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Travel Trials

Summer vacation! I didn’t expect to have one again as an adult since I hadn’t planned on going to school. London’s an excellent international hub so I took this opportunity to explore what’s generally far from America. Off to Romania as I really loved Eastern Europe on my last trip.

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The second largest building in the world after the Pentagon. More than half is securely underground.

The architecture here is crazy, it had a familiar feeling I couldn’t quite place my finger on, something that wasn’t quite what I am used to in Europe. Then I found out the Communist era buildings here are influenced from Chinese Communism and not Russian. Well, that explains the gaudy, colorful neon and style of buildings. There were large boulevards and the huge capitol building with lots of security, and strangely, the modern art museum tucked in the back since the government can’t actually fill such a monument. The joy of dictators with a sense of grandeur. I took a walking tour led by young 20 something designers who explained that no one can really make ends meet so they all have second jobs and side hustles. They told stories of waiting all day for food rations as children and how oranges were much sought after presents for Christmas. It reminded me of Little House on the Prairie. It was hard to believe that these women who would not look out of place at all in London had experienced this in their short lifetimes. I chatted with them after the tour and they joked privately about how they don’t worry about any criminals because they had all left the country, the thing the UK and EU seem to be complaining a lot about in the media. I asked why the public transit had a feel of extreme age and they laughed that I had noticed. One mentioned in her hometown that they had bought secondhand busses from Germany recently and no one knew how to change the stop text, so somewhere in Romania are buses with German destinations.

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Found in a subway station. I would be ok if more places had reading vending machines.

 

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The strongest motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.

I rented a motorcycle and headed out of town. I haven’t been on a motorcycle in a while and huge five lane roundabouts and bridges over traffic were certainly a challenge. Although perhaps not as much a struggle as the flooding mountain in a thunderstorm I ended up on or the bee that flew into my helmet going 70 mph (100 kmh) on a super highway. I may not forget shuddering, soaking wet in a traditional restaurant trying to gesture to staff who spoke no English to please bring me some hot soup. Definitely the most eventful one day ride I’ve ever been on, even with Vietnam. A mere 30 minutes outside of Bucharest, I passed a guy pulling straw in a horse drawn wooden cart.

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One of Dracula’s supposed burial spots.

Over a peaceful bridge with local kids fishing was a small monastery claiming to have the body of Dracula. It was my one nod to the campy Vlad the impaler legends while here. I really enjoyed the pastoral nature of this monastery that I probably wouldn’t have stopped for otherwise and the natural surroundings that I got very enjoyably lost in for a bit.

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The lady inside spoke little English and smiled after she took my money. “Poeeee-neeee!” She pointed outside. What? OH! There’s adorable mini ponies outside!

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Well, it wouldn’t be Europe without a grand, old castle or church!

I’m not sure if it was low season or what but I definitely stayed in more than one completely empty lodging. The killer deals led me to a 28 euro eco-lodge with my own room, living room and foyer out on the Danube Delta. It may have been the nicest digs I have ever stayed in. It was so peaceful with many people around. I can’t remember anything specific but I know I’ve seen the Danube further up and it felt so different here but I knew it was the same water.

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Birder paradise. I’m not sure I saw any but I enjoyed staring at the vistas. I think I could see Ukraine from here. 

After the peaceful nature of northeast Romania, I got a reminder of my backpacker days. I hopped a bunch of crowded minibuses, eating a large elephant ear sized fried dough filled with salty sheep’s cheese from a truck stop to trains back to minibuses to get to southeast Romanian beaches. From one border to another by way Bucharest.

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Little fried sardines in cream sauce and beer in a beach town.

I stopped in the party town of Vama Veche and got a taste of what I assume is the party scene that Bulgaria is usually known for. I’m not sure I enjoyed that part. How I got from one end of the country to the other in one day confounds me. This was a little faster than I usually like to travel but I am glad I got to see so many different parts of Romania. It is a beautiful country.

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Loja is a town in southern Andean Ecuador that is known for having some of the best and most unique cuisine in the country.  It is a lovely and modern colonial town with the tourist area overlapping with the downtown area.  Not that many tourists really stop here, but I stopped to get a taste.  I’d found this website http://www.ecuador-travel-planner.com/lojafood that stated specialties included all sorts of pork, delicious tamale and other corn wrapped goodies, baked goods and desserts, and horse.  Alas, it turns out most restaurants only served variations of the husk wrapped goods and little else different from the rest of the country, so I ended up only here for a day.

Still, Loja has a charm that I could see being pleasant to live in if one was to choose a city in Ecuador.

There's a weird, almost Disneyland-esque quality to things in Loja.  This is the town gate that had a statue of conquistadors and I think Don Quixote.

There’s a weird, almost Disneyland-esque quality to things in Loja. This is the town gate that had a statue of conquistadors and I think Don Quixote.

Failing to find any delicious pernil (roast pork) or horse, I settled for something I’d tried in Banos but was told was the best here, cuy.  I find the meat tender and a bit greasy in a good way.  There was a lovely spicy green sauce to go on it that helped too.  The pink cup in the corner is horchata, a flower based tea that is often sweetened.

Hello ass end of a guinea pig, pile of mote (large corn), and potatoes.

Hello ass end of a guinea pig, pile of mote (large corn), and potatoes.

Well, if every restaurant is going to have the same menu, I might as well try it.  I went to Loja institution El Tamal Lojano and ordered one of every possible food item.  Every other table mostly had one tamale a person.  Although the set menus of boron, eggs and bread seemed pretty large to me as well. I was full of delicious regret.

From left to right clockwise: boron de chicharron, quimbolito, humita, and pork tamale.  I enjoyed the savory ones but found the humita and quimbolito to be steamed dry sponge cakes too reminiscent of Chinese New Year's steamed cakes in a bad way.

From left to right clockwise: boron de chicharron, quimbolito, humita, and pork tamale. I enjoyed the savory ones but found the humita and quimbolito to be steamed dry sponge cakes too reminiscent of Chinese New Year’s steamed cakes in a bad way.

I also realized too late that ordering cafe con leche (with milk) meant I got Nescafe instead of what looked like a nice drip coffee other people got.  After stuffing myself silly I headed over to a museum to check out Loja’s other namesake, music.  Sadly it was somewhat disorganized and mostly in Spanish so I didn’t spend much time in there.  I did enjoy the fellow practicing on his violin and the other Lojano music blasting out in every room.

The music museum also had a Disneyland feel to it with the manicured garden and pastel colors.

The music museum also had a Disneyland feel to it with the manicured garden and pastel colors.

As I had too much time after the museum before I could shove in one more meal, I tried to make it to the oldest botanical garden in Ecuador.  The hotel manager gave me directions to go by bus.  Some things you just get used to in Ecuador, like terrible directions or an inability to say anything but yes, even if they don’t know.

“Is there only one roundabout?”
“Yes!”

No, no there’s not.  There’s at least two.  The first one is in fact almost two miles from where I had to be and I ended up taking a bit of a trek.  It was also where the buses ended, which I had asked and was emphatically told, no that wasn’t where the bus line ended.  It’s never any bad intent as much as most people in developing countries just do not seem to understand the concept of maps or directions.  I arrived at the gardens to find out I had hit the beginning of the siesta that was left unmentioned in the tourism information map and guidebooks.  Ah, Ecuador.  At that point I turned around and headed back to the market to try Chanfaina, a paella like pork and rice dish.  Alas I could barely eat a few bites as I was still stuffed from breakfast and so I headed onward to my next destination.  Later Loja, I’m sure you’re more awesome to live in.

Well, my fourteen month good luck streak has finally ended.  As far as these things go, I’m merely short some stuff.  However really I’m short a good bit of peace of mind.  I made it through four years of college in South Central with nary an incident by being careful and lucky, of traversing warehouse concerts and working in a dock area.  But this isn’t where this tale begins or takes place.

I’d finally left the farm.  I was excited to be on the road again, off to the coast to not work and sit on a beach all day.  I was going back to my roots, to surfing Santa Christmases that I am used to.  But before I headed out to the beaches i was heading for Esmeraldas, a large city of the north.  Rough Guide had no information on it and just said to miss it, Lonely Planet mentioned that the city was trying hard to shed it’s reputation at the most poor and dangerous in Ecuador.  I’d met a retired American professor while in Cotacachi and he let me in on the less well known history of the province.  Started by a successful slave revolt after a shipwreck, Esmeraldas is still home to a majority African population.  Back in the day it was the only African governed region and was supposedly given commonwealth status to self govern by Spain before anyone else on this continent.  There was possibly a museum or two exploring this unique history and he highly recommended I go check it out.

He didn’t really need to tell me twice.  I was on the first bus and transfer out there.  Except we got stopped in the north.  There’s still a drug war going on in Colombia and it appears to be fueled by guns from Ecuador.  At the gun check, the money I had nervously shoved into my money belt at the ATM in the morning came flying out in a fat stack when I groggily reached for my passport.  The whole bus glanced at me.  There were whispers.  I didn’t know it yet, but I was doomed.

A few hours later as I was confused at the bus transfer at a random intersection, one guy showed an old lady and me where to go.  We all started chatting.  He continued to talk to me on the bus.  Great, I thought, talking to a local.  But I was wary as well, possibly yet another overly amorous mid thirties guy thinking he was getting somewhere.  He invited me to join him in Atacames the next day, a party-centric beach not too far off.  We got off the bus at the same stop downtown.  Only later did I realize I had tried to leave once or twice, and thought he had misunderstood my Spanish, but no he had his bulls-eye on me.  We ended up at a hostel and in the same dorm room.  I tried to get a different room to no avail.  Oh well, I thought, one night here and I’m off to a different town from him, he’s going to party beach.  I’ll be fine.

As you do with other hostel guests, you group a bit.  We went to dinner.  He paid, I was again suspicious of more amorous motives.  We went for a walk on the beach after dinner.  The sun glinted on the water, families played, and runner went up and down to the docks.  I was again on the watch out for moves.  He sat down to rest because he was a bit fat.  I became more wary.  He put his arm around me and I shrugged it off.  That’s when he just full out grabbed everything out of my pockets and my jewelry.  He got to my back pockets when I managed to shove him.  He bolted into the brush.  I ran for about a second before realizing what a dumb idea that was and ran to an old couple watching a bathroom.   That was one hell of a head fake.  Six hours, dinner and taxi rides paid for later.  Oh, and he didn’t even get the stack of cash, he got all of twenty dollars.  My cell phone was probably the most valuable thing he got.

This is where the story really makes me sad.  When I reached the old couple and asked for help, asking them to call the police, they just stared blankly.  That was dumb, they said, don’t do that.  Thanks for the advice, please call the police.  He was black wasn’t he, she intoned in a condescending manner.  For the love of God lady, call the bloody police.  Yes, Esmeraldas is majority African and sadly neglected and not treated well by the government.  It is a poor region.  I had to give up on this old woman and ask a random lady entering the bathroom for help.  The next few people I ran into were helpful.  One old guy offered to take his son’s motorcycle to take me to back to the hostel, to make sure he hadn’t returned first and taken everything I had.  It was serious panic on my part, my life is in that backpack.

The police arrived and blared through traffic sirens ablaze.  There was a lot of stop and go as people didn’t always get out of the way.  We got to the station where there were eight other officers standing in the front.  They handed me the key to the room and let me go in first.  Thanks guys.  Luckily everything was there, including the thief’s stuff.  When we searched it, it appeared to be stolen clothing and new toiletries.  Ah, I’d been had by a thief by trade.  We talked a bit.  The hotel owner thought we were living a telenovella and kept asking over and over if he was my boyfriend, the police finally told her to shut up and pointed at the multiple beds in the dormitory.  Still, they weren’t taking my descriptions very seriously and seemed more intent on cracking jokes.  The police then, for some awful reason, told me sit there in the hotel room for another half hour as they patrolled.  I wasn’t all too sure the hotel wasn’t in on it and sat nervously in the locked room.  They returned an hour later, even police run on South American time, and took me to another hotel at my request.  They asked a few times though, as if I’d want to stay in that room.  They then took down only my name and left.  I have little hopes of ever hearing more.

The thing is, shaken as I am now, I don’t know if I would change that much besides being a little more alert.  The last fourteen months I have had the luck and joy of meeting so many friendly locals.  Not everyone is good, not everyone is bad, but I’ve certainly been blessed with a lot more good considering this is the first terrible thing.  That is not to say one should not be wary, but it has taken little jumps of trust to enjoy this trip in the way I have.

During our hours long bus chat I had mentioned where I was heading.  I was now nervous about going to any of the towns I had mentioned and had no desire to go to the party towns I wasn’t planning on .   Onward and inland I head, it’ll be Christmas in the mountains for me.   In the meantime, I’ve been to four police stations in vain search of a police report to no avail due to the holidays.  All I want for Christmas is my stuff back and perhaps a little peace of mind to add to the usual wish of peace on Earth.

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.

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.

Often when I get to places, I wish I had gotten years earlier before every storefront was trying to sell me an American breakfast and a burger.  I think I can finally say I reached a place at the right time, when they’ve installed some infrastructure (some electricity, wifi, cell coverage, and air conditioning) but before it got overrun with foreign tourists.  I think we counted an average of five or so foreigners a day.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t huge groups of Vietnamese tourists, but at least no one was trying to sell me crap food or drugs.  Quan Lan Island isn’t easy to get to but I’m glad I made the journey as a break from running into too many tourist towns.

In high school my friends and I had our photo up in a sushi restaurant next to school because we were there so often.  My current version of that is I managed to stay at Quan Lan Island so long the hotel owner told me that we were his longest guests.  Much like in high school, I’m totally ok with being a regular somewhere with fresh, cheap seafood.  He also asked if I was a researcher because I didn’t like doing the normal touristy things and spent a lot of time writing and drawing instead.  Apparently the other guests spend all light hours at the beach, temples or pagodas.  I think he might’ve missed the part where my friend and I got sunburned the first day and had to relax a lot of the week.

While on beaches I often think my feet look like they’re in a Corona ad. Minus the Vietnamese flag of course.

I am amused the entire town noticed we were there longer than the night or two everyone else stayed.  Everyone we interacted with asked us how long we were staying or jokingly ribbed us about how long we’d already been there.  Most people didn’t speak English so this involved a lot of smiling and actually elbowing me in my ribs.

Our slow relaxing stay gave me plenty of time to bike around the island and interact with people, and unfortunately, so many bloodsucking bugs.  The lack of working gears on all the bikes meant I got to cruise extra slowly and observe life as it happened, one of my favorite things to do while trying as hard as I can to not look creepy.  My day job used to be making games and I still greatly enjoy seeing how people in different places play games or entertain themselves.  I smiled as the toddlers crowded around a man making a kite for them out of old pieces of paper. Kids would run outside or play hide and seek with me as they yelled “Hah-low!” when I rode by.  They stood in a circle and played hacky sack with a metal shuttlecock like thing and seemed pleased when I tried, and failed, to kick it to one of them.  My favorite was the group of little girls we pulled up to on a side sand road who ran up to us to practice their English.  They run up to my friend, who is white, and start asking her where she is from or how she is.  This time they wanted to see the wallet around her neck, thinking they were binoculars.  They ran up after we wandered off, fists clenched and wanting to share.  What would a little kid give you?  Oh of course, they’re little kids.  They dropped handfuls of small live bugs in our hands.  We smiled, looked at them crawl, and gave them back, unsure of what we were supposed to do with them.  I love the endless wonderful curiosity of kids, before little girls grow up to learn to be terrified of bugs and when you still want to share the treasures you found with anyone in sight.

My interactions with everyone else but kids were on a broader range of different and weird from what I’m used to.  There was the old guy on the beach who kept trying to rub sand off my collarbone, hold up his styrofoam cooler top to fend the sun off for me, and then tried to sit next to me.  We learned that to get a beer from the already cranky sleeping lady in the hammock, you slap her really hard on the leg.  She’ll still always get up, pour you a cold draft, and skim off all the foam for you though.  I got chased by a pack of barking dogs on a bike for reasons I still don’t understand.  This does not even count the various times we were shooed from or ignored at places that had pictures of food on their signs but apparently did not serve food at the moment.  That is the true adventure of traveling: getting the weird, the unexpected, and the beautiful interactions all at the same time.

It was hardly an evening in Hanoi before I remembered how hectic and loud the city was.  I already miss the island.  Developers were creeping in and destroying parts of the island so I hope they don’t get too much of it.  I already want to go back and relax some more.

Good bye Quan Lan Island, you were wonderful. I hope you don’t change too much.

Oh my dream! A green vintage Vespa. The Born in the USA bike was the threat to anyone who broke their bike on Top Gear. Both are now in a British Museum (their picture).

A few years ago I watched the Top Gear Vietnam motorcycle special.  The guys rode through beautiful landscapes on questionable bikes.  When my motorcycling friend decided to visit me in Asia, we decided this was the best idea.  Unfortunately I realize Top Gear probably has production assistants who get to do the fun paperwork part to get a license.  My so far useless International Driving Permit is no good here.

Most backpackers don’t bother with this and just set off.  Well, I’m a weenie and have the time to make sure I’m doing things by the book in a country where the book can usually be bribed.  After much research online, I learned if you get stopped without a license, you can end up in jail for 3 years.  In an accident without a license is 10 years, and if a person dies it means you could be jail up to 20 years.  The thought of a Vietnamese prison is enough to make me do some paper and leg work.  Your bike can also get impounded for just about anything it seems, and they’ve been cracking down for the last two years with recent news they might up the enforcement again.  Foreigners cannot legally own a bike but the registration paperwork only has the first owner on it, and everything after that is a list of who bought the bike and for how much.  I contacted a Vietnamese Couch Surfer about all this, and his advice was to not get a license because “just watch carefully how Vietnamese can go without any accident and enjoy driving motobike!”  Right.  Motorbike accidents are the leading cause of death in Vietnamese people aged 18-45.

Let’s start off by saying everything in Asia takes at least twice as long as you think it will.  Bureaucracy must’ve been invented here because they’re so good at making it painful.  I started off on the wrong foot by arriving for two back to back separate holidays.  Finally, three days after I arrived in Hanoi, I could get started on getting everything together.  The photo and photocopy shops were open during the holidays.

Here’s the list of the things I turned into the Transportation Office of Hanoi:

  • 2 Application forms filled out in Vietnamese (Link to site: here, click the save to file on the bottom for the application as a word document)
  • 4 (3 x 4 cm) pictures, 2 of them glued to previous mentioned application
  • 2 notarized translated copies of my Californian driver’s license (along with copies of the license itself)
  • 2 copies of my passport info page
  • 2 copies of my Vietnamese visa passport page
  • 2 copies of my Vietnamese entry stamp passport page

Before I even got to the Transportation Office I went on a day long goose chase.  All the information I found online about notaries that translate turned out not to be valid for a non-Vietnamese speaker.  I went to seven separate offices, each person sending me to the next.  I finally ended up at a government office at 38 Le Dai Hanh who sent me to a commercial office at 187 Ba Trieu, next to the gigantic VinCom mall.  Ignore the fact that the odd and even numbers don’t match up at all across streets in Hanoi.  These people spoke English, took my forms, and told me to come back the next day.  They charged me $8.50 to get my forms back at 10 am.  I’d heard multiple people tell me the government office only translated on Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday mornings but could not verify this without Vietnamese.  Outside the closed justice department offices on 310 Ba Trieu I met a fruit and juice vendor offering to “handle” the situation for me for about $7 and two hours, but I went the less sketchy route.

So a day after I wanted to turn my applications in, I finally had all my forms, plus extra copies of everything which was fortunate because most people online only needed one copy of stuff.  I headed to the Transportation Office at 16 Cao Ba Quat in Ba Dinh district (near Hoan Kiem lake).  This was the smaller of the two offices and I was more confused at this one.  The guard pointed me to the door but didn’t mention I needed a number by pressing the first green button at the stand next to him.  The lady inside served me first anyways but got quite frazzled that I didn’t speak Vietnamese and just told me “NO”.  After I stood there a while taking pictures of all the signs to translate back at the hotel, she finally came up to me and told me to come back tomorrow when someone could help me.

Well, damn, I waited too many days in bustling Hanoi already.  So I took the really convenient and air conditioned #2 bus to the other office.  2 Phung Hung in Ha Dong district, about a 30-45 minute bus ride away.  Make sure not to accidentally go to 2 Phung Hung in the Hoan Kiem district, which is not correct at all.  This office is way bigger and official looking in a huge beautiful building on the corner.  There were a lot more windows and one of them spoke halting English.  Much like the department of motor vehicles in California, the woman I was dealing with was furious at me as soon as I met her.  She was drowning under post-holiday paperwork and didn’t need this non-Vietnamese speaker waltzing in an hour before closing.  Luckily the girl who spoke English walked us through 3 rejections of our paperwork to get it in two minutes before closing.  They wanted my Vietnamese address, not my American permanent address.  For my purpose of exchange I wrote down what I had my hotel translate onto a piece of paper to show people at each office: “Tôi muốn làm giấy phép xe máy” which means “I want to do motorcycle license”.  Everyone else in the office laughed to death every time we tried to turn it in.  Later, we ran into her on the #2 bus back to the hotel and she laughed when she saw us.  She laughed less when we got off on the same stop.  I promise we’re not stalking you, nice lady.

So now five days and many headaches later, my paperwork is in and I wait.  I’ve done all I can and they told me they’re holding my license and paperwork for 11 days (7 business days) which is more than the 5 days listed.  Well, it’s Asia.  I feel like I’ve been living here after this experience.  On the upside various random people who were also in the various places I went who could speak English kept coming out of the woodwork to help me.  It helped balance all the cranky office employees I ran into.  It is recommended to bring someone who speaks Vietnamese, which I’d recommend to, I just don’t know where to find one.  I’ll be back in Hanoi in a week to see if this went well and I get my A1 motorcycle license.  If not, I’ll be off through Vietnam either way, just on a few more wheels.  I’ll update with a blog post either way.

Some links where I got useful information:

Here are the signs up in the Transportation Office if anyone speaks Vietnamese.  I think it’s the same information as the website:

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