Saturday, December 31, 2016

Laos Or Not, Here I Come

Here I am at Quan Son, Vietnam, about 40 kilometers from what I am fairly sure is a valid crossing into Laos. This is the place that I thought I would get to yesterday, but then I took the wrong roads. The road here from Mai Chau, Vietnamese Highway QL15, was not too bad, though it had a few hairy spots, mostly before the turnoff for Highway QL15C. I originally wanted to take QL15 only part of the way, and then take QL15C, which would have taken me through Pu Luong National Park. But I turned off onto QL15C, and it was absolutely abysmal. It was a constant slog through about four inches deep of mud and slime, with many deep pits and ruts and bumps. I probably went about a quarter of a kilometer down that road, probably going slower than I would be walking most places. But walking through this would be a nightmare. Finally, I said, fuck this, and turned around to take the rest of QL15. And it was not bad at all for the rest of the way. I had already gone through the worst of it before I turned off. There were some places where it turned to dirt and/or got rutty, but it was definitely pretty solid for most of the way. I did go through some areas on it where they were laying down fresh asphalt, so maybe a year ago it would have been different.

When I pulled into Quan Son, I had three goals. One, to find a hotel. Two, to get gas. Three, to get an oil change. The first goal was the most important, so I drove all the way through the town Fairly slowly, looking at all the buildings, and I didn't find a hotel. But I did find a gas station on the edge of town after I drove through it, so I filled up. Actually, I found two gas stations; one was in the middle of town, but I passed it since my primary goal was to find a hotel. After I got gas, I doubled back through town, paying even more attention to each building, and finally I found a hotel. So I checked into the hotel, and they put a board on the stairs outside so I could ride my motorcycle into the building and keep it inside.

So now I've met my first two goals, and the only thing left is to get an oil change. I took my bike out again, but realized I had forgotten my helmet. Oh, well, I wasn't going far. The sight of a long haired westerner riding down the street without a helmet definitely did turn a few heads, though. I finally found a place down the main street, typed “oil change” into Google Translate, and the mechanic nodded his head. So I watched him change the oil, it was very quick and cheap, and then I pulled my bike back into the hotel, gunning it and driving up the board placed on the outer stairs through the front doors. Before I had just walked it up that board.

This hotel is probably one of the most expensive I've stayed in in Vietnam, and one of the least comfortable and nice ones. I'm not really complaining, I have a bed to crash on so I'm fine. But there is no toilet paper, the toilet has no flushing handle and no top on the tank, there's no garbage receptacle at all, the TV is completely blank (not that I'd be watching TV anyway, I just checked it out to see what was there and the answer was nothing at all). And the door does not lock from the outside at all, though I can lock it from the inside once I am in the room. Update: there is a button inside the open tank that apparently flushes the toilet. I have a small amount of emergency toilet paper that I bought in Mongolia and still haven't used, so if I need it, it is there. It will probably only last through one or two toilet events. I had a roll stuffed into my backpack, but at some point, I must have left it behind, because it is not there any more. And it's pretty darned chilly in here.  The bathroom seems to have a huge opening in the wall up near the ceiling that just leads to the outside; sort of a window without glass.  But on the plus side, the wi-fi is some of the strongest I've encountered yet in Vietnam.

I'm a little concerned about the road to Laos from here. Supposedly, it goes through to Na Meo, which is the last town in Vietnam before the Laos border, and the border crossing is actually about ten kilometers into Laos, so you are actually in Laos long before you go through a crossing with both Vietnamese and Laotian officials. But the reports I've read of it online vary widely. Some say it is not crossable at all, some say though there are some serious problems, it is passable. And one guy said he had almost no problems. But what bothers me the most is that when I try to find a route on Google Maps from Quan Son to Na Meo, it takes me through two alternate routes that create giant loops going way the hell out of the way, crossing into Laos at places that are probably impossible to cross, and then coming back into Vietnam, but no route actually taking the relatively straight road that goes right there. WTF? Google Maps gave me a frigging goat path the other day to drive on, and it showed me Highway QL15C, which was one of the most abysmal roads I've ever been on. There are only certain crossings into Laos that are designated as international crossings (where foreigners can cross); the rest are so-called domestic crossings where only locals who live around the border can cross. None of the crossings that Google Maps take me through in its little roundabout diversion seem to be crossings that I can actually cross at, and I would probably be turned back.

Another complication is the fact that due to my delay from taking the wrong road yesterday, I will be trying to cross into Laos on New Year's Day, which is an official holiday, but I have no idea if that means the border crossings will be closed. And if they are closed, I just might have to turn back via a road that might be completely hellish. So I just don't have enough information to determine if this whole attempt to cross into Laos will succeed or not. Oh, what the hell, I'm just going to go for it. If you never hear from me again, you'll know why.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Taking A Dribble

This morning I took a shower.  Actually, it was more like taking a dribble.  There was just a very slow trickle of water coming out of the hose.  In general, I really like the showers in many Asian countries that detach from the wall and are on a hose, where the whole bathroom is the shower stall, and there is just a drain in the floor.  You just have to be careful where you aim it so you don't get the toilet paper and your towel wet, or anything else you don't want soaked.Then there is also usually a high-pressure nozzle also next to the toilet for spraying the toilet down after you do your business as well.  There is one next to this toilet, but I haven't tried it out yet.

But the hot water didn't last long at all.  No big deal, hot water is more than I expected in rural Vietnam, and it is not too cold in the morning today.  It started running out, so I just tried to scrub off all the soap as quickly as I could before it got too chilly.  Maybe I shouldn't have run it for a bit to see if it was hot first, but I didn't know it would run out so fast.

I checked out the cable television for a few minutes, and in this town, there are no foreign television stations at all, they are all Vietnamese stations.  This is the first town I have been in where there are no stations in English or French. The majority of them seem to be local stations from different cities in Vietnam; I could tell because the name of the city was usually part of the logo superimposed on the screen.  There is a lot of overlap in programming because some of them are getting the same national feed from whatever affilate they are with.  And the affiliate name seems to always be "Vietnam" followed by a number, like Vietnam5 or so on.  I saw up to Vietnam15. I was hoping to get some French TV for a little while, but no such luck. Interestingly enough, at the last hotel I stayed in in Ninh Binh, they had different cable systems for the foreigner side of the hotel and the Vietnamese side of the hotel.  But even on the Vietnamese side, they had some of the same foreign stations; they were just on different channels.

I hope I don't regret having ditched my only pair of closed-toed shoes when I moved out of my apartment in Hanoi.  I hadn't worn them since I was in South Korea in May or so, and I have just been lugging them around as dead weight in my pack.  Finally it just got to the point where there was no room in my pack.  The North Face jacket that I bought in Sapa has pretty much taken the place of the room they take up in my pack.  Shoes take up a lot of damned room in a pack...having an extra pair you have to carry around is a luxury when you are carrying all your stuff on your body.  Of course, now I'm loading it on my bike, so I can maybe carry a little more, but I'm still trying to keep it down so I don't have issues in loading and balance, or possibly stuff getting loose and falling off (despite some of the massive loads that I see locals carrying on their motorcycles and bicycles; some of them have special cages attached, sometimes welded on, for their stuff).  My shoes had gotten pretty ratty anyway, having used them to walk around for long stretches of the day from Australia to Korea.

In a couple of hours, I'll take off again, hopefully to Quan Son, which was my initial destination before I got sidetracked.  Then I'll make the stretch to Laos, if it is passable, and see if they will let me across the border. In general, I don't want to plan to travel on my bike for more than three to five hours at a time, because the estimates on Google Maps end up being low due to the traffic and the quality of the roads, and because the headlights on most Vietnamese bikes are pretty bad, so I don't want to be stuck traveling in pitch darkness at night.  If Google Maps says it will take three hours, it will probably take five, or even longer.  I think eight hours would be about the max I would want to travel in a day, but I usually don't leave early enough for that to end during daylight.  Plus, I want my travel to be relaxing and fun, with the ability to stop frequently if I want, and not trying to push it to get to my next destination.

Lost In The Wilderness

I stayed an extra day in Ninh Binh. Well, or three extra days, depending on how you define it. I had booked three days, but then I asked if I could stay another two, and then I asked if I could stay one more day. The last day, they had to move me to another room, but that worked. I mostly wanted to stay to try to work on my Vietnamese flash cards, which are becoming my latest unhealthy obsession. So the last day, I just stayed in the hotel room, and toiled away, and ate on all the leftover food that I had brought with me from my apartment in lieu of going out for actual meals. There was a little container of seaweed...when I bought it, I thought it was going to be like those flavored nori sheets that you can get as snacks in the US. The container looked just like that. Nope. It was a tangled mess of really hard, chewy, salty seaweed. I don't even think it was meant to be eaten before it was soaked, but I ate it anyway. I just considered it seaweed jerky. I contemplated drinking a can of diced tomatoes, but I'll save that for another time. I ate lots of cookie-like thingies and finished off a can of vegan meat-like stuff. Strange how in the States, when you buy vegan meat-like stuff, it is super expensive, but here in Vietnam, when you buy vegan meat-like stuff, it is cheaper than meat. I mean, it is basically soybeans, or gluten, or some kind of stuff like that. There is no real reason why it should be boutiquely expensive, other than the fact that American consumers like to feel like they are investing in a designer experience, or whatever.

The next day, I woke up, packed up my stuff to put on my bike, and went out to get gas for my bike before I strapped on the packs. While I was coming down to get my bike, one of the hotel clerks was standing with a German guy near my bike, and they were both admiring it. The German guy said he had wanted to try to rent it from the hotel, but he found out upon asking about it that it belonged to me. Anyway, we ended up having a nice little chat over coffee in front of the hotel. His name was Florian, and he was from Berlin, and he was taking four months off to travel. I told him about my experiences taking French in Hanoi, and he seemed intrigued by the notion of doing that.

The place I stayed in Ninh Binh was the Hoa Bien Hotel. I recommend it highly, it was a really cool place, and the staff was great. After packing my bike, I went to Google Maps to chart my path, and took off in the general direction of Laos, which I'm hoping will be my next destination, unless I get sidetracked by something shiny. I ended up leaving Ninh Binh via Highway DT477, which met up with Highway QL12B after a while. Then QL12B merged with the Ho Chih Minh road for a while, which roughly follows the path of the Vietnam-war era Ho Chih Minh Trail (which, incidentally, the NSA called "one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century.") Then it splits off into QL12B for a while again. The reason I'm including the roads I am driving on is because I looked at several people's blogs who have done the same or similar things, and, dammit, they never say which way they went, which is what I was looking for.

I rode through a lot of spectacular countryside, and was getting hungry, so I stopped at a couple of restaurants that didn't have any of the stuff they advertised on their signs, so no food for me, which was frustrating after a day of eating strange ingredients that were not meant to be eaten on their own. I got some snacks at one store...I got these little corn puffs that ended up being oddly sweet, and wanted to buy a little cake that was sort of the Vietnamese version of a Little Debbie cake, but it turned out that I had bought a whole case of them, so after eating a couple, I strapped the rest on to the back of my bike. That held me for a while.

I stopped in one village to take a picture of some water buffalo by the side of the road, but then my bike would not start again. Oh, crap. Now I needed to find a mechanic. So I started walking my bike down the street. A woman on the street stopped me, and seemed concerned about my bike, and started shotting off directions to somewhere in rapid-fire Vietnamese that I didn't understand at all, but I nodded my head dutifully, which is what you are supposed to do in that situation, I guess. Anyway, I continued pushing my bike down the street. Then a guy across the street motioned me over, and gave my bike the once-over. Then he pulled out the kick starter and kick started it right up. Of course. I didn't even think about the kick starter. I told him “thank you” repeatedly in Vietnamese. So it worked with the kick starter, but not with the electric starter. At least I could keep it moving.

I kept driving and driving, and thought I was a half an hour away from my destination, but suddenly it dawned on me, wait a minute, wasn't I supposed to be on a different highway by now? I started realizing that I really had no idea where I was. I took a closer look at Google Maps, and, sure enough, I had gone the frigging wrong way, and was about as far away from where I was supposed to be as the distance I had already traveled. So, first, I started to chart a path to the right place, which was the town of Quan Son. I started backtracking to get to the road south that would take me there, when I decided, aw, screw it, I'll just go the way I had been going, since I was almost there. So I turned around, and just kept going in the direction I had been going. But I'm sorta glad I did, because then I wouldn't have discovered this spectacular mountain pass that I drove on. The only thing was that up in the mountains, it was a lot colder, and I didn't feel like unpacking my pack to get my heavy jacket, so I just bore the cold. If it had been much colder, I probably would have pulled over to get it. But I was also trying to avoid letting the engine stop, because I would have to kick start it to get it moving; the electric starter was deader than a doorknob.

Why did I end up going the wrong way? I might have just mapped it to the wrong place, I'm not sure.  Also a couple of times in the past, I could swear that sometimes the destination has just changed in mid-map...seems like I've had that happen, and I should watch out for that possibility and be vigilant to make sure the route I'm on is still the right one.  It seemed like that happened to me a few times in Hanoi, but the stakes are higher when riding cross-country than they are within a city.  Anyway, if I had been paying enough attention to my technology instead of the damned scenery, none of this would have happened.

Then I stopped at this overlook over the town in the valley below, surrounded by mountains. What was this place, anyway? It turned out the town was Mai Chau, and that was going to be the new place that I would spend the night. So I wound my way down Highway QL15, which was this steep road into the valley with lots of switchbacks, and had to use my gears to slow me on the steep incline so I wouldn't use my brakes, and pulled into Mai Chau. I found a hotel that was only about six fifty in US dollars a night, and the room was not bad (I'm in it typing this now). The next order of business was to find a mechanic to fix whatever the problem was with the starter. So I walked right around the corner from the hotel, and found a place that would fix my bike, after making a key-turning motion with my hands followed by an “X” with my fingers, and then a kickstarting motion with my foot (hoping that would explain to him that the starter didn't work and I had to kick start it; he seemed to understand) and then I went back to the hotel to get it; the guy from the mechanic shop went with me.

I brought it to the shop, and sat down to have a Coke from the store attached to the shop. He fixed it before I finished my drink. It turned out the battery was dead and he replaced the battery. I just hope there wasn't some other problem that was causing the battery to die...maybe something related to the problem I had with my USB slot on the bike that caused me to have it removed. I asked one of the guys how much it was, and he said it was 15,000 dong, which was about 75 cents. I couldn't believe it; I gave him the money. I was amazed that it had cost so little.

I took it back to the hotel, and was sitting in my room, when I heard a knock at my door. It was the mechanic. It turned out I had just paid for the Coke. The battery replacement was 350,000 dong, still a bargain. I apologized profusely for the misunderstanding and paid him.

Then I wandered around the town to see what was going on, and finally found a restaurant to eat at, where I got some noodles with tofu and braised veggies. It was delicious. Tomorrow I will take off for the original destination that I was going to go to today, and it will probably take me about as long as today's drive did, so I'll end up a day behind. No big deal. Then the stretch of road to Laos is supposed to be spectacularly bad, a road filled with muddy pits and god knows what. Some accounts online have said to plan twelve hours to travel this fifty kilometer stretch of road. And that the road is under constant heavy construction.  Google Maps doesn't even consider that road as a possibility for going that way, which is a little intimidating, considering that it had me going down basically a goat path the other day. That all sounds not terribly encouraging, but it is why I planned to make an overnight stop in Vietnam, rather than just trying to cross over to Laos in one day.  But some accounts have said it's not too bad at all.  I think maybe the key is whether it has rained heavily before traveling in that direction.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Christmas Holidays in Ninh Vinh

It has been an eventful few days over the Christmas holidays here in Ninh Binh, Vietnam. I arrived on Christmas Eve, settled in for a bit, and then decided to walk around the town. So I just wandered for several hours, and got back to the hotel a little after dark. The USB port on my bike has quit working. For a while, it was sporadic, but on the way here from Hanoi, it just didn't work at all. The little light on it was on, so it was getting electricity, but the slot was not putting anything out. So I figured I would try to see if I could find a motorcycle mechanic who could fix it. But that could wait until later. I have a couple of serious power bricks, but I haven't much kept them charged up. That will probably be more important now that I will be trekking through remote areas of Vietnam and Laos to keep my phone charged. I really only need it on the road for a map function; maybe to occasionally put up status updates and blog posts. But I do have some backup if my phone dies.

On Christmas Day, I took off riding on my motorbike. I meandered around for a while, then I ended up in the little village of Tam Coc, which has some spectacular boat rides through incredible scenery, including three water caves that the boats pass through. Whenever you go to one of these attractions, there is always someone right outside who flags you down to park in their area, and they charge you a small amount of money. So I pulled over to park, and paid about seventy-five cents so my bike could be safe. I also left my helmet in the office there. After I parked, I watched a bunch of foreigners just blow the lady in the booth off when she tried to wave them down to park their bikes there. I guess that you don't really have to park there, but I don't mind.

I got on the boat at Tam Coc, and it was being rowed by a vivacious young woman who rowed with her feet. Most of the guides were rowing with their feet, but I saw some rowing with their hands. The areas we passed through were just amazing, and the water caves were out of this world. The boat ride was about two hours long, and the terrain was just magnificent the whole way. I gave her a nice tip when we got back to the dock, and also bought her some fruit and beverages. She asked me during the trip if I had ever eaten snake, cat or dog. I told her I hadn't ever eaten any of those animals. A couple of guys on a boat next to us asked if they could take my picture, and offered to sell me a picture for 20,000 dong, which is a little less than a buck. I told them OK, even though I really didn't want any pictures to take with me, but I figured it was not much, so I went along. Then when I got back to the dock, some woman had a photo album with a bunch of picture they had taken of me, and wanted 250,000 dong for it. I told her that the men who took the pictures told me it would be 20,000, and I tried to explain that I really didn't want physical photos, because I was traveling and they would get messed up, but I would be OK with digital pics on a flash drive or something, but there was just not enough language ability for me to communicate that concept. Finally I just started to walk away, and she offered to sell the pics for 100,000, and I accepted mostly just to get the whole thing over with.

My next stop on Christmas was at the Thai Vi Temple.near Van Lam village. This temple seemed like it was under heavy construction, and there was some sort of ceremony going on there with some musicians and a lot of people attending. I watched for a little bit, and then stepped back to video part of the ceremony.

Then my final stop was the Bai Dinh Pagoda. This 15th century structure meandered up a steep mountain, with very craggy steps leading in and out of caves up the side of the cliff, and intricate designs all the way up. At the top there was an amazing view of the surrounding countryside. That was my last real stop, though I rode my motorcycle around for quite a while after that. I ended up at Mua Caves, and was at first intending to check that out, but it was late in the day and almost getting dark, so after pulling into the parking lot and getting out to check out the caves, I decided to blow it off, as I didn't know how much longer it would be open, and I didn't feel like rushing it. So maybe I'll check it out in the next few days, maybe not.

I headed back to the hotel, and decided to see if I could get the USB port on my bike fixed. Nothing in town seemed to be closed for Christmas; it was just business as usual. I guess that might be expected in a country that is mostly Buddhist. So I asked one of the hotel clerks if he knew a place where I could get it fixed. He told me he would take me to a place to get it taken care of. So I had him get on the back of my bike while he directed me to a mechanic. This was the first time I had taken a passenger on my bike, and was a little hesitant, but it was pretty easy and not that bad. The extra weight was not much more than what I was carrying (well, actually, it was quite a bit more, but didn't seem so), and I had no problems maneuvering the bike with him on the back. We went to one place, and they didn't have the part, and then another place, and they didn't either. I was kind of tired, so I told him I'd try again tomorrow rather than check out some other places. So I dropped him off at the hotel, went off in search of dinner, and then headed back.

On the next day, the day after Christmas, I took off early in the day to explore some more stuff in the area. The clerk asked me if I wanted to try another mechanic, but I told him that I would ride around first, and when I got back, we could give it a shot. He asked me where I was from, and I told him I was from the US, but he asked where in the US. I told him I was from Texas, and his face lit up. “Oh,” he said, “You are cowboy! You ride around on your motorcycle like cowboy!” I don't really identify much with the cowboy thing, but, sure, I went with it, because talking about it seemed to make him happy. He was asking me all about cowboys; I told him I didn't really hang out much with cowboys in the city, but there were probably a lot in the country.

Anyway, I took off and ended up at the floating village of Kenh Ga, which means “chicken canal”, and is named after a wild chicken that apparently is from that area. I drove across this flimsy bridge somewhere in the middle of the village, and an irate old woman wearing one of those cone hats came out of her hut demanding money for me crossing the bridge. OK, I told her, and turned off my motorbike to get my wallet out. But by the time I got it out, she was nowhere to be found. I was trying to pay her, but she disappeared. I waited for a minute or so, and then just took off. I figured I would pay her on the way back, but I never did end up going back that way.

After leaving the floating village, I ended up in the vicinity of Bai Dinh Pagoda, so I stopped to check that out. But I could not for the life of me figure out how to get in. I circled the perimeter several times, and there was just a high wall surrounding it everywhere, and all of the gates to get in were locked solid. I finally found a tiny opening in the back, and started to go in that way, but a guard shooed me away, so I left. After surrounding the whole area for a while, I finally found a little road that turned off in a different direction from the temple, so I took it. It ended up being the way to the entrance...I had to actually drive in a direction far away from the temple, park my bike, and then walk back toward it on a path that went through what looked like a sewer tunnel running under one of the streets bordering the perimeter. The pagoda and the surrounding complex were ornate and beautiful, and I climbed to the top of a mountain that had a giant Buddha statue at the summit.

Then I took off again, and ended up on this very winding scenic road that was just a joy to ride on with my motorcycle. I was thinking that this was the very definition of freedom, to be riding on this curvy mountain road in Vietnam through amazing scenery. I ended up at the ancient capital of Vietnam from the 10th and 11th centuries, an ancient city called Hoa Lu. A woman motioned to me to park my bike at her restaurant, but when I asked her how much it was to park there, she said “no money.” That was the first time that had happened, but I left her a tip anyway. Then I went in to check out Hoa Lu, which was spectacular, but almost anti-climactic compared to all the other stuff I had seen in the last few days. After a while, you just get inured to spectacular sights...even something that is wildly out of the ordinary just becomes another thing to see, and the sense of wonder starts to fade.

After checking out the ancient capital, I decided to see if I could try again to get my USB port fixed on my bike. So I went back to the hotel clerk, who wanted to try a place recommended by his boss. I took him there with me on my bike, and he talked to them for a while...they didn't have the part, but he thought he knew a place where we could get it, and then bring it back. He wanted to talk about cowboys again, so we had a discussion about cowboys in Texas. It seemed to make him really happy. We went to a couple of computer stores, and they had a USB cigarette lighter plug at the second one; I bought that and we took it to the other shop. They installed it, but I just could not get any electricity out of it to power my phone. So they tried to re-install the first one, and the light worked on it, but it still was not putting out power. So neither the old device nor the new one were working; I told them to just go ahead and re-install the old one even though it didn't work. But when they tried to do that, it started smoking heavily. Obviously it had somehow gotten burned out. So I told them to install neither and just tape up the wires, and they did that. Well, it sucks that I'll be riding through rural Vietnam and Laos with no charger on my bike, but I'll manage.

This morning I woke up and decided to work on my Vietnamese flash card deck for a little while before I got out of the room. So I worked on it for a couple of I am up to the letter “K”, with almost 1800 entries. Work on it will likely be proceeding slower now that I'm not stationary any more.

Today, a couple of days after Christmas, I rode to the Big C Hypermarket on the edge of town to get a few food things. The Big C is sort of like a has a ton of groceries, and then also sells a lot more retail goods. Every one that I have been to is in a big shopping center with a bunch of other stores. On the way there, I saw a store that sold police uniforms. I briefly thought about buying a Vietnamese police uniform to ride across Vietnam with on my motorbike. But, then, I thought, nah, maybe not a good idea. I stopped at the post office to mail the photos from Tam Coc that I never wanted anyway to my kids back in the States; I had stopped at the post office earlier in the day, and it was closed for lunch. So I went again after the supermarket jaunt, and it was open. On the way back to the hotel, I totally lucked out that I didn't lose my room key. I had put my bike key and my room key together for convenience, but the room key fell off my bike while I was riding it, and it lodged between some wires connected to the frame. I parked my bike, and noticed the room key was not there, and briefly panicked, but then I saw it on the side of the bike.

Today I really haven't done much to get out and around, other than the trips to the store and the post office. There is still time, but I'm mostly just lethargic. If I don't get out and see some spectacular stuff, it is good to take a day off to just chill. And I still have another full day here, and probably the option to stay longer if I want. I have a bit of a headache anyway, so maybe I'll just rest, and catch up on administrative matters.

Well, tonight the staff of the hotel invited me to come down and have dinner. So, of course, I accepted, and they told me to come down in fifteen minutes. So I came down to join them for dinner, and I thought that there would be a big dinner with other guests and the staff and such. But, no, I was the only one there, and they served me a plate of noodles that I ate alone in the lobby. It was a nice gesture, but not quite what I thought it was going to be.

For most of tonight, the Internet has just been down, and now that I'm done with this post and ready to post it, it is still down. So I guess I'll post it tomorrow, or whenever I can get a connection again. Signing out now around midnight on the 27th (getting ready to move into the 28th), but this post will just go up whenever I have signal. It's time for me to crash anyway.

Looks like wi-fi is up again this morning, so I can post this now.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

On The Road Again

It was a little scary taking off on a motorbike today packed with all the stuff I have with me on my trip.  Mostly because I have never done that before, and because I had become somewhat complacent with my four-month stay in Hanoi, which is the longest I've stayed anywhere on this journey.  I have one big backpack that mostly consists of stuff I brought with me from the beginning, and a very few things that I have bought along the way, and then another one that consists mostly of food. I decided to lay the big backpack flat on the back of the bike, and then have the other pack standing up in front of it.  The bike shop where I bought the bike had told me I could just lay them flat on top of each other, and bungee them to the bike, but I decided to take the approach I took instead.

Another thing I was worried about was taking off with so much weight on the back of my bike, especially leaving Hanoi with the crazy traffic there.  It turned out it was not that big a deal, and it was certainly much less weight than if I had a passenger.  I did learn a couple things from packing my bike to travel.  One, I should have backed the stuff about six inches further toward the front.  It was all a little back-heavy; probably the center of weight should be over the back wheel, but it was a bit farther back than that.  And also, if I had packed it further toward the front, I would have had a back rest from the front pack that was standing up, but supported by the larger pack.  Two, I should have turned the open part of the raincover on my backpack that was standing up toward the back rather than toward the front.  Traveling at high speed into the rain, it would be coming right into that opening, whereas if it was open in the back, the rain would probably not get to it.  This would be not as big a deal if I implemented point number one and my back was leaning against the backpack.  Three, I need rain gear pretty much instantly accessible.  It started drizzling toward the end of the trip, but if it had rained much harder, I would have needed to get out my raincoat and stick my cellphone in a zip-lock baggie pronto, and that stuff was buried deep in never-never land in my gear.

On the way out of my apartment, while I was packing up my bike, I met a Canadian guy named Daniel who lived there, and we struck up a conversation.  Both of us were saying we didn't ever see most of the other people who lived there, so we hadn't really met anyone.  Kinda weird to be meeting someone and having pleasant conversation as you're moving out, but that's the way it goes.  I offhandedly mentioned that I had left another motorcycle helmet behind that the buckle had broken on, and he got excited and said he needed a helmet, so I went back up to my apartment and got it for him.  I know they can fix it at one of the helmet shops around Hanoi, but I just hadn't gotten around to it.  It's too bad, because I liked that helmet a lot more than the one I replaced it with.  But I'm glad someone was able to use it.

It looks like Frank and Alexis, some Canadians I met a while back, will be taking my apartment.  I washed the sheets right before I left, and hung them in the bathroom to dry, so they won't have to deal with dirty sheets.  I did the same right before I left on my visa run to Thailand almost a month ago, and when I got back after being gone for five days, they were clean and dry and ready to be put back on the bed.

It took forever to get out of chaotic Hanoi.  That part was probably about half the length of the trip.  I did have to get used to the extra weight, but dodging obstacles left and right in incredibly heavy traffic that was often stopped up took a lot of time.

I decided to take highway A1 for the journey.  I could have taken the Ho Chih Minh Road, which would have been more scenic, but it would have taken twice as long to get there, because it was quite a ways out of the way, and I would have had to circle around some.  But not knowing how I would be able to maneuver with all that weight on my backpack, I decided to play it safe for my first lengthy bike trip.  But Google Maps tried to send me on a road that was a faster highway, but didn't allow motorbikes on it.  I started to turn down that way, but when I saw the no motorbikes sign, and a checkpoint straight ahead, I turned around and went back on the road I had just come off of.  It was about ten minutes of delay; no big deal.

Finally I got out of Hanoi exurban hell, and I was able to open 'er up to 8000 rpm on the open road.  Yeah, that's what it's all about, going 70 kilometers an hour while taxing your engine to the limit.  I've read blog posts where people describe having to cool down their overheated engines by hosing them down after cranking up the rpms on steep mountain passes in Southeast Asia.

At one point some guy driving a panel truck suddenly took a left turn right in front of me, and if I hadn't been paying enough attention, I would have smacked right into him.  As it was, I had to swerve and slam on both my front and back brakes to avoid hitting him, which I barely managed to do, and didn't even have to go into a skid, luckily.  After that harrowing encounter, a motorbike passed me and both the driver and passenger gave me the thumbs-up, as if to say, "Good job surviving that one!"  But I probably got nearly killed about every eight minutes before the traffic thinned out.  And then, when it did, it just became deceptively complacent, because people still drive chaotically, you're just not seeing it constantly so you don't have your guard up as much.

Then after about two and a half hours of driving, I pulled into Ninh Binh, in which I had reserved a hotel online for three days.  I decided to splurge and get a private room instead of a hostel, because I found a place with private rooms for eight bucks a night, versus five bucks a night for a room jammed with bunks.  What the hell.  I might as well pay the extra three bucks.  Then when I got here, I told them that I think I want to stay five nights instead of three, and they were cool with that.  I don't think there are many others staying here, so that works out.  And there is a lot of stuff to see in this area, so I can use the hotel room as a base and see a lot of the sights around here, and still have some breathing room to chill if I want.  But from here on, I probably won't be reserving many rooms until I get to bigger cities; I'll mostly likely be pulling into little towns and scoping out the accomodations on the fly.  I want to start making my way toward Laos, and from what I've read online, the roads heading in that direction are spectacularly shitty.  Mostly huge open mud pits that are constantly under construction.  Hey, if people have done it before, I can probably make it.  Maybe.  We'll see.

Once I got into Ninh Binh and checked into my room, I spent the rest of the day walking around the city, just to check out the surroundings.  The city itself is nothing terribly spectacular, but there are a few nice sights, and the area surrounding it is supposed to be beautiful; I'll check out some of the sights outside the city in the next few days.  I'm hoping to have a really great Christmas checking out some of the cooler stuff around here.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Strange Food Delivery

I ordered food to be delivered today, since I am in the middle of packing, and I have cleaned up my whole cooking area and didn't want it to get dirty again.  I ordered from an Indian Restaurant called Foodshop 45 through Vietnammm food delivery.  I had ordered from them the other night with no problems.  But today, I got an email from Vietnammm saying they needed a phone number to confirm.  I know I have a Vietnamese phone number, but I've never used it.  I tried to see if I could confirm by return email, but they told me my order was denied.  So I unpacked my entire large backpack to try to find the little scrap of paper that I had scrawled my phone number on.  After going through a bunch of stuff, I finally found it, and emailed the food delivery service back.  A half an hour had passed, I thought it was going to take quite some time.  But I immediately got a phone call telling me my food had arrived and was downstairs waiting for me.  That was odd.  But I'm glad it worked out.  And the food is delicious. Now I have samosas, yum! (and other stuff)

I turned in my big water-cooler-style bottle today, and got my deposit back on it.  I bought a two-liter bottle which should get me through today at least and maybe some of my journey.  I've been scrimping on water for the last few days, hoping the little bit I had would last me.  But I finally completely ran out today and barely had enough for my last cup of coffee.  I guess I really shouldn't have been taking it easy on the water; I should have bought a new jug a few days ago, because I have probably gotten a bit dehydrated.  So today I drink water freely, and without abandon.

Packing and Cleaning, Part 2

Cleaning out my fridge today, I had one last bottle of juice in the door of the fridge that I had bought quite a while ago, but hadn't drunk. I saw “green jujube” on the label. So I opened it up and drank it. Man, has this gone bad? I was thinking. Maybe it is supposed to taste like this?! But it was tolerable, and drinkable, so I drank it. I was thinking maybe it had gone slightly sour or something. Then, as I took the last sip, I was looking at the fine print, and it said, “green jujube vinegar, 3%”. So I drank a whole bottle of 3% vinegar. I brushed my teeth with baking soda right after that, so it wouldn't eat the enamel of my teeth.

I think I have found somebody to take my apartment. I was talking online with someone I met a while ago in my travels, in the Philippines, who had just gotten to Ho Chi Minh City. I mentioned that my apartment was for rent, and she and her boyfriend were very interested when they come to Hanoi. So I told my landlord that they were interested, and gave them my landlord's phone number. They won't get here until a week or two after I leave, so I thought briefly about trying to hold over for a bit here, but I decided to go ahead and leave in a couple of days and keep my reservation in Ninh Binh, even though I can cancel up until the last day. I'm wanting to get on the move again, and it was nice sitting in Hanoi for a while, but there are other places to see, so I want to see them.

I almost have everything packed up now. Tomorrow will be my final day of packing and cleaning, and then the next day I'm off to seek my next adventure.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Packing and Cleaning

So I'll be moving out of my Hanoi apartment in just a few days.  My plan is to spend Christmas in Ninh Binh, and then meander to Laos on my motorcycle.  I've already started the cycle of packing and cleaning, getting the place tidied up for the next victim...err...tenant, and getting my stuff together to be packed on the back of my motorbike.  It is amazing how long it is taking me to gather up my small amount of stuff, which will only take up my big backpack, and a smaller backpack, but maybe an extra bag for some canned and packaged food.  I have an Aldi freezer bag that zips up for the food, if necessary.  I got it in Australia, and it was my carry-on bag on airplanes until I got a better bag in Korea.  That is kinda too much stuff, but I have brought along some cold weather clothes I haven't used since I was in Siberia.  I hate to throw them out, because I will probably encounter cold weather again (maybe in the mountains of Southeast Asia), and then I would just have to buy that stuff again.  And it is good quality stuff.

I bought a few things for my apartment, most of which I'll leave behind for the next tenant of this furnished apartment.  But not my scissors.  I use them all the time.  They are my biggest luxury item, other than my electronics.  By cracky, they'll have to pry those scissors out of my cold, dead hands...well, actually it'll probably be that my warm, live hands leave them behind somewhere before the next time I fly somewhere.  But I bought a grater (that I never used, but meant to), and I'll leave that here.  I bought some trash containers, a coffee mug, a glass to replace one I broke, a mop, a dustpan (to go with the old and ratty broom that was already here; I was too cheap to buy a new broom as the old one is still [barely] functional).  And I bought a big comfy pillow and pillowcase, as the bed didn't have one when I moved in.  And probably a few other things. Next tenant, whoever you are, you're welcome.  I have to get rid of my French textbooks as I don't think I have room for them.  If I have time, I'll take them to the French Institute and see if they can give them to somebody who can't afford the textbooks in the next session of classes.  But I don't know if I'll have time. And I don't know if they'll do that, anyway.  The Vietnamese textbook I'll keep until I finish my flash card deck, which has now stalled due to the packing and disruption.  The work on it will probably slow down quite a bit as I become a transient again.

I put an ad up for my apartment on some of the local online groups, to help out my landlord, but nobody has bitten on it yet, which has surprised me, because this place is nice and a great deal.  When I was moving in, I was so afraid that somebody was going to grab it before me, as I had booked a trip to Ha Long Bay before I saw it, and I told the previous tenant that I'd look at it when I came back if nobody snatched it. But sometimes the posts in those online groups get buried and de-emphasized, too.  I've seen similar posts where one has a ton of comments, and one doesn't have a chirp on it.  I really have no dog in this hunt, I just want to do good for my landlord, who has been really helpful with everything.

A couple of days ago, I went to the French Institute to return the last movie I checked out.  It was really boring and uninspiring.  It just didn't engage me at all.  I kept watching it for fifteen minutes, not able to pick up on the plot or the characters (not because I didn't understand the language, but because it sucked), and I kept coming back to the movie, thinking, "who is this guy, again?" "What's going on?" I kept having to back it up to catch up, but still was puzzled, and finally, I decided, to hell with this movie, and I just returned it less than half-watched.  All the other movies I've seen have been pretty good, or at least followable.  I wish I had brought the French texts with me at the time, but didn't think of it.

On the way there, I saw the results of a vehicular accident that obviously involved some aquatic sea creature product that was strewn across the road and all smushed into the asphalt from being run over repeatedly, and there was a guy on the side of the road wiping fish muck off of a woman standing on the sidewalk.  I think it might have been crabs or crawfish, it was something spindly and it looked like there were smushed-up claws all over the road.  It didn't look like anyone was hurt badly or anything. Then I passed another smear of smushed-up food product on the road just a few minutes later; this one looked like it had happened a lot earlier as there was no other aftermath present.

I've timed out running out of most of my commodities pretty well.  I have two rolls of toilet paper left; I can just leave whatever is left here.  The water I am a little short on.  I buy these big water-cooler-style bottles of water down the street and carry them to my apartment.  It makes no sense to buy another one, because they last me a month.  If I run out, I can just buy a two-liter bottle or something, but those cost about the same as the big ones.  I may have to throw some produce away, but I'll try to use it all.  I'm good on trash bags, and I'll just leave any extra in the apartment.  I had bought a huge bottle of stevia when I first moved in, and there are just a couple of tablespoons left.  It was really cheap; about four bucks.  I just bought new coffee yesterday, but I can bring that with me. Still have a big bottle of soy sauce; don't know if I'll bring that because it could open up and get all over everything.  Anything else that I just have a small quantity of will probably just get tossed.

Last night, I opened my windows to get some fresh air in the apartment, and to cool it off after cooking dinner, and a whole bunch of mosquitoes swarmed in.  That is the first time that has happened; I leave my windows open a lot of the time.  But they were bothering the hell out of me while I was trying to sleep, and I finally dozed off about three in the morning.  Well, I probably won't get malaria or dengue, or any of those other tropical mosquito-borne diseases that are endemic around here, right? Who knows.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Counting in Vietnamese, And A Little Sudden Surprise

In case you were wondering how to count to ten in Vietnamese, here it is:

một one
hai two
ba three
bốn four
năm five
sáu six
bảy seven
tám eight
chín nine
mười ten

When making a toast, the Vietnamese typically all count together to four, so everybody chants in unison, “một, hai, ba, bốn!” and then everybody takes a big slug of what they are drinking. Counting to 99 is pretty simple using the numbers above, but there are a few quirky exceptions, which I will list below. Between one and nineteen, you just take the number for “ten” (mười) and add the next number to it, so eleven would be “mười một”, twelve would be “mười hai” and so on. One exception is that, for numbers over ten, you use “lăm” (in some dialects, it is nhăm for the last five in numbers over twenty...note that the difference in pronunciation between “năm” and “nhăm” is “NAHM” versus “NYAHM”) instead of “năm” for the last five in the number (the one in the ones column). Hence, fifteen is “mười lăm”. Another exception is that four in the ones column changes to “tư” for numbers over twenty.

To make twenty through ninety, you simply put the corresponding number followed by “mười”. So twenty is “hai mười”, thirty is “ba mười”, etc. You have to be careful about the order, because it is meaningful...”sáu mười” means “forty”, but ”mười sáu” means “fourteen”.

Then to fill in the rest of the numbers, you just add the corresponding number at the end. So “hai mười một” is “twenty-one”, “hai mười hai” is “twenty-two”, etc. Don't forget that the fives change in the ones column, so “hai mười lăm/nhăm” would be “twenty-five”. But the “mười” part is optional, so most say “hai mốt” instead for “twenty-one”. For example, “fifty-five” might be expressed as “năm lăm”. Another exception is that four in the ones column changes to “tư” for numbers over twenty. So “bảy (mười) tư” would be “seventy-four”. Also the accent changes on the “one” in the ones column, from “một” to “mốt”...I included that in the example for “twenty-one” above. So “tám (mười) mốt” is “eighty-one”.

Then “one hundred” is “một trăm”, and you just append all the stuff I listed above after it to make the numbers from 101 to 199. “Hai trăm” is “two hundred”, etc.  I could give you the numbers for 1000, 1,000,000 and 1,000,000,000, and points between, too, but you don't really care.  On the off-chance that you do, just go to Google Translate.

I'm not even going to try to describe the tonal differences from the tonal accents here. You can probably find some YouTube videos or other sources online that can help with that. Suffice it to say that with simple numbers, you will most likely be understood even if you get the tones not quite right, because of the context...if you're handing out money to someone, and saying the number, even with the wrong tone, they will most likely understand what you are trying to say. Or if someone asks you how old you are, and you respond with a slightly mangled number, they will probably catch what you are meaning to say. But that is not necessarily the case if the context is not that have to use the right tone to convey the right meaning of a word. There are many words that are spelled the same except for the tonal accent (and the accompanying change in sound), and they will have completely different meanings.

On a side note, while I was writing this, my firewall told me I had an attempted port attack from IP, which I looked up online, and it comes from China Unicom Hebei, in Shijiazhuang, Hebei, China. So someone in China is trying to hack me, and it is apparently a known IP number for port scans, and has been blacklisted by several routers. They are at longitude 114.8731, and latitude 39.0728, or they are coming from a proxy there.  According to WhoIs, the person this IP is registered to is Kong Lingfei, and that person's address of record is 45, Guang An Street, Shi Jiazhuang City, HeBei Province, 050011, China, and this person's phone number is +86-311-86681601, and email is Quote: “We have received reports of abusive activity from this IP address within the last week. It is potentially still actively engaged in abusive activities.” More on this IP at the Anti-Hacker Alliance. Just sayin'.

Prices in Hanoi

I just ordered food online for the first time. Apparently that is a big thing here, but I hadn't done it before. I found a site called (the link I included is to the English version of the site) where you can select your area of the city (in Hanoi and several other cities in Vietnam), and it will show you all the restaurants you can order from. In my area there are over 400 restaurants that deliver. Many of them don't even charge a service charge to do it; you can just order for the price on the menu. But some do charge a small service charge, or have a minimum order for no service charge. They delivered pretty damn fast, too. I went downstairs to wait for them, and they were there shortly after I went down. Tipping is not big in Vietnam, but I gave the guy a tip. Vietnam is not one of those countries where people get insulted by a tip, but it is not expected.

I've also seen online discussions about services you can set up to deliver you meals on a daily basis, tailored to whatever diet you have. Some of them will prepare meals for you and deliver them for about $3 a meal, and you can often get them cheaper if you order two or three meals a day.

Prices for just about everything in Vietnam are way cheap, compared to Western standards. And there is usually a bifurcated pricing structure for a lot of things. Expats will often pay a lot more for stuff than Vietnamese; for example, expat rents are a lot more than Vietnamese will pay. But even though you're being charged more, it is still a fantastic deal. You can often get in on the cheaper deal if you move into a room in a house that has mostly Vietnamese living in it, but even then, the person who let you in on the deal is probably charging you a certain percentage higher and pocketing it. At least I would hope they would be.  In some Southeast Asian countries, some of the separate pricing structures are fairly overt. When I was in Bangkok, to visit the Royal Palace, there was one lowest price for Thais, a little bit higher price for non-Thai Asians, and a higher price for everybody else. If you go to any of the street markets, the prices for goods are fluid, and you are expected to bargain, and the merchants will definitely settle for higher prices for expats. But you will still get very good deals on a lot of stuff, and it is the cheapest way to buy food, but you have to go to multiple locations for your food. The locals are plugged into the delivery system, though, and get all kinds of stuff delivered.  

Many things do have fixed prices, particularly in a store.  If you go to a store, the stuff on the shelf will just be the advertised price.  But prices can vary wildly in stores for the same items.  The supply chain here seems to be much more individualized here.  There were some favorite sesame candies I had when I first got here, and I bought them two of three times, but then they disappeared from the store.  Then, a couple weeks later, they reappeared briefly, but I haven't seen them again since.  

I've never seen a single semi truck in Hanoi.  I don't think a semi could fit down most of the narrow streets they have here.  Some streets are so narrow, the handlebars of my motorcycle barely clear them.  And I've seen some streets that I can't even fit my motorbike on; you can only walk, and if somebody is walking past you the other way, you have to squeeze past them.  Most deliveries happen by motorbike, so smaller quantities are brought with each delivery.  But they can pack an amazing amount of stuff onto a motorbike.

To give you some idea of pricing here, my apartment is $180 a month (I'm going to quote prices in US dollars here). But you can get a serviced penthouse apartment in the richest area of town for about $600 a month. Actually, my apartment is in the wealthiest area of town (Tây Hồ), but in the less expensive side of it.  Most things are very cheap here, but a few imported foods, vehicles, and electronics are the same price as in the west. All the backpackers buy $200 motorcycles to ride around Southeast Asia with, but I bought one that was nearly brand new (just 1700 kilometers on it, just enough to break in the engine) for $600. You can get by well here, with a lifestyle similar to the one you might have in the US, for example, for $500-600 a month. You could probably live like an upper-class person for $1200-1500 a month.  I don't know why buying a bottle of Pantene or Tresemme shampoo costs only about a buck here when it cost so much more in the States, but it does.  At home, I always buy the discount brands, but they don't really have those here for the most part.

The average salary here in Vietnam is about $150 a month. But English teachers can make $20-$30 an hour; more than most doctors, and that money goes a long way. The hunger to learn English here is ravenous. Also, teachers have very high status here; there's even a national holiday called Teacher's Day.

It's a little strange to see that here in Hanoi, they have these little RFID tags on things like chocolate, coffee and cheese that have to be deactivated at the cash register before you can walk out of the store with the product. They have the big plastic ones that have to be removed with a hand-held machine on things like imported whiskey and imported butter. Back home, I wouldn't have thought of these things as high-value items, or particularly prone to theft, but here, they must be considered so, or they wouldn't take the time and expense to do that.

I saw someone advertising for extra jobs for their maid today, who charged $2.50 an hour. I think if I hired a maid and that was her rate, I would probably pay her more.

The weather has been really nice here lately. When I had left on my visa run to Thailand, it was coolish here, but when I returned, it had warmed up a little, but not to the sweltering humid heat of the summer when I first got here. But in the last couple days, it turned a little cool again, and has been slowly moving a teeny bit warmer. Still, I haven't needed a heater at all yet. I didn't even think I had one at all until I noticed on the remote for my air-conditioner that it has a heat function on it, so I guess I do after all. I mentioned in a previous post that it is really compact and efficient, it is a Panasonic so it is a Japanese model.

I'm continuing my work on my Vietnamese flash card deck, and I'm up to about the letter “H” now in words from my first-and-second year wordlist, and adding other stuff that I run across. I figure I'm about a quarter of the way done, maybe. Maybe I'm a little less than halfway done on adding entries, but then there is going to be more processing to do. I don't want it to be so big that it becomes difficult, just want it to have enough words to lead to the possibility of simple fluency if well-learned and practiced. And I also want to have some simple sentences and phrases for essential things, and to work in and reinforce some of the single words.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

27 Hà Trung

27 Hà Trung. This address marks a very important place in Hanoi. That is where the Công Ty Vàng Bạc Quốc Trinh gold shop is. It's a gold shop/money exchange place where you can probably get the best currency exchange rates in all of Vietnam. And maybe even in all of Southeast Asia, for a lot of currencies. I don't know how they do it, but when you change US dollars to Vietnamese dong, you get a better rate than the official rate. There are a ton of places that advertise “best rates” of exchange, and you can always go to a bank if you want a huge hassle and not that great a deal, but this is the place for the good stuff, when it comes to money exchange. They don't have any signs anywhere, like most currency exchange places do, stating the rates for various different currencies. You just walk in, line up at the counter, and if you are just changing dollars to dong, you do it right there. But if you are changing into or from some other esoteric currency, they might send you somewhere else within the labyrinthian building. Which is what happened to me today. Today I went down there to change some of my excess Vietnamese dong into Lao kip in anticipation of my trip to Laos, and they ushered me to the back of the complex, past some place where people were eating on tiny toddler-like chairs (those tiny plastic chairs are all over the place), to the place where the kip guy was. I didn't change much; just about fifty bucks worth. But that will be enough to get me across the border into Laos and to the next town where I can get more, and probably then some. And it is probably a better deal than I will get in Laos. Shoot, now that I think about it, maybe I should go back in a few days and change some more. Before I leave Vietnam for the last time, or for the semi-last time (because I anticipate that after this foray into Southeast Asia, I will be back), I have to change out all the rest of my dong, because the dong is not considered to be a convertible currency, and it is pretty much worthless outside Vietnam. I have heard stories of people who didn't convert the rest of their Vietnamese money before they left, and then had to settle for about a tenth of what it was worth in some other country where they converted it, if anyone would touch it at all.

Before I left the gold shop, I made sure to ask what the rate was to convert dong back into dollars, in case I need to do that. The rate is a little lower than the official rate, but that's to be expected, and it's probably a better deal than I will get anywhere else. When I go into Cambodia sometime down the line, my understanding is that they have a currency, the Cambodian riel, but almost no foreigner uses it in the cities. The de facto currency most places is the US dollar, but some isolated places in the countryside may just take riel. As a matter of fact, if you have a foreign ATM card, you will probably only be able to withdraw dollars from the ATM machines in Cambodia.

After the currency exchange, I headed into the Old Quarter to try to find a new fanny pack. My old one is getting really ragged, and I didn't have much faith in finding one that was big enough, and that was confirmed, as I didn't find one that suited my purposes. So I guess I will be limping alsong with the one I have for the time being. I can keep sewing it up when it gets holes in it (I've already made several repairs), and just deal with the fact that the waterproof lining has mostly crumbled away. I have the extra one I bought in Thailand, but it is too small for all the stuff I carry in my other one, and at some point I may ditch it or give it to someone who needs one, unless I need to use it for a while as an emergency pack if mine finally becomes completely unuseable. One thing you can find in Vietnam is lots of North Face brand gear, which is pretty high quality, as the factory that makes this stuff is in Vietnam. But you have to watch out for the counterfeit stuff, which, oddly enough, usually costs about the same as the real thing. The real ones have a little hologram tag inside. When I was in Sa Pa, I bought a really nice North Face jacket lined with Gore-Tex, and a pair of pants that have zippers that convert them to shorts, and have that feature whereby if you pour liquid on them, it just beads right off. Those things would have cost me hundreds of bucks in the States, but here, they were about forty bucks for both. And they are the real thing; they have the hologram thingy. The counterfeit ones might be just as good in most cases, as they are probably made by workers from the factories who make them on the side, but sometimes the stiching is crappy.

On the continuing phone saga, though I bought a new phone, I am probably going to have to give up for the time being on trying to get a T-Mobile US SIM card for it. I have ordered one that was sent to my house in Austin, and I can get it sent to me, but all the research I've been doing indicates that getting stuff sent to just about anywhere in Southeast Asia not only takes forever, but might not ever get there. Just about the most reliable way I will get that SIM card is if I find somebody who is flying here who can bring it in their baggage. I thought about having it taped to a piece of paper in a letter, but even letters have a high rate of getting lost. I might chance it at some point if I am sitting in one place for a while, but for now, I just don't know where I'll be for any time period that it would take to get here. Kind of a pain, but I can deal for now. That means I'll have to hang on to my old phone for a bit for when I get to a country that T-Mobile will give me free data and texting in again, but I'll have to strip it down by removing most of the apps and data so I don't encounter this frustrating problem of the internal storage being so full that it won't function. So right now I have three cell phones. My new Xperia XZ (which just updated to Android 7.0 Nougat today), my older Samsung with inadequate ROM, and my Vietnamese cheapo burner phone. And each of them takes a different size SIM card, so whatever country I'm in, I'm pretty much guaranteed that one of the three sizes of SIM cards will fit some phone I have. And I have at least one powerful one that will do the stuff I need to do, and all of them will work with wi-fi. Most of the Vietnamese SIM cards have snap-out inserts. You buy the largest size SIM card, and then if you need a micro or nano size, you snap it out to the smaller size. And then you can get converters if you need to move the smaller one back to a larger size. That is what the tech guy at the place I bought my new phone did; he snapped out my old Vietnamese SIM card down to nano size for my new phone.

I also went grocery shopping for maybe the last time. I mostly just bought produce, since I have probably enough food basics in my apartment to last me until I leave. But I just had to satisfy my curiosity about “barley mint candy”, so I bought some to try it out. Little candies are really big here. What sucks about just about any snack you buy is that each piece is often individually wrapped. You buy crackers or something, and often each one comes in its own wrapper, which seems pretty darn wasteful to me.

I'm going to miss this little apartment. It has been good to me. The landlord is a great guy and super-helpful on just about anything. I really like his huge furry dog too. I've been almost thinking about extending my stay here, but I really need to get moving again. One consideration is I've been working on this huge electronic flash card deck for my phone and laptop between English and Vietnamese, and there is probably no way I am going to finish it before I leave, which, unfortunately, means I will have to bring the textbook that I am partly getting vocabulary from with me. I'm getting the vocabulary mostly from this text (I've had to make some corrections, because some of the translations are just not quite right), and from words that I encounter in my daily wanderings, from Google Translate, and from various other sources on the Internet. When it's done, it will truly be a magnum opus. And it will be totally open source and free and available for anyone to use. And I will have done it from scratch. But I'm probably only about a fifth of the way into adding entries, and then I have to add tags for different categories and parts of speech, and then I have to do some processing in a database program to clean it up, and then it will be ready. If I sat in Hanoi for another month, I could definitely get it done. And, since it is so cheap to live here, it would help me on expenses too. Right now, though, I really am antsy to start moving again. That means my project probably gets slowed down, but maybe I will sit somewhere again for a few months, either here in Vietnam again, or somewhere else. I hear there are outstanding French classes in Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, for about the same price as here in Hanoi...

(Update: I've also heard that the gold shop on Hà Trung can also transfer money to bank accounts internationally for the best rate as well.  I haven't personally tried that out, though.  It seems to be one way that people working here can get money transferred if they don't have a proper work permit.  If they do have a proper work permit, they can open a bank account here, and do it that way, but the fee might be higher than the gold shop.  Again, this is hearsay, and I haven't tried any of these methods.)

(Update #2: If you type "27 Hà Trung, Hàng Bông" into Facebook, it translates it into "27 mints, every cotton".  The full address is 27 Hà Trung, Hàng Bông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sucky Band Attack, Biking And Phoning Incidentals, And A Little Trash On The Side

There is some horrible band playing somewhere outside that has a female singer singing terribly off-key, and every single song they have played for the last hour is just D major moving to E major and then back and forth again. It's so bad it's awesome. But I've just shut my windows, because I just can't do it any more. D and E are swell keys, don't get me wrong, but after a while of this bichordal massacre accompanied by an atonal screeching bellow, it just loses its magic. Every song sounds like "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac, ground into bloodsausage and distorted by a bad acid trip.  I can still hear it somewhat even with the windows closed, behind the motorcycle noises and the beeping horns. At least it's not loud enough to resonate through my bones.

Today I got my oil changed and some minor maintenance done on my motorbike. Stuff like getting the chain tightened, adjusting the shift kicker, etc. I'll most likely be leaving Hanoi in a couple of weeks, and it was getting to be about time for an oil change anyway. I've also been trying to find a new fanny pack (I know you're not supposed to call it that because some English speakers get bent about it, but I do anyway), since the one I've had for the last year or so is starting to disintegrate. But I can't find one here that is big enough and water-resistant enough. Not that mine is water-resistant any more. The inner lining has slowly been deteriorating, and I've had to keep the whole thing together with various sewing repairs. I bought one in Thailand by just eyeballing it, and I took it home, and it didn't fit my compact umbrella at all, and it only held a little more than half the stuff I keep in my other one. So it wasn't big enough, but it was only about four bucks, so no big deal. I haven't seen many suitable ones here; most of them are small and flimsy. But I'll keep looking.

I also finally bit the bullet and bought a new smartphone, a Sony Xperia XZ with 64 meg of internal storage, and an SD card slot for expansion. I was at first hoping to get an LG V10, but then somebody told me that phone has been randomly plagued with some horrible infinite bootloop problem, and I don't want to take a chance on that. That's something you don't see when you're looking online, but then when someone tells you about it, you add "infinite bootloop" to the search term, and suddenly you see it all over the damned place. 

Then I was thinking about the LG V20, but it is expensive as hell, and also seems to be pretty darn unavailable here, despite places that advertise it. But then you go to those places, and they all tell you it is out of stock. I had someone keeping their eye out for one; they told me they thought they could find one (that is often the way commerce happens here...someone in a store goes somewhere else to find something, or says they have a line on it and then they get it from somewhere in a few days). But I finally decided to go with this phone, so I told the person to stop looking for the other one.

I've been spending most of the day getting it up to speed, installing apps and the like. It looks like it will have plenty of room, which was the issue with my old one (it had been filling up on internal memory, and I've just been cannibalizing it for a couple of months to keep it working), but it definitely either has a few bizarre quirks or I just have to get with the learning curve on it. All in all, though, it seems like a fairly decent phone. It's unlocked, so I can get local SIM cards if I need them, and in this part of the world, they are pretty cheap. But it doesn't look like I'll be able to get a US nano SIM card for quite a while, because mail is so slow that I need to sit somewhere for a while to get it, and I'll be leaving my apartment soon.  That is not that big a deal either, because my US phone carrier doesn't work in Vietnam and Laos anyway. It will work in Thailand and Cambodia, and most of the other nations in the region. It will probably take me a while to get it tweaked to how I will need it, with all the apps I need, and all the capabilities fully figured out. But it looks like wifi calling is out of the question with this phone, which is unfortunate. Yes, I could probably get around that somehow by rooting my phone and then flashing it with some pirated BIOS or something, but no thanks.  Maybe I'll try that some day with a phone I don't actually need.  I think I can get a workaround to bypass the lack of wifi calling, though, by using Google Voice with a VPN to the US (that's how I'm able to use wifi calling for the most part anyway, by doing it through a VPN with a US IP address), or by using Skype, if I need to call actual phone numbers (Skype might charge a few cents per minute, not sure). I can also talk to people with Facebook Messenger for free, just can't get through to financial institutions and businesses back home that way if I have a banking problem or something like that. And most businesses are just not set up for online communication very well, especially from other countries. But for most of my friends and family, that will work. And, at least I will still have my old phone (it has a micro SIM, which unfortunately is the wrong size for my new phone), so I can use it just for wi-fi calling and maybe for data and texting in the countries where I get that for free with the US plan. I'll just strip it of apps and data so it'll be useful for a while longer. This is all a temporary phone solution...but maybe by the time I am ready for a more permanent solution (maybe a year down the line or so), I'll be in a place where I can get stuff mailed to me easily, and also they will be coming out with crazy powerful phones by then. For instance, the Samsung S8 is supposed to be out sometime next year, and it is rumored to have 256 GB of internal memory. Of course, by then apps will have grown accordingly, too, so likely we'll all still be coming up against storage limits we can't even imagine now.

Speaking of phones, while I was researching phones, I found out that Marshall (yes, the Marshall that makes the amps) has a smartphone called the Marshall London, which is supposed to have the most badass sound of any phone anywhere. But that's about its only redeeming feature; its storage is measly, and the software for anything other than sound is reportedly not that great. There is supposed to be a monster smartphone from the future called the Turing Phone Cadenza, that has specs that are just unbelievable compared to every other phone on Earth, but if you go the the company's homepage (Turing Robotic Industries), you just get a message that says, “Because of a failure to pay its vendors TRI can no longer use this page to communicate with customers.” Seriously, that's not a good sign.

Funny, I never cared about monjo smartphones before. But now that I'm abroad, with a phone that is running out of oomph, and with few options to get a new one, I'm starting to think about more powerful phones. And this from a guy who didn't even have a smartphone until a couple of years ago.

And that brings me to trash. Don't ask me why it brings me there, it's just the next thing I thought of. I'm not quite sure how the whole trash thing happens here. You just put it in a bag, and then put it outside just about anywhere, and within a few days it is gone. Whoever picks it up ultimately is not the first one to encounter it. There are people going up and down the street looking for the good stuff first. Sometimes trash will get gone through several times before it ultimately meets whatever fate it meets, which is a complete mystery to me. I figure cans are reliably some of the best stuff; I've heard that people pick the cans right away. I try to keep the cans in separate bags so whoever comes along to scavenge them doesn't have to dig through other stuff. But people are also looking for stuff that expats abandon in their sometimes short tenures here too...there's probably a lot of perfectly good stuff that gets sent to the curb (not that there are curbs here) by people from other countries who rent short-term apartments and then move on. The whole thing is also complicated by the fact that you can't flush your toilet paper here, you have to throw used toilet paper away. So I try to keep that in separate bags too, so nobody has to go through that looking for other stuff. But who knows, there might be people who collect the used toilet paper for fuel or compost or something. I just don't have much of a handle on the whole trash thing and the complete picture of how it works. And people burn stuff in the street and on the sidewalk all the time. There are constantly fires going on around. Some of them are for street cooking, and some are just to burn stuff to get rid of it. Or maybe some combination thereof. There was a huge tree trunk right in a busy, narrow street for a while, and every day, it got burned down a little more, until one day after several weeks it was gone. I am constantly running into people running radial saws, angle grinders, or other machinery on the sidewalk or in the street. And there is a lot of welding out in the open, too...I will occasionally suddenly run across someone welding among the traffic, and I will quickly avert my eyes so I don't get a big burnhole on my retina from looking at it.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Mission Unsuccessful

Today I went on an unsuccesful mission to find a suitable smartphone to replace the one I have now. I have a Samsung Galaxy S5, and the 16 GBs of internal memory have completely filled up to the point that I can't even retrieve emails without it telling me that internal memory is full, so I have been having for quite some time to delete cache and unnecessary files several times a day just to accomplish simple tasks. But lately, that hasn't even been enough, and I have had to delete apps. Now it is getting to the point where I am deleting some pretty essential apps just so my phone will be useful, and so I am just hoping to get a new phone soon so I can re-load those apps. But getting a new phone from T-Mobile has proven to be next to impossible, due to uncertainties and unevenly enforced mail and customs regulations. They won't ship a phone to Vietnam, so I would have to have it shipped to the States and have a friend ship it to me, which from what I've read online, may prove to be a daunting and expensive task, and it is highly possible that the package could disappear in transit. Even getting a American SIM card for whatever phone I get is going to be damn difficult. So I am pretty much looking at an unlocked phone that I buy here. I had my sights on the LG V10, because it meets all my requirements, has enough internal ROM (4 times what I have now), and takes an SD card, among other things. And I found some places that claimed online that they had that phone, but then when I drove across town, it turned out they actually didn't. And then I was stuck on the other side of town with no signal, so I couldn't check other places (I haven't topped up on my Vietnamese phone, because I might have to change the SIM card size, and my T-Mobile phone doesn't work in Vietnam). I then just randomly stopped in every phone place I saw on the way back to see if they had that phone, and no place did. Some places tried to offer me other phones that seemed similar, but I needed to check out for sure if they would work for me, so I declined. Apparently a lot of the Asian phones may not have access to Google Play, and it is a crapshoot whether wi-fi calling will work or not. I can get around w-fi calling by using Google Phone with a VPN, or by using Skype or some similar app, so that's not a deal-killer, it's just an extra step. But I have to be able to get into the Google Play Store so I can install the apps I need. And I'd like to have enough RAM to make things work smoothly. I don't want to spend a big chunk of money on a phone and then find out that it can't accomplish an essential task I need, or that it doesn't have enough oomph and just runs slowly or crashes. I'll take my time and figure this out. Tomorrow I will try again.

So I drove all around town all day trying to find a phone, and it didn't pan out. It looks like this will be a multi-day quest. The phone is out there somewhere, but finding it is the puzzle. I can connect with wi-fi in the meantime with my American phone, I just have to delete critical stuff all the time. And right now, I'm not even getting the apartment's wi-fi, so it's a little frustrating. Oh, well, I can post this later. I have plenty of room on the SD card, but there are some things my phone will apparently only do in internal memory, and that is dwindling. So my phone's days are numbered. I thought the phone would last me quite a while, but I didn't count on the memory filling up with ever-growing app data and other garbage. Believe me, I've tried to transfer as much as I can to the card, and tech support at T-Mobile has helped me unload as much as I can.

Anyway, on my way back, I tried to turn around in what I thought was a traffic circle, but apparently it wasn't. And there was a cop there. So I got my first traffic fine. It was paid on the spot, only about twenty bucks, and I was on my merry way shortly afterwards with no identifying information taken from me at all. But now I know that when I see what looks like a traffic circle, but it has a little protrusion in one place, you can't cross that place. Especially if there is a cop there. This in a city where everybody openly runs red lights, drives down the wrong side of the street, and there is no such thing as right-of-way. Just watch for the uniform, and don't do anything weird in the presence of the uniformed person. Lesson learned.

This morning I made some fantastic yellow curry, and a lot of it, so I'll be eating on that for a few days, probably. I probably have to start ramping down on buying groceries, since I'll be leaving in a few weeks, unless I decide to stay longer. I think I have enough basics to eat until I leave, and I can just augment that with a little produce as I need it. But I probably won't stay longer; if I want to spend more time in Hanoi, which I might, so I can take more French classes, I'll just return later. I almost wish that I had signed up for the next round of classes at the next level, but too late now. Anyway, I'm watching French TV almost every day and checking out French movies on DVD from the French Institute, so that is helping a lot. Especially since my oral comprehension skill is the one that I most need to develop. Staying here would help me financially, because it is so cheap to live here, but I don't think traveling through Southeast Asia will cost much more since many of the countries in this area are fairly'll just be that the travel will cost more.

I'm also going to have to get an oil change on my bike and have any minor maintenance done...the chain will probably have to be tightened a bit, tire pressure checked, and so on. I'll probably get that done before I take off from Hanoi.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Couple of Stupid Messups

Well, I had a couple of stupid messups here in Hanoi, both involving my motorbike. No, they weren't near road accidents or anything like that, just stupid mistakes that I could have avoided, but that ended up turning out not too bad. I really am coming to enjoy my little motorbike. It is a Ditech Win, which is a Vietnam-made bike. I bought it almost brand-new, because although all the backpackers here in Vietnam are buying $200 motorbikes, those bikes can be thirty years old and need repairing and cajoling all the time to keep going. So many people who buy the cheap bikes end up paying as much as for a more expensive bike, plus have the experience of breaking down in the middle of the jungle. So I bought a 2016 model, with only 1700 kilometers on it (just enough to break in the engine), and it runs great. Hopefully when I take off across Southeast Asia with it in about a month, I will have minimal problems.  When I first got it, I was really tense on it, especially in Hanoi traffic, which is about the most insane traffic I have ever seen. But I'm really coming to not only be comfortable with it, but also enjoy riding around on it. And I'm starting to understand the peculiar logic of Hanoi traffic, where people ride on the wrong side of the road, don't stop for red lights, and dart through intersections helter-skelter.

Near-miss number one was when I parked my bike in downtown Hanoi and was looking for a pharmacy in the area. I had come into the area, but didn't realize that the street I was planning to go down was one-way. Now, a lot of people just go the wrong way down one-way streets, and I would have been willing to do that, but the traffic was especially packed, and I just couldn't see doing that. So I parked my bike to walk about four blocks to the pharmacy. In Hanoi, you can just park your bike on the sidewalk, so I did that.

I had walked about two blocks down the street, and stopped to get some kind of snacky thing to eat from a street stand. I was eating this thing, that was sort of like a donut filled with sweet red bean stuff, when I decided to check the map on my phone to see which block the pharmacy was in. So I checked my pockets, and my phone was not on my person. Oh, crap, I realized, I had left it on the phone bracket on my bike. My bike has a clip-on bracket for the phone so I can follow GPS, and there is a USB port on the bike, so the phone can charge while it is on the handlebars. My first immediate thought was that it was surely not there anymore, being in the middle of downtown Hanoi with massive amounts of pedestrian traffic. I ran all the way back to my bike, and to my surprise and relief, my phone was miraculously still there. I put it in my pocket, and decided to ride the bike to the pharmacy down the next one-way going the other way. It was a little circuitous, but I found the way to get going the other way. Some Hanoi streets are like catacombs; they are windy and narrow, and sometimes they don't go where you think they will. But I found the way, and got to the pharmacy. But there were in siesta mode. Apparently they close down for several hours in the middle of the day, and re-open at two PM. No sweat, it was 1:55. I just waited a few minutes, and they opened up. But there was an elderly Spanish woman at another counter trying to figure out how to communicate with the pharmacists; she saw me looking at her when she was speaking Spanish in vain to the pharmacists, and asked me if I spoke Spanish. I said I did, and helped translate for her into English, which the Vietnamese pharmacist barely understood, but we managed to get the necessary points across, after which she was grateful. I ended up getting what I needed, and took off. But I didn't lose my phone...that was near-miss number one.

Near-miss number two came a day later when I went shopping. I decided to go to the Big C way across town, because it is the biggest supermarket I have found, and occasionally I go there to get stuff I can't find at any of the others. But it is fairly far away. I decided to take the northern route to get there instead of the way I usually take that is more straightforward. It was a little longer, but I got to see some scenery I hadn't yet seen, and go kind of on the outskirts of town, which was more peaceful and agrarian. I usually take a little backpack to the grocery store with me, so I can put my groceries in it and strap it to the rack on my bike. It is kind of a pain in the ass at the Big C, because they make me check my backpack, which I keep my helmet in until I get the groceries. Then they make me put my waist pack in a plastic bag and staple it has my wallet in it, so I just tear it apart at the counter so I can pay. I bought my groceries, but they were a little more than would fit in my backpack, so I had to strap the backpack and an extra plastic bag on the back of my rack. The plastic bag had mostly vegetables in it. I didn't do the greatest job strapping it on, but I figured it would make it home. I was on my way back, and crossing the bridge across the Red River in the middle of Hanoi, when someone passing me was frantically pointing to the back of my motorcycle. I pulled over to check it out, and the bungee cord had come loose, and the plastic bag had come off the back of my rack, but I still had the backpack with the bulk of the groceries. So I stopped my motorbike, and walked maybe half a kilometer back, which was pretty dangerous on this freeway-like bridge packed with motorbike traffic (as was parking my bike on the side of the lane), but I didn't see anything.  So I had to cross all the way across the bridge, which is fairly long (but has a great view), and then turn around and go back to retrace my path. I found the place where it came loose about two kilometers behind where it was brought to my attention, because I found the bungee cord. But no bag of groceries to be found. Oh, well, I just hope that somebody who needed some food found the bag and took it, rather than it having gone to waste. So that was near-miss number two.

When I got home, I didn't have most of my vegetables, which I was planning to chop up to make a stir-fry, so I just put the groceries away and then went out for dinner. I was only out a few bucks worth of groceries, and I could just go shopping in a day or two and get some more.