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Jun 29, 2015

No Refunds, No Returns

One of the challenging things (for me) about living in Việt Nam is that with few exceptions, there are no returns in stores or restaurants. Of the past eighteen months, I've spent 12 here and exactly twice I've talked my way into returning something that I ordered; one was a book and the other a bowl of phở that had what looked like veined orange testicles and white sweet breads (organs) in it
I'm insufficiently gastronomically adventurous to knowingly chew and swallow either...

The restaurant owner knew me from many previous visits and when he saw that I was stirring up my phở without lifting anything to my mouth (and probably making faces), he took away the bowl and replaced it with my usual phở gà... and a smile. Since I ordered the mystery food, I tried to pay for both and he would have nothing of it. I've gone back many times since, the most recent, last night.

The store manager refunded my money on the book after I calmly explained that the sign he kept pointing to that apparently said something like "All sales final" or "No returns" was only in Vietnamese and I was unable to read it. After probably five minutes of back-and-forth—him in Vietnamese and me in English with neither of us understanding the actual words—he went to the checkout girl and told her to return my money.

These are the only successful returns I've experienced. Unfortunately, there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts. The most egregious of these was at a Đà Lạt restaurant called Ocean Palace. It is on the main road into Đà Lạt from the south at 28 Đường 3/4. Please read further before going there...

Three of us went there for dinner one night and ordered a number of different dishes that we intended to share. I also ordered a glass of a Đà Lạt red wine that came filled with ice cubes. Sangria is the only red of which I am aware that ever comes with ice and I tried to ask for a glass of wine without ice, please. The waitress did not understand my request, so she sent over the manager who laughed at me when I told her the wine should be room temperature. She took away the glass and it was the last wine I saw that evening.

The first few dishes were pretty good, but the manager kept coming back and hovering—until I used Google Translate (a.k.a. GT) to tell her that I would appreciate it if she didn't stand over my shoulder while we ate. At this point, I told my dinner companions that although "the manager is a pain in the ass, the food is good. I'm glad we came here."

The final dish ruined everything that came before. One of our party is a young Vietnamese man who, in previous and later meals shared, ate anything and everything put on the table. Even he wouldn't touch the chicken

It is charitable to say it had the consistency and flavor of an elastic band... so I called the waitress over and told her—again via GT—that we would please like the dish replaced. She actually laughed aloud and said, "This is Việt Nam, there are no returns."

"Are you fcuking kidding me???" asked one of the voices in my head.

Out loud I asked her to please get the manager for us. I repeated my request to the manager and she looked at me like I had three heads before vigorously shaking her head as she walked away mumbling something in Vietnamese that my friends refused to translate. Looking back, that was probably a good idea.

I carried the plate of rubber chicken over to where the manager now stood and said (via GT), "I understand that this is Việt Nam and there are no returns. You serve whatever shit you want that we cannot eat and call it food. I am not a tourist. I live in Đà Lạt and know a lot of foreigners with money. I promise I will tell every one of them to never eat here." I put the plate on the bar and went back to help finish the edible food.

The manager came back to hover and glare over my shoulder as we finished, so I turned to her and said, "You need to leave us alone and bring the bill." She did so and both the un-drunk wine and the rubber chicken were on the bill. I protested and told her that I would gladly pay for all of it if she would personally eat just one piece of the chicken. She refused, of course. I pay the bill, including 230,000VND (US$11) for the wine and the garbage. It was either that or chance having to explain everything to the police and probably end up paying them off so I could leave without the handcuffs.

When you're in Đà Lạt, I suggest you go to Nhu Ỳ for a good meal—it's two doors to the right of Ocean Palace.

Just remember that, in Việt Nam, there are NO RETURNS regardless of how disgusting the "food" is that they put in front of you. I don't even ask anymore.

The good news is that such crap is the exception and not the rule.

One more related item... last week this was on one of the web sites I read regularly: Bad Meat.



Jun 24, 2015

Vietnamese Tea Ceremony

One of the things I've learned in my time here in Viet Nam is that some restaurants are less-than-vigilant about properly washing the glasses between customers. Sometimes there is even a bit of tea  left in the glass sitting out for you to use.

This video shows what I call the Vietnamese Tea Ceremony and it's how many Vietnamese people (and now I) ensure the tea glasses are as clean as they can be.



Jun 22, 2015

Losing my shit...

Within a five-day period, I lost my cell phone and the keys to my cruiser. A few weeks prior, I lost my money clip—and the ~400,000 Việt Nam Dong (VND) that was clipped in it. A few days later, I lost the keys to the DR-Z.

One of the four was returned, and two were lost to me forever. The good news is that I it cost me a bit of lost face and about US$2 in VND to replace my cruiser keys. Chances are pretty good that the person who picked up my money clip needed its contents more that I.

Are you wondering what happened to the fourth lost item? Read on...

1)
Money clip. One minute I had it, the next I didn't. Unfortunately, I have no idea which two minutes those were.

2)
Most days I keep pretty good track of my phone. Except when I don't.

I use Google Translate a LOT to communicate and was doing so as My (pronounced "Me") and I took a taxi into town. As I paid the driver, I put my phone down instead of in my pocket. I got out of the cab and, before I got 10 feet, I realized it was missing. I immediately triple-checked all my pockets. Coming up empty, I rushed back to the street and, not seeing it on the ground, started chasing the taxi. As I was running away, My called the taxi company to tell them that I'd left my phone in the taxi and ask that the driver return with it. Since we didn't have the vehicle number (prominently displayed on the back of the front seat head restraints and on the outside in at least three places), it was going to take a while.

The short version of what happened next is:

  • I begged a number of people, only one of whom spoke any English, to allow me to use their phone to access the Internet so that I could activate the lost phone feature of "Find My iPhone".
  • My phoned the taxi company at least three times asking when the taxi driver would return to us.
  • She also called my phone a couple times hoping someone would answer. She didn't know I had the ringer off...
  • I talked my way into letting a hotel allow me to use its computer to access "Find My iPhone", but couldn't get the browser to work.
  • The taxi driver returned and swore he hadn't seen my phone. My became convinced, as did I, that the driver was lying.
  • She searched the cab, even the trunk. Twice.
  • I offered him cash to return it to me.
  • He protested that he didn't have it.
  • Repeat
  • We got the driver to take us to Villa Pink House, a nearby hotel where I have stayed numerous times and where the excellent staff knows me by sight
    • I used their computer to attempt to access "Find My iPhone".
    • The Internet connection was so S-L-O-W that I got very frustrated.
    • I have an iPad and backup iPhone at the house and I KNOW I can access "Find My iPhone" on them. Let's go there!
    • While I was inside trying to access the Internet, My sat in the taxi to ensure he didn't boogey.
  • The same taxi took us home and I was FINALLY able to activate "Lost Phone" mode (photo is one recreated today)
In "Lost Phone" mode I was able to have it play a sound even though the ringer was turned off and display message on the screen that said, in Vietnamese, "Please return this phone to me and I will give you a reward." It also had My's phone number. We heard nothing as I watched my phone travel further and further from me.
90 minutes and 3 blocks from loss
20 minutes later and rapidly moving away
Two hours missing and still moving
Four hours missing and stationary
Five hours gone and stopped for the night
At this point, it's long-past dark and the phone is 100+ km away, so there's no finding it tonight. I briefly contemplated remotely erasing it, but knew that whoever had it wouldn't be able to unlock it in 10 tries. It's programmed (through "Find My iPhone") to self-erase after the 10th failed attempt and still be unusable without my iTunes password, which is 14 characters that will need hacking to break. Instead, I updated the message to the tiếng Việt version of "I know you are in Thị Trấn. Please bring the phone back to me in Đà Lạt and I will give you a reward. If I have to come find you, there will be no reward." (Hint, hint)

As the phone is moving farther and farther away, we are with the taxi driver.

My is convinced he gave the phone to a friend and I'm starting to agree... not just because he looks shifty. She insists that we throw him under the bus (my term, not hers) and she demands that he take us to see his supervisor. At this point he's pretty nervous, so now I'm convinced he's guilty—though I'm torn because it's my fault for leaving my phone in the cab. As I write this, I'm thinking that he was afraid of the big and pissed-off foreigner.

Most crime in VN is that of opportunity. As I've written before, the mindset seems to be one of, "if I want what you have and you do not protect it, it's okay for me to take it." In the weeks after this incident, I learned that it's actually in the VN legal code that when you lend something to someone, it becomes theirs. Here, possession is 100% of the law!

It's after 8 p.m. when the supervisor arrives to take our story. He speaks pretty good English and seems to agree that the driver may be involved. He tells the driver to take us to the police to make a report and, since this is VN, we go to two police stations. The officer at the first one tells us that there is no one working this late (he apparently doesn't count) and that we should go to another police station across town. At that one, lights are on inside, but no one answers the door... even after I pound on it... so we head back to my house. I think the police officer at the first station sent us to the second one knowing they were closed and correctly figuring we wouldn't come back to him. So far, the only good news is that the supervisor told us not to pay for any of the fares that day/evening.

About an hour after we got back to the house, My received a phone call asking when and where we wanted to meet in the morning so the caller could return my phone. He also asked for the reward I offered—and that it should be 1,000,000 VND (~US$50). She arranged the meeting.

The next morning we arrived at the appointed meeting place and rode right past the guy. I was expecting an "Ali Baba", the VN term for street thugs. In my mind, he'd give me my phone and, after I made sure it was working, I'd get to tell him that his only reward would be that I was not calling the police. When we figured out who we were meeting, all previous thoughts went out the window. If the guy with my phone was Ali Baba, he was the best actor I've ever seen, including Nicholas Cage (that's a joke, son*).

He looked older than dirt, weighed about 80 lbs, and rode an old, beat-up bicycle carrying two huge baskets filled with avocados that his crudely hand-written signs offered for less than the normal street price. He told My that he was riding down the street and saw the phone in the gutter, so he picked it up.

As they talked, I checked the phone out and it was just as I had last seen it.

WOW!

My and I agreed that this guy was probably telling the truth, though I was still wondering. Since it's better to err to the good, I handed him 1,000,000 VND and thanked him. His eyes were brimming with tears as he thanked me, and my next thought was that this may have been one of a very few times he'd ever seen 1 million dong all at once.

What are the odds that I'd get my phone back, intact, less than 18 hours after losing it, and that I saved over US$300 after paying 1 million? Pretty damn slim, I'd say! Writing this weeks later, I'm still amazed!

We left the avocado vendor who returned my phone to me and went immediately went to the taxi company office to tell them that the phone had been returned. We also said that, as far as we were concerned, the issue was resolved. The driver was not on duty, so we asked them to call him and tell him the good news.

My thought to do this about 2 seconds before I did, though we strongly agreed this was a necessary step we had to take. I still look for green taxi number 060 so that I can thank him personally for his trouble that night.

Many years ago I learned that when you punish someone, there comes a time when you must also stop the punishment. For example: you may forget that you yelled at someone, but chances are pretty good that he/she still remembers and that flashbacks or memories are still sometimes activated.

Think about the most recent time someone “went off” on you… I’ll bet you remember it better than they do and that you still, no matter how long ago it was, relive it sometimes. That feels pretty shitty, doesn’t it? It’d probably stop if he/she made a special point of saying, “I’m sorry. I could have handled that better”, wouldn’t it?

Now think about the last time you went off on someone… could you have handled it better? Probably. So let that person know it’s over for you. That simple statement will, in most cases, end it for them, too.

Even though you may not have intended it and are probably unaware it is happening, all but sociopaths dwell on past negatives paid upon them. It is, therefore, our duty as humans to stop the punishment. The only way I know how to stop it is to seek that person out and let them know all is okay—when it is.

Go ahead, I’ll wait…
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If you have an iPhone or an iPad, and have yet to do so, activate the "Find My iPhone" feature. Go to the App Store and search for "Find My iPhone" (even on the iPad it's called Find My iPhone), then install it on your device.

If you have an Android phone, Google offers Android Device Manager. To find it, I DuckDuckGo'd "find my Android phone". DuckDuckGo is a search engine that, unlike Google, does NOT track your searches and is the ONLY search engine I use. 

There is also a Find My Phone feature for Windows phones; click here for more information. In all cases, the device must be set up with the app/feature BEFORE you lose it. Please do it NOW! 

3)
Almost everyone who's been through an airport in Việt Nam has seen the displays of large, framed, amazing needlework done by XQ Hand Embroidery. The web site photos do NOT do justice to these exquisite, hand-stitched, and breathtaking pieces of art. 

On 12 June, we attended a special invitation-only French chef-prepared luncheon at XQ's Đà Lạt location. It was a very nice meal and the (free) food was great. The location itself is an amazing place with many different buildings and many different levels, each of which displays a large number of framed needlework. I took a couple photos that do absolutely no justice to the artwork, so please click on the link above to explore their web site. Remember as you peruse the pages and the mediocre photography, that each piece is hand-stitched and has a three-dimensional feel. 

I was VERY tempted to buy one of the large pieces, but held off because of the possible change of venue within the next six months to year. The smaller dimension of the piece is over two meters, so moving it unframed would be relatively difficult; moving it framed across even one ocean and or continent would be ridiculous. I'm still thinking about it, and if I stay in VN, it will be on my wall at some point. 

We walked around a bit more after lunch and then headed for the cruiser and home. As we got outside, I instinctively reached for the keys that I "always" hang from a belt loop. They weren't there. 

SHITE! 

I go years without losing anything of value and now, for the second time in 10 days, I'm searching for a "necessary" item.

After about 15 minutes of retracing our steps and those of hundreds of others, we gave up. At the beginning of the search I asked where their "Lost and Found" department was... sorry, I forgot where I was... anything found now has a new owner and is no longer lost. 

I hailed a taxi and headed home, hoping the landlord would be there to use his copy of my key to let me in so I could grab my backup keys. Fortunately he was and I did. 

There is a very small chance that whomever now owns my keys will, one day, be in the same place as the cruiser. Even if he figures out the match and the cruiser gets "lost", he won't be able to hide because of the Bike Trac device installed in a hidden location. There's one on the DR-Z as well. Bike Trac is like Find My iPhone or Lo-Jack and if it's able to "see" a satellite, I can find it. You can also use it to trace your trip and I'll post more about this great technology soon. 

The next day we went to one of the street-side key makers and had a new set of keys made, so all is good. 

4)
A couple days after losing the cruiser keys, I rode a friend of My's to the bus station on my DR-Z. Upon arrival, my keys—necessary to start and, I thought, operate the motorcycle—were not in the ignition. By the time I realized this I'd already hit the kill button turning off the engine.

Damn!

I apologized to My's friends, got back on the bike and hit the start button (what the hell, gotta try, right?). Fortunately, the ignition was still in the "On" position and it started right up. As I retraced my trip while searching the ground on the other side of the street. Although this is not the safest way to ride a motorcycle, though who's going to notice? It's Việt Nam!

As I rode, I also tried to figure out how the keys could've fallen out—the design of all ignition switches is that the keys get locked in, held into place, so this won't happen. The good news is that I found the keys this time, still lying in the street. They'd been run over at least once by a car; one of two house keys was broken and the key ring was well-distorted.

The other three keys, including that for the motorcycle, were undamaged. With the keys, I was able to get into the house and get my backup keys without bothering the landlord. It was nice to avoid his three or four rapid-fire sentences of which I never understand one word and the accompanying smarmy laughter I get every time he looks at me. I think he's laughing "with me," but it always feels like "at me". 

I again got to go to the sidewalk key maker who gets it right the first time, every time. Even though I retrieved the DR-Z's key, I threw it out and had a new one cut. After playing around with it for a few minutes, I discovered that the key was a bit worn on one side and if it rotated about two degrees, it can fall (or be pulled) out of the ignition without turning the bike off. And that's apparently what happened. 

While I'm thinking about it,  here is a suggested practice: keep all original keys in the safe and use copies for all vehicles and locks. This way, if you wear down the original(s) and eventually make copies from copies, at some point, the key will be so worn down that a usable copy can't be made—at least not without a LOT of headache-inducing trial and error. 

I'll close this tale of loss with a reminder of a pending loss that's going to be a LOT more traumatic: Click here for "The Most Striking Climate Change Sculpture You'll Ever See". 


* Do you remember Foghorn Leghorn?


Jun 21, 2015

James Salter, a "Writer's Writer"

As reported in the 19 June NY Times, author James Salter died this week at age 90.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I have not read any of his work. I never heard of him until I read the obituary, in which Michael Dirda (Washington Post) is quoted as saying that “he can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.”

Read the obit and, if you are at all moved, read one of his books.

I did and I will.


Jun 14, 2015

Learning curve

A month or so ago I wrote that I'm returning to the U.S. in August to take a three-day/night off-road and a one-day on-road motorcycle courses.

NONE of what you see in the first four minutes and 58 seconds of this video is what I'll be doing... that will be found in the last minute.


Yes, I have health insurance coverage... and emergency medical evacuation coverage.




Jun 11, 2015

Somewhat Random Thoughts and Photographs

It's time to get caught up... at least more-so...

"I recently came up with my favourite theory explaining Life the Universe and Everything. My revelation came after thinking about the fact that every atom in our body was once inside an exploding star — and that thought led to me to suspecting that humanity might well represent an attempt by the Universe to become self-aware."—Dana Walker

Two weeks ago I bought a hole punch and put two new holes in each of my belts—to make them more snug, in case you were wondering :-P


Some of the roads here are bad. Others are HORRENDOUS!

I read something on-line that I just love: "Don't make the mistake of believing everything you think."
After a bit of research, the best source I can come up with is that it's a paraphrase of the title of a book by Thubten Chodron

When I moved into my rental house in Đà Lạt, I noticed holes in the exterior masonry that are part of the design

and, I assume they are to let in fresh air. This one is on the exterior wall of my kitchen, right above the dining table. I'd seen them before and not really paid much attention.

We're in the Central Highlands at about 1500 meters (4900 ft) above sea level and the climate here is very mild—the record high is 31.5 degrees C (88.7F) and the record low is -0.6 C (30.9F). Few of the homes here have either heat or air conditioning and the openings allow circulation. Add to that my landlord's beautiful collection of Bonsai trees,

the containers of which contain standing water, and you get muỗi (mosquitos). A LOT of muỗi.

That's one Vietnamese word that, had I never needed to learn it, I would be much happier.

The beds in the house all have permanent mosquito nets installed on the wall and, for a while, I got into the habit of making sure it was tightly pulled around the bed each night.. though some nights the little SOBs found a crack and got to me. It wasn't like there were swarms, though even one is enough to get me thrashing at the air every time I heard the BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ near my head. After only a few of those nights, I went to the local everything-for-sale market and bought some mosquito netting and some tape. The two "decorative" openings and the kitchen fan are now covered

but some still manage to find their way in via cracks between the window casings and the masonry (It's Việt Nam!), so I bought the ultimate in muỗi defense...
a muỗi racket! It's a rechargeable battery-powered electrocution device with three small LED bulbs at the top of the handle that light up your target for you. There is also an option to keep the light dark—stealth mode. In either mode, it makes a hugely satisfying sizzle when you connect! I used to laugh when I saw these in stores and now I laugh madly every time I connect (think Vincent Price at the end of "Thriller").

"You don't take photos for yourself, you take them for the old man you will become - if you are lucky." - Falang


When you come to Việt Nam, I strongly suggest that you try cháo gạo (rice porridge).

It's only 15,000VND (less than 75 cents US and quite filling.


@ 6:30-7:00 looks a lot like Sai Gon traffic

“When you're in jail, a good friend will be trying to bail you out. A best friend will be in the cell next to you saying, 'Damn, that was fun'.” ― Groucho Marx

Gangster Saigon Street Vendors Preying on Unsuspecting Tourists
Survey: Only 6% of Tourists Return to Vietnam
33% of Foreign tourists return to Vietnam
There's no telling what the real return rate is. Talking with the few tourists I encounter, my guess is that it's less than 10%.

Dessert is rare in Vietnamese restaurants, though there are bakeries and ice cream parlors. I am Jones-ing for good dark chocolate!

When you order scrambled eggs for breakfast, in most cases you will get diced, uncooked onions mixed in. If you don't like uncooked diced onions first thing in the morning, be sure to specify "không có hành tây" (kum cor han ti).

Vietnam Set to Become SE Asia's Economic Powerhouse

It's amazing how much rice I'm eating and enjoying. At least twice a week I'm having com chiên hải sản (seafood fried rice) for either lunch or dinner, and I no longer hesitate to order cơm gà (a mound of white rice with a piece of boiled chicken)... all because I now know to add sliced chili peppers to the omnipresent small bowl of soy sauce.


The transformation is amazing!

The Vietnamese government's import duty on automobiles is 100%. The ability to pay US$200,000+ for a sports car in a country where less than 3% of people drive cars is sometimes exclusive of what would pass for good taste in the most of the West.


When ordering what I thought was pho gà, I got this
The brain-looking white bits were chewy and "funny-tasting" and I only ate a bit of one. I'm guessing that there are a few other pieces in there that, in the west, only a butcher could identify. I was unable to determine, even after asking, what part of the chicken those orange balls are, but I couldn't make myself eat them. Is there a poultry version of Rocky Mountain Oysters?



Cogitating

Before I get into the topic of the day/week, I'd like to share something stolen from an on-line motorcycle site and adapted to my current location:

"Motorcycle riding in Việt Nam is like living through a zombie movie every day; you know they're all slow and sluggish, but you still have to be ready for the sudden jump and grab."

Ba-dum-bump!

Because of my doubts re staying in Việt Nam, I'm looking into other options. Both of the possibilities at which I'm currently looking involve a L-O-N-G motorcycle ride. I've initially prioritized them:

  • Seattle/Vancouver, BC to the southernmost tip of South America (Argentina)
    • ~10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers)
    • 14 countries
  • Edinburgh to Istanbul
    • ~6,000 miles (~9,600 kilometers)
    • 12 countries and very few straight lines
I'm doing a LOT of research on-line via various motorcycle forums, chat rooms, blogs, and web sites. A few of the better ones are Horizons Unlimited, Adventure Riders, and GT Rider (for SE Asia). There are also some good videos on YouTube by Adventure Bike TV and others. I linked to the second episode of ABTV because they review one of the bikes I'm looking at to do the trip.

A new bike for a new adventure! While perusing the forums, blogs, et cetera, I came across two statements that go well with my thoughts on this new plan.

"I usually run out of talent before I run out of horsepower" was certainly true when I rode my beautiful Victory.


The second was something I said often while driving my MINI

and will be one of the on-going themes of my LONG trip: "I wonder where that road goes?"

Initially I thought I'd get another Kawasaki KLR650.

The KLR was my very first motorcycle just over two years ago and it's quite the workhorse. They're sold in most of the world and the adventure community is full of information on modifications, additions, and subtractions that make them the choice of one hell of a lot of people for a successful long-term adventure trip. A good used one can be found all-day-long for between $3000 and $4000 depending on the extras and the sellers level of pride.

Another bike I'm considering is the Suzuki DR650:

Like the KLR, it's a well-proven design and one that's changed little since its 1990 introduction and has a huge fan base in the off-road and adventure motorcycling communities. The DR is leading the race between the two based on the information I've gleaned on-line AND my high level of satisfaction with its little brother, my DR-Z400S. I almost had to be talked into buying the DR-Z and it is, by far, the most fun-to-ride bike I've owned so far. The used DR is a much more rare find than a used KLR, though the prices are similar.

Those were the only bikes I was considering until read some of the on-line forums about long distance trips in the third world. Then I thought I'd look at the Honda XR 650L:



It was down to either the DR or the XR (the KLR comes in third according to EVERYONE who's owned all three) until my friend Glen, owner of an XR650L and two other bikes, and I talked. He suggested that I look at KTM.

I've always thought of KTM as too much bike for me and the orange paint scheme was never a favorite. Now that I've looked at the specs and read the forums and blogs, I think about KTM constantly. The 1190 Adventure R is now in the #1 slot, followed by the 690 R and the DR.

KTM 1190 Adventure R



KTM 690 Enduro R


The Yamaha Tenere was on my list for about five minutes; until I saw the weight. At 575 lb "wet" a.k.a. full of fuel, it is TOO HEAVY by a LOT... so it's out.

BMW's lineup is also out because, as beautiful and comfortable as those bikes can be, they are designed more toward street riding than off-road and many of the road surfaces on any of my prospective journeys would be "closed for repair" in the first world... and they, too, are comparatively heavy beasts. Hau (my Saigon mechanic and used bike dealer) has a 2010 BMW R1200RT (632 lb. wet) for which he's asking $22,000—reflecting the 100% duty paid on all imported vehicles. KBB says it's worth 12K in the U.S., so thanks for asking... NEXT!

Weight is an issue because at some point I am going to have to get it off me from a lying-on-the-ground position and then get it back upright. Since this is planned as a solo trip, I'll either be able to lift it or I'll have to wait until others come to help me. Those who know me will tell you that I'm lousy at waiting and never good at asking for help.

So BMW is out unless they need a model tested, in which case I'll consider a loaner. That said, I'd be happy as hell if offered a loaner of any of the above. Stubborn and opinionated do not equal stooopid! That said, they don't exclude it, either.

The KLR, DR, XR, and 690 are all enduros, previously and also known as dual sports. The 1190 is an Adventure bike and is, as you can see from the photo, very different. It is also about 160 lbs heavier than the heaviest enduro, though still significantly short of BMW weight. It's an awesome bike with the most advanced ABS system in the industry and it's at the top of my list... though I'm still cogitating on the enduro.

Or, I could get one of these...


The other major change from my original intention is that for this trip, I'm almost definitely buying new instead of used. The price difference is "only" a couple thousand US dollars and all three bikes hold good value on the used market. When I finally sell it, unless it's completely thrashed upon my return, I should be able to recoup a good percentage of my investment.

Tad, if you're reading this, do you think they'll insure me after my two previous claims?

As I was about to post this, I heard from Glen again... late this year or early 2016, Honda will release an all new Africa Twin, a.k.a. the CRF1000L!!! Although I have qualms about the first year of any new vehicle, Honda always builds top-quality bikes and this will be no exception.

KTM 1190 Adventure R or Honda Africa Twin?

If you have thoughts or opinions, I'd love to hear them...



Jun 1, 2015

Scratched

As of the morning of 31 May, The Itch was progressing to where I was thinking about looking into a full-body skin transplant. I called Global Rescue and, after clarifying that it was NOT an emergency, I told them about my three months of ITCHING and everything I’d done to try to alleviate it. What a great organization! For $639 a year they will consult on medical issues and help you resolve them—even if it means a no-additional-charge private jet ambulance halfway across the world. Hell, I'm riding a motorcycle almost every day in Việt Nam, how could I NOT have this? It costs less if you’re only going to be gone a few weeks or a month or three at a stretch and I recommend it to everyone who’s heading overseas. As long as you are at least 60 miles from your home address, they will get you to whatever medical facility you want, anywhere in the world, if no other way is available and fast enough. If you break your arm, you’re probably going to get local help, though if I’m conscious, anything that involves cutting through my skin or making sure my bones heal in the shape they’re supposed to be is going to happen in Bangkok, NOT VN! If it’s something really bad and/or life-threatening, they’ll send the cavalry (check with them for details, I’m just a happy customer).

GR found a Western dermatologist (Spanish, speaks four languages) in Ho Chi Minh City who could see me on Tuesday. That’s 6-1/2 hours by motorcycle and 8 by bus. The good news is that I was going down Monday anyway—I’m typing this on the bus—to bug Hau enough to get him to fix my DR-Z. I asked the shop in Đà Lạt to send it down to him when they couldn't fix the oil pump. He’s had it for 10 days and only just opened it up. Without my in-person prodding, it could be a month before I see it. The bus takes all-day, so getting in to see the doc at 9:20 Tuesday morning works well. It’s gonna cost me more than all five Vietnamese doctors combined (Western medicine at higher than Western prices), my medical policy won’t cover it, and I don’t care! I’m not gonna tell the doc, but I’d pay US$1000 to fix this itch!

I’d neglected my shoulder therapy exercises for the past few days, so the headaches were back. After eating breakfast (ăn sáng—literally “eat morning”), I walked to the place where I irregularly get a massage. I was there three days earlier and Phúc, my massage therapist, knew about the itch and didn’t have an issue with whatever caused it. Yet.

Phúc is very good and extremely professional. In my experience, massages in Đà Lạt are more like the therapeutic massages I got in the U.S. Phúc wears a shirt and long pants under a white “lab coat”—nothing at all like the sexy, low-cut, high-hemline dresses that are de rigueur in most Ho Chi Minh City massage businesses—and she’s never offered a “happy ending”, either. The hot stone massage is almost 50% more than a standard massage and, because I’m a high-roller, I spring for the extra 30,000 (US$1.43) every time! Yes, the very good one-hour hot stone massage costs 100,000 Việt Nam dong (US$4.76).

As I wrote during my first trip about 18 months ago, the women (and a few men) who give massages in Việt Nam survive on tips; the house gets 100% of the massage fee. I always tip about 200%, so for Phúc, that means 200,000. The first time I gave her the 200, she thought it was for the massage and the tip. I can still see the huge smile that lit up her face when I gave her another 100 for the massage. There aren’t too many places in the West where you can get a great massage and make someone’s day a bit brighter all for about US$14.

To put the amounts I’m throwing around in perspective, a “decent” 10' x 20' room with kitchen, bathroom, and sleeping loft outside the Đà Lạt city center rents for 1.5 million VND per month ($71.42). That’s a lot for someone who averages 50-100,000 per massage and might do two in a good day. It’s worse for those who work in Sái Gón, where that same 1.5 million gets you a 10' x 15' room with no loft, no kitchen, and a shared bathroom down the hall. It is also the reason most people in VN work 27-28 days every month. That, and the culture that trains thousands of country girls from a very early age that when they turn 18 (or 16), they will go to the city and do whatever it takes, even prostitution, to send home 6-8 million VND or more every month. The family doesn’t care how the money is earned, you’d just best not send less. Virtually all of the young women I’ve talked to send home monthly at least twice what they spend on themselves.

Some who read this may think that I’m believing BS stories made up to generate sympathy and, therefore, a bigger payday. To you I say, come here, get to know the people, and then tell me that I’m wrong. At first, I was very skeptical. Now, after spending 10 of the previous 18 months here, I’ve heard similar stories all up-and-down the country and I choose to believe. I’m sure that some are stretching the truth; most aren’t. I will NEVER know for sure and honestly don’t care. I’ve seen both of the rooms I mentioned earlier and the Vietnamese people are NOT shy about asking and telling what everything costs. Complete strangers ask me at least four times every week how much I paid for one or the other of my motorcycles and I’m always embarrassed to say because each cost more than the average Vietnamese family of four gets by on for a year. The official poverty level here is a shade over US$700... per year. If you come here on holiday or to live and cannot afford an extra 100,000 VND once or twice a week, then you’re either out of money or out of empathy. Either way, it’s time to go home and reload.

Are you wondering yet why I started with how much I itch? Or just hoping I won’t get back to it? The “good” news is that after years of my stories disappearing down the rabbit hole (right, Rich?), I’ve learned to find my way back… most of the time.

I was lying there, zoned out, enjoying my massage, when Phúc (today’s heroine) cried out. I’m clueless what she said, though I’m guessing it was the Vietnamese version of “HOLY SHIT, BATMAN!” I then felt a bit of a scratch on the back of my leg and she came up to where I could see her, holding out her right forefinger. On the tip was a tiny (as in miniscule) dot. Once she had my attention, she squeezed the dot between two fingernail tips and wiped the resulting tiny red spot on the white massage table cover. 

You can see how small they are—that's a pretty tightly woven fabric...
My turn for “HOLY SHIT, BATMAN!”

She then rapidly rotated back and forth from my legs to my head, each time popping the little fukr and wiping it on the table.

YUCH!!!!!!

For the next 10 minutes, she pulled them and popped them. She even had me pop a couple… and the whole time she’s saying, “Nhieu, nhieu!” (many, many). I was, at the same time, embarrassed and ecstatic. SHE FOUND WHAT FIVE FCUKING DOCTORS COULD NOT and four of them used a Sherlock Holmes-era magnifying glass!!!
Yeah, I know... I thought it was a rash. Embarrassing...
While she was grooming me like a chimpanzee, I took a few photos and sent them to Global Rescue. Even though it was 2 a.m. at their Boston HQ, they responded within a few minutes: “The (iPhone) pictures aren’t the best, but those look like it could possibly be bed bugs…” SHITE and EUREKA! We have a diagnosis that makes sense…

Phúc speaks about as much English as I speak Tiếng Việt and few of the words/phrases go well together, so it took a few minutes of charades and Google Translate for me to understand that she was giving me a piece of paper with the name of something I should buy at the pharmacy that would kill the little fukrs faster and more efficiently than picking them off and popping them. Yes, it’d speed it up a bit to pick them off and drop them into a glass of hydrogen peroxide (it’d be great if they would explode, though I doubt it) or rubbing alcohol or tequila… they might like the tequila…

It was raining HARD when I left, so I hailed a cab and had him stop at a pharmacy where I showed Phúc’s writing and got the “we don’t have it” gesture. The second pharmacy didn’t have it either. After trying a few times to tell this poor, addled soul how to get to the pharmacy that would have it, she finally gave up, held up five fingers and said, “Nam phut” (five minutes), which I did understand. She returned with the prescribed package in four.


After verifying that it was what I sought, she charged me 20,000 VND ($0.96). I tried to give her another 20,000 for her trouble, but she refused to accept it. This is now my favorite pharmacy—and it’s only half a kilometer from my house.

56A Nguyn Công Trũ
The first thing I did when I got home was strip the bed and throw everything into the washer and fill it up with HOT water from the shower and a couple pots I boiled on the stove. Most homes (and hotel rooms) in VN have hot water only from an on-demand heater mounted on the wall above the shower. Even though the kitchen sink is on the opposite side of the wall with the hot water heater, there is no pipe running to the sink. Nor is there hot water at the bathroom sink. It’s just the way it is, so when I do dishes, I usually fill the electric kettle and add its boiling water to the cold in the sink. I think the hot water kills germs better, though that could be disproven by now. In any case, it’s more comforting to me.
Then I took the mattress off the frame and leaned it up against the wall outside the front door. No flippin’ way that’s EVER coming back in the house! Next, I vacuumed everything in the bedroom twice; soaked the bottom 18 inches of the mosquito netting (mosquitos will get a blog post soon) in a bucket of the hottest water I could pull; and vacuumed the living room couches and carpet twice before hitting the shower with the anti-parasitic bug shampoo.

The directions say, in English, to use it three times in three days, lathering up twice each time and letting it sit for a bit the second time. For the first time in quite a while, I followed the directions. Sort of. I used it a second time when I showered before bed in the awesome Zen Valley Hotel

(say hi to my friend Axle) where I stayed because I no longer have a mattress and a third time during this morning’s shower. I’m pretty sure the three day thing is to make sure you kill the little fkr’s eggs (shudder), so I’ll buy another bottle when I get to Sái Gón.

As I write this, less than 24 hours since Masseuse/Bác Sĩ/Groomer Phúc’s diagnosis, the itching is all but gone. I still have the occasional thought that I’m itching, but that could be like the pain an amputee feels after losing a limb… or there could be one of two of the little fkr’s who survived six killer baths. They won’t survive eighteen!

There’s so much more, non-itchy, stuff to relate, though if you’re still reading, your eyes are probably glazing over, so I’ll end this here.

Thanks for reading and especially for your occasional emails of support. It’s nice to know you both enjoy my ramblings ;-)