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Steven Telck’s Trike Adventure continues …

Missive #7

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Sorry for the long time since the last email but I have been sick with a bad cold and so has Rodger my riding partner. Just as we were getting better the weather turn for the worse. This is technically the dry season but you would not know it by the amount of dirty water and wet road grime that has been sprayed upon me by every passing motorcycle and truck on the road. Some days I take off my walking shoes and put on a pair of old dirty socks and wear my Crocs to ride. My trike is just filthy, in fact I’m sure it weighs at least five pounds more than the beginning of the trip.

Vietnam has a history of eating dogs, but as I can see only in the country as evidence by the poor dogs in the back of the cage on the motorcycle picture. Within the city dogs are kept in large numbers as pets and I see real no real evidence that city folks are any longer eating dogs. On the other hand I have seen only 5 cats the entire trip.

Standard building practices in Vietnam and most of Asia are too  erect a concrete frame and within the frame lay up red clay bricks either solid or semi-solid. In Vietnam they seem to use the semi solid or the ones which have been extruded and have holes in them. It is very common to see them loaded up in big piles in open wagons and being pulled to the construction site by a tractor, all the while as bricks fall off the wagon onto the road causing cars and motorcycles to dodge crazily around them to avoid damage.

My number one rule for traveling in Vietnam in the rainy season is never to drive into a puddle in which you cannot see the bottom. They made it may look to be only half an inch thick but in the very center of that puddle could be a hole a foot deep in the road. I have broken three spokes so far on the two front wheels of the trike. At first I thought all Vietnamese drivers were just plain drunk during the rainy season, but I now understand their logic they will not drive into puddles either for fear of tearing the struts out of their cars.

To say that traffic in all the large cities and most of the medium and small cities is terrible is an understatement of the highest order. No one here is allowed to drive if they don’t know how to operate a horn. In fact it would seem that the item most often replaced on any vehicle here from motorcycle to bus or even heavy tractor must be the horn as it seems to be the most used part of any given vehicle. I firmly believe you can rope off one square mile of any part of Vietnam and find more motorcycles within that area than all the cars in the entire state of Wyoming.

I would say approximately 75 to 80% of all the males in Vietnam smoke cigarettes. It is not possible to go anywhere from a coffee shop to an ice cream shop, anywhere without smelling smoke from a cigarette. People will come in, light up  5 cigarettes in a group and  begin to create their own little Los Angeles smog and pollution zone without any fear of anyone around them complaining nor them caring one little bit if you are suffering from that smoke.

Guest houses will often ask you if you plan to stay all night. This question was explained to me by a friend named Tom who has lived in Vietnam for many years and writes a blog about living and traveling here. Guess houses are often used by travelers especially during the summer months who want to come in catch a couple of hours of sleep and get a shower to freshen up and that’s all they pay for, those few hours. They are also used by young lovers and anybody else who needs a private spot to ” do what you do that you don’t confess” to quote a line from an old song.

There is communist propaganda all over the country and along every major road. Usually it is a picture of Ho Chi Minh smiling down upon the masses with pictures of young people in uniforms doing heroic deeds for the benefit of the country. There seems to be quite a few monuments to the Communist party but almost everyone I have seen seems to been locked up behind gates or neglected.  It would appear that the Communist party is on the decline within the country at least with the common citizen. This may not be an accurate observation, but most people seem more interested in the all mighty Dong than the party.

And every little village in every town that you go to as you enter or drive about you will hear bird sounds. To be accurate it sounds like a magpie and canaries having a death struggle screeching and fighting. It is usually being played from speakers on top of some old gray concrete building two to three stories high with windows so small that no one could ever crawl out of them and barely look through them. At first I thought they might be small prisons or local jails which they  very well maybe but I have never seen any evidence of that being true like prisoners in the yard or prisoners coming and going. It is really weird and it is almost like listening to the soundtrack from Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds.

Guest houses in general have been great. They range in price from $6.50 to about $9 a night for a room with double beds air conditioning TV if you understand Vietnamese and a shower with hot water sometimes. Sometimes they even come with visiting young ladies as was evidenced by our last Guesthouse where young lady quietly opened up the door poked her head into our room saw me sitting on the bed writing email and just smiled at me and made a polite exit. At this time we are staying in a condo in Saigon. It offers a private bath with tub and shower, a large sitting area with kitchenette refrigerator and a separate bedroom two air conditioners, TV and a balcony to look out over the city. It is setting us back a whopping $32 a night.

Other than our lack or inability to speak Vietnamese which is causing much more problems than one would ever expect with getting anything done from something as simple as buying a bottle of water to eating lunch, the thing that drives me crazier than anything else is ever dinky little hotel and guesthouse asking to keep our passports overnight .  So far I have resisted and have even left guesthouses that have insisted upon this practice .  I know this is their country and they can do as they please, but no one really has any idea of the enormity of the problem to replace a lost or stolen passport nor the time involved to do it nor the amount of money that must be spent to get ourselves ready to travel again if one should go missing. I would think the Vietnamese government would understand that a passport is a very important document that must be kept secure at all times not put in some drawer at a receptionist desk which which may or may not be locked for anyone to get into and mess around with. Of course the reason for the request is so that the hotel owner can report us to the police. If this was true a photocopy should do the job or even a picture taken of a cell phone. Many places have been willing to take a picture with a cell phone and many others usually the lower class guest houses don’t even bother asking for the passport. If the guesthouse has a big red star on the front of it the mark of the Communist Party they have always asked for our passports and usually will not bend on the policy. One evening we had to go to four different guest houses before we could find one that would allow us to pay and without asking for our passport. Here in Saigon where we are staying at the nicest place since the beginning of the trip everybody was happy to just whip out the old cell phone and take a picture. It might be that I am not the only Foreigner resisting them on this issue, especially in the more upscale cities.

All in all the Vietnamese people are very friendly almost to the last one. A couple of days ago I was pushing my trike across a green median and up the side of a rather steep hill on grass and mud. As I got near the top I was slipping and sliding with my head down trying to get my feet firmly planted so I could proceed when suddenly the trike became lighter. I figured it was Rodger my riding partner who had turned around and was pulling it but it turned out to be somebody passing on a motorcycle who just came to a stop jumped off came down the embankment and was pulling the trike up to help me out. This and another little random acts of kindness by various people have left me with mixed feelings about the country. The government regulation and rules make touring here rather irksome as compared to say the United States, but the people are kind and gracious even if I can’t understand them and they can’t understand us. Old women will be walking down the street and look at me with a rather dour or sour looking face. I offer a head nod and a smile to which almost everytime a smile is returned and a wave.

Asian Highway Number 1 is not as bad as I read about. Yes it is extremely noisy and there is heavy traffic but most portions of the highway have 3 to 6 foot wide safety margins upon which motorcycles and bicycles can travel. This also includes goats and cows and anything else that’s wondering up and down the road. We often see herds of cows that are just crossing the road from one side of the field to another without anyone watching them or directing them as ad cars and trucks flasby. It seems they are just left loose to free range. Driving on the wrong side of the road in the safety margin is common practice not on  unusual one. The rules are simple if you are traveling in the direction of traffic you travel as close to the traffic as possible while the person who is breaking the law is traveling closer to the ditch where it is safer therefore the one who is obeying the law is at higher risk of being injured as they’re forced out into traffic than the one who is disobeying the law.

I was reading an article online which states that the government wants to improve the language abilities especially in English of all students. Problem is the same article also stated that 80% of the English teachers in the country cannot pass a basic exam proving they know enough about the language to teach it or how to teach it. In fact a young lady who we met today and spoke English who was self-taught told us that if you’re only place to learn English was in high school and maybe early college you had no chance of ever really being able to speak it. I remember 35 years ago I was teaching English in Thailand and yes to be technical it was a illegal in what I was doing, but the government turned a blind eye to it because they needed the foreign language teachers. This country is really going to have to get creative to attract the talent and people to come in and teach the citizens if they really want to get up to speed with English. They are at least 30 years behind Thailand in their English speaking abilities, by my estimation.

Vietnamese food in general is much more boring and bland than Thai food. Outside of large cities it is difficult to find good common food other than  noodle soup or rice dishes. Strangely enough x some of our better meals have been at bus terminals.

Whenever we roll into town or any place to stop for water or coffee the trike continues to gather people. They walk around it turn their heads on their sides point at it. People swing the handlbars back and forth to see how steers, check out the brakese.  Some of the more ruder people  sit down on the trike without being asked or reach over and start ringing the bell or blowing the air horn. I don’t mind that they’re doing it but they don’t understand how difficult it is to pump 100 PSI back into the air tank so that when I need the air horn there will be air in the tank when needed. One morning we got up and proceeded down the road when I was just about to be cut off by somebody pulling away from the curb. I hit the air horn only to find that it was completely empty. The trike and Rogers bike had been parked in a garage all night long lock together and evidently somebody had decided that it might be fun to go over and just push the little white lever until the horn stop making noise. At first I thought maybe I had a leak. So I pumped it back up and I did not use it for 3 days and it maintained pressure so this could only mean that somebody had been playing with it until the tank was empty. Most likely the security guard. My partner rides an upright Trek 520 bicycle. The running joke is at this time “My you would think that the Vietnamese have never seen a Trek 520 as they are wondering about the trike and exactly what it might be.

Have found that Google multi language translator works well English to Vietnamese and also will read out the Vietnamese text.  Within cities and larger cities this usually gets your meaning across and things can get done quickly, but we have found out in the countryside  most people do not understand the text which has been translated to Vietnamese and do not understand what you want until you hit the speech button and it plays back the Vietnamese upon which they immediately know what you want.  This seems to indicate that many country folk have trouble reading their own language. Within the cities almost everyone looks at it and quickly understands what you need. If they don’t we simply hit the text to voice option and it speaks Vietnamese and then they get it. This of course is only half of communication i problem if you need an answer back. You are usually still at a standstill unless you’re dealing with the younger generation. One  young girl could not speak a word of English but when we showed her the translation she whipped out her phone spoke Vietnamese into it after looking at what I had typed and it wrote English back to me.

Vietnam is a stunningly beautiful country especially along the coast and in the mountains yet it is treated with a high degree of disrespect by the very citizens living within it. It is covered in millions of tons of plastic bags and trash thrown carelessly everywhere. The Vietnamese people have not yet learned or acknowledge that plastic bags and plastic bottles are not the same as paper bags and banana skins in which many of their things 25 years ago were wrapped. During that time a throw away banana leaf wrapping or a paper bag was no big thing. Yes it was still ugly but within a week or two it was gone as the rains and humidity and the insects would quickly disposed of it. Now plastic bags and bottles lay upon the landscape for years and years until they finally get enough UV radiation to begin breaking them down. If they are in any way covered by leaves or dirt they remain everywhere for almost indefinitely. There seems to be no sense of saving the environment or worrying about environmental issues in this country especially regarding garbage. It is as though the Vietnamese people don’t even see the garbage which they throw upon the roads every year. It seems to be invisible to them.

The six people who we have met so far well have spoke fair to God English have all been young women. Every last one of them claim they taught themselves English either through self teaching or watching video on YouTube. When I asked why the answer was simple going to e English school in Vietnam is beyond the financial ability of most people as it seems to be extremely expensive to do so. I can only imagine that if the communist government puts the same restrictions on foreign teachers working here it must be the major reason why they have trouble attracting foreign teachers to teach English. The fact that the country  probably cannot pay wages as high as say Japan, South Korea or even Thailand is pay off the problem. Well time for some sleep. Both Roger a and I still have slight coughs a and sinus dripping so we are not entirely well  yet.




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