Good Morning Vietnam
Hopping off of the overnight bus from Sihanoukville to Saigon via Phnom Phen, I thought of the cliché line, “Good Morning Vietnam”. It was a good morning with a bit of an overcast sky, keeping the oppressing sun from the forefront of my mind. I decided to check out the Budget Hostel in the touristy District 1 area along with my friend Nick, who I met at the Led Zephyr and bumped into again on the train. Nick is a cool fellow American from Seattle with an interesting past, such as working as a cod fisherman on the Bearing Sea. Checking into the hostel I overhead a 6″6′ Dutch guy named Jeff talking about buying a motorcycle and touring from Saigon to Hanoi. This being my goal, I immediately introduced myself and we decided to check out bikes the next day and start the ride together.
With some time to kill, I decided to wander around Saigon to get a feel for the city. The number of scooters and motorbikes cramming the roads at any given time is astounding. The whizzing and rumble of engines sounds much different to the spastic chainsaw engines of the tuk-tuks in other parts of Southeast Asia. Feeling a bit hungry, I slid into a local pho joint to become acquainted with Vietnam’s signature dish. Pho (pronunced like ‘fuh’ and derived from French beef stew) is a soup served with rice noodles, different slices of beef (or whatever meat you like), chillies, and herbs such as coriander or thai basil. I’ve had pho almost daily for the past week and it is a filling meal that can be enjoyed any time of day.
Armed with a fully belly and a map of the city, I played Frogger with the traffic and made my way to the War Remnants Museum, a sobering place if there ever was one. Impressive US tanks and aircraft greeted me at the entrance. My first thought was “Damn, these are awesome”, which was quickly erased from my mind as I realized these were symbols of the devastation of the Vietnam War. The museum has four floors worth of pictures and captions that depict the atrocity of war. The most shocking exhibit was devoted to the effects of Agent Orange. The burns, disfigurements, and birth defects caused by the illegal chemical warfare are powerful images that will stick with me forever. As a man next to me openly wept, I wondered if he had lost a friend or family member in the war and counted my blessings that I’ve never been directly affected by warfare.
Yet for every cloudy day, there is eventually a rainy day that follows. An exhibit showing the victims of Agent Orange coping with their birth defects and doing extraordinary things was just as uplifting as those showing their hardships. Kids with no hands writing with their feet, or a little girl with no arms or legs sewing using her mouth, serve as testaments to the strength of human will.
Pensively walking back to the hostel, I needed something to uplift my mood. Some bia hoi would do the trick. So a large group from the hostel made the quick walk to the main tourist street. Here hundreds of tourists and Vietnamese alike sit on the tiniest of red chairs around metallic tables on the side walk and in the street and drink bia, fresh home made beer. For 7,000 dong, a mere 35 cents, a very strict looking Vietnamese woman brings you a glass of beer teaming with head. With prices so cheap, it’s easy to throw back the beers one after another and many of the small Vietnamese stumbled bleary-eyed down the street.
While enjoying some bia, I had a conversation with a local that consisted of him trying to convince me that I was not American. For some reason, nobody in Vietnam can place my accent and I get mistaken for Australian or English by almost everyone (or as my friend Karthik swears I am one of the male porn stars from bikinibangers.com). My sun bleached hair, put up in a headband to avoid the Jew afro it currently is, must automatically qualify me as Australian.
After a few days of exploring the city and picking up accessories for biking like helmets, gloves, and bufees to use as masks, Jeff and I picked up the bikes we had chosen from a reputable dealer. We went with the Honda Win 110cc, the most popular bike for tourists completing the ride due to it’s ease of riding and the fact that any mechanic on the street (there’s always one within walking distance) can fix them quickly. I had searched in vain for a Suzuki GN 125cc, but this bigger bike proved to be very elusive. In fact, there were not nearly as many bikes for sale as I expected and after seeing many people turned away from the dealer after he sold his last two bikes to us, we counted ourselves lucky. My bike, which I have named Shivani, has a new Japanese motor with only 95km on it. Most of the Wins do not have original parts, and the best engines to get are Japanese and Indonesian, it is best to avoid the Chinese models. We had the dealer put an extra layer of foam underneath the seat, to raise it up a little and provide more padding, and mount a rack on the back of the bikes to strap down our packs.
After parting with 3.5 million dong, I got the keys and starting up my own motorbike for the first time. After driving around a little bit to get a feel for the bike and become used to the manual shifting (I had never ridden a manual bike before), Jeff and I met up with a South African guy named Martin who was going to join us the next day for the trip. Going to sleep that night, I was 87% exuberant at the prospect of hitting the road the next day and 13% terrified that I might not make it out of the busy chaotic streets of Saigon in one piece.