#24, from SE Asia
March 1st, 2010
from the Mekong Delta, Vietnam
An educated Vietnamese told me in Saigon that the #1 cause of death in Saigon and Hanoi is in fact traumatic head injury from motorcycle accidents. It seemed to me that it had to be, given the way they drive. No turn signals, no head checking, left and U turns whenever they feel like it. Both Saigon and Hanoi have 4+ million motorcycles, each increasing at over a 1000 a day. It is a disaster. I am relieved to be out of these cities.
Well, yesterday morning I came upon the remnants of a fresh accident. A badly crushed motorcycle,with oil, gas, and blood on the road. While the cops were trying to stop the traffic, the motorcyclists continued riding thru it. They drove right over the oil, gas, and blood. They probably would have gone over the body, except that it was already gone. The accident scene specialist had already sprayed the positions of the motorcycle and body on the road.
I find these markings on the road every kilometer or so. I feel I am even getting pretty good at understanding what happened at the accident just based upon the paint on the road. Either the paint really lasts a long time, or there are a lot of accidents.
There appears to be no licensing or driving lessons here, other than beginning, intermediate, and advanced HONKING. People pull right out in front of anyone without ever head-checking. They are making an assumption that the other one will alter their path. If they do not, there will be an accident. Oh and one other thing. They drive on both sides of the road, regularly. I think there is some Darwinist selection process going on here.
Bits and Pieces
I got to Mytho okay. The Mekong Delta is the flattest land I have ever ridden. It doesn’t get over 3 meters above sea level. The only rises are for bridges over the canals. An old man (at least as old as me) pedaled by me in a cyclo. This is a bicycle used to carry a person around. You see these in Bangladesh, Calcutta, and here in Vietnam,wherever the land is really flat. Anyway, he starts speaking fluent English to me. He is clearly well educated. I anticipate his next statement.
“I was a military translator for the US Army. Top level.”
“How long did they send you to prison.”
“You got off easy.”
“Well, yes, but I must stay in Mytho the rest of my life. I cannot visit my children. They must visit me here.”
At this point, I hop into his cyclo. He begins pedaling me to the local Internet Cafe that I cannot find. It is the first time I have ever ridden in a cyclo. The man is interesting, I need to get to the Internet, and he could use some money. He tells me that this is the only work the state is permitting him to do. I tell him that he is still serving his sentence. He agrees. He said that if he would have served 3 years in prison, the USA would accept him as a refugee. But one year is not enough. He entertains me with some funny stories. He clearly speaks English with a southern accent. A small vignette of life passing by…
Later I will meet another older woman who speaks good English. I say to her “Did you do translation for the US Military?”
How much prison time?
Minor irritations that keep coming up…
I get the óld menu–new menu’ trick again. I have a fine 4-course meal. The first menu says $4, but the ‘billing’ menu says $6. The meal is simply fine, and I am too tired of fighting this sort of stuff to have another round of arguing. I just toss the ‘old’ menu in the garbage and pay the $6. They quickly retrieve the ‘old’ menu. If they would have said $6 to start with, I would have no problem.
I check out of my hotel at 6 am, waking all the staff up. Before I go out for orange juice and rolls, I spread a few pieces of clothes in the lounge to dry. When I come back, my wet socks are missing. I am positive they were there. Alright, they just cost maybe a dollar. But if they would steal socks, then what else would they steal? This is why I pack my valuables against my body. And bless ATM machines, because we don’t have to carry a lot of cash with us.
I tell the concierge. She says it is no big deal. But this is honestly the 4th pair of socks I have had ripped from me on this trip. Am I petty? Maybe. But I don’t GAF.
Then I utter the magic words, the nuclear bomb of international travel.
“I am going to email Lonely Planet that your staff steals from its guests.”
I go upstairs to get the rest of my stuff. When I come down, there are my socks, one stuffed inside the other, next to my bike. I guess she thinks that this makes it all better now. NFW.
I tell this to an experienced Dutch traveler. He shakes his head at me. “Well if it’s too much for you, then leave.” I am surprised at his reaction. “Look, the French come here, they guillotine 1000’s, kill hundreds of thousands. You Americans kill a million and poison the country, and now you want them to kiss your ass. What you expect?”
I hear him, but he is just a bit too self-righteous. “And how did you Dutch treat the Indonesians in your colonies?”
He pauses, smiles, and says “Even worse.”
“And how do you really feel about the level of hassle?” I ask him.
“When I leave this time, I think I will not come to Vietnam back any more.”
I have had that thought myself.
I am a compulsive dental flosser. I am so bad about it that when I have been sailing in the Caribbean and run out of floss, I have taken apart the seams of a nylon jacket to make my own floss. I then used, and washed it, diligently. But I have all my own teeth (minus one).
So I am flossing after eating in an outdoor cafe. I turn my head away from the others, but no matter. Three men gather around, VERY CLOSE, and stare. When I look up, they continue staring. Their faces have shock and alarm. Now in Vietnam, everyone uses toothpicks. No one flosses. The men keep staring. I might as well been some monkey in a zoo hanging by its tail playing with its crank.
So I give them my floss container. They study it, take it apart, examine it like some fine mechanical device. I tear off a piece of floss for each of them and demo how to use it. They try, laughing all the way. One of them gets results and shows the others. They become instant converts.
Time to leave. I put on my bicycle helmet and start to go. Just as I am feeling triumphant, I bang my helmet hard into a 5’6″beam that they all pass easily under. No hurt, other than pride. They are really laughing, for this is the second time I have done this here.