Monday, November 18, 2013

Welcome to Vietnam!

Leaving China, I had high hopes for Vietnam.  I was anxiously awaiting some peace and quiet and better air quality. The roads at first sight were deserted in comparison and painted kilometer markers were back in sight with the name of the approaching town and the distance, reminiscent of those in France.  Street signs and adverts were all of a sudden in an alphabet I could at least recognize (although lots are impossible to understand) and the word hotel magically appeared alongside the Vietnamese translation, “Nha Nghi”.

You'd almost think it were France!

At first it struck me as odd that all the motor scooters were wearing face masks, more than the drivers in China, yet the air quality seemed better.  It should have dawned on me then, what was coming, but I gave the Vietnamese the benefit of the doubt and assumed they took better care of themselves.  My first night I ate peacefully at a restaurant alone, without anyone coming over to take photos.  At my hotel, they didn’t ask for a room deposit, just my passport.  I woke up to roosters crowing in the distance and the natural light rather than motor scooters honking and wind blowing the glass on the 10th floor of a tower.  My wish for peace and quiet had been granted, I was in a much calmer country, or though it seemed….

But slowly, I’m discovering how this country works and my first impressions are very accurate, as usual.  However, after China, nothing surprises me!  The roads are busy, busier than China.  From the looks of a Vietnam map, you think there is a develop road system, but observing the traffic, everyone seems to be on the same roads.  60% of the cars that pass me are buses- that’s great, a country with good public transportation!  Every time a bus passes, they seem to have the same town names written on the windows as destinations and from the amount of busses that pass, there is frequently service.  Another 20% of traffic that passes me are trucks.  Between the trucks and the buses, I’m constantly serenaded as I pedal.  I think their horns work like automatic seat belts in the states.  Once you turn on the ignition, the horn goes on! I’m so tempted to wear ear plugs.  The last 20% of the traffic out here is divided between huge American size cars and motor scooters.  They use some round abouts here and other normal intersections.  Both are a complete disaster and traffic is literally coming in all directions. No rules like keep right to exit exist; it is one big free-for-all, which explains a third of the accidents I’ve seen! 

Motor scooters move like a school of fish!

Now day 4 in Vietnam, I’ve seen 6 traffic accidents, prior to entering Vietnam I hadn’t seen any!  Motor scooters are everywhere, riding together like a school of fish.  All of a sudden one will veer to the right and it is a trickle down affect with those around.  I try to keep my distance, but sometimes I could reach out and touch them next to me.  They have rearview mirrors,….Why?  Don’t ask.  They don’t use them.  When they wan to turn left, they pull over to the side of the road, stop, look back, and decide when to cross….actions which could all be done in motion if looking in your rearview mirror.  And when they pull out in oncoming traffic, they only look right, never left.  I wish I could paint the “Look Left” signs on the street like I saw in Hong Kong, they would be greatly appreciated here.  Going through the round abouts is an experience in itself.   Traffic should be moving in the same direction, but there are motor scooters coming at me, cars swearving, and no one uses the right lane as the exit.  I feel like closing my eyes and pedaling on through, because the sights of the crazy traffic are unbearable.

Why not?!?!?....makes sense!

Love the kickstand on this bike.  Hope those fish are for an aquarium!

Motor scooters and bikes alike are piled high with goods.  I’ve seen bikes so loaded the riders are walking them and some don’t even need a kick stand as they simply balance on their load, handle bars in the air.  Both motor scooters and bikes are common transportation, but also turn into booths selling anything imaginable from food, plants, and trees, to gold fish!  You name it and they can strap it to a bike.  If I really wanted to fit in here, I need to be hauling about 20 more panniers on my bike.  

Having explained the traffic, and looking at the state of some of the roads, it all makes sense as to why they are adamant on wearing face masks.  Air quality is better in Vietnam, than China, in terms of pollution, but the dust is horrendous!  When I reapply my sunscreen, I end up with a gray film on me from all the dust.  In 2 hours tops, I’m covered with a layer of black grime.  I could take my finger and write “clean me”, as you sometimes see on the back of a dirty car window.

People are less intense in Vietnam and keep to themselves, more so than in China.  I get a lot of “Hellos!” from kids with big smiles on their faces, and lots of finger pointing, but that’s about it.  It's a relief to have gained back some of my personal space.

I can’t quite figure out the restaurants yet, nor the eating times.  There are small establishments every where, some advertised as “cafés” other with photos of soups, rice, and all sorts of animals.  There are tables and chairs out for people, but hardly anyone seated, regardless of the time of day.  If the chairs are occupied, it is for a drink, not eating.  It’s happened to me on several occasions, that I’ve been turned away from such places because they didn’t have any food, just drinks, although I can see a kitchen in the back.  They sure don't have the same type of business mentality as the Chinese!

Like China, most families live in a building that has a small store, workshop, or restaurant on the ground floor.  They don’t really use curtains and since it is so hot, all the doors are open, which makes for a lot of great sight seeing as you walk by and peer into their lives.  Their whole life is in a 5-meter radius.  They never have to go very far for anything, thankfully with the roads as crowded as they are!  

I’ve been on the road for about 2 weeks straight without a day off since I left Hong Kong.  I feel good, strong, and rested and so far the terrain, so far isn’t that difficult (although I can see mountains looming in the north).  I’m in Hanoi for a good three days, to explore, visit schools, and plan my Asia route, which I still have yet to nail down.  If this were Europe or the States, it would be a lot easier to organize myself and get things planned.  But here in Asia, I’ve slowly learned to surrender and just go with the flow. It’s a totally new concept for me that I’m easing into!

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