Life in Da Nang

It’s been a while since I moved to Da Nang, I came in November with a good deal of money saved up and the hopes of quickly finding a house and a job. The house came quickly – I found a three-bedroom Vietnamese style house within walking distance of the beach; the job did not – I’ve been working only sporadically.

The move from Hanoi to Da Nang has been a story of trade-offs. The shopping isn’t as good as it was in Hanoi. The pay is definitely not as good as it was in Hanoi. But on the other hand, I’m paying for a house here what I used to pay for a studio apartment in Hanoi – and no housing is anywhere near a beach in Hanoi.  Besides, life in Da Nang has something I never had in Hanoi – quietude.

My average day in Da Nang consists of eating breakfast, running some errands, laying out on the beach at around 11AM, and then coming back for lunch and a nap before going to teach at night. Because no sane Vietnamese would go to the beach in the sunniest part of the day, I get it almost all to myself. Sometimes I’ll skip the beach and go for a quick motorcycle ride up to our local rainforest park called Monkey Mountain, and it only takes me twenty minutes to reach the top – 500 meters – to then sit in silence and watch the wind blow through the canopy. So either I can take an outing to the beach or the mountains and still have time to come back for lunch and a rest before a night’s work. Oh yes, I usually remember to post a snide comment on my facebook page like, “Hi, just had a great time at the beach – how’s snow shoveling going back in Minnesota?” at least once a week.


A cool January Day on the beach near my house, Monkey Mountain in the Background and China Beach all around.

The winter was nothing like the gray cold affairs of Hanoi which stretch on until April, we got a mix of rain and sun in Da Nang, the temperatures stayed in the high 70’sF. So I was swimming in the sea till mid December. The temperature in March has been on a slow climb, but I still have avoided using the air conditioner, letting in the ocean breeze through the windows. I’ve really enjoyed my lifestyle change since moving from Hanoi, I suppose the only problem with Da Nang is that it is too perfect of a location. Because of it’s a small city with wide roads, no pollution, a beach and lovely country-side all around – it is THE place that every English teacher and expat wants to move to. Consequently, there are fewer working hours for everyone and even less pay to go around – I still haven’t moved into positive cash flow yet.

If work continues to be so scant I may have to stow the beach towel and head back to Hanoi for a few months to rebuild my savings, yet hopefully it won’t come to that. For several years, I’ve been trying to find a place in the world that I like, that has a nice atmosphere, good location, and is a place where I can make a living. Traveling from place to place gets quite old. I’d like Da Nang to be such a place, but so far this is still not a certainty.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail. . .

My contract with my employer expired in late October. They gave me my final paycheck, complete with severance pay, and I was free. Despite having a memorable year of employment, and spending over a year and a half in Hanoi, I decided to continue with my plan – moving to Da Nang. I boxed up most of my things and shipped them by rail to my friends in Hoi An: and with a small bag, and a not-very-detailed atlas, I readied my bike for the long trip south. I had made many friends in Hanoi, like my job, had been able to save a good amount; but the cramped city, the cold foggy winters, and the insane traffic had taken their toll. It was a decision long in the making – it was time to leave. I was going on a trip, from the Gates of Hanoi’s old quarter, to the river-front of Hoi An.

Day 1

So on a Friday morning in early November, I sat with my chopper loaded-up in front of Hanoi’s old brick gates. In typical Caleb style, I really hadn’t made a comprehensive plan; I just asked people while driving through Hanoi – which road to take to get to the Ho Chi Minh Highway. An hour of insane traffic, and I was out of the city, and soon in Hoa Binh – I found the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, Vietnam’s primary inland highway. It was surprising; the road was a very well built road of two lanes that wound through the North Vietnamese countryside. The best part about it was there was almost no traffic, so I began to thrash it to 80kph, which is quite fast for Vietnam. The scenery was villages, fields, and of course the towering limestone hills that are so characteristic of that region of Vietnam, it looked like something from a classical Chinese painting. This Karst topography was particularly beautiful around Cuc Phuong National Park, but I just drove on through and only stopped for a few pictures. At about 5pm, I stopped at a small town called Tan Ky, and stayed at the Volga Hotel for the night. I could have gone further, but 8 hours on a bike in Vietnam is quite tiring.

Day 2

Waking up bright and early, I found a bike mechanic to tighten my new chain, and a local Pho shop for a bite to eat. It was well after nine before I was actually back on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Already, I was noticing a different accent in the Vietnamese when I talked to people, what would it be like by the time I got to Hue? It was autumn, and this region of Vietnam is actually not quite tropical. So it was cool, dry, and not a cloud in the sky – this with the lovely pastoral scenery, the jagged limestone hills – what can I say but that it was unforgettable. I had been driving for two days, and since leaving Hanoi’s old quarter, I had neither seen any foreigners, nor had I met a person who spoke English. It was fun because I was able to use Vietnamese for whatever I needed, no problem. Additionally, it seemed that as I raced by, everyone recognized me as a foreigner, and would wave. I was wearing a full-face helmet, but everyone noticed me, maybe it was the bigger bike I drove. Although it was possible to go all the way to Hue that day, at 3pm I decided to make a stop in Phong Nha, to see a world heritage site, Paradise Cave.

Unfortunately, I didn’t actually get to the park entrance till almost 4 o clock. I bought a ticket, and walked up a paved path for what seemed like an eternity before I finally got to the entrance. Stairs led down to a small opening, but this small entrance was a portal to a massive cave, that went on for several hundred yards. It was a cornucopia of flowstone, stalactites and stalagmites of a most delicate construction; and terraced pools so perfect they looked as if they were of human design. It was an awe-inspiring cathedral of stone; but I couldn’t stay long to gawk because the cave closed at 5:30pm. Although driving further in the night was possible, it seemed best for me to just go to a hotel at the nearby town.

Day 3

I hit the road at 8:30, clear skies and mild temperatures, the sun came shone on the limestone hills at an angle – creating sharp relief. The scenery was more of what I had been driving through thus far – limestone towers, flat valleys, rolling hills and rice fields. Early in the afternoon, I turned off the Ho Chi Minh Road and headed for Highway 1, the main road near the coast. The drop in altitude made things slightly warmer and I began to notice a climactic change. The skies were no longer clear, but had white patchy clouds that would dump rain in the most erratic manner. I stopped getting out my rain suit, because it wasn’t worth the hassle of taking it on and off. After lunch, I came to the Ben Hai River, the boundary line of the DMZ between the north and the south. There wasn’t too much to see, a big concrete and tile war memorial, a replica of a house that was apparently used for talks, a bridge for traffic, and a smaller footbridge that was crowned by a red banner. I took a few pictures, and drove on south.

Hue was the next town of size, and I arrived at about 3pm. In characteristic style, I had not planned my trip well, so I wasn’t sure which turn to take from the highway to get into the old city. But following a hunch, I tailed a bus full of fat white middle-aged tourists – and drove through the old city gates of Hue. After driving around the city for over 20 minutes, I finally figured out where my hotel was – across the river.

I booked a room, unloaded my bike, and then drove back to the old city for a look around. The city was first surrounded by a mote then by a brick wall about 12 feet high that had pock marks and pieces missing – scars of the 1968 battle that still remained. I parked near the main gate, and took a look around. The south gates faced the river and were guarded by a massive redoubt, and also protected another set of gates and walls which were the palace. The area around the outer walls and moat were now a massive park circumscribing the whole city, and people were out exercising in the fading light. So I went back across the river and found a most appropriately named restaurant, The DMZ.

Day 4

royal tomb interior

At 8:30 in the morning I boarded a van with about 6 other people for a day tour. Our first stop was out of town, a large brick walled enclosure that was a tomb for one of the emperors. It was not just a mausoleum; it was a massive park, complete with lakes, forests, gardens, houses and temples. Apparently, the emperor would come here to relax away from the city, so it was also a vacation home I guess. Then went to another tomb that was more like a fairy-tale citadel on a hilltop; small but opulently decorated. Then we went to another massive tomb, like the first it was a get-away palace as well. I don’t give many details about these because after the first one, I got bored and was fairly tombed-out by lunch time.

Finally, we went back to Hue to see the Forbidden City. So first we drove through the gates into the Citadel, then we walked through the palace gates into the Imperial Enclosure, then we walked through an amazingly-decorated audience hall into the Forbidden City. So we were in a walled city, within a walled city, within a walled city, impressive. The inner palace itself was subdivided into several other walled quarters, but much of its area was a bare field with only foundations remaining. This had been occupied by the NVA in the 1968 offensive, and the Americans had blasted the palace flat to retake the city. But people were rebuilding it, the new buildings looking much the same as the older ones. I lost track of all the walls I went past and all the gates I went through; it was huge.

Forbidden City Ruins

It was getting late in the day, and we went to another pagoda (oh please not another one) and finished with a short cruise down the river by boat.

Day 5

It was raining when I left Hue in the morning, but my rain suit did its job and I was out of the slop within an hour. Again, the rain clouds were patchy and rain was extremely erratic. I had been on the road for many days and I was anxious to finish my final leg into Hoi An. I blasted down the highway at 80kph and crossed a small pass that was at one end of a lagoon called Vung An Cu. As soon as I came off the small pass, I took an immediate right and went down the road that led around the west side of the lagoon. On one side were the forested mountains of a national park, on the other a placid lagoon and the Hai Van Pass was ahead of me – lovely. The main road winds around the east side, but this road had almost no traffic.

On the north side of the pass is a lovely lagoon.

On the north side of the pass is a lovely lagoon.

In no time I was at the foot of the Hai Van Pass and stopped for a few pictures. I then flogged my bike up the old familiar pass with my exhaust pipes roaring a nice baritone. The pass was cloudy, but it didn’t rain. I took the long way to Hoi An, along Red Beach, across the big suspension bridge and down the wide palm-lined road past China Beach. I rolled into Hoi An at about lunch time, and was able to get a friend of mine to film me riding up to the finish line – the river-front.  As switched off my bike and it ticked cool, I glanced at the odometer. From the gates of Hanoi’s old quarter, to Hoi An’s old river-front, it had been 1,040 kilometers in 5 days.

The air was cool, the sun was shining on the tile rooftops; I was home at last.

Hoi An at last, and what a lovely site.

Hoi An at last, and what a lovely site.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Walking in Sapa’s Valley

It’s beautiful even in the rain.

Compared to the crowded and sunny coastal town of Ha Long, Sapa is quite the other extreme; it is a mountain town in the north west of Vietnam, at over 6,000 feet. The day after returning from Ha Long, I took a night train in a sleeper car to the border town of Lao Cai; rode a van up a winding road to the mist-soaked town of Sapa.

The van dropped me off at the hotel; they sent me downstairs for breakfast and told me to come back to the lobby at ten. So after stuffing my face for a half hour, I came back to the lobby and waited – noticing three girls dressed in indigo shirts and trousers covered in intricate needlework. Bit by bit, the tourists trickled in, and so did more tribal women. I deduced by their clothing they were from the Hmong tribe, a group of people scattered all over a mountainous area in south-east Asia anthropologist James C. Scott refers to as Zomia.

The tourists were grouped off in fives and tens with a Hmong woman to guide, and led out onto the road in the drizzle. I had thought the rain was too light for a poncho, so I wore rain pants and my A2 jacket. Ten minutes into the walk, my jacket was running with water; so I eventually broke down and bought an umbrella. Leather is horrible when wet.

The Hmong women guided us along the very slippery trails through the fields.

Soon, the guide led us off the road and down footpaths of hard slick mud. My hiking boots were OK, but many other people were slipping and sliding on it. The trek was peaceful; no honking horns, just the sound of rain, the river, and people talking. Our guide was 19, and with a baby on her back – she helped people twice her weight. I tried to use Vietnamese with some of the Hmong, but most of them didn’t  know Vietnamese – so much for having an edge that the tourists didn’t.

The quiet made people relax and fall into conversation as well as into the mud. One young Columbian woman was a doctor and had come with her sister and godmother for a holiday before she would marry in the fall. There was a South African couple who had lived in a few places, and was on their way to Australia. It was also good to talk to the Hmong, our group had attracted about 8 women to help us.

The terracing was beautiful to look at, but very labor intensive to maintain.

The walk was slippery and dangerous, but being in the cool air, with the silence only broken by the sound of flowing water in the river valley below. The air was misty, but still the views of the terraced rice fields were a pleasing change from the concrete and soot of Hanoi. The Hmong grow many of the things they need, food crops of course; but also indigo for dying cloth and hemp for making clothes and bags.

Our guide was 19 years old, a mother of two and did this trek several times a week.

We slogged on for what seemed like an eternity. At about noon, we stopped for a break near the river. A crowd of shy children came around us, looking at us with big “puppy eyes” and they were all quietly repeating a line that I couldn’t understand. “They’re all saying, ‘Hello, candy?’ but don’t give them any.” our guide told us, “It’s not good for them.” I understood, but I didn’t have any candy to give them anyways. We finally made it to the river, and ate at a cafeteria shared by a number of the tours. After our meal was done, I saw the purpose of the women who had helped so many of the tourists through the trail. They wanted the chance to sell their intricate needle-point textiles. Given the fact that they had been so helpful, my colleagues thought it only fair to buy a few things. I can see the reason in that – fair enough; but since I hadn’t needed any help on the trail, I decided to save my purchase of highland art for the next day.

The Hmong kids were friendly in an understated shy way.

Again, we headed out, going up the other side of the valley, this time on a semi-paved road through villages, many of the houses were farmhouses that doubled as home-stays. The afternoon was getting late – yet finally our guide introduced us to the family that we would stay with. It was a wooden house, with an upper floor that was solely dedicated to boarding tourists on mattresses with mosquito nets. The house even had an old billiard table under a breezeway. My feet were killing me, and we were given supper within a few hours – no one stayed up too late.

The next day it was still raining, I woke up to very sore muscles, and was told we had another trek of a few hours ahead of us – lovely. The young Columbiana’s godmother had twisted her ankle the day before, so she was not in good shape for walking. After a few hundred yards, she turned back. This trek seemed worse, I was now sore, it was raining more, and the trail went through bamboo groves that grabbed my umbrella and sloughed water onto me. It was also too warm for any other rain gear. There was not much to see till we reached the waterfall – water cascading down an angled bed of rock. Three hours to get to – 5 minutes to see. It’s about the journey not the destination I suppose.

Finally, we walked down the hard mud to the bottom of the valley. After two days of trekking on such muddy trails, and seeing everyone falling down around me – I had not fallen once. I was 50 feet from the bottom of the trail, when my feet went out from under me and I landed on my hindquarters ingloriously. It had to be that way didn’t it?

We came to a little “café” for a snack, and I finally bought three wristbands from a little girl, and a pillowcase from an older women. The fabric was covered with the typical geometric patterns that are found from all over “zomia” from Bhutan to Laos. A bus took about 30 of us dirty and wet tourists to the hotel for lunch; there was no way I was going to walk the whole way back. By now the entire town was enveloped in cool mist, reminding me of summer in Darjeeling or other mountain towns in the eastern Himalaya. I was too battered to do much shopping or any more walking.

I would say that Sapa was worth the visit. Granted, it was crowded with tourists, but the tribal peoples seemed to handle it differently than the Vietnamese of other places like Hanoi’s own old quarter. Maybe I should come near Christmas, when the temperatures are near freezing – Vietnam isn’t all tropical heat.

The cloud soaked streets of Sapa had a mysterious quality to them.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Diving into Ha Long Bay

This month has been a busy month for our company. As usual, student enrollment is increasing with the start of the fall semester, and the staff is low due to many of the summer school teachers leaving.  So I’ve been quite busy, with about 50% more work than a usual full-time class load. Additionally, I’ve been planning to move to Da Nang – a smaller city in the center of the country and it is a quieter, nicer place to live.

Yet earlier in September, I took several of my vacation days, and decided to visit some of the sights in the north that I had not yet seen. I was planning to make a five-day trip into the mountainous province of Ha Giang with a Vietnamese friend of mine. But the day before we left, he got into an accident and put his shoulder out of joint. Even though he said he still wanted to go; there was no way I was going to take him on the back of a motorcycle on Vietnamese roads for 10 hours. So I decided to change my plans.

Eleven of my colleagues from work had chartered a boat in Ha Long Bay for an overnight trip. Luckily, I was able to reserve a spot – and not 36 hours later, we were in a Transit van on our way to the coast. It took several hours, but we reached the bay on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Our tour guide was a gregarious young Vietnamese fellow, yet as we walked down to the jetty to board a launch, another man came up to slapped him full in the face and proceeded to yell at him. We were all stunned and weren’t sure if we should stand by and let things escalate or to all jump in and thrash the buffoon. But after a few minutes of a shouting exchange, the man let us on our way. Once we boarded our “cruise ship” of 3 decks and about 8 cabins, we asked the guide about the “fight”. It was something to do with the boat operator getting irked about the boat captain not being contacted, but not wanting to give the tour guide the captain’s phone number to contact him. Whatever, we didn’t see the assailant again.

The boat was a squat “Chinese junk” of about 70 foot length overall and about 25 feet of beam. We were quartered two per cabin, which each had a bathroom (or head), soft beds and air conditioning. The second deck had the dining room (or maybe it’s called the mess), and the upper deck was an open area with deck chairs for lounging in.  (OK, I’m not with-it on nautical terms)

Ha Long is a large bay filled with small limestone islands and rocks – each covered in green scrub. Since it is like nowhere else in the world, it is a park that is run by a department of the Vietnamese government. Consequently, there are many regulations to follow, and it seems that one of these is that every boat follows the same two or three tour routes in the same sequence. We were first slated to stop at an island that had a massive cave; but since many people had already seen it – we skipped it and head through the islands for our next stop. The boat slowly trolled through narrow channels between steep green cliffs that rose immediately out of the water. It was a maze of waterways that opened up to a different view every few minutes. The weather was a bizarre smattering of rain squalls and sunshine – these gave amazingly varied lighting conditions.  We stopped at quiet sound, with several little islands about our ship, and hooked up to one of the anchored buoys.

There were almost no other boats around, and the serenity of the location was a world away from the concrete and noise of Hanoi.  Our crew launched some plastic kayaks, and we paddled them out amongst the islands.  The water was murky, but with no wind, the surface was like a pond.  We paddled out around an island and then all jumped into the water – behaving like children at summer camp.  I dove down to see how deep the water was, about 20 feet down I hit bottom, a very soft and sticky black mud. When I showed the contents of the bottom to the rest, they didn’t seem interested in going down for a handful of the stuff.  After paddling around for an hour or so, our guide beckoned us back to the ship, this was a good thing because I was very out of shape and my arms were getting tired.

We began to jump off the third deck into the water, not any more than 20 feet I imagine. Everyone was jumping feet first, but I eventually worked up the courage to dive. Luckily I didn’t end up on my back when I hit the water. (Later I learned that the boats dump their waste water into the sea – so this may explain the black mud and murky water)  By this time, the rest of the junks had caught up with us on the predetermined schedule, and were mooring nearby for the night. We had a very nice dinner, and broke out the cards for a game of Texas hold’em. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hold on long this time, and was soon out – not opting for another buy-in. Later on in the evening, several people went up to the third deck to chat and stare at the sky – I went to bed but heard later that some went for a swim in the wee hours of the morning.

I awoke at seven and went out on deck for a look. It was cloudy, and several short powerful rainstorms swept over us. I could see them coming, a translucent curtain of rain roaring towards us, then falling around so heavily that the islands were obscured from sight.

Breakfast was served at eight, and people began to groggily trickle in to eat cold eggs and toast that had hardened to the consistency of a ceramic heat tile from the space shuttle. A few hours later, we were underway through the half-submerged verdant towers of limestone back to the harbor. We disembarked and had lunch before taking stuffy ride back in a semi-air-conditioned van. Still, I had a few days to my vacation, so I immediately called the travel agent and booked a package trip to Sapa.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

American Man Chinese Bike

In recent weeks I have been working on getting my motorcycle fixed up, some of the bits are loose and broken. One thing that seemed appropriate for a “chopper” like mine was saddlebags; so I drove down to the southwest corner of the old quarter to “upholstery street”. I pulled the bike into a shop with bags and seats of various sizes and indicated that I wanted something for the bike – they first brought some large ones, but due to the odd design of the bike, we settled on some smaller ones that I could at least fit my rain gear in. Two fellows in their twenties began to work on getting the black faux-leather satchels attached to my bike’s luggage rack. They indicated to a seat in front of the shop, for me to sit on till they finished the job.

Not long into the process, a bald man in his sixties came out of the shop – apparently the owner – and sat down on a stool next to me. “Where you from?” He asked me in American accented English. “I’m from the U.S.,” I told him in Vietnamese. He smiled with a knowing look. He then looked at my bike, “Your moto, is Chinese.” Yet he observed this with a smile that seemed to exude a hint of disdain (the Vietnamese dislike of China is greater than the Irish of the English). “Yes,” I agreed sheepishly, and justified with the response, “It was a very good price.”

He asked me the usual questions about age, whether I was married, where had I been in Vietnam, etc. When I told him that I had been to Da Nang, he perked up, “I was in Quang Nam in the army in the war.” he told me. “Really?” I replied rather casually, “What did you do?” He told me that he had been in radio intercept work, and listened to American communications to keep the surrounding NVA forces informed. I then thought about it for a moment, and then decided to tell him of my connection with Da Nang.

 “My father was in the Da Nang airbase in 1972 as a Marine.” I told him, waiting to see how he would react. He thought about it for a moment, looking up at the roof in thought then a spark of recognition came into his eye, and he said that he had been in that area at about the same time as well. He said, “I would listen to the American radio transmissions, and when I heard them call for the planes, I would warn my comrades by telephone and tell them to go down into the ground.” I told him that the FAC (Forward Air Controller) would radio from his little plane and tell the jets where to drop their ordinance, he nodded knowingly – apparently I wasn’t telling him anything new. He was a little hard of hearing and told me that it was because he had been discovered three times and had bombs dropped within 100 meters of his position – close enough to permanently damage his hearing.

We talked a little more about things, he had been an English teacher during the ensuing years, and then had taken up the upholstery shop. After a few minutes he stood up, “You come by sometime, and we’ll go talk and have a beer.” he told me, and walked off down the street.  It was interesting; most men in their fifties and sixties I have met in Hanoi were in the military. Yet, I haven’t met anyone yet who was in the same place as my dad at the same time; giving me another connection to that event – from a perspective I was not familiar with.

I was always an aviation fanatic as a boy and a youth, and I read a good deal about pilots from the Second World War – and one particular film clip stuck with me. Two old combat pilots in the nineties – one American and one German – were sitting side by side with an arm around each other and talking about their experiences.  It seemed a little odd to me when I saw it as a teenager – now perhaps I understand it a bit better.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Look Down my Street

The street I live on is not a very large street, only about 400 meters long and just large enough to fit a car and a motorcycle. The sidewalks are of course never used for walking on because like most sidewalks in Vietnam – it is a space that is used for a parking lot and a market. I moved out of Hanoi proper in April, and found an apartment across the river in Long Bien. The reasons for this were many: I grew tired of dealing with a landlord who couldn’t get simple paperwork squared away, rent is cheaper on the east side of the river, and just about everything else is cheaper too.

Since my move, I’ve been able to enjoy my neighborhood more. Now an apartment in a tall building isn’t as chic as living in a drafty old Vietnamese house, but the traffic is lower, the air is cooler, and my landlord gets his paperwork done before I even ask. In the morning at precisely 8:30, loudspeakers blare out energetic and “peppy” children’s music at the daycare center across the street. All the children are in the parking lot – standing in lines and singing along with hand motions. The street is abuzz with motorcycles, pedestrians and street-side sellers. There are three tailors on this street, one of which made me a shirt for about $5; several fruit stands are at the north end, but they always seem to charge me more than what I could get it elsewhere. A lady sits not too far down the sidewalk from my building with several living and dead chickens. The live ones sit in a basket right next to the ones who have just been beheaded and plucked, ignorantly waiting for their turn at the cleaver. Next to the daycare sits one of the several mechanic shops, he washes my motorcycle for a rather high price $1.50, I can handle it though. Then there is a never-ending stream of old ladies on bicycles selling all sorts of home-made food or little odd trinkets and house ware.

Further south, there is a wine shop with some fairly nice stuff, and a high-end watch shop. Additionally, there are quite a number of establishments known as Nha Ngi, hotels which are rented by the hour, I believe such places are called “Motel” in Latin America – and I think you know what they would be for.  Going to the main road on the north, I can hit one of the many sidewalk eateries selling Bun Cha or Pho, and I will often stop at a small store to buy food and drinks – the owner speaks some German.

So there you have it, my street is like most other residential streets in Vietnam, a diverse collection of homes, and shops – it’s a nation of shop keepers it seems, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where the shop ends and where the house begins. Many of the vendors I see on the streets of Hanoi are of course not licensed and part of the “grey market”; but they are so ubiquitous, I do believe that if the police actually tried to enforce the licensing laws on all of the vendors at once – the city would grind to a halt and put the population in an uproar. I think to myself, this is probably what the streets of cities in the US would have looked like at the end of the 1890’s. All the hustle and hubbub on a street in Vietnam can be hectic at times, yet – it allows people who don’t have much money to have some sort of way to make a living.  Considering that according to shadow stats, US unemployment is at least 15%, and (from what my local friend’s tell me) Vietnam’s is in the low single digits – I suppose a little chaos in the streets is a small price for me to pay.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Cubs and Hogs

If you’ve ever been to Vietnam, or most of se Asia for that matter, you’ll know that the most common form of transportation is the motorcycle. Most people drive a compact machine – three or four gears, 50 – 125 cc engine, at 15-25 mph, they would more likely be considered scooters by western standards.  Yet despite these bikes’ small size, people manage to use them like sports cars, sedans, minivans, pickup trucks, and panel vans. What do I mean? Well – on any given day in the streets of Hanoi one will see entire families packed onto a bike, or even four adults wedged onto what was designed for two. One can see five full grown dogs in cages stacked on the back, or enough baskets and soft goods to be about six feet wide and eight feet tall – it looks like a pallet-load of junk bobbing down the road on two wheels.

There are a few cars on the road, In fact I’ve never seen so many Bentleys, Rolls Royce, Aston Martins, and BMWs in my entire life as what I see in one month on the roads of Hanoi. Yet due to the cost of importing, and the amazingly high tariff (I believe it’s 200%) even a car as simple as a Camry can cost $100,000. So for the rest of the plebes (I include myself in that number) we have to stick to the trusty “two wheels and an engine”. But since the average Vietnamese is about 5 foot 2, and the scooters are all designed for this stature, people like me that are more than 6 feet tall feel like one of those circus bears shoe-horned on a motorcycle not built for the massive beast. You can tell that the bear is annoyed just by looking at him.

The Honda Cub isn’t big, but it is real useful in the tight streets of Hanoi

However, due to the fact that almost no Vietnamese want a full-sized motorcycle, the few that are available tend to be prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, due to laws that restrict engine sizes to 175 cc, this limits the buying options. So because of that, and because a person can drive a 50cc bike without a license and be covered by insurance, the classic Honda Cub 50 is a favorite among expats. For the past few months I’ve been driving one, even though I certainly don’t fit the tiny bike very well, I’ve come to appreciate it. Besides, it only cost $300. The bike is so small, I can rapidly dart through traffic with just a shift of my hips, and the bike is so light, I can just pick it up and wedge it into the smallest parking spots.

However, the little cub has its drawbacks. Most obviously, it’s small. It’s smaller than most of the bikes the Vietnamese are driving as a matter of fact. This means it isn’t comfortable for “normal” sized people like me. Additionally, there was no fuel gauge or much other instrumentation except for a speedo. I would know when to refuel whenever the engine was coughing through its last gasp. Finally, the loose suspension, and the bad brakes gave the whole thing a rickety-ridiculous feel as I bounced along like a monkey crouched on top of a terrier.

I began to look for something a bit bigger, something more “masculine” if I can say that about bikes. Lucky for me every summer a large contingent of foreigners finish their contracts and leave Vietnam. This means a great mass of people are in a hurry to sell anything they can’t fit in their suitcases, making it a buyer’s market for any would-be motorcycle hunter.

After a few weeks of digging around online I struck pay-dirt. A Frenchman was leaving Vietnam and needed to get rid of his bike in a hurry. I went to the house, took a look at it – and soon after, my Hanoi driving experience was revolutionized. I went from a tiny scooter, to a twin-piped chopper. Compared to most other bikes on a road, it seems a monster – and unlike a scooter that nips through traffic, this thing seems like a land-ship on two wheels. It’s loud, the seats are comfortable, and the loud horn parts traffic with ease. As far as the instrumentation goes, I have a dial for RPMs, fuel, electrical power, I even know what gear I am in – It’s a whole new world!

This one is really not that big, 150cc, but it is still bigger than most others on the roads in Hanoi.

Yet even this bike as a few downsides. Since it’s so big, it is not very easy to drive or park in the winding streets of Hanoi. It looks like it should drive like a snorting muscular wild boar, but because it’s only a 150cc engine, it accelerates more like a lackadaisical piglet. Its electrical system is glitchy and the “chrome” bodywork is actually just silver plastic – made in China. Yet, since most other bikes are no where near as large, because engine sizes can’t get much bigger, and since I only paid $470 for the bike – I’ll enjoy my cheap Chinese chopper until something major happens to it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment