No More Bikes & Sleeper Bus to Sapa!

Hanoi, Vietnam
October 18, 2013

We woke up expecting the best case scenario. The best being Robert pops by and pays Katie and that the bus to Sapa isn’t full by the time he shows up. Fortunately, the women downstairs were nice enough to let us book our tickets and said that if the bike fell through we could cancel. It relieved the tension. We ate eggs and baguettes for breakfast and then chilled at a café until it was time to meet Robert.

One o’clock rolled around and Katie sold her bike without a hitch. Robert had come through and the two of us, for the first time in almost three months, were left with our feet planted on the ground. It was bittersweet. We had a lot of ups and downs on those bikes. From Katie’s accidents to my battle with mechanics to the 3000km we spanned along beaches and mountain tops and through fog and pouring rain to all the people and places it brought us in between. We did Vietnam. And we did it without a single regret. It was Katie’s first bike. And I know how hard it is to say goodbye to your first bike. We wish nothing but safe travels for all the future owners, but now we are onto our second leg of the journey and our first overnight bus.

Saying goodbye! :(

Saying goodbye! :(

The bus was picking us up at six pm which gave me a lot of time to help out one of the women working at the front desk. She had asked me for a favour early in the morning. Seeing that I was wearing a North Face jacket she had asked me where I got it.

“I got it in Ho Chi Minh.” I said
“How much did you pay for it?” she asked
“400,000 dong. So around $20 US. They wanted 500,000 but we talked them down. Katie and I both got them.”
“Can you do me a favour?”
“Yes of course.” I said, meaning it.
“It is my husbands birthday coming up and I want to get him a North Face jacket. They are very popular. But they sell them too expensive.”

I knew the store she was talking about. Just the day before I had popped in to compare prices and they were in the 800-850,000 range, although the jackets were made with a stronger material. Perhaps it was real Gore-Tex instead of the Gore-Tex logo that was fixed to ours. It was definitely of better quality.

She continued, “They won’t give me discount. They only want to sell to foreigners. Can you help me buy one?”
“Of course I can. What colour does he like and what size is he?”
“He wants a yellow one and large I think.”
“If I cant get a discount are you OK with me spending 800,000 on one? I mean I will try to get it for the cheapest possible, but I just want to know!”
“Yes that’s ok!”

I reassured her that the jackets are better than mine and worth more money to boost her into thinking she was getting a good deal. I even told her North Face jackets in Canada around the same quality go for around $120-$200 and she was spending $40. So, to me it’s already a great deal. She agreed and the two of us walked down the street. She didn’t want to get too close incase they saw her. So she hung back on the other side of the street while I went up to the vendor.

“Hey how are you today?” I said, always trying to butter up the worker. “Do you have that yellow jacket in a large?”
He went into the back to check and came out with one in his hand. So, to play the role I tried it on and searched the seams like I would on a jacket I was buying for myself. Everything checked out.

“OK. I have money with me and I want to buy a jacket today. What is the best price you can give me?”

He starts delegating with his wife or mother or sister. It’s rather hard to tell because everyone looks so damn youthful. They reached a decision.
“800,000. But we can do for you 700,000.”
That was a savings of $5 but I wanted to do a little better. I knew this woman doesn’t have a ton of money. Hell, none of us do. So I tried to work them a little more for an even better deal.
“Can you do 600,000?”
“No…no…no…”
I knew I hit a nerve. Which is a good level to reach. It shows the real value of a product when they say no…no…no…and begin to put the product away.
“Ok. Ok. How about 650,000?”

He retaliated with 690,000 so I hit him one last time with 680,000 and he forked over the jacket. I was happy. I had a small victory. I had saved her 120,000 dong, only $6 US – but that means a lot when you’re making $1.20 a day. I ran back across the street and pulled out the jacket when we were out of view. I handed her the change and she tried to thank me by giving me a 20,000 Dong tip. I refused and told her over and over that it was no problem and I was happy to help out.

Our last meal in Hanoi. Pho, of course. Mmmm

Our last meal in Hanoi. Pho, of course. Mmmm

Back at the hotel everyone was trying on the jacket and laughing and in no time the bus was waiting for us out front and we had to part ways. We promised to promote Alibaba Hotel on TripAdvisor.com for them and hopped into the bus for our first sleeper bus.

So cozy!!

So cozy!!

The ride was uneventful. We luckily slept the entire way. The bus was filled with double beds stacked two high and fitted with blankets and pillows. It was pretty cushy compared to the pillows we had for beds on our next bus. But we will get to that later. For now we were destined for Sapa. The land of the rice paddies, soaring mountains, minority villages and cool fresh mountain air. We had been looking forward to it the whole trip and when we wake up it all begins. What a concept the sleeper bus is…wake up in a new city, refreshed and ready to start the day. Sounds peaceful right? Uhmmm yeah!

Does it get any cozier than this??

Does it get any cozier than this??

SELLING THE OL’ BIKES & CHANGING HOTELS & PUPPET SHOW

Hanoi, Vietnam
October 17, 2013

We woke with a vengeance; packed with a vengeance; and walked down the stairs with a vengeance, until we cornered him behind his desk like the rat he was.
KT: We didn’t even get our token picture of the room! We’ve gotten pictures of every single guesthouse room across Vietnam, but not this one. We were too set on getting out of there. Whoops!

“We’re checking out” we said with sternness in our faces.
He was quite. Then asked if we drank anything from the room.
“No. But the fridge was missing a bottle of water which I told one of your staff yesterday.”
I thought he was going to play the ol’ $18 a night trick. But he stuck to his word.

Then he started to add the $4 for parking our bikes for two nights and that’s when we chimed in.
“We saw you pull the bike underneath. We’re not paying for parking.”
He came back as if he had rehearsed his lines already.
“No…I park yours underneath. I pay for parking for mine.”

We weren’t stacking what he was chopping – buying what he was selling; if you know what I mean. I know it was only a few bucks, but the point was this guy rubbed us the wrong way from the start and it was a matter of principal.

We read the night before that there was a free parking lot around the corner, and one of the workers told us that they would drive our bikes over to Violet Hotel 1 and then ride one of the bikes back to our hotel. And the downstairs lobby could have easily fit four bikes and we were the only ones staying there. So instead of unleashing the rage that I was full of I hit him with a dose of realness.

Instead of trying to make a few dollars off us, it would have been nice of you to tell us about the free parking lot.”

His smirk went away. We had 700,000 dong ($32) in our hands and we were set on not paying a penny more. The payment even included parking my bike, which we let him have a small victory. He accepted the money and we walked off without another word.

We loaded up our bikes as he stood there in guffaw. We had our justice. After cruising around the block we rolled up to Alibaba Hotel which gave off a feeling that was the polar opposite of Violet 2 and right then we knew that we had to go with our gut, something that we had been doing thus far until comfort skewed my vision.

Dingy, oddly shaped, and perfect!

Dingy, oddly shaped, and perfect!

We dropped our bags off in our new $13 room and had a little chat downstairs with the women about how relieved we were to be out of our last hotel. They knew exactly what we were talking about. They even described the man to me.

“He is very thin man. Short. A little bit darker skin.”
“Yes yes yes! That’s him!” I blasted
“Ahh! He sometimes stands in front of our hotel and tries to steal our customers.”
“Are you kidding me?”

The horror goes on. We were just happy to be out. And we couldn’t have found a nicer pair of women. We went to a café to check our emails and wait around for Robert to drop off the remaining money.

Photo on 2013-10-18 at 5.41 PM

We all played on my Macbook haha -KT

We ordered Americano’s and opened our emails. I had a bite and it was about time. We were leaving tomorrow and I couldn’t afford to be out a couple hundred bucks. It was from a 50 year old who just arrived and was obviously looking for a bike. After a little back and forth action we had set a time to meet. Katie wished me luck and I took off for the hotel.

I first have to mention that it had been raining nonstop for the past four days and had flooded my engine so the electric starter wasn’t working, but the kick start got it running just fine. I know the bike and I have been through hell over the past three months but as of late it had been running just fine aside from the recent popped tire. I knew Michael Douglas would get the last laugh. The man showed up and it turns out he was also a Canadian and we’d shared many of the same travels through Asia and South America. With the rain coming down I had to get the kick start going for him, which wasn’t a good start, and he took off around the block. Ten minutes had passed before I saw him putting up the street. Motherfuckersucker!! I had already known he wasn’t interested and I don’t blame him. He said the bike died on him a dozen times. Yadda yadda goddamn Michael Douglas is all I thought! I wished him a safe trip and no ill will. Now it was crunch time.

heheheh

heheheh

That morning we stopped to put air in Katie’s tires because she woke up with a flat tire that occurred from Robert’s little accident. While we were getting it patched we popped into a hostel to use their internet. The woman behind the counter said she knew a mechanic that might be interested in buying my bike. I thanked her but told her I was holding out for a tourist. This woman was now my last hope. So I started my bike up easily and cruised on over. She wasn’t there but another woman was. She knew the same mechanic. In fact it was her brother. She put him on the phone so I could talk to him.

“Where were you yesterday?” He said “I showed up at the hotel.”
You have to be kidding me! It was the same mechanic from yesterday.
“I am so sorry. I was five minutes late and they told me you left.”  Which was true.

Having already seen the bike he offered to pay me $150. I knew this man was my last option so I dropped it down to $200. He came back at $160 and eventually we settled on $170.  Which was $80 less than I was asking, but $170 more than nothing.

I handed the phone back to his sister and he told her to pay me. I, being an idiot, forgot my blue registration card at home, which he insisted upon, so I got back on the bike in the rain and flew back to the hotel to pick it up.

To add another level of bizarreness, this transaction would never have been possible had it not been for the whores who returned my wallet in Ho Chi Minh. If you haven’t read the story already click here. Well if it wasn’t for me getting my wallet back, blue card intact, it would have been extremely hard to sell a bike, even if the registration is not in my name. It is just like a right of passage. So even though those two whores stole $130 from me, by some divine act they had also given me back $170. I picked up the registration card and flew back to complete the transaction. And with a huge sigh Michael Douglas was off my hands.

Robert had messaged Katie and apologized for not being able to make it, but he said tomorrow he would be there definitely. They set to meet at one o’clock, which didn’t leave a lot of room for us to buy a ticket for a bus to Sapa if he decided to back out or switch to another day. Our Visas were coming to an end and we wanted to spend a couple days in Sapa. The timing was getting extremely tight, but first we have a water puppet show to attend.

The play was very interesting. A live Vietnamese folk band sat to the left of the stage and narrated, sang and strummed along with the puppets. The stage was a bed of water with a bamboo backdrop. And alongside the music puppets came to life singing, fishing, chasing fox, planting rice and boating around in lifelike form. It was truly a wonderful show aside from, and there seems to always be an aside from, a Chinese woman that snuck into the seats right ahead of us with an iPad size camera screen and wanted to film the whole damn show. It was as though we were watching a play through her lit up camera. It was just another example of how people feel like they are the only person in the room.
KT: I always enjoy a good theatre show, and The Water Puppet Theatre was incredibly impressive! I didn’t expect to laugh so hard to puppets splashing around in water and imitating catching fish. It was really amusing, definitely recommend it if you’re ever in Vietnam! Apparently Water Puppet Theatre was a cultural past time when the monsoon season would drown the crops.

BIKE CRASH & HORRORS OF HANOI HOTELS

Hanoi, Vietnam
October 16, 2013

We woke up and walked the old quarter looking for a breakfast spot. After scouring the backstreets ogling menu after menu until our bellies were concave with hunger we ended up at Gecko. The breakfast set said: tea, buttermilk pancakes, crispy bacon, toast, real French butter, real homemade jam, and fruit salad. What I got was: a cold paper-thin crêpe, soggy wilted bacon, salted New Zealand butter, and average everything else. But hey I’m still healthy and life is good. But it was becoming apparent that the meat in this country has continuously been letting us down and the sanitation conditions have been on the lower end of orthodox. We were a couple of sudo-vegetarians in the making.
KT: I got eggs, bacon and a baguette and other than the let down of the bacon, my meal was alright. Trusty ol’ eggs & baguette ;)

KT: After our delicious breakfast (heh) we went to seek out someone to clean our bikes for us, or a tap for us to do it ourselves. Gotta pretty up the wheels before hockin’ ‘em! We Travel Vietnam KT bikestumbled upon a guy who had a little bike cleaning service set up beside his mothers hair salon, and he got to work, telling us to come back in an hour. We used that hour to wander around, in search of cheap Bia Hoi…but apparently it was too early in the day as no one had it stocked yet. Instead, we stocked up on some toiletries, and wandered as we’ve gotten so good at doing. Returning to our bikes, our jaws dropped. THOSE are our bikes?? They’re so beautiful! I don’t want to sell it anymore! We dropped our pretty puppies off at the hotel, with a couple awkward smiles with our hotel manager, and killed time at a neat cafe nearby.
Travel VIetnam Lou Bike

Afterwards, Katie had scheduled a meeting with this dude from Brooklyn to come check out her bike so we made our way back to the hotel to do some biddings. Waiting out front the hotel manager began pestering us about our bikes to a level of uncomfortability.

“How much you sell bike for?”
“I’m selling mine for $250.” I said
“And I’m selling mine for $400.” Said Katie
“Ohh so expensive. You sell me.” He said
He walks over and inspects Katie’s bike.
“I give you $200 for Yamaha Nouvo. You take $200”.
“No. I’m sorry. I can’t. I have someone coming to look at it now. I need to get what I put into it.” Katie said
He does a wrap around my bike and says I cannot get more than $100 for my bike and so I should sell it to him for that much.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I’ve put too much money into it.”
Katie and I look at each other with an ok, buddy just give us our space look.

The manager loomed over us with a sly grin on his face. Neither of us have trusted him from the start. When he showed me the room yesterday he rubbed me the wrong way, and it was my own blindness that confused me into accepting the room. It was just too damn nice to pass up. After agreeing on a price. He had dropped the room from $28 to $15, which was nice of him, but we simply couldn’t have stayed there for any more and would have had to simply turn down the room. So after showing me the room, he says…
You are Canadian. You have lots of money. You pay $18.”
“I’m sorry, we can’t.” I explained. “We are sleeping in hotels everyday for six months and it is over our budget.”
But you are rich. $18 is no problem.”
“You agreed to $15. If it is more, I am sorry we cannot stay.”

He followed me down the stairs and I could tell that he was sizing me up. It was an odd feeling. A feeling that I just didn’t want to be in his presence. I got downstairs and he finally agreed to $15. And since then every time we pass his desk he’s been hell bent on selling a tour, trip, bus ticket, or buying our bikes. Its been nothing but money, money, money and neither of us trusted him. He even charged us to park our bikes. He said that there was no room inside the hotel so he had to drive them to a parking garage and that it would cost 20,000 dong each. Which was a lie that we caught him in the act in the evening.

Now where was I. Ahh yes, we were waiting for the dude from Brooklyn to arrive to show him Katie’s bike while the manager was looming about. The guy finally arrived amidst the manager pressuring us to book our bus to Sapa. We left him to greet Robert, the dude from Brooklyn who rode up on a motorbike with his friend.

He took a look at both our bikes and we both did our schpeel, but it seemed like he was leaning towards Katie’s bike since it was an automatic so I gave them their space to get down to brass tacks. There was no issue with the price, he just wanted to give it a spin around the block to see how she ran. Of course Katie obliged and handed him the keys while his friend hung back by our side. Robert saddled up on the bike and got comfortable before putting the keys in the ignition. It was an extremely busy one way so it took him a couple minutes before he could ease out onto the street. When he did, with the slight twist of the handlebar the bike shot out like a bullet jerking him back until he let go- similar to an Olympian bursting off before the bang only to have to restart.

“Woah. I didn’t expect it to start so fast”, Robert said catching his breath.
“Yeah it has a little kick. Just take it slow. Ease into it”, Katie said.

He waited again for the traffic to subdue before giving the gas another try. This time the bullet left the chamber and he shot out wildly, wobbling out of control with his body clung to the back of the seat and slammed into the side of a bus leaving a giant scar along the busses glass as well as lacerating his shirt from neck to belt buckle. Traffic stopped and we all ran over to lift the bike and him from the asphalt. Robert was shaken and alive in more than one sense. Miraculously, the bike came out unscathed aside from a nick on the handlebar. The bus driver stood there with a scowl written on his face that read “are you fucking kidding me?” Eventually he saw that Robert was avoiding him he started up and trolled off.

Almost at the same time as the crash I saw through the window of the bus Eva and Luca on the street corner opposite to us so I made a mad dash while Katie and Robert’s friend were taking care of him. His booboo’s weren’t too bad so he opted for round number three on the bike after Katie made it adamantly clear that she has $400 invested in this bike and she needs to get it out of it. Robert agreed that he would take responsibility and off he slowly rolled this time.

KT: I was shaking. Seriously shaking. He was fine, so I wasn’t concerned about his well being. I was concerned about my bike! She had been between my legs for the past 3 months, I had shared intimate and serene moments with her, and here was a stranger dumping her in the middle of the street for all to see. I got very serious with Robert, and after a few minutes of friendly debate, I let him try again.

I grabbed Eva and Luca and briefed them on the chaos that had just ensued and the five of us hung around until Robert returned. He ended up giving Katie an $80 deposit and said that he would come by tomorrow to pony up the rest.

Robert and his friend left and the four of us went for a coffee before they had to reach a train for their trip to Hoi An.

I still hadn’t found any buyers for my bike and was beginning to get a little desperate. We were leaving in two days and I was yet to nab any full-paying interests. I had my bike up on three forums and no bites. One of the workers at our hotel, who also wished to purchase my bike at $100 said he knew a mechanic that might be interested. Although I knew that would mean I would be getting middled. The mechanic would want to buy it cheap and then sell it to a tourist. I agreed to meet him at out hotel at six which I missed because we bumped into our German friends. I wasn’t too bent out of shape about it because I was putting all my faith in selling it retail.

When we got back to the hotel I apologized to the man and it turns out I missed the mechanic by five minutes. The manager and worker were sitting around and worked us with another round of money, money, money.
“Book your ticket to Sapa.”
“You want trip to Halong. One day tour.”
“Sell me your bike $100.”
Give me your bike. Souvenir. Souvenir.”

All to the point of extreme annoyance. As we were walking back to our room to drop some stuff off before dinner we told the manager that Katie had sold her bike so perhaps he would drop all the chatter. As we were about to walk up the stairs he says to Katie…

“You sell anything else?”
“Uhh No? What do you mean?” Katie replied.

With a seedy grin on his face the manager said, if you could really call him a manager, “You sell…you?”
We were overtaken with uneasiness and questionable brows “could he mean what he just said?”  We walked upstairs knowing that we had to get out of this hotel. That was the last straw. I was about to go downstairs and tear into him, but we decided to just forget it and move out. He could easily just say he was joking and it wasn’t worth the effort on our part. What a slimy piece of shit. We went upstairs and decided to check out tripadvisor.com and you wouldn’t believe what it had to say.
KT: & this wasn’t the first time he had made this kind of innuendo. When we were first moving in, he made sly “jokes” about “buying” me. We laughed it off, as two friendly Canadians will, assuming all is well and friendly. But this time was too much.

First off it was difficult to find anything about Violet 2 Hotel, which was because the hotel had recently changed its name! Oh I wonder why? On our nightstand there happened to be a price sheet for the beverages in the fridge, which, aside from the point, were three times more than the going rate. The pricing sheet happened to have the name AuLac Hotel on it – a couple of detectives we were typed that into the search bar and it came back with nothing but 1 out of 5’s. Oh GOD what did we get ourselves into? The search came back with headlines “SCAM HOTEL” “DO NOT STAY HERE” “DO NOT BOOK ANY TOURS THROUGH THIS HOTEL” Then we started reading through each one. It was everything that we had experienced although we hadn’t succumb to the pressure of manager.

We left to get Indian food from a little joint around the corner and tried to avoid him on the way down. That night we just walked around the town sticking to old quarter. We really didn’t get to explore Hanoi. We were too fixed on selling our bikes and spent all of our time in café’s posting and reading over emails. But our walk that night was nice. There is a lake in the middle of the old quarter and we went out for a walk in evening drizzle. After making a loop we went to get snacks to bring back home when we walked past the water puppet theatre. We had wanted to go in Ho Chi Minh City but never got around to it. So we bought a couple of tickets for the next night, 4th row and center at five dollars each. On the board outside it was posted that for an extra two dollars you could photograph the show and for a few more you could video tape. Not thinking much of this we carried on.

That night back at our hotel we sat on our balcony catching up on our blog until midnight. Our bikes sat outside of the hotel which we peered down on every time we heard a sound. Like I said, we didn’t trust this man and knowing that they were for sale we didn’t know what to think. I knew what I wanted to say to him. But I wasn’t sure what was going to come out when we tell him we are checking out a day early tomorrow morning. I heard some fiddling around downstairs so I peered over the edge. He was gearing up my bike revving it pretty good and then he took off down the street until he disappeared. I crossed my fingers. An hour or so later he had come back and we watched him pull Katie’s bike into our hotel. BUSTED! It made our blood boil. That sneaky S.O.B doing anything to make a buck. We slept with a little less comfortably that night as thoughts twisted through our heads.
KT: We got so worked up over this guy. A lot of the TripAdvisor reviews mentioned violence when he was confronted negatively, so we knew we had to tread lightly. At one point while we were sitting on the balcony, Louis’ bag fell off the counter inside the room and Lou JUMPED up and assumed fight stance. Our nerves were shot lol

Heading to Hanoi

Cat Ba Island – Hanoi, Vietnam
October 15, 2013

The next morning we packed and got ready to head for breakfast before catching a ferry to mainland, but Michael Douglas had to have one last tantrum, yep another fucking blown tire. Make that 17 mechanics now…or 18…I’ve honestly lost count. Whatever really. Another five dollars down the drain and with a deep inhale and exhale I calm myself and avoid taking an axe to Mr. Douglas. He’s one sadist son of bitch, that Douglas, and I’m counting the days until I unload him on another foreigner half enthused and half saddened by the completion of part one of our journey.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba KT and room

View from our balcony

I pulled up to My Way and dagnabbit, the only two people there were the Italian couple, Frankie and Katia. We sat next to them and ordered our farewell breakfast on the island. It was too good to pass up. Especially since we have a long day ahead of us.

I was mid hash browns when the two Germans came moseying down the street and into the café. The six of us just laughed. Our party had closed down the restaurant last night and now here we were the only six at it once again. We all just rehashed our plans for the day. Each of us minutes or hours from departing the island.

Luca and Eva had read our blog the night before and paid us a wonderful compliment on its layout, look, and how the stories read with the exactitude of my speech. At least I took it as a compliment! I think?

Goodbye to our new friends!

Goodbye to our new friends!

The ride off the island was nice and so was the ferry ride to mainland. Although the ride from mainland to Hanoi was about as bad as the ride out of Ho Chi Minh City. What can I say? I think it’s only fitting that the first and last days of our trips are just shit. We got into the old quarter around seven and pulled over on the side of the road to look at a map and search for a hotel. We weren’t even parked for a minute when a motorcycle rolled up to us.

“Hello! You looking to sell your bike?”
“Uhh yah! But we’re looking for a hotel right now.”
“I have a hotel! You want to see! I can show you right now.”
“Thank you, but we want to drive around the area and get comfortable with it to see where we want to stay.”
“It’s ok! No problem. I think you came from Ho Chi Minh riding to Hanoi right?.”
“Haha…yah we did! It’s such a beautiful country. But how do you know?”
“I see your ad on Craigslist. You were on Cat Ba, yes?”
Katie’s eyes rotate out of her body and onto me. Which I can now feel, because mine are gravitating towards hers. What the fuck we both mouthed to each other!
“Excuse me. What’s the population of Hanoi? How many people live here?”
“11 million” he said.
“Wow!”
“So how much are you selling your bikes for again?”
“I am looking for $250 and for the Yamaha $400”
“Oh so expensive.”
“I know. I know. But that’s what foreigners are paying for them.”

And it’s true. Craiglist.com, expatblog.com and travelswop.com have hundreds of bikes posted daily and we did our research before posting our bikes up on the sites. We were asking the going rate for our bikes; nothing more, but hopefully nothing less. But somehow I felt that Michael Douglas would be getting the last laugh on me. Ahhh and he did.

The Old Quarter of Hanoi is where we ended up. It’s a mix of one way streets, lakes, café stacked on top of cafés beside more cafés inside hotel after hotel after hotel with tourism pop-up shops all with the name, Sinh Café or some twisted variant. On one street back-to-back-to-back sat three shops “Sinh Café- Formerly Known As Sinh Tours; Sinh Café- Official Hanoi Headquarters; and Sinh Café- The Original Sinh Café”. There are without a word of a lie 130 or more Sinh Café’s all scrunched into a considerably quaint and affable backpacker district; each and every single one of them offering the same package. The same bus trips. Same locations. Same poorly translated English on their signs. And the same eager worker trying to hustle you in for just a quick trip… just one day Halong Bay… come inside. No…No sir, just out for a walk. No…No mam, not interested. No…No, not even tomorrow. No…No…No!! Leave me the fuck alone (insert aneurysm). That is the chaos of touristy backpacker Vietnam. And if you don’t get that in you immediately, it will take a toll on you. As you can read from just fourteen seconds and 35 words ago.

That night we spun through the cities webs in search of a hotel and ended up at Violet 2 Hotel with vibes that started off bad and ended up worse. It’s too bad, too. The hotel itself was the nicest one we had stayed in for the last 35 days on the road;

35 days translates into 19 different hotels. And even though our hotels were definitely not dreamy or spacious or well kempt or on anyone’s must sleep list- we enjoyed them all.  So it was the only time that the odds would catch up with us, especially since we are on the final leg of our Vietnam journey and the only hitches we’ve had have been with goddamn Michael Douglas. We slept like babies that night and woke to a nightmare.

NOTE: The lack of photos is because there was a lack of scenery between Cat Ba and Hanoi. It wasn’t the worst drive, but not one worth pulling over and snapping photos. It was a “let’s get there” type of driving day, not much of a scenic one. Sorry friends and fam! But you’re not missing much. More pics next time, promise! ;)

We’re in Cat Ba Beaches!

Heading to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
October 10, 2013

Have you ever heard of Halong Bay? It’s east of the capital, Hanoi, and rests as a port-cum-destination spot. Rich in beauty, tranquility, and one of the reasons that swayed my decision to visit Vietnam. At least that’s how all the pictures on the computer portray it to be and today was the day that it was all coming down to.  After travelling 2300km across the country we had another 150 and we’d be there. All across the country we talked to folks doing the same journey- a mere fraction of them on motorcycles, but scaling the entire country North to South/South to North nonetheless. Although not quite as badass as us. We asked and received a lot of feedback about the famed Halong Bay and a consensus came out that it was a filthy port, touristy and over priced. Wow! Dreams just came crashing down on me! Well, not really, but taken back a little. After looking at a map, you can see an island further out past the bay of Halong. An island that was surrounded by a Roy Litchensen painting of untouched islands. It was like Halong jacked up on steroids.  I had to go there. And to make matters even more in our favour, an even closer port took us to this new island. It was cheaper, less touristy, and less of a drive on the AH1. Fucking jackpot! So in the morning we had a new destination, one that included hopping across two islands and riding the span of each until we came to the farthest eastern tip. To a land of exotic langurs, white sandy beaches, national parks, 360 degree sea views, and a network of newly paved roads that mirror that of any Italian backstreet raceway.  A land called Cat Ba Island.

The road out from Son Tay to Hanoi was straight forward. 50km on a straightaway that lead to the south of Hanoi. Then since motorcycles aren’t allowed on the highway we had to skirt the perimeter and ride underneath the underpass stopping at every red light for 30 to 50 seconds only to be held up at the next. Lovely. Quite the dynamic from the past month on the road, but it’s all part of the battle. And in order to get the pie you have to buy the ingredients.

We had this to look forward to

We had this to look forward to

Along the side of the highway waves of women were perched on the railing like crows, all scrolled out for miles, all selling the same fruit. Something that resembled a lime. I didn’t really get it. It just seems a little trite to sit around all day, day after day, with no way of standing out from your competitor. It was a crapshoot that someone’s tires would stop in the 20 feet of highway you occupy, one foot further and it’s someone else’s limes they are going home with. Not one person had a sign. No one had a deal going on. At least no visible deals. And no possible way to know anything about the said limes unless I pulled over and asked. But then I’d feel compelled to pull up to the next and try to get a better deal.

And this!

And this!

Eventually we exited at a roundabout and found ourselves on the right path after being lost and grumpy for an hour or more. And would you believe it, as soon as we turned off the highway the lime salesladies morphed into baguette salesladies but the technique was the same. And on it rolled for a few kilometers with a dozen vendors all selling the same buns. We passed them too. Then a stretch of restaurants with workers all standing street side with fans in their hands causing a big stir and waving people on in. We zoomed right past. The road was another straightaway – 80km in 30 kph traffic. You do the math. I had my eyes glued on every marker counting the seconds it took to complete a single kilometer. Hai Phong was the name of the port we were to catch our first ferry and it seemed like we would never get there. But we obviously did.

The town of Hai Phong was a refreshing break from the monotonous escape of inner city blues and battling trucks, traffic and pollution. We probably couldn’t have spent more than a day there, but it was still refreshing. We navigated the town for thirty minutes trying to find the port swerving through back roads, uwee’s, and on and off  and on and off the bike

Our babies waiting for the boat

Our babies waiting for the boat

fixed on the cursed GPS until we finally found the road. A road that turned out to be pure shit. We were under the impression that the road to the ferry would be paved with gold, saddled up right along the sparkling blue waters filled with flapping birds and flopping fishes the entire way until we rode our bikes onto our maiden voyage that would sail us to our deserted island. NO! It was nothing like that. The road to the ferry was an industrial wasteland. Surrounded by huge factories and ship yards with mountains of colorful shipping containers pieced together like children’s Lego blocks. I once saw a home built from twelve pieced together shipping containers spaced together like two T’s pointing outward and an open family room in the center covered by a corrugated tin awning. A true work of art in sustainable development. Driving past, I thought about building my own container home in nature. Three stacked, one on the other, with a spiral staircase running from the ground on up and access to the roof to gaze out at the tops of trees  and sliding doors that open up to your own environmental oasis and full windows on each end to let in buckets of natural light. But my reality was dust blinding our faces from the debris from a thousand and one trucks schlepping product A from country Z and every letter in between. We pushed on until the road died at the water’s edge and then found our ferry by gazing down the shore.

WE MADE IT! ...to ferry #1

WE MADE IT! …to ferry #1

It was cheap. Three dollars would to get us to the first island of Cat Hai. We docked after a short effortless expenditure and geared up to cross the island before boarding another ferry to our destination. We drove across in one slug and saw everything the island had on display. It was an island that was on the brink – but I couldn’t tell of what. I felt like they Travel Vietnam making friendswere building the whole island over although it was still in its primary stages. Which is odd because the island wasn’t born yesterday. I had an eerie feel that the island could never sustain growth because every time they got ahead, a natural disaster occurred that set them back to ground zero. Cat Hai is filled with grandparents that look older than the island itself all sitting around like containers of paint. That, and a bunch of workers in fields and in floating tubs at sea tending to their tendables. We found the ferry and boarded for $2.50.

We docked at Cat Ba and road off climbing the forested bluffs with bleating mountain goats, then dipping to sea level to cruise against beaches and then zigzagging up and up

Gross bug that got stuck behind Louis' eye

Gross bug that got stuck behind Louis’ eye

along those sexy s-curves that skirt mountains like the brim of a hat. We rode for thirty minutes until construction brought us to a halt. They were blasting mountainside to give way to wider roads and an antique crane was using its arm to sweep boulders off to the side. We played cards and waited. When it finished we passed and cruised into town and found an $8 hotel after the manager hailed us on the street. It was on the 5th floor and overlooking the harbour. We saved $2 by cheaping out on the AC – we figured the breeze would be just fine. It was. We ended up at a restaurant filled with foreigners. The most we had seen since Hoi An. It was called the Noble House and we would end up there for dinner almost every night.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba clearing roads

We had been riding since 8am and hadn’t stopped until 7pm. So we dedicated that evening to sleep. Only to have Michael Douglas screw me in the morning. And it wouldn’t be his last.

Gettin’ Hogs in Ho Chi Minh

There’s nothing better than being a foreigner in a new land. Vietnam is no exception. It’s not that rules don’t apply to you- it’s just that ways and laws may be bent or broken to see fit that your stay is more enjoyable. Half the time pure ignorance just ends up fitting the bill and the other half perhaps you just roll with the punches. I see to it that I don’t take too much advantage of local laws, but when it comes to licenses, insurance, contracts; that kinda jazz, that’s where the life of a foreigner truly trumps that of being just another local at home.

The plan after getting our apartment was to pick up a couple of motorcycles. Well, a motorcycle for myself, and motorbike for the misses. After a couple of days on craigslist, expat blogs and forums- I deduced that the bike I was looking for was a Honda Win. I really don’t know much about the bike, aside from it being manually driven. It has four gears and is one of the more widely known bikes for touring the countryside and playing in the hills, swamps and beachfronts. Although the Honda Win is not a Vietnamese bike, there is such an abundance of them in Vietnam- parts and labour I would find out are readily available and mind-blowingly cheap.

Katie, being new to the bike world, opted for an automatic bike, the Yamaha Nuovo. With more horsepower than my bike, 115hp to my 100hp, it’s a nice bike to break her into feeling comfortable on two wheels and more importantly cruising the chaotic streets of Ho Chi Minh.

MOTOBOKO

Now back home in Canada, the process of acquiring a bike is I’m sure very similar to that of acquiring one in Vietnam. One would write a test or perhaps have a driving test along side that and once that was settled, you would pay a fee and get your drivers license. Then you would find a reputable, aka cheap, insurance company and sign a contract for a year (which is bullshit back home in Canada because the riding year is only good for 4-6 months, 8-10 if you’re ballsy) and then assuming you already have a bike picked out- you would register that and then pay taxes on top of everything. Sounds like a very worthwhile system… Uhhhh, no thank you! The whole ordeal of receiving my M license cost me a hundred dollars or so in tests, then plates and a license are another hundred or so, on top of $1400 /year insurance and then $3800+tax ($494 to get specific)… all in all costing me just over of $6000. Which is pricey, but, like all bikers, we all justify the cost because of that sweet rumble between our legs and the wind kissing our face…I’m taking about freedom- and sweet Jesus it is!

Now let’s say I skipped the insurance and skipped the license and just bought a bike… well that wouldn’t work in Canada because I would need plates. And then it’s over from the get go- but if I had plates and threw them on, lets say, well then perhaps I could get away with it, that is until a cop saw I had outdated stickers and bam… huge ticket, bike taken off the road, and so long freedom.

Hop on over to Vietnam, Xin Chao everybody, and lets pretend you are a foreigner. You want a motorcycle, what do you do? What I did was search all the websites until I found another foreigner looking to unload his bike. Usually foreigners travel from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi or vice versa and then sell their bikes before heading to another country. That’s the usual story. Along with your new purchase, not only do you get a license plate, but you should also receive the original papers to the bike (inscribed with original owners name), and if you are lucky, a couple of helmets, tie-downs, and a map.

But what happens if you get pulled over in Vietnam? Well, something that I have already witnessed in front of old presidential palace was a cop slipping a bribe into his shirt pocket. The going rate I have been told is $5 dollars for locals (100,000 dong) and upwards of $10 (200,000 dong) for foreigners. Hell, I could be pulled over 140 times back home and break even just on the insurance alone. What I have been told countless times from traveller’s is to not even show your papers and just play dumb. If the officer knows English… You do not. If you don’t know another language- try counting to ten in Spanish over and over again until they brush you off for the annoyance you are. If that doesn’t work, pull out a small bill- nothing large.

post bribe photobomb

post bribe photobomb

Now, I’m not saying any of this is ethical. No, I never said that. Nor do I condone my behavior- I’m aware I am taking advantage of the system. But honestly, I’m not going to stop. It feels too damn good to be above the law. Too damn good. I’m flying over here.

Well Jeeze Louise I’m so excited, I forgot to tell you the best part. So it took me a couple days to contact a seller- he was leaving in three days and needed to unload and he fortunately lived a ten-minute walk from my house. Katie and I walked over and met Raphael, a 22-year-old medical student from France who was on a volunteer/vacation in Vietnam.  I looked the bike over, hopped on and gave it a test drive. By no means is it a pretty bike. Oh, she’s beat up and abused- loved too much one might say, but she ran well and Raphael seemed like a good guy.  I ended up giving him $300 for the bike and the three of us went out for a couple beers to settle the deal. We did. We finished our beers, shook hands and parted ways. I didn’t even have time to be excited about being a new bike owner because Katie had made plans to meet a potential seller almost immediately after I wrapped up my deal.

lousbike_Fotor_Fotor

We walked across the street and there was this Thai bloke with the thickest UK accent- it really threw me for a loop. Tattooed up and dressed in a t-shirt that read ‘I fuck on the first date’ he was lined up to be a real salesman. KT Edit: I asked if I could consider this sale a date. He just laughed awkwardly. Damn! I jumped on the bike to give it a go- spinning through the Saigon streets and back. This bike was in much better running condition. So after a little bargaining he took 20 bucks off and she landed it for $420. A steal considering Katie could put 5-6000 km on it and then sell it for the same price to the next newbie.

katiesbike_Fotor_Fotor

We both hopped onto Katie’s new bike and doubled back to Raphael’s pad where the bike was still sitting, Raphael was there with a friend. Hopping onto my new bike he walked over and said ‘I think you paid me too much- I was asking 500,000,000 dong, that’s only $260’. Raphael then hands me $40 back and says ‘this will be incase you need to fix anything on the bike along your travels’. Marveled by my good fortune, I accepted and promised him I would keep him posted along the travels and be sure to put some good kilometers on the bike.

With new bikes under our asses and an unknown world that surrounds us, Katie and I explored the wild city, throwing ourselves front wheel first into oncoming traffic, it’s the only way to learn the streets and how the traffic works and what we have to do to stay alive on these wicked streets. We got home safe, parked our bikes on the inside of our house in a designated area that sits eight more for our household. I’m already getting antsy to get cruising. Perhaps we will take a look at a map tonight and be off before we know it.

SAMSUNG CSC