Written from the comforts of home. . .at last, 4/3/2012. Weather. . .well, it was sunny and pretty when I got home yesterday afternoon, but today it's Gray Seattle, which is very similar to Gray Hanoi, but somewhat cooler. Sigh.
To begin with, there are some photos added to the "End of the Road" post. . .nothing spectacular, but you might want to page back and have a look.
For the rest, I'll add a few thoughts on the trip and past trips. . .and probably future trips. This might take a day or two, so please drop back by to see what all I've thought of. Photos? There are 2,481 in the folder I just moved into permanent storage on the big disc drive. . .so I'll page through and see if I spot anything you really ought to see that hasn't been included before. But soon it'll be back to the office, hacking away at the salt!
SHOULD YOU GO?
A tale like this one is, almost obviously, an incitement to susceptible people to go and do likewise (or better). So I've thought about it at some length, whether or not I really want to urge you to pack your saddle bags and head for the open road in Southeast Asia (or anywhere else).
The first question is whether or not you really want to go and do. If you do, then there's probably nothing I can say that will stop you. If you have to go you will go. Take care and come back safe, you have my blessing.
For the rest, consider whether or not I've romanticized things too much. For one thing,I've not taken a lot of photos intended to glorify the role of garbage in the scenery. I've worked pretty hard to avoid garbage in fact. . .though look closely at the beach photos and see all the plastic. Look at the city scenes and it's the same or worse. The country needs a Ministry of Garbage with real power. If you're going expecting to see pristine fields and beaches. . .perhaps you'd better buy tickets to Norway or Switzerland, or. . .someplace besides Southeast Asia.
I've talked about hotels now and then, and I've slept safely and (within certain limits) comfortably every night I've been in country. I've paid very little money for my rooms by and large, I think the most expensive rooms ran to $20 the night and were really nice. . .nicer than a Red Roof or even a Red Lion. So at times and in places that can be done and still be a tremendous bargain. Most of the time though I pay from $6 to $10 per night and the accommodation is a little rougher. In large measure this is a function of location. In small towns with only one or two hotels you take what's available and like it. Once the sun sets I, for one, will not drive on the country roads. The plumbing almost always works to some degree. I've never had a toilet that wouldn't flush, though I've had a couple that would erupt if someone upstairs flushed while I was enthroned myself. Fairly often the hot water heater is in a bad mood and won't cooperate. . .and once the cold water wouldn't come to the shower. . .so it was a sponge bath from the sink or a scalding. Serious scalding it would have been. The lighting in most hotel rooms amounts to one fluorescent tube and one very low wattage "night light". Usually adequate, or almost so. Southeast Asia smokes like America used to. . .a lot. Most hotel rooms reflect that reality in one degree or another. . ,though it doesn't seem as bad as you might expect. The chairs and tables. . .very low in general, with no good place to sit at a computer and work. Sheets? H'mm. For under $15 there won't be a top sheet at all, just a quilt or blanket folded at the foot of the bed. The bottom sheet. . .might be freshly washed for you (especially in warmer zones or seasons). I don't think I ever got a bug bite though.
I wouldn't have gone on so much about hotels except that I'm asked fairly often what they're like. Safe and reasonably comfortable. Sometimes really nice. Sometimes not. Actually, the people in the hotels make a lot of difference. . .when the staff is family or just friendly, the hotel is a pleasant place to be, regardless of the plumbing or the size of the window (?). But if slightly grotty hotels will spoil your trip you might best stay in the tourist zones of the major towns and cities.
Crime and danger? Sadly, I think you're much safer in Southeast Asia than many places at home. I've never felt any threat, and lady travelers I've met have said the same. You do have to be careful with your valuables to a certain degree. You are incredibly wealthy by local standards and your trinkets are worth stealing. Essentially nobody steals here, but that still leaves the one person in many thousand who will. So choose your clothes and accessories with pickpockets in mind and remember to pick up your stuff as you go.
Drinking? The Local Folks are used to their hard liquor and assorted sorts of moonshine. They like to sit around a dinner table with a bottle of "rice wine" and some shot glasses or little tea cups. There's no point in trying to out do them. For my own purposes, it's better to simply avoid the situation. . .when you can. If you can't, then remember the consequences, and for goodness sake don't try to ride afterward!
Riding motorbikes? That's a tough one for me to argue. To begin with, it's not strictly legal. By renting and riding, or worse, buying and riding a bike you're violating a number of laws. Tourists technically can't get a driver's license and Viet Nam doesn't recognize any other driver's license. Strike one. Tourists can't get a residence permit (you need a work visa for that, with a sponsoring company). Without a residence permit you can't register a motorbike. You can get a binding bill of sale that the authorities will recognize as your actual proof of purchase. . .but you still haven't registered the machine. Strike Two. And then there's the Highway Police. Things are changing in that regard. In 2005 it was apparent that the national highway police were not bothering white guys if they weren't in trouble some other way. Now they will sometimes pull you over even after they realize you're a "foreigner". It hasn't been a problem for me yet, but that could change in a heartbeat and that could be a serious Strike Three. Nonetheless, if you want to ride and tour and behave like a gentleman (while still surviving of course), and you aren't overly troubled by the other issues, I suppose I can't argue. I've loved it. Mostly.
However, if you're coming for the sport riding and the challenge of the heavy traffic on the narrow winding roads, please reconsider. Actually, Please stay away. There are too many young white guys of one sort or another riding motorbikes around Southeast Asia like so many cowboys out to kill Indians. This simply isn't riding the trails of the County Motorsport Park with a gang of your best friends and competitors in their body armor on their motocross bikes. The people around you aren't part of some real-life video game. They're just ordinary people going to work or taking their kids to school or doing the grocery shopping, or trying to make a living running freight around town on the backs of their bikes. If you meet a misbehaving Vietnamese youngster on a motorbike and he blows you away or cuts you off. . .let him go. His own people will take care of him sooner or later, or they'll scrape him off the bumper of a truck.
As for the open road. . .especially the fabulous runs through the mountains, high and misty and all twisty. . .still take it easy. I refuse to be challenged by a road these days (it took a little learning, but maybe I can save you a mashed foot or worse). If you find the road conditions challenging it only means one thing. You're going too fast. Slow down to an appropriate speed and the challenge disappears. It may still be very demanding, needing constant attention and a certain level of skill. . .that's fine. But if it reaches "challenging" it's time to ease up. Especially, remember you are more likely to be surprised by kids or animals on the road in the mountains. . .or tractors or oxcarts or REALLY SLOW trucks. The tires and brakes on your little motorbike won't be up to sudden stops. You'll probably go down hard if you hit a dog or a pig. You'll die if you run under a truck. You must never hit a child.
I'm full of opinions this morning but running out of time. I'll write more later. Oh. . .Thanks very much for coming along, I've enjoyed having you.