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!