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The Need For Helmets Becomes Apparent

Once again, Sim City 2000 called us forth into the world. It was 5:00 am in the Amari Watergate, and I was brewing the last cup of complimentary coffee that we would have for a while. The city was just beginning to wake up and pull itself together as we rode through the gray morning streets. We rode through the area where all the sugarcane to be juiced that day in Phnom Penh was being prepared for transport to the far ends of the city.

As agreed, a van arrived at a certain street corner to pick us up. The driver instantly locked in on the Speed TRs as an opportunity to extract some bicycle-related fees. He proceeded to go on at some length about it, inspiring mounting fear in the AsiaWheeling team that we might miss our bus to Vietnam, until Scott and I agreed to a bicycle fee of $2.00 per cycle and we were promptly on our way.

The van picked up two more passengers on the way to the bus depot. One was a German, the other an American. As we rolled up to their hotel, they were sitting at a table outside with a scantily clad Cambodian woman. When they saw the van, they quickly finished their coffee and both kissed and hugged the Cambodian woman goodbye, then climbed into the van, reeking of booze.

At the bus station, we paid our $2.00 to the luggage-loading fellow, which secured prime spots for the Speed TRs in the belly of the bus. The luggage handler grinned and ran over to the far end of the parking lot. I watched as the driver of our van and the luggage loader then split the money between the two of them. I walked over to where they we doing so, and placed a hand on the luggage loader’s back, laughing in a congratulatory way. He first looked scared than began to laugh too. Just doing my part to spread love here on AsiaWheeling, one transaction at a time.

From there, we had about 10 minutes to wander around the station looking for breakfast foods and coffee. This search was hampered, however, mainly because the buses surrounding us numbered so many and burned so much oil even while idling that the air was an acrid brown mist, which removed even the most hearty appetite immediately, and tempted all to seek shelter with haste.

Despite these obstacles, we were able to find some canned coffee and a few Cambodian baked goods, all variations on the combination of baguette, a white cream similar to the filling in Oreo brand cookies, and pork floss.

Aboard the bus we found that, for the first time since Thailand, it actually possessed a bathroom, as advertised. The apparatus itself, however, was a strange retrofitted bathroom system, sporting a full-sized, western-style porcelain toilet, which used a startling amount of water for each flush. Where they were hiding a reservoir to support this kind of system, I may never know.

The bus had two crew members: a driver and a kind of steward. As we made our way out of Phnom Penh and into the country, the steward came on the loudspeaker. He began, not for the last time, to apologize for mistakes that had either been made or not yet been made. He then put down his microphone and made his way through the bus, collecting the passports of all passengers and making sure that each had a Vietnamese visa. He kept the passports and ordered us to fill out immigration cards. These too he took, explaining, in barely intelligible jumbled bits of English, that he would need to do special paperwork to smooth our way into Vietnam.

Outside the border, we stopped at an overpriced restaurant full of grumpy staff and mediocre Cambodian fare. The poor value for money was, however, mitigated somewhat by the fact that a long line of urinals in the back of the restaurant were all filled with big chunks of ice, a trick they no doubt stole from the Ritz Carlton.

When we reached the Cambodian border, we found that just like in Poipet, it was a wasteland of casinos and giant signs explaining in English how frowned upon child prostitution is in Cambodia. Exiting the country was quite simple. In fact we were merely given our passports by the bus steward, already stamped. We then had only to hold them out in front of us and walk by a small booth, where they presumably were checking to see if our face matched that on the passport.

As we queued to get back on the bus, I could see the entrance to Vietnam looming in the distance. It was a large Soviet-style archway, with a great many red and gold communist sculptures attached to it. We had been told many Vietnam-related horror stories by other travelers, our dear bureau chiefs, and even by the all-knowing Steve (may his beard grow ever longer). So it was not without some anticipation and trepidation that we crossed the stretch of no man’s land and entered Vietnam.

Inside the passport control building, we were herded with all our luggage into a large  room full of sweaty people. We had given our passports back to the bus steward, so we were without documentation. We were instructed to wait for the steward to call out our names and then rush with all our luggage to the front. My name was called rather early. When I heard it, I hustled to get myself, and my folding bicycle into position. I presented myself for inspection while the bus steward handed my passport over to the Vietnamese officials. They looked at it and then back at me and then flagged me through. On the other side, I was asked to put my bike through a large metal detector, but something about the Speed TR inspired trust in this fellow, and at the last moment, he decided that I need not remove my pack, and waved me on into the hot morning sun.

I loaded my cycle back into the belly of the bus and waited for Scott who emerged similarly unscathed. We looked around. Here it was… Vietnam. So far so good.

The bus landed in Saigon a couple of hours later, and we climbed off to find ourselves in the most developed city we’d been to since Bangkok, which had by this time descended into violent street warfare.

We had been getting emails from friends in Bangkok, and reading articles about the violence. It seemed so hard to understand. We had been in Bangkok with the red shirts and had felt so safe. They were just smiling people driving around in pickup trucks, dancing to pop tunes. How had that turned into urban war?

Meanwhile in Saigon, we unloaded our belongings from the bus and spent the next few minutes vehemently declining offers from old women selling all kinds of goods from large wooden trays, which they carried by means of a long pole yoked over their shoulders.

We took a moment to collect ourselves before wheeling off in search of a hotel. We had selected one from the Lonely Planet pdfs while on the bus, and after a bit of meandering, we were able to find it.

Even in that short bit of wheeling one thing became crystal clear: We needed to get helmets.

After Scott’s accident in Bangkok, we swore that helmets would need to be added to the AsiaWheeling kit. Yet since then, we had been traveling through such rural and lightly trafficked places that the need for helmets had faded from its central role in our consciousness. Now in Saigon, the need took on a new importance. The streets were filled with motorbikes, swerving and plowing forward in a great swarm. The motorbikes obviously ruled the road. Cars were the vast minority and crept along nervously, allowing the motorbikes to flow by them like water around a stone. The speed of the traffic was just slow enough that we would be able to keep up, given the somewhat constant state of highway speeds. But increased speeds demanded an increase in the technical quality of our navigation.

We checked into our room at the Blue River Inn, which was quite comfortable, and was positioned with access to a few unsecured wireless networks. This we were soon to discover was the norm in Vietnam. Wireless networks abound;  securing them is not something people do. Vietnam did, we found, block a few sites that we use quite regularly, including facebook.com. However, all which was required to overcome the censorship was a simple change of DNS. That little bit of haxoring out of the way, we headed out for a wheel.

The first order of business was acquiring a couple of tickets on the Reunification Express. This is the train that connects Saigon in the south of Vietnam and Hanoi in the north. The fall of South Vietnam at the end of the U.S.-Vietnam war is generally referred to as the reunification of Vietnam, and so the word is often tacked on to large public projects. We had consulted our hotel about tickets and they assured us that we could visit a certain ticketing agent around the corner and purchase tickets for the same price as at the station. And since we were none too keen to battle the seething motorbike traffic over to the train station, we decided to take her word for it.

Buying the tickets was no problem, though we soon discovered that we could have purchased them for much less had we gone to the train station.

But here at AsiaWheeling, we are not ones to stew over a few lost dong. So we proceeded on to a nearby Pho place. Pho, as you no doubt already know, dear reader, is what one might call the national soup of Vietnam. It is pronounced more like Fa, rhyming with the 1990s parlance “duh.” We made the mistake of visiting a pho spot that had come highly recommended by the Lonely Planet. It was resoundingly mediocre. AsiaWheeling was continuing to lose faith in the Lonely Planet. It was, perhaps, high time that we learned it could only be counted on for supplying consistent mediocrity.

As I slurped the last of my soup down, I could easily think back upon four or five restaurants in the U.S. that served a much more delicious version of pho. This place, by the name of Pho 23, had a tasteless faux chic vibe to it, and skimped so shamelessly on the usual large pile of greens that accompany Pho, that we were simply fed up. The only thing that could have lowered our regard for this joint further was their dastardly misrepresentation of Vietnamese style coffee.

Sure enough we ordered a couple, and so heinous was the resulting brew that they produced for us, that we briefly considered the possibility that food and coffee might, in fact, be not so tasty in this country. Of course, this would prove to be resoundingly false.

Refueled, albeit with disappointing grub, we headed toward the Saigon river, which we followed north for some time, until the city began to change around us. Soon we were siphoned onto a network of much larger roads that threatened at times to turn into a full on elevated highway. As we wheeled along through traffic, I did my best to keep up with the speed of my fellow (motor) cyclists. This meant we were going fast, all the while looking out for a helmet retailer.

Saigon is full of motorcycles carrying all manner of wild cargo: pigs, loads of bricks, huge stacks of vegetables, multiple kegs of beer… it’s amazing what the people of this city can load onto a moto. But just when I was beginning to become familiar with the mad diversity of cargo that surrounded me, a motorcycle joined the pack and outdid them all. It appeared to be carrying a load of some 30-50 Styrofoam cooler chests. The giant stack was banded together and perched on the back of the cycle, which teetered its way down the road at a surprising clip. The wind resistance of such a giant brick of Styrofoam was nothing to scoff at, and this chap was flying, burning a fair bit of oil.

So fascinated was I with this heavily laden vehicle, that I leaned into the Speed TR, pedaling as fast as I could to catch up with the fellow. I was unable to catch up completely, but I did get close enough to capture a little video, which will soon be featured on the blog.

Scott pulled up behind me just as the sun was beginning to sink into the giant apartment buildings all around us. We pedaled our way around a roundabout and started to work our way back toward the hotel.

On the way, we happened to stumble upon a vendor specializing in motorcycle helmets. We began to peruse and try on her wares. Eventually we settled on two helmets that sported rather German colors, with backwards American flags and large cartoony bald eagles on them. We bargained for a while with the owner of the shop, and finally settled on a price that we later found was likely a huge price gouge at $8.00 a pop. Well that was two for today.

The sun was beginning to sink low as we made our way back toward the Blue River.

We got there just in time to get a text message from a certain Ms. Trinh who had been recommended very highly to us by our dear Malaysian Bureau Chief, Smita Sharma.

We had just enough time to relax a moment in the room before we took back to the streets, in search of a certain restaurant specializing in gentrified street-style food. We could not help but think that birds of a feather dine similarly, for Smita herself had taken us to a very similar gentrified street food court when we arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

The meal was delightful and the company entrancing.

Ms. Trinh, we humbly thank you for your hospitality. We climbed back on the cycles to head back to the Blue River feeling like kings. It seemed high time to indulge in a little night wheeling. Our night wheel was made all the more intense by the fact that we got hopelessly lost trying to find our way back to the hotel. It was something about Saigon… normally we are able to quickly get our bearings in a city, but the ability to navigate this one continued to elude us.

It was fine, though. We eventually made our way back. And being lost caused us no great discomfort. Our faith in Vietnamese food had risen to new heights. We were beginning to build a little mental map of the city. And Vietnam was proving not to be the terrifying nightmare that had been portrayed to us. Instead it was proving a manageable, organized society, very affordable, and full of people who, while they are willing to rip you off at every turn, at least did so with a gentle smile and a good sense of humor.


  1. Elena | May 29th, 2010 | 11:06 am

    Pork Floss is my new dj name

  2. Mark/Dad | May 31st, 2010 | 11:00 am

    Pork floss is a great phrase! But you left some unexplained photos! What are the newspaper wrapped, brain-like produce? And significance of the “KH CAT B TONG” + numbers stenciled on the wall?

  3. Woody Schneider | June 4th, 2010 | 2:37 am

    @ Mark/Dad

    I’m asking another reader of ours about the brain like fruit.

    The KH CAT B TONG” + numbers stenciled on the wall? Your guess is as good as mine.

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