A little background. I came to Vietnam with some trepidation. I don’t like hot climates, hot weather or most foods that they produce. I came to meet my special person though I had an open mind. In the early days, I made the mistake of saying I didn’t particularly like “Hot Pot” as Lãu is translated in English (and my spelling here is not 100% correct, as I can’t find the correct accent for the “a”.
A very bad translation at that. I, of all people, should have known better.
Having spent the last 40 years in and out of Europe, if I venture into a place that even has a menu in English, I always ask for the native language, be it Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch or German. Why? Because generally, the translator is trying to put the food into a familiar concept, when no such comparison exists. Sometimes even the literal translation misses the mark widely.
One time in Wissembourg, an ancient French town along the French-German border, after a typically simple, but exquisite French dinner, the dessert offered was “frozen omelet”. We passed, but on walking out, we realized what they were offering was Baked Alaska, (whipped egg whites surrounding a block of ice cream that is browned in the oven) one of my favorite desserts.
Fast forward 40 years later and my ill-informed comment about Hot Pot, had me missing a Vietnamese specialty for months until the confusion was cleared up. But why such confusion in the first place?
Because the Natives are trying to put it into a context we understand. The problem is that there are 500+ Chinese who also have a thing that’s called “Hot Pot” in English, which is totally different that the Vietnamese version. Even the Koreans have a version, which they call Shabu Shabu, which in my mind is better way to handle different foods that don’t translate well. If I go to a Korean restaurant and see Shabu Shabu, I know exactly what I am getting. When I see “Hot Pot” the only thing I am sure of is that a pot is involved, and it will be hot.
Even the Google Translation of Lãu leaves a lot to be desired. Their definition, “a casserole of meat and vegetables, typically with a covering of sliced potato”.
Who came up with that definition? A twenty something person who read about ancient life in the Midwest?
I have two favorite cafés in Ho Chi Minh City, Bui Van Ngo Coffee is larger, fancier and also has some baked goods. Café Thuy Moc is smaller, homier and they make killer smoothies, my favorite being Sinh To Bo, an avocado smoothie. They are also on a busy street corner that I can watch fascinated how crossing traffic manages to crisscross in a smooth ballet of traffic.
Sunday mornings both places are full, which goes to my observation that about 40% to 50% of the population have Sunday off, at least partially.
I haven’t been to China yet, but having spent time in Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the Vietnamese work the most. Japan and Korea (South Korea of course) being closer to a more western life style with more time off. My friend Sam, married to Bac, who wrote the book, For Two Cows I Ain’t Half Bad, remarks that when he arrived in Vietnam in the late 1960’s, the Vietnamese had a life style that had hardly changed in the last few thousand years. 90% of the population were agrarian, farmers, and farmers are renown the world over for one thing, they just want the powers to be to leave them alone.
I blame the U.S. State Department for most of the post WW2 debacles. Full of ivy league graduates who think they know everything, but, know nothing about the places in which they are supposed to be experts. They lurch from one fiasco to another. Acting when they should sit on their hands and being still when they should act. How is Iraq any different than Vietnam? Ok, basta, enough.
Having been on Dauntless for the last three months, the first week back in Vietnam was a bit strange. Probably jet lag as much as anything, though I did, or I should say, Trinh did, change my apartment for a house. I like my new neighborhood better, it is less industrial, than the previous one. Even though I had a 10th floor apartment the amount of dust that filtered in every day was astounding. Most probably from the large apartment complexes being constructed nearby. Now, almost no dust.
My German neighbor back in the day said I had an empfindlich stomach. Google does a good job of translating that to mean: sensitive, delicate, touchy. That’s certainly my stomach. But it really likes Vietnamese cuisine. Maybe even more than I do. I was surprised these last months being in the USA and Mexico as to how much I missed the food and as to how much I didn’t like most of the offerings in the U.S.
Coming up, Foods to Die for
Update, I just recently discovered cappuccino in Vietnam. My hard and fast rule is never, ever get a cappuccino outside of Italy, as it is just awatered down, over milked version fo the real thing.
But coffee in Vietnam is always strong and good, so I thought I’d spend the big bucks, 49,000 VND or about $2.20 US and give it a try.
I’m so glad I did. As good as in Italy. Perfect in fact.
Soooo, I’d thought about what happens if I lose my key to my motorbike. And like all self-fulling prophesies, this one came through a few days ago. A good reason not to anticipate doom.
I had parked my bike next to the market and upon return, could not find my key.
A man nearby, seeing our fruitless search, came over, and talked with Trinh a bit to determine the problem. He returned a few minutes later with a Yamaha key for a motorbike similar to mine and voila, it worked, not perfectly, but it worked.
So, it was decided he’d drive with me 50 meters to the spot he anticipated a locksmith to be.
But alas, the locksmith cart turned out to be a watch cart.
Trinh had followed behind on foot and after more talk, new plan: we’d take the key and drive motorbike to a key cart.
Well, the search became ever wider and Trinh decided to go to the key cart woman she knew existed about 10 minutes away near her house. so that’s what we did that.
After looking and trying our borrowed key, that while it worked, was not perfect, she got another new similar key, which she tried in the both the ignition and seat locks.
She then got her metal rasp and started filing away on certain teeth, fine tuning the new key. Ten minutes later it worked (better than the key I lost) and she also made a duplicate for me.
I paid her 50,000 VCD or US$ 2.10
This entire process took less than an hour, on a Sunday no less and cost two bucks.
I ended up better than before and it happened because everyone was helpful and friendly.
Vietnam is a place that just works. They find a way to make a solution, usually a handmade solution.
So, I feel bad that I have neglected both my blogs so badly.
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 $75, but it’s good for me to be a little less “empfindlich”, a good German description of a cross between sensitive and picky (as in too picky).
This is a little video of my little 2-bedroom apartment in HCMC. It’s in Dam Sen, about 5 miles west of downtown (the main business center).
I love the people, the life, but it’s hot and humid and I do miss Dauntless.
I kept complaining about my motorbike seat, as I kept sliding forward into an uncomfortable position.
Trinh constantly reminded me that:
I was bigger than most Vietnamese
It is a 6 million Dong bike (US$ 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.