Some More Foods of Vietnam

Trinh is checking out the rice a the local supermarket by smelling each handful. Smelled like rice to me. Of course, she doesn’t buy it here, because it costs 12 cents a more than the local outdoor market or rice store.
Hot Pot at our “new” Hot Pot Place
Grilled fish (sea fish) at home
A Pho place in our neighborhood
A seafood salad at home
Chicken wings with rice and rot kohl at home
Chicken wings with vegetable and rice at homEvery

Here is a week of food I’ve had. Now, of course, in any category, it’s some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

 

Enjoy

Tet – It’s Not Only a Holiday; It’s an Adventure

Yesterday as I was watching my girlfriend Trinh prepare the food at her grandmother’s grave, I realized how much my perspective has changed since crossing the Atlantic.

Food laid out at her grandmother’s grave

I accept a level of uncertainly, magnitudes above, what I would have been comfortable with even 10 years ago.

The cemetery is about 20 minutes from Trinh’s mother’s house, where we are staying these days of the Tet holiday. Trinh and her mother had been cooking all morning. Finally, they meticulously packed a large bad hat would sit between my legs in front of me on the motorbike.

We set off. I had been to the gravesite two days previously, so I thought I knew what was going to happen.  Upon arrival, I see the box of cookies we had left the previous visit. Obviously, her grandmother hadn’t eaten any. Yes, I was being flippant.

Incense was still burning; Trinh mentioned that her step-brother, must have just been here. I never knew she had a step brother, but what the hell, I’ve only known her for little more than a year!

Trinh proceeded to unpack the bag, which contained not only food, but plates, utensils, clothes and even money. When you’re dead who knows when you may need extra cash.

In spite of my flippancy, I really like, respect the Asian reverence for the dead and elderly. It was one of the differences (in my mind) between western and Asian cultures and a reason I became so attracted to first Korean and now Vietnamese culture.

After 15 minutes, Trinh was putting the final touches on the dinner. I watched as she meticulously spooned a little fish sauce seasoning on the two main plates, a tuna steak and a plate of sautéed squid. Looked so good, I thought it a shame to waste.  Knowing the Vietnamese don’t waste anything, I was surprised.

She poured little glasses of wine and water, giving the old water to the potted plants, and refilling the glasses with fresh water.

When everything was done, she lit the incense and did her little prayer ritual.

Then, just as I was thinking we were ready to leave, she started to undo all the work of the last 15 minutes by putting all the food back in the containers it had come it. Nothing wasted, even the little sauce, went back into its’ little bag.

(two short videos of her getting it ready, then putting it back)

Putting it all back

Surprised? Not really, more like bemused. After my first Atlantic crossing, I learned to not be surprised at anything. I also learned to not complain about anything. When I dared complain about the 12-foot waves, they became 18 feet.

Mother Nature taught me as only she can: Be grateful for what you have, because it can always be worse.

Oh, I can still be as miserable as I want or as the situation dictates, I just can’t express how bad it is. Can’t even think it, for who knows who is reading your thoughts nowadays.

Those three storms, each a day apart, in the North Atlantic in the last week of August 2014, re-forged my brain.

New Yorkers grow up in a culture of excellence. That’s because we complain about anything that isn’t top notch, price notwithstanding. As teacher, then principal, I took that attitude with me. I did what was best for the students and built the teachers into a successful team. I complained to the powers to be about policies and procedures that were not conducive to student learning. I was listened to. While we had a reform minded Chancellor, that was very effective; but as soon as that Chancellor left, the reactionaries returned and I was out within 6 months. My only crime was my naivety that results (graduation rate from 40% to 70% in 4 years) would speak for themselves.

Food, money, wine, water, clothes and of course money (in USD of course)

Dauntless was the crucible that helped me through that abrupt change in life.

Three years later, on the North Atlantic, heading to Ireland, this was the forge. I would become accepting of what is or else. Now, this doesn’t mean I accept just anything. More than ever it simply means that if I’m not happy with a place or situation, I need to not be there or accept that I can’t change it.

Thirty minutes after arrival at her grandmother’s grave, now, really ready to leave, I still had to ask, with a little smile on my face, but what happens if she is still hungry? Trinh answered deadpan, “she ate”.

That was that. I knew what we were having for dinner and it was quite tasty, though the tuna was a bit drier than normal!

The North Atlantic taught me not to complain; to accept. The North Atlantic opened me to the possibility to be in an Asian culture in which even when I think I understand, I don’t.

I watch, observe, but don’t judge. I assume I don’t understand the full situation at any given time. I keep my questions simple, where do you want me, when?

I never ask why. Like waves on the ocean, it is, what it is, could be better, could be worse. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else, but don’t try to change it.

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

The Key Caper

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.

The Key Lady works to make my new bike key

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.

No wonder I love the place.

 

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.