27 May, 2010
Saigon, Vietnam

The official name has, of course, been Ho Chi Minh City for 35 years, but I think that’s stupid so I’m calling it Saigon. What is it with communists and renaming shit? Saigon’s a much better name, a solid name, an evocative name. It conjures up images of a southern stronghold, a freewheeling city of American GIs, Vietnamese hookers, and helicopters taking off from rooftops with refugees clinging to the landing struts. That’s the funny thing about a war that happened long before I was born and has been immortalised in countless movies and video games. It becomes unreal. It means about as much to me as the Star Wars or the War of the Ring.

In any case, the Saigon of today is nothing special – just another loud, busy, sweaty South-East Asian City like Phnom Penh or Bangkok or Hat Yai. It’s clearly ranked a little higher on the Human Development Index than Cambodia is; there’s a lot less homeless beggars on the streets, and a lot more stores selling electronics and perfume and high fashion. Or at least in this neck of the woods; we’re staying at the Mai Phai Hotel on Pham Ngu Lao Street, which is sort of like the Khao San Road of Vietnam. Saigon’s probably only on par with Bangkok in terms of quality of living (which is not bad), but there are quite a few parts comparable even to Seoul. Maybe things will seem a bit less modern out in the countryside. Or maybe my standards are just lower after Cambodia.

As for communism, of course, that’s pretty much a joke. Like China, Vietnam has become a capitalist free-for-all. The Vietnamese are quite ruthless hawkers and bargainers, in my experience rivalled only by the Thais, and I have to wonder how communism was ever expected to work with such a mercenary people. Of course, just because enterprise is free doesn’t mean everything else is. It’s not a police state with black vans grabbing people off the sidewalk or anything, but they do censor the Internet (forced to go through a proxy for Facebook, urgh, HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSE), it’s a single-party state, and the press always toes the government line. Of course, it’s probably better than it was back in the day.

But what is it with communism? Why did a philosophy designed to free the oppressed workers and make everybody equal invariably go hand-in-hand with the obliteration of freedom? Okay, preventing free enterprise was sort of the entire point, but freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of movement? Freedom of assembly? What went wrong? We’re going to be travelling in the former/current (depending on your definition) communist sphere for quite a while now, so I’m becoming very curious about this. I’m not sure how communist Cambodia was after the Khmer Rouge fell, but Vietnam is certainly proud of its heritage, with hammer and sickle flags hanging from many of the street lamps. Once we get to China it’ll obviously be a communist-fest, and Mongolia and Russia are next on the agenda. Quite a big segment of the world when you think about it. I’m interested in the history, and I’m interested in whether there were ever any communist societies that weren’t also dictatorial police states. Wasn’t Chile meant to be fairly free under Allende? I was born too late to be indoctrinated as a child into fearing the pinkos (and, fortunately, too early to be indoctrinated into fearing the towelheads), so I have an open mind. The debacle on Wall Street is certainly evidence enough that while capitalism may be better than communism, it’s not really ideal either. I think Europe and Australia manage to strike a nice balance between too much government control and too little.

Anyway, I’m rambling. About Saigon. There’s bikes here, and lots of them. As soon as we came into the city we were confronted with the mind-boggling tsunami of motorcycles that constantly floods down every street like the waves in The Day After Tomorrow. I would estimate that there are quite literally 100 bikes to every car, with 99% of them being tiny little automatic scooters. Saigon alone must account for half of Honda’s annual profit margin. Every street is a flowing river of scooters, with intersections becoming a complex dance of interlocking manoeuvres, like a school of fish that instinctively knows which way for everyone to turn to avoid collisions.

For us, this was more than just an Oriental quirk to marvel at and take photos of, because we’re in Saigon to purchase motorcycles and ride them north to Hanoi. Buying them in the city means riding them out of the city; riding them out of the city means riding them in that traffic. It’s quite literally going to be the hardest part of the journey. At least when we reach Hanoi I’ll have several weeks’ experience.

Chris had done a bit of research online about people who were selling bikes here, and since this is one of the first hotels with a working phone we managed to organise to meet someone on the very first night, only a few hours off the bus. Speaking of which, a brief and irritating interlude: for once we actually put into practice our policy of walking down the street from the bus stop and hailing a taxi on our own. We told him the hotel we wanted to go to and he said “Yes, one dollar.” We get in, it takes us two or three minutes to drive there, and then when we get out he demands ten dollars.

This is a very common occurrence and I still don’t know what to do about it. They’ll pretend they said ten dollars to begin with and hide behind the language barrier, and the Vietnamese pull scams much more aggressively than the Cambodians, who are sort of lazy with it. It was nighttime, in a city we didn’t know, with all our bags strapped to us (plus the motocross helmets we bought in Cambodia, since you can’t get them in Saigon). I wanted to walk away, but he could easily pursue us I didn’t know how aggressive he’d get. We ended up giving him five bucks and he fucked off. We then found out we’d actually been a stone’s throw from the hotel when he picked us up, and he’d just driven around the block. It really pisses me off when I arrive in a new place and somebody tries to fuck me over (often successfully) in the first five minutes. It’s not a nice welcome.

Anyway, we met up with these two English guys, Joel and Eliot, to see their bikes. They were both Minsks, which is a two-stroke workhorse built in Belarus and frequently exported to Vietnam. It’s a very popular touring bike in this country, because despite breaking down often it’s also easily repaired, and very common and cheap. We took both of them for a spin. Chris was quite happy with Joel’s, but Eliot’s felt like a piece of shit; the throttle often didn’t respond and the entire bike felt like it was about to fall apart at any second. I pretty much expected a Minsk to be like this and thought it would be OK, but Chris tried Eliot’s as well and said it was awful compared to Joel’s. Since he knows bikes much better than me I’m going on his advice with everything, so we said we might buy Joel’s and would call him back tomorrow.

The next day we arranged to meet a guy called Kevin, who works as a dealer here and had 12 Minsks for sale. He was all the way out in District 9 on the edge of the city, which was a bitch to get to, but we needed to see a wide range of bikes so we paid a cab about 180,000 dong to take us out there. That’s about twelve or thirteen AUD; the dong is 15,000 to the dollar. They still have notes right down to 1000 dong, though, which is ridiculous, because you build up a huge collection and constantly have to shuffle around in your wallet. And doing mental arithmetic with such huge numbers is a headache. There comes a point where you just need to revalue the currency and issue new demoninations, you know?

So we eventually found this guy’s place way out on the edge of the city and spent a few hours looking at his collection of Minsks. I’m going to let Chris succintly describe how this went down:

He had around twelve or so and he pointed two of his best ones out off the bat. Over the course of three hours, we tried four bikes. None of them impressed me whatsoever. Performance-wise they were all just shit. Two broke in front of us, one needs a lot of repairs and another wouldn’t even fucking start. We waited another half an hour or so for the mechanic to fix the accelerator cable that had slipped out on one of the “great quality” bikes, and even when he fixed it it fucked up. I said to Kevin that the gearbox is clumsy and it won’t grip in second gear untill you rev the absolute shit out of the bike. He just replied with: “Nah, it’s just a sensitive gear and you just have to know how to handle it, I’ll let the mechanic ride it, he knows how to ride anything.” So we watched the mechanic ride it down the street and it broke down again. Five minutes later he had walked the bike back to us and I asked Kevin to phone us a taxi. Looks like I’m going to buy the bike I found last night because this Kevin guy is a fuckhead.

And he was a fuckhead, because aside from trying to sell shitty bikes, there came a moment where we mentioned Joel. As soon as we slipped his name, Kevin called him a fucking cunt and ranted about him for a while, apparently for no other reason than the fact that Joel’s trying to sell bikes and Kevin apparently considers that an unforgivable invasion of his territory. He even mentioned some bullshit about the Vietnamese mafia being after Joel. We were in a basement garage with some kind of loud machinery going, and he was speaking to Chris rather than me so I didn’t really hear what he said, but I could tell his attitude from his tone and the look on his face. Really dark and hate-filled. It put both of us off him straight away, particularly since Joel was such a nice, friendly guy whereas Kevin was clearly a profiteer from the beginning.

We left with absolutely no desire to do business with him, but fortunately we had another Minsk try-out lined up that evening, from a guy called David with an unplaceable accent. This one went quite well – it started first time, the throttle actually made the bike react and it rode well. I let Chris test ride it, even though it would be my bike, because at the time Saigon traffic still scared the shit out of me. He bargained us up to $360 US, and I bought it off him later that night, storing it in a huge underground parking lot in the park across the street from our hotel.

Incidentally, the next day I called Kevin to tell him we’d bought other bikes and wouldn’t be needing his, but thanks for his time etc. He was very keen to know the name of the guy I bought from, asking me to repeat it a few times as though he was trying to get the spelling right. Presumably he’s compiling a list of all the inerlopers he thinks are threatening his private Minsk dealership empire. What a wanker.

David had recommended a local mechanic to us, since both the bikes have a few issues. Chris’ rear suspension is completely rooted (something Joel neglected to mention, which soured us on him a little), my front suspension is not great, I need some racks put on the back for luggage, and both bikes have loose foot pegs. So we rang this mechanic’s daughter, who spoke good English, and said we could meet her when she finished work and she would lead us to his house. She gave us vague directions and said she would be out the front of an international school at 4 PM.

And thus, with two or three days riding experience, atop a rickety Belarussian motorcycle, I followed Chris out into the heart of rush hour in Saigon.

It wasn’t actually as hard as I thought it would be. You’re never really going more than 40 k’s an hour, so you have plenty of time to react to things. When you come to an intersection or want to turn you simply have to go very slowly, so the oncoming bikes have time to calculate your course and flow around you (this is also how you have to cross the road as a pedestrian: with very slow baby steps). You just have to be hyper-alert, go with the flow, and try not to make sudden turns or stops.

So surviving in the traffic is fairly easy. Finding your way around, however, is a whole different kettle of fish. We’d been given poor directions to begin with and were soon both late and lost. After failing to find a phone so we could ring her, we decided to head back to the hotel, call her, say we got lost and arrange a new time.

We also had to go through the rigmarole of fueling the bikes up, which is a hassle, because the Minsk runs on a two-stroke engine that requires motor oil to be fed directly into the petrol tank at a 20-to-1 ratio. So for every litre you put in, you also need to measure out fifty millilitres of oil. Too much and you gunk up the engine so it needs to be thoroughly cleaned out at a mechanic; too little and the engine block will literally explode. So after carefully measuring this stuff out, you then have to sit on top of the bike and rock it back and forth a few times so the petrol and oil mixes. I’m no expert on internal combustion engines, but I think this could well be considered an inefficient model.

As we were returning the bikes to the underground parking lot, we had a stroke of good luck. An English guy called Max, whom we’d met the other night, was in the area testing out a bike he was considering buying from an American dealer named Kurt. They were about to take it to Kurt’s mechanic, and said we could come along if we liked, so we did.

We followed them down a few streets (and along a short stretch of highway where we really got to open up, which was nice) and shortly arrived at a backalley mechanic, whose entire shop seemed to consist of a few square feet of ground out the front of an Internet cafe, with a bunch of tools lying on the pavement. He didn’t speak English and Kurt doesn’t speak Vietnamese, but they seem to have worked out a fairly solid system of pointing at things and nodding. Bulletproof. He said replacing the suspension might run to 160, 000 dong, which is about eleven or twelve dollars. A few more bucks for the pegs, a few to have the oil changed and the brakes tightened, etc. I’m not really fussed. If we don’t get these things sorted now we’ll just have to do it on the road. (We’ll probably have to do it on the road as well, since these bikes are notorious for breaking down, but it would be nice for Saigon to be in my Minsk’s single, scratched rear-view mirror before that happens).

We talked to Max and his possibly French friend Mathias for a bit, since they’re planning on the same sort of ride we are – a leisurely trip up the mountains and beaches with an indefinite end-date in Hanoi. We may actually ride with them if we end up leaving the city at the same time. They both have girlfriends with them, and it would be nice to travel with a larger group of people. We’re meeting them at noon tomorrow and going back to the mechanic, so they can talk to Kurt again and we can see how progress on our bikes is going.

I own a motorbike. That’s very odd. I can also say that I learned to ride a motorbike in Cambodia and Vietnam. That’s very cool.

On the health front, Chris is feeling exhausted and sick again, and my ass has once again stopped working after a three-day respite of glorious free passage. It was like travelling through the Schengen Area without a care in the world and then slamming against the Russian border without a visa. (And that was either the best or the worst analogy I have ever crafted.) I wish my body weren’t so temperamental. Thank you to all the well-wishers out there, though. Particularly those of you who publicly posted about it on Facebook. I have such loving friends and family.

Speaking of which, I find it disconcerting when people talk to me on email/Skype/Facebook and tell me they like reading the blog. Cut out the middleman and leave comments, folks! Part of the reason for keeping an online travel journal is so I can keep you all updated on what we’re doing. If you leave comments, that gets more of a dialogue going. If my Dad can figure it out how to leave a comment anyone can. Oh, and Dad – sell my car already. I don’t need it anymore now that I have a