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.

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