Vietnamese Motorbikes Carrying Unbelievable Sh1t

From the moment I arrived to the day I left, I couldn’t stop oggling all the Vietnamese motorbikes carrying unbelievable shit. And you know how I am – I rarely use any sort of profanity in this blog. But I need some word that encompasses barnyard critters, propane tanks, bowls of pho, four people and – yes, I’m serious – a grandfather clock!

I unfortunately did not get a shot of the grandfather clock being toted on a motorbike. It was like a shooting star – flashing across my field of view in a brilliant vision, then disappearing before I could so much as touch my camera. Fear not, though. I have plenty of other photos of Vietnamese motorbikes carrying unbelievable shit.

Vietnamese motorbikes
Four? Not bad. But the real pros can get five on that ride.

First up, we have this lovely family of four. These are somewhat rare. You’ll see trios on scooters all over the place. You really level up, though, if you snap a photo of a family of five on a motorbike. Good luck!

Vietnamese motorbikes

OK, this photo doesn’t have anything crazy being carted about on a motorbike. I just love all the riders and passengers being jovial and flashing me peace signs when they notice my lens pointing at them.

Vietnamese motorbikes
“One day, this will be MINE!”

My older brother, JD, is obsessed with cars. Before he was old enough to drive, he yammered about cars and driving – nonstop. Today, he still takes photos of his rental cars and loves to show them to people (I still wonder if he’s just pranking us all). I wonder if this little girl is his spiritual sister. Because clearly, she can’t wait to be old enough to take the handlebar. And to take a photo of every motorbike she rides …

Vietnamese motorbikeThis is one of the first shots I took when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I was like “HFS, a mom and two kids on a motorobike!” Within hours, I learned that this is kind of a light load.

Vietnamese motorbikeI don’t even know what this guy is carrying, but I know The Three Stooges would approve. I can just see Larry, Moe and Curly wiping people out with this horizontal load of … what? Sugarcane? Bamboo? Doesn’t matter. It’s awesome.

Vietnamese motorbike
Pho delivery, Ho Chi Minh City style!

OK, this guy is rolling against traffic carrying a tray with a bowl of pho on it! And he’s not leaned up against the curb: He’s actually in motion. And he’s not spilling a drop! He’s killin’ it.

Vietnamese motorbikeCheck out that load of bananas! I seriously know people who carry less in their SUVs.

Vietnamese motorbikeCan someone please explain what’s going on here? I have no idea what this rider is carrying. Not that it matters. When the load obscures the driver, you have attained Motorscooter Master Jedi status.

Vietnamese motorbikeThese are eggs. Lots and lots and lots of eggs. On a motorscooter. Good grief, this is awesome!

Vietnamese motorbikeA guy carrying three cylinders of propane in the motorbike maelstrom of Vietnam is a Darwin Award waiting to happen. This rider is either crazy and soon to die, or he’s a brilliant daredevil who helps keep the country running.

vietnamese motorbikes
These two party animals were having the time of their lives.

I’ve saved the best for last. I may have missed shots of chicken, pigs and grandfather clocks being toted on Vietnamese motorbikes. But I DID NOT miss the headless, gyrating animatronic Santa Claus. The two dudes on this motorbike had Hanoi in stitches with their antics. The Santa would not have been as cool if he’d been fully intact. Seeing this made my trip to Vietnam much, much better. Thank you, Vietnamese Elves!

OK, have any of you been to a country where motorbikes are the backbone of transit? Where they haul as much as a typical American SUV? Tell me about it, and post some photos in the comments!

Best Hotel in Hanoi?

best hotel in Hanoi
The reception area at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi

I can’t tell you that the Rendezvous Hotel is the best hotel in Hanoi. It’s the only one I stayed at. So I truly don’t have the authority and experience to call anything the best hotel in Hanoi.

That said, if I ever return to Hanoi, I will stay at the Rendezvous Hotel again for sure. Here’s why:

Location

It’s right in the Old Quarter. If you are pretty energetic, you can get just about anywhere interesting: The Hanoi Opera House, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Vietnam Military History Museum just to name a few. You’ll also be a few steps away from the crazy night markets that happen a few times a week. At any given time, you’ll be just about overwhelmed by all the stuff you can eat, drink or look at.

best hotel in Hanoi
This might be the very room I stayed in …

The fancy Ciputra area is a fairly short cab ride away.

Services

Free breakfast isn’t uncommon in hotels. And in Vietnam, just about every hotel can arrange tours. We booked overnight trips to Sapa and Halong Bay at the Rendezvous Hotel; they all went flawlessly, and the hotel staff even gave us a lift to the train station.

best hotel in Hanoi
Wait … this has to be Photoshopped. WHERE ARE THE MOTOR BIKES?!

One of the most-impressive and useful details, though, was a well-written binder of good places to shop, eat and visit. The staff even recommended specific dishes – this is where I learned about cha ca la vong, which is my now my favorite Vietnamese dish. The guide also hooked us with a great place to get a great massage that restored some spring to our weary legs.

There’s also wifi n every room, plus a handful of computers for guests to use down in the lobby.

Value

Our price for a large room with wifi, TV and two beds was about $30 a night. Factor in the breakfast, and it gets even more reasonable.

You can find fancier hotels around, for sure. You can pay a lot more. But will that guarantee you a room at the best hotel in Hanoi? Eh. Take my advice – book a room at the Rendezvous Hotel.

 

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Thoughts on the North-South Divide in Vietnam

Hanoi
Soldiers on the move in Hanoi. Could be 1961, could be 2013.

Ask people in Ho Chi Minh City, and they’ll sing you the same song about Hanoi in a multitude of keys and time signatures.

"Hanoi is 15 years behind."

"You’ll feel like someone is watching you all the time."

"Watch out for the people. They cheat you."

"They’ll steal from you."

"They’re mean."

We even heard foreigners like us parrot the same lines.

Vietnam culture
Soviet-influenced icons are everywhere – north and south – to remind residents and visitors of Vietnam’s past.

And we didn’t find any of it to be true. Not that we don’t understand – Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and many of its residents wound up on the wrong side of Vietnam politics when the United States left the country to the communist government in Hanoi. People like Big T, one of our tour guides, still feel the repercussions of a conflict that ended before he was born. His father served in the South Vietnam military and wound up in a labor camp. The labor camps were one of the prices people paid in the aftermath of what Vietnamese people call the American War.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City is racing ahead – some say it’s leaving Hanoi behind. See them both and decide for yourself.

Even today, Big T tells us, high-paying government jobs and a shot at upward mobility are off-limits for him and his family. His father made this clear to him at a young age, and gave him some advice: "Don’t worry, and do the best you can. Enjoy your life."

So I understand the root of the bitterness and friction.

As a visitor, though, I have no clue why another traveler would have a harsh word to say about Hanoi and its people.

The traffic is just as bizarre. The street vendors are just as insistent. The prices are just as low.

There are differences, especially if you stay in a central location like the Old Quarter. The streets in that part of Hanoi are even more congested than the larger, wider boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. But you can also get away easily to areas where you can stroll on the sidewalks without stepping around people and motorbikes.

Vietnam culture
Hanoi’s vibe hit me as more relaxed and more European than Ho Chi Minh City.

And those streets will lead you to some very nice parks and urban lakes. They’ll also take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the president’s residence and a multitude of government buildings.

There is a strange vibe in this part of Hanoi, at least for a visiting Westerner. Uniformed soldiers stroll around, and some even carry AK-47 rifles. The presence of Soviet-related images like the hammer and sickle add an aura that’s slightly disquieting for someone who grew up during the Cold War – and never expected it to end.

Vietnam culture
I wonder what Ho Chi Minh would make of his near deification – and what your average Ho Chi Minh City resident thinks of it.

Still, Hanoi is where my attitude changed about Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. (with a brief stop in Tokyo), I had a hard time settling in. I questioned our choice of destinations. The traffic and general mania of Ho Chi Minh City grated on me the entire first day. I started to like it a bit better after a few days.

But Hanoi is where I started to really have fun -- despite constantly getting lost in the warren of Old Quarter streets, where the street names seem to change every 200 feet (This is absolutely true. The names reflect what used to be sold on the streets – and sometimes still do – so they translate into things like Drum Street, Casket Street, Fishcake Street and many others). We started to pronounce the few words we know better. We got away from the areas that cater to foreigners, and spoke with and ate with people who have no part of the tourism trade.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City has much of its own “peoples’ revolution” imagery.

In Hanoi, we met a few local people through running the Song Hong footrace. They’re now our Facebook friends, and they shared their thoughts about how things work in Vietnam.

Don’t take any of this as a knock against Ho Chi Minh City. We met plenty of friendly residents.

Here’s something interesting: Not a single Hanoi resident said a bad thing about Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it’s easy to be magnanimous when your family wound up on the winning side of a conflict that continues to define the country -- when you have the upper hand and the opportunities. The biggest difference I noticed is that some Ho Chi Minh City residents still call it Saigon; not a single Hanoi resident, however, used "Saigon."

There might already be some change in progress: Ho Chi Minh City local Elly Thuy Nguyen still pokes fun at Hanoi in her handy and funny eBook, My Saigon: The Local Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … but with a sly, ironic tone that says "I really don’t believe everything I’m writing."

I hope Nguyen isn’t alone in her attitude. And that the future holds an equal chance for everyone in Vietnam – no matter what choices previous generations made.

Until that happens, visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then decide for yourself.

Travel in Vietnam – A Few Quick Thoughts

travel in Vietnam
When you travel in Vietnam, chances are you’ll come away with more than just photos of pretty sites. It’s a thought-provoking place.

It’s been one week since I’ve returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam. Over the next few months, I’ll have a lot to share with you about what it’s like to travel in Vietnam.

Obviously, a lot of people have asked "how was your trip?" It’s impossible to wrap this trip up with a sentence or two, so I just have to say "It was great." There’s a lot more to it, though.

Here are a few key thoughts from our travel in Vietnam, which I’ll dive deeper into with my future posts:

    • This wasn’t my most high-flying, adventure-packed vacation. But it was, hands-down, my most culturally thought-provoking.
    • Vietnam has some environmental problems, and I think it’s still possible to change course. Quite a bit hangs in the balance for it – tourism, health concerns and the long-term status of resources like the Mekong River.
    • There’s a very interesting divide between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. People in the south have little good to say about the north. Oddly enough, it seems a one-way street: I never heard any HCMC-bashing in Hanoi.
travel in vietnam
I hope Vietnam makes protecting its natural resources – like the Mekong River – a high priority.
  • Speaking of Ho Chi Minh City -- I was surprised to learn that quite a few people there still call it Saigon.
  • People often ask why we decided to travel in Vietnam. Well, it’s because we like the food. I can’t tell you how much pho I’ve eaten in the last few years. We figured that was as good a reason as any.
  • That said, I didn’t eat any pho at all in Vietnam. We learned of many great items that I’d either overlooked on menus here in the U.S., or they just haven’t made their way here.
  • As a kid who grew up in the Cold War and then saw the fall of the Soviet Union, it was really interesting to see the hammer and sickle in so many places.
  • Holy shit, the motorbikes. They’re everywhere!
  • Suddenly, my home city feels empty and sterile – and stripped of a huge percentage of human-to-human contact.

 

Well, that should give you an idea of the shape of things to come. And yes, I’ll have some concrete tips for planning your own travel in Vietnam. We learned a lot that will help you get even more out of your time than we did.

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How I Found Good Flight Deals to Vietnam

787 Dreamliner flight deals to Vietnam
A United Dreamliner will be our ride back from Shanghai.

I haven’t said much about my latest upcoming trip. So here’s the news: This time, we’re headed to Vietnam. It will be our first time in Southeast Asia.

Sarah and I had some intense conversations about our possible destinations – Vietnam and the southern part of Australia. The good flight deals to Vietnam swayed us (tickets came to about $1,200 US each from Phoenix to Ho Chi Minh City, and then from Hanoi back to Phoenix).

So, how did I score such good flight deals to Vietnam?

I logged into all my existing frequent flier accounts to see whether they offered flights to the cities I wanted. Being based in the United States, my air mile accounts are with U.S.-based airlines -- none of which thrills me for intercontinental travel. But some share airline alliances with my favorite carriers like Asiana Airlines.

flight deals to Vietnam.
Our travels will give us a look at Vietnam Airlines.

The options from Asiana Airlines were challenging. The layover was tight for the flight to Incheon, South Korea, that would connect to a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was also on an Airbus A330, which I don’t much like (see my review of Scandinavian Airlines).

The price I got while logged into my account with a fellow Star Alliance airline didn’t impress me.

Working My Flight Options

I usually avoid airline aggregators like Orbitz. I booked on one once, and didn’t have a great experience. But they’re great for finding other airline options you might not normally consider.

Here’s where I struck gold: I plugged my preferred dates into a Google search. I got a bunch of good flight deals to Vietnam cheaper than I could find logged into my frequent flier accounts.

flight deals to Vietnam
One of the reasons I worked to find good flight deals to Vietnam – the caves!

Here’s what I came up with: Phoenix to San Jose – from there, we take a All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 to Tokyo Narita, where we connect to via an Air Japan 767 to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m very interested in the first outbound flights since ANA is a SKYTRAX 5-Star airline: The last 5-star airline I flew was Asiana, which is still the airline to beat in my book. On the way back, we have a Vietnam Airlines flight to Shanghai, where we have a United Airlines 787 back to Los Angeles and then on to Phoenix.

Good Flight Deals to Vietnam – and Easy Booking

The booking link for my flights took me straight to the United Airlines website, where having my account made short, easy work of the process. That means no sweating over frequent flier points – and the booking info goes straight to my smartphone. There, I can access it through the United Airlines app.

flight deals to Vietnam
We’re also hoping to find some tasty food in Vietnam.

Should anything cause us to miss a flight, booking from an airline’s website has – in my experience – also made getting back on-course run quite a bit smoother.

Expect some honest reviews from the economy class after this is all over. We’ll have a lot of flying to do (including two trans-Pacific Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights), and I consider it a big part of the fun.

And yes, watch for some first-hand accounts of caving, hiking and exotic food-eating in Vietnam, too!

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Arizona Mountain Bike Racer’s Hanoi Bike Tour

hanoi bike tour
Rich Maines tackles the hills and rainy weather. (Courtesy of Rich Maines)

Rich Maines is one of the faster mountain bike racers in Arizona. The guy absolutely flies on a singlespeed.

Even better, Rich makes a strong case for me to label him The Most Interesting Mountain Bike Racer in the World (stay hydrated, my friends). Why? Well, he combines cycling with travel. He blogged in-depth about a four-day cycling tour of the mountains west of Hanoi, Vietnam – Hanoi, Son La Province, Phú Yên Province, Tam Đảo – in March. I really admire this since Rich is a local rider, not a superstar in the Hans Rey sort of mold. He’s a regular guy who went out on his own to craft a cool Hanoi bike tour adventure – and he succeeded by any measure. Rich logged 27 hours of total ride time, 370 miles and 22,913 feet of elevation gain during his tour. He also encountered buckets of rain since March is the rainy season.

Rich got his share of awesome views – sugar cane fields, rice paddies, banana treas and enough fields of tea leaves to keep America awake until the next ice age.

Hanoi Bike Tour
Rich gets some carbs and electrolytes during his Hanoi bike tour. (Courtesy of Rich Maines)

The route had more hills than Rich expected … which led to some challenges on a singlespeed, fixed-gear road bike. Judging from some of the photos, a mountain bike would’ve been at home.

“I just figured I’d walk what I couldn’t ride. If I couldn’t hit all the planned destinations, no worries, I was there to see the beautiful surroundings and enjoy the experience," Rich says.

Rich’s trip proves the power of the bicycle: Local kids were eager to greet the strange Westerner pedaling through the mountains. He had no shortage of offers for food and invitations to stay and visit.

"The people of Vietnam were very gracious and hospitable, even in the tiny, remote mountain villages,” Rich says. “Getting the opportunity to pedal there was an incredible thrill."

You can – and should – read more about Rich’s racing and riding adventures at his Rich Maines – Endurance Mountain Bike Athlete blog. Just prepared to be jealous since he’s sponsored by cool companies like Ergon, Stan’s No Tubes and Hammer Nutrition.