Looking back at the first week of our journey, it feels like we already have experienced it all. The bustling life of Ho Chi Minh City greeted us as we plowed our way through an enormous ocean of scooters. Our bikes were retrieved from Customs at the port and parked securely at the prestigious Rex Hotel, while we roughed it with a homestay in the Mekong Delta, the breadbasket of Vietnam.
Rain, mudslides and roadwork made our first day out of Saigon more of a test than we had bargained for. More roadwork and rain the following day kept us fully alert as we turned for the coast.
The last day of our first week started out very nice, but as we climbed up in to the highlands the following day, we had our first meeting with Typhoon Ketsana. Having heard on the news what Typhoon Ketsana had done in damages to the Philippines, we were preparing for the worst. Rain and strong winds increased with every mile as we drove towards our destination for the night.
On two occasions, we had to get off our bikes and help the locals to remove trees that had blocked the road. Huge rubber plantations along the road had dozens of their trees snapped, it almost looked like Mother Earth was testing the resilience of the land and its people, and we were caught in the middle of it.
Having spent all day hanging onto the handlebars for dear life as the wind and rain tossed us around, it was an incredible feeling to ride the bikes in to the underground garage of our hotel. The wind and rain were all of a sudden gone (although we could hear them on the outside), and from the garage an elevator took us to the comfort of our rooms. What a day it had been!
It was at dinner that day that Mac tells me that he now realized that this is not a “Tour”, but an “Adventure”.
Enjoy the stories and pictures from this first week of the GlobeRiders IndoChina Adventure 2009.
Helge Pedersen, Founder
Day -03 - Taipei, Taiwan- Mac McCaulley
Debbie and Harrison Christian and myself spent 3 days in Taipei, Taiwan, for a little time zone adjustment and stopover before the tour began. Enjoyed the 101 Tower, which I believe is the second-highest building in the world. Also visited the National Palace Museum with many ancient Chinese treasures from 1,000's of years ago.
We hired a driver for one day to visit the Yehliu Geo Park and saw Queens Head, which is part of a large unusual rock formation on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. Also visited Jiufen (also along the coast) which is a small traditional village with several very steep streets and interesting shops and restaurants . . .
Taipei is a very large and busy city with much to see. The subways were also very efficient and easy to use.
On to Saigon City... A day before the tour began, Pete and I visited a local private school called ANH LINH Free School (I had prearranged a visit). I delivered an XO Laptop as a part of the One Laptop Per Child program that I became aware of about six months ago from someone in my church from home. This school had 175 day students thru the 6th grade and another 95 in grades 6 through 9. It was established in 1990 and has 5 teachers and one principal. The principal had studied in St Paul, Minnesota, USA. The school is sponsored by a group from the USA called Bridge2Learning.
Subjects studied were Manners, Math, Science, History, Geography and English among others. There were also about 15 orphans who lived at the school full-time. Students received a lunch during the day and the ones that came without a breakfast from home received a glass of milk, banana or a yogurt. It was interesting to learn that the annual budget for entire the school was $15,000. Truly a real experience, spending an hour with Cam Thuy, the principal.
I also had another interesting visit that I had prearranged on my own, this one to a stainless steel tubing manufacturing company about an hour’s drive from Saigon. This was a Chinese company that employed 100 people, including maybe half a dozen young boys around age 12 - 14. The work day went from 7AM to 6PM and people worked 7 days per week, 52 weeks per year. Salary level was approximately $80.00 per month for the workers in the factory, and $140 for the 6 girls in the office. They had 2 days off a year. One day in April and another day in Sept for their Independence Day. I understand that a lot of the Vietnamese do not work 7 days per week and make an average salary of $1,800.00 per year.
Saigon is a city of approximately 13 million people with something like 4 million scooters. The real challenge here is the cross the street. It is normal to cross the street anywhere in front of oncoming traffic, which will most likely a be solid flow of scooters or cars. The key is to move SLOWLY across with no stopping or quick steps.
We also visited the Cu Chi tunnels, which the Vietnamese used extensively during the war, and the War Remnants Museum - truly a moving experience about the Vietnam War.
On to visit the Mekong Delta for some more local "scenes".
Day 02 - Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam- Pete Pawluk
It may be a bit difficult to adequately describe the experience of riding a motorcycle in Vietnam in words with still photographs, but here’s my best shot.
It’s invigorating to be back in a part of the world where your survival while driving (or walking) is entirely your own responsibility. No overprotective rules, minimal stoplights, very few traffic cops. They don’t automatically assume that you are stupid. Darwinian selection takes care of that. It’s up to you to use common sense and keep your wits. There’s nothing more cathartic than focusing intensely on keeping the wheels pointed towards the pavement for 8 straight hours.
There are many more motorbikes on the road than cars. I’d guess the ratio is 50:1. Most are 150 cc or smaller and could be called scooters or mopeds. They remind me of flies buzzing around every which way, carrying people, commercial goods, livestock, and just about anything else you could possibly imagine. A typical paved road has 2 lanes with shoulders about 1.5 meters wide. In towns the road may be 4 lanes wide. Usually cars, trucks and buses use the main lane and motorbikes use the shoulders. Usually you drive on the right but at any time traffic could be going in any direction in any lane. Usually larger vehicles generally leave the shoulders to smaller vehicles, except when turning or avoiding bad road conditions like craters. Bikes can pass on the left or the right, and often the right is the safest.
There is a hierarchy of vehicles, with buses at the top, then trucks, cars, livestock, motorbikes, pedal bikes, and at the bottom, pedestrians. Every user of the road respects this hierarchy. As well, rapid changes are poorly tolerated by other motorists; everything just ebbs and flows. And while at first glance it looks chaotic, it works. Accidents are rare and considering the number of road users relative to North America I’d say they are safer drivers, possibly because it’s all give and take, not just take. You must constantly look ahead and foresee opportunities or dangers. You don’t own your piece of the road and you certainly aren’t protected by some white lines painted on the ground.
The roads here in Vietnam are not used just for transportation. They serve as areas of commerce where goods are bought and sold. People fish from the road. Livestock graze along the road. Roads serve as a place to dehull and dry rice. They are social gathering places and playgrounds for children. There’s a lot happening on the roads and as tourists riding our bikes in this country we must share this important piece of real estate with many other road users.
Day 02 - Hi Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam- Helge Pedersen
Starting Out Trivia
Thought I should share a few tips from the start of our journey that might serve some of you well. The pictures below are supposed to relate to each story.
First off, traveling to Southeast Asia for several years now, we have been very happy with EVA airlines. Their service is excellent, and they’ve had the best price anywhere the roundtrip tickets we’ve purchased through AA Travel in Seattle (just google them for contact information and compare with other online offers).
Arriving in a foreign country can be a little overwhelming, but hopefully nothing like what these electricians are facing. I took the picture out of our van’s window and it was when I first looked at the picture on my computer I actually counted 3 electricians working on the wire mess. Do your homework, read guidebooks, travel with an open mind, and your journey will all untangle to a great experience. The success of your journey rests solely in your hands; it is all about attitude.
I met this fellow at a street corner downtown Saigon. He was a gentle soul trying to make a living taking tourists on the back of his scooter, showing them the sights of the city. If you needed further services he also had a “brother” with a van that could accommodate a larger group. To save on your budget, I would not hesitate to join him for a day’s touring in the big city. Do yourself a favor, be adventurous and you will be awarded.
Today most of us have cell phones. However, travel with a cell phone can get quite expensive when you are roaming through your home carrier. One way to get around this dilemma is to have an unlocked mobile phone. If you do not understand what I am talking about that is OK, just understand that by unlocking a phone, it is then able to be used with local phone carriers, independent from your own phone plan at home. In the USA I use my unlocked iPhone with T-Mobile, but when I am in Vietnam I purchase a SIM card with Vietnam Mobile Phone Company. The SIM card (like a little memory card that goes inside the phone) contains a new local phone number. This way I can make local calls to other members of the group, our guides, and for a good price I can call my wife Karen back in Seattle. She also has an easy way to contact me during my travels by dialing my new local number in Vietnam.
As you see from the below pictures, we found a phone shop in Saigon that could unlock our phones or sell us unlocked phones for about US$35.00 plus SIM cards and airtime. When you run out of prepaid minutes, any little store around the country will sell you scratch cards with a number for adding more minutes to your phone. Frank had an unlocked phone that he has been using in Africa, and Debbie and Harrison purchase a unlocked phone for their own use. Remember that unlocked phones can be used almost anywhere in the world, all you need to purchase is a local SIM card (which gives you your local phone number) and minutes for your airtime. As of today I own 7 SIM cards for various countries around the world.
[NOTE from MikeP: Often times, you can simply call your carrier and ask for your phone to be unlocked, you do not need to pay anyone to have this done. In the USA, AT&T is especially good about this, if you have Verizon, you're out of luck, as Verizon phones don't normally use SIMs).
If any of you have similar tips, we’d love to hear from you.