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Vietnam

This is the longest I’ve been in one country this year.  I didn’t intend to and it certainly didn’t feel like it, but I did enjoy it.  As with every country, I learned a lot while I was here that I couldn’t have imagined.

Captures quite a bit of Vietnam’s recent history and present.

While I knew of more recent wars against the French and Americans for independence, I was unaware of the thousand years of Chinese rule for the first millennium or so.  Chinese style writing can still be seen in weddings and luck related matters or on historical buildings.  The language was translated by a Portuguese missionary hundreds of years ago before the French got here, so the current writing system is some complex system of accents I have not seen anywhere else.  The five tones of Vietnam are a struggle even knowing the four tones of Mandarin.  Vietnam has a fear of the Chinese still and everyone in the country of either sex has mandatory training for a few weeks to learn to fire guns and throw grenades.  The short length of training makes me wonder how good their aim is.   Meanwhile they have a bigger brother complex with Cambodia.  Some old rivalries do not end so quickly.  Once I got to the south end, I did not realize that there were more cultural influences than just the ethnic minority hill tribes.  There were whole empires here before, and loads of Chinese and Khmer people from when different regions ruled the area.

As if running from their history many countries in the region are sprinting towards globalization as a positive thing. I liked this scooter decal art to show just how bright neon this push towards modernity is.

My first country of the region was Laos, the most laidback of this subcontinent.  I loved it and I worried about what I had heard about Vietnam.  It was the scam-iest and pushiest country!  I already found Luang Prabang a tad touristy and pushy and couldn’t imagine it getting worse.  It really did.  There is a tourist trail in this country, it is all the stops you see on an “Open Tour” bus ticket.  The tourist areas of these towns are awful.  People will not take no for an answer and I’ve had people follow me down whole streets trying to sell me huge pieces of art when I’m carrying a backpack.  It just makes no sense.  After generations of oppression, I do feel like there is a feeling of watch out for your own first and screw everyone else, not just tourists but everyone, over.  However I feel like knowing there is a constant stream of new, one time tourists encourages this behavior as well.  Part of me wants to slap every tourist who happily agrees to the pushy people happily handing them usually more than twice as much money.  Stop encouraging that awful behavior!  Vietnam does not have the constant repeat almost expat like tourists of Thailand and their pushy touts take advantage to make sure they never will.

There is a system of double prices here, harkening back to the days of American GIs and their wildly inflated salaries relative to local prices.  It is perpetuated by all of us as we do not know the real prices of anything, it just seems “cheap compared to home!”  While the local salaries are quite low (about $100 a month for the poor), I think this attitude of looking at foreigners as “you can afford it” is damaging when carelessly done.  My first impression of the country was the airport, where there were posted prices for the bus like vans into town.  An information booth had notified us of a slightly higher (by 25 cents) foreigner price but the signs around the vans had only a single price.  We tried to inform someone in our van arguing with the fare collector of this and got cursed at for a bit.  This would’ve been easily avoidable without a van full of cranky just arrived tourists with a simple change to the sign.  Often, I also visibly see locals pay less and then the vendor laughs, or the vendor’s tone is snide as she laughs and says things to others around her in Vietnamese.  We may not understand the language but everyone understands body language and no one likes feeling ripped off.

That being said, there is real poverty here.  The economic boon of the 2000′s did bring about lots of positive change for the people but many still are in need.  The fast growing economy also caused ridiculous inflation.  Often I’d look at prices from five or six years ago and realized they’d tripled.  Bus ticket prices posted online a few months ago were already 10% off of the posted prices at stations.  This was a mere few cents or dollars to me, but I can’t imagine how this affects those living here.  It looks like there is already a bust occuring: The End of the Vietnamese Miracle.

Facebook, blogs, and some journalists are censored here. Most young people get around the first two pretty handily.

Like in other Asian countries, there seems to be a lack of caring about the surrounding environment by most people.  This meant all local beaches were covered in discarded trash and broken glass.  The roads were of odd quality, some fantastic and new, others so well used I was afraid to drive on them or ruined by weather.

I had so many friends tell me that this was their least favorite country that I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew I came here to eat but I found so much more.  In places where no one should’ve spoken English, I met so many friendly people just happy to talk to me and try to help.  I expected some residual anger about what they call the American War (and what we call the Vietnam War).  I found only helpful, smiling people and explanations in English.  The government run museums were propaganda like, but what can one expect?  One owner of a homestay told me his family had people join both sides, and that they still can’t figure out now who was more right.  It may also be because of how young this country is.  I heard a statistic somewhere that 2/3 of this country is under 30.  They were all born long after the war, it is history now.  Part of their economic growth has been based on how young they are.  They’ve implemented a two child policy to try to limit an explosion of too many youngsters forming an unsustainable economy.  Although the fine for another child is a whopping $12, painful to even the poorest families only for a bit I imagine.

One of the most inspiring things I’ve run into in the south are the English cafes run by 20 somethings.  I ran into more than one of these, where they recognized that speaking English opened up doors and opportunities for them.  In an effort to help others gain a foothold, these cafes encourage everyone to only speak English and do things like hold happy hours where native English speakers can talk to locals.  The two I found also happened to have lots of live acoustic music, often singing English songs.  While I don’t think English is the only answer, I really like that they were creating a community to foster growth opportunities.

One of the common questions I get is where would I live of the places I’ve been.  I spend at least half my time seeking out the middle of nowhere, which is not really part of the plan for when I return to living in a city somewhere.  However I can say after months in China and Vietnam that I would not openly choose either of those countries just because I would enjoy living there.  There is a general wariness I have in these two in particular, a difficulty because there is a general lack of trust.  I have made great friends in both countries however it does not override the feeling I have that I constantly have to be on guard.  While in America, the police and government may try to screw me over, it feels like here most people feel like they always will be.  I’d like to be able to enjoy the delicious feasts and wonderful sights of these countries without the careful eye that it is my responsibility to not be ripped off or given the correct change on purpose.  While I don’t need to trust these strangers with my life, I’d like to not always have to keep one eye on everyone with negative thoughts that everyone has only themselves and close family in mind.  There is a priority on appearances of everything being OK, without regard for anything holding up to the slightest wind behind that facade, often in these countries meaning lots of corruption and shoddily made things.  I could barely stand growing up with that as traditional family values, I don’t think I could voluntarily live in it.

I don’t think the children understand what “The Rooster Game” as they call it really can be. Although that kid in the bottom half clutching what looks like money may know otherwise.

One more country in the rear view with pleasant memories.  It has not been the easiest country but it really added more character.  I am grateful for the adventure that it has been, one I could not have expected when I set out on my journey.  Kind of like everywhere I’ve been.

I cringe when I see backpacker fare.  No, I do not want mediocre banana pancakes and a crappy burger (of which every other place in Vietnam likes to claim they have the BEST IN THE COUNTRY!).  It can’t be a hard competition, every one I’ve had has been awful and about three times the prices of delicious local fare.  So given the choices, although I do miss a good melty cheese and lots of international variety, I mostly stick to local fare.

Ho Chi Minh City reminds me of Los Angeles in that it does not have many specialties of its own as much as it is amazing at absorbing every other food around it and making it at least as good if not better.

I prefer savory breakfasts over sweet so Vietnam is a great country for me.  I did’t realize it extended beyond just rice noodle soups and porridges til midway through the country when I discovered bo ne: steak and eggs.

In Saigon, I discovered a better variation called bit tet involving pate and a meatball along with everything else. I forgot to get fries again though.

I’ve eaten a lot of op la (fried eggs) but heard a rumor there was a version covered in sausages and other breakfast meats. When I finally found it, it was as decadent as it sounded. The vegetarian meat makes it less greasy right?

One of my delightful local hosts took it upon her to show me some Saigon favorites.  She took me to eat pha lau, a coconut milk based soup full of offal that you eat with bread or noodles.  At this eating street outside a local high school I also got bot chien, a rice cake and egg mix that you slather in hot sauce.  I was still finishing up my drink when the police showed up and the entire street skedaddled.  My host seemed amused or pleased that a foreigner was so into something so odd so we continued our adventures.  Another day, we tore into various plates of snails, Canadian snails, clams, oysters and blood cockles in a huge two story restaurant full of drunk locals enjoying delicious seafood.  I’m definitely glad I had a local and more people to order this one, so much more satisfying than my point and hope seafood adventures alone by the coast.  Our last food adventure is the food known as hot vit lon (balut in Filipino food).  This is fertilized duck embryos where feathers and skeleton have just started forming, eaten later than the Filipino version.  You dip the whole yolky mess in chile lime salt and pepper sauce.  I found the quail version to be a better bite size alternative to the more disturbing duck eggs.

What would Vietnam be without more noodles though?  Rice noodles, wheat noodles, even glass or cellophane ones.  I went after some harder to get variations here because the vendors sell out so fast.  I started with bun thit nuong, a grilled pork and rice noodle salad that was absolutely delectable.  I went to a vendor that sells banh canh, extra thick rice noodles in their version of a thick peasant style broth.  They open daily at 3, and by the time I got there at 3:45 were out of all the delicious porky and meaty bits.  No worries, I took that as an excuse to get tamarind soft shell crabs at another place down the road.

The famous Lunch Lady as covered by the Gastronomy Blog and Anthony Bourdain. While some find her overrated I found her bun mam delicious. Full of fresh shrimp, fatty pork, eggplant and okra is a flavorful broth. She does a different rice noodle soup each day of the week so maybe some days are better than others.

Vung Tau is the home of banh knot, the little white cakes, but the version here is better than going to the sleazy port town or so I hear. The banh xeo are twice the size of what I’m used to seeing in America! Despite being full of delicious but bitter heart of palm, I found this too greasy to be enjoyable.

It isn’t all just white rice based things though. This place fried chicken underneath that waterfall you see and made tomato rice in the spinning fryer plate.

I was so hungry I took a few bites before I remembered to take photo evidence of the fryer waterfall. Sorry Krispy Kreme, this is my new favorite food waterfall.

I kept trying to find ca kho to, a river fish cooked inside of a clay pot with a sweet caramelized sauce. I failed miserably and only had mediocre canh chua sour soup in Saigon. Good thing my last stop in Vietnam was in the Mekong Delta, home of both these dishes to get fantastic versions. Restaurant Bay Bong in Chau Doc is much recommended for reasonably priced delicious versions of these dishes.

On a busy roundabout in midtown there is coconut ice cream with dried fruit in a coconut. It took me something ridiculous like five tries to find it when it was open, and it ended up being pretty disappointing for that much work. The coconut agar jelly in a coconut I had later that night was much superior.

I do miss american desserts and this sundae was the closest i could get. The cakes here are so not cutting it with their light crumb and supermarket like buttercream. Perhaps I should just stick to the che buoi (pomelo skin in coconut milk).

I have come from cities where there is a glut of food information and Saigon as a large metropolis is no slacker in this category.  So here’s my Eating Asia and Gastronomy Blog fed food map and one supplied by the excellent Eating Saigon!

Couch Surfing is Asia has mostly been a failure, from the boring to a cult to plenty of flakes and unreturned messages, I haven’t had any completely pleasant interactions.  Big cities usually have more hosts so I took going back to Ho Chi Minh City as a good chance to get back on Couch Surfing.  Alas, I was met with another flake who I stayed out in the middle of nowhere to meet!  The silver lining is I was invited to coffee at Lu Cupffee, an English cafe out in District 3.  I was even invited to stay there the next time I returned.

And return I did!  After my brief jaunt in the Mekong cut short due to rain and mud, I sold my motorcycle, and I found a community I did not expect.  I found that low-key host that does not really care how long you stay.  I was his resident foreigner for his guests to practice English with, which is a much more laid-back and better culture exchange way for me to teach English than a formal, repetitive class.  The people who frequented this cafe were not what I saw when I rode out into the middle of nowhere Vietnam.  These guys were well educated, looking to improve their language skills, and at least solidly middle class.  It was another side of Vietnam I had not seen yet.

Considering the other graffiti I saw was math, this stamp map of Saigon and the river may be as counter culture as street art gets here.

My first day out and about was led by a friend of Lu’s on motorbike to the tourist destinations of Saigon.  I do not go out of my way to go to these places and this day reminded me why not.  I still did not enter the Reunification Palace and instead visited a temporary water party Sprite soda had set up.  Two French couch surfers also staying at Lu’s helped goad my Vietnamese guide into joining us in the foam pit and water slide areas.  Surrounded by raucous music and wet fun, I’d never seen the Vietnamese let loose so much!  Afterwards, soaking wet, we went to what the university students of Saigon declare the “cafe bit” (I think bit? or bot? I can never spell Vietnamese).  An illegal set up of street vendor cafe in the park in front of Reunification Palace where they meet.  I was originally surprised to find them in touristy District 1 but they let me know it’s the center district so they all meet there from all over town.  It is normal for Vietnamese to live with their family until they marry.  I was surprised at the group we joined for coffee, these kids looked Goth and alternative!  A few of them told me they did crazy things, like motorcycling alone into the countryside and listening to local metal music.  Alas, I did not catch any local metal bands although that sounds amazing.  The one odd part of the day was my Vietnamese guide expecting me to pay for everything, including taking me to more expensive coffee than I would’ve chosen on my own.  This was quickly reversed for everyone else I met.  All the other friends, and even acquaintances I hung out with for a single night, just would not let me pay!  They seemed more than happy to let a foreigner intrude upon birthday dinners, private dinners, and whole friend groups and then insisted on not letting me chip in at all.  I already consider myself lucky to get to know them better, their hospitality was overboard.  In Vietnam (and China, as far as I understand), inviting friends out implies that you will pay for them.  To get around this, you tell friends you will go “American style” which means split bill.

With an American expat I visited a roller skating rink that was quite the experience.  This completely sober experience involved Vietnamese people showboating their one footed light up roller blading skills, their backwards chain roller skating, and their middle of the dance floor moves.  I’m not sure this would’ve been alcohol free or closing shop before 10 pm in America given the dark room and neon party lights.

We’re learning to make paper dolls!

I also went to volunteer at a children’s hospital.  I keep telling people how hard it is to find noncommittal short term volunteer work and the organizer seemed just as surprised that a traveler would show up to something like this.  I was not ready for what I saw.  The hospital was covered in families in any available floor space, cradling their terminally ill children.  Whole families lived there until I suspect the child passed or recovered.  Yet these kids were still buoyant, the ones who showed up to play with us happy and energetic.  One even tried to make out with a few girls and me, and I’m pretty sure a few were rather grabby.  We made some upcycled magazine paper dolls to sell at a charity event later that week to raise money for charity.

He seems pretty proud of his creation and that cracker.

Isn’t… every school in Asia the Asian High School? There are a lot of international and “international” schools as English speaking skills are at a premium.

Through the volunteer events and just hanging out at the coffee house I met some pretty interesting people who clued me into all sorts of culture I would not know and still do not understand entirely.  Some had studied abroad, and I was surprised to see how they adapted so easily to living in countries like Australia and America, drinking and doing other Vietnamese scandalous activities like staying out past 9 pm.  Yet four years later they returned to living with their families, with curfews (the liberal parents let their kids stay out until midnight one told me), and with social norms that seem so constricting to my American mind.  As a note, most university students (at least the girls) seem to be barred from dating here and there is an assumption that most people are virgins until marriage, which is just hiding a plethora of abortions and lies that everyone seems to know about.  There is a consensus that families have rejected brides who were not virgins, whether this is true or not or an excuse to hate on a bride I am not sure.

Craft night at the cafe to make more things to sell for charity.

I also realize these people are just not so different from American kids.  As much as I love observing life occurring around me, I must say I enjoyed having people who could speak English so I could hear their dreams.  They have interests like handmade crafts, gardening, and pets (kitties, puppies and turtles).  The newer graduates struggle to find jobs in a recession economy.  Some dream of being singers by making it on reality television but in the meantime they hone their acoustic skills in the cafe and open mic nights.  They are not allowed to play on the streets for money though.

Crooning in the cafe. It’s mostly American pop songs, which becomes less cheesy when you have a kid putting their heart into it.

Perhaps because these people were more well off, the most common jealousy I heard from them was not that they wish they had the money to travel like me but the freedom.  To them, the societal constraints of family duty and what the mostly women who said this were supposed to do was too much to ignore.  Although I feel compassion for the poverty I see, it is here among middle class urbanites that I felt the most lucky that I had been born in America.  I was lucky to naturally learn English and to not be raised in a country in what I consider a society without personal freedoms.  One of the people who studied abroad let me know that she understood that they learn a different history, that Uncle Ho may not have been the perfect god they revere him as in the country.

Pets are a tough pill for me to swallow in this country and region in general.  A lot of dogs and cats will run away when you try to pet them as there is a lot of abuse in the form of kicking and hitting of the pets.  Smacking, not just for your disobedient kids!  The first day i returned to Saigon my host had tied a tiny orange stray kitten to his bench outside.  A lot of the locals seemed confused when I had trained her to climb into any laps for some warm comfort.

Rawr! I will act fierce despite being tied up with an adorable green ribbon.

I am aware negligence occurs anywhere, however I feel guilty about this particular case.  My host did not seem to know much about cats and did not want to believe me that she was not eating too much, her stomach was swollen from being starved.  The poor little kitty was covered in crawling bugs and was rather weak.  He abandoned her midweek because I don’t think he wanted a sick cat and told me “another family owned her”.  I suspect he was upset that she was sick and had diarrhea but refused to get the litterbox I told him people keep inside to handle pet waste.  The kitty returned to the house days later because it was the only place she had any food or care at all, even if it had stopped.  One day, she finally couldn’t even support her own weight and open her eyes.  She could only muster the strength to limp away when i tried to pet her.  I finally found a cat lover, uncommon in this country, to bring me to a vet.  My host had told me “Vietnamese people don’t use pet doctors!”  I later found this to be a lie.  I understand pet care is expensive, but the deworming shots I got this poor sick kitty cost about as much as a midrange bowl of pho.  Unfortunately, it is Vietnamese bad luck to have a cat die in your house and when I returned from dinner I was told by my host that “she was taken away by another family who owned her.”  It was only when I talked to Vietnamese people in the cafe could I confirm she had passed.  I hope you are enjoying kitty heaven and someone is taking better care of you now, little orange cat.

The day the first kitty was needlessly being ignored and dying, my host got another kitten delivered.

I really hope this kitty has a better life.  God speed little fuzzball.  She at least has the kibble and formula I had bought at the vet’s for the first kitten.  I called Animal Rescue Saigon for the first kitten but they didn’t get back to me for days and when they did, told me they were full of abandoned kitties and could not take any more.  I know Vietnam is not a cat country but releasing your unloved kittens (and puppies) onto the street and a lack of spaying and neutering seems to just create more problems and bad luck for everyone involved.

I kept meaning to leave Ho Chi Minh earlier, I’m not usually a fan of huge towns.  Yet I just could not, I just kept staying to see these people more.  Perhaps I was more sick of moving quickly than I realized.  I stayed a whole two weeks.  I love seeing places through the eyes of those who love it, who want to show me every last bit.  I even got my hands on a kitchen to cook an American dinner for some homesick expats.  On my last night and morning I was bestowed with more generosity than the amazing amounts I am constantly already shown.  My friends gave me a duet acoustic performance at my request, I was given physical gifts that I seem to accumulate wherever I meet kind souls, and one couch surfer even volunteered to get breakfast with me and take me to the bus station ridiculously early in the morning.

Typical Saigon traffic and lack of understanding at how a roundabout works. There are stoplights involved here and everyone sort of rushes in at right angles causing traffic jams.

Some people told me that they hoped I loved Vietnam, and I could honestly tell them that the one I had found I did indeed love.  Away from the bustle and harassment of the tourist zone and amidst all the scooter traffic, I found another side of the Vietnam I had fallen for the last three months.

I often travel slower than I intended but this may be a new record.  I’ve spent two weeks in the bustling town of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC or Saigon depending on how you’re feeling). I took care of some pressing passport business as I was running out of visa pages.  Although July 4th was weeks ago and I passed it rather unnoticeably and quietly, here I had a continued run in with Americanism.

My experiences with American representation in the city was going well.  The museums on this side of the country still ignored any Vietnamese wrongdoing but at least had stopped calling the French and Americans incompetent in every way they could muster.  The American consulate, on the land of the former embassy, was more efficient and friendly than any federal passport visit I’ve ever had in America.  Every member of the staff smiled, looked un-annoyed, and were rather helpful.  The cashier even cheerfully handed me a $2 bill for my change, considered particularly lucky in this country.  I guess that’s why I haven’t seen any in America, they’ve all been hoarded by Vietnamese people here!  Granted I’m still rather ticked off to pay $84 just to add some extra visa pages to my passport.  Fun pro tip: you can request extra pages for free when you get a passport.

I met a cantankerous major who fought in the Vietnamese war.  I’d always been curious to meet someone who’d been here for that and would return.  Now I know, and I am not much enriched by the experience.  I do not doubt his courageous dedication as a lifetime soldier, however I draw the line when he became a caricature of bad American expat/traveler stereotypes.  He interjected himself into a conversation I was having with a friend by telling me “Vietnamese women are not too thin”.  This would be less ridiculous if he were not an obese retiree shoving expensive cake and iced coffee down with a Northern Vietnamese wife waiting for him at home.  The man spouted on about how everyone should own and use guns.  He then proceeded to berate my Vietnamese friend telling him gems like “you didn’t win the war, we decided to leave.  Do you understand that?”  He ended by loudly talking about how awful the government was, the one he chose to live in, and how talking badly about it would get Vietnamese people in trouble, like the one he kept yelling at.  It made me feel like his Vietnamese wife must not have it easy.

That is not the towering sundae with a flood of sauce, a mountain of sprinkles and fresh whipped cream on top I saw in the menu!

Undeterred by my overweight fellow countryman, I was antsing for some American style desserts.  Alas this sugary homesickness was mostly met with disappointment.  Although everything here is so overly sweet for me, I could not find a dense chocolate cake or a buttercream that didn’t feel like it belonged in a supermarket anywhere.  Even sundaes, a generally hard to screw up dessert, were sad.  The ice cream parlors were American, yet instead of being in the classic 50′s parlor style they all looked like clones of modern Coldstones.

This is a city where I met the most locals that could hold the deepest conversations i’ve had with locals in a while.  I’ve also met a few expats living here who were the friendliest people.  It is nice to not have to explain every little bit of your culture all the time and to have an easy conversation.  I’ll write again tomorrow about all the great experiences I’ve had with those who are from here.

After two months I’ve gathered some thoughts and tips for anyone who is thinking about riding in Vietnam.  The long and the short is that this was one of the highlights of my year round trip but very hard to do legally, pleasantly and thoroughly if you want to do it on a short vacation.

A cow’s (and bus’s or other motorbike’s) favorite thing to do: get in my way right as I’m coming by.

Legality:

This is the one you see the most disagreement about.  Although your International Driving Permit will list Vietnam as a covered country, the government has decided otherwise.  Travel insurance generally won’t cover you for accidents if you are riding illegally, so to be covered you do need a local license.  I covered how to get a local license here, in this post.  It did take me a month and my friend from Texas failed to get one when my California license went through.  If you do want to have your bases covered, I’d recommend having an International Driving Permit ready, a translator, and some wiggle room in time.  I’m aware most people think I’m nuts, but you don’t need your insurance to cover you until you really need them in any situation, so I’d rather be safe.

Stranded (repairs and other concerns):

I actually didn’t have to worry about much on the road.  I carried some snacks at first, but there is everything you need on the road.  Only once the entire two months did I worry about finding a place to sleep in the middle of a national park, and even then I found one shortly.  A guesthouse, a restaurant, and a repair shop are always nearby.

It does feel like everyone in this country knows how to fix a bike and strap large amounts of objects onto the back of them.  I never had any serious problems with my bike and it was pretty easy to find someone to fix problems or give an oil change.  The hardest part is convincing the mechanic that what you think are problems are in this country.  I could never really get anyone to fix my slightly leaning kickstand (only one even tried, one other told me to put a rock shim under it) or fix my taillight for night driving (they tried, but they also didn’t care, no one really uses them).  Then you get to watch in a mix of amazement and cringing as you see them make do with what they have and fix your bike with spit and tape.  But hey, it always worked, so who am I to complain?

Language:

It took me months to learn how to count to ten.  There are a few useful words for riding:

- “Sua Chua/Son Sua”: repair, with accents I am not including.  The former is confusing because with different accents, it is the word for yogurt.  Which they do sell at repair shops along with ice cream (kem). “xe may” means motorcycles in case you accidentally spot a bicycle or car repair.

- “Khach San/Nha Nghi”: Hotel/guesthouse.

- “Quan”: restaurant.  On the road it is more common to see “com dia/pho/bun/chao”: rice plates, rice noodles, rice noodles and rice porridge.
[DSCF124] a cow’s (and bus’s) favorite thing to do: get in my way

Dangers:

The people here drive crazy, but there are some general rules.  They just don’t make sense to most Western people ever.  The biggest rule is this: if you can go, go, and try not to stop.  The other big rule is that size wins.  So this is why you see people jetting everywhere in between giant buses and trucks who will do as they please.  Also, please use your horn always.  Here it means “I am here, where you can’t see me”.  So use it loudly and often like the locals.

Roads and route info:

The 1A highway was the bane of my riding existence.  Some of it was beautiful but this is where most of the buses and trucks that tried to run me off the road were.  The road is also often in bad condition with so many heavy vehicles, so there are rather deep grooves running over the road.  It’s like driving parallel to foot deep speed bumps constantly.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail is very beautiful in the north, lush with greenery and mostly empty.  I highly recommend riding on it.  I hear in the south there is construction at the moment so I had avoided it.

The northwest loop is a good one week excursion if you just want to ride and see scenery but do nothing else.  The views were gorgeous and changed so much daily I thought I had changed countries.  That said, there are chunks of road west of Sapa that are so covered in landslides that it was the most dangerous rock and dirt roads I drove the entire time I was in the country.

The Mekong Delta is rather flat so it is good for anyone who is riding a bicycle as well as motorcycle.  The roads are in pretty good condition and the cities not so far apart, so it’s a good place to start and get some practice in if you need it.  Also, enjoy a ferry ride or five with your motorcycle!

Useful things to have:

There was wifi in most of the places I stopped.  The guides I used were a few years old and many were rather loud in proclamations of no wi-fi or ATMs nearby.  This country has exploded in wealth and development, so wi-fi is pretty common now.  ATMs I had a little more trouble with but it was still pretty easy to find one in most towns.

Getting a local SIM card is really pretty useful.  Instead of a paper map I used Google Maps, which worked great.  Vinaphone and Viettel have great coverage all over the country.  The only place I didn’t have coverage was on the ocean.  For about 2 dollars a month you can get unlimited internet for maps and looking up other useful info.  Google translate is useful for communicating the more complicated things you can’t pantomime.

We got extra butt cushions because these tiny bikes were not made for long rides or for big foreigners.  Many people ride 300 km a day, which on tiny 100-150 cc bikes means almost all day riding.  Do your butt a favor and either ride less or get something cushy.

Wear protective gear.  I ran into four separate people with oozing pus wounds and one with her entire legs covered in open wounds.  No one else does, but accidents are common in this country, particularly for travelers.  Be ready.  I opted for my full face American helmet over the only top of the head flimsy fashionable ordeals here.  You bet I was glad I had it when I took my slow tumble to the rocks and the side of my helmet, that would not have been covered in a Vietnamese helmet, was missing paint.

Random last tips:

I’m a slow traveler.  Most backpackers zoom from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City or the reverse in a mere three weeks.  I did it in almost three months and relished every moment.  This is a large beautiful country, and if you have limited time I recommend only trying to see part of it.  You can get from one end to the other but they seemed to miss a lot of stuff in between.  Those were my favorite parts of the country.

So there you go, the basics of riding in Vietnam.  I do recommend this trip for any experienced riders with lots of free time.  I never did manage to find a couple where the woman was riding out of sheer want.  I met one couple where the woman rode because they had to carry three kids.  I think I saw another woman get in front of her man for two seconds before deciding it was a bad idea and letting him ride.  Shame, the men don’t seem to ride any safer or better.  In any case, Vietnam is a beautiful country that I greatly enjoyed seeing on two wheels.

One of the bigger things to do while in the Mekong Delta is to stay in a homestay.  However the Vietnamese variety that most people (and me this time) do are not really homestays as much as family run guesthouse like hostels or bungalows.  I found one around Can Tho that was pretty fantastic.  It was a pretty big complex of bungalows on the river.  While not usually a fan of tours, Hung ran a small laid back one that was quite informative.  The family style dinners were also quite delicious with friendly other travelers to chat with.

Some of the bungalows are right on the river with benches overlooking the fine sunsets.

Hung, owner of the homestay and supposedly former tour guide, ran a boat tour to the Can Tho markets and surrounding canals. The houses along the way were fun.

Life on the river can look like it hasn’t changed in a while.

The oft gloomy weather makes for some interesting skies.

The boats at the wholesale market put their wares on bamboo poles to advertise what they have. These guys have everything!  The market was not quite consumer level and I couldn’t really buy much besides some fruit and peddlers selling drinks to tourists.

Hung explained how he grew up right after the war and back then, the country was rather poor. There were no toys so they made them out of bamboo leaves. Here he shows some boys how to make bamboo leaf boats.

The wife half of a rice noodle making factory. She ladles out the rice flour and tapioca concoction to cook on a muslin stretched over a boiling pot fueled by burning rice husks.

The husband picks up the cooked rice paper with a basket like stick. The burned up rice husk ashes are used as fertilizer. No part of the rice is wasted.

At the sleeping mat weaving home. It takes two women an hour to make a mat.  I do like having a local guide around to ask my endless curious questions.

A local crossing a “monkey bridge”. I looked much less graceful crossing the same bridge.

The views from the monkey bridge were nice. I like that the boat has its own shelter.

The Mekong Delta is the most fertile part of Vietnam, producing 80% of its rice export.

Hung took a quick glance and said “200 bananas!” The rest of us did not have banana estimating skills that good and made him check. He was pretty close.

I don’t think I’d seen a banana flowering on the tree before this. That is one big banana flower! They eat those in salads and stews here.

This inedible fig tree had fruits spouting all over its trunk and branches. During the Vietnamese New Year (lunar) the people pray with mangoes, papayas, custard apples, coconuts and figs.

While I’ve eaten a lot of watermelon I don’t think I’ve seen one still on the ground before. Why yes, I did grow up in a city, why do you ask?

While in the area I went to Long Xuyen to visit a crocodile farm. There are no wild Vietnamese Mekong crocs anymore. This bunch of 3-6 year olds were destined for the dinner plate and bag factory. I found their meat firmer than fish but mushier than meat.

The bigger 16-22 year olds are breeder crocodiles and get to laze around in bigger quarters. They’ve escaped a deadlier fate as their flesh is tough and skin not beautiful anymore. Crocodiles open their mouths to cool off. Most terrifying cool off ever.

So ends my adventures in the Mekong Delta in this country.  The rainy season has started so I will be rushing back to Saigon now to sell my bike and go off on a new adventure.

 

 

After reaching Saigon I headed further south.  I started my journey in the Mekong Delta in southern China, where it is a river of a different name.  I have, five to six months later, finally reached the end of it.  This is the flattest part of the country with relatively good roads, leading to some fast motorcycling and getting lost very easily as I reached towns larger than I expected.

The first town I reached was Ben Tre, a land of coconuts.  The most amusing thing that happened to me was a mother and her child in front of me buying corn at the lady grilled it on the street.  She looked at me and started translating for me, telling me all about what I was eating and how much to pay.  She even tried to pay for me, telling me i must not have any Vietnamese dong!  Well, I’m not sure how she thought I got here but she certainly dispelled any notions I had that no one spoke English around here.

They’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts. Look at them sitting on the road, house, cart, motorbike, and [insert every possible surface here].

What I love about the lands of the Mekong is the slow pace of life.  There are not many awe inspiring tourist destinations but it’s really just about relaxing.

I spent an afternoon just watching puffy white clouds roll over the river.  I’m only a bowling hat short of a Magritte.

The towns were bustling and bigger than I expected after what I saw in Laos.  I think I liked the roads in between places more.  The biggest attraction for me was to ride around the provinces just observing things from the road and getting lost.  I’ll be selling the bike soon and I wanted to enjoy the last bit of road freedom.  I just wish it didn’t rain so darned much.

I saw stunning verdant rice field landscapes as I drove. If only the weather had kept up, it is rainy season now.

Tra Vinh is a city full of many small markets.  While guides mentioned a charming town with big streets lined with trees, I still found the town to be not more charming than Ben Tre.  I did partake in the bounty of fruit available all over the market.  A town is a great place to live and wander around for a bit but I did get tired of these rather quickly.  It was nice because I’ve gone for weeks now and only saw other foreigners two days, one of them in Ho Chi Minh City.  I had planned to visit more towns but I am beginning to see a sameness of the region and will be looping back faster.

Looking through a ferry window. A mother next to me saw I was a foreigner and happily talked to me about coming from Ho Chi Minh city and her baby giggled at me endlessly. It makes all the bridges I see on maps that end up being surprise ferries totally worth it.

Life on the Mekong seems to progress as it has for ages, a mix of Vietnamese, Khmer, and Chinese cultures slow rolling on a brown river.

Taking the slow boat for life.

The last few days have been a lot of hurried riding from the crashing water of waves on the ocean into the onslaught of thunderstorms.  I raced through the last curving coastal roads following sand dunes, stopped for a pleasant lunch with some cows overlooking the sea, and curved inland as the sky dropped buckets.  The land near the coast is said to be the best for growing green dragon fruit, the beautiful pink and green fruit with a white fleshy center full of black kiwi like seeds.

Dragonfruit grow like some weird hybrid of dreadlocked palm tree-cactus. And here I thought pineapples grew funny. Can you spot the spiky pink and green fruit?

Now that I’m riding alone, I do not ride all that much per day.  It takes a good bit of energy out of me and I’d rather be able to walk around and enjoy the rest of my day.  That means I don’t usually take my meals on the road as I’m only riding for a few hours.  On the road to Saigon I made an exception as I found Banh Bao vendors lined up ten deep.  These are meat filled steamed wheat buns that I usually spot on the back of motorbike vendors that I can’t get the attention of, so I’ve been craving them for a while.  Back in San Francisco I had multiple friends who were on Atkins like wheat free diets to lose weight.  I don’t think I could do it, I can’t imagine giving up breads, cakes, and noodles.

Google Maps has been serving me pretty well as I travel.  I don’t think I’ve broken out the paper map once while on the road.  It certainly isn’t up to date enough sometimes though and has some issues.  This time it told me there was a bridge across the river.  I sat in a horde of bikes and cars, wondering what was taking so long.  This must be the world’s slowest drawbridge ever.  Ah, no it is a ferry.  How the heck do you confuse the two of those on a map?!  On the upside the ferry is fast and pleasant.

Finally, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (ye olde Saigon, renamed after the war).  I do not intend to explore just yet, I will have to return to Saigon to sell my motorbike to another backpacker.  It is a huge city, with close to ten million residents spread out over a huge area criss crossed by a huge network of roads.   That part feels like home.  When I was 16, I was a rather aggressive driver.  I raced into every opening I could for the thrill of driving, convinced that everyone else should do the same and we’d all go faster.  As I’ve aged I’ve mellowed out my driving a good bit, but little did I know my teenage driving dreams were how the Vietnamese drive.  I’m not convinced it makes anyone go faster.  Combined with the rain, the millions of not-grid like roads made me a rather more lost than usual.  I think I spent at least an hour looping through Saigon’s many streets.

Actually in Saigon I met up with a few Vietnamese Couchsurfers who were a rather friendly bunch with great English skills.  After my flakey and cult experiences, it is nice to know that some cities in Asia have healthy Couchsurfing communities.  I left in the morning and moved further south to explore the Mekong Delta.  I have made it though, i’ve finished the Hanoi to Saigon ride.  I’ll be back Saigon, I’ll be back to eat your delicious secrets.

Ok, “Deathtrap Highway” might be a little extreme, but Highway 1A is really quite terrifying.  Highway 1D back near Quy Nhon was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken, but 1A usually just involves lots of buses and trucks running me off the road in dire danger of falling into deep concrete ditches.  And that’s just when I’m riding on the shoulder.  The actual road is so run over by heavy vehicles that there are foot deep grooves making it feel like you’re riding between two deep speed bumps that you have to cross every time you change lanes.  Terrifying stuff.  It’s supposed to follow the coast but I’ve found getting off of it as much as possible to the actual coastal roads is definitely preferred.

Much better. These little roads can be hard to find, as they’re usually random turns off of the huge highway with signs only going one way.  Totally worth it to ride on generally much better roads though.

This time following the coast more led me to the tourist trap and water action sport capital of Vietnam, Mui Ne.  I got here during the not windy season though, so it was an eerie ghost town like resort town.  I think there are more resorts than people at this point.  Perfect, just how I like my resort towns, not full of touts selling me crap and tourists.

I passed the “famous” red and white sand dunes on the way into town. I wish there was somewhere to stop closer to the white dunes than where I took this, with a beautiful view of a lotus lake, wind swept trees, and forlorn green island on the sea.

The red dunes was the only place in Mui Ne covered in tourists.  I passed on the lame looking sledding where people could barely move.  The Vietnamese tourists all stay in nearby Phan Thiet.

Mui Ne is a small fishing village nearby the bigger provincial capital Phan Thiet.  Both produce fish sauce that I smelled for the last few days of riding. The smell of sun rotting fish is less delectable when it’s perfuming the air and not flavoring your food.

Shipyard from back in Ca Na. This whole stretch of coast is pocked in bright blue fishing ships that look like this.

Mui Ne resort area is actually Ham Tien village along the water.  I can’t say I’m a huge fan of a whole strip of resorts removing the locals and not giving public access to the water. Much like the Vietnamese, I think I prefer Phan Thiet with its public beaches and parks, restaurants, and less tourist town focus.  There is more interesting stuff inbetween the two and in Phan Thiet.

I’ve heard about how the Vietnamese revere the whale and have elaborate burial ceremonies for the beached specimens they worship as gods.  I found a temple in Phan Thiet (Van Thuy Tu) which claims Southeast Asia’s biggest whale skeleton (22 meters/66 feet) and has a shrine in front of a whole room full of whale bones!  I hear the temple is often closed for various reasons and indeed I thought it was when I arrived.  They were under heavy construction and the whale skeleton was under a tarp.  A construction worker happily showed me around before handing me off to an old dude in what looked like his pajamas smoking.  This guy talked my ear off not realizing I didn’t understand a single word but I enjoyed his enthusiasm.  He handed me some incense and beat a huge gong like drum for me as I prayed to the whales.  I’m not usually a temple person but I did enjoy this one.  While Vietnamese will eat just about any animal unfortunate to wander into their sight, they will not eat whales because they are sacred.  I’m surprised any creature in Asia is sacred enough to avoid that fate!

After weeks of sunshine in the rainy season, the clouds caught up. That’s one way to keep junior dry. Better than the other guy who covered his front lights with his poncho.

I ran into another Cham ruin, Po Sah Inu, overlooking a typical pastel candy colored cemetery. They sure know how to pick beautiful hilltop locations! Like a Champa! Har har har (the other name for Cham people).

A mix of the long past (Cham tower), the recent past (graves from what I assume is the war), and a gaudy present (pink triangle of the victory monument).

This site, like some of the ones I’ve visited, are still used for festivals. The local tourism department is also running weekend shows here to encourage cultural learning. Looks almost like a snake charmer!

The moves weren’t the best but it was fun to see their garb and stuff on their head. As Vietnam moves into the 21st century, this will be the last bastion of their culture. I’ll sit through a talent show like presentation to mostly tour buses to preserve that.  I like that young people are involved and the singing isn’t screechy like much of Asian traditional singing.

The view of Phan Thiet from the ruin site next to an old ruined French palace. I foolishly showed up as a storm started and had the site to myself for an hour but couldn’t take pictures due to low visibility.

One of the reasons I moved on to Mui Ne was to get to blander resort and foreign food. I thought it would help my tummy. Instead it just upset my morale and I quickly moved back to things like this deconstructed stingray spring roll set. Take that, stomach problems that persist!  I assume it was stingray, that’s what the picture in the menu looked like. The fish came whole and the flesh was soft and delicious

After the rain at dinner on the beach, I caught the moon rise as the sun set. I may never catch a sunrise over the ocean as it is too cloudy, but I’ll take a beautiful moonrise!

I’m glad I showed up in low season.  The rain ruined my laying out on the beach, but I imagine the sand flies that have already bitten me silly would’ve done the same.  I do enjoy being in resort towns (Vietnamese or foreign) as I feel like I can be in a bikini safely.  The low season lack of people on the beach and generally around is nice too, if a little empty.  I have to wonder why the nightclub next door still blasts music on the weekends til 1 AM though.  Alas, I have finished exploring and eating here and will be moving quickly to Saigon and the Mekong Delta now.  Onwards and away from the beach!

My last few weeks were spent racing through the central area of Vietnam.  Shame I had to move so fast really, it was a beautiful area covered in what’s been the best sand and wonderful food.  Now I’m in the south central part of the country, much less scary than the less South Central I lived in.  The central coast was home to many large cities of the Open Bus tour, so there were quite a bit of foreigners and took me quite a bit of walking to get to some good, cheap local food.

Outside of Nha Trang I’ve been in random seaside towns or at worst for crowds, Vietnamese resort towns. They are amusing in an entirely different way.  It usually still means mediocre, expensive food sadly.  There are still the crowds, if not more so because of the tour buses.  I enjoyed watching a bunch of Vietnamese tourists and locals mix as they rollerbladed along promenades in obstacle courses.  Their wheels even lit up in neon technicolored moving lights, like everything else in this country.

Vietnamese tourists means I get to contend with whole tour buses and lots of motorbikes worth of people at Cham sites.

What are the differences then between a Vietnamese crowded beach and a foreign one you might ask?   The Vietnamese tourist beaches though, there is generally trash everywhere.  This is a beautiful country but those who live here do not seem to want to take care of it.  I worry when I see lots of broken glass everywhere.  There are generally seafood restaurants everywhere; shacks, on tarps on the beach, in things that look like hotels or homes, and anywhere else you might take a gander.  I have partaken in the various offerings, often including fresh tanks of still squirming fare.  This was something I didn’t understand about all the foreign restaurants in Nha Trang.  You have a bountiful sea, why are you concentrating so much on fries and meat?  Seafood was cheaper, even in the foreign restaurants I noticed.  Vietnamese people tend to not know how to swim, especially the women and children.  You will see the latter groups wearing bright orange and green life vests that everyone seems to own or renting giant truck inner tubes.  They also hide in the shade even in the setting sun.

They have a weird sense of “cute” style here. I think this creepy little guy is a trash can. There are no penguins around these parts, and certainly none with bow ties.

I cannot explain what this even creepier little guy glancing at you from behind a tree  is supposed to be.

There seems to be a preference in cheaper places to have windows, which is great when you’re by the sea and near a refreshing breeze.  The thing I don’t get is why no one here uses screen windows.  Instead there is a complex system of lots of bugs, mosquito nets over beds, geckos in the houses to eat bugs, cats to eat geckos, dogs to eat cats, and humans to eat everything but the mosquito nets.

Alas, not everything can be deliciously fresh seafood and calm, sea breezes.  In one town, I managed to get propositioned by two drunk men outside a weird amusement park.  The security guard nearby was too busy horseplaying with them to do much to either let me in the park or to stop the men.  It is unfortunate to find out that the same lewd hand signals are used everywhere and that there are men like this allowed to be around places for children.  A luxury coach full of children drove out of the park and right by me as all this was occurring.  I had to forcefully shove the drunker of the two men away from blocking my bike and from his futile attempts to jump on the back. What I’ve read of the amusement park was that it was full of hilarious statues and second rate attractions.  Well, that certainly wasn’t Disneyland and those were worse than second rate attractions.

A longer lasting problem has been that I have been stricken with food poisoning.  Indeed, one would think this ails me more often given how I eat.  I have had minor bouts with the most common traveler issue but this one has me sidelined for a few days.  On the upside, what better place to be sick than one where I can chill out on a bed all day staring at the ocean?

Well, if I’m going to be sick, at least it’s somewhere gorgeous!

I’m pretty sure for ten bucks this would not be the two views I see outside my windows in most other countries.

Do not take the one or two bad things that happen to me in the wrong way.  For every negative thing it feels like many more wonderful things happen.  I greatly enjoyed chatting with the local woman swimming at the beach who at first approached me cautiously.  She watched some other locals interact with me in a broken batch of Mandarin, Vietnamese and random English words.  I guess there’s an hydroelectric plant nearby so a lot of the locals know a few Mandarin phrases.  Soon though this woman gathered the courage up to come up and practice some English.  In the middle of our conversation she jumped up and ran back to her bike to give me a perfectly ripe custard apple.  There are few things more perfect than a delicious custard apple on the beach. I’ve also enjoyed chatting with the batch of child actors and their parents who are at my hotel.  They seem ever so happy to wave hello every time they see me and ask how I’m doing.

I meant to take more time to read and do a bit of writing and drawing anyways so this has been a perfect opportunity.  I have a few more beach towns to go, although the next two are one big foreign stop and one big Vietnamese/expat stop.  I’ll enjoy this quieter beach while it lasts.

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