selling my D80 on eBay or Craigslist has stopped me.
He then took me to Thuong Xa Tax, a mini shopping mall that's just a five-minute walk from the cafe. "Mini" here, by the way, is according to American standards; this is actually one of the bigger trading centers here in Vietnam, and it is indeed very large.
As in most shopping malls here, you can find pretty much everything, but we walked straight to the Vinh Hung Camera shop. The owner, Hung, a friendly 40-something man, greeted Jasper like an old friend. He then took a quick look at my D80 and said, "I'll give you $600 for this one, body and lens." Now that's a very good deal, as mine is rather scratched up and dirty since I regularly carry it around in open air. It also comes with a low-end non-VR Nikkor DX 18-135mm lens. On eBay, the best I could get is probably $500 (minus all the fees).
Asked how he could evaluate the camera so quickly and what would happen if it turned out to be bad later, Hung said he generally only needs a minute with a camera to know how much it's worth. "I've been doing this so long. I can tell if there's something wrong with the body via the shutter sound," he said. "The lens, I can just see."
Hung also revealed that his business was going well because digital SLRs are getting more popular and that so far he has been able to fulfill all customer requests, whether for new purchases or exchanges. "We have a good connection, so the most you have to wait for a rare model is just a few days," he said.
I wouldn't have to wait at all since he had a brand new D300 in stock, reasonably priced at almost $1,500. What I didn't have was $900 in cash. The shop accepts Visa, but I would have to pay another 3 percent. That, plus the incredible fees Bank of America charges me for using the card abroad, would end up making it not such a good deal. So I decided to let Jasper stick with the lead in the camera competition, and he seemed very happy about it.
On the way out of the Tax mall, we stumbled upon an interesting shop selling bootleg movies. Now this is nothing new to me. However, unlike the modest-looking bootleg stores in Hanoi, this one is quite upscale. First, it takes a good amount of money to have a booth in this shopping mall, and second, the shop employs uniformed women to tend to your every movie need.
The shop has virtually any movie title you can think of, including those still out in theaters and not yet released on disc. They come in stacks organized by genres. I spotted a DVD of "Angels and Demons," which I didn't have time to see in a theater before the trip. And, no, I didn't buy it.
Cuc, one of the women in uniform, told me her job is selling and she has no idea about the legality or illegality of these movies. "All I know they are 15,000 dong (about 90 cents) per DVD and 40,000 dong (about $2.25) per Blu-ray. Anything else you will need to talk to my manager," she smiled. She wasn't so happy when I wanted to take her photo, though.
"These movies' quality really sucks, even the supposedly high-def ones," Jasper said. "If you want true high-def movies, you have to come with me here."
We got out of Tax and after a 10-minute walk, we arrived at Paster Street. This street runs from D1 to District 3 (Quan 3). However, the D1 part is where it's at. There are a lot of electronics and computer stores--the two Jasper wanted to show me are Minigame and Halo.
These two stores focus on console games and offer virtually any title. Most of these games, of course, are not original copies but bootleg versions. To play these games, the consoles themselves need to be hacked, and the shop takes care of that too.
Jasper said he once mistakenly upgraded his Wii's firmware and re-locked his console. He brought it back to Halo, and 400,000 dong later, his Wii was unlocked again. The process involved removing and reordering a memory chip. It's much like the work on the iPhone 3G that I mentioned last year.
The most popular service these two stores offer is games on thumbdrives. The shop will modify a console to make it accept game stored on portable USB drives. After that, you can just bring your thumbdrive over and buy a game for the common price of 10,000 dong (56 cents) per game, regardless of how big (in megabytes) the game is. So now, instead of having to store DVDs or game cartridges, you just have to have a big external hard drive.
Apart from games, true high-def movies in Matroska format (also known as MKV) are also on sale here for the same price: 10,000 dong per movie. You will need a computer to play these movies--or a portable media player such as the WD TV.
Though not a console gamer, I felt excited about what you can get here and how much you can get it for. Legalities aside, in a way, these stores offer much better service than GameStop or any other retailer or repair store I've run into in the U.S.
After a couple of hours hanging out with Jasper, my perspective on Ho Chi Minh City completely changed. Traumatized by its traffic, I used to compare this city of some 12 million people to Los Angeles. Now, it seems somewhat like Manhattan, where you can get virtually anywhere on foot.
What I found most interesting, however, are those people like Denmark-native Jasper--foreigners who weren't born in Vietnam and don't speak the local language very well, if at all, yet who can relate to the place better than a lot of Vietnamese including myself.
Jasper made up his mind about the place long ago. "You are not allowed to have a dull moment here," he said. "If you are bored, it's your fault. This is the most exciting place in the world."