Welcome Back! Please Don’t Forget How Belligerent We Are!

San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
February 2013

Home is home. It was cool to be back, even for a brief, errand-filled week, and great to spend time with friends and family. I felt a bit disconnected at times, because US culture is so “zoomed in” to the US, and is generally apathetic/ignorant of the entire rest of the world. Which more or less works when you’re living there I guess, but when you have recent experience on other continents (let alone ALL other continents, hahahaa), it’s a little alienating. But at the same time it was also interesting, because I was looking at things as a traveler does, so I was aware of details I’m usually not. In addition to “visiting home”, I re-realized that the Bay Area was also yet another cool place to be. There’s a lot I miss, and someday, I will need to live here again.

One bit of annoyance though: Why do so many US Customs/Immigration officials tend to be arrogant pricks? Did someone think that was somehow a productive thing to do? “Hey guys, make sure you’re assholes to people coming in! That’s a big help to…uh…something!” My flight to SFO was from Tokyo. So, duh, a good chunk of the people arriving were not from the US. One strange thing that the dipshit Customs folks apparently forget, is that many people outside the US don’t speak English natively. When in addition to being pricks, they then decide to yell in fast English at these people, it makes me embarrased to no end. It’s as if after all my time abroad, they wanted to make sure I didn’t forget that the US has its fair share of douches on power trips. I get that they need to be observant and serious and diligent and secure and thorough, and that that takes time, and all that — but they just don’t need to be so arrogant and dismissive while doing it.

After clearing customs, I immediately turned to the shy, polite Japanese woman most recently yelled at (srsly!?), and said “Hi…I just wanted to say sorry about those guys. They’re just rude in general. They’re like that to us (USA citizens) sometimes too…”

She nodded and laughed and said, “Ahh…are they like that to you, in my country?”

I sighed. “No. They’re not like that anywhere but here.”

Hey, US Customs assholes: Get with it. You are the first representatives of the USA, to millions at a time. Can’t you drop the arrogant attitude, do your damn job, and move on?

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới

Hanoi, Vietnam
Feb 2013

Southern Vietnam was largely a tropical paradise. And I’m told that during the right time of year, the north is as well — but of course I was travelling in winter. And the gods of tropical paradise know this. So pretty much exactly as I crossed the former DMZ, into “the north”, the weather abruptly switched from “tropical paradise” to “cold, foggy, rainy, ugly mess”. I became convinced that the real reason for the Vietnam War was that the north couldn’t stand that their weather sucked so much, and simply had to re-annex the beautiful south :)

Another piece of poor timing on my part: I was only in northern Vietnam for about a week, and much of that was during Tet (Vietnamese/Chinese New Year). Which in general the Vietnamese celebrate by more or less shutting society completely down, and going home to chill with their families and friends for a few days. Which makes it the worst possible time to be there as a foreign traveler. Note to self (and to anyone else): if you’re ever traveling to Vietnam, don’t do it during Tet, unless you have a family there to chill with.

Beaches and seafood and war tunnels, oh my!

South/Central Coast
February 2013

One of the startlingly cool things about motorcycle travel in Vietnam is how brutally cheap repair service is. After arriving in Hue I took the bike to a mechanic, figuring that the bike was probably fairly mad at me after the jarring jungle chaos. The mechanic gave the bike a once over, and told me that I needed some suspension work, to replace a couple gaskets, to realign the steering column, and to re-weld the support on the custom luggage rack. And an oil change, of course.

…and the total cost ended up being about US$25. Yeah, it’s that cheap.

The typical stops up the coast were nice as expected — but the trips between those points were some of the best moments of my time in Vietnam. The coastal landscape around Da Nang is gorgeous, especially if you stop along the way for some of the brilliant and tasty seafood they whip up on the central coast — definitely some of my favorite food in Vietnam. ‘Cause, yeah, pho is cool and all…but it gets old fast ;)

The Largest Language Barrier Yet

February 2013

A quirk of travel (for westerners) in Vietnam: compared to the other southeast Asian countries, the language here is much more difficult, and the level of spoken English spoken here is much lower — usually almost zero. Which means it’s by far the most difficult place in the area to communicate. Actually, for me, communication-wise, it’s the most difficult place I’ve ever been, in the world. This is simultaneously exotic, fun, and frustrating. The linguistic differences between Vietnamese and English all but guarantee that any conversation is a circus; unless someone has had some practice in the opposite language, it’s almost impossible to pronounce words well enough for the other to understand. Luckily, most people here are kind, patient and playful, and it all seems to work out in the end, as long as you’re humble and friendly. (And do stay humble when you get frustrated! Remember: as the western foreigner, you are the one that doesn’t speak the correct language!)

The tones are crazy and subtle at the same time, almost everything is nasalized, and they pronounce the vowels much more prominently than the consonants….so to the western ear, Vietnamese sounds almost like someone twanging a rubber band in a reverb chamber. Of course, when you manage to say something intelligible enough that you are understood, it feels pretty triumphant.

And of course, the accidental Engrish is consistently humorous :)

Welcome to the Jungle! (Or, “How The F@$k Did I Even Get Here?!”)

Southern/Central Vietnam
February 2013

Da Lat was gorgeous and remote as expected. Coffee. Buildings. All that.

…and then it got interesting.

From Da Lat, my goal was to ride the motorcycle up to Buon Ma Thuot — so off I went. After some 30km, going into the highland jungle, the road entered a state of perpetual construction. (This happens in a lot of developing world countries, especially in semi-remote areas; instead of finishing manageable parts of a project at a time, they try to do everything simultaneously. Which of course means nothing ever gets completed). So the trip morphed into a bumpy and wild journey through gravel, sandy mud and washed out dirt road. Which was tiring and irritating…but more or less manageable.

Then I happened upon a jungle village, and as happens in some small villages in Asia, there’s That One Kid that knows some English, and loves practicing it at any westerner that floats by. Which is a cool thing. Well, That One Kid in this village sees me with white skin and round eyes, and gets all excited. He runs up to me laughing and throwing out the stock English sentences, and I couldn’t help but let his good mood infect me, and mellow me out after the wild terrain ride through the construction zone. After a few minutes, he’d exhausted his arsenal of English phrases, so concluded the conversation with “Ok Bye! Where you go now?”. I mentioned Buon Ma Thuot, and he cheerfully pointed me in a different direction than I’d expected and said “Buon Ma Thuot! This way better to Buon Ma Thuot!” And so…I went that way.

Things started turning into an animated White Zombie jungle video after that. The road he pointed me down became more hilly, and went to single track. I got a little nervous at the idea, but I also know that I shouldn’t expect things to be very developed out in the jungle in central Vietnam. And the further I went, the more reluctant I was to turn back. But the path got crazier and crazier. After a while, the path had turned into what we back home would call an intermediate single-track mountain bike trail. And I was trying to cruise it with a street motorcycle, fully loaded with luggage. HaaAHahaahahahaa…

Soon I found myself having to line up the bike’s wheels with the support logs on a footbridge whose planks were missing. And then wading around in small rivers to find a path where I could walk the bike through the water at minimum depth. And then cursing the kid from town that sent me this way. And then cursing myself for following his advice. I was kinda nervous, because if the bike ran into a problem out here, I was not going to be happy — I wasn’t carrying food, water, or shelter, and I was in the central highland jungle, by this point far from everything. Think “Apocalypse Now”. I just kept rolling on, telling myself “Concentrate. Don’t fuck up. Just ride.”

Somewhere along they way it dawned on me: The kid was being honest and correct, and had pointed me down one of the paths that has been there for likely hundreds of years. And that for him, in his village, Buon Ma Thuot was probably some crazy far-away land that you would likely get to after a really long time on this path.

A stressful hour or two later, when I finally popped out into “civilization” (by which I mean, a random indigenous village with thatched roofs and no electricity), with the bike more-or-less intact, I was damn relieved. At some point I encountered pavement, and I considered getting off the bike and kissing it. In hindsight, that was an awesome experience, that I wouldn’t trade for anything…but I never want to do that again.

The Ultimate Video Game

Jan/Feb 2013

Driving a motorcycle in Vietnam is basically…the ultimate video game. Well, except there are no extra lives.

It’s worth going to Vietnam just to see this in person. Just to experience it. The Vietnamese…are some of the worst drivers in the world. It is an absolute spectacle. The driving culture here is based on one simple tenet: the flow of traffic will adapt to you. Just a few of the hundreds of examples you see daily that result from this:

  • When entering a roadway, people do not look at oncoming traffic to see if it is safe to proceed. They just go, because the flow of traffic will adapt to you.
  • If someone wants to make a left turn from the right lane, they simply do it. Without even looking behind them. Because the flow of traffic will adapt to you.
  • If your destination is on the other side of the street…feel free to drive on the wrong side of the road, through oncoming traffic, like a salmon swimming upstream. No joke. Why? Yep: because the flow of traffic will adapt to you.

One cool side effect of this is that people don’t often get angry on the road, because no matter how insane some other driver acts, the surrounding drivers know that their role is to adapt. Another cool effect is that as a pedestrian, you can easily cross any street, boulevard, or freeway on foot, at any time, because the drivers will simply…adapt to you. Provided you walk with a predictable and constant speed. (Well, and that you’re lucky.)

In theory, this all kinda works, as long as everyone is on the same page. But in practice, well…yeah, I saw more accidents in Vietnam than everywhere else I’ve been over the last few years combined. That one simple tenet basically negates most safety precautions that much of the rest of the world considers essential for operating a motor vehicle. Many accidents here could be prevented with a simple one-second turn of the head: a glance into the traffic you’re about to plunge into.

I was run off the road several times on my trip through the country. One day, it happened twice! And I don’t mean by traffic going my direction: I mean, a bus coming the opposite direction decides to pass another bus, so that the two busses take up the entire surface of the road. So there’s basically a wall of…bus…careening down the road at freeway speed. At you. Like a snowplow from hell. The choices at that point are to have a head on collision, or to swerve off the road. So of course you swerve off the road. Note that the oncoming bus driver doesn’t even notice that this is absolutely insane; he’s just thinking the flow of traffic will adapt to me. I have a fair amount of riding experience, and I managed to not crash when this would happen, but I did see other people, usually locals, go down in this situation. It’s sort of a dark comedy when this happens; people come up to the crash victim to make sure nothing serious has happened, and then they all shrug, sort of saying “yeah, bummer….it happens.” And they really don’t realize that no, it doesn’t just happen; it’s directly because their driving practices are something out of a bad acid trip.

There were a few times I just needed a break, and wanted it to stop. And yet, somehow, the adrenaline junkie in me was very entertained :)

Of course, when you aren’t reacting to the surrounding chaos, or when you’re in more remote areas, the game changes completely, and you get chances to note the tranquil surroundings….and even snap a picture or two.

When in doubt, buy a motorcycle in Saigon and ride north.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Viet Nam
January 2013

After spending a few days in the Mekong Delta area, I headed up to Saigon. (“Ho Chi Minh City” or “TPHCM” according to the maps, but still called “Saigon” by basically everybody). From bus station, I got a mototaxi to where I was staying. Which in Saigon means: I climbed on the the back of a motorcycle, holding all of my bags and my guitar, and kind of juggled/balanced everything as we blazed through the city like a chase scene from a movie. We almost got into a few accidents, and I thought I was going to lose a limb at one point, but Saigon lives and breathes “no harm, no foul” — so, hey, no big deal.

Saigon…is pulsing.

The motorbikes are everywhere, and the best form of transportation.  Boat trips on the ubiquitous canals and mouths of the Mekong are interesting as well…but the buses in Vietnam are more annoying in general than the buses in the surrounding countries. So, rather than deal with bus travel, I bought a motorcycle and headed north over the next month, up to Hanoi. Though actually, by western standards, calling it a motorcycle might be glorifying it a little: it was a 110cc Honda Win.  But they’re famously cheap, durable, and easily repairable, which sounded good to me.

Who wants some Beast Kebab?

Southern Cambodia
January 2013

I caught up with Danielle and Chandra in Phnom Penh, and after the obligatory and disturbing visits to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek (“The Killing Fields Museum”), we drifted south to the coast at Sihanoukville for some beach and downtime.

It’s surprisingly easy to communicate in Cambodia. More people speak English than you’d think, and Khmer is relatively simple language, at least to learn some basic phrases.  MUCH easier than neighboring Thai and Vietnamese :)

Before heading out of the country, I spent a few days in Kampot, which is an extremely relaxed place, even by southeast Asian standards. The main thing to do is breathe, and occasionally ponder as life ticks by. Well, and of course, try the pepper: Kampot pepper is famous in food circles, and for good reason. So I had a plate of seafood overpowered with it, with stalks of peppercorns almost outnumbering the pieces of seafood. And it was damn good.

The Downside of Accepting Everything

January 2013

Cambodian people tend to be extremely, almost absurdly, nice. Which is wonderful much of the time — though it produces a strange vibe at times, especially in context of the brutal history they’ve survived. They often seem to be numb to pain. I was once on a bus to Kampong Chhnang, and we passed the scene of an accident, where a motorcyclist had crashed. Nobody had died, but the rider was injured, not walking, his leg covered in a fair amount of blood. A few other foreigners and I all reflexively cringed and shook our heads — but the locals pointed, giggled and shrugged and said “oops!” and went about their conversation. A broken leg and a bloody mess hits so low on the scale of pain that these people have seen, that it didn’t even really register as something bad; just some small thing to laugh off. That’s kinda unnerving.

It’s fairly common to be chatting with someone, and at some point in context it becomes clear that the person you’re talking to is an orphan whose parents were executed under Pol Pot. It’s almost alienating, how normal this situation is. Of everywhere I’ve been, Cambodia and Bosnia are probably the two places whose histories have struck me as the most tragic. Largely because the barbaric insanity in both cases is so recent. It almost makes you want to lose some faith in people in general. Which for an optimist like me, is a blow.

It also reminded me a bit of India, in that the people are so tolerant and so accepting and so flexible, that if something sucks, or doesn’t work…they often won’t attempt to fix it. They’ll just shrug, and demonstrate near-infinite patience, and go along with things being broken. So, pretty much nothing ever gets fixed or improved.

…Hmmm. Maybe a bit of impatience with things that don’t work is a good thing after all.

“Don’t You Have a Refrigerator?”

Many South Americans have a strange hypersensitivity issue with car doors closing. Many put stickers on their car that say “please remember to close the door as quietly as possible”, and if you do close one with any more speed than exactly what might make it stay closed, you’re likely to get a “OH MY! Such brutal force!”, probably followed by their favorite line in this setting: “Don’t you have a refrigerator at home?” Implying that the force sufficient to close a lightweight magnetic seal is all one needs to close 80kgs of metal into a physical lock, I guess?

In and of itself, this is quirky but not that remarkable — but it’s actually really funny in context; they don’t seem to mind, or even notice, the ever-present firecrackers(!!) and surrounding chaos and people screaming and whistling (and hissing!) at each other from opposite sides of the street. Let alone the people using a bullhorn to ask you to buy fruit, or driving in circles through town with megaphones cranking out political propaganda, or interrupting your conversation by yelling at you through a microphone with a large amplifier, to tell you personally to come shop in their store.

No, no, it’s the sound of a car door closing that’s disruptive.

Haahaahahahaaaaa, ah, cultural perspectives :)

Incidentally, I learned long ago to try to remember to close these doors as softly as possible. Respect local culture and all. But I still think it’s funny when I see it happen.