Vietnamese and Australians. Brothers and sisters across the sea.

Just went to the shop to get some high carb goodies. It takes 2 minutes to walk there and 22 minutes to chat. The conversation starts with amusement behind the counter because I have been here twice today, and every second day for the past week. 

I hear “Good evening” in good English. Xin chau (hello). In a fit of overconfidence, I go for more… Chau buoi tot (good evening). Crap..that buoi was bad…they don’t know what I said. Buoi…bUoi. BuoI. So I go back to my native tongue…You have some English?

“Yes, just a little”. I pay for my drink. 

“Why do you visit Vietnam?” Hmmm…we are having an exchange of their fairly good English for my terrible Vietnamese. But how to answer?  I try to convey – It’s the people and the natural beauty. 

“Why not Thailand?” Without thinking too hard, I draw some $$ on a pad.

“Is Thailand a waste of money?” Meaning expensive, I think. So I indicate No, not expensive. This makes me think. What am I trying to say? Thailand is excellent. But there’s an intangible something extra about Vietnam. Maybe it’s just that everyone in Thailand works so hard – is there less time for friends? I express some of this with broken language, but it’s not very useful. To reinforce the point I wave my arm around to indicate that we are sitting around having an interesting chat. But I think the point is missed because my new friends don’t know of a workplace where you work all day. Workplaces here are very friendly and very social and very supportive. In Australia you might not have to work hard all day, but you have to look like you are working all day.  [http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/idolchatter/2006/01/george-costanzas-ten-commandme.html]

“Thai people not friendly?” No, I try to explain, it’s not like that…it’s more like…..I look up the words for work, then say Work, money, work, money. There is agreement from my companions that too much work isn’t good. They seem to have heard that people in some countries are very serious about work. On the other hand, Australians and Vietnamese have a deep understanding of work-life balance. We may not achieve balance as much as we’d like, but if we had the chance we’d be anywhere except work.

“How long do you stay in Vietnam?” Eight weeks. Weeks. Weeks. My tones are rubbish. This word “tuan” is tricky. 

“Oh”. 

Two Asian customers come in and buy 2 minute noodles. They are asking about chopsticks and forks and I help a bit – because they have no Vietnamese language. It took me a few seconds to realise that Vietnamese people have no idea what “chopsticks” are, and no matter how often the Asian guys ask for “chopsticks” they weren’t going to get them. In any case, there’s a fold-out fork in their noodle cup.

We go back to more chat. There are lots of laughs and some photos. As I start saying goodbyes, the guy in the photo below exchanges some low and high fives. Then a prank – I put my hand out for the woman in the middle to give me a low five, and as she thinks about what she needs to do and prepares to give me a good solid five, I move my hand away just as she swipes past. We are almost wetting ourselves. 

Brothers and sisters across the sea. Check them out. The smiles on these jokers. I swear it’s true. Same funny bone, all of us.

Thank you my dear readers. Yahoo !

Hello.

A sincere thank you for being here. This humble blog is growing wings and taking off – it is being read by more and more people every week, with no end in sight to the rise in popularity.This graph shows the number of readers and number of articles read on a weekly basis. Almost a 10-fold increase since April. Yahoo !

Buckle up, ease back, open your mind and put your helmet on, because the travel and photos and stories are getting better and better.

Quick tip. Better than a rubber band.

Hi. Ziplock bags are great for keeping stuff dry. Especially flat stuff like a passport, notes, books and money. But some stuff is bulky, has it’s own bag, and just needs a rubber band. Today I needed a big one to close a bag of muesli. Almost a kilogram of muesli. But no rubber band. Bugger. An open bag of muesli would make a diabolical mess in my bag. Cable tie? Not reusable. Shopping bag? Ok, but doesn’t seal.

Eureka! Use the drawstring out of a cheap glasses pocket thing (free with $3 Vietnamese Ray-Bans). It is stronger than a rubber band, works on small and large bags, and opens and closes easier. 

It is vain and nihilistic to get excited about your own idea. As if I care.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Riding around the Big, West Lake.

It’s Sunday, and if you are going to cycle in HaNoi, this is the day to do it. As you can see in the photo of one of the busiest mid-week roads in HaNoi, places that are usually chaotic and dangerous become pleasant (montage, top left).

This morning I took advantage of the Sunday traffic and rode to the night markets, then around the big lake. It took 3 hours with several stops for water, photos, looping and doubling around, and getting my front brakes cleaned out and adjusted. I bought a pair of brake pads for back-up because the small amount of riding I have done – a few hundred kilometers, but rough mountain roads – have already depleted my brake pads (and wheel rims, but I’m not going to carry a pair of back-up wheels).

The ride was 26km and is easily achievable by cyclists and non-cyclists. It is dead flat and much of it is on a road that goes nowhere except loop around the Lake, so there’s only tourist traffic. The map below shows the path I took, which may not be the best possible, but was heaps of fun (base map by Google Earth). My GPS track is available at this link (it’s the GoogleEarth file shown in the map below) https://www.dropbox.com/s/fl4xe21u74uadw2/Sunday%20ride__20140914_1049.kml?dl=0

I’ve marked four places on the map. Just north of the Old Quarter is the big market, that I’ve also tagged as the beating heart of HaNoi. 

At the north end of West Lake is a DisneyWorld-type fun park. One thing that I noticed was a lack of screaming from the rides. It might be a cultural thing, or maybe the rides aren’t as demonic as theme parks at the Gold Coast.

The tag on the Eastern edge of the lake indicates an affluent area where many expat white folk live. Apartments built out over the water in a synthetic Venetian style, and $1000 Trek bicycles underneath white guys in the park are sure signs of excess bucks. And shiny black cars.

On the causeway that runs across the south-eastern section of the lake there is the Tranh Quoc pagoda. It is quite attractive, and is surprisingly old – dating to the earliest of Buddhist times (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trấn_Quốc_Pagoda). The pagoda is closed on Sunday, but it is worth a stop for a drink or an ice cream. The shops sell bags and jewellery and T shirts. Expect the shop owners to hit you up for about double the best rate you could get (ie. they will tell you it is $4/100,000VND for a Tshirt). Because the women who run these shops bring their stock from far away each day, and work hard, and don’t hassle you for a sale, I don’t mind paying these rates. But if you are genuinely poor, it would be fair to bargain them down.

Riding to my hotel on Hung Dong, I’m reminded that Huyen, yesterday’s guide, told me that Hung Dong means “copper street”. Indeed, there are a lot of shops making and selling copper ware. I turn down Hung Thiec, and sure enough, more metal. My iPad translator tells me it is Tin Street. Actually, it tells me many things, but one of the words is ‘tin’.

What a great finish to the ride. Another tiny piece of the Hanoi jigsaw puzzle falls into place. A pattern and a mystery become meaningful. Each day I wake up thinking “I’ve been here for days. Surely I need to explore another town to find new and interesting things”. Everyday the answer is the same….walk out the door and be entertained and excited and confused and amused. It’s a blast!

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Buses and B52s. 

Today involved an early start to meet my friend and guide Quhen (“wh-hen”) and go to the War Museum. I had a visit there a few weeks ago, but only got a quick look in before it closed (I got there late). Today, Quhen is taking me on the bus, which is a bit of fun, too. 

As I explain to Quhen, a city bus is the most difficult form of public transport to catch in a foreign country. The driver has no language, they are busy, the regular passengers don’t want a delay, there is no time to translate, and the information on the front of the bus is usually poor. How poor? There are three Route 9 in Hanoi. They go to different places, I’m told. So how does that work? Do you have to ask the driver which Route 9 they are? Fortunately, a native-born bilingual Vietnamese guide is doing all of the heavy lifting for me today. Yay!

The other photo in the montage is of a group being immortalised in the obligatory celebration of Vietnamese independence. Why not, too, after years and years of being hassled and invaded by near neighbours as well as countries half a world away.

My guide Huyen has a knowledge of Vietnamese history as good as 312 million Americans. Or ten thousand Australians. Way, way more than my superficial understanding (knowledgeable for a westerner).

An example of this was my introduction to the various generals who have entered folklore. They are well represented around the museum, and seem as famous for their cunning exploits as any super-hero.

Imagine lining the bed of a river with massive sharpened poles. Let the mongol navy sail up the river on the high tide, then attack them as the tide goes out and the poles puncture the boats. A wartime work of genius. In the 1250s the mongols whopped the butts of armies all over the Middle East, Europe and South Asia, but the Vietnamese managed to repel them to a large degree. Of course it is all more technical and gut-wrenching than my simple description conveys.

It is difficult to know how much of the history is written gloriously, and how much has been genuinely glorious. As a person of British descent, I understand the importance of writing history that looks impressive and avoids and ugly truths. Furthermore..After casting a sceptical eye over some of the exhibits, it seems that the facts are almost impossible to determine, and even if they were known, would probably just make for dull stories. But a couple of issues were a mystery to Huyen and I, and it has taken a little follow-up research to ‘get’ the story. 

The biggest differences in our perspectives on the War concerned fire-power. Especially concerning the  StratoFortress, as Boeing called it, or the B52 bomber or BUFF as they were commonly known. My knowledge was that B52s were huge and fuel-thirsty and could carry a huge payload, but I learned that they were considered very formidable.

Huyen felt that the Russian surface to air missiles (SAMs) on display would have been unable to shoot down a B52 without special modification by the Viet Army. 

As you can imagine, my view of the B52 sold it short – it could fly higher, faster and longer than I imagined (and carry 30,000 kg of bombs). But it could certainly be shot down with your average SAM, too. In fact, on a couple of occasions, they were shot down by heavy duty machine-gun fire. At some stage the Americans realised that flying high put them at great risk of observation and attack from missiles, and they started to fly low and fast to avoid them. Of course, a well-timed burst of machine gun fire could then do major damage.

The photo montage shows one of the tanks that crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon at the end of the war in 1975. Also, some notes that were on a US Army jeep, apparently used to transport the Head South Vietnamese Puppet of the US to the radio station to declare that the south had surrendered. Last, but not least, is a plaque that was on a Russian-built missile launcher, with a claim that the unit brought down three B52s. Could that be true? My research indicates that it is not only true that three B52s were destroyed in a single night by the 77th Battalion. According to US records, FOUR B52s were destroyed (www.wikipedia.com). 

Does anyone have a B52 that might have been ‘lost’ by the US and not ‘got’ by the Vietnamese?

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. HaNoi. Street scenes. Great guides. Cruel weasel coffee.

Hi from the Old Quarter.

Today I was headed past Turtle/Sword/Restoration Lake to the Revolution Museum when I ran into some Australians talking with Vietnamese students wanting to improve their English skills. A chat to the travellers, then if head off. A hundred metres later I hear the pitter patter of feet behind me, and there they are again. Two of the students, Huyen and Hoa. A bit of a discussion and it seems that they want to speak some English. Like quite a few students at the lake, they are getting free English language lessons from tourists, and being free guides to the sights. Everyone wins.

We talk and walk and talk and an hour later we go to a top Pho restaurant for lunch. My shout – $5 for 3 big serves of Bun Heo (rice vermicelli with pork). The ethics of eating pork are something I wrestle with, but these are the best meaty noodles I’ve had the whole time I’ve been in Vietnam. A little prayer goes out to the piggies.

As an aside, you can see in some of the photos the little seats (blue, usually) that Vietnamese people sit on in street stalls, restaurants and other places. They are about 25cm high. For a guy who is 180cm tall, that’s about half way between my knee and the ground. At the most excellent Bun restaurant, you can see that they pulled out a super-size red chair for me. About 40cm high. So much easier for a big old guy like me. Yahoo. This may well be a reason why so many westerners don’t eat in the street. Not many fat old westerners could get in and out, and down and out from the blue seats.

As you can see from my label on the coffee photo, I’m campaigning in a very small way against cruel civet coffee. Often called weasel coffee. Has it been force-fed to the civets, which become horribly sick? Hopefully it’s a scam, and just a label for normal coffee. There is certainly a lot of “weasel” coffee being sold. If it is true, there is an awful lot of pointless and despicable cruelty going on.

Tonight, Friday night, there is a street market along Huong Gia, directly north of the lake. There are a lot of good food places in this part of town, and I was checking out some of them by walking along Huong Buom when I found the main market at the intersection of these two major streets. You can see quite a few of about 100 stalls in the photo. But I’m not buying clothes, toys, fabric, veges, electrical stuff or any of the thousand other things they sell.

Home is a short trip west through streets being cleaned by the wonderful cleaning people with their big rubbish carts. The carts are like oversized wheel barrows with 2 wheels. They look heavy. It’s not a job for a whimp like me. You need to deal with stinking garbage and have a great work ethic for this job. Quite a lot of these workers are 25 and 30 year old women. Fit, lean and strong. 

Today’s reflections; Conversation feeds the mind and soul. For the body, lots of very fresh food and some physical work.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Xe Buyt. The bus. We are the parade.

There are some interesting things about catching a bus in Vietnam. 

In Australia, intercity buses are a fast, cheap and efficient way of travelling. These are the only three things that Australian buses and Vietnamese buses have in common. Except for the sleeper buses (with lie-down-and-sleep beds instead of seats), Vietnamese buses are a hundred times more fun and entertaining than other buses.

This and other differences can be explained with the experience I had recently of catching a bus from Hoa Binh to almost Hanoi. This is a trip of about 75 km that takes 2 hours. Ah-ha!! You’ve already spotted a difference – Vietnamese buses are slower than buses in places like the US, Australia and Europe. There is so much more time to enjoy the trip, and your photos aren’t so blurred. The buses are smaller, too – the Hundai 29 seater that I’ll be on today is very common. They comfortably fit 15 to 18 people plus my bicycle, three bags of corn, a box of electrical appliances, and some hypnotised chickens in a bamboo cage. We are a parade.

Arriving at the bus station in Hoa Binh I am disappointed to learn from the local experts that nobody will take my bicycle on the bus. I explain that it has been on buses many times before (an exaggeration). They say I should take a taxi to Hanoi. They ask me how much I would pay, and I say “50”, which is short for 50,000 dong (US$2), the price of a bus ticket to Hanoi. The driver says “50 – US” and I say “that’s why I’m catching a bus”. Now that I’ve passed the test for not being an ignorant westerner, we can have a chat about cycling and children and travel and all sorts of stuff. 

A bus arrives with a MyDinh sign on the front. The driver wants 150,000 dong for me and the bike. Outrageous. I tell him that I’m not interested, but do the maths and realise that it won’t take long for me to drink 150,000 dong worth of drinks if I stand in the sun any longer. It’s only $7, so I cave in to the driver, who does a really nice job of putting my bike across the back seat of the bus. The bike seems to taking the space of 4 passengers, so maybe the price is well justified. The reason why the bus has MyDinh on the front is that MyDinh is the big bus station about 10km from central Hanoi. There isn’t much truth in advertising in Vietnam, but this is an example of being very truthful (if a bit confusing for people who wonder why there are no buses going to Hanoi).

And we are off.

Barely one km up the road we stop. The catcher jumps out of the bus. The catcher is the most important person on the bus, whose job it is to pick up and off load cargo, sometimes to people standing in the middle of a freeway. Or down the back of a long, dank, mossy alley. How do they know the address? Or remember it? Perhaps more importantly, the catcher watches for people on the side of the road, tells the driver to stop, and jumps out to have an instant personal discussion that explains to the potential customer the low prices and special features of this bus. On this trip there aren’t many customers to catch, and I get the impression that we only get one or two unplanned “extras”. This is despite what appears to be some excellent spriuking by the catcher.

The lack of timetable and variable price and ability to throw a bag of corn or a bicycle on a bus seems chaotic in terms of western travel.  It looks potentially unreliable to the untrained eye. But it is completely the opposite. The buses leave every 10 to 20 minutes during daylight hours. You can negotiate almost anything for a reasonable fee (by which I mean very cheaply, as demonstrated by my bike and I costing $7 for a 75 km journey). These buses are very reliable, and on good roads like these, there is little chance of a breakdown. But if there was, we would be put on other buses in no time. He fibres of a rope are individually weak and unreliable, but together they are very strong and reliable.

We stop for fuel at the servo, and they buy about $15 worth. This is probably enough to get to Hanoi and back, meaning that my $7 fare pays for the fuel for the one-way trip. The $25 of fares from the other passengers and the cargo pays for the driver and catcher and the rent on the van. Could the rent really be low enough to leave a good wage for two people? I get the impression that many of these buses are rented by the driver and catcher, who then drive and catch all day and night trying to make a profit.

Before we leave the servo, there’s time for a very fast toilet stop in the bananas. Back on the bus, we wait for a minute. The driver is getting a bit cranky when a woman comes out of the proper toilets and gets back on the bus. She must have been in there for two minutes for heavens sake – an amount of time that the driver feels is excessive.

Maybe to calm down a bit, the driver turns up the music. All of the bus drivers have the same taste in music. Maybe it is the same album? Except for the language difference, you can close your eyes and see Michael Bolton right there in front of you. On continuous play. Sometimes in a duet with a female a Vietnamese Michael Bolton. Every third song is “I want to know where love is”. I exaggerate of course. Then a Vietnamese Clarence Clements does the saxophone solo. The wailing guitar solo is straight out of the 1990s and is ok to listen to, but then it just goes on too long and is repetitive and goes on too long. And it reappears in every song. Oh yeah, oh yeah, I almost forgot to say that a lot of these songs are western, translated into Vietnamese and done in the Michael Bolton style. It is difficult to convey the annoyance caused by this – it is like going around and around on the slow cycle in this musical washing machine. If I EVER hear that fifteen minute long version of “Love lift us up where we belong” again I WILL scream.  A pity, because I have quite liked the original, and all of the rest of Joe Cocker’s stuff. Of course I’m being a bit hysterical – there are much worse things than crying over “big hair” music.

There is always something going on in the bus. A passenger climbs over my bike to sleep on the back seats. Should I get a discount now? Just kidding! Another gets a quick phone call and suddenly needs to get out. On the freeway. What? How does she get anywhere from here? Did I mention that the passengers always shout  on their mobiles. I have no idea why, but you get to listen in on the tone of a lot of conversations. Next, the catcher opens the door, sticks his head out and tells an old lady to hurry up and park her electric bike, or they will leave without her. She seems like such a nice lady too, though her zebra-pattern pyjamas are a little out of style. Leopard pyjamas have almost totally replaced zebra. But I’m really glad they wait and let her on.

Anyway, that was the first hour of my two hour bus trip. The second hour was so excellent that it would be too long to explain.

Where are the best carnival rides in Vietnam? Now you know.