Tag Archives: Agadir

Bonding Over a Braai in Cape Town

The brothers arrive in Cape Town and experience the Rainbow Nation over a classic South African Braai.  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 29 November, 2013.

“Mzoli’s” said our friend without hesitation, “If you want to see all of Cape Town, you’ve got to go there for a braai on Sunday.”

The three of us were drinking beers in the City Bowl when my brother Alex and I had described the experience of all too many visitors to Cape Town: we saw two sides to the city, but we’d spent our whole time in only one.

Like most tourists, we stayed and played in the City Bowl and historically-white neighborhoods along the coast.  The area felt like an affluent slice of Europe dropped on the southern tip of Africa, which in many ways it is.  But many Capetonians live in townships, the residential districts first organized along racial lines during apartheid that remain de facto segregated by income.

We had first seen the townships just outside the airport, spreading out towards the Cape Flats like a long shimmering sea of metallic roofs with waves of wooden walls.  But after a week in the bubble of the City Bowl, we had only seen them from behind the car window.

With no obvious tourist draws, it can be hard for visitors to experience this aspect of South African culture.  We’d seen adverts for “township tours” but they sounded voyeuristic and somewhat exploitative of South Africa’s social inequality.  We wanted to experience something more genuine and interactional, but didn’t know where to look.

That’s when we our buddy told us about braais, or South African barbeques, and said the best in the city was served in a township restaurant called Mzoli’s.

Read the full story at MSN Travel UK. 

Meeting the Maasai in Tanzania

On the plains of the Serengeti Alex and Marko meet with Africa’s last great tribe of warrior-nomads: the Maasai.  Appeared on MSN Travel UK on 18 November, 2013

Alex grabbed my arm and pointed at the three Maasai warriors standing fifteen meters from our tent. They watched us intently, their shoulders wrapped in red shawls, their heads shaved, and sharp spears held firmly in their hands.

My brother and I had been filming our weekly vlog in Nomad Tanzania’s luxury bush camp in the heartland of the Maasai tribe, just outside Serengeti National Park. We’d been summarizing an incredible week of safari to an invisible YouTube audience when these spectators unexpectedly appeared.

“Where the hell did they come from?” asked Alex.

“I don’t know,” I said. They seemed almost too authentic to exist, like sketches I’d seen of African tribesmen from an era long before our own. “They must work for the camp.”

We were scheduled to visit a Maasai village in a few hours and I’d assumed they were costumed employees hired to lend a touch of authenticity to the tour. We waved for them to come closer. They did. Together we stared at each other in the total silence of mutual awe, wondering how a fellow human could be so different.

A safari through the open grasslands of the Serengeti is almost too perfect to be real. For a week we traveled across unspoilt Africa, observing the natural environment of the continent’s most stunning game: elephants, buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, and lions – even the endangered black rhino. But one animal was conspicuously absent: humans.

Before becoming a national park the Serengeti had been the grazing land for the Maasai, one of the greatest warrior tribes of nomadic pastoralists in Africa. At one point, they led their enormous herds of cattle to graze across much of Kenya and Tanzania. But a series of treaties gradually displaced the Maasai to make room for ranches, hunting preserves and, eventually, parks like the Serengeti.

When we heard we’d be visiting a Maasai village, I feared what we’d seen happen to other tribes: tribal lifestyles undermined by the pull of modern societies, youths moving to cities while those who remain reproduce their traditions for tourists, then charge them for photos and souvenirs.

I guess you could say I was bit jaded. Then we met the Maasai.

Read the full story on MSN Travel UK.

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

P6050133 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

P6060184 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

P6090091 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East Asia

Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

MIA in the DMZ (Lost in Central Vietnam)

It was getting dark.  I stared at my map, trying to find out where the hell I was.  I had not passed a proper town for hours, the highway I was driving down was not even on the map and I was rapidly running out of energy.  I needed to find shelter fast, or else I would have to camp on the side of the highway.

How the hell did I get here?  I only had myself to blame and I knew it.  I had ignored the locals, followed my ‘instincts’ and subsequently lost myself in the jungle.

It all started when I left Hue.  I intended to fly up Highway 1, see a few former US military bases in the DMZ, then continue north to Phong Nha for the night.  I zipped up to Dong Ha, the seaside town smack in the middle of the DMZ.  The road forked and gave me two options: to continue north along Highway 1 to the Viet Cong’s tunnels, or to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west along Highway 9 to visit Khe Sanh, the sight of a former US military base and one of the bloodiest battles in all of the war.  My instincts told me to get off Highway 1 and to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west towards Laos, then north through the backroads to Phong Nha.

Everything went wrong from this point on.  As soon as I turned my west, the winds picked up and storm clouds flew across the border from Lao, adding to the innately eerie feeling of driving through the sickly lands of the DMZ – farmland lay fallow, the hills were brown, the villagers stared at me unsmilingly and I passed signs warning locals not to walk off the paths in the hills, lest they step on unexploded bombs and lose their legs or their life.

I passed strategic hills I had read about in history books – Hamburger Hill, The Rockpile, and Hill 881 before finally reaching Khe Sanh.  Instantly felt bad vibes as I approached the museum, as if the ghosts were watching me from behind the trees.  A lady came outside and told me to go away, the base was closed, she said.  It started raining.  A Vietnamese man appeared from nowhere and tried to sell me rusty medals from fallen US soldiers.  I told him to go away, and I turned back to the highway.

The highway was labled DHCM, which I assumed referred to Duong Ho Chi Minh, or Ho Chi Minh Highway, and I asked the locals if it lead to Phong Nha.  They shook their heads and repeatedly said, Laos!  Laos!  I ignored them, listened to my instincts and headed north on the highway.

It was beautiful.  I passed wooden villages nestled in small jungle clearings and centered around muddy water holes full of submerged water buffalo.  I didn’t pass a single person for hours.  Seriously.

Then I swung around a corner and almost fell into a huge open pit.  I realized why there was no traffic – the highway was still under construction. I stopped the bike, then shifted into first and tried to go over the steep muddy road, but the bike stalled and fell over and the scalding exhaust pipe burned my leg through my jeans.  I was frustrated, but I pushed on.

Four hours later it was getting dark and I was lost.  I was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of Vietnam and after hours of driving I was totally lost and still hundreds of kilometers away from civilization.  It was still 120 km to Phong Nha, or four hours by bike.  I pulled out my Vietnamese phrasebook and asked a lady where I could find a guesthouse.  Dong Hoi, she said, 80 km east, 2.5 hrs by bike along an unfinished road.

I had no option.  As darkness consumed the land I pushed my bike into gear and headed up the nearly vertical dirt road, away from the paved highway and into the unknown. The road was so steep and slippery that I had to dismount and run alongside the bike as I revved the engine in first gear.

After about twenty minutes I realized I was low on petrol.  I thought I would be stuck in the worse of all situations.  Then I saw a team of road workers packing up their shovels and picks, and I asked them if they had any spare petrol.  I only needed a liter or two, just enough to be safe.  They smiled, and poured in liter after liter of petrol despite my protest, then charged me usurious rates.  It was quite literally highway robbery.

I pushed on.  It was frustrated, hungry and tired.  The highway was not completed, so there were no restaurants or petrol stations yet, just darkness.  I progressed at a snail’s pace, but finally I caught up with other traffic – massive lorries transporting rocks and tar for building the road.  They kicked up so much dust into the night sky that I could barely keep my eyes open.

The road alternated from smooth sand to dangerously loose rocks.  My eyes were full of dust and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see where I was going.  I came around a corner too fast, and when the road suddenly switched to loose rocks I lost control of my bike.

The Minsk skidded out, crashed into the ground and threw me face-first onto the rocky ground.  For a few moments I lied with my face on the ground.  My whole body hurt.  I just wanted to quit.  I sat up and looked around.  The only light was my headlight, buried beneath the rocks and pointing into the ground.  The only sound was my engine revving loudly in the dark.

I felt so alone, so unprepared, nervous, so tired, so hungry, so naïve.  I wanted to cry.  I jumped up, clenched my fists, closed my eyes, looked into the heavens and screamed a thousand frustrations into the night sky.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t want this bullshit!  I want to be in bed right now, not lost in the middle of the DMZ!!!!!!!

I opened my eyes, and stared at the bright stars above, at the North Star.  I might have been lost, but at least I had the stars to guide me.  Wasn’t this what I wanted?  Celestial navigation, pure adventure, terra incognita?  Well, I had found it, but it tasted bitterer than I had expected.

No, I could not give up now, I must push on.  I brushed the dirt off my clothes, picked up the bike, and continued on down the road, searching for a restaurant, a snack shop, anything. 

Finally I found a small store, but they didn’t have food to sell.  They offered me a cigarette.  I took two.  They offered me a cup of tea.  I drank two pots.  I smoked away my hunger and my fatigue, sipped away my frustration, thanked them and got back on my bike.  I pushed on.

Just when I felt like I could go no further, I saw a light far away in the distance – paved roads, civilization!  Eureka!  I dismounted and stumbled into the only restaurant in town and asked for rice.

I walked into the biggest piss-up I have ever encountered in of Asia.  Fifty Vietnamese truck drivers were swilling beer, eating food, smoking cigarettes, taking their shirts off and yelling at each other in Vietnamese.  My eyes stared at large pots of steaming rice, plates of chicken, pork, and vegetables.  It was a feast.  When they noticed me, all conversation stopped and it was silent.  Then they grabbed me by the shirt, sat me down, poured me a beer, and loaded me up plate after plate of rice and pork.

I was in heaven.  I gobbled down about 10 helpings, and instantly I could feel my energy returning.  It was difficult to convince them that I had to leave, but eventually they drew me a map to Dong Hoi and sent me on my way, refusing to let me pay for anything.  All 50 of them gathered around my Minsk and smiled at me as I started the bike and revved the engine.

They waved at me as I took off into the dark and I thought about the lesson of the night.  Though I wanted to quit, I sucked it up and pushed onwards and I was rewarded for my perseverance.  I thought of the character from Into The Wild, and how he died only a few kilometers from a road that would have lead him to civilization and safety.  I thought of one quote I had recently read by Rainer Maria Rilke,

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.  Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them…How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”

As lame as it sounds, my ‘dragons’ had turned into ‘princesses,’ and I made it back to civilization in one piece.  After a day of being MIA in the DMZ, I had made very little progress towards Hanoi.  I knew I would have to make double time in the next few days, but once I checked into my hotel all my cares floated away.  I plopped onto the bed and fell asleep in all of my clothes.

Over the Hills and Far Away (Nha Trang -> Dalat, Vietnam)

Day Three on the Road marked my departure from the tourist track. Most tourists travel through Vietnam on “Open Tour Bus Tickets”, allowing them to travel to the coastal cities on a pre-purchased ticket along a pre-determined route. But I had sampled the tourists track in Nha Trang, and I had no desire to drive along Highway 1 any longer. No, I wanted to leave that all behind, to fully exercise the freedom of my motorcycle and to journey high up to Dalat and into the Central Highlands along the border with Laos.
I loaded up the bike, waved goodbye to the South China Sea, and pointed my machine west, away from the waves and into the distant mountains. I was going to Dalat, the primary hill station of southern Vietnam.
The city fell behind me and I zipped through green rice paddies where women bent over the flooded fields, tending to their crops in the same way they have for thousands of years. The fields gave way to small villages where all the houses were painted the mustard yellow of French Vietnam. Grey Catholic Churches in the Gothic style contrasted beautifully with the green fields and the yellow villages. The French colonialists might not have known how to govern decently, but they sure how to color coordinate!
It was a brilliant scene. Then my chain snapped as I was going around a turn and I almost skidded off the road. Instantly a man appeared from nowhere and helped me untangle the chain from my spokes. Then he folded down my passenger footrests, started up his bike, put his food on my footrest and pushed my bike in this manner for three kilometers to the nearest mechanic.
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road again with a repaired chain. Twenty minutes after that, my chain broke again – this time it broke so violently that it almost took my leg off with it. It wound itself around the spokes and shredded the chain guard beyond repair.
Then a 16 year old boy popped out of the bushes and began assaulting my chain with a screwdriver and a wrench! He started tearing out bits of metal and jabbering away in Vietnamese while I jumped around screaming, What the hell are you doing?!?! You are destroying my bike! He ignored my protests, and within twenty minutes he had my bike back in perfect working order. I shut my mouth.
I felt like such a worthless city-slicker. I realized how far we have fallen from this boy’s level of technical knowledge, the essential knowledge of how things work. We spend our whole lives in cities, with our eyes on the television and our noses in books, assuming we know so much about the world. Truth be told, we don’t even understand the automobiles that transport us to our offices, how to grow the food we eat, or how to tie any knots besides our shoelaces.
And yet this boy knew more about The Minsk than I did, even though he had never owned a Minsk in his life. I desire this boy’s practical knowledge almost more than the knowledge of mathematical derivatives and abstract political theories. We have grown too ignorant of the foundations of our civilization’s knowledge.
I paid the boy his due and hopped back on my bike, humbled but ready to move on into the mountains ahead. The mountains appeared as suddenly as a monsoon rain, massive eruptions of granite protruding from the wide valley below. The road’s gradual incline and gentle curves were intensified into sharp switchbacks that cut up the face of the mountainside. Waterfalls poured pure water down the cliffs and motorists frequently pulled to the side to refresh themselves in the water, even to fill their water bottles. After two hours I crested the top of the mountain and entered a new world.
Where was I? The temperature dropped abruptly and a furious wind screamed over the ridge line from Laos. No more humid sweat – I was freezing cold. I had departed from the tropics and entered into a forested mountain area, similar in climate to Oregon or Washington State. It started raining cats and dogs, so I cranked up the accelerator and zipped past lumber fields, villages, and farms. There was no one on the road – the only traffic jams were caused by errant cows.
The last 50 km took forever in the rain, but finally I spied Christian crosses on the hill beyond – a French cemetery! I must be nearing the French hill station of Dalat. I arrived soon thereafter and found a hotel. I was too exhausted to do anything but eat and sleep.
Day Three on the Road had taken me from the sub-tropical heat of Nha Trang to the sub-zero temperatures of the Central Highlands. It did not stop raining all night, and I thought of how miserable it would be to drive in this weather. I lied in bed awake at night, listening to the rain and wondering if driving through the Central Highlands was a bad idea. I estimated that it would take at least four entire days of riding to cross the Central Highlands. It was too late to turn back now, so I determined to drive forward, rain or shine. Hanoi or bust!

Motorcycle Diaries, Day One (HCHM -> Mui Ne, Vietnam)

Three Challenges – Challenge One – Challenge Two – Challenge Three

I know what you are thinking.  Motorcycle Diaries? You mean like Che Guevara?  Haha, yes, cliché isn’t it?  Or should I say, cli-Ché?  (This cheesy joke is hereby patented by Mark Ayling).

Well, if Che Guevara had ridden across South America on this Russian-made piece of crap, he probably would have switched sides in the Cold War and swapped the Minsk for a Harley Davidson.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I knew it was going to be a difficult first day, and I saw three sizable challenges ahead of me:

  • Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk started
  • Challenge Number Two – Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway 1
  • Challenge Number Three – Avoid death and rain and drive down Highway 1 to Mui Ne beach. 

It would not be easy but I was determined to make it.  I packed up my bag, strapped it on the janky luggage rack, put on a helmet, sunglasses, and riding scarf, cracked my knuckles, and confronted my first challenge of the day.

Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk Started

Starting The Minsk required a special touch, a knowledge of which buttons to push, which levers to adjust, which pedals to pressure at which times and to what degree.  I lacked this touch.

The hot Saigon sun crept steadily in the sky, and as it reached its zenith I had yet to successfully start The Minsk.  I was sweating, I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was sure I had been duped by that slippery Limey.  It was reaching an ungodly temperature, and I knew I had to reach Mui Ne before the late afternoon, for the monsoon had begun in earnest and each afternoon the sky poured down an ocean of water upon the fields of southern Vietnam.  If I did not get the bike started soon, I would either die of heatstroke in Saigon or slide off the road and die in a tropical storm on Highway one, thereby failing Challenges 2 and 3.

I called over a motorcycle taxi driver and asked him to start it.  He got it first try.

Challenge Number 1: Completed!

Challenge Number 2: Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway One

Emboldened by my successful completion of Challenge Number One, I charged onward to Challenge Number 2…Excuse me, Mr. Motorcycle Taxi Driver, would you please escort me from here to Highway One?

You might laugh, but I tell you this was the biggest Challenge of the day, even with the guide!

Saigon is a crowded city and it sprawls outward for miles in each direction.  The people drove like madmen.  Attempting to avoid collisions and simultaneously navigate was impossible.

Every intersection was a free-for-all, and I had about thirty intersections to cross before I got to the highway.  At a four-way stop, the light would turn green and then all four sides would go at once.  Everyone would approach the center at the same speed, all would arrive at once, and then the bold drivers would begin weaving their way through the mess.  Somehow, no one completely stopped, no one put their foot down and no one crashed.  I just plowed right through the center of it all, barely able to co-ordinate my clutch, accelerator, and brake, let alone avoid hitting anyone.  I almost crashed four times in the span of five minutes.

The chaos did not stop there.  Rules were being broken everywhere.  It was a mockery of Western Law and Order, a physical repudiation of the French’s intended purpose of Saigon’s grand boulevards.  As I idled at the traffic light, a motorcycle would zip around the corner to my right against traffic, then continue along the curb for another fifty meters or so before cutting right across the street and back into his proper lane.  And this was only at the four-way intersections; the round-abouts were another matter entirely.

Somehow I managed to follow the moto driver through this mess and after 45 minutes I was on the outskirts of Saigon.  I jumped off my bike in excitement and went over to pay the driver his due…and accidentally allowed the bike to stall.  Back to Challenge Number 1 again.

Challenge Number Three – Avoid Death and Rain and Drive Down Highway 1 to Mui Ne Beach

The highway looked only marginally easier to navigate than the roads of Saigon.  As trucks, cars, motorcycles and tour buses zoomed past me, I stood on the side of the road and decided to sacrifice a large goat in Zeus’ honor.  Oh mighty Zeus, high on Mt. Olympus, please spare me for one day.  Do not bring the storm cloud upon my head, do not put obstacles in my path.  Just make my first day on The Minsk somewhat easy.  I finished the sacrifice, wiped the blood from my hands, restarted the bike (after twenty tries), and delved into the swirling traffic on Highway 1.

Highway 1 is much like Highway 1 in California; it traces the coast along the South China Sea and connects all the beach cities from Saigon to Hanoi.  It supposedly held incredible scenery and life-threatening traffic.  As I stared out over smoggy suburban Saigon, I could only see the latter.

There appeared to be a system on the highway, unlike the roads in Saigon.  All the motorbikes were keeping to the right shoulder, so I followed the other bikes and moved with the flow.  Cars whipped past us, minivans rocketed by, massive lorries stumbled and chugged along, and enormous double-decker VIP Tourist buses whizzed by at Mach 1, honking their horns and overtaking dozens of bikers at once.

The bus drivers were crazy – they were driving their machines like they were Subaru WRXs in a rally-car race.  Often, a tour bus traveling in the opposite direction would pass a slower bus, swinging into our lane, squeezing the cars into the bike lane, the bikes onto the roadside, and the roadside vendors into the rice paddies!  And the only warning you received was a deafening HOOOONNNNNKKKKK!!!!!!

Ah, the horns.  In Vietnam, a vehicle’s horn varies in pitch according to the vehicle’s size and its ability to end your life abruptly.  While my bike squeaks a high-pitched Beeeep! Beeep!, the massive lorries belch a frighteningly deep growl, and for a moment you believe that, by some work of the gods, you are about to be passed by the Titanic! 

On top of this all, the roads are pocked with patches of gravel, dirt, and water, around which you must navigate while fending off hundred of Evil Canevil wannabes and dozens of ocean liners.  And once you think you’ve mastered that, then a Vietnamese bus passenger will chuck the remainder of his noodles out the window of his bus and right onto your head!

But despite all the hazards, my first day on the bike was one of the best experiences so far.  Once I left the city behind, the traffic dissipated and I sped past rice paddies and mountains strewn with boulders, then over rivers and canals to the fishing villages along the coast.  I passed through Phan Thiet, a charming seaside village with aging buildings which looked over the brightly colored fishing boats anchored in the water below.

As the sun set over the mountains to the west, I traced gorgeous beaches to my right.  The South China Sea appeared in the late afternoon light, windblown but inviting nonetheless.  The beaches were lined with palm trees for miles, and to my left marvelous sand dunes fell down to the side of the road.

But above all, I enjoyed my liberation.  Freedom from pre-planned itineraries, freedom from bargaining bus drivers, freedom from tuk tuk drivers, and freedom from my fellow travelers.  After months of complaining about being stuck on the tourist track, I had finally done something about it.

For the first time in my four and a half months of traveling, perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt truly free.

Free, yes, but also tired.  I had knocked out all three challenges with no problems and I was in need of some relaxation.  Mui Ne fit the bill nicely.  It was an 11 kilometer beach that curved in a large crescent, completely covered in coconut trees, fishing boats and luxury resorts.  I found one of the few budget places on the beach and spent a day swinging in a hammock, reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (highly recommended summer reading), and trying to avoid death by falling coconut.

I took advantage of The Minsk and explored the nearby fishing villages.  Without The Minsk, I would have stayed within walking distance of my guesthouse, but instead I went into local neighborhoods and sampled local seafood on the street.  Of course, I still lacked “the touch” for getting my bike started, so after spending two hours trying to start it in three different places, I decided to save the bike riding for longer distances.

After two nights, I packed up my bags and hit the road again.  Next stop, up the coast to the beach town of Nha Trang.

The Minsk (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

I bought the bike within minutes of seeing it.  It was a piece of junk, and it suited my purposes perfectly.

It was an old Russian Minsk, a simple 125cc bike that has not changed in design since before World War Two.  Minsks are tough; they can drive over any terrain, from muddy mountain roads to the open highway.  Minsks are notorious for breaking down constantly, but their simple design make them easy to fix with no more than a screwdriver, a wrench and some scrap metal.  Plus they are cheap.

The seller was a British chap, about 22 years old with a childlike face and long brown hair pulled back into a pony tail.  He smoked a cigarette nervously while I looked over the bike.  He wanted $450 for it.  I offered him $300, and we went to the local bia hoi stand to discuss business over a few rounds of dirt-cheap Vietnamese beer.

His reasoning was simple – the bike might be a bit old and clunky, but she will hold up if you take care of her and she will take you all the way to Hanoi with no problems…well, not that many problems.  Besides, he added, she had made the journey between Hanoi and Saigon dozens of times.

His last claim was indisputable; it was obvious the bike had been back and forth between Hanoi and Saigon many times.  The question was whether she could make the trip one more time.

I looked at the bike more closely.  The headlight worked, the left turn signal didn’t, and horn worked when it was in the mood.  She had a new paint job – blue paint with a black leather seat.  The British guy had fastened an improvised luggage rack on the back using only the legs of a metal stool and a bungee cord.  It was a kick start, as there is no battery or starter switch – just a raw combination of gasoline, fire, and air.  She had no speedometer, and no odometer, just kilo-meters.

I asked start her up.  He smiled nervously, scratched his head and cast his eyes to the ground.  Ahh, how did he describe the bike?   She’s a bit temperamental, she is… But he got her started easily enough, and it seemed like you had to get your ‘touch’ just right.

The engine sputtered to life and coughed blue smoke out of the exhaust.  He revved the engine and she rattled violently, shaking all of her screws half-loose in the process.  He said it was a two-stroke, one lung engine.  I had no idea what “one lung” meant, but from the looks of how much it was smoking and coughing, I guessed it lost the other one to lung cancer.

We settled on a price – $300 – and he assured me I would easily find another buyer in Hanoi.  I handed him the cash, and he handed me the key and a plastic bag containing two wrenches, one screwdriver, two spare spark plugs, one spare headlight, two spare brake cables, one spare clutch cable, a couple of spare clutch plates, and an old greasy rag – but no owner’s manual!   He smiled, patted me on the back, promised me I would learn a lot about motorcycle mechanics, and gave me the papers for the bike, which were registered in some Vietnamese guy’s name.  Apparently it is illegal for foreigners to own motorcycles.

By the time I looked up from the papers that slippery Limey was off with my cash!  I had just made a sizable investment, for better or for worse, and my plans had changed drastically.  No more “open bus ticket,” no more tourist trail, and no more Lonely Planet guidebook.  Just me, the Minsk, and a beaten-up road map of Vietnam.

This was going to be quite an adventure.

 

Swingin’ Through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Saigon – Economic powerhouse – The Vietnamese work ethic – Regional differences – The American War – “Motorcycle for Sale”…

I entered Saigon by bus, snuck past the motorcycle taxis and tuk tuk drivers, and caught a local bus to the center of town.  I passed through the sprawling city into its center and jumped off the bus in the heart of old Colonial Saigon.

I was surrounded by the monuments of the French Colonial Era – magnificent administrative buildings, luxury hotels and cultural centers.  From the Post Office to the reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral, the old buildings were an elegant adornment on the vibrant city.  I explored these buildings by day and at night I had drinks with friends at the base of the Saigon Opera house, stunningly illuminated with blue and white lights against the dark sky above.

Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, was the jewel of French Vietnam.  The French built a beautiful city, installed electricity, sewers, and infrastructure, and developed Saigon culturally, economically and administratively along Western lines.  The French influence, followed by that of America, created a strong culture of consumerism that Ho Chi Minh’s socialism could not eradicate.

Today, the capitol might be in Hanoi, but the capital is in Saigon.  The economic policies modeled after Gorbechev’s Perestroikia, called doi moi in Vietnamese, are in full swing twenty years after their adoption in 1986.  The wide French boulevards may be decorated with the red and gold sickle and hammer, but they are lined with capitalist enterprises.  Five minutes of bargaining in Saigon’s markets is enough time to convince anyone that this place is anything but communistic.  Like China, Vietnam is a hybrid economy – communist in name but capitalist in reality.

Between 1995 and 2005 Vietnam’s GDP doubled and Vietnam positioned itself to join the top ranks of Asian economies.  The government is privatizing state enterprise and everywhere you can see joint stock companies, that is, businesses created from foreign investment.  Much of the foreign investment comes from what the Vietnamese call V.Q.’s, or ethnic-Vietnamese born abroad in the US or other nations.  They bring with them capital and business acumen and they are propelling Vietnam’s development, but the global economy has drastically affected Vietnam – foreign investment is down 72% from last year.

In 1994 Vietnam joined ASEAN and normalized relations with America, and America responded by lifting the trade embargo in place since the end of the Vietnam War and restoring full diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1997.  In 2000, Vietnam created its first stock market and President Clinton became the first American President to visit the country since its war with America.

Nine years after President Clinton’s historic visit, I made my own less publicly celebrated appearance in Saigon.  I was surprised how welcoming Vietnamese are towards Americans; I expected resentment but instead every other person just smiled at me and talked about how they have family in California.  Most Vietnamese want to put the past behind them and focus on the future.

The Vietnamese impress me.   They are very industrious and work all day, six or seven days a week, carry themselves with the pride of a self-made country, and give excellent value and service.  It is impossible to find the dingy backpacker dives of Cambodia or Bangkok here: every hotel has air condition, television, comfortable beds, and a private bathroom with hot water.  All of us backpackers in search of the most basic accommodation are forced into relative luxury!

Much of these differences between Vietnam and her neighbors can be attributed to the religious divide between Theryavada and Mahayana Buddhism.  Many Laotians are content to sit in a hammock all day, certain that they have thousands of lives ahead of them, so why rush to reach nirvana in this life?

Not in Vietnam.  Since the 1940s, Vietnam has fought in five wars (against Japan, France, America, Cambodia, and China) and they understand how much can happen in one life time.  Unlike Laos, they strive for perfection in this life.  There is an old saying that sums it up well, The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians just listen.

Saigon was an interesting city.  I rendezvoused with expats I had met through friends and from the Couch Surfing website (for more information, click here or view my CouchSurfing profile).  I would like to thank Viet Nuygen for an illuminating conversation and Nichali and Kelly for taking me out on the town!

I went to the American War Remnants Museum and the underground tunnels at Cu Chi and tried to see the war from a Vietnamese perspective.  I met former soldiers from both sides of the conflict, I saw pictures of bloody battles, and I read personal accounts of the war.  In particular, the museum was a horrible showcase of the atrocities of war.

Thus far I have studied each country I have visited and explored histories of wars and dynasties of which I was ignorant.  But Vietnam is different.  I studied the Vietnam War in university, and I felt that, like most Americans, I had a preconceived idea of Vietnam before my arrival. Would it be like the ‘Nam from Platoon or Apocalypse Now? 

I knew there was more to Vietnam than that bloody war between our countries.  The Vietnamese are willing to put the war behind them, and so am I.  The Vietnamese do not hate Americans, and they will probably become one of our country’s close partners in Asia.  So though I will comment on the “American War” as appropriate, I hope to show you another side of this country, a Vietnam with no battles, no bombs, and no bad memories.  It is time to move on, time to see what else Vietnam has to offer.

I started with food.  I sampled everything from snake curry, to pho noodle soup, and snake wine.  At night, I sat on plastic stools in the street and drank bia hoi (literally, raw beer), which is home-brewed beer that costs about 60 cents a liter!  For about $2 I bought almost everyone I met a round of beer.  If only it was the same back home!

After four nights it was time to move on.  Shrewd Vietnamese businessmen sell “open bus tickets,” which take you all the way from Saigon to Hanoi for about $30 and allow you to get on and off in pre-selected cities along the way as you please.  The catch?  The bus drops you off at 5 AM right in front of their hotel, so you are too tired to search for anywhere else.

It was a good price, but I was weary of the commission culture and the inflexible pre-determined route, and I knew I would never get off the tourist trail.  Still, I was tired of bargaining with bus drivers and it seemed like an easy way to go through Vietnam.  I decided to buy a ticket.

But as I walked to the ATM to withdraw cash for my bus ticket, I came across an interesting flyer advertising the following:

MOTORCYCLE FOR SALE!!! THINKING ABOUT GOING ACROSS VIETNAM BY BUS?  WHY NOT DO IT BY BIKE?

A damn good question.  I wrote down the seller’s phone number and arranged a meeting that same night.