How Fresh is Fresh

In the last 5 years Dauntless has visited almost two dozen countries.  While, I’ve been in couple dozen more in the last 40 years. That’s a lot of different languages and cultures.

Chicken, Rice, a green vegetable, some pickled vegetables

It was 42 years ago, that I first set foot in Italy and it would begin a life of living and experiencing new languages, cultures, foods, etc. Sitting on a bus, passing thru the middle of Milan, in just looking out the window, it was obvious this was not the Italy I had expected, nor was it the Little Italy of New York either or the Italy of Italian-Americans. Not one cannolo was in sight. In fact. It would take me a year to find one and that was further south in Florence.

Passing a billboard advertising skin cream which depicted naked women, I vowed then and there to leave my perceptions behind and reboot my expectations. For effective cross-cultural communications, this can be the only starting point. When in Rome, Do as the Romans.

No phrase probably sums up a successful expatriate experience better. I was/am always amazed at the number of Americans I would meet living overseas like I yet complaining that it wasn’t Kansas.

Living so, accepting the people and cultures I’m immersed in, allows me to enjoy my travels and adventures with Dauntless, or like this month, without her, in Vietnam.

Even when speaking a common language, understanding and accepting cultural differences is crucial for good relationships of any sort.

Trinh speaks pretty much fluent English. When she doesn’t understand a word, it’s usually because of my pronunciation. Our miscommunications center around different understandings of the same word or sometimes, while the words are understood, the background isn’t.

Thus, began our discussion about “fresh” chicken. A little question about fresh chicken, became a bridge to cross cultural communication.

Trinh is the best cook I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. I’ve always prided myself on my own cooking and for most of my life, I’ve done most of the cooking in the household. Over the past year, I tried to analyze what makes her cooking so good, even better than almost any restaurant I’ve eaten here in Vietnam. And should we try something new to her, if we like it, she will recreate it at home. I’ve concluded that it’s her meticulous preparation and wholesome ingredients she uses.

By far my favorite dish is her fried or sautéed chicken.  I’ve never had such delicious fried chicken any place or any time in my entire life. The skin cooked to almost a hard, crunchy shell, with moist, tender chicken underneath and flavors that just melt in your mouth.

Chicken to die for.

I knew she always bought the packages of chicken wings at Co-Op Food. Co-Op is owned by the government of Vietnam. They have two retail stores that are everywhere in Vietnam: Co-Op Mart, which is like a large supermarket, familiar to any westerner and Co-Op Food, a small, convenience store style store. I like both, initially, I had to leave my preconceived ideas at home about Co-Op Food. When I think convenience store, I think packaged snacks, old hot dogs, mystery meat burritos heated up in microwaves and gallons of colored water, chemical based drinks in large plastic cups.

But Co-Op Food is the place for everyday items and fresher foods than Co-Op Mart (the supermarket) offers and why Trinh only buys the chicken at Co-Op Food, not Co-Op Mart.

Now, if you know me at all, you know I’m skeptical of almost everything I hear and half what I see. So, I pressed Trinh on the difference, why was this package of chicken wings better than that one?

What do you mean the chicken at Co-Op Mart is not fresh? When was it killed in the last week or so?

She looks at me, like I have two heads (because she wouldn’t touch chicken killed last week. Who knew?, not I).

No, she responds, the chicken at Co-Op Food is killed that night.

What do you mean that night? I ask, still not able to get my mind around her expectations of freshness.

She explains: Chicken at Co-Op Food is killed, plucked, packaged at 01:00 a.m. on the morning I buy it. It’s on the shelves around 06:00 a.m.

She doesn’t know how old the chicken is at Co-Op Mart, she guesses a few days at most, but it’s older and she’s not buying it, ever.

For a boy grown up in a supermarket culture, with foods routinely shipped thousands of miles and processed and packed ages ago, it’s fascinating to realize that while the outside package looks the same, the behind the scenes processing is totally different. These supermarkets and smaller food stores are competing with local markets that are everywhere, literally every quarter mile.

Supermarkets do as local markets

Who knew that fresh could be that fresh.

Lotte Supermarket in District 7, Ho Chi Minh City

I can’t fault the results.

Maybe the Happiest Day in Vietnam Since the End of the War?

And for once, that may not be an exaggeration.

Yesterday, Vietnam beat Qatar in the semi-finals for ASEA U23. I think it’s the first time Vietnam has ever been in the finals. It was a very close game and the Vietnam team kept on coming back each time they fell behind.

But I had no idea the town, HCMC, would go so wild.  When Trinh asked if I wanted to go out and check out downtown, I said sure, I’m always up for an adventure.

These pictures and videos show the traffic, at a density I have never seen before. The main road we are on is a road I take a few times per week, sometimes at rush hour. The traffic is heavy and slower (10mph instead of 20 or 25mph!), but this gridlock, this number of motorbikes and people on the road was astounding.

I was also struck by the number of families out. It was clear from how people were dressed, that many had picked up family members after work or been picked up.  Many, like Trinh, had gone home to pick up her son, Thien, after his after-school tutoring that ended at 7:00 p.m.

We only got about halfway to our intended destination, by then I realized it was more about the experience and not about the place.

The final will be Saturday afternoon. I’m sure it will be interesting.

A few more pictures and videos of the crowds can be found at: https://dauntless.smugmug.com/Vietnam-Life/Asian-Cup-U23-Semi-Final-Victory-Celebration/

 

On a side note. As a proud American and military veteran, even after 9 months, I still have mixed feelings of seeing the (North) Vietnamese flag flying. This night there were more than I’ve ever seen, hundreds of times more than on Independence Day. But in spite of that history, in all my travels around the world, the Vietnamese here in Ho Chi Minh City, (Saigon) are the friendliest to Americans I’ve ever encountered.

Ever.

Putting out liquid Fires

Liquid Fires

This was quite spectacular because I have never seen office workers actually getting “hands-on” learning how to use a fire extinguisher to put out propane and liquid fuel fires.

They also watched how to deploy and connect the firefighting hose that are everywhere, as well as outside my apartment door.

So, I thought you would you find this interesting and it is certainly applicable to boaters like us.

Opposite my Apt Door by the Exit Stairwell

The Videos below, show the following:

 Putting out Propane Fires

Propane

 Putting out Propane Fires

Getting Fire Hose (which is then used to fill tub for the liquid portion of the training

Putting out liquid Fires

 Putting out liquid Fires

What Happens if you run out of fire extinguisher

 

 

 

More Traffic from Ho Chi Minh City

A few more interesting observations:

  • People really don’t drive any worse than most places, in fact, driving, riding two wheelers make you drive much better, otherwise you don’t last very long.
  • There is no road rage. None. People will stop in the weirdest places, everyone just goes around, with nary a glance.
  • I’m getting accustomed to the “45° left turn”. We are taught to stop in the intersection and make a sharp 90° turn. 4 wheeled vehicles do that here, but not two wheeled conveyances, no they make a turn which puts them into opposing traffic for a while.  It looks much scarier than it is to actually do.  Doing it, it seems more natural since it’s easier to visualize the clear line.
  • Speeds are slow and the heavier the traffic, the slower the traffic, so the contacts that happen between motorbikes are usually less than 10 mph, more often only 5.
  • Anticipation (Defensive Driving) is the key.  Everyone seems to assume that no one will stop if making a right turn or opposing traffic is just that.
  • Larger vehicles, trucks, buses and cars are very timid and not very aggressive.

Here a few more videos of traffic:

The Intersection Near My Apartment

Markets in HCMC

I am amazed by the markets in HCMC.

 

If you Google “markets” about 10 show up. The problem with Google or any trip app for that matter is that they do well with the stuff on the bean path, but once off that path, fuhgeddaboudit.

Therefore, even the reviews must be read with “a grain of salt”.

I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time. Just remember that the key to live successfully in a different culture is to accept what is, as is. Every place I’ve ever lived has advantages and disadvantages compared to somewhere else.

Vietnam is no different.

Vietnam has really grown on me.  The people are so very nice, curious and so very hard working.

On this trip to the market, Trinh (pronounced “din”) was looking for pork chops and some squid.

A few things that stand out:

  • I see you bugs or flies, ever. Maybe Agent Orange did them all in, but will so much meat hanging, I’ve never seen even one fly.
  • Trinh touches and feels closely anything she is interested in.  I realize the first step in her fantastic cooking is the selection and preparation.
  • Any place you can walk, a bicycle can go, anyplace a bicycle can go, a motorbike can go.
  • products, produce from China is plentiful and is usually less expensive; but is avoided whenever possible.
  • Fish and shellfish need to be brought early in the day, from 06:00 to 10:00, not after.

 

People waiting outside the market
Trigh gets some chopped garlic
Three different types of garlic. Bottom basket is from Vietnam, as is the red garlic. top of picture garlic is from China. It’s cheaper but is to be avoided.
traffic jam

the clothes section

 

A Little Apartment in Ho Chi Minh City

Looking Out

So, I feel bad that I have neglected both my blogs so badly.

My Apartment

Today I finally realized why:  I’m simply overwhelmed with all the new information and I want to write about it, show pictures of it in some coherent manner.

So, I’m waiting for perfection.

Well, that’s a long wait, so I thought it would be better just to write about what’s on my mind now, show what pictures relate and move on.

I’m also conscious of not having people who read this judge it and the people on our standards.  It’s what we know, but we don’t know everything.

Who’d had think that I can live without hot running water?  And I could get an electric on demand water heater for all of $75, but it’s good for me to be a little less “empfindlich”, a good German description of a cross between sensitive and picky (as in too picky).

This is a little video of my little 2-bedroom apartment in HCMC.  It’s in Dam Sen, about 5 miles west of downtown (the main business center).

I love the people, the life, but it’s hot and humid and I do miss Dauntless.

So, let’s leave it for now.

A New Motorbike Seat

I kept complaining about my motorbike seat, as I kept sliding forward into an uncomfortable position.

The family rests inside the seat place. Fabrics are on the far right. Foam shells are handing

Trinh constantly reminded me that:

  1. I was bigger than most Vietnamese
  2. It is a 6 million Dong bike (US$ 287) and therefore don’t complain.

But if anything, I don’t have much tolerance for things that don’t work as they should.

So, when I mentioned the possibility of a new seat, I expected push-back, because if Trinh has learned, I do buy a lot of things I really don’t need. But this time, she agreed we’d stop and look.

Oh Boy, it was like Christmas.  Though she had no idea how much a new seat would cost.

She gets right to work on replacing my seat. Some of the completed examples are hanging. But pretty much everything they do is custom.

After our little ice cream stop, we stopped at a seat place.

Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City at least, is full of little shops, store fronts, that specialize in one thing.  In this case motorbike seats.

Thankfully, the lady running the place was dismissive of my current seat as soon as she saw it. That softened up Trinh right away so that it wasn’t just me wasting money.

Turned out the big discussion centered around color.  Everyone assumed I wanted black, the standard color.  But I had two goals in mind:

  • A better, more comfortable seat
  • A more distinctive seat, something different, since in the parking garage in my building, even knowing right where I left the bike, I have walked past it numerous times. So, I wanted something that stood out.  A red bike, I was thinking red seat.

But that was not to be. They had many shades of red in different materials, but Trinh, ever practical, pointed out that if I make

My New Seat

the bike stand out, it will be a target of police.

Now since it is not still not clear to me if I can legally drive a motorbike with my NYS motorcycle license, I figured I better compromise here.

Thus, we ended up mostly black with a red front and back.

And it’s really comfortable.

This operation took about 20 minutes.  They cut the fabric and sewed it to the new form core. Like almost everything I have seen in Vietnam, I was really impressed.  I got a handmade, custom seat for 360,000 dong, (that’s US$15).

Yes, I am really happy.  If only Dauntless was here, but then that’s another story.

 

One little aisle of the parking garage

Live & Let Live; The Real Rules of the Road

Yes, there are rules and I for one, find them quite logical.

But then I grew up in New York City riding a bike as soon as I could everyplace. And like real New Yorkers there reason we rode bikes was because there were no rules, beyond the obvious: Don’t hit anything and don’t get hit.

Why would anyone wait for light if there is no traffic?  Going against traffic on a one way or even a two-way street, of course, it’s easier to see traffic, especially for younger kids!

Ride on sidewalks? In NYC that’s where we learned.

So rewind the clock. Before the war 1960’s to 1975, Saigon was a place of bicycles, being so flat, like Holland.  What has evolved is a bicycle culture using bikes that have motors.  Even now, there are many stores that sell both bicycles and motorbikes.

So as soon as you put the context of the traffic in terms of bicycles, then everything that happens makes sense. Even today, watch how cyclists ride in NY and you will see the same behaviors here, only magnified by about a 10 million.

I got my little motorbike last week.  It has transformed by experience in that this is not a walking town.  Walking around this town is as rare as seeing an Ostrich walking down the street.  The sidewalks are full of holes, but worse are the parked motorbikes all over the place.

So I joined in.

Having been a passenger on Trinh’s motorbike for the last month, I was often terrified.

But as soon as I was driving all alone, my bicycle instincts kicked in and it was easier and is even fun.

Now, if this is the last post I ever make because I was killed, then you will get the last laugh.  But don’t mourn for me because I won’t know the difference.

So, as you watch my videos (sorry no GoPro, as I left them on Dauntless), all taken while a passenger by the way (I may die, but I’m not suicidal), try to put what you are seeing in the contact of riding a bicycle.

While traffic laws are seemingly ignored for motorbikes.  There are rules that are enforced.  Helmut’s, fastened, all the time.  Trinh admonished me after I got my bike that I must keep both hand on handle bars at all times.  You cannot ride with kick-stand down. I seem to forget that, but even if Trinh is not around to point it out, someone else always does!

More importantly, cars get the left lane, and they do stay out of the right lane, even to the extent that most will turn right from the left lane. Which is always exciting as motorbikes will be whizzing by constantly.  Buses will sometimes stop with enough room for a motorbike to get by on the right, so exiting passengers must always be cognizant of the motorbikes.

Police are not everywhere, but they are around. Never in cars, always standing on corners or along the edge of the street. They will stop you if they see any of the no-noes mentioned above (helmets, kickstand, driving too fast).

Speaking of speed.  It’s really not a problem.  With little traffic, motorbikes seem to settle in the 35 to 45 km/hr. or 20 to 30 mph. With traffic, everyone is going half of that.  Even more importantly, the few cars, buses, trucks and other things, that are out there, are going the same speeds. So, unlike in USA or Europe, where there are massive speed differentials, here there is very little.  And no matter what you have been told, speed does not kill, speed differential kills.

Which then brings me to the carnage on the roads or lack thereof.

Having read the Expat forums before arriving.  I expected to see blood flowing down the streets.  Instead, in the last two months, I have seen three “accidents”. The first was two bikes getting tangled together cause one to drop. But since they were in this big traffic scrum that was moving like at 5 mph, once they got untangled everyone gets underway again.  The second was more serious and it happened right next to me.

I was left of a little box truck and all of a sudden I see this motorbike lock his front brake as the truck slowed. He then hit the truck. Now since we were all initially going only about 20 mph, he probably only hit the truck at 10 and since the truck was going 5, the speed differential was only about 5 mph.

He picked himself and the bike up and drove to the side of the road. His mirror was broken and while he seemed a bit shaken, nothing was seriously wrong.

The third, just a few days again, as I was having my Ca Phi, I looked up to see the motorbike on the ground as a truck had turned right and the motorbike was inside of that.  The truck driver got out immediately to see if she was OK.  He and some bystanders, then helped the lady get her motorbike upright. At that point, I saw the driver ask if everything was OK. She said yes, and they both got on their way again.

This motobike tried to turn at same time as truck;

I must emphasize that the average speeds here are very low, in this case both truck and motorbike were going about 5 mph and moderate traffic pretty much stays in the 15 to 20 range.

That’s it for the carnage.

I will say that if you are a foreigner and expect to come to Vietnam, in the biggest city, and learn how to both navigate a new traffic culture and learn how to drive a two-wheeled motorized vehicle.  Well, good luck with that.  I learned to drive a motorcycle in California with no one around. I can’t imagine doing it in real traffic.

Oh, another observation I made in my first days in trying to understand how everyone could be so willy-nilly and yet not have endless accidents, was that each driver is responsible for not hitting what’s in front of him/her.

Sounds simple and it is.  It means you must be prepared for driver in front to stop, turn or whatever, all with no signals.  Now, many people do signal, but you can NOT count on it.

Speaking of lights.  Motobikes are NOT allowed to have headlight on in day (Italy used to have this rule for all motor vehicles before the advent of Daytime running lights). And at night, as soon as I enter garage, light must be turned off.

Horn honking.   Cars, buses, trucks are expected to do it routinely.  It sorts of means, “hey, look out, I am big not that minerally so don’t do stupid stuff in front of me”.

When I’ve been a passenger in a bus or a few times in Uber car, I thought the honking was a bit excessive.

But now after the first week of driving my own bike, I see some more rationale.  It’s like this.  When a bunch of birds are flying together, as one turns they all turn.  When you are in a pack of two wheeled vehicles, motorbikes and bicycles, there is some synchrony to the movement Everyone must move over one foot to make room for the “thing” near the curb.  We just all do it.

But I realized that cars are more out of touch.  Without the wind in your face, it is a different environment, so they honk more, like saying, “hey, watch out, I’m sort of oblivious here, so beware”

Better words were never said.

Which also get us back to why there is no carnage.  For anybody who has ever driven a motorcycle, it’s quite apparent that in any kid of accident, no matter who is at fault, it will be painful.

So it is here.  And in a city of millions of motorbikes, everyone is keenly aware that it doesn’t matter how stupid the driver is in front of them, they must simply drive like their life depended on it.

And they do.

Meanwhile in the USA, while our cars become safer and safer every day, drivers are losing what little skills they may have once possessed.  Accident, no problem; insurance pays and I go on.

Riding a motorbike in Vietnam that may have cost you a year’s salary to buy and being a vulnerable as you are, you drive with a totally different sense.  It may not seem obvious to a stranger, but it’s as real, as real can be.

Lastly, in all this, I have yet to see any anger.  I have seen some strange things.  I have seen some stupid car drivers here too, but everyone just seems to accept what is.  No significant horn honks in anger, motorcyclists never yell or say anything for that matter.  Certainly, nothing bad.  Though once when I was leaving with my kick-stand down, someone pointed it out to me immediately.

Live and let live.

I like that.

 

 

 

 

 

Vietnam Rules of the Road – Mayhem or Order?

Initially to an Outsider, it certainly looks like mayhem. Motorbikes and bicycles going every which way, against traffic, on the sidewalks and driving right inside buildings!

In any new situation, I try to watch as an observer and withhold judgement until I have some data.

Watching as an observer, not biased by the framework you know, but looking for patterns and understanding of the system in front of you, then the picture will become ever clearer.

“car seat”

My first couple weeks, riding as a passenger on Trinh’s Honda Air Blade, one of the most numerous motorbikes.  (In this blog, I call all these very small engine (50 to150cc) bikes, motorbikes.  This includes was we in USA call scooters).

So, sitting behind Trinh in the first weeks, I was ??Nervous.  I quickly realized in many situations it was best to just close my eyes!  Yes, that was amazingly effective.

Leaving the hotel, if we had to go west, just make a U-turn in the middle of the block. Traffic too heavy for the U-turn, go around the block, are you kidding, go against traffic at a 45° angle until we are on the right side of the road.  Sorry, I have no video of some of the most outrageous hijinks, because I either had my eyes closed or I was awestruck.

In the first days, I derived their first rule of the road, don’t hit what you can see.

Now a simple rule like this can be amazing effective.  It certainly seems to work.  Let me say now that after 6 weeks, I have seen all of two accidents, which were not so much accidents, as unintended touching, causing one or both of the motorbikes to fall down.  And seeing how the traffic is all low speed, between 6 and 25 miles per hour (mph) or 10 to 40 km/hr., these incidents don’t incur significant injuries.   (In fact, now that I think of it, I have only seen an ambulance racing down the street once. Contrast that with NYC where it’s a few times per hour).

When you develop and rule, a theory, you then test it against the data. So, I looked at everything with that in mind, don’t hit what you can see. What I saw was that while less than half the bikes (the roads are 90% motorbikes, 10% human powered bikes) signal their intentions, for turns, the bikes behind seem to anticipate this.

They are the ultimate defensive drivers.

Who Can Resist Women in Uniform

 

 

 

I Certainly Can’t.

Which is why I being currently in Vietnam, Sai Gon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), to be exact.

Why here? Why now?  Why not:

  • I have a friend here.
  • I needed a vacation from Dauntless.
  • She needed a rest from me.
  • I needed to be in New York for a bit, so it’s almost on the way.
  • It’s incredibly cheap, with wonderful food.
  • The people are so very friendly, nice and welcoming
  • And I do like women in uniform.

After this post, my writings about my other, non-Dauntless related, travels will be under Dispatches From the Orient

I can write gobs and gobs about HCMC so far.  Let me suffice to say in this little introduction that it is a true working city full of really nice, friendly people, with incredibly good food at even more incredibly inexpensive prices.

Today I did a little exploration of a new section of town, took four buses that cost me a total of $1.00, that’s 25 cents each.

My DInner that Cost $0.90
The image on her fight is some kind of missile sitting on a stand on a table. This show was about various weapons systems, as I saw some US and Russian made stuff.

Here is a little video I took on my first days.

I found it best to just close my eyes often.

And if you think the motobikes are numerous, think of the alternative like Bejing, where cars sit in endless traffic jams and the pollution is so bad it’s hard to go out!

We Don’t Need no Stink’in MiniVan

Stay tuned for many more tidbits to follow:

Dispatches From the Orient

 

Coming up here next, In Hindsight; A Retrospective of the Cruise from Ireland to Costa Rica