VFYW Contest: A Quarantine Stay While Andrew's Away

For contest #244, a reader stuck in a hotel room for two weeks sends an overcast view.

As a reminder, Andrew is off this week and next week for his annual August vacation. (He got a nice birthday present on Monday morning when we finally reached 10,000 paid subscribers.) The Weekly Dish, as you know, had to launch unexpectedly in late July, and we are still doing a bunch of stuff behind the scenes, such as forming an LLC and getting a podcast prepped for the fall election. Thanks for everyone’s patience as we get things smoothed out with the new Dish format.

On that note, a request from a reader:

Could you put the location of the view in the final picture of the winner post? I’d like to know where it is, but I have zero interest in reading through all the speculation about what the other readers thought (which I’m sure most readers enjoy, just not me).

The location has always been written in bold, for scrollers to spot it more easily, but to make it even easier, I will start putting the answer at the very bottom of the post.

On to this week’s entries. Yes, another tough view this week, but the next one will be easier. At least one reader appreciates how tricky it can be to pick the right view:

If a photo shows a few words on a sign, the view is too easy; take a picture of a backyard in a small town and it’s too hard. But done right, you get a view like this; one that sends you on a journey not just all the way up the Mekong river, but through an entire region’s culture and history.

Our first guesser picks the United States — just not the part of it you see very often:

This is clearly somewhere tropical: dense vegetation, different varieties of palms, a “damp” look. There also appears to be a mix of housing styles, one clearly showing an Asian inspiration. This could very well be the look of many other places, so going with a gut feel on this: Hagatna, Guam.

Another goes with China:

I’m basing that guess on the apartment building. Three clues: 1) It has the tripartite division — dark base, panelized wall system, and pitched red roof that is ubiquitous in China. 2) The air conditioner stuck on the side of the building, as opposed to in the window, is typical in China. 3) If the internet is to be believed, China has something like 65 million empty apartments. The building looks like it could be a “ghost building,” since there is only one occupant in that line of the building. 

Where in China? I have no clue. (Since there are palm trees in the photo, maybe last week’s botany hunter can find where they are indigenous to.) I once drove between Shanghai and West Lake in Hangzhou where Nixon met Zhou Enlai, and that apartment building looks a gazillion apartment buildings along the route. So that’s my guess: somewhere between Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Here’s a fascinating look at the “ghost cities” the reader alludes to:

After almost 250 words of analysis, a reader concludes:

I will take a WESG (aka “wild-eyed scientific guess”) that it’s a low-lying part of a newly industrializing south-Asian communist country: the province of Dong Nai in Vietnam. More specifically the rural district of Long Thanh, since it’s just outside Ho Chi Minh City and therefore hungry for development in an area that’s still recovering from war, some 45 years later.

This next reader doesn’t bother with many words:

Normally I would come up with a guess, go poke around on Google Maps looking for red roofs and give up, demoralized, wasting hours. In the interest of efficiency, I’m just sticking with my entirely uninformed guess and actually submitting it to prevent myself from playing in earnest: Tainan, Taiwan?

Another reader tries a popular method:

The temple in the upper right of the photo looks Thai to me, but after going back to the picture a few times this week, I was unable to find any more clues to narrow it down. I’m going to throw a dart and say Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand.

This reader is frustrated:

Sometimes this contest just chews you up and spits you out. So many waterways ... so many Buddhist temples ... so many mid-rise apartment buildings. I’m left cursing my own inadequacy, with an unsupported conviction this is somewhere in Southeast Asia *gestures vaguely*.  I’ll go with Chiang Mai, Thailand.

“Or as the President calls it, Thighland,” a reader sighs. This one guesses Bangkok:

I got sidetracked when my initial searching led to some articles about the 2011 floods and increasingly botched water diversion system in the greater Bangkok area. In a distressingly common story, development has disrupted natural flows and flood distribution systems — which may have to handle more water in shorter periods as climate change brings greater variability and more powerful storms. There are proposals for massive public works projects — some to inject water underground, others to create essentially a second Chao Phraya River to drain the north and east around the city. I wish them all good luck, but it sure seems futile.

This reader mentions the right country:

Google searches for “temple red roof” turned up many, many, many examples in Laos and Thailand. Then I was struck by a somewhat meta clue: the Dish! The blue satellite dish on the 10th floor of the high-rise! (Are all the other units in the building empty, I wonder?) It looked distinctive, so I poked around and found that the markings seem similar to those on a dish produced by the Thai satellite provider Infosat:

But it turns out that Infosat has a presence not only in Thailand but in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar as well, so that didn’t help resolve the matter ...

Back to Laos or Thailand. Some spots near Vientiane seemed promising, but again, since Thailand has been in the news, I narrowed the search to non-Bangkok areas of Thailand and tried to find locations near regional cities (big enough to have a high-rise building but small enough to have open grass fields and waterways nearby) with notable temples.

After lots of searching on Google Images and Google Maps, I’ve reached this conclusion: too many temples and waterways, too little time. My gut says northern or northeastern Thailand. Seems underdeveloped for Chiang Mai, and I’m thinking proximity to Vientiane for no good reason, so perhaps the outskirts of one of the cities in the Isan region. Of the “big four” cities in Isan, Udon Thani seemed to have a decent number of high-rises, so I’ll go with that.

If the answer ends up being Laos, then at least I’ll be relatively close.

The answer is, in fact, Laos — in Vientiane, the capital city. To find it, a first-time guesser had a simple but effective strategy:

I lived in Guangzhou, China for a couple years and it reminded me a bit of that, but with prettier architecture. The curved reddish-orange roof in the upper right got me thinking mainland SE Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, or Laos). I went for the capitals first, and looked for large green spaces with narrow, curved waterways in the Google Maps satellite view. Lo and behold, the first green space I found in Vientiane also happened to have a curved waterway!

Here are two great visuals from another reader:

The reader who submitted this week’s photo captioned it, “Enjoying our view from government-imposed quarantine, after returning to Laos after home leave in USA.” She follows up with more details:

After a summer visit to friends and family in the US, we returned to our overseas home in Laos. As with all countries in this region, the land and air borders are closed to regular traffic, and a government-approval process was required to be allowed back in the country. We were allowed to return in August, but we were immediately transported from the airport to a government hospital for Covid-19 testing, then to a government selected hotel for two weeks of strict quarantine, complete with military guards in the lobby. We were not allowed to leave our room for 14 days, but for a final Covid-19 test on Day 11. All meals were left at our door, and the remains were silently removed. The experience was somewhere between a vacation and prison. Our family of four survived on workout videos, e-books and this view from our balcony. 

After three negative Covid-19 tests, we are back in our Vientiane home. With no more tourists and a lockdown for certain businesses, the city remains very quiet. 

Here’s how one reader found the place:

I’ve never been to Laos, but the photo felt like other parts of Southeast Asia. I quickly gave up on identifying palm trees or any of the architecture in the background. I thought the height of the building might be relevant, so I started looking at lists of tallest buildings in various cities in the region in case a 17-story building counted as tall anywhere. This led me to eventually focus on Vientiene and, before long, found the building that confirmed the location. It’s the sort of random, logically-flawed approach that never works in the contest, except this time it did.

Another reader who picked Vientiane adds, “In just the architecture alone, you can see how the invasions and history of Southeast Asia have affected Laos over the centuries, from the French colonial period, to near Vietnamese rule in the 1970s and, most recently, China’s boom.” Another reader looks to the future:

The building in question is part of a relatively new “That Luang Lake Special Economic Zone” funded by Chinese investments and built on marshland. Here’s a picture I found of the envisioned complex: 

Another reader forwards details from a groundbreaking ceremony late last year:

… the That Luang Lake Specific Economic Zone [is a] US$1.7-billion project with a concessional period of 99 years. … sized 8 million square metres, [it] has been designed to have shopping centres, department stores, hotels, hospitals, schools, and international residential and financial centres.

Another reader finds a cafe:

I spotted some high-rise apartments in Vientiane and looked at some photos from a Google write-up for Four Friends Book Cafe, whose patio looks like the patios of the low-rise brown buildings in the contest photo:

Nice to see what it looks like on a sunny day! Then I saw that the high rise is not an apartment building, but the Qube Hotel. But I can’t identify the room number where your photo was taken!

No one identified the correct room number (1207), but someone did get the right floor, so he’s the official winner this week:

I was so excited to hear of the return of VFYW, the timing of which was especially well-received here in Melbourne, Australia, where we are now in the second week of a “Stage 4” lockdown. What else do I have to do, other than spend an unhealthy amount of time Google-sleuthing?!

This week’s view is taken from the Qube Hotel, Vientiane, Laos. Based on the building opposite, I am going to guess the photo was taken from the balcony on the 12th floor, looking north-east across the man-made canals that flow into the That Luang Lake. But because I’m probably not going to get the room floor correct, here’s a nice picture of a horse with the hotel in the background:

In my search, I also came across this guy, who seemed to be having a go at guessing where the photo was taken from:

If you happen to be the man in the photo, drop us a line and we’ll give you a VFYW book as a runner-up prize.

Circling back to last week’s contest in the Canary Islands, a reader writes: “Tenerife was (and is) the site of the world’s worst air disaster — a news story that stuck with me from when I was 13 years old.” I found an excellent rundown of the disaster from Patrick Smith, who runs an aviation blog that Jim Fallows recommends. Here’s a teaser:

The magnitude of the accident speaks for itself, but what makes it particularly unforgettable is the startling set of ironies and coincidences that preceded it.  Indeed most airplane crashes result not from a single error or failure but from a chain of improbable errors and failures, together with a stroke or two of really bad luck.  Never was this illustrated more calamitously, and almost to the point of absurdity, than on that Sunday afternoon over 30 years ago.

On a much brighter note, a long-time Dishhead has created a cool app that we might use for future contests:

I’m so happy to see the return of The Dish! I’ve been a reader since way back in the Bush Administration and had the good fortune to meet Andrew once at Stanford University in 2018. Needless to say, I’m now a founding subscriber to The Weekly Dish. Thank you for making another go at this.

In the meantime, I’ve been building a map-based publishing platform, Atlasphere. As an exercise, I began posting all the results from the VFYW contest. Here is last week’s contest from Tenerife, joining the previous contests going back to January 2014:

Also, regarding Chini’s lament about foreign vacation and the mention of WindowSwap, take a look at this Atlasphere view, which is a growing collection of live webcams around the world, constructed just for that travel-lusting purpose. Being on the west coast of the US, I will often watch the sunrise over the East Hampton Beach or ponder island life in Greece


This week: Vientiane, Laos. Next week:

So, where do you think it’s located? Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. If no one guesses the exact location, proximity counts. Happy sleuthing!