My pal Danny (remember the one that came to visit me for 4 days in Kolkata?) calls me a few months ago. He had more time off to take, an itching for adventures, and a Top Gear episode for inspiration. What’s that equal? How about a cross country Vietnam vacation, from Ho Chi Ming city to Hanoi, via motorcycle? :). Took approximately .05 seconds to scream YES!!!!
So we met here last week, and first things first, we bought motorcycles. Yup. Best $275 I ever spent. I fully understand the appeal now: reward is greater than risk. Car driving has never been my thing. It puts me to sleep like a monotone teacher in a lecture class. I like a lil‘ excitement you know, this is most surely why I swear by convertibles already. Now, expand that whipping wind feeling, throw in good scenery, an open road, random smells, bugs smacking you every once in a while, a few close calls, and goooood vibrations... and I now see the light :)
A Motorcycle: can be used as a chair, a ladder, even for a cat nap. Its easy to stop/go, get on/off, u-turn, reverse, and squeeze thru traffic :). The best thing though, about driving a motorcycle, is the freedom. Freedom to stop whenever, wherever. To park wherever. To go up pedestrian ramps and on sidewalks. To go the wrong way on a one way. To go where cars can’t and where public transportation won't take you. To wave/grin/ask directions or chit chat w/ fellow bikers or pedestrians. Basically awesome. I’m actually considering a moto in lieu of a new car once settled, wherever that may be :)
The process to get the bikes themselves was a half day adventure mission. We met a chain smoking guy named Son on the street, who was more than eager to show us a place, no doubt getting a cut for bringing us in. He drives us to a random neighborhood (not even in our guide book maps mind you) to a house/mechanic shop with 5-6 bikes to choose from. We take multiple test drives and spend 2-3 hours there having the guy fix the brakes/ change a tire so we can feel comfy dropping 5 million bucks (Dong that is;). Danny’s picked a grey Honda, I’ve got a purple Daenan that I've named Pinky :). We make our purchase and then follow Son around the city. Bike lock, check. Helmets, check. Bike racks for our packs... uncheck. Nothing fits my random bike. Solution? Go to a welders shop! This was awesome. The dude (barefooted, no eye ware, no gloves) takes some rebar, and just straight up makes me one. They actually weld it to the bike frame, putting dirty water soaked rags over the engine and gas hole so they don’t cause an explosion! Scary. $7 dollars and 30 some minutes later--- custom bike rack! Loveeee it! We scour a great local market (using hand signals and great acting skills) to find bungee cords... and there you go, we have officially entered the realm of badass bikers :).
|Okay, maybe not so much badass. More like 'biker babe'. |
Okay.... maybe not so much 'babe' either ;) haha
|Is this Southern Cali? |
Amazing ocean driving from Mui Ne to Nha Trang
We’ve had five full days of driving so far, between 7-9 hours door to door, logging over 1100km from Ho Chi Minh City to Hoi An, where we are now. For us odd Americans, that’s around 685 miles. Bikes here have only about 100-150cc power, so don’t give us shit if you figure what our average is;). We’re thoroughly enjoying the journey, taking in all the great sites and people and side adventures. Plus Danny’s bike (named Betsy;) doesn’t agree with 4th gear, so we’re limited to around 60km/max (that’s a guess cuz neither of our speedometers or odometers work!).
The first day was the craziest... mostly urban driving, in a city estimated to have between 4-5 million motorcycles. We meant to get an early start, but had trouble with that. Ended up leaving in the peak of Ho Chi Minh (HCM) morning traffic. Oopsie! I loved it though! It‘s a life-size puzzle of Madness. Everywhere. It is an art, the moto driving. It’s like ants. No stop sign? No problem, you just arrive to the intersection, slow down, and weave thru. Bikes coming every which way in what would look like a recipe for disaster, but it’s actually quite logical, eliminating the annoying full stop when so obviously unnecessary. You just go on thru. Easy! There’s no such thing as rules of the road, so it’s nice to know you’re not breaking any:). The ironic thing is, they drive on the right side of the road here, but I’ve grown accustomed to the left over the last 7 months and keep forgetting! Habits are so easily formed, and broken! A few people had said HCM wasn’t a place to spend much time. I think that’s because if you were trying to explore in a taxi, you’d get driven insane by the traffic and bikers. Much better to BE the biker :).
|At one of the few traffic lights. There are more motorcycles in|
HCM than there are people in Los Angeles. Whoa
The urban madness is quite fun...but (as if there would even be a question), I prefer the natural scenery! The drives have just flown by, everyday feeling even better than the one I swore was my fav the day before :). One day was largely next to the ocean, speckled with little islands, marine traps, and little round bowl-like boats (called thung chai). I love how the sun sparkles on the water and when there are rocks dotting the shore. We cross many rivers, packed with brightly painted fishing boats and houses on stilts. I’ve been surprised by fields of massive dragon fruits crops, seeing wheat being pounded out and packed up right on the side of the road (like, actually on the asphalt!), and the amazing vastness and perfect greenness of the rice fields. But more than anything, I love the mountains. Be it winding thru them or seeing them in the distance, with that amazing blue haze that far off mountains get. I think late afternoon, early evening is my favorite time to drive, with the flawless green rice just next to me, a far off line of darker green trees behind, backed by the dark blue of the distance mountains, and then the baby blue sky littered with gleaming clouds. Just after sunset being the ultimate in awesome, when the sky is lit up with all sorts of colors, the mountains making silhouette art on the horizon. Ohhh I’m so happy just reminiscing on the scenes as I sit here and write this!!! Speckle these views with the cute little iconic asian round hats and you get a wonderful Vietnamese road trip. :)
|The wind sweeping thru the rice adds another element of wonderful :)|
|Fish houses on the river|
|Sun saying hello :)|
|Wheat on the road. Old Vietnamese man. Green Rice. Green tree. Blue mountains. Blue sky|
|Favorite time to drive|
|I'd love to try and paddle one of these :)|
|This is a dragon fruit plant. Huge fields of these things. Then you pass stands with hundreds |
of the pink and green fruits for sale. They are Deeeeelicious :)
We’ve gotten rained on, had a tree branch fall on us (painless), had 3 flat tires (always within a few mins of a shop! See my luck?), and were blessed with an amazing (and free ;) ) lightning show one night. We got doused by a passing semi’s huge puddle splash, we got shit on by a bird, got a butterfly in the mouth, crazy tanlines, and have been dirty as all hell! We’ve driven inches (inches!) away from people carrying anything and everything from huge baskets of fruit to their dogs and mounds of grass to a kitchen sink. Reminds me of India, except you get the round hats instead of the red forehead bindi :). We happened upon an amazing night market and street of lights. We drove thru a real neat communist cemetery. We’ve eaten all sorts of things with no clue as to it’s identity. We’ve stop randomly to have tea and lounge in one of the zillion hammock cafes that line the roads (these are amazing btw). Actually everywhere we stop to eat/drink/rest is random, which makes it all the more awesome. Stopped once for tea (really a ‘rest-our-sore-butts’ break) and practiced Vietnamese (very badly) w/ a great little local family. Once we stopped randomly to get sand out of Danny’s eyes, only to have an adorable old man come usher us in to have bananas. He was running back and forth, served us water from old beer cans, cut us fresh limes from the tree. He was just precious :). We’ve driven until the sun went down and found a random place in a city (that remains unknown) in a hotel that tried to sell us the room for one hour. ha. We’re not that kind of friends;). We took a cable car up a mountain and saw a 160’ reclining Buddha. We’ve swam in multiple spots of the sea, toured old 13th century Cham temples, and passed by a ton of other temples/pagodas. We went and saw the famous water muppets show! It’s just that: puppets in water. I’d heard mixed reviews about this but it was so unique and culturally significant I loved it, albeit a bit cheesy!!! We went to a mineral mud bath place where I discovered how awesome it is to totally float (just added ‘float in the Dead Sea to my bucket list:) ). On our one off day so far we went scuba diving!! Green coral + neon purple water slug + joining (without them scattering!) a huge school of fish = Major cool!
|Danny and the ladies at the Water Puppets show ;)|
|Sweet tea :)|
|They asked for my phone number, but when I said I didn't have one and tried to give my email instead, it became obvious they didn't have email. Doh! I felt like an ass!|
|Buddha and I. He's my om boy ;) hehe|
|Cutesssstttt little ol' banana man ever :)|
|Not a bad morning on the South China Sea!!!!|
|I love mud :)|
We also drove up to Cu Chi, where we visited temples and I shot an M-16 (and knocked over the target btw!). This area is famous for the tunnels tour, a tiny sampling of the immense network of underground tunnels where some Viet Cong lived/worked/hid/fought during the war. It’s hard to enjoy this as carefree as I do most things, seeing that it had booby traps all over... for the US Soldiers. We also went to the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. This was a mind trip for me. My naiveté rears it’s ugly head whenever history comes into play. I admittedly have very limited knowledge of the Vietnam war (or any war really), so this museum had me with sad eyes and a hand over my mouth for most of it. It’s pretty anti-American. An entire room dedicated to photos of people all over the world protesting US’s occupancy. Another room dedicated entirely to the effects of Agent Orange, and yet another room dedicated to the devastation of the women and children, all attributed to US. Is this all wholly true or is it being construed here totally one sided? It’s hard to not agree with the photos, but then you also know our soldiers were just doing what they thought (or were told to do) was right. I feel like this is a subject I should really know more about, form an opinion about, but then again.. there are 1000’s of subjects I’d like to know more about. If I could delve into everything that intrigued me I would never have my head out of books. So, I will leave this subject vague for now, try to have some convo’s w/ my stepdad or maybe some other vets (or civilians of the time) about their opinions, and for the time being enjoy instead the wonder that is in front of me. The Vietnam landscapes and great people who have thankfully, wondrously, not shown any sign of prejudice :).
|I could be good at this... except, I'm not a gun fan.|
Make love not war ;)
|Peak a boo ;)|
|Actual war planes. This was before we went inside and got mind f'd.|
What else? Hmmm. Vietnamese people are not scared of meat. I keep trying to order vegetarian things but it’s not happening! Mystery meat in everything! Puff balls pastries, noodle soup (pho), the baguettes stands (everywhere- especially popular for breakfast) include all sorts of random meaty looking things! They also put items on the table that you would soooo think are included, and then charge you for them! Like napkins, like bread, like peanuts!! hah! Lots of the restaurants have tiny little kids size furniture! Makes sense I suppose... small people + small space= small chairs :) My knees come higher than the table :). The currency is the dong, $1 being equal to almost 21,000 Dong, making quick calcs a tad bit more difficult! Communication has definitely been the hardest here.... words/phrases like “tea” “vegetables” “where is..” ”what’s your name”... I took for granted they would be known. They are generally not! Thank goodness for our guide books ‘words often used section.’ The best, most useful, and my favorite phrase, is “cam on” meaning thank you. I use this for everything.. although it stills seems funny to be yelling 'come on' as you walk away and wave ;)
|Just close your eyes and chew.. it's pretty yummy :)|
|Mini furniture everywhere!|
Driving has taken us thru scenes that pretty much cover the entire spectrum of poor to rich. The resort town of Mui Ne has such perfectly manicured medians and flawless roads that one might think they were in West Palm Beach. It’s an interesting mix. We are having quite a funky mix as well, traveling as backpackers (cheaping out on food, haggling for everything) all the while sleeping like royalty. Danny hooked us up w/ 4 nights of the first 5 nights in the Sheraton hotels with his credit card reward points! The 2 nights in the HCM hotel were insane. They brought us a welcome fruit basket. What?! I’m not complaining :). The housekeepers came by to see if we wanted ice or extra supplies. The shower has body jets. They had robes and slippers (we donned them of course). Electric curtains. A sauna, ping pong table, free waters, shampoo, conditioner, lotion (remember I’ve been staying in hostels, sometimes you don’t even get a sheet) and then, after more than 6 months withdrawal, my much awaited bubble bath!!!!! Fabuloso :) Then, just to put a lil’ more icing on the cake, before departure we had (no kidding) the most extreme breakfast buffet ever. If there is breakfast served in heaven surely this would be it. Not exaggerating. Seriously Yum.
|Rags and riches :)|
Then it was the Nha Trang Sheraton. Whoa. First five-star hotel I’ve EVER stayed in (pretty sure anyways). We were on the 22nd floor with a balcony overlooking both the ocean and the city lights. There’s a glass wall between the bathtub and the room so when taking a shower you can see the sunset. That was pretty sweet, not gonna lie.
|City view from the Nha Trang Sheraton|
|5:45am. Not a bad way to start the day :)|
So what life do i prefer? All this fancy schmancyness?? Naaa. Its nice for sure, but I do like things to be able to stand out. A simple, balanced life suits me just fine, and if a bit of ritz and glitz comes every now and then, I’ll enjoy it with fervor, the way I did those four days. I see a pattern of this in many things in my life. It’s the same way I like to eat. Simple with a bit of gourmet every now and then. Same way I like to dress. Plain with a bit of glamour every now and then. I love the ability to get gussied up and look fancy on special occasions.. not everyday. Keeps me real. Keeps me grounded. Keeps things new and exciting! While we were eating the most delish b-fast ever, Danny commented that he loves how I get so animated over little things like pork toast, pistachio danishes and a green tea muffin. Would I still be that way if I got it all the time? I think so (excited is my most frequent emotion) but still, I don't need it and for whatever reason don't want it. So, although it’s been completely fab to be spoiled rotten... I’m happy to go back to barefoot and casual :) I will miss the bubble bath though.. that I could have every day :).