31 December 2016

How I (inadvertently) ruined our family Christmas photos

It's New Year's Eve, a.k.a. Amateur Night and I'm doing what I do every year... staying home where it's safe and quiet. It's as good a time as any to relate a 2016 Christmas story.

Christmas Eve night, Honey wants to open Christmas gifts, so we do.

Although I was never a huge fan of Christmas, it's different when you have a kid. I think I was 14 or 15 when I announced to my family that I was opting out of Christmas and its blatant commercialization. In the almost 50 years since, I've given in exactly twice during previous unhealthy relationships and exhibited a dead decorated tree in the house. That won't happen again, though I do smile when I remember that the cats loved the trees so much I had to wire them to the wall to keep them upright.

Vietnam is NOT a place where you'll find a large percentage of native Christians despite the Catholics giving it their best shot, BUT the Vietnamese people LOVE a good party, especially where there are gifts, AND the young children I know (including Honey) fervently believe in the large bearded red elf who brings presents. So much so that he did manage to find my house this year so Honey also got to open presents on Christmas Day.

Back to Christmas Eve...

After opening the gifts (oh boy, more cologne!) and in keeping with the photo-happy culture of Vietnam, we pose for photos both with and without the gifts. First Honey takes a couple photos of ViLa and me, and then ViLa takes a few of Honey and me. Why I didn't take photos of ViLa and Honey, I don't remember, but I'm guessing my leg was hurting (still on crutches) and I didn't offer.

When I am home, I wear t-shirts. I stocked up on t-shirts before I moved here because I knew that finding any shirt in Vietnam that would fit my 48" chest would be very difficult. My collection of 40+ includes t-shirts from a couple of my bungee jumps, the temples at Angkor Wat and other places I've visited on three continents, the Salish Sea Mini Cooper Club (that I helped found), various motorcycle brands and events, a few left over from my firefighter days, and even a few unadorned. At least 8 of them have sayings that are, most who know me will tell you, fitting to my outlook, temperament, thought process, and/or attitude... i.e. "smart ass".

For example:

As you can see from the condition of the lettering, I wear them a lot, though I try to avoid wearing the last one if I'm going to see a doctor... in the west.

The photos from Christmas Eve were all on ViLa's phone, so I didn't bother to look at them until a bit later—as she was getting ready to post them on Facebook. I had to stop her.

Take a look at this cropped, anonymized, and enlarged photo and see if you can guess why I stopped ViLa from posting it unedited:

How's that for an inappropriate Christmas message?


Though some of you who've known me for a long time might doubt it, this was NOT intentional! Really!!!

Here's the full Christmas photo inappropriate saying:

Perfectly harmless, clever, true, usually worth a smile, and completely inappropriate for family Christmas photos. It wasn't intentional, it was just the t-shirt of the day and it ruined the photos (for me and for unedited publication, even on FB).

If you're wondering why it's anonymized (yes, that is a word), I don't trust the Internet to leave the photo just on this blog and can only imagine what the trolls might do with it. Now, I don't care. It's "notme" wearing both the shirt and the festive headwear.

Next year I promise to wear a shirt with a collar for the family Christmas photos.


ViLa, Honey, and I all wish you a Very Happy and Healthy New Year!

21 December 2016

Medicine in Vietnam

As mentioned in a previous post, I shattered my right knee in a motorcycle accident in the US on 01 October. To give his permission for me to come back to Vietnam to recuperate, the orthopedic surgeon who rebuilt it made me promise to keep ALL weight off it for a full three months—'til 01 January 2017. Today is my 80th consecutive day on crutches and I'm counting the minutes until I can again walk (okay, limp) again on my own two feet. It is also well into the third week of pretty significant pain in my right shoulder; pain that started, coincidentally, about the time the knee pain became manageable. I'm 99% sure that the shoulder pain is caused by the extra work it's had to do supporting me while I drag my ass around on crutches. The left shoulder hurts a little, but it's not getting nearly the workout.

Last Saturday I met with an exercise therapist who did a comprehensive evaluation and "assigned" me some exercises to help give both my knee and my shoulder a chance at strengthening and healing. Today, when she called to verify our next session this Friday, I told her that the pain in my shoulder is getting worse. It is now very hard to "walk" using the crutches. She suggested I go to a doctor or the local hospital to have a medical professional check it out. She's only been in Vietnam for two months, so she doesn't yet know how abysmal the medical practice is in general, and especially in a small-ish town like Da Lat.

When I told ViLa I wanted to go to the doctor, she was more than a little surprised because of my previous refusal to see a Vietnamese doctor for anything short of a coma. She called a friend who'd had some ortho work done locally and the friend gave her a strong recommendation for a doctor near the local hospital. We called a taxi and headed to the office.

Banks, most offices, and medical practices shut down—literally locking the doors—either between 11 and 1 or 11:30 and 1:30. I have no problem with that and after showing up a few times at locked doors, learned to look at the clock before I set out. We arrived at the doctor's office at 1:45 to find locked doors and no one answering the buzzer. At about 1:55 a woman pulled up on a motorbike and said that the doctor would not be there until 3 p.m. and that I should return then. So we did—after La called to verify that the doctor was actually in.

Upon arriving at the office, the doctor told us (he told La and she translated for me) that he did not treat Westerners.

If you're a Westerner, you're NOT welcome here!

La's friend had told her that this doctor is very good—most "doctors" here wouldn't qualify as valet parkers in the west—so I asked her to push for a further explanation. The doctor then said that the government would "take away my medical license if I treat Westerners."


I am in enough pain that there is no room for any thoughts other than "STOP THE PAIN!" Under any circumstances I would have a hard time believing that even a non-democratic government (coming soon to a super power near you) would mandate such a thing. My initial reaction is that he's lying and there is another reason he wouldn't see me, possibly racism. When I'm in great pain it's very, very difficult for me to see the best in people who are consciously extending the time during which I am in pain.

The doctor suggested that we go to the hospital 100 meters up the road and, even though it's the public hospital I swore I'd never go back to, my pain level was such that I didn't want to endure a 20 minute ride to the only private hospital in town. So we called for the cab and headed up the hill.

Sorry I don't have any more photos; my phone battery died and I was in too much pain to think about taking them. Now I wish I'd borrowed ViLa's phone to do so, especially of the hospital paperwork.
EVERYTHING in Vietnamese medical "care" is pay-as-you-go. Literally. There may be an exception made if you are bleeding out in the emergency room, though I wouldn't bet the farm on it.

Upon our arrival at the hospital, ViLa pointed to a row of hard plastic chairs and said "sit down, please". So I did. She then went to the front desk to get the first piece of paper (cost 8,000 VND, about 32 cents US). This paper allowed her to go upstairs (it's all stairs, I've never seen an elevator in this hospital—if you're in a wheelchair and alone, you're in trouble), pay about US$1 for another slip of paper telling the doctor you've paid and it's okay for him (almost always a him) to talk with you. About five minutes later, she's back downstairs and across the hall we go (no waiting) to see the doctor.

The doctor looks at the paper, and without a word starts poking and grabbing at my shoulder. I point to where the pain is and say "dow", which is my version of the Vietnamese word for pain. I'm sure my pronunciation is wrong, but he gets the idea. He then tries to stick his hands inside the collar of my shirt to grab my shoulder and I barely win the race to unbutton it far enough before he rips it.

He then talks with La for a bit before sitting down at the computer to type out my next piece of paper; permission for an x-ray. While La heads back upstairs to pay 50,000 VND (~US$2) for the x-ray, I get a head-start hobbling down the hall to the X-ray Department. I overshot it because "x-ray" in Vietnamese is "x quang" and I was too stoopid to remember that. I've seen it enough that I certainly should! At a minimum, the "X" in front of another word should've at least given me pause...

By the time ViLa caught up with me, I had overshot the branch hallway I needed by at least 50 feet. That gave me the opportunity to go about 60 crutch-steps round trip extra just for fun, using a shoulder that is injured BECAUSE OF THE F*CKING CRUTCHES.


At this point I still have another 80-90 feet to go to x quang followed by more than 300 feet back to the doctor and my shoulder is on fire! Seeing this, ViLa asks a nurse sitting behind a glass partition if I can use one of their wheelchairs. The nurse says that the wheelchairs are only for emergencies (that's Vietnamese for "NO!"), so I hobble away down the hall past a woman in a wheelchair who is not bleeding out. When we get to the x-ray department, the technician points to the proper door for me and La heads off to find a wheelchair. By the time I get the x-ray film (Da Lat does not yet have digital x-rays), La's back with a wheelchair. I was very happy to ride back to the doctor's office. I didn't see anyone crawling down the hallway, so I'm pretty sure she got an empty one from the ER.

The doctor looks at the x-ray and says that I need an MRI. No problem; write it up and let's go...

This is when we entered the Twilight Zone.

They have an MRI in the hospital, BUT "it's so old that it's no good for shoulders or hips... only knees, elbows, and backs."

I know I'm repeating myself, but WTF???

Refusing to take the first no for an answer, I push back—NOT something done in polite Vietnamese society—causing ViLa embarrassment AND proving myself a barbarian. The doctor says (remember that ViLa's translating for us and, in the case of my words, I'm sure she's also editing) that he will not send me back down the hall for an MRI because it won't be usable.

I ask if we can get one at Hoàn Mỹ, the private hospital 25 minutes away. Of course not! They don't have an MRI machine. He then says that we can get a good MRI in Saigon like it's just down the road instead of a 7-hour drive away. So, for now, I won't be getting the needed MRI.

He (the doctor) then gives me a prescription for three different pills. They are, according to on-line medical resources, an anti-spasmodic (I haven't yet had muscle spasms), a pancreatic enzyme used for cataracts and removal of dead tissue (I have neither), and an anti-inflammatory (okay, this one I can probably use). The good news is that five days' worth of the three only cost 104,000 VND (~US$5). The better news is that I only took two doses before checking to see what they are and throwing 2/3 of them away. What I was thinking when I took prescribed medicine without knowing what it was, I cannot tell you. Maybe the pain is making me stupid(er)?

Before the shoulder started hurting, I wasn't doing very much moving around. Now that it is hurting, I'm doing even less. Only 10 more days until I can limp around on my own and let the shoulder start healing :-D

Today's experience, added to other recent and more personal challenges that I may write about later, has me seriously reconsidering how much longer I'll be in Vietnam.

What happens if I go down hard and can't be immediately transported to where there is competent medical care? Global Rescue is only gonna save me if I can travel—in a medical jet if need-be. If I can't, I'm toast.

Would anyone like to guess as to when I'll next visit a Vietnamese doctor?

16 November 2016

Thailand Part 7—Trains, Tuk-tuks, and Take-aways

After about 10 days in Chiang Mai and surrounding areas, it was time to head home. Rather than fly the 700 kms (420 miles) back to Bangkok, I decided to take the train to back to Bangkok, where I would catch flights to Saigon and then to Da Lat.

In my research I found a very helpful site called Seat61. The site highly recommends purchasing tickets ahead of time via a 12Go, so I did. The total fare, with service fee, was 891 bhat (US$27); about $20 less than I paid for my Nok Air flight to Chiang Mai. The trip is scheduled as 11 hours and actually took just about that. It was a nice experience, though now that I've done it, if I return to Chiang Mai, I'll pay the extra to fly both ways. Nok Air was a good choice because the ticket included up to 15kg (33 lbs) of baggage allowance. I wore/carried my heavy armored motorcycle jacket and boots to avoid paying excess baggage fees.

When you are flying within Asia, ALWAYS check the baggage allowance BEFORE you pay for your ticket. Vietnam Airlines and other "higher-end" carriers give you 20-30 kg (44-66 lbs) per flight, while the "budget" airlines like Air Asia and Viet Jet ALWAYS charge extra for checked bags and sometimes even charge for carry-ons, sometimes raising the total price to equal or exceed that of the better airlines. They do offer a discount if you pay the baggage fees when you make your reservation, though you want to print out and double-check your receipt to verify that the web site processed your request and payment. We discovered this the hard way the one (and only) time we flew Viet Jet. They tried to charge us twice as much for baggage at the airport because the web site hadn't properly processed our payment and I didn't double-check. My suggestion is that unless the el-cheapo airline is the only one available for the route you want to fly, avoid them spend a little more up-front for better service, friendlier employees, included baggage, and more legroom. The low-cost Asian airlines cater to locals and they are, 95% of the time, less in need of leg room than we Westerners. I've flown on planes within Asia where I had to sit at an angle just to fit into the available legroom.

Back to the train...

After tea at the Chiang Mai station,

The entrance to the boarding platform
Even the "Sprinter" takes 10.5 hours to travel 700 kilometers (420 miles)
It's been a while since I've seen a condom machine in the men's room,
though since half the trains are all-nighters, it's probably a good idea.
With all the wonderful teas in Asia, it's surprising how many times "Lipton" is the only choice.
we passengers boarded and took our assigned seats on the "Sprinter".

My seat came with a cloudy and scratched window, so I sat on the other side (of the aisle, not the window) for most of the trip until a Thai woman boarded who'd been assigned the seat.

For the first five hours of the trip, the entire car was filled with the voices of two men who talked very loudly and almost incessantly. After a while, it faded into "white noise" or background music and I found myself wondering, "Why am I unable to process loud Vietnamese conversations the same way?" Maybe it's the frequency? Most Vietnamese speech I hear seems that it is conducted at higher audio frequencies than most Thai conversations.

Whining children sound the same in any language... why can't parents keep them more quiet, especially in a confined space like a railroad passenger car?

I spent most of the trip looking out the window, taking a few photos and videos

These squatting toilets are challenging enough without the train's added motion...
of the mostly unremarkable countryside,

and eating the rather surprisingly good packaged meals that were included in the ticket price.

Satay Fried Mackeral—I could've eaten more
The snack was Pineapple Puffs (a bit dry)
Upon arrival in Bangkok, I to a tuk-tuk to the iSanook Residence hotel I'd found on Expedia. Nice enough place with clean, quiet rooms, BUT... DO NOT EAT dinner in the top-floor restaurant! It sucked!!!

The hotel is down a couple small streets/alleys from the main street, so it's nice and quiet. There are a number of family-owned restaurants in the area, but to get anywhere else, you're going to need a tuk-tuk or hike to the rail station (about 10 blocks).

I checked in about 8 p.m. and, VERY HUNGRY, asked about food. The only viable alternative (the family-owned places were all closed) was the top-floor restaurant in the hotel. I sat down, was given a menu, made my selection, and then ordered "yellow curry with shrimp, squid, egg, and vegetables (Seafood Pad Pong Ka-Ree)". What a HUGE disappointment! Fully 1/3 of the dish was barely sautéed (i.e. raw) onions and the "seafood" consisted of exactly two shrimp and two fragments of squid.

When I brought this to the attention of the surly waitress, she mumbled something in Thai and wandered off. The manager I requested never appeared, so I took up my disappointment (and photos) with the hotel manager. She said she'd have someone get back with me in the morning. The short version is that they charged me for the crappy food and gave me store credit in the deli--which was never open when I was hungry.

Would I stay here again? NO! The location is less-than-ideal and... the food sucks.

Since I had a day in Bangkok and needed some parts for my 400cc Suzuki DRZ, I took the list of "big bike" shops that I got from the concierge at the Renaissance during our stay before I went to Chiang Mai and spent the day wandering the city in a taxi seeking out these shops. Unfortunately, Suzuki doesn't sell DRZ in Thailand, so not even the Suzuki dealer had any parts and the other shops either don't want to or (most likely) can't get them.

One of the "performance" shops I tried did have a number of very interesting displays that, in my Western mind, were more suitable for a anime/fetish shop than a motorcycle accessory shop...

Whatever trips your trigger, as my friend Rich D probably still says...

My final morning in Bangkok I headed to the airport early so as to ensure that I had plenty of time. I learned a long time ago that it's much better to sit for an extra hour after going through Security Theater and passport control than to rush, run, sweat, and stress when some little thing goes sideways and throws of your imagined schedule.

The Skyway train connects to a dedicated Airport Rail Link train that drops you right at the terminal, so I chose to again take a taxi only to the Skyway station. I forgot about the many stairs and the scarcity of elevators (at least that I was able to find)... SHIT!

Only one of the many sets of stairs that I got to drag my three heavy bags up or down
THIS queue at Passport Control is one of the reasons it's best to leave plenty of time to get to your flight
In spite of the obstacles, I made it to the departure gate with time to spare, passing these two interesting views on my way

As I waited for my Vietnam Airlines flight back to Saigon, I thought about my impressions and take-aways from Thailand...

1) Bangkok is nice, though significantly more enjoyable with ViLa by my side than alone.

2) Chiang Mai is a great little town that would probably be where I'd head if I ever decide to live in Thailand.

3) The CB500X was a good bike that I rented for a fair price. While it handled well, it's more of a "sport bike" than I want, so there's no danger I'll be tempted to buy one. The new Africa Twin is more to my liking; maybe next time I go they'll have them on-offer.

4) I need to return to ride MORE of the wonderful roads of northern Thailand... preferably avoiding the clay-covered ones.

My impressions of Thailand as it compares to Vietnam:
- A much more polite (to my Western mind) society
- They don't ride along the curb on wrong side of the road
- They have better helmets, though that doesn't help if it's in the basket instead of worn properly
- A LOT more bitter, disgruntled expats wasting their life in the bars
- The roads are better—the worst road I rode was better than 80% of VN roads outside of cities, EXCEPT when they water down clay on top of tarmac
- There are many more wats than temples
- There are seemingly more "Hello Girl" bars and massage parlors in Chiang Mai than in much larger Saigon
- A LOT more ladyboys
- Thailand had the first signs I ever saw that say getting a tattoo of Buddha or having him as decoration is disrespectful and asking people not to do it. If I had been considering it (I hadn't), this new knowledge would change that.

One last comparison—there's no one in jail in Vietnam for writing an article making fun of the King's dog...

09 November 2016

Thailand, Part 5 — Riding the Strawberry Loop

Mae Sa Valley, Samoeng Loop, January 2016
Click here for today's route.

After another wonderful breakfast at

it was time to get on the road.

Thailand is a kingdom ruled by a junta. To cement the Authoritarian Father rule, their king is actually referred to as "Dad".

The bike was still pretty DIRTY from my two offs, so on the way to the Samoeng Loop, I stopped and got it washed. They took their time, did a great job, and charged hardly anything...

The bike/car wash place also had some of the more interesting icons to denote the men's and women's restrooms...

Once you get off the highway, road 1096 to Samoeng is very curvy and takes you past a number of places where you can have an "elephant encounter". Fortunately, the majority of them are non-riding encounters—riding an elephant is very harmful to the beautiful creatures and continues the abuse that they've suffered their entire lives. Here is one of the many articles you can find that goes into more detail: "Why elephant riding should be removed from your Bucket List".

Next time through, I will definitely stop at one of the elephant places; this time I just rode past and into the beautiful scenery.

At the junction of 1096 and 1269 (see map here), you can either go to right on 1269 to Samoeng on a spur or left on 1269 and loop back to Chiang Mai. Since I had all day, I took a right. I found that there is little to see in Somoeng, so I turned around and headed back to the 1096 interchange. I wanted to stop at one of the strawberry farms I'd passed on my way in...

Choosing one at random—though as my good friend Gee says, "everything happens for a reason"—I met Thaweesup Kriwattanakig, a gregarious young man with great English skills. He was also the one who made sure my strawberries were FRESH!

They literally went out into the field and picked them just for me!

while I waited, I made friends with the resident feline

and had a couple cups of tea and some complimentary strawberries. I originally asked for one kilo (2.2 lbs), though after tucking into the samples,

I quickly upped that to two kilos!

It's hard to believe that until that day, when I asked why so many of the strawberries had a lot of white on them, I did not know that the white strawberries will turn red next day or so. I was then able to enjoy fresh-picked-just-for-me strawberries for the next three days. When you are in Thailand, be sure to stop by to meet Thaweesup and his co-workers and enjoy their strawberries...

Having temporarily eaten my fill of strawberries and all but filled my top box with freshly-picked strawberries, I said goodbye to Thaweesup and his coworkers and headed back toward Chiang Mai. As I started up a hill, I rounded a corner to see two scooters off the road, one of which was on its side. As most conscientious motorcyclists will, I pulled over to see if all was okay... and I met two very nice young women, one of whom had a pretty good case of road rash from braking too suddenly in the gravel she'd drifted into on the side of the road. Her friend and I helped her to sit on the guardrail while I picked up her scooter and checked it for damage. The right-hand side mirror was toast and one of the side panels was scratched up, though the bike was still ride-able.

Checking in again with Kelly (the injured one) and her friend, Nimisha, I found that they weren't carrying any water with which they could wash the gravel out of the seemingly superficial wounds. I schlepped over to my bike, grabbed a 2L bottle of water and one of the 1/2 kilo boxes of strawberries. I offered the strawberries as a distraction from the discomfort of washing the gravel out of and cleaning the wounds in her knee and arm and was a bit surprised when they each only ate a couple. I then offered them the entire box while telling them briefly of the wonderful strawberry farm I'd just left. They kindly thanked me and said that they'd stop there and buy some themselves.

Kelly, Thaweesup, and Nimisha in the field
After a bit more conversation, we said our goodbyes and rode off in opposite directions—they to meet Thaweesup, and I toward Chiang Mai.

Earlier I'd given my last business card to Thaweesup and he'd promised to "Friend" me on Facebook, so I was happy to see that, a few days later he posted about both my visit and theirs. Kelly got my information from the business card, also sent me a "Friend" request, and posted this.

It was good to have two new friends and to see that Kelly was recovering well, though she did tell me that she and Nimisha wished they'd taken me up on my offer of a kilo of strawberries to ease her pain. It turns out that I'd bought out the last of the farm's inventory for the day and they had to go without. Sorry. If it helps any, they were awesome! :-D

I worked up an appetite ridin' 'round the hills of 1269, so I picked a place for lunch that had a few other motorcycles parked out front. The food was good and the view even better.

As I waited for my food, a young man approached me, asked what I was riding and where I was from. We talked for a bit and he told me he that he's a tour guide (and, I think, part owner) of an outfit called Big Bike Tours. He suggested I look at their web site and consider joining one of their tours. I promised to check out the web site and told him that I'm not much of a "tour person", more of a loner. After checking their web site, though, I may consider joining a tour to Myanmar because that's pretty much the only way a motorcyclist can get in.

He was a nice young man with good English skills. I wish him and his company well.

The rest of the ride back to the hotel in Chiang Mai was uneventful, though I did stop and watch them painting the road red...

And photograph more of the tighter non-red curves.

The last thing I did before returning the CBX500 was to go to the train station to buy my ticket to back to Bangkok.

Great ride with just enough adventure and diversity to keep it exciting... and the rubber on the road.

Next: Wrapping up Thailand—Trains, Tuk-tuks, and Take-aways