I love the smell of two-stroke smoke in the morning. Today begins my long journey north across the entire country of Vietnam. As I enjoy the last few minutes of my air-conditioned hotel room in Saigon, I’m feeling anxious and excited about the ride ahead. Yesterday‘s adventures in securing some supplies found me walking miles around the busy and exciting streets of a city in the midst of extreme development.
I began my month-long trip from my home in Maui, Hawaii having said my goodbyes to my brother, his girlfriend and my grandmother. 19 long hours later I found myself in the customs line at the Ho Chi Minh airport handing over my passport but not saying a word to the border official as he stamped and processed my visa. Stepping out onto the crowded street in front of the terminal I learn how to use the local equivalent of Uber to secure a ride to my hotel. The late night bellhop showed me my room and I could finally take a shower and lay my head down on the firm mattress.
The next morning I couldn’t wait any longer and started exploring the neighborhood at the crack of dawn. I walked to the Izzy local marketplace or one and find anything from fresh cuts of meat, seafood still swimming and scrambling in the tanks, and every kind of spice, ware and trinket you can imagine. A cute waitress at one of the many food stalls flagged me down to sit and enjoy my first Vietnamese meal of rice noodles and char-grilled pork skewers with fresh hearts and veggies. I sat enjoying my food as the piles of sea snails tried to escape their confines of their display bowls and occasionally fell with a thunk onto the table. Having my fill I started my task for the day, to pick up some supplies for the road ahead.
My first item of business was to obtain a local SIM card for my phone, having a recommendation of a local store chain that could get me set up properly. The wonderful employees helped me understand the options and sat with me while they setup my account, I was now ready to get properly lost in the city with the ability to find my way home or hail another ride from my phone.
I walked towards one of the many river banks in the city, dodging motorbikes, trucks and busses along the overwhelmingly busy boulevards. I was getting more confident crossing roads, but realized that although being accustomed to the tropical heat and humidity of a tropical island, Southeast Asia’s climate is on a whole different level. Sweat dripped from my head as the sun broke through the morning overcast and beat on the back of my neck. I needed a chance to catch my breath and sat down at a bar with a view of the river and had some much needed ice water. The city beckoned and I continued my path into the tighter alleys of the metropolis. A local spear-fisherman caught my eye with his interesting tackle, a wrist-mounted slingshot in one hand, and a fishing reel strapped to his other. I laughed with him as he tried to shoot at the small fish in the murky water. We both thought he had nabbed a big one, but as he wound the fishing line realized it was just a large plastic bag. Better luck next time.
Finding my way across a busy bridge, and enjoying the fragrant aromas of freshly sliced pineapple from a roadside stand I looked with awe at the scene before me. A small street absolutely brimming with motorbikes and mechanics all working away at numerous projects among the wafting exhaust fumes from the street. The familiar smell of grinding steel and engine oil told me I had found my kind of people. Each shop was overflowing with parts of all kinds hanging proudly on display while shirtless gear heads pounded away at engine blocks with maybe not the most careful of techniques.
I had a destination in mind, a local food-street that seemed close but ended up being quite difficult to get to. The massive intimidating highway in front of me blocked my path and I wandered along looking for a way a mere pedestrian like myself could get across. This fortunately led me to find a much larger workshop that caught my attention when I noticed the familiar blue and white rounded of my beloved BMW motorcycles. Talking with the owner I ogled his creative craftsmanship on the extremely large boxer-engines of the most modern mechanical horses from Bavaria. He told me of the struggle to import parts into his country and I was very impressed with his ability to craft his own custom farkles for his obviously wealthy patrons.
I eventually found a small sidewalk to cross under the highway and made it to the other side, immediately diving into a tiny alleyway to continue my journey to the fabled local hot-spot for Bahn-Mi and Pho. The sun was sweltering at this point and I knew I shouldn’t have neglected to pack sunscreen. It appeared that locals have no need of such stuff, and was repeatedly unable to find any among the shelves of the corner stores and groceries. Finally I stepped into a pharmacy, hoping they would at least understand the need of someone like me for some preventative medicine from the sun’s harsh rays. They found a tiny dusty bottle of the white goop in the back of a seldom used shelf and I bought it happily. I was ready to continue.
I realized then that my goal of getting to the motorcycle renter I planned to get my bike from the following day was far too much of a task for my tired feat and I collapsed into a tiny chair at a coffee shop doing my best to communicate my need for some reprise in the form of ice-cold coffee and water. I accepted my defeat and pulled up the Grab app to hail a scooter to finish my journey. A minute later I strapped on the loaner helmet and we were off, crossing a massive bridge that gave me spectacular views of the sprawling city. We entered a much different world across the river. The streets on this side were massive and empty, the building huge and modern. It was like traveling decades into the future, though it seemed much less authentic than where I had just come from. Chatting with the rental company I finished my plans for the next day and caught another ride back to my hotel for a much needed shower and rest.
I still had a few things on my list so I gathered my courage and stepped out into the evening heat, only a few degrees less than the height of the day. I returned to the busy market and had fun haggling with the voracious sellers. Light hearted, yet heated arguments over prices that seemed inflated due to the color of my skin ended in a happy customer and laughing group of ladies knowing that I had not be so easily defeated. I found my way to an amazing dinner in Japantown and enjoyed a delicious meal of sushi and fried chicken. My belly full, and my mind wandering to the adventure that would begin the next day I crept into my air-conditioned room and finished packing my gear. I slept well on the hard mattress and dreamt of the long road ahead.
It’s time to get going, who knows what adventures I’ll find along the highways towards my next stop in Cat Tien National Park.