Thursday, August 23, 2012

The new motorbikes of Old Saigon

The Nuovo in my Hem (alley)
Many cities around the globe have a vehicle that is intertwined with its unique character and culture; Rome with its stylish and youthful Vespas and Fiat 500s, the staid and steady London taxi, or the muscle cars of Detroit. But there is no city where that association transcends the Romantic to the Actual more than Saigon and the Honda Cub. Even in the years of the Vietnam War, any picture or news footage of the Paris of Indochina had at least a half dozen of the thrifty, reliable scoots buzzing in the background, shuttling around everything from Generals to crates full of pigs. Whenever I step out of my apartment on Le Thanh Ton street in the heart of District 1, I am immediately dodging Honda scooters. Today, most of the semi-automatic bikes you see are 110cc version of the original 50cc cub, sold either as a Super Cub, Super Dream, or Alpha. I'd be hard pressed to tell you the mechanical differences between them, but the Super Cubs still retain the 60s styling, while the Dream's have square, 80s style headlight, and the Alpha attempt a more modern, sporty design (some even have - gasp! - front disk brakes).

So if the traditional Honda is so common in Saigon, why am I not writing about it? Well, for two reasons; first of all, the Alpha S I rented had no front brake. To be sure, there was a drum attached to the front wheel, and a lever, and a brake line; but, as a unit, this did nothing to actually slow my momentum. I discovered this after I had planned a trip to Monkey Island, a small nature preserve infested with notoriously larcenous monkey gangs, just south of the city. I was all geared up, with a Kriega bag full of water, a change of shoes, and a towel in case of swimming (thank you, Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy). As I started out of the city, however, through the kind of lawless traffic that would make even an Italian taxi driver curl up in the fetal position, I began to notice that my right hand really had zero effect on the bike. Distracted, I took a wrong turn, and found up riding 25 km west of the city, through some very interesting suburbs. When I returned a few hours later, I took the bike back to the small convenience store/cafe/boardinghouse/motorbike rental shop to ask for a different bike.

I did want to ride a Honda cub; it fit with every preconceived notion I had about Saigon. But the longer I've been here, the more I've realized the city is changing, rapidly. Every young Vietnamese person I've met and traveled with has been eager to point out how they are NOT like their parent's, or grandparent's, generation. Dressed in Gucci and designer jeans, drinking Heineken and Carlsburg, listening to west-coast hip hop and electronica...

...and NOT riding Honda cubs.

Vietnam is a country with an extremely young population; 60% of its population is under 30, and its average age is 26. Compare this with the grey-bush United States of America, whose average age is nearly 37. I'm 26; if I came to Vietnam to experience its culture, I'd better start acting like my Vietnamese peers.

Examining the huge valet parking lots near trendier clubs like District 3's Acoustic, you'll notice a much larger percentage of larger, automatic scooters. While Vespas and Vespa-styled small-wheel automatics like the SYM Atilla are more popular with girls, bikes like Honda's Airblade and Yamaha's Nuovo tend to be more popular with guys. An Airblade sports modern features like water-cooling, fuel injection, and a CVT transmission, but retains the 16" wheels of their Cub forebearers. All the better to deal with the uneven road surfaces and required curb-jumping for parking (or just to scare the tourists). These bikes also tend to be very aggressively styled; the Nuovo apes the angular style of its big-brothers the R6 and R1, while the Airblade looks like a scooter-VFR. Not your father's nicest-people Honda, to be sure.

I wound up renting a Yamaha Nuovo; its an older model, a 115cc air-cooled, carburetted, 2-valve engine mated to a CVT, but its styling makes it appear much more advanced. Never having ridden a traditional sit-in scooter, I was a bit surprised by the seating position; I usually wind up riding around with my feet under my butt, with the balls of my feet well to the back of the runners. The CVT is convenient, if a bit slow to respond to throttle inputs at walking speed, in traffic; any machine that can handle Saigon during rush-hour is a well-engineered machine. Opening it up on the wide, empty boulevards in front of "Unification Palace" at midnight was extremely fun; racing a friend riding two-up on a newer Vespa, I was able to take turns with reckless abandon and total confidence. Luckily, the ubiquitous white police CB250s were nowhere to be found; foreigners without a license hooning on public street are ripe for an expensive shakedown. 

All the Gear, All The Continents

Cool old bike in an inside cafe painted to look like a street cafe...confusing
Dirt Tracker down by the riverside. Stylish!

The Nuovo in the underground parking at the Somerset Hotel

Ural Side Car!

Seen outside a night club in District 1. The German claimed it was the, "Only Buell in Vietnam!" I was in no position to doubt him.

Kickass little motorbike I passed during my walk to work through the Saigon Children's Hospital. 150ccs, 6-speed true manual transmission, under-seat storage. Tell me why they don't sell these in America, again?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The wonder that one can not impart to other

After a week adrift in the barely-organized chaos of Hanoi, it felt strange to wake up to silence. The constant blare of motorbike horns and shouts from the street vendors had been replaced with the steady chug of the ship's engines, and with no plans for the morning, I allowed the gentle rocking of the top-heavy junk to lull me back to sleep. After a quick, awkward, and luke-warm shower, I walked up to the dining room, where my companions were just finishing breakfast. Last night's dinner, greasy and savory, still weighed heavily in my stomach, so I waved off the crew's offer of eggs and toast, and simply asked for a cup of strong, black coffee, and took the saucer to the top deck. Slouching into a wicker chair, drinking coffee, I watched the jutting green and grey peaks of Ha Long Bay float past, shrouded in mist, and looking for all the world like a silk tapestry come to life. It was only then that I could truly and physically comprehend the distance from home I was.

The previous week had certainly been a blur. After 14 hours on a jet to Hang Kong (next to a teenager who, given his constant, omni-directional sneezing, seemed to have some sort of Mega-SARS), two plane changes at the airport, and another 2 hours to Hanoi, I was hardly in a condition to start a full day; but yet, there I was, checking into a hotel at 11 am. I had enough time for a quick shower and a change of clothes before meeting the other students in the program in the hotel lobby, thankfully, but I was mostly running on autopilot at that point in time. We went to get some food, bun cha; char-grilled (on the sidewalk!) pork patties we placed in bowls of hot vermicelli, spiced with fish sauce, chili paste, and fresh basil. Delicious, but quite a bit of a shock to an American digestive track.  Afterwards we walked down to picturesque Hoan Kiem lake, enjoying the old red bridge, bright paper lanterns, and an early evening lightning storm. Crossing a main square and rotary was my first realization that I would not be riding a motorbike in Hanoi.

I got my first glimpse into the insanity that is Vietnamese traffic on the taxi ride from the airport. One of the first things I spotted as we merged onto the main highway to downtown Hanoi was a huge hog, alive and wrapped in chicken wire, strapped to the back of a Honda Superdream (post cards with pictures of similarly loaded farm bikes confirmed that I, in fact, did not make this up in a post-flight hallucination). I barely had time to register just how the traffic in the cramped streets of the Old Town moved, being more concerned with not being separated from the group on the way to food. But while grabbing a "bia ba ba ba" ("333" beer) poured over ice in a cafe, I had the chance to study the traffic. At any moment, I though somebody was going to be killed. The "rotary" was just an obstacle in the middle of a 5-way intersection; bikes rode clock-wise or counter-clockwise depending on which was the quickest way to their street. Honda Cubs were loaded down with entire families; Dad holding the handle bars with 4 year old son on his lap, with Mom holding on to both the bike and an infant on the back, all four swerving around pedestrians, taxis, other bikes, and monster potholes. Nobody was going too quickly, but nobody ever, EVER stopped. This slow-but-stead progress seemed to be the only way to make through the whirlpool of traffic, and I knew immediately that I didn't have the skills (or the balls) to hop on a bike and try it myself. It was like I had been playing checkers in the States, and the Vietnamese were playing speed chess.

After a week of classes and sight-seeing in Hanoi, plus an entire day spent in bed with Conrad-ian fever dreams and cramps (thanks, kid, for that), we all took our trip to Ha Long bay before the group split up between Hanoi and Saigon. After feeling like a salmon trying to swim upstream, some spelunking, squid fishing, and swimming was just what I needed to relax and prepare for Saigon, and my work at Baker & McKenzie.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rider 49er part Deux; Scooterpocalypse Now

Its been a while since I've posted anything; mostly because this blog was originally going to be a one-off journal of my trip from Boston to San Francisco. I am, however, going to be embarking on a new summer two-wheeled adventure! I'll be working as a summer clerk at Baker & McKenzie, and international law firm, at their Ho Chi Mihn City office (Saigon). Vietnam is famous (or infamous) for its motorbike culture; more specifically, scooters! So, in addition to suits and ties and travel gear, I also packed my helmet, old gloves, boots, rain gear (monsoon season) and jacket. Since I'm packing my bulky items in a large canvas duffle bag, they more than fit. My helmet if full of the armour I pulled out of my jacket, plus my gloves, and is surrounded by soft item to protect it from the baggage handlers. Renting a scooter in HCMC is dirt cheap, but I'll be in Hanoi for about a week first; I have no idea if I'll be riding at all in the first week, but I'm certainly going to try! Sadly, I packed before I took the required pre-pack layout of my gear, but I promise more pictures when I get there. If I have time after my clerkship is over, I may also make the trek from HCMC to Phenom Phen in Cambodia to visit a friend and fellow USF law student. For now, here's the packed duffle bag.

See you on the road, Mark
PS - This is an average street in Saigon. So many Hondas!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Epilogue: California Love

As of today, I ended my trip exactly one month ago. Under normal circumstances I'd probably say, "Wow, I can't believe it; it seems like only yesterday I was blasting up the PCH, with nothing in mind but a vague idea of the direction I should be going." But, of course, I've been in Law School for a month, where every 10 minutes of class time is more intellectually demanding that, let's be honest, most of that last three years of my life. So my trip seems a bit dream-like, vague, and far away.

That's a picture of Monterrey, just a bit west of the hostel I stayed in. I spent the early afternoon, after arriving in town, at the Monterrey Aquarium. I went once when a was a kid, and I enjoyed it almost as much the second time around! It was fairly crowded, so I spent more time trying not to knock over little kids than I would have liked, but the large viewing tank was as peaceful and awe-inspiring as I remembered it. The jellies were as trippy, too.

"Like, whoa, maaaaaaaan."

The trip up from Monterrey was uneventful, but it was nice going inland a bit, seeing the farm land just a few miles east of the Pacific. I was also shocked by how desolate the area just south of San Francisco is. Halfmoon Bay, outside of it gaudy golf retreats for overworked silicon valley drones, reminds me a lot of Green Harbor. The Miramar Beach Restaurant is a perfect west-coast analogue for the Fairview Inn in Brant Rock. More avacado, less lobster, but similar.

After Miramar, the city of San Francisco began creeping in; finally, 1 mergers onto 280/101, and you start seeing rows of Victorian pastel apartments, city buses, and finally the southern edge of Golden Gate Park. Luckily it was clear enough that, cresting one of the last hills before the park, I caught a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. Home at last!

A quick photo op of the bike in front of the Law School later, and I was meeting up with Alice for a gospel brunch. The trip was, effectively, over.

So what was the best part? That's an impossible question, but a few places stick out in my mind now, one month later. The quaintness and neighborly goodwill of Jarrett's place in upstate New York. The great beer of Ypsilanti. The majesty of Chicago's architecture. The time-from-another-place that is Atlanta, Illinois. The oppressive heat of St. Louis. The backwater labyrinth of country roads in Missouri. The funkiness of Kansas City, and the good company and good riding with Harry Mallin and his Brammo. The surprising grandeur of eastern Kansas, and the post-apocalyptic isolation of western Kansas.

Then the exciting appearance of the Rockies. The exhilaration of leaning the bike over as far as I dare, as fast as I dare, around treacherous mountain passes. The feeling of entering a totally new world as the mountain are beaten down and spread out into the plains and plateaus of Grand Junction and Utah.

Words can't describe the national parks of Utah, but these images will never leave me, as long as I live.

Finally, the return of Civilization in Las Vegas, and the vauge feeling that we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere if we consider Vegas an oasis in the desert.

And then: CALIFORNIA. At first its just a collection of license plates, but heading up into the San Bernadinos, the feeling of California just seeped out from the air. The smell of pot at the camp ground in Big Bear. The cloud of smog over LA. In'N'Out. Sushi and palm tree with Annie Murphy downtown. The frantic pace of the 101, and the undeniable chill of Santa Montica. The unified weirdness of San Francisco.

And I think I like it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Souther California post-op

Just pulled into the hostel in Monterey, my LAST stop! So its probably time to update the blog!

Where did I leave off...Vegas? Vegas sucks whe you're broke and alone. Not only would that make a great country song, its true. The Cosmopolitan was awesome; pbr in the mini fridge, a "Karma Sutra" next to the bed, and a huge walk in shower. Of course, you can really only take advantage of one of those thing by yourself, so I just wandered up the entire strip. Vegas is WEIRD, not to mention having the worst drivers, hands down, of the trip. Oh, and it was 116 degrees when I left. At 10:30 in the morning. I found myself closing up my jacket to keep the air OUT; it was like riding through a hair drier.

Vegas to Big Bear was a good ride, once I got out of the desert! I never reallu felt like I was in in Cali until I started seeing pines. Then organic groceries, too-tan older women, and well-preserved vintage cars. Yup, California! I set up camp on the north shore of the lake, then got some Mexican food and caught up on e-mails. The temp plummeted the second the sun went down, so I made a fire and read some law stuff before crashing.

The trip down 18 into San Bernadino was some of the most challenging riding of the trip, and hence the most fun! Once down into the valley, I was thrown right into LA traffic! Drivers there were actually pretty good, just fast.

I got In'N'Out for lunch, in Pomona, then went to Annies place. After a quick shower, I met up with here at the Paramount lot! Got a good tour, and saw three of the leads from 'Glee'. Just my luck. I hate that show!

I then headed down Sunset Blvd, took a picture of of the Whiskey A-Go-Go, then rode by to Annie's through the Hollywood Hills. After Annie got back from work, we met up with her boyfriend Scott, and decided to head Downtown for sushi, mostly because my future roomate saw a picture of The Whiskey I posted on the Facebooks, and was in town! Aftet awesome cheap sushi, we met Cat for a drink then headed home, where I passed out!

I slept in the next day, and didn't leave until 11ish. I went down Mullholland Dr to the 401 and 10 into Santa Monica, where I walked the boardwalk and got some tuna steak sandwich, overlooking the beach. What a beautiful place!

I then went up to Malibu, where I stopped at a small, isolated beach. I waded up to my knees in the Pacific, read some Steinbeck, and listened to some Fleedwood Mac. Perfect.

I didn't leave until 4, and by then, it started getting cold! I froze all the way up to San Luis Obispo, but a hot shower and some bbq downtown warmed me up.

I talk about the PCH later, because I want to go into Monterey!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Bryce Canyon

The trip to Bryce Canyon was vY uneventful. The fact that cruising through beautiful canyons and high desert is "uneventful" just proves how amazing this trip has been.

Lunch was in a backwater call The restaurant was clean and locals didn't leer at me, so that's about as much as I can ask for.

My campground was a bit outside the main park, so I first set up my tent, then went on a nice three-ish mile walk down to the Sevier River, then back to the campground restaurant for local beer, river trout, and homemade cream cheese and raisin pie (apparently a local thing).

I woke up early enough to ride up to Bryce and be at the trailhead by 9:30. I went to Bryce Point first, the highest point in the main Bryce ampitheatre. I walked down through the canyon, mostly alone, then back up to Sunrise Point, the lowest point of the rim. I had an excellent lunch of elk chili, bison burger, and a rather good local dark IPA. It was an easy, sloping uphill hike back to Bryce Point along the rim, at which point I went back to the campground, it being almost 5 by now.

I took a shower and did laundry, then rode back up at sunset, all the way to the southermost tip of Bryce. A trip outside the park for a dinner of coffee and enchiladas. By the time I got out, it was dark; as the Stranger says, darker than a black steers tuchus on a moonless prarie night.

Thw temperature dropped almost immediately into the 50s! After an aborted trip back to go stargazing, I retreates to the campsite to put the windproof lining in my jacket, plus a sweater and my jeans under ny riding pants. I then made the 25 mile trip up to the 9,000 ft peak at Bryce, through tight switchbacks, fearing a deer was going to jump infront of my bike.

Sadly, the moon was still out, and at 3/4, way too bright for decent star gazing! I couldn't even look at it, it was so bright.

So I decended the canyon, and promptly passed out at midnight, warm in ny sleeping back, fairly comfortable on a bed of pine needles, with my bike cover as my pillow!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Training for Mars

Sho 'Nuff sez, "Utah is where there
stops being things."

Ross mentioned that driving through this part of the country is like living the last scene from The Terminator. He's absolutely right. But its somehow more engaging than Kansas, even with less stuff. People are more boring than sage brush and antelope. I'm stopped in Green River, after only 90 or so miles, because apparently, the next gas station is 110 miles away.

I think I know how the first people on Mars will feel in 30 years.