Two Weeks Riding in Vietnam

Discussion in 'Asia' started by markharf, Apr 26, 2018.

  1. markharf

    markharf Been here awhile

    Jan 28, 2008
    Bellingham, Washington
    TR Vietnam by Motorbike:

    Warning:Immediately following, you'll find a lot of words. There are no photos, no graphics, no embedded videos, and hardly even any basic formatting. Thousands of words. What can I say? It's not for everyone.

    For impatient readers, here's the short version:Vietnam is cheap, remarkably scenic, and people are nice there, within normal limits. Traveling is relatively easy, and perfectly adequate infrastructure is widespread. For a person of approximately my age--edging into the middle sixties--the country carries a lot of historical resonance. Motorcycles are easily rented or purchased, and although neither seems to be entirely legal, both are nonetheless commonly done.

    English, however, is spoken imperfectly, if at all, and the country is apparently situated right in the middle of the Southeast Asia tourist trail. This means there are a great many tourists, largely young, enthused, and possessed of carefree, gap-year, backpacker attitudes. Some people find local driving practices intolerable, not to mention morally bankrupt, although this probably won't bother anyone with extensive experience driving in the Developing World. Finally, Vietnam is rather densely-populated, so genuine solitude is rare.

    And the longer version, as follows:

    In the old days I took trips lasting 6 months or a year, covering wide swathes of the globe. I had just two weeks in Vietnam; I worked late the night before departure, then again on the morning after my return. You might think I'd plan carefully in order to take full advantage of my limited travel time...but you'd be wrong. I didn't plan carefully, because I was too busy scratching out a living. Besides, planning very often seems to interfere with having a good time.

    What I did manage to do before leaving home was to reserve a rental motorcycle, and I arranged to pick it up in Hoi An, about halfway down the coast between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I also developed the first glimmerings of understanding that I wouldn't have time to see the whole country in two weeks, much less go exploring neighboring countries like Cambodia or Laos. So I bought a couple of maps and a Lonely Planet guide, downloaded some riding guides from the Vietnam Coracle site (Google it), and collected random bits of motorcycle-related information from Horizons Unlimited, Adventure Rider, and the Thorntree--little of which I even glanced at once under way.

    Vietnam is a place where lots of tourists rent bikes, whether they know how to ride or not. There is a lot of room for debate about renting vs. buying, about the relative advantages of Belorussian vs. Chinese knockoff vs. Japanese bikes, or scooters vs. mopeds vs. motorcycles. I don't really want to get involved in those debates; I can only report that my 3000 km unfolded free of any significant maintenance issues, and that I personally witnessed a number of tourists riding smaller and more dilapidated bikes who did experience a lot of difficulties--including some who were riding the oft-recommended Honda Wave models.

    On the other hand, I paid a lot more than they did--twice, maybe three times as much. Everyone finds their own balance between available time and available funds, right? I was satisfied with my choice--a late-model Honda 250 dual sport--although it's worth remembering that this is a BIG bike by local standards, and can get you into trouble at least as easily as it can get you out.

    I'm going to sneak in a plug here for the company I rented from: Flamingo Travel (again, easily Googled), headquartered in Hanoi but with offices in Ho Chi Minh City and Hoi An. They're one of the few companies which rents big bikes--they've even got some 650s--in addition to the usual 125s. They seem to take maintenance seriously, and they do give straightforward information about the models they've got. Also worth mentioning is that I found them entirely reliable--everything they promised was done exactly as they'd said. Plus they're nice people, which definitely counts for something. I've had experience renting bikes around the world in which noneof the above was true, so dealing with Flamingo was a real pleasure.

    As mentioned, riding a motorbike is a fairly common way to see the country, and on most days I saw at least a few fellow tourists riding. Oddly enough, I saw no other Western riders who even approached my age. I assume they're out there someplace, but for the most part I heard variations on "This is really cool! My grandfather is your age...!" At my best, I was able to spit out a half-strangled "thanks."

    I decided to bring my own riding gear with me--jacket, knee and shin armor, helmet, gloves, boots. This, in turn, defined my selection of backpack (second largest from the Wall of Backpacks in my garage), and ensured that I would barely be able to lift it without calling for help. There was definitely a degree of suffering involved in wearing all that gear in the tropical heat, but in the end I managed fine. Riding gear available locally was decidedly inferior.

    Other stuff I was clever enough to bring from home: various rubber bungies, compression straps, and webbing (essential); a lightweight cable lock to allow leaving helmet and riding jacket with the bike (useful); long underwear for the rumored cold weather in the northern mountains (perfectly useless); a sarong, for the rumored palm-fringed beaches all along the coast (equally useless); an elaborate medical kit featuring multiple antibiotics, anti-parasitics, anti-malarials, anti-diarrheals, anti-spasmodics, anti-inflammatories, and more (none of which I touched, but all of which was comforting to have along).

    Things I did not bring: a charger for my camera batteries (Oops. But I found a tacky Chinese replacement for about US$20.); insect repellant, which turned out completely unnecessary; a sunscreen which would not depressurize inside my backpack on the first day, dissolving various plastic objects and coating everything else in water-resistant goo (another oops, but effective sunscreen was available locally). I did not bring an inflatable thermarest mattress, about which more later. Notably, I did not bring an AirHawk seat--a serious mistake. I've been home about four days, and I'm still feeling saddle-sore. I would not do thisagain without bringing an AirHawk, a sheepskin, one of those beaded taxidriver seats, a gel pad....

    I also did not bring a GPS, since I don't actually know how to use mine very well, and I didn't bring an unlocked smartphone which would serve similarly. Too much trouble, I thought; I've gotten around a lot of obscure places in the world using only paper maps, and didn't see any reason why this should be any different. The Greeks called thishubris,and they made it the focal point from which great tragedies would unfold.....not that that's relevant here.

    Absent GPS and smartphone capabilities, I stopped and asked for directions a lot--and I mean a lot.I learned to distill anything I said down to the absolute basics, since otherwise people didn't understand. "Hanoi?" while pointing this way or that usually drew constructive responses. Making an eating motion, pointing to my fuel tank, or laying my head on my hands to indicate sleep, sometimes worked, sometimes drew perplexed stares or extended, if one-sided, discussions in rapid-fire Vietnamese among everyone within earshot.

    In any case, English is spoken at a rudimentary level in touristed areas, hardly at all out in the sticks. Vietnamese bears no resemblance whatsoever to English (or other Western languages), and vocalizing even the simplest words--"bo" for beef, "ga" for chicken--usually attracted only blank stares. I think this is because Vietnamese is a tonal language, but I'm not actually sure. Every so often I'd run into someone who watched English-language TV, listened to American pop music, or had lived in France (and therefore spoke bits of French). But outside of tourist centers, it was mainly either phone-based translator apps, pure sign language accompanied by lots of smiling and waving of arms, or nothing.

    Translator apps, I have to say, are amazing. Developing rudimentary skills in their use before embarking on a trip like this would have been a very good thing, if I'd thought of it. Vietnamese people themselves are often quite adept, and I had many occasions to be thankful for their skills.

    The route:
    I started in Hoi An, a brief flight and short taxi ride from Hanoi, somewhat south of the old demilitarized zone. Hoi An has an undeserved reputation as a quaint, charming little town. It's not; it's a backpacker/gap year/shopper's paradise kind of place, with street after street of hostels and "guest houses" which are really hotels, a few old buildings which have mainly been turned into souvenir shops, and throngs of tourists snapping selfies, shopping at great length, and hiring sunset boat tours on the river. I did hear that nearby beaches are nice, but that's not what I was there for.

    The weather in Hoi An wasso hot and humid that I could hardly think straight whenever separated from the a/c in my rented room. Apparently, my distress was obvious, since people would see me staggering around in the heat and look at me with evident concern. Sometimes old Vietnamese ladies would peer into my eyes and tap me gently on the arm or shoulder, as if to say they sympathized but that I'd be ok. Of course, I have no idea what they were reallysaying--only that this happened repeatedly, and became a recurring theme throughout my trip. This never used to happen to me (c.f., "in the old days"), so I guess I looked even worse than I felt.

    On my first day with the bike I rode down traffic-clogged Highway 1 to visit the My Lai/Song My site and memorial. News of the massacre there had had a powerful effect on me during my adolescence, and thinking about it brings a lump to my throat even today. This made it seem essential that I actually go there, walk the paths, take in the surrounding landscapes, imagine--in a well-intentioned, if feeble sort of way--the helicopters, the infantrymen, the sounds of gunfire and grenades, and of rape and murder.

    I found the site almost deserted, with just a few local tourists plus myself. There were remains of huts, reconstructed family bomb shelters, little signs stating family names and numbers of dead. The pathways had footprints pressed into earth-colored concrete--a mix of small, bare feet and large vibram-soled boots. It was oppressively hot, the air heavy and still, cicadas buzzing at almost deafening volume. I walked around for only an hour, which seemed paltry amount of time relative to the concentrated death which had happened here. In the little museum were enlarged photographs, including the famous ones of haphazardly-piled bodies along with others I hadn't seen before: uniformed soldiers lounging around, smoking cigarettes, rolling grenades into huts, setting fires. There was a diorama depicting a rural village, with playing children and grazing water buffaloes. I looked around, and indeed beyond the fences I saw water buffaloes grazing, tiny women in conical hats wading through brilliant green rice paddies.

    I then retraced my steps northward on the same sooty, annoying highway until I ran out of daylight in Danang, where the first of nearly three million American troops landed. The next morning I rode over the Hai Van pass, made famous by a British television personality who rather cluelessly declared it "a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world." I found it fine, actually, but it definitely fell short of the description, with lots of trucks and buses along with hordes of motorbiking tourists. It's possible to ride (or walk, if you like sweating copiously) above the pass itself, exploring French military installations and taking in better and better views.

    I overnighted in Hué, and spent some time wandering the Citadel, the old imperial city, which consists largely of empty space where there must once have been magnificent buildings. This was the seat of the emperors who ruled Vietnam for many centuries, and it remained largely untouched until fought over and largely destroyed during the Tet offensive, a turning point in American opinions about the war. Aside from the Citadel, Hué seemed to me unremarkable, although there are other famous sights nearby. By this time I was weary of cities, and eager to be done with the crowds, noise and pollution.

    I made my way east on secondary roads, up into the mountains along the Lao border, and I turned north on the Ho Chi Minh highway, overnighting near the site of the huge, largely pointless battle at Khe Sanh. Ahhhh. Cooler air, scenery, occasional stretches of open road with no trucks or buses to worry about. Small towns and villages, small children smiling and waving by the roadside, farms and jungle, mountains and passes. And curves--lots and lots of curves. Vietnam has some of the curviest highways I've ever seen, with most roads in reasonable repair.

    The Ho Chi Minh highway--not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was mostly across the border in neutral Laos--runs through some spectacular terrain, with high, limestone mountains, precipitous slopes and deep valleys. For several full days, the riding was wonderful, with wide-open highway interspersed with small (and occasionally larger) towns crammed with the usual impediments to speedy motorbike travel, e.g., people, animals, powered and un-powered mechanical devices, and all manner of materiel piled in random arrangements across the roadways. A high point was the section through the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which ran for a couple of hours through high-elevation cloud forest with few signs of human inhabitation. I stopped on the northern edge of the park, and spent the better part of a day exploring the lower elevations too, where there are numerous rather spectacular caves along with rapidly-expanding tourist facilities.

    Eventually, the Ho Chi Minh Highway gets less and less charming as it grinds through crowded towns and industrial development toward Hanoi. I missed a planned turnoff which was to take me around the city and, being too stubborn to turn back, had an unpleasant time dodging trucks and buses while breathing churned-up road grit and diesel soot before finding the highway heading northwest. Approaching Dien Bien Phu--another of those iconic places which I'd intended to see with my own eyes--it became inescapable that I was going to run out of vacation time before seeing all the places I wanted to see. I elected to skip the side trip into Dien Bien Phu itself--this would save, I calculated, 3 hours or so--and instead take a shortcut on a smaller road.

    Of course I promptly got lost just past the turnoff, and found myself climbing higher and higher up a strangely chilly valley on a deteriorating road. I accosted a local couple who were harvesting some sort of plants by the roadside; she kept working stoically, without acknowledging my presence, but her husband, reeking of alcohol, shook my hand vigorously, side-hugged me with unadulterated enthusiasm, and managed to communicate that I was headed the wrong direction and that bad things would happen if I continued. I didn't believe entirely believe him, but I turned back anyway--fortunately, since he was correct.

    An hour or two later, having found my intended route, I encountered a stretch where it must have rained heavily the night before, coating road surfaces in a layer of snot-slick mud and bringing down occasional mudslides which blocked all traffic.....except motorbikes, which could squeeze through. This section turned out quite fun, with a single lane roadway winding up and down over mountain passes, through ethnic villages full of those gleeful, waving children with only occasional homicidal bus drivers. Of course I lost far more time than I would have by taking the standard route through Dien Bien Phu, but I suppose that's life.

    The next day I rode across another famous pass, Tram Ton, which is reportedly the highest roadway in Vietnam at almost 2000 meters. I'd been warned about the miserable weather and chilly temps in this area, but in the end found mainly warm sunshine, with slight cooling (to about 15 degrees C) at night. The views and winding road to the west of the pass were stunning; to the east, descending into Sapa, the road became congested and the scenery was harder to appreciate because I was busy trying not to crash into anyone. The Sapa area is famous for its mountains, steeply-terraced rice paddies, and ethnic villages, and it's quite a scene if you like trekking, or better yet hanging around with tourists much like yourself. It's also a good place to purchase handicrafts and other souvenirs, including some which purport to be Fair Trade.

    Of course I'd intended to ride further north from Sapa, toward Ha Giang and the remote passes beyond. By reputation, this area offers the most fun, the best scenery, and least-crowded riding in Vietnam. The definitive route descriptions--informative, if sometimes a bit over-enthused--are available on line courtesy of the Vietnam Coracle site. Unfortunately, I concluded that I did not have enough time to explore Ha Giang even briefly--a major disappointment. Instead, I beat a retreat down toward Halong Bay, the country's most popular tourist attraction.

    There are new expressways on which it's supposed to take only four hours to reach Hanoi, another two or three to reach Halong; however, as far as I could tell these are forbidden to motorcyclists, so the same distance took me two full days on lesser roads. While not without its charms, this was the least pleasant portion of my trip. Roads were typically crowded, often covered with slippery mud, and (without benefit of GPS) sometimes hopelessly confusing. The scenery and glimpses of local life would have been moderately interesting had I not come from more stirring places and had I not been contemplating the end of my trip.

    Halong Bay, of course, is amazing. You don't get to ride motorcycles on it, and it's somewhat time-consuming to get there and away, but it's worth seeing nonetheless. If you allow for the fact that you'll probably have lots of company on your boat tour, you'll probably do fine, as I did.

    I completed my trip in Hanoi, where I managed to find my hotel and to return the bike with only moderate trauma. In general, finding my way around the big cities was, not to put too fine a point on it, impossible, and Hanoi was the most hopeless of all. I've tried to think ways of describing how it feels to be immersed in such traffic, but basically I've come up short. At its best, it's like being a single little starling in one of those murmuration videos people are always sharing on Facebook. Remarkable, in other words....if also properly terrifying, or at minimum, exhausting.

    The simple truth is that I don't think I managed to find anythingI was looking for while riding in Hanoi--even places just a few blocks away. At one point, I could not even find my hotel, which I had just left in search of dinner. I found this quite humbling. When I asked for directions, which I did frequently, people seemed to tell me whatever came into their heads, whether vaguely related to the truth or not, which left me even more confused. My paper maps were inaccurate, mis-labeled, and didn't indicate one-way streets. Eventually if I asked enough people someone would take pity on me and signal that I was to follow them, which I did, with accompanying risk to life and limb.

    On this occasion--rush hour, of course--I hired a moto-taxi to lead me through old town Hanoi to my hotel. I'm convinced that had I not done this, I'd still be out there searching. For better or worse, we agreed on a flat fee, so he was in a hurry, which I found....challenging. I've done this in other places--Morocco, Panama, Buenos Aires, Athens, Accra. Everyone should try it some time, just for kicks.

    In fairness, people with smartphone mapping apps told me they had no real problems finding their way. In fact that's what moto taxi guys did--they studied their smartphones, answering calls and responding to texts with one hand while squeezing through impenetrable traffic. I don't understand this approach, but it's possible that's because I'm old. A German rider I met who had never piloted a motorbike before, purchased one in Hanoi and somehow followed his smartphone map through all that traffic and out into the countryside. He said that using the clutch was awkward at first, but that he caught on quickly. I found this incomprehensible, too--another sign of aging, no doubt.

    Random riding notes:
    I don't really have any regrets about bringing all that extra safety gear along. Yes, it was uncomfortable in the heat, and it was slow and awkward to take off and put back on, and it weighed a lot in my backpack coming and going. know the drill. Falling, even at low speed, can be 1. painful, 2. enfeebling, and/or 3. deadly. I wear all this stuff at home, and figured I might as well play by the same rules in Asia. But I didn't notice anyone else wearing a proper riding jacket, a Snell/DOT helmet, or even gloves, and as far as I could tell they mostly survived. It's a personal choice.

    I'm less certain about being so well-equipped with warm clothes. I do hear that it gets cold in the northern mountains, but not once did I wish I were wearing more than a sleeveless t-shirt under my riding jacket--and even then, I usually overheated at every stop. The long underwear, the pashima scarf, the pile jacket, the various layers of rain gear and warm-when-wet clothing....all stayed in my backpack. A clear case of YMMV.

    Before my trip, I read in blogs and on-line guides that I should expect to average 30 kph in the mountains and 50 or 60 elsewhere. I did not believe this, of course; I had a bigger, more powerful bike than most, and I can be notably impatient. However, there were definitely times when I averaged 30 kph for a while, plus whole days when I averaged 60. Only on rare occasions did I push the bike over about 105, and even that made me nervous--too many potential obstacles waiting for me, just out of sight. Even on the better roads I'd find myself buzzing along at 85 or 90, only to come around a corner and find myself panic-braking for someone's water buffalo, or for a bunch of schoolgirls lined up four-abreast on their bicycles.

    I found the general level of infrastructure development quite impressive. There are lots of new roads, bridges, airports, etc., plus other recent additions to the shared landscape--giant factories, for example, hotels, and tacky tourist attractions in improbable locations. There are expressways (i.e. limited-access highways) in Vietnam, and they look really appealing on the maps. However, motorbikes seem to be forbidden on most of them, and I found it difficult to get authoritative answers as to which ones or whether this applied to "big" bikes like the one I was on. In fact, the only reliable way to find out was to show up at an on-ramp and read the signs, or to merely go wherever the other motorbikes went. On the rare occasions when I was able to jump on an expressway, it would really eat up the miles in a hurry, which made me very happy. I tried not to get complacent, because weird stuff still seemed to happen just when I least expected it, even on fast, limited-access highways.

    One thing I wish I'd caught on to more quickly: highways throughout Vietnam, whether multi-lane expressways or narrow, winding tracks, are equipped with painted concrete markers, generally at 100 meter intervals. Each kilometer there are larger markers painted with highway names, route numbers, and distances to points of interest in both directions. This means that riders more alert than myself need never get lost: the markers will tell you exactly where you are, on what road, and even how far it is to near or distant destinations. Realizing this early in my trip would have saved me from stopping to ask directions approximately (by conservative estimate) 6 million times.

    Traffic rules.
    A difficult subject. Vietnam is famous for having some of the scariest driving in the world--right up there with Athens, Mumbai, Albania, maybe Rome or Lagos. Having previously spent lots of time motorcycling in Africa, Latin America, and other locations famous for their crazed traffic, I wasn't too alarmed by the initial feeling that other motorists--allother motorists--weretrying to kill me. For the most part, riding in Vietnam is similar to other places in the Developing World, although with a few local twists. For a representative sample, try cutting and pasting , or . Study the videos and you'll notice that there seem to be no accidents, for all the chaos. Strange, isn't it?

    An expat (and motorcyclist) I met explained it to me as follows: on any given two-lane roadway, there are actually a minimum of 6 lanes. The two marked and very obvious inside lanes (toward the center), one in each direction, are for cars, trucks, buses and the bravest or most foolhardy motorcyclists. To the outside of these are lanes which are dedicated to motorcyclists, although they also serve bicyclists, pushcart vendors, farmers leading livestock, parked vehicles, and anyone who happens to want to pull over and park for no apparent reason. These lanes are sometimes marked, often not, but are generally obvious because they are totally clogged with motorcycles, most of which are headed in the expected direction. To the outside of these, hard against the curb or soft shoulder, is another lane, quite invisible, which is reserved for motorcyclists who are moving in the oppositedirection--against traffic. It is not a good idea to ride in this invisible lane in the absence of a clear field of view and a set of quick reflexes, because it doesn't belong to you--it belongs to people moving the wrong way. At times I found this very disconcerting.

    Part of the key to survival is that once someone embarks on a course of action, they stay in motion at exactly the same pace and on the same trajectory. In other words, their location at any given, near-future moment will be perfectly predictable, so that I can predict exactly where each motorist or pedestrian will be in a moment and arrange to be someplace else. Meanwhile, scores of other people are assuming the same about me and acting accordingly, and we all avoid each other as long as no one hesitates or changes direction,. Of course, everyone can't be totally predictable, because everyone is constantly adjusting to avoid everyone else. I've heard that there are whole branches of Chaos Theory dedicated to addressing this issue. For what it's worth, I didn't see a single accident during my two weeks in Vietnam, although I do know they occur.

    Another important road rule which might not be immediately apparent is that anyone who is in front of you is entitled to do as they please without fear, because it's your responsibility to do whatever it takes to avoid hitting them. I've experienced a less intense variation on this rule in other places, including a few in Europe. In Vietnam, it follows that once another rider manages to insert him/herself in front of you, they can dedicate their full attention to whoever is in front of them, leaving you to fend for yourself. This means that people routinely come whipping out of side streets, driveways, buildings, or gas stations without so much as a glance to see if anyone is coming; it's your job to avoid hitting them. And you will avoid them,after a couple of close calls, because you have no choice about it. Trucks and buses will do the same thing, but in their case they are headed directly for that inner lane which is their rightful turf, crossing whatever lanes of traffic they must in order to get there. This can be quite alarming indeed, because they will really pay you absolutely no mind. You, in turn, will do whatever you need to do to miss them....which might be reframed as "whatever you need to do to save your life."

    In much of the world there is a "might makes right" rule in play which basically states that a larger vehicle is within their rights to do whatever they please, and that smaller vehicles will take any necessary evasive action, even at risk to their own safety. This was not much in evidence in Vietnam; cars and trucks pass (overtake) into oncoming traffic, but they generally leave the lowly motorcyclist sufficient time or space to squeeze through. The fact that the bus driver's sense of an appropriate margin for error (inches, say, despite high closing speeds) is different from yours is, of course, your problem.

    On occasion, buses in particular merely lean on their horns and pull out without regard for anyone or any thing which might be in their way. This is most alarming when they suddenly appear in your lane around a blind curve or at the crest of a hill, and more alarming still when there is literally no place for you to go--there's a guardrail, a steep drop-off, debris, schoolchildren on bicycles, a herd of goats, a pile of cinderblocks, or something similar preventing you from getting out of their way. You quickly learn to listen for a particularly insistent blaring horn coming from somewhere just out of sight ahead, but it's also necessary to anticipate that this might happen even in the absence of a warning horn. Moreover, even if the bus remains in their own lane, there is often a smaller vehicle tucked out of sight right behind them, and they might pull out without warning. Thistends to interfere with some of theyee-haw! factor which might otherwise accrue when aggressively carving the bike on those winding mountain roads.

    On a positive note, I did not see signs that drivers of any sort actually craveddeath, the way they do in certain parts of the world. I found this oddly reassuring, since it's difficult to cope with other drivers who believe that their deaths--and probably yours as well--are the gateway to reincarnation at higher levels of consciousness.

    Random key concepts:

    Vietnamese people...are wonderful. I'm aware that Asian cultures often require smiles and non-confrontation even when people are deeply offended, and that it may therefore be easy to confuse actingnice with actually beingnice. I can only report that my experience interacting with Vietnamese people was almost uniformly positive, no matter what the situation. Per the above, there were a great many times when I needed help of one sort or another, and I found that individuals, families, and even large segments of entire neighborhoods went far out of their respective ways to help me out as best they were able. Of course I'd be interested in hearing what this looks like from the other side of the cultural divide.

    Touts and other forms of street hassle: Tourists sometimes complain about this being a problem in Vietnam, but I found it mostly verylow key. People are indeed sometimes eager for you to take their tour, eat in their restaurant, or purchase their counterfeit goods, but I never had anyone persist once I said no--which is better than I could say about the touts in my own country. For what it's worth, the hand motion for "no" is a little twisting, fluttering motion, arm extended slightly, palm up. Using this gesture seems to add significant emphasis to a polite refusal.

    Lodging:I carried a Lonely Planet guidebook, and sometimes I'd choose a few of their budget recommendations before entering town, trying to memorize their approximate locations. This was a foolish waste of time, and hardly ever served any purpose. Even the smallest town generally has multiple places to stay--some of them quite comfortable--so unless you crave the company of other people carrying the same guidebook, it's usually best to simply choose a place on arbitrary impulse.

    Also of note, sometimes you'll see a big neon sign advertising a "HOTEL" attached to a giant building with formal courtyards, outbuildings, marble foyers and attentive receptionists, but these are not necessarily any better than the little local places signed "Nha Nghi," which are found in vast numbers almost everywhere. Establish a price, check out the room (and its lock, a/c, fan, hot water, tv, etc.) beforehand, and give some thought to the availability of food.

    For accommodation I paid prices ranging from 150,000 dong (about US$6) to an extravagant 680,000 dong (US$29) for pretty nice single or double rooms--often including breakfast. Partway through the trip I began thinking that a 100,000 dong difference in price actually mattered in some way, before coming back down to earth and remembering that's only four bucks.

    In tourist centers there are also hostels with dorms. I didn't bother looking into this, since prices for private rooms were so cheap. I saw no evidence of any sort of camping culture, but it's possible this exists in some areas. I did meet a woman from California who had just purchased a tent with the intention of wild camping up in the mountains, but she seemed somewhat taken aback when I mentioned the widespread existence of unexploded ordinance left over from the most intensive bombing campaign in all of history, though it ended 45 years ago. In much of the country it's considered unwise to blunder around anywhere which has not previously been demonstrated safe.

    Is everywhere. Remarkable, really: I don't think I ate at a single grungy hole-in-the-wall restaurant which didn't have working wifi, often at a fairly high standard. Every room I stayed in had perfectly adequate wifi, too--and that's without holding my iPad up to the window or huddling next to the door searching for the best reception the way I sometimes do in the US.

    Typically, mattresses are hard and unforgiving, even in places catering strictly to Western tourists. There was a time in my life when I liked that sort of thing, and a more recent time when I tolerated it well. Those times are long past now, and I really wished I'd brought a simple thermarest (or similar) inflatable sleeping pad to soften things up. I've got one in the garage which weighs about 200 grams and rolls to a tiny size. Next time for sure.

    The coffee is excellent: strong, dark, and sometimes sweet. It is served in a variety of ways--hot or iced, white or black--but I never had a bad cup. I did find it necessary to exercise a certain amount of moderation, since more than two cups of Vietnamese coffee can bring on tremors, hot flashes, and mild hallucinations. Caveat emptor.

    For further contemplation, here is Viet Thanh Nguyen, excerpted from an essay which first appeared in the Financial Times (UK) 4/14/17, reprinted in his story collectionThe Refugees, 2017, Grove Press. Although not written about travel, it seemed to me quite applicable--especially given the problematic historical relationship between my country and theirs (and in light of the current political climate back home).

    Like the homeless, refugees are living embodiments of a disturbing possibility: that human privileges are quite fragile, that one's home, family, and nation are one catastrophe away from being destroyed. As the refugees cluster in camps; as they dare to make a claim on the limited real estate of our conscience--we deny we can be like them and many of us do everything we can to avoid our obligations to them.

    The better angels of our nature have always told us that morality means opening our doors, helping the helpless, sharing our material wealth. The reasons we come up with to deny doing such things are rationalizations. We have wealth to share with refugees, but we would rather spend it on other things. We are capable of living with foreigners and strangers, but they make us uncomfortable, and we do not want to be uncomfortable. We fear that strangers will kill us, so we keep them out. (213)

    I'll post this in a couple of the usual places. I hope it's either entertaining, or useful, or both. Enjoy!

    Post script:Today I rode a couple of hundred km in my home state of Washington. I definitely had to make some adjustments: there were six, eight and ten-lane roads,, few motorcycles (but a great many private cars with only one occupant), speeds which averaged at least 120kph, and no buses driving the wrong direction, no giant trucks barreling out into traffic without so much as a casual glance. Seattle drivers, who I've long considered clueless, self-centered and rude, seemed suddenly quite sedate, even polite. But when I hit a traffic jam related to a local festival, I felt horribly frustrated by the fact that I could not just ride up the grassy shoulder, or weave in and out of stopped cars until I left them all behind.