Saturday, March 11, 2017

Riding from Da Nang to Hoi An

I woke up early in the morning in Da Nang, and packed my stuff to take off.  I went downstairs, turned in my key, and packed up my bike.  Then I took off to eat breakfast and have coffee at a little restaurant I had eaten at the day before.  After that, I headed south out of town.  On the map, it looked like I was taking the road that ran along the ocean.  But I didn't see the ocean at all, it was blocked all the way down by a line of buildings, or the road ran inland farther.  On the way down, a woman pulled aside me on her motorbike and engaged me in conversation while we were both riding down the road.  It seemed like she wanted to practice her English some, so we bantered back and forth for a while as we continued down the road.  She wanted to show me a mountain that she said she lived near, but I wanted to keep going to Hoi An, so I thanked her and kept going on my way, while she turned off the road to go wherever she was going.  Actually, the mountain looked pretty cool, maybe I should have checked it out, but I had a plan, I guess.

I arrived in Hoi An about eleven in the morning, and started looking for a place to stay.  I headed for the Old City to see if I could find a place to stay that was close to the center of the action, so I wouldn't have to ride my bike, and could just step out and walk around.  But I tried a few guesthouses and hotels, and they were full.  Then I tried, but couldn't find anything in the area there either, except for a couple of hostels, but I wanted to try to get a private room.  A hostel would have worked if I couldn't find anything, but I finally found and booked a couple of nights at a homestay online that was several kilometers away from the center of the city.  That would work; I could just find a place to park my bike near the center and then wander from there.  And it would be a peaceful place to stay where I could get away from the hubbub when I needed to.

I showed up at the place, it was called Portulaca Homestay.  There was no sign at all signifying it as a place for people to stay; it just looked like a big private residence.  I wandered in, and there was nobody around on the ground floor at all, so I just sat down and waited for a while.  After a few minutes, a friendly Vietnamese guy came from downstairs and said he had just seen my booking online.  He spoke English really well so we did not have any communication difficulties.  He told me, though, that check-in time was not until two in the afternoon, and that the room would not be ready until at least one.  I told him that was fine, I would just leave my bags there and return when it was check-in time.  He sat down with me for a bit and showed me some sights in the area that I marked on Google Maps so I could check out some of them later.  Then I headed off to the Old City to wander around for a while.

The Old City kind of reminded me of a Vietnamese version of Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The buildings were all very short and stylized, and almost all of them had a storefront on the bottom floor and then one more story that looked like a residence, or a more subdued business.  For some reason, there were a lot of optical stores that offered eye exams and glasses.  I was curious about what it would cost, since I hadn't had a new glasses prescription in quite a while, and probably need one.  A guy in one shop quoted me a figure of about $135 in US dollars for multi-focal glasses in designer (or faux-designer fake) frames.  Not too bad, cheaper than most storefronts in the US, but probably a little more expensive than it would be for me to buy glasses online from the US.  So I decided to pass for now.

Then I went by the clothing market, because I wanted to buy some cargo pants or shorts.  I need pants with lots of pockets, and hopefully fairly secure pockets.  But most of the stores there made stuff custom, and it was tailored, rather than off-the-shelf as I'm used to buying.  A woman in one of the shops called me over, “Mistah,” she said, “Come visit my store.  I no have good luck today, maybe you buy something.”  OK, sure, I'll check it out.

She offered to make some pants for me, and told me she could put pockets and zippers wherever I wanted, and she'd give me a discount if I bought two pairs.  She quoted me sixty pounds for two pair; I said that was a little expensive, so we went back and forth until we settled on forty-five dollars for two pair.  That was about what I would pay back home, maybe, at a discount store, but she did all my measurements and would do it custom fitted.  I asked her if she could make them into convertible shorts, and she said sure.  So I paid her the money, and she gave me a receipt and told me to come back tomorrow to pick them up.  It seems a little bit strange to have cargo pants custom tailored, but I guess that is the way things are done here.

After paying for the pants, I headed back to the homestay to check in and take a shower, as I felt pretty grungy from riding in the heat from Da Nang to Hoi An.  I checked in and my room was pretty nice.  I took a shower and also washed the shirt and underwear I was wearing in the bathroom sink.  I then lay down on the bed for a bit to relax.  When I went back out, I put on the wet shirt, and figured it would dry out riding around in the heat on my bike, which it did.

I went back to the Old City of Hoi An after eating dinner, and parked my motorbike in one of the many parking lots for motorbikes in the area.  Then I wandered around for a while, and a woman on a boat beckoned me over to take a boat ride on the river.  She asked for 150,000 dong, but I thought that was a little high, so I told her maybe I would come back later.  She then offered 100,000 dong, and I figured, sure, might as well.  I paid her the money and got on the boat.  It was a pretty enjoyable boat ride, and it was just starting to get dark on a night with a full moon.  But about halfway through the ride, I started thinking that the ride would sure be nicer if I had someone to share it with.  Especially since most of the other boats had couples on them.  Oh, well, such is the life of the solo traveler.  You get to do what you want whenever you want, but the tradeoff is that you usually do it by yourself, unless you meet a person or group of people who want to do stuff with you.

After returning from the boat ride, it had gotten completely dark, and I wandered up and down the area of the river.  There were more and more people arriving, and after a while it was starting to get to the point where many areas I was passing through were just major pedestrian traffic jams. It was cool being down by the river, but it didn't look like the flow of humanity was going to abate anytime soon, so I decided to go get my motorbike and skedaddle out of that area.  Little did I realize that I didn't just put my motorbike in a normal parking lot; it was one where they just jammed bikes in there wherever they would fit, without regard for whether there were any channels out of the lot or not.  So when I got there, I found that my bike was way in the back of a sea of motorbikes, and it was crammed in there about fifteen levels deep.  Great.  Getting out of here was not going to be easy. I tried to show the ticket they had given me to one of the lot attendants, but it looked like he had bigger fish to fry and was not interested in paying attention to me.  For one thing, hordes of bikers were lined up outside the gate of the lot in a huge mass trying to get in, and they were trying to cram bikes in closer to each other to make room for all the people waiting.  I managed to somehow squeeze past the crammed-in bikes to get to where my bike was, but there was absolutely no way to get out of that sea of bikes.  I did, with some effort, and just inching it back and forth and nudging other bikes over a bit, manage to get my bike turned around, so now it was facing outward instead of inward.  But there was no way I was going to get it out past all the other bikes.  I just started inching bikes over a bit, centimeter by centimeter.  Then one of the parking attendants started doing that too from the outer side of the bike blob.  After about a half hour of this, with me and the parking attendant working toward each other, we finally met, and I was able to pass my bike through a narrow channel barely big enough to squeeze through.  But the ordeal was just beginning.  I had to force my way past all of the motorbikes trying to get into the lot, and then once I crept my way into the street, there was a total gridlock traffic jam there.  It took about another fifteen minutes to get through the two blocks outside the parking lot, and then about another fifteen minutes to get through the next six blocks or so.  Then, for a few blocks, there was steady but slow movement, and finally I broke free into relatively unencumbered movement to be able to make my way back to the homestay where I was staying.  Fuck.  I definitely was not going to try to head back toward the Old City any more for the night.  I figured I would just head back to the homestay and call it a night, even though it was only about nine at night.

When I got back to the homestay, I found some leftover Mekong River weed (no, not marijuana, but an edible weed that grows in the river that they dry out into sheets) that I had bought in Laos, and started munching on it.  I love that stuff.  It's sort of like sheets of nori, only it has more of a cotton-y texture, and it is dried along with tomatoes, sesame seeds, and other spices, so it has this rich, complex, spicy taste that squeezes out of it when you chew it.  Not much of it left, have to savor it while I can.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

To Hue On The Train

I packed my stuff up from my hostel in Ho Chi Minh City, and asked Jessie at the hostel to call a cab for me.  She said she would call a Grab car, and that it would arrive at 11:30 in the morning.  I sat around and waited for a while, and before I knew it, it was 11:40 in the morning, and no car had arrived.  So I asked Jessie again when the cab was coming, and she got a flustered look on her face; she told me that she got busy and forgot to call.  So she tried Uber, and a car showed up within a couple of minutes.  It was no big deal; I had plenty of time.  I always try to get to a transportation hub earlier than necessary just in case some glitch happens.  I got in the car and headed for the train station.

I arrived at the train station, found out what track my train was on, and it was already there, and it opened to board about ten minutes before I got there.  I went to the compartment, and found that I had an upper bunk.  Bummer.  But definitely survivable.  There was still at least a half hour before the train took off, so I went and got some snacks and beverages.  Shortly after I returned to the compartment, the other upper berth passenger showed up, and he was from Italy.  I figured that the people assigned to the bottom would let us sit there until it was time to sleep or until they wanted to take a nap, and told the Italian guy that usually the bottom bunk passengers let you hang out on the bottom for a while.  But when the two passengers who had the bottom bunks showed up, they were an elderly Vietnamese couple, and seemed quite disconcerted that we were sitting on their bunks.  Oh, well, obviously they were not going to share their bunks with us, as others had on other trains I had been on.  So we moved to the top bunks, and I resigned myself to laying in that cramped space for the whole voyage.

Then the Italian guy had a great idea.  He said he was going to find one of the cars that just had seats, and sit in an empty seat by the window, and if somebody came along and asked him to move, he'd move.  Or he could go to the restaurant car.  So he took off for parts unknown.  Shortly after that, I decided to attempt the same move.  I went to the car right behind the one I was in, and it had a bunck of wooden seats, and was almost empty.  So I just sat by the window for a while, and I was able to snap some pictures too.

After a while, I decided to try to find the restaurant car.  So I went traipsing towards the front of the train, and in the process, got questioned by several of the car attendants as to what I was doing in their car.  I told each of them I was looking for the restaurant car, and then they let me pass without further questioning.  When I got to the restaurant car, I found my Italian suitemate sitting there talking to a Vietnamese kid who spoke English very well, but it was obvious it was just “school English” rather than English learned from conversations with people, which he confirmed.  I sat down to hang out with them, and he told me he was in the eighth grade, and that he hardly ever had a chance to talk to English speakers.  He was obviously a very smart kid; he picked up on a lot of things and liked to talk about subjects like the kinetic energy of the train.  One peculiarity was that he spoke EXTREMELY loudly.  But he was a good companion to talk to, and could converse fluidly on a variety of subject, even though his English was a little bit unusually stilted.  The kid was only going a short distance, so he got off the train about a half hour after I met up with the two of them; we wished him well.

I went back to the compartment shortly after that to lie down for a bit; I didn't really want to sleep, but just to rest my mind.  The Vietnamese couple was fast asleep on their bunks.  Maybe they were too tired to share, and just wanted to sleep without disturbances.  But it turned out they were going a shorter distance than the Italian guy and I were (we were both going to Hue), because in the morning, when I woke up, there were two kids who had taken their place somewhere along the line.  I went to sleep around one in the morning on the train; the Italian guy went to slep much earlier in the evening and woke up before me.  I went to the restaurant car to eat breakfast, and he was there again, so I joined him for breakfast.  When I woke up, we had just passed Hoi An, so there was only about two hundred kilometers to go to Hue.

Danang was the next major stop before Hue, and in Danang, the kids got off, and were replaced by a backpacking couple.  The guy was from Denmark, and his girlfriend was from Australia.  They had both been living in Australia for a while, and then took off to travel.  They were very social, and we had some good conversation in the short time that they were on the train from Danang to Hue.  It was a little bit drawn out, because we had two stops where we stopped for a very long time, so even though it was not that long a distance, it was a little longer than we thought it would be.  The whole trip from Saigon to Hue ended up being about twenty-three hours in total, but it probably saved me a week of travel from Saigon, and also may have saved me from backtracking (though I could have taken a different route the other way, it was still fun to have the experience of taking the train).

When I got to Hue, I had to bid the three of them good-bye, because I had to figure out where to pick up my motorbike, which I had shipped from Saigon a couple of days before I left.  So the three of them took off into the city together, while I wandered around the train station trying to figure out where the shipped motorbikes were.  I wasn't having much luck, so I asked a station officer, “Xe may di Saigon” (which is a poorly constructed sentence in Vietnamese that means “Motorbike goes Saigon”) and she pointed me to a dock at the very end of the station.  But she seemed impressed that I was speaking (or attempting to speak) Vietnamese, and smiled broadly.

I went to the dock, and immediately saw my bike surrounded by a makeshift crate there, and packed in cardboard.  Unfortunately, the helmet was on the rack, and had been wrapped to the rack with sticky tape (I was hoping they would use cord, but if they used tape, that they would wrap it in paper first, but no such luck), so there are now sticky, broad tape marks all over my helmet.  Oh well, I'll live.  There were a bunch of Vietnamese guys sitting on the dock drinking liquor and they tried to get me to drink with them, but I kept begging off.  I've been staying away from the booze lately, and trying to keep that going.  They were very persistent, but I kept saying, “Khong, cam on” (“No, thanks”), until they finally quit trying to get me to drink with them.  They started taking the crate and the packing apart, and screwing the mirrors back on.  While they were doing that, a couple of South African guys came along and were curious about the process because they wanted to ship their motorbikes, and so they asked me a bunch of questions about the procedure.  One of the Vietnamese guys asked where they were from, and they told them they were from South Africa, but the guy looked puzzled, so I told him, “Nam Phi”, which means “South Africa”.

As an aside, my Vietnamese is getting much better.  Its still not to the point where I can have a detailed conversation, but I've been finding that I can have entire simple interactions with people completely in Vietnamese, with multiple back-and-forths, and then understanding what they say back to me, which is really cool to me.

The South Africans stuck around to drink a bit with the Vietnamese guys, who had their hooch in a plastic water bottle.  I had to take off to find gasoline, because they had drained my tank in Saigon.  So I went outside the station to see if I could spot any gas stations, but none seemed to be in sight.  I was getting ready to check Google Maps to find a gas station nearby, when I heard a woman in a conical hat say, “Gas?” to me, and hold up a plastic water bottle filled with liquid.  Apparently there are a bunch of people who hang out outside the train station with water bottles filled with gas for those who shipped their motorbikes.  But they charge a lot more than the gas stations.  It was about 30,000 dong for a small size water bottle, so I bought two.  Strangely enough, the gas was a green liquid, and didn't look like any gas I had ever seen before.  But I poured it into my bike's tank, and it started up.  Yippee!

Then I had to drive my bike down this really steep ramp off the dock, and there was a concrete and iron fence just a few feet past where the ramp ended.  My bike was totally packed with my gear, which made it heavier and more unmanageable, and I didn't want to unpack my bike and pack it again at the bottom of the ramp, so I just gung-ho'd it, even though I thought I might crash into the fence, but it turned out OK.  So I set off to find a hotel in Hue.

I rode around for a while, and didn't see many places, and I thought the hotels I saw might be a little expensive-looking (you can really never tell here...some places that look high-class are amazingly cheap), so I thought I'd try, even though I'd had some problems finding places that I had booked with them in the past.  Sure enough, I had a hard time finding the place I booked.  It was not where the map said it was, and I drove up and down the street where it was supposed to be over and over again without success.  I was groaning in frustration, and stopped several times to ask local businesses if they knew where my hotel was.  It turned out it was in this barely visible alley off the street shown on the map, but about a block away from where the map said it was.  I was relieved to find the place, and parked my bike where they told me to put it, a little ways down the alley, and unloaded my stuff.  I was a little concerned because this is the most open and unguarded my bike has been, but it is still there, hopefully it will stay there for my entire stay here.  The hotel is pretty nice, and only about ten bucks a night for a private room, though the wi-fi is spotty and mostly not working.

So I did some sightseeing around the city of Hue on foot, and then came back to the hotel to crash; I went to bed pretty early.  The next morning, I went out to walk around some more (still haven't used my bike since I parked it, but I noticed somebody had moved it a few feet away from where it was, which must have been quite a feat since my front wheel was locked).

I ran across a phone store, and decided to stop in.  I had gotten my phone stolen in Saigon a few days before, and bought one in Saigon that was the same model as the one that got stolen.  But my new phone had been overheating a lot, and the battery was depleting a LOT quicker than the battery in my stolen phone had.  The overheating was also making my camera shut down frequently.  I had decided that I was going to take it back to the store in Saigon to see if I could get it repaired or replaced (they had told me there was a one year warranty on it), but here was the same brand of phone store in Hue, so I decided to see if they would do something about it.  They were really helpful, they changed it out immediately even though I had thrown away the box and had left the earphones back at my hotel (of course, I hadn't planned on trying to trade in my phone when I went out walking, but since I ran across this store, I decided to give it a shot).  They told me they would give me the new phone without the box and earphones, and started helping me set it up.  But I couldn't sign into Google because it was telling me that it thought I was suspicious, and they needed to call my US number that I had given for verification.  Shit.  I'm not really surprised that they were suspicious, though, because I now have three different phones of the same model that have tried to log in to my account from Vietnam.  I couldn't do the verification to my US phone number from there, but I could probably do it from my hotel.  So I could not set up any Google stuff, and here I was all the way across town after just wandering aimlessly, with no access to Google Maps to help me get back to my hotel.  But I just went in the direction that I thought I should go in, and that worked out OK; I got back to my hotel fine.  Then when I got there, Google suddenly let me log in without the extra verification step that it had persistently asked me for at the store (I tried several times there).  So I was able to set up my phone, download needed apps, etc., for the SECOND time in just a few days.  And it seems so far like this new phone is not a lemon.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Shipping My Motorbike

Yesterday I was sitting in the lobby of my hostel in Saigon looking at the map of Vietnam and trying to figure out how I would be able to go to the places I want to go in the time I have left in the country, when Jessie, one of the women who works here at the hostel (I don't remember her Vietnamese name) told me that I can put my motorbike on a train and also head somewhere by train, so that opened up a whole new realm of possibilities to me.  I made a reservation on a train to Hue, but was told that I would have to go to the station two days before I was leaving to buy a ticket for my motorbike and have it shipped as cargo.

So today I set off for the train station on my motorbike to have it shipped to Hue.  I got to the station and parked in the parking lot, which charges 3000 dong to park there; it is maybe around 15 cents.  But I really didn't have to park there, as I soon found out.  The thing was that I didn't know for sure if they were going to take my motorbike right then or if I would just buy a ticket and then bring my motorbike when I was leaving.  But it turned out that they did take my motorbike right then.  They drained the gas out of it in preparation for shipping it, took off the mirrors and taped them to the rack, and covered the handlebars in cardboard.  I asked if I could ship the helmet with it, so I wouldn't have to lug it around with me.  The first guy I asked said no, but someone else who appeared to have more authority stepped up and said that I could.  I set it on the rack after they put the mirrors there, and made hand motions like, “are you going to tie/tape it up?”, and the authoritative guy nodded to indicate “yes”. I hope.  I stuck around for a while to see what they would do with it, but my helmet just sat there on the rack.  I certainly hope that it arrives with my bike.  For that matter, I hope my bike arrives OK with no problems, although it probably will.  I'll have to figure out how to get some gasoline into the tank, since they drained it.

The train to Hue will be about a twenty hour journey, and I will head up there in a couple of days.  This will be the first time I've taken a train in Vietnam, and actually the first time for me to journey by train anywhere in Southeast Asia, so I'll get to see what the trains are like.  I hope to ride down the coast back to Saigon and stop in several places on the way.  Taking the train will probably save me somewhere between a few days to a week of travel, though I wouldn't necessarily have to come back the same way I went up.

I decided to just walk back to the hostel from the train station, since it was only a few kilometers, and I wanted to take my time and check out some more stuff I hadn't seen yet.  I stopped by the Independence Palace, and was going to check it out, but I had gotten there too closes from 11:30 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, and I got there right after 11:30.  Maybe I'll head back in that direction this afternoon, maybe not.

So I have no motorbike for the next couple of days that I am in Ho Chi Minh City.  I doubt it will matter much because I have been walking almost everywhere anyway.  BTW, some people don't know that Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, and Saigon are all the same place.  I talked to a guy the other day who had no idea.  Just in case you didn't know, they are.