A Month of Moto-Madness

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Asia » Vietnam
July 9th 2008
Published: July 12th 2008
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Just a short walk across the Chinese-Vietnamese border and I went from 'Miss' to 'Madame' with the occasional 'OY!' thrown in to keep me grounded. Six years on from my first visit to Vietnam and the motorcycle is still king. Not just a motorcycle they also function - amongst other things - as sofas, tables, family cars, taxis and removal lorries. Xe om (motorcycle taxi) guys have the ability to make a motorcycle look as comfortable as a sofa; leaning back with their feet up whilst awaiting their next fare. Families make motorcycles look as spacious as cars with families of four (and an occasional five), babies held in arms, toddlers standing up front, older kids clutching the shopping. Young guys hang out using their motos as card tables, drinking beer and watching girls go by.

During our time in Vietnam we saw some fairly unlikely motorcycle cargo: two gutted pigs (skin, body and head very much intact) strapped across the back of a Honda Dream in rush hour Hanoi; two dogs perched on a moto footrest looking rather perturbed as they rounded a corner in Hoi An; fridge held on by the driver’s left hand and a large helping of luck.
In Hanoi we sat at a balcony bar on a busy junction and 'moto-watched.' A popular pastime in Vietnam, good moto-watching spots invariably have a choice of bars from which to enjoy the madness. This particular junction involved five roads intersecting without the aid of rules or roundabout. The results of this optimistic approach to town planning were dozens of naturally occurring mini-roundabouts. From our elevated viewpoint we could see constellations of motorcycles coming together, swirling around and spinning off; at times as effortless as a dance, at others with fits and starts, swerves and horns. To add more spice to the chaos are the (frequent) kamikaze-riders who gun their motos in order to avoid any delay in mini-roundabouts and get through in a deadly straight line.

Then there are the hawkers who pick the busy crossroads to try their luck and risk their lives in the process. Gaps appear seemingly from nowhere as balloon sellers and conical hat vendors weave their way into the mass. Pedestrians complete the mix with locals traipsing across looking utterly unmoved by the possibility (probability) of being hit; foreigners tend to go at it a bit more headless-chicken style.

Almost everyone who comes to Vietnam knows they should cross like the locals do: slowly and steadily without stopping or speeding up. All very good in theory but self-preservation kicks in and it is near impossible not to employ a deadly 'sprint and stop-dead' technique. Not so pleasant when you're engaged in road-crossing battle yourself but very entertaining to rate other people's efforts over a beer.

It's not all moto-madness, Hanoi is a really beautiful capital city with its old quarter of French colonial buildings and a large, peaceful lake, which is home to myth and legend. Goods are sold by streets so walking around the town you might find shoe street, metal street, silk street, toy and sweet streets, and even kitchen sink street.

From Hanoi we went to Halong Bay. I’d been disappointed to have missed it the first time I came to Vietnam so we decided to do it properly and have a night on a not-so-cheap boat and a night on Cat Ba island. The scenery was stunning, as can be expected in a place where limestone peaks jut out of the water in a bizarrely haphazard fashion. The boat was beautiful and luxurious in a satisfyingly non-backpackerish way. Our cabin had an unobstructed view, air-conditioning and a mini-bar; none of which we are accustomed to on dry land. The food was also a huge improvement on our usual fare, which is more noodle soup than steamed fish, king prawns and stuffed crabs. The group of people on the boat were friendly and fun, so it quickly turned into a party. We spent a staggering amount of money on drinks (the exact amount has been erased from memory). The only way the experience was blighted was by the hawkers who surrounded the boat whenever we dropped anchor. They called up to us (favouring 'OY!' as opposed to 'Madame'), making vain attempts to hawk their junk food, doing excellent impressions of gobby aquatic-vending-machines. We spent the next day on Cat Ba island and once we got the obligatory cave viewing out of the way (cave-fatigue has set in) we got down to the beach where the surf was up and the sea worked its hangover-cure magic.

Two hours south of Hanoi is the small town of Ninh Binn. The town itself is nothing special but just outside is beautiful paddy-filled countryside with small traditional villages set amongst limestone peaks. We saw the countryside from the back of motorbikes in true Vietnamese style. It was harvest season and the roads were covered with straw and drying rice; the only available place in the waterlogged landscape to lay things to dry. We rode on the straw and dodged the bumpy rice and the occasional cow lying in the road, eyeing us warily, too full to move. Green fields were dotted with farmers, often hidden from sight deep in the fields apart from their tell-tale conical hats. The farmers live in villages where boats are the main (and sometimes the only) form of transport. We visited one such village where a young girl rowed us past small water-huts and houses, all with their own moorings. The people of that area spend so much time doing physical labour - rowing and farming - that they row not only with their hands but also with their feet. When they get tired of doing one they switch to the other.

My favourite place in Vietnam was undoubtedly Hoi An, its old quarter being an irresistible mix of Vietnamese and French. Crumbling colonial style buildings line the riverfront and cobblestone streets with Chinese-style temples and ceremonial halls adding Asian flavour. We spent five days there in a smart hotel complete with pool for just USD13. In Hoi An you get a lot for a little more. Two dollars were knocked off due to our request for them to disable the air-con. Our 'no air-con' request amused the hotel staff no end: the woman showing us the room almost ran downstairs to announce it to her colleagues amidst much good-natured laughter. Not surprising given our sweat-drenched appearance.

As well as hanging out, admiring the architecture, eating baguettes and steaming bowls of pho (noodle soup), we shopped Hoi An style. With tailors at every turn it's near impossible to come away without a tailor-made suit, dress, shirt, skirt, shoes or whatever you may desire. I started off well with just one dress (almost unknown to my wardrobe let alone backpack) but soon cracked and became a tape-measure junky. The tailors (almost all women) were excellent saleswomen and cajoled and complimented you into buying more: ‘wow Madame, you BEaUtiFUL! Verry nice, very pretty dress, you looking MOST bEAutiful... you buy ‘nother dress now!’

With heavier backpacks we boarded a sleeper bus for Nha Trang. Very different to our last sleeper bus (in China), this one was very plush and you had to take your shoes off when you got on; a welcome change from everyone depositing their lung-greb all over the floor when they get on.

Nha Trang has a long golden beach. It's become something of an international resort with restaurants, bars and hotels clogging the beachside town. Signs everywhere for 'authentic pizza' 'imported wines' or 'internationally renowned cocktails served in a coconut.' Despite imported food with prices quoted in USD not really being what we were looking for we decided it would be worth it for some time lazing on a beach.

Nha Trang has a bad reputation. Don't go down to the beach at night. Don't wear your bag on one shoulder. Don't take any valuables out to bars or clubs. Don't flaunt your valuables. Don't leave your things unattended on the beach. The list of 'don'ts' is lengthy. Bizarrely there is a vague attempt to soften the threat of all this potential danger by also erecting signs claiming that Nha Trang is 'civilised and friendly'. As with the tout that says 'don't worry... you can trust me!' or affixes everything they say with ‘my friend’ you know that there's something afoot.

Luckily for us we're not in the habit of flaunting valuables. On the beach we took nothing of any value, and kept our money in one of those waterproof containers so we could both swim at the same time. Unfortunately, it sprung a leak and so we took it in turns to swim, not taking a risk in notorious Nha Trang.

But as it turned out, no matter how careful you are, sometimes it's not enough. I was sunbathing whilst Paul swam, lying with my head on my arms, my bag next to my head.

I heard my bag being snatched because inside it was a plastic bag which made a loud crunchy sound as it was grabbed. Assuming it was Paul I didn't move for a second or two, then, when I looked up, there was no Paul and no bag, just two men disappearing in opposite directions.

I shouted and drew attention. I've no idea what I said exactly but it was definitely not so much damsel in distress; 'Stop! Thief! That man has my bag!' and a bit more 'OY!' followed by a torrent of abuse. I didn't exert myself too much though... They'd successfully made off with a ‘learn Spanish’ book, a battered sixth-hand novel and a pair of sunglasses. The money container had been in my hand the whole time.

Bizarrely they didn't disappear altogether, they just went back to their 'headquarters' by a small park at the back of the beach, no doubt to examine the goods and ditch the worthless stuff. Paul (out of the water by this stage) went over to investigate and found the bag dumped, with everything there but his sunglasses. Moments after Paul returned with the bag an older guy walked over and without saying a word gave him the sunglasses back.

It's a bit of a strange experience to have your bag snatched and then five minutes later you have it all back. It certainly wasn't part of their plan that I (and other people on the beach after I shouted) saw their faces. There was the risk of us contacting the police (although that was minimal given the reputation of the Vietnamese police - completely useless in a very corrupt kind of way.)

Either way, it seems that a plastic bag is an excellent burglar alarm for the impoverished backpacker. Even better: take nothing but a plastic bag. Better still empty the plastic bag and then everyone can see your worthless loot and you don't have to take part in a bag-snatch-gone-wrong farce.

We left soon after that, after warning everyone sunbathing in the area and getting accosted by the beach hawkers a few more times. The opportunities for both spending and losing your money on Nha Trang beach are quite staggering. Bags full of cigarettes, boxes of books, baskets of fruit, racks of sunglasses and cases of paintings are paraded up and down the beach (and in your face) with frustrating regularity. When you have no intention of buying anything and just want to relax, the hawkers can be annoying. After our brush with Nha Trang criminals my attitude softened. The hawkers trawl up and down that baking-hot beach everyday and hear the word 'no' far more than they get a 'yes'; get ignored more than they get a smile. Occasionally they'll get some hawker-sick quick-tempered type telling them where to go, or a backpacker spending ages haggling, refusing to pay an extra few thousand dong (pence) for a mango. Frustrating work for small gains; it must be sickening when they see the bag-snatchers, clad in designer gear, working the beach. The bag-snatchers enjoy easy work for big gains and rarely find themselves on the receiving end of a sunbaked tourist’s wrath.

Nha Trang wasn't all bad. Amongst all the identikit restaurants and bars of beach-side Nha Trang we managed to find places which were small and humble-looking and where the Vietnamese food was more than a footnote to all the un-authentic international food. Budget Vietnamese food is - in my food-loving opinion - a vast improvement on budget Chinese food; using fresh ingredients like lemongrass, lime, kaffir leaves and chillies instead of flavouring everything with MSG-laden gloop. Even on a budget you can enjoy fresh spring rolls, steamed fish in a banana leaf and massive bowls of noodle soup full of fresh ingredients and spicy flavours.

Travel in Vietnam

Vietnam is a difficult country to backpack precisely because it's too damn easy. Tourist buses ply the coast with open tickets (hop on and off as and when you like) all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh for as little as 30 USD. These buses are cheap because they are subsidised by the money they make from having lengthy and unnecessary stops at restaurants and by taking you to a specific hotel upon arrival and doing their utmost to shoehorn you into a room there. At times it feels a little bit like you've done the unthinkable and booked a bus with a tout. And really that is exactly what you've just done. Lies are commonplace: 'this is the last stop! Everyone must get off the bus!' they claim as you stop outside a hotel. If you question them about the whereabouts of the depot they will lie further 'no go to the depot, the bus has problem it's broken, just here'. So off you get and find much to your annoyance /amusement that as soon as all the Westerners are safely deposited to hotel reception (read: sales) staff the bus drives off, the 'problem' magically fixed.

Of course, local buses exist but these frequently overcharge foreigners (unfortunately, this is a running theme in Vietnam). It's hard to convince yourself to pay more for a local bus 'experience', especially when the tourist bus is by no means an air-tight bubble of air-con and Oreos. Vietnamese people use the buses too (but they are allowed to get off at secret stops not revealed to foreigners) and sleeper buses can be crammed full of people sleeping in the aisle, with hammocks creating further 'beds', and non-stop pop music pumping out of the speakers to remind you that you are in Asia after all.

The frustration with the experience lies not in the segregation but in the feeling that your wallet is being passed along a successive line of touts and businesses, and you just so happen to be along for the ride. When travelling in Vietnam, you could be forgiven for thinking that you have accidentally strapped a giant cash machine to your back instead of a backpack. We played the role of slippery fish and rarely stayed at the drop-off hotels. Instead we regained a sense of freedom whilst tramping the streets like good old-fashioned backpackers do, often staying in places with charismatic staff who weren't preoccupied with keeping you in the tourism net. By eating in local-style restaurants too, you can meet friendly locals who are more interested in actually talking to you than making cash withdrawals.

So after 11 weeks in China and Vietnam it's time to take it down a notch, leave the hawkers and touts far behind, drink some Beer Lao and swing in a hammock down by the Mekong....

...to Laos

Additional photos below
Photos: 42, Displayed: 32


12th July 2008

Hey pretty lady!
Glad you made it through tout-dom. Sounds and looks a beautiful place (apart from the plastic bag opportunists). Thank you for going there for us!
14th July 2008

Hey Cat, good to get a long overdue but suitable long update. When did you get so good at taking pictures? Do you have a super-flash camera or are you just good?
17th July 2008

Thank you! I hope it's a combination of both, I got a DSLR when I was in Korea (cheap, cheap) and have been practicising ever since. Paul is very patient:)
11th August 2008

nice photos
You're a good photographer. The photos make a trip to Vietnam more attractive than I'd been thinking. Thanks for posting 'em.
15th August 2008

Hey pretty lady indeed! You look fantastic! Bex is quite right, your photos are amazing. Looking very much forward to the next installment. :0)

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