Thursday, November 11, 2010

One time, back in 'Nam...

After the trip to Halong Bay, I spent a couple of days exploring Hanoi.  First, I visited an old French prison located near Hanoi's French Quarter.    During the French occupation, it was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners fighting for independence -- many of whom were often subject to torture and execution.  The prison was later taken by the Vietnamese after they ousted the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese used the prison to house American POW's and was sarcastically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton".  This is the same prison where John McCain was held after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in October of 1967.  He endured five and a half years here as a POW  before finally being released.  From the beginning, U.S. POW's endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions.  Today, the prison is filled with war memorabilia, old photographs and  propaganda.

John McCain's Flight Suit
Later that day I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is kept.  Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who was prime minister (1946–1955) and president (1945–1969) of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). He led the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War until his death in 1969.

One thing you should know about Ho Chi Minh is that he is revered with almost god-like status among the Communist Vietnamese.  He is still referred to as "Uncle Ho" and his pictures are everywhere, even on every single piece of their currency.  Ho Chi Minh was a well traveled man especially for that day in age.  Living parts of his life in the U.S., England, France, Russia, and China, the communist leader took a bit of political knowledge from every country he lived in. 

I know I've forgotten to mention it up until this point, but the Vietnamese currency is known as the Dong so you can only imagine the jokes I've heard while traveling.  Currently, $1.00 is roughly worth 20,000 dong, which means it only takes $50 to be a millionaire here.  I remember going to the ATM to take out 8 million dong when I bought the motorcyle and stuffing a wad full of dong in my wallet!  I can tell you it's an awesome feeling to have 8 million dong burning a hole in your wallet.  Walking the streets back to the hostel, I felt like I should have had my dongs secured in a locked metal briefcase and handcuffed to my wrist, but then again it was only $380.

____Observations on Northern Vietnam

In Hanoi, communism is alive and well.  Mandatory curfews are enforced at midnight when police patrol the streets, ready to smack any late night "revelers" with their batons.  I've been told the cops don't hassle foreigners too much, but the locals, they get this fear of God look in their eyes and run like hell when the "gestapo"shows up.

One comedic episode involving some curfew breakage occurred one night on the main alley where most of the backpackers stay.  A local bia hoi (draft beer cafe) was serving past curfew when the men in blue showed up.  The bia hoi was jam packed with people, but the bar owner had posted look-outs on each end of the alley to scan for the baton-wielding police.  As the cops turned down the alley, the lookouts gave the bar owner the signal.
Sign Next to the Bia Hoi

The owner shoved as many customers inside the tiny bar as possible...and when I say tiny, I'm talking around 30ft x 15ft and standing room only.  Then, the owner used a remote control to close an accordian-like overhead door over the entrance of the open-air bar.  As the police rolled up, three other guys and myself (who hadn't been able to squeeze into the bia hoi) dropped our beers like a bunch of busted high schoolers at an after-prom party.  Unsure of how they'd react, we stood there with a blinded deer-in-the-headlights look on our faces.  But the cops just gave us an unfriendly scowl and told us to go to bed as we slowly backed away. 

As the police proceeded to beat on the garage door of the bar, we hung back to see what the outcome would be.  Finally, the garage door slowly opened and the owner sheepishly appeared.  To everyone on the outsides chagrin, no one but the owner was in the bar.  We knew what the police were thinking because we thought the same thing ourselves.  "Where in the hell did everyone go?"  The police walked inside the bar, sniffed around a bit, and then I caught the owner give me a wink.  Highly aggravated they wouldn't be collecting any bribe money that night, the men in blue yelled back at us to leave the area.  They then hopped in their paddywagon and sped off into the sweaty night.

I still couldn't believe what I'd seen.  Really, where did all of those people go?  Apparently the bar owner built a door in the back of his bar that lead into his small apartment behind the bar.  When he got the signal from his watchmen, he funneled everyone into his tiny apartment where he cut the lights and told everyone to remain silent.  As I stood there laughing and amazed, I kept thinking about how I love all the surprises that happen in this country.  It also kindof reminded me of the prohibition era in the U.S.  when everyone gatheredi in the speak easys to schnog down some ole-fashioned boot-legged spirits.

Oh and one other example of communism here... Facebook is blocked and you have to log in using a special website or you've got to get the head guy at the internet cafe to change some funky proxy settings for you.

Below is a picture of an old Russian Minsk that I meant to post a while back.  They're a legacy left behind by the Russians and they look super cool, but they are really really pieces of crap. 

Even though I'm home now, I'll try and put up posts since I spent another month and a half in S.E. Asia without posting anything. 

Where I learned to drive a motorcycle

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Goodbye Eileen, Hello Halong Bay

So I forgot to mention that after having Eileen brought back to life and talking to several mechanics about the status of her health, I decided it best to sell her.  The mechanics told me there was no chance Eileen would make it all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City without going through the same troubles I'd already experienced.  It was actually a sad day after hearing her crank up again and feeling the warmth (or the overheating) coming from her engine.

I put up a few advertisements in the backpacker area as well as few postings online and was surprisingly able to fetch a decent price for Eileen in only 1 day.  I sold the bike to an expat who had been living in Hanoi.  Poor guy.  I told him about the problems I'd had, but he didn't seem to mind.  Luckily, I was able to sell him the bike for a price that netted me a loss of only $35.

Unfortunately, the next day, Jake's trip ended and he had to catch a flight back to Bangkok to connect with his return flight home.  I tried hard to convince him to extend his trip, but he had just accepted a great job working with Boeing that I knew would be impossible to pass up.  We had a great trip together with both some highs and lows.  We saw some amazing scenery and had incredible experiences.  How many people can say they've purposefully been thrown off an elephant or motorcycled around 1,800 hair pin turns in the mountains of Thailand, or even better -- screamed like little women when we had a rottweiler-sized rat fall in our bed near the Laos border?  Hopefully our trip together will inspire him and his girlfriend Jade to continue traveling and see more of the world, well maybe not the part about the rat.

After Jake left, I booked a boat trip to explore the UNESCO world heritage site of Halong Bay along the northeastern coast of Vietnam.  Halong Bay -- Majestic and mysterious, inspiring and imperious: words alone cannot do justice to the natural wonder that is Halong Bay. Over 3000 incredible limestone islands rising from the jade waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong Bay is pure art, a priceless collection of unfinished sculptures wrought by the hand of nature.

Halong Bay is the stuff of myths and naturally the Vietnamese have their own. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’. Legend has it that the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon that lived in the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible.

My 3 day trip through the bay began on an ancient looking Chinese-style 'junk' ship.  The trip was geared for a younger crowd so after a few hours of cruising we jumped off the ship's top deck into the water.  After a bit of splashing and swimming, we took some kayaks to explore the nearby caves created by the wind and waves.

Old Chinese looking junk ship

From Northern Vietnam

From Northern Vietnam

We spent the first night on the ship and where I met my bunk mate for the night named Grant.  Grant was a nice guy and quite an interesting character that had lived all over the world working for an Australian based organization that helped developing countries to train their police force.  At dinner, he told me about how he'd lived in Sudan for a number of years and was now living in Papua New Guinea. 

The next day, we headed for an island where we'd have time to wakeboard and explore more of the bay by kayak.  Wakeboarding in Halong Bay was a surreal experience.  I do it all the time at home, but being pulled behind a boat in bay was incredible to say the least.  Afterwards the tour group all hung out on the island and enjoyed a bountiful meal of fish, squid, chicken, beef, along with fried noodles and rice.

Castaway for day

Wakeboarding Halong Bay
From Northern Vietnam

We spent the next day cruising back to Halong City where the tour ended.  Since I'm pretty far behind on the blog, I've omitting many details in order to catch back up.  Sorry this one is kinda boring.

Fisherman at first light
From Northern Vietnam

Old Fishing Boat
From Northern Vietnam

Eating Snake in Hanoi, Vietnam

One of the things I wanted to try while I was in Vietnam was snake.  I had heard of this village called Le Mat  "Snake Village", just outside Hanoi that sounded just up my alley.  The village has been operating to breed and serve snake for hundreds of years as snake meat, and blood is considered a delicacy for the Vietnamese men.  It took some coercing, but finally I was able to convince Jacob along with 4 other English blokes from our guesthouse that it would be a once in a lifetime experience and also, according to Vietnamese folklore, would increase your virility -- not that we manly men need it or anything.

The drill goes something like this:  You show up at the village where you cross a series of small bamboo bridges to get to the area where the festivities begin.  When we arrived, we were sat on the floor at a table and were given drinks until our dinner was ready to be presented.  Soon after, our hosts brought out 2 three foot long snakes and asked if these would suffice.  Ideally, we'd have liked to go for the cobra, but it was just too expensive at nearly $100 a pop. 

We were satisfied with our snakes and next we were instructed onto the next 3 important tasks proceeding the preparation of our meal:  First, someone had to cut the snakes underside open to expose the beating heart.  Second, someone had to find the beating heart and tear it out.  I believe this was Jacob's task.  And, last but not least, one person had to swallow the beating heart.  No one seemed to want to swallow the beating heart so I volunteered.  It actually kind of resembled an oyster shot, only an oyster doesn't pulsate as it travels down your esophagus and into your stomach.

Me - Post snake heart
Once the snake heart was taken, they proceeded to drain the blood and bile to mix with rice wine as shooters.
Draining the blood and bile
Finally they took the snakes (or whatever was left) back to the kitchen and made an 8 course snake dinner. The dinner was excellent tasting, however not extremely filling as you can imagine. There was fried snake skin mixed with garlic and peppers, fried snake meat, grilled snake, snake spring rolls, vegetables, rice, and oh yes -- all the snake blood rice wine we could drink.
Red=Blood Shot Green= Bile Shot


We underestimated the power of the snake blood rice wine and the table got only slightly inebriated before the two hour ordeal was over. When Jake got home, I believe he went to the toilet and threw up... He's still not really sure if it was from the snake or the rice wine or both, but I think he can say it was still an interesting experience!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Motorcycle Chronicles - Days 4-5

Day 4

The next day we woke up early and continued on our journey. This was the longest leg of our trip (300km on dirt/semi-paved roads), and we were told it would take between 6 and 8 hours. We ended up making it in around 10 hours because of the back roads we took due to construction.  We drove for about 1 hr in the dark, which is exactly what we didn't want to do. It was raining when we left and didn't clear up for over an hour, so that probably slowed us down a bit as well.  Luckily, we picked the perfect time to motorcycle Vietnam...and by perfect, I mean worst.  Late August through September is Vietnam's monsoon season so everyday there is usually a torrential downpour.  Overall though, I think we were lucky an escaped the majority of the storms. 

Northwest Vietnam

However long and uncomfortable our ride was, it was also amazing. We went through a very rural part of Vietnam (near the boarder of China). The paved roads at the beginning were small and windy with one side being rock where the road was blasted through the mountain side, and the other a small guard rail (if that) with sheer vertical drops.  I kept half expecting a massive dump truck to come flying around the corner while blindly passing another massive car and us going flying over the edge.  Luckily the traffic wasn't bad that day.

The positive side of the monsoon season meant the mountainside contained every shade of green imaginable.  I think National Geographic could do an incredible special on this area with their high definition cameras. About 2 hours into the trip, the roads started to have small sections that had been washed out and were filled over with dirt and gravel, which eventually gave way to complete sections of mud.  The towns were spread out pretty far apart and we wouldn't see any signs of civilization for a good hour at a time. There was a lot of road construction going on and it looked as if a couple of the towns were built especially to house the construction workers. Again, I think we went through every element possible: rain, sun, mud, dust, small streams, etc. When we arrived we were again both completely caked with dried mud and dust.  After our long day, I gave Jake a congratulatory pat and watched the dust rise from his back like a book from Moses' personal library. 

Small village in a valley

Day 5

We decided to stay in a town (Son La) that was about 200 km away in hopes that we could have an shorter ride.  The morning was crisp, and the ride started out beautiful. More majestic mountain views, and the roads continued to get better... back to mostly paved with only a few washed out sections. We would pass through towns, and the Vietnamese children whom were going to school or playing near the road would do a double take (probably since our bikes were much bigger than the norm), wave, and yell "Helloooo". We would do our best to return the wave, honk, or rev the engines.  They loved it as much as we did.

About  two hours into the trip, after we had just passed though a small town and were starting to pick up a steady pace, my nightmare began.  Eileen (my Chinese Honda) broke down and by broke down I mean the engine melted and she became a worthless piece of scrap metal -- well not really, but it was bad enough that after 6 hours and 3 mechanics later no one was able to revive her. Thankfully Jake was there to tow me back to a nearby town or it would have been a nice fun sweaty workout pushing the bike back.  What I later found out ended up happening was that a seal or gasket was broken which caused the engine to burn oil constantly (even though I checked it multiple times, dad) and thus overheated Eileen.  Understandable given the fact that Eileen was old in her age -- 112 in dog years and we were driving +300 km's per day up steep hills and on rough terrain.
Working with the mechanic

Since no mechanic had the parts to fix Eileen, they told me I had to put her on a bus and head back to Hanoi -- a mere 10 hours away.  Great, I thought.  Only 10 hours on an overnight bus with me being the only foreigner and a broken down motorcycle.  This should be fun -- and man, let me tell you, it wasn't.  Jake decided that he would finish the ride alone and that we'd meet back up in Hanoi.  "Good luck," I told him.  And he would need it.  

My overnight ride back to Hanoi included an amazing stop for some delicious Vietnamese cuisine.  At around 3 a.m., we stopped for pho which is basically noodle soup containing some bits of meat.  The ultimate pleasure in this stop came when I found out the only meat being served was Rin Tin Tin (a.k.a. dog meat for those born after 1985).  I declined the offers for the meat and claimed to be a vegetarian, which practically shattered my manhood.  Generally, I eat at least 3 huge steaks a day at home, but eating dog was just too much.  As several men proclaimed "dog" to be #1 in Vietnam, I faked a smile and sipped on my vegetarian pho.

Eventually, the bus dropped me off somewhere on the outskirts of Hanoi at 4 a.m.  When they put the bike under the bus, they had to partially take it apart in order for it to fit.  I imagined arriving in Hanoi and them dropping me off with the bike in multiple pieces so I refused to pay the whole bus fare until someone put my bike back together in Hanoi.  Once the bike was put back together, it started raining.  As I stood there exhausted from the lack of sleep and still covered in mud and sweat from the day before, I pulled out a map and tried to get someone to show me where I was. Unfortunately no one spoke English and I could not pinpoint my location on any of the maps I had.  I was tired, hungry, only slightly irritated, and smelled worse than 3 day old opossum road kill.

From Northern Vietnam

Eventually after a fun game of charades, I managed to hire a pick-up truck driver to take me around with my bike in the back in search of a mechanic.  Since it was still dark, raining, and I had no idea where I was, both the driver and I knew I didn't have many options.  I knew I'd eventually end up being ripped off.  The young driver must have been no more than 18 years old, but he knew today was his lucky day.  I was a stranded foreigner -- a walking dollar sign. 

I later found that my driver did speak some broken English when he said that none of the mechanics would be open until 9 a.m., which meant I got to kill some time at his father's cafe drinking coffee.  While we were there, he sat and tried to teach me some Vietnamese.  The Vietnamese language has 5 or 6 tones, which means you can say the same word in 5 different pitches and it can have 5 different meanings.  My 5 hours of Vietnamese lessons ended up being excruciating since I was still exhausted from the lack of sleep.  The guy would get 2 inches away from my face and almost scream out the pronunciations coercing me into saying the words correctly.  Then he'd pull on both my cheeks to help me say the word again and later he insisted on nearly choking me to death by sticking a chopstick in my mouth to use as a tongue depressor.

We continued the lessons and drinking coffee, which I should add, is some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.  So strong it would probably be illegal in the U.S., each cup is individually brewed with about the same amount of coffee that we would use for just 1 pot.  It comes out blacker than oil, thicker than tar, and is so strong that you can only drink it in the smallest sips.  A splash of sweetened milk can be added to lighten the taste.

To make a long story short, I spent the better part of the day watching the mechanics disassemble the engine and put new pieces in.  Watching Vietnamese mechanics at work is interesting to say the least.  They all have a different opinion about what should be done and each one wants to show off his mechanical prowess.  Their skills are pretty rudimentary.  Often just banging on parts with a hammer on pieces that at home would normally be precisely tuned within a very small tolerance.  Tolerances -- these guys don't care a thing about them.  Bang on it a few times until it's in place and hope she fires up on the next crank.   Ahhh....Vietnam.

Later that day, I met up with Jacob after he'd spend nearly 8 hours driving all day in the rain and around the city trying to find our rendezvous  point -- The Backpackers Guesthouse.  We both had that worn down look our faces and later we swapped war stories about our equally adventurous journeys back to Hanoi.  "I almost got run over by a dump truck," Jake said.  "Well, I almost had to eat dog noodle soup and then got dropped off in the middle of nowhere at 4 a.m.," I retorted.

While it was somewhat of a hellacious experience for both of us, it was well worth it looking back at it now.  Would I have done anything differently I ask myself?  Of course.  I would've pushed Eileen over the edge of a mountain if I had the chance again.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Riding Over a Bridge

Rode over this tiny wooden bridge today...insane. I stole some other guy's youtube video because mine won't upload.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Motorcycle Chronicles - Northwest Vietnam - Days 1-3

Jacob and I started our 800 km epic motorcycle journey through the northwestern part of Vietnam on a 5 day loop through the rugged mountains and countryside.  What started out as one of the greatest experiences of my life turned into a nightmarish hell, but in retrospect as I'm writing this, it's definitely an experience I'll never forget.  We planned to visit an old French hill station high in the mountains in a town called Sapa which lies near the Chinese border as well as several other interesting towns along the way.  Jake was a little short on time before his departure flight back home so we decided to put our bikes on an overnight train to Sapa, which proved to be a trying, but interesting experience.

We found out you can load the bike on the train yourself, but since we spoke less than 2 words of Vietnamese, we paid some Vietnamese guys that worked for the moto rental company (where Jake rented a dirt bike) to help us.  We reluctantly handed them our keys and trusted that we'd see our bikes on the other side of the 10 hour train ride.  When we got to the train station, we picked up our tickets and crossed through the gate.  Standing there were our 2 bikes...not on the train....."hmmm, not good," we thought.  We were running a bit late and the train was about to leave so we started to panic.  We asked the train station attendant why our bikes weren't on the train, but she didn't speak any english, nor did she pretend to care.  Another guy that appeared to work for the station approached us and told us in very broken english that our bikes would not go on the train and that we should not leave or we'll never see the bikes again.   We were pretty freaked out and not sure of what to do since I'd paid $400 for my bike and Jake had a $3,000 deposit down on his.  We called the moto company and they told us everything was ok and that our bikes would go on the next train after ours.  "Okkk," we thought.  With only a few minutes to decide, we took a leap of faith and trusted the company that everything would be fine.  We literally sprinted for the train as it was leaving and got on while it started to leave the station.  That would never be allowed at home.  Man I love Vietnam.  Rules and regulations if they even exist are completely flexible, which can make things nice or it can work against you.

That night, we shared a sleeper cabin with a Spanish couple and swapped stories while practicing our Spanish.  It was tough getting to sleep knowing that I might not see my bike on the other side, but as luck would have it, the bikes came on the next train about an hour after our arrival.  We were also smart by outwitting the Vietnamese that tried to drain our fuel tanks...usually they drain the tanks for safety reasons on the train, but you don't get the gas back...or they charge you 3 times as much to buy gas near the station.  We drained the fuel from our tanks into some plastic bottles to carry with us before putting the bikes on the train. Muhahahaaaa.

The train stopped in a small town called Lao Cai where we completed the remainder of the trip to Sapa by bike.  It's always satisfying to have your own wheels especially when there are 20 eager touts (taxi drivers) hounding you to take their taxi.  Most of the touts nod at you with an impressed look that you're able to figure things out on your own since most of the other tourists seem to be on the "spoon fed" tour -- the kind where everything is pre-arranged for you  Most of the time, we enjoy the challenge of doing it on our.

It took an hour to get to Sapa from the train station and it was an amazing drive.  We explored Sapa by bike for awhile and I found a mechanic to take a look over my bike to make sure it was running ok.  It appeared to be burning some oil as black smoke seemed to be coming from the exhaust.  "No problem," he said.  I checked the oil, which appeared to be fine, but I kept having a bad feeling about what was to come.

We ended up picking a place high up on a hill (with an awesome balcony) overlooking the cartoon-like emerald green valley.  $10 a night between the two of us for a ridiculous view, free internet, and clean sheets -- what more can one ask!  Many of the people around Sapa are Hmong, which is an ethnic minority that I believe originated in Mongolia, but over time were pushed further and further south into Vietnam, Laos, China, and Thailand.   The town really has an out of this world feeling.  The Hmong men wear navy blue French pettycoats with popped collars and silver bands around their necks.  Women wear traditional clothing which they make themselves from hemp and dye with local indigo.  They are a truly 'ethnic' looking people and those involved in tourism speak excellent english.

We hired a tour guide to take us on a trek through the local Hmong villages and the countryside.  The views were almost beyond what I can describe.  It was the kind of thing that sent chills down your spine.  The entire mountain was a network of terraced rice fields framed by impossibly steep peaks .  Again, I don't think I can even put into words how beautiful the scenery is and I am convinced there is no other place like this in the world. It's as if the scenery was digitally enhanced by some computer nerd and you're sitting in a movie theatre with 3D glasses just soaking it in.   Words really can't describe the place or the feeling, but see the pictures for yourself and just know that pictures can't even do the place justice.

During our time in Sapa, we met a lot of the Hmong women as they were selling handmade hemp clothes, bags, etc. They would all come up and with broken English say "You buy from me?!". It was funny because it was all ages (from 4yrs to 85yrs old), and they would say the same thing. I assume that tourism must be their main source of income, aside from the old days of opium cultivation.  I've actually heard about tourists being propositiong to buy opium from 65 year old women.

Later that night, as Jake was in town grabbing a bite to eat, I returned to our guesthouse to find 5 Vietnamese men gathered on the floor eating and taking shots of rice wine.  I was invited to join, and by invited I mean amicably forced.  I tried explaining that my friend was waiting for me, but they would have none of it.  They offered me full coffee-sized cups of rice wine and proceeded to get me drunk.  I didn't want to be rude and decline, but I also didn't want to get obliterated like I was beginning to see was the case for these men.  And I didn't want these men to think that Americans are squares so I took 4 or 5 big glasses of the "happy water" as they called it, which eventually gave way to several manly grunts of satisfaction.  One old man (the drunkest of the bunch) grabbed my hand and shook it for what felt like a solid 10 minutes.  "Gam Uhhnn," I repeatedly grunted back, which means "thank you" and eventually, I slipped out to meet back up with Jake.

The next day Jake and I spent time exploring the town and checking out the local markets, which had some interesting hand made souvenirs we bought.  Realizing that we needed to get on with our trip, we left early the next morning for what turned out to be a 10 hour test of endurance.  We drove through every type of terrain imaginable: mud, gravel, potholes, washed out sections due to small rivers crossing the road or because of rock slides, dusty back roads, you name it.  The weather varied nearly as much as the terrain: rain, cold, and fog turned to radiating heat and humidity.   We were literally in the middle of nowhere and due to some major construction on a new highway, we were forced to take all the back roads through small and remote villages. 

The hard work was completely worth it though because the scenery was even more impressive than Thailand and Laos with continuous views of the mountains and rice terraces that constantly gave us goose pimples. The elements and construction work slowed us down a lot, and although we tried to make good time we didn't make it to our stop in Dien Bien Phu (the famous site where the Vietnamese won a decisive battle that ousted the French) until 8:30pm. When we arrived we were both covered from head to toe with mud and backcountry Vietnamese dust. To say the least we slept good that night!

That next morning we got on the road early in anticipation for another long-haul day.  The views again were absolutely stunning. 

I am probably a good 2 weeks behind on the blog, but will do my best to catch up...for some reason I can't access the blog site.  Stay tuned.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Good Morning Vietnam

After leaving Laos, Jacob and I took the easy way out and flew from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam in order to avoid the grueling 25-30 hour bus ride.  We flew with Vietnam Airlines because apparently Laos Airlines has a sketchy record and doesn't report the number and cause of crashes, which have been relatively frequent in past years.

I'd heard many bad things about Vietnam from fellow travelers and especially Hanoi so I wasn't quite sure what to expect.  Vietnam's capital Hanoi is a living museum.  A fascinating glimpse into an Asian city of old, yet oozing with the energy and pace of a modern metropolis.  The constant buzz of motorbikes, street hawkers, pedaled rickshaws, pedestrians, bicycles, and cars envelopes this fascinating city as tourists apprehensively negotiate the narrow streets and risk life and limb to cross the road.

Everywhere you turn, there is constant activity and noise.  Honking motorbikes, squawking street vendors (and sometimes wildlife), the clanging of beer mugs at a bia hoi (local beer) cafe, everyday there's a sight that makes you ask yourself, "Did I really just see that?"  Life takes place in the outdoors.  People eating, cooking, playing, feeding babies, laughing, or just sitting and talking over a glass of hot chai tea, it's all here. I could spend days (and I have) just people watching in this city.  It's insane, it's beautiful, but at the same time dirty and disgusting.  It's hectic and frustrating at times, but it's steeped in history and it's never dull.  I can't get enough of the madness that is Hanoi.

For example, as I was walking down the street the other day, I watched a lady stab a goose in the neck and drain it's blood into the street while a brand new Range Rover drove by.  I ask myself how can these two things be seen in the same place at the same time.  I watch poor farmer women selling roots, vegetables, and meats from their old-fashioned wooden carrying baskets as they sit outside a modern 40 story building.  The buzz of the city is different than the other big cities I've been in.  It's organized chaos and I like it.  Crossing the street is an adventure in itself as the streets are filled with a sea of motorbikes.  One must venture out into the street one step at a time being ever vigilant, but mostly, you let the motorbikes do all the work and dodge you as you slowly, but directly put one foot in front of the other until you reach relative safety on the other side.  That is until you have to dodge the three people driving motorbikes on the sidewalk.  I also saw a whole dead big cut in half thrown on the back of a motorbike dripping blood being carried down the street.  The ingenuity of what these guys can carry on a motorbike is truly impressive.

On to the rest of my trip...

Every adventure lusting man dreams about venturing off on his own into some exotic and unknown country.  For me, my dream was to buy a motorcycle in Vietnam and ride Che Guevara-style from tip to tail, exploring the rugged mountains in the north along the Chinese border and then follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail all the way down to old Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City (all the while jamming to some classic Vietnam War era hits like CCR's "Fortunate Son" and the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black").  For a foreigner, owning a motorcycle in Vietnam is technically illegal, but authorities turn a blind eye as long as you have the proper ownership document (mine said I was born in 1960....nice!).  This incredible 2000 km motorcycle journey has been featured on the BBC series Top Gear and has gained popularity ever since the program aired.  I estimated it would take me a solid 4-5 weeks to explore the north and finish in the south.

I ended up buying a motorcycle (a "Honda" Bonus) from another Spanish traveler who had the bike for several weeks.  The bad part is that I had never even driven a real motorcycle, the kind with the full clutch.  All the bikes I've driven in Indonesia, Thailand, and Laos have basically been semi-automatic scooters since larger motorcycles aren't widely available.  Hanoi has to be one of the worst possible places in the world to learn to drive a bike, but I was determined to figure it out.  After a quick lesson from Jake, I had it figured out and was driving around Hanoi dodging motorbikes, pedestrians, chickens, and cyclos.

Eileen - the "Honda" Bonus
One type of motorcycle that many foreigners like to drive here is an old 2 stroke Russian legacy called the Minsk.  While they look awesome and the idea of riding an old communist Russian motorcycle across Vietnam sounds romantic, they break down every 100 km's, parts are hard to find, and the Vietnamese hate them;  thus, I ended up buying a "Honda", and when I say "Honda", I mean a cheap copy of one from Taiwan. 
My 'official' ownership paper
Our plan was to spend the next 10 days in northern Vietnam exploring the mountain towns and colorful ethnic Hmong villages by bike.  After our mountain trip, we planned to explore the Unesco World Heritage site of Halong Bay.  I also forgot to mention that Jacob rented a nice 230 cc dirtbike for the trip which is more than double the size of any of the bikes here and until recently, was also technically illegal to ride because it's bigger than what the police ride.