29 May, 2010
Saigon, Vietnam

Feeling obligated to sample at least one sight Saigon has to offer, we visited the American War museum today. It’s just a typical war museum: photos, shells and bullets in display cases, old helicopters and planes out the front, uniforms behind glass cases, baby fetuses deformed from Agent Orange, a room devoted to showcasing the glorious genius and tireless peace-seeking efforts of Ho Chi Minh while omitting the fact that he ran a brutally efficient police state… pretty standard really.

By the time we reached the third floor, Chris came up to me and asked “So, did the Viet Cong not commit any war crimes or anything?”

“No,” I said. “They were the good guys.”

“Really?”

“No. Of course they did.”

“So why isn’t there anything in this museum about it?”

“Because it’s still a communist country and they still lie to their people.”

In their defence, the museum does display two sides to the American story: the war crimes, but also the fact that many GIs were good people who just wanted to go home, they had a rough time of it too, the My Lai massacre was stopped by an American chopper crew, many Americans back home were opposed to the war, etc. But they only display a single side of the North Vietnamese story, which is that of noble, heroic freedom fighters.

Before I came here I was always sort of subconsciously opposed to the Vietnam War without ever really thinking about it, particularly because I was a teenager when George Bush was in office and the parallels with the War on Terror were obvious. But fighting the North was the right thing to do. The South Vietnamese did want us there. That doesn’t excuse war crimes, it doesn’t excuse conscription, it doesn’t excuse having a ridiculous and selfish reason for helping the South. But the principles were sound.

It’s the same today, really. Iraq needed to be freed from Saddam Hussein, Afghanistan needed to be freed from the Taliban. Obviously there are a dozen other dictatorships across the world, and the US has its own personal interests at stake; freeing oppressed people is merely a desirable side-effect. Whether or not you find that kind of selfish pragmatism odious is your opinion. But it’s better than nothing.

It’s the manner in which the US fights its wars – the reckless, ruthless, careless way of conducting combat operations – that fucks everything up. From spraying Agent Orange across the Vietnamese countryside to shooting at anything that moves in Iraq, the US does a spectacular job of blowing hearts and minds to pieces.

With the museum finished, we devoted the rest of the day to getting ourselves out of the city. While our bikes were being overhauled yesterday, Chris and I visited the Dan Tinh markets to buy some gear. These are also known as the military markets, because they’re devoted to selling reproduction American military gear. It was a cool little place – a genuine covered market, with confusing warrens of tiny stalls and alleys, overflowing with all kinds of stuff. Boots, bags, dog tags, lighters, hats, cutlery, helmets, canteens, compasses, switchblades, belts, oil cans, patches, watches, rings, medals, jackets, socks, backpacks, ammo boxes, flashlights, bedrolls, sleeping bags, tilley lamps, gas masks, sunglasses, locks, goggles, whistles, shovels… virtually everything you need to take Hanoi except actual weapons. The merchants will insist that they’re genuine war relics, but I’m pretty sure GIs in the 1960’s weren’t wearing the same tan combat boots you see on troops in Iraq in the 2000’s. And I’m pretty sure that stuff that’s been around for forty years will, y’know, age.

 

Anyway, it was still a pretty cool experience to be outfitting ourselves for an expedition in a foreign marketplace, bartering with every stall owner and communicating across a language barrier. We bought some US Army boots, some compasses, and some big satchel bags we can just occy strap to the sides of our bikes. I like the idea of cobbling together all this random stuff: an Australian riding a Belarussian bike with American boots and saddlebags and a Chinese knock-off of a Japanese helmet. Through Vietnam.

Anyway, we got all that sorted yesterday, but today we showed our new companions there so they could buy some things themselves. On one bike is Max and his girlfriend Jessica, both English; on another is an English girl named Jane and a German guy named Mathias; and riding solo like me and Chris is a Canadian-Vietnamese guy named Johnny (who made the monumentally stupid mistake of buying his bike before taking it for a test ride).

Now, although we each paid prices ranging from $360 (me) to $450 (Johnny) for our bikes, every single one of them is having issues of some kind. Richard Hammond rode a Minsk in the Top Gear Vietnam Special, during which he called it “the AK-47 of motorcycles.” Maybe he was referring to its ubiquity, because he sure as hell couldn’t have been talking about its reliability. I know they were built in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, but Jesus, come on.

Me, Chris and Max picked ours up from Kurt’s mechanic today, where they’d been having various bits of work done on them, for around $50 each. Aside from getting racks fitted, mine had needed the front suspension replaced, since it had been completely stiff and useless when I bought it. When we picked them up I thought the suspension still seemed a bit off, but since I don’t know shit about bikes, and was keen to just get a move on, we paid the guy and left. As we were riding back I noticed that it was really off – it was compressing, but it felt like there was nothing cushioning the blow, so the rods were still crashing together with a KRSHUNK every time I went over the slightest bump.

 

When we got back to the empty concrete lot in the park opposite our hotel, Chris took mine for a spin and declared that it was “fucked,” and that we should take it back to the mechanic and either have it replaced or get my money back. I rode it a few more times. It’s not absolutely catastrophic. I can ride it, and while the bumps are disconcerting they aren’t uncomfortable to me personally. It just feels and sounds like it’s very bad for the bike.

So on the one hand I wanted it fixed, and on the other I wanted to get the fuck out of Saigon. I was feeling that special kind of irritable stress that only comes from spending a lot of money on something you really want and not having it work out. I had a headache, I was hungry, and it felt like we had way too much to do in such a short amount of time. I felt quite strongly that if I took it back to the mechanic he would either a) insist that the bike was fine and refuse to give me any money back, or b) take it back and fix it, condemning me to another day in this goddamn city. And charging me more money. And quite possibly just fucking it up again.

The problem with anything mechanical in a country like this is that it’s never done properly. It’s just jury-rigged or patched up so that it will struggle on a little bit longer. It’s like at Collie, when we’d patch up the biscuits every time they broke and say “Yeah, we definitely need to buy new ones,” but they’d last another five years until they were more glue than rubber. Only it didn’t cost me fifty bucks to patch up a fucking biscuit.

Eventually we decided to talk to Josh, the guy who runs Cafe Zoom and seems to have more of an inkling about bikes than the otherwise-lovely Kurt and his mechanic. When we got to Cafe Zoom he wasn’t there, but would be showing up in about an hour, so Chris and I took off to refuel and try to find somewhere that sells two-stroke oil. Cue another half hour of riding around in nerve-wracking Saigon traffic trying to track down an auto shop. My bike was also stalling a lot and seemed to be having fuel problems; we consulted a roadside mechanic with lots of pointing and gesturing, and he fiddled about with it in the dark and replaced the fuel line. I’m not sure how much of a difference that made. The bike certainly has mechanical problems, but I suspect a lot of the issues were caused by me riding it poorly, from a combination of inexperience and frustrated, anxious stress. This isn’t helped when I stall it in the middle of an intersection and have to kickstart the bike while traffic is whizzing around me and an angry bus is bearing down on me bellowing with its horn.

In the end we returned to the concrete lot, where Max and Johnny were looking over their bikes. This disparate group we’re fusing together has a lot of issues in sticking to appointments and getting things sorted, particularly since we all have different shit to sort out and different problems with our bikes and/or luggage, but Johnny said Josh should be at Cafe Zoom around 8.30. I was ready for a fucking Panadol, so we said we’d go back to the hotel first and then meet them.

When Josh eventually did rock up to the cafe, closer to 9.30, he reassured us that the suspension acting like that was not uncommon for a Minsk and wouldn’t fuck the bike up. I’m okay with that – since it’s not uncomfortable, it just sounds like it’s bad for the bike – provided it is true. For all I know the shocks will snap in half on the road out of Saigon and the wheel will go through my face. We’ll have to get a second opinion somewhere down the line.

For now we’re ready to get out. Mathias and Jane have actually bailed completely, since their bike’s gearbox is messed up and they’ve lost the patience for dealing with the myriad mechanical flaws each Minsk has, every bike’s collection of fuck-ups unique, like a precious snowflake. They may meet up with us along the way in more conventional means of transport, but for now it’s just me, Chris, Max, Jessica and Johnny. We’re meeting up in the concrete lot tomorrow at 10 to try to escape the city. First stop is the southern beach town of Vung Tau (not far from where the Battle of Long Tan was fought). With a bit of luck we may just make it out of the city without getting separated or having our motorcycles explode underneath us. See you on the other side!

Advertisements