Vietnam trip in 500 words or less. Here we go. Chronologically. (Note- this is far, far more than 500 words. I'm sorry. If the reading is a burden then go see my photos on facebook here and here.)
With my new passport and second visa I made it onto the plane without any questions. On the plane I read Catfish and Mandala because my parents had sent it to me, and it was quite good. Good enough that it kept me awake for most of the flight, and I think it gave me some good insight into the locals. My layover was in Hong Kong and I was just awake enough to look around and not find a Starbucks, not that I had any Hong Kong money if I had found one. (I didnt even know what they called the money, Dave told me later that they just call it Hong Kong dollars.)
Dave's place is probably twice as big as my apartment, and he has a cook and a maid and a couple other random people who come through daily. It's like a little meeting area in his living room and you walk in never knowing who might be there. But Ho Chi Minh city was bustling and stressful and his apartment was like a little sanctuary. Especially after I crashed his wife's scooter into a bunch of plants at the U.S. embassy. (We'd thought it'd be a good idea to practice because I had no motorcycle experience while the tour recommended a "medium level" of experience.) It was a stressful first day. But we also got some great Vietnamese coffee and breakfast sandwiches from the locals Dave knew right around the embassy there.
We flew out to Hanoi and I got my first experience with the Vietnamese disorganization. Rarely do they wait in lines. If there's a line of people going somewhere, like waiting for security, probably 25% of the people will decide that there's no reason to wait in the line and they'll just charge up to the front. And when the plane landed in Hanoi, as soon as the wheels had touched the ground (and the plane is still zipping down the runway) you could hear a chorus of seatbelts being unbuckled. People tried to stand up and get their luggage while we were still taxiing and the flight attendants had to run up and stop them. A good part of the Vietnamese people are backwoods, never-been-in-an-airplane people. I also got a lot of gestures and pointing from other people on the road when I was riding with my motorcycle's headlight on during the day. Dave said it's because they think the headlights make you use more gas.
On the plane Dave loved this sketch comedy they showed on the tv. They'd have actors pretend to be police men and bust someone for parking in front of a fake water hydrant. It was kinda funny. The rest of the flight time Dave didn't read anything, he just kinda sat "composing his thoughts." It's what Jeff Garlin did on a plane in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and I thought Dave was joking but he really did just sit there during the flight. No magazine or anything.
Hanoi was even more busy and crowded than Ho Chi Minh city. But our hotel was near the old section of the city and it was much more central than Dave's place is in Ho Chi Minh City, so it made Hanoi feel more walkable. I think every day of the trip we were woken up between 5 and 7am by either roosters or, in the case of one rough morning, the sound of pigs being slaughtered. I mentioned once that it was surprising that they had so many roosters next door because you can only have one in a hen house and Sean said he went and saw the roosters next door and they're keeping 4 of them in cages. Sleeping in past 6am is not a priority to the Vietnamese.
The day before riding out of Hanoi we partied it up. We went to a fairly nice restaurant and then some guys got massages and Dave and I got beers at an american-style (i.e. expensive american beers) pub. After crashing Dave's wife's scooter, I was a mess about the prospect of riding the motorcycles. I had the worst anxiety I have ever had in my life. I think it's because the crash in the embassy was caused by me trying to hit the brake but accidentally holding down on the accelerator at the same time. So I was headed toward the plantar and tried to hit the brakes. I had a good 3 or 4 seconds to think "Stop! Stop! Stop!" but instead the bike continued to accelerate right up until I crashed. It was nerve racking for me, but it must have been funny for dave. He was standing nearby and talking to his girlfriend at the time and I think I remember hearing him say "Oh, I gotta go. I'll call you back." Up until actually getting on the motorcycles in Hanoi I was a nervous wreck. I couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, and couldn't really laugh at any jokes or anything. It was unpleasant.
The first day of riding was a lot of highway. It was mostly fine. My bike had some issues where the engine would just slowly die when I tried to accelerate in 4th gear. So I spent a lot of time standing by the side of the highway while the mechanic worked on my bike. It turned out that I picked the runt of the litter when it came to motorcycles. Mine broke down a lot on the first day, then it was okay for the next two or 3 days, and then started breaking down more and more. On the last day the mechanic finally told me to just trade bikes with him because he was unable to stop it from backfiring.
It only took about a half-day to get out into the scenery. There are lots of amazing limestone mountains in northern Vietnam. Toward the end of the first day we got out into the limestone mountains, saw a little mining village, and stopped in a reasonable hotel at a modest sized city (Lang Son). After a dinner in the best restaurant in town (according to our guide, though we were the only people in the entire restaurant at 7pm- which Dave said is later than Vietnamese tend to eat), my lungs started hurting. They started really, really hurting, but not just with each breath but in general. I thought maybe I was having some kind of slow heart attack, but it didn't quite feel like an elephant was sitting on my chest. It felt more like I had been sucking air directly from a car's exhaust pipe all day. I wasn't coughing or anything, just in terrible pain. So the other guys stayed up drinking and I went to sleep early. By the next morning I felt fine and our guide found us some dust masks to wear while riding for the rest of the trip.
The next day saw more riding with great scenery. That day we had beautiful weather where it was comfortable to ride wearing just a t-shirt and jeans (two of the days were nice like that and the other three were slightly too cold for a t-shirt while riding). I'm going to accelerate now because this is taking too long to write. We saw a lot of dirt roads, a some dirt paths, a some cobblestone roads (which are not fun to ride on for extended periods), a few roads that were newly dug out of the hillside and when a car passed by it'd kick up dust so thick you couldn't see anything, and once we saw a bunch of younger people building a road by throwing lots of pans of stones onto a dirt road. We went road over a few wooden bamboo bridges over rivers that had no rails and were only 3 feet wide. Dave and another guy, John, tried to ford across a river after our guide did it. Both stalled out, and John managed to drop his bike on each side while trying to get out of the river, soaking all his stuff. We took a scenic ferry ride through Ba Bể National Park and we saw the Ban Gioc waterfalls (the other guys swam in the falls but it was too cold for me. The water was freezing and the air wasn't even 75 degrees. I felt a little cool even before I touched the water). Lots of great mountain scenery.
Two nights before returning to Hanoi we stayed in a tiny village where the power was scheduled to go out from 6-7pm but instead it went out at 6 and never came back on. So the 4 of us sat in the lobby of our hotel on wooden chairs (the Vietnamese seem to only use either wooden chairs with no cushions or child sized molded plastic picnic chairs) and drank warm beer with ice to the light of a single candle. We had a good time discussing a mildly-cute hotel worker and whether she would be better off being courted by Tom our John. We were talking with the girl's friend because she had already gone off to sleep but the friend apparently had some influence over the cuter girl. John ended up getting the friend's recommendation because Dave knew how to translate that John is an accountant, while he didn't know the word for principal so he described Tom as a "top teacher." Tom tried to get Dave to tell her that he makes significantly more money than John but by then it was all moot. According to Tom: "Dave, I haven't been working my ass off all year just to be called a teacher!" And "I guarantee you that this little farm town has no accountants but it probably has two teachers. And one of them is a top teacher!" The next morning the girl asked Dave to translate for her a text message she'd received that said something like "I can't stop thinking of you" but in broken English. Tom thought it was a ploy to show John that he needs to work fast. And he might have been right. Regardless, we all road off in the morning and left that girl at the hotel.
On the last day we road the highway back into Hanoi and it was a whole different kind of adventure. It started off well, despite the heavily trafficked highway with no real traffic rules. Then I almost hit a little girl running across the highway holding a bicycle that was taller than she was. She was maybe 5 years old, and wasn't looking my direction at all as she ran from the right side of the street to the left. I was probably going like 40mph and at first I thought I could pass infront of her (on my left) because she was going slowly, but then she started running. So I started to swerve to the right to go behind her, but then she stopped! So I swerved left again, and then she took off running again! It seems that we were destined for a collision even though I was braking the whole time. The girl just refused to look to her left as she ran across the highway. 2 seconds before hitting her my thumb managed to find the bikes horn, which I frantically hit. The girl stopped and looked over at me as I passed like 6 inches infront of her face going 35 mph. That was probably my scariest event on the trip. 6 inches from finding out what a Vietnamese prison is like.
Later that day I got sideswiped by a car driving onto the highway from a side street. I sorta saw him coming but there wasn't anywhere to go so I just got hit and knocked over. Besides a cut on my hand and some scratches on the bike it wasn't a bad accident. The car who hit me was full of people and noboy got out, the driver just yelled out the window. Dave had to yell at him to get him to back up so we could pull the bike out and get out of the roadway. Also later some guy yelled at me and ranted for like 30 seconds in Vietnamese because I had stopped to pee outside his house. I was about to apologize when he rubbed his thumb and index finger together as the universal sign for "pay me." Then I just drove off.
After returning the bikes in Hanoi we went out to a super nice restaurant to celebrate Dave's wedding (cost something like $100 each, while food in vietnam is usually like 1/5th the cost, but Tom generously covered half the bill so it was only $75 each). The food was good, but didn't pass the chipotle test. Typical expensive restaurant tiny portions and stylish food layout. In general the food in Vietnam was pretty good. Lots of good spring rolls, those were probably my favorite. Though I also really like that Vietnam coffee and those sandwiches with cucumbers. The noodles (the pho) were okay, but never my favorite. And we had a lot of this pumpkin dish and this cooked bamboo dish, neither of which did I really appreciate. Delicious coffee though.
The next day Dave and I woke up early to do some last minute shopping in Hanoi (Rachel requested a shot glass but apparently the Vietnamese don't drink shots, and shopping for Kate was usually a guessing game) and then we met up with the guys for massages. By this point my back was killing me. 6 hours a day of bad roads on a motorcycle with no back support didn't mix well with my slouching posture. We tried to get massages in some town mid-trip but the girls mostly ignored the back and did a lot of weird poking and karate chopping. These massages in Hanoi were good but Sean and I inadvertently spent too much time awkwardly sitting in the steam room wearing our netting diapers, so I only got through about 3/4s of my massage before Dave stuck his head into the room and said we had to leave to catch our plane. Luckily the girl did my back first.
It was a fun trip. It was extremely stressful at times, but the scenery was beautiful and the people were nice. Even though I think I'm a competent rider, I won't be getting a motorcycle. I think a car is probably more comfortable for pretty much all occasions.
(Final note: This is the traffic video I watched before heading down to vietnam. It really is exactly like that.)