19 January 2015

Notes I've made and other miscellaneous thoughts

Most days I buy and read two newspapers: Việt Nam News and the International NYTimes. On 06 January, there was a very good Op-Ed by David Brooks in the International NY Times, "The problem with meaning".

I also get a daily email from DailyKos with a number of interesting articles from various sources. On 07 January, The Huffington Post printed a list (with photos) of "21 reasons to fall in love with Việt Nam".

All over Saigon, all year-round, you will see women in "Daisy Dukes"... sans fringe, add high heels. They're not on the list. 
Dress is more conservative in Hà Nội and the rest of the country.

As of 01 January 2015, gay marriage is legal in Việt Nam.

One day last week while sitting in my current favorite café drinking trà đá (iced Vietnamese tea), I met three guys from Denmark... Darius, Henrik, and Patryk. They each bought a motorbike and are headed to Cambodia for about 10 days. Then they'll return to VN and head north to Hà Nội and Sa Pa. At some point they'll probably also hit Lao. As they talked about their plans and asked me questions about my trip, I mentioned my blog and handed them each a business card with my phone number and the blog address, suggesting that they may find some information there that would be helpful during their trip. When he saw the URL, Henrik told me that this blog is one that they've been using regularly to learn about Việt Nam. He also told me that when it comes to worthwhile useable information, it's one of the better ones. Thank you, Henrik!

Thank you also for requesting that I join your departure photo

A few days later, I met Rick; an Aussie who, with his mate Monty, will soon embark on a Việt Nam, Lao, Cambodia motorcycle adventure. Terence and I gave him a LOT of advice over a couple beverages on his first evening in-country. He's also keeping a blog: SE Asia Motorbikes. Check it out...

Have you ever had fresh sugarcane?
It's good to chew or squeezed (by machine) into fresh juice called nước mia. It's less sweet than the sugarcane juice I had in Cuba, so you can drink it straight instead of cutting it with orange or other fruit juice.

In the past few days I've been to two vegetarian restaurants within a short walk of my hotel. One is worth a visit and the other one is one to which I'll never return...

Just outside and to the west of Bến Thành Market there is a restaurant called Phượng Mai (07 Phan Chu Trinh). They have an eggplant burger that is a little messy to eat and worth every dropped morsel you'll pick up. I highly recommend it! discontinued the eggplant burger :-( though you may still find something there worth eating.

Worth walking, motoring, and/or driving past WITHOUT STOPPING is Hoa Khai (124-126 Nguyen Cu Trinh). I ordered vegetarian chili with vegetarian meat and spring rolls with fruit. The spring rolls were fried (a vegetarian restaurant that fries fruit?) and this is what they sell as chili:

I'm usually open to new foods that aren't blood-based, but this stuff tasted like crap. The good news is that the restaurant is on a not-so-well-traveled street and definitely a street lacking any significant number of tourists, so chances are, it'll never show up on your radar anyway.

In case you're wondering, I expected something close to this:

probably because a restaurant ~1 km away offers gumbo that's pretty close to what you'll find in Louisiana. As I typed that last bit, I realized it's illogical; further proof that I'm non-Vulcan.

Just before the southern end of Cởng Quỳnh Street there is an alley to the east (there's a print/copy place on the corner) that houses a very good seafood restaurant every night. The tables are set up on one side of the alley and, on busy nights (most nights), tables spread out onto Cởng Quỳnh and across the street onto the opposite sidewalk. Dinner of roasted crab claws, roasted shrimp, and rice with seafood with two drinks will set you back about US$15. We go there at least three nights every week and never tire of it.

The one thing to be cautious of is the traffic going up and down the alley, though it's only an issue until you sit down... and after you get up again. The wait staff, on the other hand, are always dodging motorbikes—some of which are driven by guys who see no problem in opening the throttle while weaving between patrons and staff...

You may want to try one or two of the new menu items...

Last night we ate at another street restaurant and I got to eat something new: cháo thập cẩm, a light porridge-like soup filled with shrimp, baby octopus, and calamari and seasoned with green onions. I pulled out a few of the too-many-for-my-palate onions and it was VERY good! Definitely worth a repeat...

A lot of rules/laws changed here on 01 January. The laws re visas are now so confusing that no one seems to know whether or not we ex-pats will still be able to renew three-month visas without doing a border run. Terence has been here over a year and when he renewed just after the 1st, they would only give him a one-month visa. He and others here are looking at work-arounds. So far, the answers we're getting vary depending on which travel office we visit. My visa expires mid-February and I'm hoping things will be sorted by then.

One of the laws that changed in our favor is that regarding driver's licenses. Việt Nam now recognizes those from 73 countries if they are accompanied by an International Driver's License. This means that there it is no longer necessary to get a Việt Nam driver's license to drive or ride here... so I spent $300 to change my Vietnamese A1 license to an A2—the "big bike" license that was previously virtually unobtainable without inside contacts and is needed to legally ride anything over 175cc.

The advantage to having an A2 is that there is no question when(!) I get stopped that I am licensed to ride the 400cc bike—or a bigger one. All it took was an official translation of my Washington State driver's license, one simple form, and US$285 (including commissions for the two people who helped me). The rules say that the license must be renewed with every visa, though with an additional 500,000 VND to the right bureaucrat, mine is good for a full year.

I'm looking forward to seeing how many kilometers I can ride before I have to show it...

16 January 2015

Stopped for speeding

My friend Cong asked me to ride him out to Dong Nai one day so that he could pick up a Honda Win that the police confiscated from a customer. Now, a few weeks later, he was finally able to retrieve the motorbike.

He sat behind me on my new Steed for what we thought would be a two-hour ride. About an hour in, I got stopped by the police and had no idea why. I gave him my license and blue card (the most important motorcycle paper, possession of which is ownership) and let Cong do the talking.

After a few minutes' discussion, Cong pulled out his wallet, removed two 100,000 notes in plain sight, folded them a couple times, and put them in the policeman's right front pocket. The officer then handed my papers back to me and we were free to continue on...

It was only much later it occurred to me that the policeman who stopped us was wearing the bright green uniform of the crime police, NOT the stone-ground mustard yellow uniform of the traffic police. The SOB apparently shakes down passers-by as a sideline... compared to the mustard police who do it full-time.

As soon as we stopped again, I asked Cong to please explain what happened.

"Fucking police! Police don't care about papers. Only care about money. Police need money" so they take it from 'rich' foreigners. It's not the first time I've heard that the police are grossly underpaid and resort to extortion to make ends meet. Or to pay cash for a new 7-Series that no one ever asks how he can afford. They don't all drive them, of course; that would be too obvious.

I was stopped for speeding: 50 in a 40 zone. Guilty!

He then filled in the details on why the customer's motorbike was confiscated: the renter didn't know the rules. He didn't pay off the police who stopped him, so they took the bike. Simple.

A few guidelines for paying your traffic fines:
1) The uniform color doesn't matter; if you get stopped, you have to pay.
2) SHOW, DO NOT GIVE, your license and papers to the police unless they take them from you. If you do, they can hold onto them until you give them as much money as they think they can get.
3) Do NOT hand the money to him unless he holds out his hand when you have money in yours. Pull it out so he can see how much, then slip into his front pocket.
4) It doesn't matter if you weren't speeding or doing whatever... pay the bribe or lose your ride.
5) Keep a few hundred thousand VND in your wallet or money clip and stash the rest away. They've been known to grab a wad of bills that was too tempting.

I thanked my friend and repaid him.

When we finally got to the police station, they wouldn't give him the confiscated bike because he was missing one document they hadn't bothered mentioning that he needed. So we returned, together on my bike, empty handed. That's six hours and 200,000 VND (US$9.52) we won't get back. That said, it was a LOT less money than it would've cost me in the US or even with other police here! Probably because I was with a Vietnamese.

He and Terence returned to the police station the next day. They arrived home 10 hours later and 5,000,000 VND (the policeman's fee for releasing the motorbike) poorer, but with the confiscated bike.

There are corrupt police everywhere. At least here, they're out in the open about it.

Repeat after me... "It's Việt Nam."

14 January 2015

My first month as an ex-pat, Part 2

One of the things I hoped to accomplish in the first two weeks here, was the purchase of a motorcycle and possibly a motorbike (step-through scooter). As documented in Part 1, I did purchase the step-through—a peppy Nouvo 3.

Finding the right motorcycle was a bit more difficult.

Since my first week in VN over a year ago, I've heard talk about a local named Hau. He's reported by some to be "the best mechanic in Ho Chi Minh City", though he is also known to take his time and you can forget about promise times—or allow for 200-1000% over. I finally got to meet him in mid-December when I tagged along with Terence when he went over to check on the progress of his bike. According to Terence, it was originally promised for early December. When we got to the shop, it was nowhere to be seen. As I write this almost one month later, his bike is almost complete (I saw it this morning) and T is hoping to have it within a week.

"It's Việt Nam..." is the explanation for almost everything here and it definitely applies to missed promise times. Best I can figure, confrontation is NOT in their DNA. I recommend you go with the flow and stay mellow... getting upset will just get you pushed to the back of the queue.

To clarify, when I say "motorbike" or "scooter", I am referring to a step-thru like the Nouvo pictured above. When I say "motorcycle", I'm referring to a bike with the fuel tank between the handlebars and the seat. There are 500cc scooters and 100cc motorcycles, so engine size is not a determining factor in MY terminology. Clear as mud?

Hau also sells reconditioned motorcycles and scooters and that is where I found my 1999 Honda Steed 400... 
...ready for reconditioning. I am unable to find the photo I took showing the split in the left side of the rear fender, though it was pretty big. Hau assured me that he would fix it and everything else that needed repair; paint it to my specifications (color and design); change the oil and filter and replace the radiator fluid (yes, it's water-cooled); add a set of top-opening saddlebags; and replace the handlebars with a new set. The price, only US$3800.

Here you can see the bodywork stripped off and the new handlebars in place. The old ones are still hanging by the cables. Note also the position of the rear turn signals.

Hau's promise time was 4-5 days, so I figured 10 days to two weeks and he hit the outside at 15 days. I think it was worth the wait and the $$$...

The blue is lighter than I remember picking, though I definitely got the classic 1950's cruiser look I was after. He even made the seat a bit wider and more cushioned to better fit my Western posterior. Separate rider and pillion seats would complete the look, though those can wait for another time.

A previous owner modified the exhaust to give it a very throaty growl under acceleration, so it sounds as awesome as it looks :-D

Hau's shop is the best in HCMC for repairing/customizing your motorcycle. The name is Hein Moto (after his brother, the owner, though only Hau speaks English). It is at 142 Nguyến Hữu Cảnh, P. 22, Ben Thahn District. Stop by and tell him John says hello!

A couple days after picking up my beautiful new bike, Cong took me to Kim Thanh, a shop that specializes in metal and chrome. WOW!

The owner, Duong, speaks zero Tiếng Anh (English), so Cong translated for both of us. In the 14 months I've known him, Cong's English has improved dramatically! It's rare that he needs assistance in working with clients, he's the best mechanic I've met here, and his selling skills are improving daily. Because his bikes are mechanically sound, he charges and gets a premium... and those who want to pay less can go elsewhere. I know a LOT of "Sales Consultants" who could take a lesson or three from him about building value!

Oh yeah, metal and chrome...

As I've related in theses posts, (and if I don't tell you, my good friend Pete will) there were a few times in the past that I was unable to keep the rubber side down. For this reason, and because I could add foot pegs to them and stretch my legs on a long ride, I wanted highway bars to help limit damage to the rest of the bike if the rubber goes out from under me again. I also thought the bike could use a small rear luggage rack and a pillion seat back. Duong and his people made and installed all of these for me for 3.5 million (US$167).

In the first photo you can see the peeled chrome on the top of the tail/license plate light. I've ordered another via eBay and it should arrive in the next couple weeks.

When I first saw the bike, I noticed that the front edge of the headlight was scratched and the yellow-ish plastic was showing through and I was on the lookout for a good metal headlight. When I asked Duong about headlights, he brought out a number of beautiful pieces, each hand-made by his crew and every one chromed steel. One was almost Beau Arts style and so gorgeous that I was tempted to buy it as a piece of art. It was, unfortunately, too large for my bike, though it would look great on a 1000cc or maybe an 800.... and I failed to take a photo.

With Cong's help, Duong and I worked out exactly what my headlight should look like. He told me to come back in three days to have it installed. Total cost, 2.2 million VND. Even better, when he says three days, it's ready in three days.

Duong is perfecting the fit on my new headlight
As they were installing the new headlight, I ordered a new set of handlebars (1.7M VND). The new ones Hau put on seemed fine at first; after my 150 kilometer round-trip a few days ago, I realized that I need something higher—though short of "ape hangers".  When none of the bars he had in inventory were right, he dug around in the shop for thin rod which he then bent into the approximate shape of a handlebar. While he held it in place, I sat on the bike and held my hands where I thought they would be most comfortable on a long ride. He then tweaked the bends in the bar until they were just right and told me to come back in two days. They're nice!

The shop is Kim Thảnh, 135E Nguyến Chì Thanh, P. 9, District (Quan.) 5, HCMC.

The bike is now back at Hau's shop for a touch-up on the paint and application of a product that he tells me will protect the paint. Clearcoat is not mixed into the final coat here, so the paint is softer than we're used to... and takes scratches too easily.

That's the story behind my 400cc Honda Steed.

A couple days after putting down my deposit on the Steed I was walking down the street that my hotel's on and saw a beautiful BIG black cruiser sitting outside of Flamingo Travel. Cong (~ pronounced Kahm with a truncated "m") was polishing it, so I asked, "What is it?"

A Yamaha XVS1000

It had Cambodian plates, so I asked him if it was legal to ride in Việt Nam. He said that it was "No problem" for a foreigner. Can you guess my next question?

"How much?"



A little later I spoke to Flamingo's owner, Hung (whom I've known for over a year), to discuss the Cambodian registration, details of possible "issues" with the local police, and verify the price. The next morning I delivered a US$1000 cash deposit with the agreement that I would pick up the bike in six days—after Hung verified its provenance and Cong went over every inch of it.

I paid the balance and picked up the bike the following Monday... what a GREAT bike! Smooth, comfortable, and it even has a drive shaft! I LOVE IT!

A local motorcycle apparel shop had an armored jacket that fit Nhi perfectly and the helmet and gloves donated during my Estate Sale also fit (they're too big for a Vietnamese child), so Nhi took a morning off and we went for a 90-minute ride outside of the city. The bike is uncomfortably large for HCMC traffic, though once we got outside the city, it was awesome—handles great, rides comfortably, and sounds like a big bike should.

I don't have a photo of the XVS1000, so I thought this would be a good substitute
I can't WAIT to ride it to Đà Lạt!!!

Then the other shoe dropped...

It turns out that a foreign-licensed motorcycle must be stamped into the country on the owner's passport and has to leave after a designated period—in no case more than one month. Since it wasn't stamped into MY passport, the police would confiscate it and I would have NO leg to stand on... bye-bye $3500 as well as the Bike Trac, battery tender connection, and GPS wiring Cong had already added for me.


During my initial conversation with Hung, he assured me that, if for any reason, I changed my mind about the bike in the first few weeks, he would give me a full refund. It was with a heavy heart that I walked into Flamingo's office and handed back the key and paperwork in exchange for my $3500.

I still want a second bike, though rather than another cruiser, I'm now leaning toward an enduro like the Honda XR250 or the Suzuki DZ-R400... something that will take me through the hills of the Central Highlands with ease.

Enough for now... stay tuned for an upcoming post in which John might actually leave for Đà Lạt...

10 January 2015

Worldwide Training Associates is no more

As I mentioned previously, I retired on 17 November. Last week I finally changed my Worldwide Training Associates web site and my LinkedIn profile to reflect this wonderful milestone.

The best way to reach me here is via email or by posting a comment via the link at the bottom of every blog post... because I just gave up my U.S. phone number.

A previous blog entry detailed my frustration with the worst customer lack-of-service experience in recent memory courtesy (or is it lack of courtesy?) of T-Mobile. The short version is that after 10 Skype calls to their Technical Worthless Support and Lack-of-Customer-Service Departments, they finally figured out that the problem was in my SIM card and all they had to do was send me a new one—to a U.S. address which would then have to be forwarded to me and which I would receive about three months after Wi-Fi calling (the reason I opened the account) was stripped from my account by T-Mobile's f*ckup. They also refused to refund the $75 positive balance I paid into the original pre-paid account... so I closed my account and severed all ties.

The bottom line is that the (360) 866-6881 phone number is no longer mine nor is it active. If you want to speak to me, the best way is probably via Skype; my account name is johnp_nw.

Or, call me on my VN cell phone, +84 938 197 467. Whether it's Skype or cell phone, please call between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Việt Nam time (4 p.m. and 8 a.m. Pacific Standard Time).

Thanks, and have a great January!

09 January 2015

International Living

International Living is a website that offers an amazing wealth of information, stories, articles, and tips about living... internationally. They have a monthly magazine that is available on-line and through the mail as well as a number of newsletters, both free and by-subscription.

Back in June, I met with IL Editor Eoin (pronounced "Owen") Bassett in a Saigon cafe. I'd read that he'd be in Việt Nam at the same time as I and sent him an email asking if he'd be interested in meeting a soon-to-be ex-pat and writer who was seriously looking to retire in Việt Nam. He said he would.

In the 04 January EXTRA edition of the "International Living free daily email "postcards", Eoin recounted a bit of our conversation and what followed (I added the first two hyperlinks):

"The Crazy House – I first met John P. in a crowded coffee house in District 3 of Ho Chi Minh City. This is old Saigon, where scooter-packed boulevards give way to winding lanes and you'll find pastel-pink churches built by Vietnam's former French colonial masters.

"A former firefighter and a newbie IL reader, John was scouting Vietnam for retirement destinations. I was doing the same thing and we were comparing notes.

"John was staying in District 1, where you'll find most of the city's expats. I had just come from the hill town of Dalat about a 50-minute flight north.

"John had ridden his motorcycle around much of the country. He hadn't spent any time in Dalat though, so I filled him in. With a temperate climate, pine forests, coffee plantations, and silkworm farms, Dalat was where the French colonists escaped the tropical heat and humidity. You can still see their villas and you'll find a mini Eiffel tower in town, along with palatable local wine, made with grapes and mulberries.

"It's also home to a unique spot, 'the Crazy House.' This architectural artwork is the brainchild of the daughter of a former Vietnamese president and attracts tourists from all over: 

"Then there's the cost of living. You can rent an apartment in Dalat for around $300, eat out for less than a buck...I reckon a single guy like John could live well on a $1,000 a month, probably less, and that includes a regular weekly massage at one of the hotels, plus travel around the region exploring all it offers.

"John liked what he heard. When we went our separate ways, he seemed determined to visit. 

"That was about six months ago. Well, I just heard from him and he tells me: 'I've divested myself of 99% of my worldly possessions and within the next 10 days I will ship my few belongings to Dalat and fly up to meet them. Then, after settling in at Villa Pink House, I'll start the search for a rental property.'

"The Villa Pink House is where I stayed and the owner gives famous tours that are not for the faint of heart. They involve motorcycles and mountain roads, but if you can handle it, the views and visits with locals are unforgettable.

"That might just sum up Vietnam as a retirement destination. If you want an adventure and incredibly low costs, then it should be on your list. It's probably the most interesting place I have ever scouted for International Living. Not always the easiest, but definitely among the most exotic retirement destinations in the world today.

"That's the reason it's a newcomer to this year's Global Retirement Index. And it's also why—in your February issue—I'll be reporting in full on the best destinations in the country. In fact, in your December 2014 issue I already reported on the country's best beach destination where you can rent for as little as $200 a month. Check that story out here."

Thanks, Eoin!

As you might be able to guess, I am a HUGE fan of IL! Without Eoin's glowing report on Đà Lạt, who knows if I would headed there? Thanks again, Eoin!

If you'd like to get their free daily email postcards, click here and put your email address in the box near the top of the page. Also check out their very reasonable International Living magazine subscription and the monthly Incomes Abroad PDF newsletter. I am a paid subscriber to the latter two publications and find valuable information in every issue.

Let me know what you think... and please look me up when you come to Đà Lạt!

08 January 2015

My first month as an ex-pat, Part 1

Note:  The first title of this post was "My first few days as an ex-pat". Then it was "My first week..." and "My first few weeks..." Now that it's 33 days since I arrived, it's time to sit down and finish part one. Part two will follow shortly...

Although my initial plans were to stay in Sài Gòn for only a couple weeks, I'm still here. Am currently looking at leaving for Đà Lạt by the 18th.

Since I FINALLY finished telling the story of John's Harley (there are those incongruous words again) Adventure, I thought I'd get caught up on the highlights of my initial time as an ex-pat...

By the time my flight arrived at Tan Son Nhat airport (SGN—Sài Gòn, a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC), I was thoroughly thrashed! The frantic pace during the 36 hours I was in Washington State between returning from one adventure and embarking on another was filled with goodbyes, doctor appointments, packing, tying up a few (though not all) loose ends, tears, and very (VERY!) little sleep.

My baggage contained 99% of the physical things I own except for one suitcase that was held for me at my HCMC hotel since I left back in July—checked pieces, most of which were within a pound of the 70 pound limit for overseas Business Class travel. Since each passenger is only allowed two checked bags in the ticket price, I got to pay $150 for the other six bags ($900 total). Considering the ticket cost only ~$125 and 100,000 frequent flyer miles, I was happy to pay it. Unfortunately, I had to rearrange a few things at the ticket counter to get them all at or under 32 kilos AND ship one bag containing my brand-new-never-worn Schuberth C3 Pro helmet 

that I'd planned to carry on—or pay another $150. I checked it and hoped that I'd packed it well enough.

I had a five-hour layover in Vancouver, B.C. during which I dared not sleep for fear of missing my 1:25 a.m. flight to Hong Kong. I was so "out of it" when I got off the plane in Vancouver that I only realized I'd left my phone on the plane from Seattle when I heard a PA announcement in the Customs area asking "Will the person who left a cell phone on Alaska Airlines flight 2242 please report to an Alaska Airlines agent?" or something like that. I usually ignore such announcements, but something told me to check and, yup, I was that person.

After retrieving my phone, I headed to the Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge for a few light refreshments, a comfortable chair, and some email. I managed to stay awake and make it to my Hong Kong flight in plenty of time to settle in for the 13-hour flight. Since it was well past my normal 10 p.m. bedtime and I'd only had two hours' sleep each of the previous two nights, I thought I'd have no trouble reaching a prescription-induced long night's sleep. I was wrong... my prescription didn't make the hurried transfer from the intended carry-on that got checked.

I slept less than two hours; watched three movies (The Expendables 3, Captain Phillips, and November Man); and ate two meals and a snack. There's a reason I'm sharing all this, and it's coming after a few more paragraphs...

I made my Hong Kong connection and arrived into HCMC, as I said earlier, thoroughly thrashed. As usual, immigration was easy, so the next step is collecting the eight checked bags; which I did. Customs in Việt Nam consists of taking your bags off the two complimentary luggage carts, putting ALL of your bags (including carry-ons) onto a conveyor belt that takes them through a scanner, and picking them up on the other side. Very easy!

My good friend Nhi (pronounced "ñee") was nice enough to take the day off work and meet me as soon as I walked outside the Customs conveyor/scanner, which is, btw, where they catch a LOT of smugglers. It's always great to be greeted at the airport, and this greeting was especially welcome—in part because I knew she would help me ensure that ALL of the luggage on my carts made it into the taxi. And she did.

By the time we arrived at the hotel, all I wanted was a shower and a nap. So I poured myself out of the taxi and let the very-happy-to-see-me staff unload the taxi. After I got my room key, I grabbed my two-laptop/two-iPad/multiple phones backpack and headed toward the stairs and my room. That's when it occurred to me to COUNT THE NUMBER OF BAGS.

Three counts each came up one bag short and I forgot all about the shower and the nap. When I realized that the missing bag contained my brand new helmet (see above), my GoPro camera, and a bunch of other valuables, I freaked. $2000 gone! FCUK!!!

Nhi and I grabbed the first cab we found and pleaded with him to get to the airport FAST! My first thoughts were that the cab driver had failed to load the bag—even though I was pretty sure I'd seen two empty luggage carts. On the interminably long ride back to the airport, I said a very bad word a number of times and kept trying to mentally part the log jam of cars and motos to give us a clear path. Moses, I'm not!

By the time we arrived back at the airport, I'd convinced myself that the taxi driver had loaded the bag and then unloaded it to an accomplice when I turned away... so the first thing we did was search for him. Looking back, I'm amazed that we found him so quickly. Nhi asked a few other drivers we'd turned down in favor of the guy with the big van and they pointed us right to him. He let us search the van again—though I was convinced he'd gotten rid of it before we left the curb—and said over and over again that he had loaded every bag on the carts and unloaded every bag at the hotel. Now what?

I went inside the terminal while Nhi waited outside. I wanted her with me, but Vietnamese are NOT ALLOWED inside the terminal unless they have a ticket or they work there, so I was on my own. I checked the luggage carousel, the airline baggage office, and then, as a Hail Mary, filed a claim with lost baggage. The very patient woman at the desk explained to me that since I had already left the airport with my bags, I was not covered by the rules that would normally allow me monetary compensation for a lost bag. Understandable and I'm still filing the claim. I called the hotel and Ms. Phuong, the owner, read me the baggage claim numbers of all of the bags cluttering up the entryway (my words, not hers) so that I would know which claim check in my hand belonged to the missing bag. Then we headed back to the hotel to wait.

The ride back to the hotel was less stressful, but only because I had accepted that:
1) I had messed up and lost the bag
2) It was gone

Now I'm trying to figure out how to get another 2X helmet here (the closest dealer is in Thailand) and brooding that the one that is/was in my bag was the last one of that design in my size for sale in North America, so I'm going to have to pick another style (insert the overused expletive here)!

Then came the reward for being, on the whole, a good and fair person...

As soon as we walk back into the hotel, Ms. Phuong tells us that the baggage claim office called five minutes ago and THEY HAVE MY BAG!!!

Remember the post-baggage conveyor that is "Customs" here? One of the secrets to getting successfully through "Customs" is to pick up ALL of your bags on the other end of the conveyor belt. Something I failed to do.

Fortunately, no one else picked it up either, and it was later delivered to the lost baggage desk who held onto it until after Nhi and I grabbed some lunch and returned to the airport for the third and final time that day. WHEW! I was relieved, exhausted, a bit embarrassed, and a little guilty that I'd immediately assumed it was the first taxi driver who'd taken it.

As Nhi often says, "John wai wa!" (wai wa ~ crazy).

One of the things I do here regularly is walk down to the open-air street market and pick up a bunch of the small, sweet bananas that I call bananitas (little bananas) as I was taught the first time I had them many years ago in Cuba. That's what I did after breakfast on my first full day back here. If you can find these bananitas in the U.S., they'll cost you between ~$2 per pound when regular full-size organic bananas are 89 cents a pound. Here I pay ~$1 per kilo or 45 cents a pound for them and I eat about 3/4 pound every day.

Many tourists and ex-pats complain about paying more than locals, even after they've lived here more than a year. Some of these people also complain about the humidity and heat and are genuinely surprised when I ask why they live here. YES, you will be asked in many cases to pay more than locals... because the person asking knows you can and wants to get as much money as possible to feed his/her family. Get used to it! A guy told me the other day that he won't buy cigarettes from one shop because the locals pay VND24,000 and he is charged VND25,000. The VND1,000 difference is less than 5 cents. Is 5 cents worth getting a stroke over? Hell, I wouldn't walk next door for a nickel! To each his own, I guess...

Back to bananas...

My first day back, the woman I usually buy from was not around, so I bought them from the guy in the next stall. The total for 1.5 kilos (3-1/4 lbs) was VND30,000, so I paid with two 20,000 notes.

I walked about about 50 meters closer to my hotel and the man from the bananita stall runs up to me and hands me a VND10,000 note
my change that I had forgotten until 20 meters from the stall and then decided I'd rather let him keep it than walk back. So much for "they'll rip you off if they get the chance" that I hear so many times from jaded Westerners. Can you guess who now gets my banaita business?

Before I arrived, I thought I would buy a Honda PCX150 scooter for getting around town. Then, a few days in, I rented one for a day to try it out. Nope! Not for me! After riding a few different scooters, I bought a 2008 115cc Yamaha Nouvo for $450 from Flamingo Travel and rode it around HCMC for the first couple weeks. The first thing I did was add a rear rack and box big enough to hold my helmet and replace the greenish-yellow stickers on the sides with new red ones.

It seems that I'm unable to own a motorized vehicle without "tweaking" it a bit; as I frequently say, "I used to laugh at people who tweak their vehicles, now I am one!" The Nuovo is great scooter with plenty of pep and very good for riding in the pods that make up Sài Gòn traffic.

The "main street" of Sài Gòn's Backpacker District is Bui Vien Street. It's chock-full of restaurants, massage parlors, "art" galleries, and hotels and is VERY busy from dusk until sometime long after I've gone to bed. Many of the shops close at night and some pretty good street restaurants open up in front of them. In the five months I've been gone, many of the businesses have turned over and, from what I've heard they get for rent, it's hard to imagine how anyone could make a decent profit. Apparently some do, though.

Conde Nast Traveler just printed a photo gallery of 10 Reasons to Visit HCMC... when are you coming?

Last year I wrote about meeting a group of students in a nearby park who asked if I would speak English with them and what a rewarding experience it was. My second weekend here, I was again approached and spent another two hours mostly answering, and sometimes asking, questions.
During this exchange, the young woman to my right in the photo from the first group of students I spoke with in May came up and greeted me before asking if I remembered her. Of course I did! To verify that I actually did remember her, I reminded her that she left a comment on this blog soon after our meeting and that her group presented me with a scarf as a thank you.

For those who are interested in an interesting, fun, experience with local students, head to the park just west of the Ben Thanh Market (to your left as you face the main entrance on the traffic circle at Lệ Lai Street) near the intersection of Pham Ngũ Lão and Yersin Streets (District 1) around 11 or so any Saturday or Sunday morning and look for the students or wait for them to find you. It should only take a few minutes. If you get there after 3, as I did this past Sunday, they'll all be engaged with other Westerners and you'll feel a little strange trolling through the park for students... especially when you leave "empty-handed".

In the first 10 days here, I got to go to two Vietnamese birthday parties, one for a two-year old and one for an adult... in the same evening! Based on my two experiences and reports of others', VN birthday parties feature:
1) Dinner at a nice restaurant

 2) Karaoke (I sit in the back of the room and try to blend in with the wall)
Karaoke singer is at top center of photo
3) A LOT of beer drinking, much of it preceded by yelling, "MORT, HI, BA, YO-O-O-O!!!" which is my phonetic English spelling of the Vietnamese "ONE, TWO, THREE, Y-O-O-O!!!" All male adults and some female adults take part and it is considered bad form to demure.

4) Monetary gifts in red envelopes (the more you give, the better friend you are--VND500,000 (US$24) is a good amount.
5) An elaborate cake that may not have a piece for everyone

6) The cost of the party is borne by the honoree and will likely be more than reimbursed by the monetary gifts
7) Many people wanting their picture taken with the lone Westerner

8) A LOT of fun!

I hear that weddings are very similar, though even more elaborate. I had two very enjoyable experiences and strongly recommend that you accept any and all invites you are fortunate enough to receive.

That's it for this Part 1. Part 2 will follow shortly with real motorcycles, Big Bike (A2) license, and more.

Overheard in HCMC: A tourist doesn't know where he's been; a traveler doesn't know where he's going.

Have a GREAT 2015!!!