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27 May 2021

Building a House in Dalat, Vietnam

 It's a different planet here in so many ways...

"Stick" construction is virtually unheard of here unless you're a very poor ethnic minority (that's me piloting the sidecar, by the way).


'Most everyone else builds with concrete and bricks; in the cities, it's row houses for the hoi polloi 
and stand-alones for owners of larger properties.

Earlier this year, I settled a lawsuit for knee injuries suffered in October 2016 when an intentionally neglected hole in Jefferson Street, Olympia, Washington, USA "grabbed" the front wheel of my R100GS motorcycle, throwing me to the ground. The impact shattered my right knee and subsequent negligence by three different orthopedic surgeons caused a total of seven procedures to-date, irreparable damage 


and continuous pain that I will endure for the rest of my life. I was advised against blogging about it until after the lawsuit settled; I may add a post or two about it later. Back to the current story...

So the lawsuit gave us just enough cheddar to build a house here in Dalat, but NOT ENOUGH to buy property, so... my in-laws said that we could build on their land. Their house at the time (see lavender house above) was old, poorly constructed, and so full of black mold that it was, in reality, a tear-down.

So we did.

We hired an architect and a builder, both of whom worked on my brother-in-law's house and were known to the family for many years. Then the fun started.

The lot is big by Vietnam standards--six meters wide in the front and five in the back; 18 meters deep. Total lot size is about 100 square meters (900 square feet). It is bordered on two sides by other row houses and in the back by a hill about 7 meters (22 feet) high. My in-laws signed the deed over to ViLa (my wife) over a year ago so that she'd always have a place to live. Vietnamese law says that foreigners, even those married to Vietnamese nationals, cannot own such property. Until our daughter is 18, it will be in La's name only, so I'll have to behave for the next 25 or so years.

Although I was very clear to the architect that we want a house with as much natural light as possible, it took at least five face-to-face meetings with a paid translator, one set of WRONG drawings, and a threat to fire him and hire someone with the ability to LISTEN, before he decided to give us what we asked for.

We started off with four bedrooms, each with an en-suite bathroom; living room; kitchen; garage with sidecar lift; shop for ViLa's second-hand purse business; office for me; storage closets; laundry room, three other bathrooms; an elevator (three of the five residents are 65 or over), and an eight-meter by 50 cm opening in each floor for natural light from roof skylights.

A few minor changes later, and we're off to the races.

Sort of...

To build a house here, you start by getting drawings from the government showing you how large your house can be, if you so choose. Exceeding these drawings by even 20 cm can get you in trouble, with the worst thing that could happen being they tear down your house for you.

My in-law's property had (foreshadowing here) a 5 x 4 x 4 meter (about 16.5 x 13 x 13 feet) hill of dirt in the very back that had, apparently, never been touched by a shovel. It's behind the brick wall and the red corrugated metal is the roof of the first floor of the old house.
The government drawings said, "you can't build here."

This is the property:

This is what we can build (you can see the wall from the above photo on the top of the left-hand image):

On one of my almost daily visits to the job site, I see that the excavator is tearing into the hill we're not allowed to build on. 

Ut-oh!

That night, at one of our meetings between my father-in-law, the builder, the architect, the translator and me, I ask, "WTF?" but nicer because my father-in-law is there.

I'm told, "khong sao", which is Vietnamese for "don't worry, we've got this,"--the national response to a LOT of things that actually merit concern.

Then my father-in-law drops the bomb.

"Karaoke"

This video is typical Vietnam karaoke and was shot at a wedding soon after I came to Vietnam. 
Her flowers started their cut life as a table centerpiece. 

Father-in-law wants to use the verbotten space for his very own karaoke room for him and his friends. To his great surprise, I answered with a thumbs-up and the caveat that it must be professionally soundproofed, just like the dozens of karaoke shops in town. His grin is ear-to-ear.

Everything is all sunshine and roses... until the government inspector drops by a few weeks later. My wife tells me he's "upset." 

No shit, Sherlock! 

"We" have blatantly disregarded their mandate and even, by now, poured the floor and started building the brick walls. This is going to get expensive--one way or the other.

Fortunately, it's Vietnam, where most such sins can be made to go away with the proper application of begging, cajoling, and apologizing with more than words. One of the aunts is a well-connected lawyer and the sister-in-law who likes me works for her. It takes about a month, but we finally get drawings that say we can take out the hill and build on its remains. Let's just say there is now budget for one less flight to the US in my future.

Things go relatively well from there until about two weeks ago when I notice that the opening in the second level for natural light is about two meters short. Inquiries reveal that father-in-law told the builder to stop it at a beam, violating the agreement that BOTH he and I have to approve of any major (and, as a courtesy, most minor) changes. Opening should be the length of the red oval; it is currently the length of the blue rectangle.

Damn it! Hurried conversations with the builder result in a promise that the opening will be cut into the floor to give us the opening specified. Remember that the ground floor of this house is blocked in on three sides so there can be no windows. This makes the opening through to the roof crucial. It's still not opened, but I'm not worried 'cause the contract says the builder doesn't get any more money until we are both happy with the construction to that point.

Father-in-law and I now have another agreement that ALL changes to common spaces will be run past the other prior to saying anything to the builder. The builder has smartly decreed that any changes must be made to the architectural drawings before he will implement them. We should be good from here if we can only get the architect to flippin' LISTEN to what we tell him to change.

I always believed people when they told me building a house is a nightmare. Try doing it when you don't speak the local language and are still learning local mores. Fortunately, most of the people involved are somewhat forgiving of the faux pas made by the rude foreigner (the last two words are redundant here, by the way, when put together).

Next: Feng Shui rears its ugly head.



25 January 2021

"You got MARRIED???"

Yes, we did! Seventeen months ago, now...


Very happily, as it turns out...

ViLa and I met in October, 2015, and've been together ever since.


The "V" stands for "Hi!" (the number 2 in Vietnamese is "hai"), Vietnam, and Victory.
It's all but obligatory for Vietnamese people to flash a "V" in photos.

She let me know right away that she has a daughter, and I didn't think much about it; I've dated women with kids before and the kids and I got along okay as long as they weren't around much.

I first met Honey, our awesome now-9-year-old daughter, a couple months later. We didn't meet until I'd known her mom for a few months and we'd decided that "this might go somewhere."

Honey now occasionally tells me, "When I first met you, I didn't like you," and she's right; she didn't. She wouldn't have anything to do with me for the first visits, seeing me, I'm sure, as competition for her mother's love and attention. 
As I already knew, small children of single parents (and too many adults, for that matter) think that love is finite; that if Mom or Dad finds a partner that they love, there is less love for the child(ren) — a zero-sum game, some might say.

The only way a child will see that love is infinite, is if you take your time and let her "get it" in her own good time. Honey eventually understood, and now we couldn't be closer. 

As many of you know, I never wanted kids; don't particularly like them; and in most situations, avoided them at all costs. Now, apparently, I'm ready, 'cause Honey definitely has my heart. She's my daughter as much as any biological daughter could be, maybe more. 


Marriages in Vietnam are done a bit differently than in the West. There are two distinct and separate parts; the civil ceremony and the party. The first is for the government, the second for the family and community. I'm told that many couples never have a civil ceremony, but since they have a wedding party, the community thinks of them as married. This is NOT an option for Westerners, though.

To me, our anniversary is 30 August, the day we actually got married in a civil ceremony. That's the date of the photo at the top. To La, it's 02 September, the day of the party. 
ViLa's parents and my mom, who, at 92, understandably didn't feel up to the 20,000-mile round trip
The bridal party goes around to each table and raises a glass--mot, hai, ba, yo!
"We wish you could be here, Mom..."
It's illegal here for a Westerner to cohabitate with a Vietnamese national  even for one night; and they check. I moved into our current rental house in April, and the police showed up five months later to check on ViLa and Honey's status about a week after the party/reception. They checked the marriage certificate, my passport, La's government ID card, and the rental book that all rental properties must have.

Everything checked out and they went away. I've heard that if a foreigner and a Vietnamese are caught living together outside of marriage, the penalties can be as severe as jail for the Vietnamese national and permanent expulsion for the foreigner. These are the government's right, of course, so it's best not risk it if you care about your partner and about staying in Vietnam.

It took me more than 2/3 of my life expectancy to get married and, honestly, it was worth the wait.


Cheers!

02 February 2020

What do the Republicans stand to lose if they do the right thing?

In the past, I've suggested you read AND SUBSCRIBE to Jim Wright's wisdom. Why haven't you done it, yet?

He's a decorated and retired Navy Chief who's smarter than most of us and more of a Patriot than ANYONE who still supports any Republican in national office.

"What do they lose if they stand up, declare they are putting America first, that the integrity of the office matters, that the president -- government -- must be always held to a higher standard? What do Republicans lose if they show themselves acting with courage, integrity, and a sense of duty? What do they lose if they take charge of impeachment and lead from the front? What do they lose if they demand the truth? Evidence? Witnesses? What do Republicans lose if they stand up and show America that they are willing to do the right thing? Put country over party, duty over politics, truth over lies? Do they lose their jobs, or do they earn reelection out of respect?

{snip}

"They lose Trump.

"Trump. They lose Trump. They lose an amoral bombastic fool, a patsy, that can be easily manipulated into implementing the very worst of their agenda without getting their own hands dirty.

"They know this guy is a fool.

"Those with their hands on the real levers of power? In this country and beyond? You know they look down on Trump with nothing but utter contempt, you can see it in every sneer, every smirk, every roll of the eyes.

"But that’s the key to it.

"Because Trump is so desperate to prove himself their equal, so desperate for their attention and acceptance, that he’ll do anything to get it. Trump is so pitiful, so utterly in need of praise, that he can be openly manipulated by news broadcasters and baited by a tweet.

{snip}

"Trump is the guy who told them they don’t have to be ashamed of being a horrible person. If they lose Trump, then they lose an excuse for their hate, their selfishness, their racism, their misogyny, their homophobia, their horrible religion, their wars, their greed, their fear, all of it. Trump is the guy who makes it okay to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nazis, with Confederates, with the Klan, with the Proud Boys, and still pretend that you’re standing up for 'The American Way of Life.'

If they lose Trump, they lose a chump to blame for it all when the bill comes due."

Read the entire article here: Stalking Horse

Then pass it on... and donate to him if you can.

29 January 2020

Tom Nogler


My good friend Tom Nogler's heart gave out.

A good man suddenly gone too soon.

There will be a Memorial on 01 February at the Capital Theater on Fifth Street in Olympia, WA.

Since I'm in Việt Nam, I cannot be there. I've sent the following to a good friend and ask that it be read during the Memorial. I'm also posting it here so that others who cannot be there can get a feeling for who Tom was and who he will continue to be in the memory of countless people who were fortunate to know him:

"Thank you, Chris Stearns. Had you not found me sitting in Darby’s front window that Sunday morning and Shanghaied me into “just checking out” the first meeting of what became the Public Power Initiative, I most likely would never have known Tom. I certainly wouldn’t have had the privilege of working closely with him, literally daily at times, for almost two years; and then sharing a meal with him these many years later every time I returned to Olympia. Except for the last time, this past December. Like most of you, I thought Tom would always be here... I figured I’d catch him next time.

"To say that the Tom Nogler I know was THE Champion of Uphill Battles, is to greatly understate it. In our time working together, he happily did everything asked of him and then found much more to do without being asked—wrangling volunteers; asking for donations; standing outside in any weather with his petition board... always wearing the hat that I became convinced he never took off—and always with that Tom Nogler 100,000-watt smile topped-off by two of the brightest, most expressive eyes ever.

"I could go on and on, but I’d be telling you nothing new. You know Tom, and you can still see him looking at you with love.

"There is less than a handful of men on this planet whom have ever called me “brother”, and even fewer with whom I freely used that word. My guess is that most of them are in this theater today.

"Wherever you are, brother Tom, I know you are smiling—thank you for sharing your life with us.

"You will live on within each of us.

"We love you."

03 August 2019

The False "Freedom" of NOT wearing a motorcycle helmet...

Yes, there are too many laws in most places, many of which keep the poor, poor and the rich, rich.

Motorcycle helmet laws are NOT among them.

As you know if you've read much of my blog, I am a STRONG advocate for motorcycle helmets. I even donated over 750 helmets to school children and administrators in my home, Dalat, Vietnam. Personally, I wear a full-face or modular helmet every second I am moving on two wheels.

No exceptions!

And I'm TIRED of people who say, "It's MY RIGHT not to wear a helmet." No, it's not, unless you have a few million dollars in insurance coverage to take care of ALL your medical bills and your family's pending poverty.

First of all, if you don't wear the best helmet you can buy, your priorities are f*cked up. I've lost count of the clowns I've seen riding a US$15-40,000 motorcycle while wearing a bicycle helmet--'cause here in Việt Nam, anything on your head harder than a piece of paper apparently counts as a helmet, at least as far as the police are concerned.

The laws of physics will disagree.

Many people these days have their own "facts", 'cause they're too stupid to know the difference between beliefs and facts. They're the ones that tell you about the 0.0001% of people in an accident who die because they were wearing a helmet... as if it proves them right.

Here's a fact for you... when you ride without a helmet and become disabled or dead because your head's softer than concrete or because your face is softer than asphalt, I and everyone else get to pay for your care and watering when you're a human houseplant for the next 50 years. We also get to pay to support the family you leave behind because you don't like condoms, either. Unfortunately, your kids got your stupid genes, so it's a lose/lose.



So... don't talk about freedom and how the government shouldn't tell you to wear a helmet.

Your insistence of "freedom" is taking mine and everyone else's away, ya selfish twit.


21 July 2019

So You Want to Come to Vietnam and Ride a Motorbike? Part 7 — One Photo Sums It Up

This is the best photo I've seen yet of what it's like to ride a motorbike in the cities of Vietnam... no one who lives here would think this is anything other than normal.

It is also a great example of the fact that almost no one here thinks of how what they do affects others. I'd bet big money that if you asked this woman what she was thinking just before she stopped, she would say the VN equivalent of, "I had to make a phone call..."



Did you notice the two people on the right side riding the wrong way down a one-way street? Also, no surprise...

Happy 50th Anniversary of the first moon walk!

Ride safely.

25 April 2019

Ho Chi Minh

The person,

not the city known to the locals as Sài Gòn...

Everyone who is at all paying attention knows that Ho Chi Minh fought for independence against both the French and the Americans. All he wanted was to free his country from colonial and imperial rule. What the great majority of Americans, and probably most people still on the planet, don't know is that Uncle Ho turned to the Communists for help only after his 1946 letter US President Harry Truman asking for aid went unanswered; most likely because a US State Department underling stuck it in a file cabinet and the President never knew of it. Truman, by the way, was NOT blameless. He gave millions of dollars in covert military and financial aid to the French, and the French-backed regime in Saigon.

From the letter:
"It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence.

"What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world."

Born in 1953, I am of the generation sent by the US government to Vietnam to kill, torture, maim, murder, and otherwise harm the local population.


I came to Vietnam for the first time in 2013, moved here in 2014, and have lived here ever since. I often wonder what the world would be like had that State Department pendejo passed Uncle Ho's letter up the chain of command. How many of the 3,000,000+ Vietnamese and 58,000+ Americans who were killed as a direct result of American presence in Vietnam would've gone on to live happy, productive lives?

How many more people were never born because their fathers and/or mothers were killed?

How many people whose family members were killed or maimed would've had different, better lives?

How many people in Vietnam are still, today, getting killed by 40+-year-old unexploded ordinance or suffering from the effects of Agent Orange and other deadly chemicals dropped by the hundreds of tons?

Although I am only halfway through Nick Turse's book, I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the real story of the failed American attempt to stop the "domino" that was Vietnam.

Why have I yet to finish it? Because it is so upsetting that I can barely get through a full chapter before I have to put it down for a week or two and take a long, hot shower.

The good news is that the Vietnamese, thank Buddha, are a forgiving people; more so than any others I have met on five continents.



27 February 2019

It's Vietnam

Just when I think I can let up a bit from the doom and gloom of daily motorbike riding here in Vietnam, something else comes across my screen.

This is a video shared on FaceCrack. Best I can determine, originated on the page of "Container Phú Thành", who apparently builds some pretty cool edifices out of shipping containers.

Their comment was, "Iron wrapped meat against iron wrapped meat 😥"

To me, it's more "Meat sitting on 'iron' against 'iron'-wrapped meat." No way the meat sitting on iron is gonna do well.

Those of us who live in Vietnam see someone pulling this shit every day and most of the twits survive—for the moment. The only thing that surprises me is that more don't end up worm food.

It's NOT always the motorbike rider who's at fault; for example, the guy who gets taken out by a HUGE red truck in the far right lane when the far right lane is for motorbikes and maybe cars, but definitely NOT for big-ass trucks. That said, since motorbikes are toward the lower end of the food chain, you'd think they'd learn.

Unfortunately for many, instead Darwin jumps up and says hello.



Yes, most riders here DO NOT practice situational awareness; they ride as if they're in a video game on which you just hit "Reset" to get another life. Most of the time, they get away with it. Sometimes, they take others out.

No one, at-fault or innocent, ever gets to pick themselves up and hit "Reset".

As I've written before, if you:
1) Ride as if you're invisible.
2) Ride as if everyone is trying to kill you.

You might just survive to see another day.



21 February 2019

Da Lat Coffee

As I read the article below, it hit me that my more recent posts, although very real-world, lean toward portraying Vietnam as doom-and-gloom-you-could-die. While there is that aspect to anywhere one might choose to put down roots, it's no more so here than elsewhere, especially if you stick to walking, trains, planes, and/or taxi cabs.

As mentioned in earlier posts, Da Lat is known throughout Vietnam for the flowers, vegetables, and coffees grown here. Increasingly, it is the coffee that's getting noticed.

Photo by Mervin Lee
As Ed, Ryan, and many, many other visitors to Dalat have noted, "this is the best coffee I've ever had!" regardless of the variety.

From a web site called Saigoneer, "Da Lat, the Unlikely Home of El Salvador's Rare Pacamara Coffee Beans"

Enjoy!

18 February 2019

"Only the good die young"

A few months ago I got an email from a guy in Richland, WA telling me that he was coming to Vietnam to ride, probably with his nephew. He asked a few questions and we developed a bit of rapport.

Fast forward to earlier this month, February 2019, when Ed and his nephew, Ryan, rode up and parked their Honda Winners in front of my house, both grinning from ear to ear.

After chatting for a bit, Ed rode off to find lodging for the next few days while I pulled out my tools so Ryan and could I start disassembling the Winner, looking for where they hid the battery. He had an electrical issue that he thought might be as simple as a loose wire. It took a while, but he found and fixed the loose negative battery wire.

Ed came back to report he had a room for the night, so he and Ryan headed off to clean up and rest a bit. Later that night, we had a beer together.

Over the next few days, in-between them seeing the sights of Da Lat, we met a couple times to share a meal. I even set them up with my local mechanic to fix a coolant leak on Ryan's bike.

Every time I saw Ryan, he was smiling; even when he had bike issues or a bit of a headache.

Last Tuesday, the three of us had breakfast, took a few photos at an Instagram hot spot just up the alley,
Ryan's favorite of the photos I took that morning
and headed out of town together. As planned, I rode with them for a couple hours on their way to Buon Ma Thuot. After a rest stop at a cafe with hammocks (our favorite kind), they headed north and I headed home.

On Friday, in or near Hoi An, they were involved in an accident. Ryan did not survive his injuries.

Ed has spent the last couple days grieving and healing from his injuries. Ryan's father arrived in Hoi An yesterday and they are working with the government to arrange Ryan's final trip home.



You may know that I've railed against such fundraising efforts in the past when the beneficiary died doing something stupid. This time is different, and not just because I knew Ryan. Because I knew him and rode with him, I can tell you he was a responsible rider who wore a good helmet and proper clothing while riding. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time and not the only rider injured in the accident.

Rest in Peace, Ryan Piper. You are now, and will always be, a bright spot in my memory.

09 February 2019

So You Want to Come to Vietnam and Ride a Motorbike? Part 6 — Death

As you know if you've read my blog for any length of time, I don't pull punches.

Motorized two-wheel vehicles are inherently dangerous. That is the #1 reason my parents never let me get anywhere near one growing up. Reason #2 was that, in the 60's, the middle class image of motorcycles was that "only hoodlums ride them", e.g. Marlon Brando in that iconic movie who's title escapes me in my old age.

This is Part 6 of my "So You Want to Come to Vietnam and Ride a Motorbike?" series of posts. To see the previous posts, click on a number to open that post in a new window: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

This sixth part is graphic and unforgiving. That, and the fact that the photos below show dead people, is why it's titled "Death".

I didn't know these people and probably never saw them. Even so, I hope they teach you something. Or some things.

The photos below depict something that happens with such regularity here in Vietnam that I know no one who is surprised when they hear or see of it. That's why I was shocked last week when, after witnessing a man on a scooter get bumped from behind by a car, my seven-year-old daughter who's ridden on a motorbike among hundreds of other motorbikes almost every day of her life, said, "That's the first time I've seen someone fall off a motorbike."

Death is always nearby when you ride a motorized two-wheel vehicle. When you ride without a helmet, death is sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear to "Go faster! I got this."

I looked pretty closely at each photo and see no hint of a helmet anywhere in the debris, so I'm guessing that these four people were riding without helmets. I do know none of them had any other protective gear one and at least one was wearing minimal footwear. I also know that every single day I see a dozen or more (especially) young Vietnamese men like the ones depicted below riding very fast and recklessly without a helmet. Often they have a young female passenger and sometimes she is riding sidesaddle.

The laws of physics are the same wherever you are in our known universe, no matter your age, color, intelligence, or looks. As I used to say when I went skydiving, "It's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop." Coming off a motorbike at speed, what kills you could also be the slide as your skin and soft bits are slowed to a stop by the cheese grater that is the pavement.

IF you ride, please wear a helmet and proper gear regardless of how short the trip or how long you've been riding. Sometimes what kills is not that you ran out of skills, but that someone else did.

One constant of riding in Vietnam is that every road has twice the number of travel lanes as the same road would in the west because people here regularly ride the wrong way along the curb. I see it every time I ride. It's one of the reasons I tell people to NEVER ride along the curb. Looking at the following graphic photos, my guess is that one bike was going the right way, the other one wasn't, and someone didn't blink. Whether on not this is what happened, four more young people are dead because they rode a motorbike and at least one of them fucked up.






I did not take these photos and do not know who did. If they are yours, please email me at "blog at ridingseasia dot com" so I can give you proper credit.

01 February 2019

"agoda", the hotel booking site, is a POS

Why can't people just
1) Tell the truth
and
2) Admit it when they don't?

In search of a new "regular" hotel for my monthly multi-day stays in Saigon, I went through TripAdvisor's listings looking for ideas. After considering a number of possibilities, I settled on a quiet place with a rooftop terrace breakfast included and that is only a two-minute walk to friends and good restaurants. TripAdvisor sent me to agoda, whose site I used to book the room.

Upon arrival in Saigon I checked into the chosen hotel—Ngoc Minh Hotel—and went to my room. After breakfast the next morning, I was in my room preparing to out when I got an email from agoda.


"Ngoc Minh Hotel has confirmed that your booking is a No-Show."

HUH???

Did I mention I'd been IN THE ROOM for over 18 hours when I got the email?

I tried to call agoda, BUT, because they'd cancelled my booking, the phone system kept hanging up on me. I went downstairs to ask the front desk clerk if she knew anything. She said they wouldn't've cancelled me because I checked in the night before. She assured me she'd contact agoda and ask why they cancelled me.

Agoda replied to the hotel with this email:

"We have checked the booking in our system and found out that it has been cancelled by our customer directly."

WHAT???

You tell me I'm a no-show while I'm sitting in the flippin' room and you tell the hotel that I cancelled. Really???

Now I'm pissed off. Not only has agoda STOLEN my money, they've lied to both the hotel and me. Since they wouldn't let my call go through their phone system, I had to use the "Chat" feature on their web site.


"This is the first we're hearing of this booking being cancelled,"

BUT YOU CANCELLED IT!!! Why was I marked as a "No-show"??? The hotel certainly didn't do it!



"... the booking was mistakenly marked as a no show, which then triggered the cancellation in our system." Who the f*ck marked me as a no-show? According to the front desk clerk, there were three other reservations similarly marked in error at that hotel that night. Someone at agoda seriously dropped the ball and then they sent out emails lying about what happened.

What a cluster-fuck! It cost me a few hours of my time and all I got in return was the money they never should've taken in the first place. At a minimum, they owe me a free hotel night somewhere.

Needless to say, I will NEVER AGAIN use agoda and I will suggest to everyone I can that they think twice before using them. Yes, I understand people make mistakes, but lies are NOT mistakes.

Caveat emptor.


18 December 2018

So You Want to Come to Vietnam and Ride a Motorbike? Part 4 — Rules?

In case you've missed them... Part 1 is here.

Part 2 is here.

Part 3 is here.

I've read many articles about riding in Vietnam. The great majority are written by people who only visited for a short time and those all say that there are no rules; that it's every person for him/herself.

Those writers are showing their ignorance!

Of course there are rules; they're just not the rules as you know them. It took me almost three years to figure out some of them—especially the one I call, "Do whatever the fuck you want; no one else matters."

Contrary to what you might think watching traffic go by, there are helmet laws in Vietnam that say everyone over the age of six MUST wear a helmet. The main problem with this law, other than the danger to little kids, is that apparently any semi-solid head covering is considered a "helmet". I've seen guys riding US$40,000 motorcycles (taxes and duties here add almost 100% to the cost) wearing a soft bicycle helmet as they rips through the streets of Saigon as if they're in a hurry to get on to whatever afterlife they believe in. Watch traffic in any city for an hour and you'll see construction hard hats with no chin strap; "gimme" helmets that wouldn't protect you if you fell off a chair; and a number of people who either don't fasten the chin strap or have it so loose that if they fall, the helmet would separate from their head before either hit the pavement.


The other problem is that most kids under 10 still aren't wearing a helmet.

As I've written before, there is virtually no safety education here re helmets. Most everyone wears one so the police don't stop them—except ViLa. She wears one mostly because she doesn't want to listen to me bitch at her if she doesn't. Fortunately, Honey loves her 3/4 helmet, wears it everywhere,


and begged me to buy her a pink full-face helmet we saw one day. It's now hers, we're just waiting for her to grow into it.

How would you fare riding a motorbike in Vietnam? Take this simple quiz to find out if you know the rules.

Choose the best answer:

  1) When turning right, you
       a) Look to your left to ensure it's safe to proceed.
       b) Look both ways—someone could be walking down the sidewalk.
       c) Stop; look both ways; proceed when clear
       d) Don't even slow down, just go for it.

  2) When turning left, you turn from
       a) Your left lane to the new street's left lane
       b) Your left lane to the new street's right lane
       c) Your right lane to the new street's right lane
       d) Either b) or c) depending on your mood

  3) One a two-way street, the far right lane is for
       a) Slower traffic
       b) People turning right onto that street
       c) On-coming traffic
       d) Both b) and c)

  4) The lines on the road are there
       a) To let you know which lane is yours
       b) To mark the center of the road
       c) To indicate whether or not it may be safe to pass another vehicle
       d) Because they have them in other countries

  5) Turn right from the right lane and left from the left lane.
       a) True
       b) False
       c) It depends.
       d) All of the above

  6) When your friend has had too much to drink, you should
       a) Take away his keys.
       b) Put him in a taxi or take him home yourself.
       c) Help him balance on his motorbike until he gets some momentum going.
       d) Both a) and b)

  7) When using your phone, you should
       a) Pull off the road until you are finished.
       b) Tell them you'll call them back when you're not driving.
       c) Ask them to call you back in 10 minutes.
       d) Not let it stop you or slow you down.

  8) When stopping to ask directions or look at the map on your phone,
       a) Pull over to the far right lane.
       b) Stop wherever you are, even if there's traffic all around.
       c) Who has time to stop? Don't stop—you can multitask.
       d) Either b) or c)

  9) Who has the right-of-way?
       a) The vehicle on the right
       b) Whomever is in/on the largest vehicle
       c) Whomever has the biggest cojones
       d) Both b) and c)

10) The maximum safe speed is
       a) Dependent on road & weather conditions
       b) 40 kph within city limits; 60 kph outside
       c) As posted
       d) Whatever I decide it is

11) The traffic police
       a) Wear yellow uniforms
       b) Point a white baton at you when they want to talk
       c) Will usually accept traffic fines on-the-spot
       d) All of the above


12) The right lane is for motorbikes and the left lane is for everything else.
       a) True
       b) False
       c) In theory
       d) Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (pause for a breath) ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

13) When a car, truck, or bus flashes its lights at you, it means
       a) Your brights are on
       b) There are police just ahead
       c) Hello
       d) I want to be where you are. MOVE!

14) The minivans are the WORST and will take you out if you let them.
       a) True
       b) False
       c) Sometimes
       d) Well, DUH-UH!

15) When entering a roundabout, who has the right-of-way?
       a) The vehicle in the roundabout.
       b) I do.
       c) Right-of-way? What's that?
       d) Either b) or c)

16) Using your headlight outside cities is
       a) Stupid because the zombies will catch you
       b) For sissies
       c) Optional
       d) Why are you riding out in the country at night? Are you suicidal?

17) Slower traffic
       a) Stays to the right
       b) Goes wherever they want
       c) May stop suddenly with no warning or turn into you
       d) Both b) and c)

18) Most locals ride as if
       a) There is no one else on the road
       b) Either their hair is on fire or going over 10 kph will kill them
       c) Whatever is behind their front wheel does not exist
       d) All of the above

19) Having the correct tire pressure is
       a) Crucial to your safety
       b) Not all that important—anywhere from 5 to 58 psi (0.35 to 4 bar) is fine
       c) There's a "correct" tire pressure?
       d) Either b) or c)

20) When making a u-turn, you
       a) Pull over to the right and wait until there is a break in traffic.
       b) Wait until the next roundabout or large intersection.
       c) U-turns are not allowed within city limits.
       d) Just go for it wherever the urge hits; everyone can wait as you block traffic.

21) When parking,
       a) Park only in designated spaces.
       b) Park anywhere, even blocking a business's main entrance.
       c) Park on the sidewalk, especially where you will block pedestrians.
       d) Both b) and c)

22) Riding on the sidewalk is permissible
       a) Never
       b) Only if there are no pedestrians within 50 meters
       c) Only during daylight hours
       d) Whenever you want to; no one else matters but you

How do you think you did? Let's find out...

Did you notice a pattern in your answers?

The answer to 6 is c)

The best answer to all the others is... d)

If you missed more than 5, it may be best to forget about riding a motorbike and bring a bit more money so you can take taxis or buses everywhere. They're very cheap.


Either way, enjoy your trip!


23 November 2018

So You Want to Come to Vietnam and Ride a Motorbike? Part 3 — Tips

A bit of what follows was touched on in either Part 1 or Part 2Part 4 includes a couple bits repeated from previous parts because reading them again will both help you remember and let you know that it's really important.

Buying and then riding a motorcycle in throughout Vietnam is a very interesting process that can be a good-to-great experience. It can also go sideways very rapidly. If you are careful, have some basic knowledge of motorcycles and how they work, take your time, and think beyond the purchase price to the overall cost of ownership over the three or four weeks you will own the bike, your trip will be one of the most rewarding of your life. Too many people come here looking for the lowest cost motorcycle they can find and then waste days they could be riding trying instead to get the POS repaired. Don't be one of them.

While researching my first trip to Vietnam/Southeast Asia, almost everything I read said that the best or only way to truly experience it is on two wheels. I took a motorcycle training course, got my license, bought a bike, and less than 20 miles later, broke my left clavicle in a low-speed one-vehicle crash. Most of my friends said that this was the universe's way of telling me that I should not ride. I took it as a warning to f*cking pay attention. That December (2013), I arrived in Vietnam for the first time. As detailed in my very early (see December 2013 in the column to the right) posts on this blog, I bought a motorcycle in Saigon and then spent three of my 10 weeks here riding to Hanoi, mostly solo.

Hiking the Inca Trail in my mid-50's was a major "get" and one that I enjoy more in my memories than I did at the time.

How 'bout that hat?
My ride on a 125cc Yamaha YBR from Saigon to Hanoi at 60 (years old, not kph) was, literally, a life-changer. Today, five years later, I've ridden in Cambodia, Cuba, Canada, Laos, Thailand, and the US. I no longer have any interest in owning a four-wheeled vehicle and look forward to future long-distance motorcycle trips in many other countries.

Please, please, PLEASE learn to ride BEFORE you get here!!! The great majority of the dozens of moto-backpackers I've met here NEVER even rode pillion (passenger) on a motorcycle before arriving, see literally everyone over the age of 15 riding a motorbike, and think, "Hell, if they can do it, it can't be that hard/so can I." (see Part 2)

NO, you can't!!!

If you don't ride already, there are a LOT of things you don't know that can seriously injure or kill you. For example, above about 20 kph, the physics are TOTALLY DIFFERENT than those of riding a bicycle. One of them is that if you push the right handgrip away from you, you will lean over and turn to the right.

Some of the things that it will help you to know if you ride in Vietnam:
1) 99+% of the people who turn right onto a roadway NEVER look to see if it's safe; they just go.
2) Though at first it will not seem like it, there are "rules of the road".
3) Those rules here are DIFFERENT than those of your home country.
3) Paved surfaces outside (and sometimes in) the cities can be much closer to what Westerners would call "off-road".
4) Some of the buses and many of the minivans you encounter will actively try to run you off the road.
5) If you assume that EVERYONE else on the road is trying to kill you, you will fare much better. They're not, though it will often seem they are.
6) As my friend Glen said just yesterday, the biggest waste of money in Vietnam is that spent painting the lines in the middle of roads.
7) Also always assume you are invisible...

Please note that I am NOT trying to discourage the adventurous you; I am simply telling you that you need more preparation than you think you do.

Before you leave your home country, make sure you have emergency evacuation insurance like that provided by MedJet or Global Rescue. I have Global Rescue and am very happy with their customer service. If you are more than 60 miles from your home address and need emergency transport, they will take care of it for you—including a medical jet, if necessary. They also have medical professionals (nurses, PAs, etc.) with whom you can consult over the phone for less serious medical issues. Like any insurance, you're probably not going to need it, but if you do, you're gonna be glad you have it. If I go down hard, motorcycle or not, ViLa and friends here know to call Global Rescue to evacuate me to the US for medical care.

I guarantee that you do NOT want to spend even one hour of your vacation in a Vietnamese hospital. If you are unfortunate enough to be their guest, you will have to pay cash up-front for everything—even if you have insurance. You pay a deposit when you arrive, then you pay again before you see each doctor or have an x-ray or do anything other than sitting and waiting. The medical system here is not set up to bill insurance companies, so you pay up-front and wait for the insurance company to reimburse you. Individual items and services aren't expensive, but they do add up... and if you don't have the cash, you'll either have to find it or suffer elsewhere. There is no "charity" at Vietnamese hospitals.

If you're in the hospital overnight, you'd better have some friends or family to bring you food and protect your valuables or you won't eat and your things may wander off while you sleep. The locals usually have a family member or friend rent a cot and sleep when the patient isn't. You'll also need cash to entice the doctors and nurses to pay attention to you during your stay. Worst case, send me an email and I'll see if I can contact someone in the same city who can help you out.

There are a number of good web sites out there with tips and/or routes and/or trip blogs (trogs?). My favorite for trip blogs is Vietnam Coracle. It's written by a Brit who rides all over Vietnam on a 125cc scooter and manages to find all kinds of seemingly-hidden-to-most-Westerners gems; restaurants, hotels, roads, and more. I recommend it every chance I get. AdvRider, Horizons Unlimited, RideAsia are also good sources of information. Nomadasaurus is a good one for fairly up-to-date travel information, though it is one on which you need to be selective as to which posts you believe. My feeling is that, on most sites, if you go with the majority opinion, you'll most likely be alright. The link to Nomadasaurus will take you to a page dedicated to the topic of buying a motorbike in SE Asia. If you go to their home page, you will find a lot of other information/opinions. My biggest gripe with the site is the repetition caused by people who post questions without bothering to read the previous questions and responses where their question is very often already answered.

If you would like more information, send an email to "pdf at ridingseasia dot com". I will reply with a couple of PDFs of things I wrote for my friend who owns Flamingo Travel to give to customers and prospective customers. One is about riding here and the other is full of tips on how to buy a second-hand motorbike. I think you'll find them both interesting and useful.

Print them out and read them a few times before you get on the plane and then again on the plane. You'll have time; it's a 15+ hour trip from the North American west coast and longer from other places on the continent. If you're in Europe or Australia, it's a bit less time on the plane, though still plenty of time to review them again.

While looking for something else, I found these videos that you might find useful:

Buying a bike

Why you do NOT want a Chinese bike

Come to Vietnam for the riding trip of a lifetime. Just remember to stay safe while you're enjoying all there is to offer here.


28 October 2018

So You Want to Come to Vietnam and Ride a Motorbike? Part 2 — Reality

If you haven't read Part 1, it's here.

From yesterday's news:

"Road crashes are a leading cause of deaths in Vietnam, killing almost one person every hour. More than 9,000 traffic accidents occurred in the first half of this year, killing nearly 4,100 people and injuring over 7,000, according to the National Traffic Safety Committee."

Click here: Fatal mishaps prompt Vietnamese province to curb traffic violations by foreigners

An average of ONE TRAFFIC DEATH IN VIETNAM EVERY HOUR!!! 






They're not all foreigners, of course. The great majority are locals. Do you want to take the chance you're one?


Did you notice that the locals are often more interested in gawking and taking photos than helping?

If you don't have a motorcycle license and a bit of experience, DO NOT ride a motorcycle in Vietnam.

Period.

Full stop.

Yes, riding through the country on two wheels is, by far, the BEST way to see Vietnam. It is probably a once-in-a-lifetime trip, so do it right.

If you want to ride a motorbike here,

1) Take a motorcycle safety class and get your license.
2) Buy a motorcycle and get at least a couple thousand road miles under your belt.
3) Take an off-road riding class.
4) Ride Forest Service roads and a few dirt trails. Get comfortable with your rear wheel sliding out.
5) Bring your helmet, armored jacket, and sturdy ankle-protecting boots, and come ride Vietnam.

Stay safe.

Part 3 is here.

Part 4 is here.
Part 5 is here.
Part 6 is here.