25 April 2015

My New Friend

This past Tuesday I received a letter

telling me that I owe 13,138,000 VND (US$626) on two boxes of new motorcycle gear (off-road helmet

and other protective gear plus K&N air and oil filters for both motorcycles) I'd ordered from Revzilla in the U.S. The total value of the shipment was US$1500. I called the number on the letter and was told that if I wanted to talk about reducing the bill, I could meet with him in-person. In Ho Chi Minh City.

On Wednesday, I rode the DR-Z 6-1/2 hours to HCMC to meet with customs on Thursday. I carried an envelope with three million VND

to offer as a 'gift' to whomever could help me reduce the bill.

Sparing you the minute-by-minute, I wore a collared shirt and long pants in place of my normal Saigon t-shirt and shorts (showing respect); I kept my normal "powerful" body language in-check (subtle indication of lower status); I waited patiently until it was my turn; and I spoke to everyone with respect.

When I was introduced to Mr. Trieu, the guy I spoke to on the phone, he handed me the paperwork, said, "13,138,000" and indicated, by pointing, where I could pay. I started to follow his pointing finger, then turned and said, "Yesterday you told me that if I came from Đà Lạt to see you in-person, you could help me reduce the amount." He replied, "You want me to help you? Sit over there."

After 40 minutes of sitting in an abnormal-for-me "small" body posture to avoid looking like an arrogant Westerner, I was told to sit at a table where the Customs officer was already seated with my paperwork. Fortunately, he spoke better English than he thought and we communicated easily. During our conversation I learned the following, mostly in answers to my questions:
1) All individually imported goods are subject to 30% duty and 10% customs tax, regardless of intended use (personal, business, or resale)
2) Importation of second-hand goods is prohibited (so my idea of having a friend remove labels and original boxes won't work)
3) Bringing goods in when physically entering the country is the best way to do it
4) My friend who has paid duty and tax on only one shipment of many is very lucky
5) Type of visa or citizenship are NOT considered when assessing duty and tax

I told him that it was my mistake to order so many things without knowing there was a 40% fee to get it in-country. I also showed him, when he asked if I'd taken the bus, a photo of my DR-Z400. He liked it and asked if I could see it; he was a bit disappointed that I'd taken a taxi in the hope that I'd be leaving with my boxes of gear. I offered to bring it by and he said, "Another time."

Since he had opened with an apology about his English ability, I found an appropriate point during the course of our conversation to compliment him on his very good English—especially his pronunciation, which is more precise than that of most Vietnamese with whom I've spoken. He demurred and I insisted—all part of the dance.

After about 10 minutes, he introduced his boss. She sat down, looked at the paperwork, asked him a few questions, and left.

Finally he asked how much I could pay. I hesitated, then said that I had an envelope with three million... and waited...

No reaction.

After maybe 20 seconds (a long time if you're just sitting there waiting), I said that I could probably pay four million. He immediately replied, "Four million" and we had an agreement. We talked for another couple minutes before he excused himself and tasked someone else to do the paperwork. Fifteen minutes later, I had my boxes--they insisted that I verify everything was accounted for--and was walking out the gate.

On my way out, I saw my new friend standing outside, apparently waiting for me. I thanked him again and again offered him the "gift" envelope that now contained one million VND by pulling aside some papers and revealing about half of it (the envelope, not the contents). He said, "Save it for petrol on your ride to Da Lat." WOW!

I took this opportunity to mention that a few things were out-of-stock when I placed this order and that I was going to place another. I then asked if he would be able to help me next time. He replied, "I like the way you talked to me. You are my friend. Next time, ask for me and I will be glad to help you." Then he asked if I drink beer and we agreed that next time we would have a few together.

Bottom line: the duty is 30%; the tax is 10%; anything less is a gift.
Suggestions for reducing the costs of your next shipment:
1) Show respect
2) Ask for help
3) Take your time
4) Be thankful

Six months ago, I would not spend two days traveling and one day in a Customs office to save $400+. Today, I have no schedule, no commitments, and nothing better to do. Today, I also have a new friend.

I am most thankful that my very jaded view of Vietnamese (and other) government officials and the need to ALWAYS offer monetary "gifts" to game the system was wrong. Sometimes you can get what you want with simple courtesies and respect.

17 April 2015

$1 a day

One of the many things that I absolutely LOVE about my new home is that for less than $1 per day I eat a lot of fresh fruit and veggies!

Bananas, tomatoes, avocados, custard apples, mangoes, and more...

Custard apple? Yes and it's my new favorite. When I was a kid, my mom would occasionally make "Baked Apples" for dessert—she'd core big red apples and fill the center with (I think) brown sugar, cinnamon, and butter. Then she'd bake them until soft. It's been at least 40 years since I had one and my mouth is watering as I write this.

The custard apple tastes like an apple with a cinnamon undertone that reminds me of those long-ago desserts every time I eat one. They're purchased green with a bit of give. When they start to darken, it's time to enjoy!

First you pull the stem...
Then you gently pull the "scales" off...
Break it into sections...
and enjoy until only seeds remain.

They're pretty healthy and I'm eating one most days as one of my snacks throughout the day along small bananas (~US 50 cents per pound) bought still on the stalk, mangos, and/or other assorted fruits for others.

Add my daily smoothie made of two small avocados and four plum tomatoes, and I might've spent $1.

If you can find custard apples where you are, give them a try. You'll thank me.

13 April 2015

Cats, a mountain road, and a fish farm restaurant

Hello Again! It's been three weeks since my last post and even longer since I've talked about my experiences. There is quite a lot to write about and I'll see if I can get caught up with at least two posts a week for a while.

Over the past few months a couple friends made off-handed comments to the effect that they "really enjoy reading the travel parts" of my blog... Thank you!

Does that mean the non-travel stuff is less important? To me, no. This blog is about the adventure of living and traveling overseas. Almost every day I learn something new or have a new experience, some of which make good reading. Those are the ones I attempt to write about.

I'll warn you now that this isn't one of travel posts, though there is a bit of a road adventure below =:-0

If you can force yourself to read on, I promise a couple smiles (maybe even a chuckle), at least one "WHAT?!", and one or two things that get those of you for whom "Why am I still working?" is not already a weekly or daily question to ask it.

As for why I'm on this adventure:
1) Watermelon is in season and local year-round
2) Because I can
3) My body is deteriorating and I don't know how much longer I will be able to travel
4) After 49 years (I started cutting neighbors' lawns at 12), I'm tired of working
5) It's nice to have total monthly expenses less than $700

One bonus to all this that I've thought about a few times and have yet to write about is this... liquidating my "estate" last fall and enjoying the proceeds myself saved someone else from having to go through my accumulated crap after I move off-planet and try to deal with it. It's also much better for me :-D

Quick (and funny-to-many) story...
Every time I've encountered a cat in VN and I'm with natives and they acknowledge the cat's presence, they say "Meow" (the locals, not the cat). I thought that this was like someone driving past a field of cows and yelling "MOO!" out the window. It's not. I recently learned that the Vietnamese word for cat is mèo. Can you guess how it's pronounced?

I'm still laughing!

Soon after I arrived back in Đà Lạt after my adventure in Lao, I was invited to join a group of 30+ for morning coffee/tea, followed by (I found out later) lunch at a fish farm/restaurant. Hell yes, I'm in!

The first venue is less than 2 km from my house, mostly open-air, and on a nice property along the lake at the north end. The market and most of the tourists are at the southern end. Although I'd ridden past the place a few times, it's set back from the road enough that I never noticed it. As is most-frequently the case, I was the only Westerner in sight and everyone made an effort to make me feel welcome. For most that's a smile and "Hello!" because that is the extent of the English they're willing to try on someone who can actually (most days) pass for a native-speaker. My reply is usually "Xin Chao!" (pronounced sin-chow) which is the Vietnamese greeting that interprets as hello. Often I am rewarded with a smile, other times a polite laugh accompanied by a comment (in Vietnamese) to the others that I take as along the lines of, "Wow! He's trying to speak Vietnamese!" They are usually a little disappointed when they learn that other than "Xin Chao" and numbers under 100, my ability to speak their native tongue is about equal to that of the flipping dogs who bark their heads off at every stranger.

I keep meaning to start VN language lessons beyond the Pimseuler CDs that I only got halfway through, though I've yet to actually do it. Soon, I promise myself again...

After coffee/tea about 23 of us headed out for lunch. Everyone else was in an SUV (only rich or well-connected people [yes, that's redundant] have SUVs here) while Quynh Chau (pronounced "quinn chow") and I were on my cruiser. The main road out of Đà Lạt to the south is a narrow, twisty two-lane job with occasional spots for pulling safely off to the side. It's uphill coming into town, for example from the airport or HCMC, and downhill going out of town (again, I'm redundant); and it can be fun IF the tour vans don't decide to pass on a curve coming at you.

Oh, wait... this is Việt Nam.

In a long-ago post I mentioned that size of vehicle is all that matters here as far as who has the right-of-way or even the right to occupy a particular patch of pavement. Did I mention that the double white lines and, if fact all pavement markings in VN, are only decorative? As Quynh Chau and I followed the SUV caravan downhill, a Toyota Corolla (a mid-sized sedan in VN) decided to pass us on a curve with traffic coming at us... and me with nowhere to go but into a ditch and/or the trees—the cruiser is the on-road bike

and it does very poorly if you're off the paved surfaces!

The asshole's Corolla's first attempt to pass us pushed us to the every edge with my LOUD aftermarket horns blaring the whole time. Because of the narrow road and the on-coming traffic, he didn't give me the customary one+ car width or room as he passed. Instead, he allowed me just over half the width of my motorcycle and that decreased rapidly as he failed to follow the curve of the road. At some point, he must've noticed that I wasn't Vietnamese—and killing people that don't look like "us" is frowned on by the police here, not practiced by them as is now acceptable in 'merica—so he backed off. I should mention here that I tried to slow down and let him past, but then he slowed. WTF??? Maybe it was target fixation...

Within 0.5 km, though, he just had to get past me, so here he comes again. This time, I was ready for him.

As he slid closer and closer to me, I lifted my leg and kicked to the left as hard as I could. I was immediately rewarded with a very satisfying "THINK"! A "think" is a higher-pitched version of the "thunk" you get when striking quality metal with an air gap behind it. Remember, this is a Corolla. I hope I dented his door; I was too busy keeping the rubber side down to look. He immediately backed off and didn't try again. Mission Accomplished! As a bonus, right after the kick I was greeted with a laugh and a squeeze of delight from my passenger. She later told me that she didn't notice a dent and also hoped I'd made one. Maybe word will get around not to mess with the crazy SOB on the big blue bike... that would be nice, though I'm NOT holding my breath.

The fish farm restaurant is on the motorcycles-allowed part of Highway 20 and was quite something. Everything is outdoors and under cover of thatched roofs; the fish and eels are raised in ponds on the property; the restaurant part consists of wooden-plank tables with the omnipresent plastic chairs in numerous structures built over a big pond. I was so taken by the whole thing that I took only a few photos... none of which I am able to find :-( This is a shot of the entrance that I took on the way back from Ho Chi Minh last week:

My second big experience for the day was when I tried the eel. At first hesitant, I then thought, "it's not killing them, so it probably won't kill me."

It was GOOD! Although it was fried, the bright white meat inside had no hit of greasiness and was very rich and firm. I know I had a photo of that, so I'll keep looking.

The rainy season is ending in Olympia and ramping up here. I've already lost some stuff to a ceiling leak that is just part of the deficiencies in my rental house that I'll talk about in a future post, and yesterday we got caught in a downpour while out riding. The rain here is more like that of South Florida—short STRONG showers with big drops—than the long misty, drizzly, damp perpetual rain of the Pacific Northwest. They say the rainy season is six months-long, so I'll be packing my rain gear every outing for a while.

I'll end with an Irish saying I recently saw again:

"If you can see the mountain, it's going to rain. If you can't see the mountain, it's raining."