I’ll start today with the triumphant news that we’ve finally escaped Saigon and completed the first half of the first leg of our Vietnamese Derby, with a gruelling 240km slog Northeast aboard our magnificent steed “Desmond”. He’s a handsome looking Korean fellow that we found languishing in a Ho Chi Minh garage and acquired for the princely sum of just 9 million Dong. That might sound like a king’s ransom but actually equates to about £290.
Sadly, Herr Desmond is not the quickest of cats. Internet research tells me that when new, the 124cc single packed approximately 9.5 horsepower. When new. Herr Desmond was new I suspect at around the time King Tutankhamen graduated from short trousers. And when you consider that he’s pulling the not insubstantial weight of myself, Miss Marie-Carmen, two enormous backpacks and of course, the mass of the bike itself, that’s about 350kg being dragged along by at best, seven horsepower. A power to weight ratio roughly equivalent to a 1980s Austin Metro that’s towing another 1980s Austin Metro. That’s towing a caravan. Containing a medium sized water buffalo. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we both let out a howl of elation when, during a downhill section at full throttle, we briefly reached 60. And that’s 60kph not 60mph. Riding up an incline requires an unending dance between first and second gear just to maintain a steady speed of 20. And yes, that’s kph again.
And in two days time we leave for the mountain town of Da Lat. The “mountain town”. Gordon Bennett.
I can’t help but feel a pang of deja vu as I sit here intent on typing another essay detailing the hellish road conditions in this part of the world, I’ve half a mind to not bother and just say “see previous emails circa December 2010”, but as there are quite a few newcomers to my travel blog, I’ll cover it briefly:
Traffic rules in Vietnam: –
None. There just aren’t any. Absolutely none. The square root of Jack Shit. Perhaps instead I should provide a list of:
Traffic “guidelines” in Vietnam : –
Biggest vehicle has right of way. Also known as the “Bus is Boss” rule. All other traffic is advised to part like the Red Sea before Mises* when one of these lumbering behemoths appears on the scene. The driver has a death wish, formula one aspirations and a timetable to keep. And the tremor he feels as he rolls over your lifeless body wouldn’t even cause him to back off the accelerator for a second.
What is behind you is not your problem. Vietnamese drivers are seemingly born with racehorse blinkers attached, they will not look sideways before manoeuvring and they will not look in their mirrors for any reason. That tractor (with trailer attached) will happily pull out into the road 15 metres in front of you. After all, he’s in front of you, so it’s not his problem. It’s yours.
Green light means “GO”. Amber light means “GO, FASTER”. Red light means “check there are no police then GO”
Road surfaces change. Quickly and often. Expect 200 meters of smooth tarmac, followed by 50 metres of sand, followed by 300 metres of rocky gravel followed by 100 metres of mud, then back to tarmac again. Repeat. Today we travelled on National Highway 20. “National Highway”; a name suggestive of a serious multi lane motorway, no? It was like driving on the moon, with surfaces, craters and potholes so vast that I’ve a suspicion that it wasn’t built by the Vietnamese Highways Agency at all, but rather it was the handiwork of the US Airforce some time in the mid to late 1960s.
Oops. There it is, I’ve mentioned the war. Better get it over with then. And as I’m not great at tackling serious subjects I’ll apologise now for the paucity of knob gags during the next few paragraphs.
Vietnam. To many people around the world the word ‘Vietnam’ means the war first and the country second. I’ll admit that until a few months ago, everything that I knew about this country of 90 million people came from American war films, excepting only the Top Gear Vietnam Special (which I heartily recommend that you watch. Even if you hate Top Gear, even if you’d happily watch Jeremy Clarkson being fed through a ham-slicer, this one episode is a fantastically funny piece of television, and the route they travel [on motorcycles, no less] is almost identical to our own. Not by design I might add).
Now I’m here, and reminders of ‘The American War’ (as it’s referred to in Vietnam) are all around, so we jumped in at the deep end and paid a visit to the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. It was a blisteringly hot day, and began in high spirits in the grounds of the museum where all manner of American military gear, captured after the US evacuated, is proudly displayed. Ohh look at the shiny fighter jet. Here, take a photo of me arsing around on this battle tank. Then in the blink of an eye it changed into probably the most harrowing experience of my life when, to escape the heat, we ventured into the museum halls. And that’s where the heat stopped being an issue. Not because of the ample air conditioning, but because in this building I swear, my blood actually froze.
The first hall they shepherd us into is the ‘Hall of Aggressive War Crimes’, a supermarket sized room filled with horrifically graphic exhibits, photographs and footage detailing the war crimes and atrocities committed by American troops during the conflict. It’s a ghastly montage of mutilated bodies, mass graves, tortured and staved prisoners, and images of civilians being beaten, interrogated and even burned alive.
Then, while you’re still reeling from those sights you enter a hall dedicated to the legacy of Agent Orange, the name given to the toxic chemical the US dumped in massive quantities to kill off the foliage their enemies used as cover. But as you’re probably aware, this chemical has some hideous side effects. Cue an almost pantomime freakshow of all the birth defects and deformities that resulted from the use of Agent Orange, and that still continue to affect hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people, some four decades after the war ended.
Now, I’d like to point out that I’m not naïve enough to believe that these, and the other equally disturbing exhibits represent a true and complete reflection of the war. It’s just the image that Vietnam’s communist government wants people to see. I’m sure that somewhere in America there’s a museum analogue dedicated to the tortures and suffering inflicted by the Vietnamese army on US prisoners of war. But that doesn’t mean you can discount the things that you see with your own eyes. There was no Photoshop in 1967, so when you’re shown Reuters footage of Vietnamese prisoners being thrown alive from helicopters or dragged to death behind American tanks, you can be fairly sure that real events are depicted.
I’d also like to clarify that I hold no particular resentment towards Americans in this or other conflicts. They might come across as the bogeyman in recent history but these actions are in no way unique to them, similar atrocities were committed here by the French a few decades earlier, or take a close look at what we Brits were getting up to in India a few decades before that. Not to mention Burma, Congo or those whom Godwins Law prevents me from speaking of. No, my resentment, and to some extent, despair, is reserved for none other than humanity itself, the ordinary men and women who commit these abhorrent acts, just because they were instructed to do so by someone with a couple more stripes on his arm and a slightly fancier hat.
Blimey. All that guff sounds a little negative, maybe it’s time I told you that despite being in the country for only a week, and having seen such a small proportion of it, I’ve decided that Vietnam is my all time favourite country. The reasons are great and numerous, and I shall attempt to address them quickly before everyone gets bored and puts me on their spam filter list.
Firstly, the food. Every time anyone goes anywhere they remark that the food is wonderful and if all were to be believed, there must not be a bad meal anywhere in the world. I’m as guilty of this as anyone else but Vietnam really is something special. It’s better than anywhere I’ve been in Europe or in Asia. I’m no food expert so I won’t even attempt to describe in terms of flavours and cooking methods, but we’ve eaten restaurant meals 2 – 3 times a day since landing and every one of them you’d pay £15 to £20 for in a restaurant back home and go away happy. Not just the local cuisine either, this evening I had beef steak with fried egg and chips. It cost just over a pound.
Then there’s the people. A few notable examples being;
The hotel manager who, upon hearing that I was struggling to buy a bike, took me out on his scooter to tour motorbike shops until we found a suitable machine. Then he haggled the price down to $200 less than the garage was asking. He wouldn’t take any money for his services.
The restaurant chef/waitress who was so keen for us to try her latest dish that when we ordered something else, she bought and paid for a plate of it anyway to give us as a gift. She was right, it was delicious. We had to argue to get her to accept a tip.
The truck driver who was behind us when Desmond ran out of puff on a particularly steep incline, causing him to skid his rig to a halt. As he climbed down from the cab I braced myself for my first taste of Vietnamese verbal abuse. But no, he was offering to give us and the bike a ride to Da Lat, about 150 km away. No money asked.
These are just a few among many, no sense in rabbiting endlessly about the people we’ve met and the incredible scenery we’ve seen. I know you people, and I know all you really want is some kind of wise crack about how this afternoon’s torrential rain soaked through my trousers and made my Dong all wrinkly. . .
Something like that.
Peace & Love,
Robb & Marie-Carmen.
*that’s right, Mises.