And so, after all those months of waiting we landed in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now known, a sprawling, frenetic place and quite honestly, not somewhere I particularly liked. That said, for having flown halfway around the world to a far away place on a continent I've never been to before, there was a certain familiarity about the place. The dusty streets, the hawkers, the markets and shops full of knock-off brands and cheap electronics. The packs of street dogs of Guatemala however were replaced by packs of scooters, nipping at our ankles constantly as we tried to navigate the maze of streets. Even sidewalks here are fair game, the pedestrian in no doubt of their position at the bottom of the pecking order. There may be zebra crossings painted on the roads but you usually have to jump a low-slung chains or iron bars to get on to them in the first place, a half-hearted attempt to keep the scooters out.
Luckily for me, Evan had done the legwork already having arrived a few hours before me and had found us a place to stay. For a couple of days we wandered the streets, visited the palace, talked to people and looked at bikes, but something didn't sit right. I think, for my part, I started off on the wrong foot by not particularly liking the city. It's a run down, uncared for place. That added a certain shadow to the hours we spent trekking the streets looking at bike after bike, all with their shot head bearings and suspension, bald tyres, rattly engines and lack of brakes. We sat, drank coffee (Vietnamese coffee made with sweetened condensed milk is incredible, especially poured over ice) and pondered our next move. Only one thing made any sense; we booked flights to Hanoi the following morning.
For a large city, Hanoi is a pretty cool place. With a completely different (and admittedly more tourist-focussed) vibe, the city is a crazy mix of traffic and locals and tourists swarming down narrow streets with scooter-packed sidewalks. We were fortunate enough to be there over a weekend, at which time a large section of the old quarter, along with the main circus at the north of the lake, becomes a pedestrian zone where families gather and play on hoverboards, listen to music, play puzzle games and kick badminton. Market stalls set up selling the usual fare and food vendors hawk deep fried, battered bananas and miscellaneous meat on skewers.
Whilst first impressions of both Saigon and Hanoi are complete and utter chaos, upon further study you realise there is a flow to everything. Whilst the traffic is crazy, it moves relatively slowly and not once did we see a collision. At junctions it's quite simple, just don't stop. Keep moving, give way to other people but firmly move along your intended path. It only goes wrong if you stop or panic and change course suddenly. This is most important to remember as a pedestrian when trying to cross a busy city street. Yes, there are green man crossings but they mean absolutely nothing at all. There is a T-shirt for sale in several shops in Ho Chi Minh City that has pictures of three traffic lights at red, amber and green with the annotations 'I can go’, 'I can go’ and 'I can still go’ next to them. Want to cross the road? Then just step out and start walking. Bikes will avoid you, as will cars, although they'll honk. Everyone does. Continuously. Oh, but that doesn't work with buses. Get out of their way. They'll mow you down as soon as look at you.
It's strange that Vietnam feels so familiar though. Familiar and very comfortable. I wonder how we would have felt arriving here if we had not already spent a considerable amount of time in Central America. I like Vietnam. It's a very family oriented society with no obvious religious influences, in fact to the point that we had to look it up to find out what the predominant religion here is. There are no obvious churches, temples, places of worship although apparently 90% of the population are Buddhist yet we've seen no evidence that suggests this. The locals are very friendly for the most part, if you exclude the few scammers in Hanoi, and you can't walk down a street without a little kid shouting hello to you, or a group of giggling teenagers outside a cafe wanting to practice their English. People here seem to be content, their smiles light up their whole faces and they share these with us often. Often when we stop at a little cafe on the side of a dusty road for coffee the owner will sit with us and chat, sometimes with our limited shared language interspersed with charades, sometimes via Google translate. They give us sour tangerines and salt to try and take with us. We stopped for gas a couple of days ago and they gave us free bottles of water. At one hotel the ladies of the family were more concerned about having their photo taken with me than taking our money. After a photo op that involved one of the ladies giving my upper leg a good squeeze with both hands (these ladies were tiny, about the size of ten year old children and under 5’ tall) we were finally allowed the key to our room.
Vietnam is in many ways the antithesis of a country like Guatemala. There is very little litter. People sweep up continuously and leave little piles by the roadside to be collected later by the little hand propelled dustcarts. Bikes here don't smoke and are so quiet that if you closed your eyes you'd barely know they were there. The food here is good. As well as the staple Pho Bo (rice noodles and beef in a broth) we've had good rice, meat and veg dishes and fried noodles. Baked yams and 'chicharron' style skewers from street vendors are a staple. Food here is well seasoned and flavoursome, unlike our experiences in Mexico where we often found ourselves disappointed with the only variation being degrees of heat. Very different to Central America, yet somehow so similar.
One of the things that has surprised me most here is the treatment of animals. I was expecting horrors, but so far I've been pleasantly surprised. There are virtually no street dogs and no skinny horses by the sides of the road. Cattle and water buffalo are well cared for, as are horses and pet dogs are clearly treated with affection. Out on the roads we've often seen livestock trucks full of pigs being hosed down to keep them cool. Chickens and ducks are packed into tiny wire cages for transport but not a great deal differently to how they would be transported at home. We’ve recently arrived in the far north of Vietnam - dog eating territory - and indeed it is clearly on the menu here, along with horse. Whilst walking through the market earlier we passed a stand with a whole cooked dog cut into pieces (I'll spare you the picture).
Anyhow, I digress…back to Hanoi. After what seemed like a very long day, even though it was just two short flights first from HCMC to Da Nang and then on to Hanoi, we found ourselves wandering the streets of the city with our packs at 11 o’clock at night looking for a cheap place to stay. We finally located the cheap hotel street and found ourselves a room that looked like a throwback to the 70’s with fake wood panelling all round, several leaks from the ceiling and an owner who took every opportunity to rip us off and make our lives difficult. Luckily we only intended to stay for as long as it took us to find bikes and the following day we made this our first mission.
Via a Facebook group I'd already found several possibilities and we decided to first try a local mechanic just the other side of the river from the old quarter. There aren't that many options when it comes to bikes in Vietnam, despite there being millions of them here. We'd looked at Honda Wins in HCMC and decided that they were clearly Chinese crap aimed at the backpacker set who were looking to recreate that episode of Top Gear. Mechanically awful and more uncomfortable than the beds in Vietnamese hotels (no mattresses, just bed bases!) we quickly ruled these out. Whilst a manual bike would be nice, we wanted to ride what the locals ride and clearly 90% of the bikes here are Honda Dreams or Waves. With their semi-automatic four speed gearbox, these little 110cc scooter-hybrids just keep going. They're true workhorses, often carrying families of four plus a pig on the back. The things we've seen transported on these things up 10% hills defies physics.
By lunchtime we were the proud owners of one of each of these bikes and $300 lighter. Evan chose the Dream as he found it the most comfortable. I chose a bright red Wave, which despite my initial reservations about not having a 'proper’ bike, I must admit I love. A day or two later, with freshly made custom racks, we strapped on our packs with cheap bungee cords and finally rolled out of town, northward bound.
It takes a little getting used to using a shifter that's four down and four up again, but we soon got the hang of it and we were on our way. It had been suggested that we'd only want to do about 100-150km a day, but riding these little things is surprisingly easy and comfortable and so on day one we made it to day two’s stopping place. Our first day’s ride was without incident, bar an unfortunate collision I had with a large, unidentified stinging creature that managed to wedge itself behind my sunglasses and proceeded to sting me several times on my right eyelid. My eye promptly swelled up until I couldn't open it anymore and so my initiation into riding in Vietnam was with only 50% vision. Not ideal against the trucks and buffalo and other bikes all vying for the same piece of road.
Then we started to head for the extreme north, to Vietnam’s North Pole. After riding along the stunning beautiful Ma Pi Leng Pass above the Nho Que River Valley, we arrived in Dong Van. We’d hoped to make it to Lung Chu that day but when we arrived at the gas station here we were told firmly ‘no gas for two hours’ so with nearly empty tanks we decided to call it a day and spend the afternoon exploring the town. A quick stop at the police station to get a permit required to be in this region and we were good to go.
That’s fine though, it's all part of the adventure and tomorrow is a whole new day.