Sunday, December 23, 2012

Riding Bicycles in Hanoi (with video)

So, my wife and I recently got bicycles.  She has ridden bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City for awhile (and back home, nearly all her life), but I didn't know how I'd be able to handle the traffic.  And there is a bunch of traffic here, zinging around in every direction.  But I went ahead and got one.

At first, the trick was just to find one that fits, as there aren't many tall bikes here.  I found a couple of them but they were $700 and $1000 respectively -- high-end mountain bikes.  Finally, I found a tall 21-speed Schwinn for $350, including narrow tires, fenders, and a book rack.

The first ride was from the bike shop back home -- a couple of kilometers through all kinds of traffic.  My inaugural ride.  I tell you, once I pushed the bike into traffic for the first time, I took off.  It was amazing.  I could see over the traffic and could bob and break effortlessly -- much more nimbly than on a motorbike.  I could maintain nearly 30 km/hr, so, going to Doi Can, I was passing most traffic.

Since then, I've been riding to work daily and my wife and I have gone around West Lake each weekend.  That's a 17 km ride and it takes a good hour + with stops.  We're able to explore more on bicycles than on motorbikes as we're so much more aware of and connected to everything around us.  My motorbike is collecting dust.

Here is a video of our going to the B-52 museum to show you how it is going through traffic on a bicycle in Hanoi.  This is relatively tame traffic but it's a good representation of the experience.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

We're Going to Travel to Beautiful Sa Pa, Vietnam

Christmas vacation is upon us and we're going to take advantage of living in northern Vietnam by going to Sa Pa in the Lao Cai province

Sa Pa is so far north, in fact, that it is just a few minutes from the Chinese border.
I've heard from fellow travelers that it is quite stunning.  And cold.  People said Hanoi would be cold, but I'm still waiting.  It's about 80 degrees F today and will get down into the 50's early next week.  However, I'm taking these reports about Sapa more seriously.  In December and January, it can get down to 1 degree C, or just above freezing.  Still not super cold but it will require some planning, like making sure we get a heated or room... or one with a fireplace.

Which brings me to my plans.  I'd like to travel all the way to Sapa, then sit in front of a fire, perhaps looking out over some rice-terraced mountainside, then read, and drink wine for 4 days.  Alas, I'm guessing that my wife will have other plans.  Just in case we do go hiking, or at least touring/shopping, I'll be bringing the GoPro and get some HD shots.  What I'm guessing is that it will be cold and so foggy you can't see the oxcart coming at you head-on.  I'm bringing 2 books, just in case, which will come in handy on the train up.

We're leaving Thursday night at 10.  I'm NOT a big fan of taking a train for any longer than about 6 hours, but it was either that or a bus.  A bus rambling along winding, bumpy roads.  Given that I can't really sleep anywhere but in a bed that isn't moving, the 9 dark hours are not exactly going to fly by.   Not to fear: that is why booze.

I'll try and post some good video shots as well as still ones (and also some more practical travel info), should we see beyond the winter fog. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hanoi Alive

Well, we decided to check out the north part of Vietnam, so here I am in Hanoi, teaching in a pretty swanky part of town.  Do you want to know some differences between Hanoi and Saigon?  Thought so.  Here they are, as I've seen over the past couple of weeks:

This is a typical scene here if you turn down any side street in town.
1. Trees.  There are a lot more trees here.  Perhaps because the city just hasn't expanded as rapidly as Saigon.  Less rapid development = more trees, perhaps.  In any case, it feels a little bit like Atlanta, Georgia, USA -- it's a city, but there are so many trees (and lakes and parks) that you rarely feel like you're in a big city.

2. Police.  At least traffic police. I don't know where they're hiding.  Occassionally I'll see one or two here or there, but there are very few out at any given time.  I haven't had any run-ins with any so far, but I do see that this lack of policing makes for a different kind of traffic.

Hanoi: just go... and don't get hit (or hit anyone).

3. Traffic.  With fewer police more people take more liberties.  While traffic seems a bit slower, it is zany.  Motorbikes and cars jostle across lanes with scant regard for lane designation.  It's nice in that I feel free to pretty much zip around in any direction I want but it requires more focus. 

4. Helmets.  Related to traffic and a dirth of traffic police, I've seen many, many more people riding without helmets here.  Maybe 1 helmetless rider out of 10 compared to about 3 out of 100 down south.

5. People.  I thought I'd be greeted more coldly here, given the history of the US and the fact that this city had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a bunch of B-52s many times over (even on Christmas!).  I guess the fact is that they won, after all, and don't have time to hold grudges.  I've been quite comfortable anywhere I go so far and I'm glad to be a part of this city's fortunes today.

On the streets, there are many little groups of men drinking tea on the sidewalks here.  Sidewalks are typically more for tea drinking than for driving on here. There are fewer street hawkers around, which is nice, and quite a bit of food.

6. Food.  This is where I'm missing Saigon now.  There is plenty of food here, and some of it is pretty good, but comparatively, it is bland and more expensive.  The pho is different here: fewer vegetables on the table; instead you blast your pho with a dose of pickled garlic.  It's pretty good stuff.  I'll try and keep you posted about my food experiences, but for now I can say unequivocally that the food is more expensive here.

7.  Prices.  The food is more expensive, yes, and so is everything else.  Without going into detail, I can say confidently that, at least in Ba Dinh, where we're living now (which is equivalent to District 3 culture-wise in Saigon), everything -- and I mean everything -- is about 20 to 25% higher.  Water, gas, food, clothes -- everything.  Luckily, we scored a cheap little house (5.5 M VND) in walking distance of work, but even so, I don't anticipate seeing any additional savings here.

Sa Pa.  Can't wait.

Overall, I'm glad to be here now.  We plan on vacationing in Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, as well as the cool caves in Phong Nha Ke, just south of here.  It's still raining in Saigon, where here it has stopped.  It's actually turning out to be a proper Autumn, with leaves beginning to turn orange, cool mornings, and fresh breezes during the day.  People say it is going to get really cold.  I say bring it on.  Coming to you alive in Hanoi.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Dogs in Saigon (Mystery Solved)

I learned something new and would like to share it with anyone who has or is thinking of keeping a dog here in Saigon.  The address and number to the Ho Chi Minh City Dog Catcher is

252 Ly Chinh Thang Street, D3. Telephone: 083 931 8432.

Here's our story:

We have two cool dogs.  One is a dachshund (wiener dog) and the other is a Pho Quoc.  In spite of our best efforts they sometimes escape the yard and take a stroll around the block.  We'll usually walk after them and bring them back.  However, the other morning both my wife and I were running late and our Phu Quoc just wasn't responding.  She would return shortly, and get them.  Bad idea.

It's common knowledge that people eat dogs here.  I've heard stories of dog-napping of even leashed animals.  People don't seem to know that there is a dog restaurant not more than a block away from Pham Ngu Lao.  I've seen people hauling a cage-full of dogs down the road on a Honda Cub.

I've also heard of fake "dog catcher" team that dresses up like dog catchers and goes around collecting dogs into a truck.  I've never heard of anyone talking about a legitimate city dog catcher.  Until recently.

We both searched around and couldn't find her. There were marks on the gate where she had scratched to try and get back in.  Bummer. Big bummer. She's probably being cooked right now.  Not a good feeling, trust me.

Luckily, our neighbors were able to get some information from the truck that sped off with our Phu Quoc.  They did some internet research and found an address.  We started searching for a phone number on the internet (it was like 6 pm by this point and we knew that they would be closed).  There was just no number to be found.  Finally, we called a Vet here out where we live and got a number.

Behold: the only English page on the internet with the address phone number to the Ho Chi Minh City Dog Catcher:

252 Ly Chinh Thang Street, D3. Telephone: 083 931 8432.

My wife did some further research and found that they actually started doing this  a full 10 years ago.  Nobody (Vietnamese or Expat) seems to know about them.  Why they don't care to publish such information beyond me.

Anyway, back to the story.  We called them that night and they confirmed that they had been out to District 2 that day.  My wife went there the next morning and got our dog back.  I had to wash our dog and pick some ticks off of her.  She was pretty shaken by it and has been more careful about strangers ever since.  But she's home.

We were not smart, but the fact is that dogs go on a walk-about sometimes.  If your dog is missing here, it's probably not going to be a happy ending.  But there is a chance that it will be at the City dog pound.