27 February 2016

Thailand, Part 1 — Bangkok

Time really gets away from me...

Almost two months ago (early January), ViLa and I flew to Bangkok for a few days. After we returned I read something in Vicky's Very Interesting Blog "I Travel, I Become" about the full name:

"So to finish my first entry one last interesting fact that I learned today is the name of Bangkok itself. It’s actually later in the Guinness World Records as the world’s longest place name!
'Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahintharayutthaya Mahadilokphop Noppharatratchathaniburirom Udomratchaniwetmahasathan Amonphimanawatansathit Sakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit'...

(Note from John: WOW! I'm not even going to attempt to say that...)

"Which means: 'City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest' ".

Most of the time we spent in Bangkok was, like November's trip to Phnom Penh, spent shopping for inventory for ViLa's secondhand clothing shop, ViLa Fashions,

though this time I insisted that we see at least one notable tourist site. We saw a few.

After our a meter-less taxi ride experience from the airport,
The bump on the dashboard to the left of the driver is the well-covered and almost disguised meter
(I refused to pay the demanded fare—and won), we learned to get around on the very nice and amazingly immaculate metro system,

I was amazed how people lined up so that the doors were unblocked and
passengers could actually exit unobstructed. If Vietnam had a metro system,
people would be crammed up against the glass and the passengers exiting
would fight their way out as the people boarding pushed and shoved to get on.
took a couple river boats (public transportation is very available in the city center)

and did a LOT of walking!

ViLa like having her picture taken and I don't, so there are few of me... though I was there.

We used some of my Marriott points to stay at the Renaissance and were upgraded to the Concierge Level. It was ViLa's first Five-Star Hotel experience and I enjoyed watching her reaction to a level of luxury that is never experienced by 95%+ of the Vietnamese people and that many Westerners take for granted. She kept asking how I was able to arrange it for us to stay there for free. The concept is so foreign that it took a while before I was able to sufficiently explain that it was a reward I got because I (actually my clients) paid for well over a thousand nights' worth of accommodations at Marriott properties around North America over a period of many years... though never at this hotel or even in Asia.

Christmas was only a couple weeks earlier, so they still had the decorations up
Sitting at a desk for the first time in a LONG time...
She couldn't get over the huge selection of good food at the Concierge Lounge breakfast...
and especially that it was FREE!
I arranged our departing flights on the 8th so that ViLa's flight back to Saigon left about an hour before my flight to Chiang Mai. That would allow us to be comfortably through Immigration and Security, then she'd be on-board her flight before I left for my gate. Her first-ever airplane flight was only this past November and this, her second international flight, was to be her first flight without me leading the way. Even though I had carefully explained everything she would need to do step-by-step and made sure that on the trip to Bangkok she paid close attention to where we went and every little nuance, she was understandably VERY nervous.

We planned to take the metro from the hotel to the airport, leaving the hotel three hours prior to her flight. That should give us plenty of time without rushing.

"The best laid plans..."

The day before we left, I checked to see approximately how far it was from the boarding gate for her international flight to the one for my domestic flight. The answer: a little over an hour's taxi ride unless traffic is especially horrendous.

Did you know that they have two active commercial airports in Bangkok? Neither did I! SHIT!

Because of this, we left the hotel four hours prior to her flight. I thought that would give us enough time to get her to the gate and leave me with enough time to get across town to the other airport and my flight. In 30+ years of flying a LOT (I think it was in 1997 that I was on 180 different airplanes), I've never yet missed a flight (knock wood). The very short version of the story is that this day we each came within minutes of missing our respective flights.

Notes for those traveling in or out of Bangkok:
1) There are two airports--Suvarnabhumi (~26 km east of Bangkok) and Don Mueang (~26 km north of Bangkok)
2) If you're coming into one and out of the other, allow a MINIMUM of four hours between flights.
3) There's a FREE SHUTTLE SERVICE between the two airports for those who are using both on the same day.
4) You can only get on the free shuttle if you can show a copy of your itinerary, NOT JUST your flight number out of the other airport (ask me how I know this).

I was absolutely confident of ViLa's ability to solo navigate international air travel and was unsurprised and very proud that she made it home to Dalat without incident—especially after I started her off in the hole by almost causing her to miss the first flight!

We laugh about it now...

14 February 2016

Happy Valentine's Day!

Yes, they celebrate Valentine's Day here in Vietnam!

ViLa ran out of her favorite perfume a bit ago and it's pretty pricey for someone who is struggling to get a secondhand clothing shop up-and-running... so I thought it'd make a good VD gift. I also thought I'd surprise her in a rather unique way.

So I gave her a box of Belgian chocolates (Vietnamese chocolate is crap!) and a package of crackers...

As she put the crackers aside, I suggested that she have one. We'd just returned from dinner, so she said she wasn't hungry... so I asked if I might have one. Of course! So she opened the package and, as she pulled out the plastic tray, I wish I'd had the camera out, because the look on her face was awesome:

"Ôi chia ơi!" (Oh, my god!)

The best part is, she would've been happy with the crackers... 

06 February 2016

A new friend, a new laptop, and more

In mid-December, as I was riding home from ViLa's shop, I came up on a backpacker sitting at the side of the street hunched over either a phone or a map (I approached from behind, so I couldn't tell).

I stopped to ask, "Can I help you find something?" and was greeting with a HUGE smile!
Say hello! to Vicky
Vicky had just hit town and was trying to find her hostel. Yes, you can get there from here, but it's going to take a bit of doing... and I'm unsure I can explain it, even with a map.

I offered to guide her, and she said, "Yes, please!" Although I wasn't sure of the exact location, I knew I could get her close... and we ended up finding it on the first try. We talked for a bit and Vicky told me that she wanted to find some warm clothes (a common request by newcomers who are used to the year-round tropical weather of Saigon and much of SE Asia) and a mechanic to look at her bike. We agreed to meet again after she had a chance to shower and change so that I could take her to ViLa's second-hand clothing shop and to a mechanic Gee and I found a few months ago who's since done quite a few quality repairs for me.

Vicky and I talked quite a bit over the next few days and I'm very proud to say that in her blog she calls me her guardian angel in Vietnam.

Beyond that, her blog gives her very interesting insights into a solo trip throughout SE Asia. She's currently in Laos, her blog is called I Travel, I Become, and I highly recommend it. I'll let her tell you more about the time we got to share...

At this point in my life, I've been to 1/4 of the 52 Places to go in 2016... and I live in one of them (#30). Going to be a busy year if I hope to get to the rest of them ;-)

I was a bit surprised that Son Doong Cave is NOT on the list. Maybe because it's very limited access and all spots for 2016 are sold out?

A little over a month ago, I wrote about the instantaneous death of my laptop's hard drive. While waiting everything to download from the cloud into my backup laptop, I purchased a MacBook Pro. I then put it in the safe and went to Thailand for a motorcycle adventure — to be covered here later and subsequently in my book, ideas for which are currently fermenting somewhere in my subconscious.

Now that I'm back, I'm slowly climbing the learning curve and occasionally back-sliding. I've learned that a two-finger tap on the touchpad is equivalent to the PC's right-click; that "Delete" is the same as "Backspace" on the PC; that there is no key similar to the "Delete" key on a PC; 
"PageDown" and "PageUp" are now Option-DownArrow and Option-UpArrow; that a three-finger swipe on the touchpad will take me through each of the open windows one at a time; and that my head will most likely not explode, at least not because of the PC-to-Mac switch. I'm still looking for the equivalent to the PC's keys for "Home" and "End". There are also a number of things I've not yet thought to look for (just wanted the "End" key again) and I'm sure that at least one will make itself known soon.

I like the F3 key that shows me all open windows.

Carbonate can't download files to a Mac that were uploaded from a PC (just needed "End" two more times), so I had to make sure EVERYTHING was on the backup PC before I could start backing up the Mac because they delete all your files when you switch within an account. That was a little scary.

Now it will take a couple weeks to put everything back into Carbonite's cloud... awaiting the next big crash.

So far, I'm liking the Mac and LOVING the Retina display — it's the same as on the newer iPads and amazingly bright and clear. Every image can now look like the old Cibachrome prints.

Old technology that I'd never heard of... I want one!
Click here: Pump up your tires using your engine

03 February 2016

Motorbike (and Motorcycle) Maintenance

A previous post discussing the importance tire pressure to all motorized vehicles was well-received, so I'm back with a tale of what I call possibly narrowly-averted disaster that started with checking tire pressure of a friend's motorbike...

Fortunately and unfortunately (though in my opinion, mostly the former), Việt Nam is a cash economy. Credit cards are virtually non-existent and if you (usually a foreigner) use one at a hotel or travel service—pretty much the only places you can use one—you will pay a 3-5% premium to cover the credit card company's fees. Most Vietnamese I know are challenged to come up with enough cash every month to pay for the basic necessities like shelter and food, so motorbike maintenance is low on the priority list. Add that to the fact that virtually no one tells them that the bikes need to be maintained beyond filling up the gas tank, so how would they know?

One Saturday last December, I did my every week or so check of tire pressures on my three bikes and found that two of six tires were low. Before putting away the TP gauge and compressor, I messaged my landlord, who lives nearby, and offered to check the tire pressure on her motorbike. She brought the bike over and we found that, in tires with a recommended pressure of 33 psi, she had 30 psi in the front and less than 10 in the rear (the gauge starts at 10 and didn't register at all). As I wrote before, low tire pressure can be very dangerous, so as I topped them off, I asked her to come by every week for me to check hers, too. She agreed and pointed out a small piece of metal in the rear tire, the cross-section of which was so small, I may have missed it while inspecting the tires for tread wear/depth, cuts, abrasions, etc. I suggested that she get the tire patched the next day and recommended where to go to get it patched from the inside. She agreed, thanked me, and left.

As a trainer for almost 20 years, I know the importance of following-up. Two days later I sent her a message asking how it went with the tire repair. The reply was that she was very busy and had not. One of the things I know from a full year of living here is that that most likely meant she might get to it on Sunday, her only day off... and this was Monday. Next thing I knew, I volunteered to trade scooters with her for a day so that I could get the tire repaired. She happily agreed.

The next morning I took the bike in for a tire patch...

They patch the tire from the inside without taking the tire off the rim

ALWAYS patch a tubeless tire from the inside. 
It is a much better and safer repair than the quick-and-easy plug.
When I tried to start the bike to ride to the tire shop, the electric starter ground quickly to a halt... numerous times. Fortunately, the bike has a kick-starter, so I was able to get it running without problem. Then, during my ride to the tire shop, I discovered that in addition to needing the tire patch and a new battery, the bike's speedometer isn't working; there's a strange noise that sounds like it's coming from the front end; and had the thought that it's probably been a long while since the oil was changed. I am constantly surprised how few people in Vietnam (and the U.S.) know to do any kind of basic maintenance on their motorbikes. They ride them until the wheels come off (sometimes literally) and then fix the problem. As it probably is in most of the world, there is little-to-no training or education on the topic. If you've ever heard the phrase "gas and go", these are them.

Instead of heading home after the tire repair, I rode to the repair shop that's recently done quite a bit of work on my Honda Steed.

When I returned the bike to my landlord that evening, I asked her, other than buying gas, what has she done to the motorbike since buying it a number of years ago...

  • Plugged flat tires
  • Changed the oil, though unsure when or how often
Then I showed her what the mechanic had found and repaired:

1. Damaged and Dead battery — Replaced

A bulging battery casing... NOT good
2. Worn-out speedometer gear

3. Front and rear sprockets worn down — Replaced, along with the chain
Rear sprocket before (note sharp teeth)
Rear sprocket after
Front sprocket before. Note the caked dirt below the chain.
Clean front sprocket area
New front sprocket and chain
4. Literally over a pound of dirt in the drive assembly — Cleaned out

Yes, I actually weighed the final pile of dirt
5. Oil change
Drain first, then put in new oil. Otherwise it's topping-off.
6. Replaced a bolt on the luggage carrier
No detail too small...
Total cost, parts and labor, almost exactly 1,000,000VND or US$45. To put this in perspective, a good dinner is about 50,000VND ($2.25) and I pay a woman 120,000VND (market is 100,000) to spend three hours cleaning my house every week. It's a ton more money to the locals than it is to me, and she probably wouldn't have had the work done until something blew up... and cost her a lot more than I paid.

Think about your vehicle(s)... when was the last time you did the basic maintenance? Recently? Great! If you can't remember, consider having someone take a look at it this week—and following their recommendations.