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Dave Go Round

I am a world traveler. These are my stories.

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Wed
7
Sep '11

Asian Stereotypes: Fact or Fiction?

In many parts of the world, groups of people are often generalized or stereotyped:

  • Americans are all fat.
  • Germans are all beer loving engineers.
  • Russians put vodka on their cereal.
  • Africans get dinner with a spear.

Asians are no exception to this rule. After spending some time among them, I thought about this and some of the stereotypes I had most often been told of Asians. Have I found them to be true? Take a look.

1. Asians are bad drivers.

This is utterly untrue. Asians by and large are capable of operating a motor vehicle in arenas that would cause most North Americans I know to break into sweat and go back to bed. This place is damn challenging and requires constant vigilance and split second pinpoint accuracy. Asians are amazing drivers. The myth arises from when Asian drivers have to go to areas where the rules are different, like the USA. This driving method, somewhat akimbo, is less effective there.

2. All Asians are good at Math.

I’m afraid not, kids. From the moment I arrived in Asia, everyone was using huge calculators to perform even the simplest of math. 200 minus 50? Better use that calculator, base 10 can get away from you pretty quickly.

3. Asians eat dogs and cats.

Not once in my time in Asia was I ever offered dog or cat meat. This does not mean that I knew what I was eating every time I sat down, or that I didn’t eat some really weird items while I was there, however.

 

4. Asians are short.

Actually, this one is largely true. While Asia does produce the occasional vertical anomaly like Yao Ming, I was mostly awash in a wading pool of black haired people who couldn’t have looked me in the eye without a stepladder. This was neat at first, though if you are over 6 feet, you may want to watch out for the door frames. Concussions just aren’t cool.

5. Rice.

True. The one thing you can count on with every meal in Asia is rice. Sometimes rice is the entire meal. It’s odd for me to say, coming from a largely carnivorous diet, but the rice is delicious! Plenty of calories to get through the day. The word for rice is sometimes substituted for the word for meal or food, and the breathtaking green of fields of rice give you views like you don’t see elsewhere. Just Google up some pictures of Sapa in Vietnam.

All in all, the lesson to be learned here is that you can’t judge a book by the cover that you never saw but someone else told you about. No matter how reliable or instantiated the rumor was that you heard it will never sum up the technicolor wonderland of experiencing another culture first-hand.

Take a chance, find a way, get out there and do some exploring; even if that just means just trying a new Nationality of  food that you haven’t ever considered before. (I dare you to take a look around for a Malaysian restaurant near you and try Nasi Lemak.) See for yourself. I promise you the experience will be worth it.

Mon
5
Sep '11

Ha Long in a day

Be Careful. Everything you can read online about Ha Long Bay says this. It’s for real, you can spend a great deal of money quickly and unnecessarily while experiencing Ha Long Bay.

Upon arriving in Hanoi, Michelle and I were, for the first time since we got them, without our bikes. It was strange and a little sad to be missing two members of the expedition, but the bright side was that we got our passports back as soon as we saw Zofi. I barely had time to take pleasure in the return of another friendly face before Michelle and I were throwing ourselves in to a taxi and riding the two hours to Halong City. This is the expensive way. It cost us upwards of 1.3 million dong.

If you have the time, grab the local transport. buses run this route every day, and are reliable and about as comfortable as one would expect. If you have less than 24 hours to make it to Halong and back to the airport (as did Michelle), then you might just have to pony up and pay the cash.

Once in Halong city, there is a main street that is filled with the same style of hotel that exists everywhere in Vietnam. lots of stairs, decent amenities, really clean floors. The one thing that seems to differ between them is the bathroom. Make sure to see the bathroom in the actual room you will be staying in before you pay.

In the morning, everyone rushes down to the seaside to jump on a boat and go check out the bay. If you are hungry beforehand, check out the little streetside carts in town. Miche and I grabbed some great scrambled egg sandwiches and bahn bao! This was the first time I have ever had this devilish little treat, usually steamed up in a big bin like you see here, and it definitely won’t be the last! Notice the gigantic pipe next to it.

Everyone, honestly everyone, will try to tell you about the “best” way to see the harbor on their friends/brothers/husbands/dentists boat. Don’t fall for it. Just do what you can to book it ahead of time or from a reputable tour group; ask around. If you aren’t leaving from the main dock area, you probably aren’t getting “a deal,” you are most likely about to get really ripped off.

How do we know this? Take a look at Michelle’s face after they told her how much her lunch was going to cost!

In fact, the only good part about lunch was how it started. There are big holding areas of fish that you can select a meal out of. Once your meal is selected, the fishmonger will haul the fish out with a net, drop it on the deck, and then proceed to beating it to deal violently with a giant piece of wood. It is a sight to see.

 

Pay close attention to the price of things. Ask for the price up front and be very clear on whether the price is per fish, or per kilo! Also, ask if there is a service charge.

The bay itself is massive. It’s not surprising that people actually live their entire lives on the water here. If I went out on a boat, I would probably do the same because I would never be able to find my way back again. Both times I have been there, the bay has been completely overcast and misty the whole time. It’s not unpleasant, as the bay is really something beautiful to behold, but it’s rare that you ever get any sun (as in the Top Gear special) from what I have been told.

Another thing you don’t see on top gear are the panhandlers; people asking the rich foreigner for “something for nothing.” In this scenario, the part of the rich foreigner will be played by… you. Contrary to the evidence at hand, my extended sabbatical trip round the world, I like to work. I enjoy being part of a team and building something greater than myself. I also like getting a paycheck. I’ve tipped street performers on almost every continent in the world. Not because I needed to see that guy spit fire, but because he did it for my camera and I thought it was cool. There are even countries where it is ingrained in the culture like bakhshish (bak-SHEESH) in Islamic countries, so you wind up tossing someone a few coins for just about anything. What bothers me is when folks try to bring children into it. It happens over here, too. Might as well get ready for it.

 

A day in Ha Long Bay really isn’t enough (which is why I came back), but if you are short on time, it can be done. Keep your head on straight, always ask the price first, and do what the other tourists are doing… within reason. Realize that, if you are taken out on a private boat, and suddenly one of the crew materializes a briefcase full of jewelry to sell you at “special rates,” that this is likely not the best place to spend your money.

Wrap Up:

  • Check the shuttle and bus times. They run regularly and can be very cheap. You can get a taxi or private car, but it will cost you 10-15 times more, and they may try to get more from you once you are en route.
  • If you stay in a hotel, check the important things first. Visually inspect the bathroom in the room you will actually be sleeping in, and if you are using a computer be sure to connect to the wifi before paying.
  • Book through a reliable hostel or go straight to the dock and sort it out there. You’ll get better service and a better price.
  • Always ask the price ahead of time. If you don’t like it, you can bargain/haggle or just walk away and try someone else. Never assume it is “included.”
  • When someone is begging… consider the situation. If the person is a fisherman by trade, complaining he has no food and lives in a bay on a boat… they may be trying to fleece you.

 

Thu
7
Jul '11

Saigon Tom’s intro to Vietnam

From roughly March, 20, 2011

What a jumpstart… what do I talk about first…

My guide to Saigon, the city actually named Ho Chi Minh City but I think that name sucks so I am calling it Saigon, is a local named Tom. Tom speaks English. He is self taught… from watching porn and talking to tourists. You can imagine what sort of vocabulary that produces.

Tom is awesome.

I’ve spent the last few days caroming around the city with Tom and have never ceased to be in unabated awe of the things that come out of his mouth in front of other humans.

We sang karaoke in the kitchen of the Reunification Palace.

 

He took me to the best park to get local coffee and people watch.

Showed me how to navigate the traffic of Saigon and even experience my first traffic accident with me.

We both watched in awe as our taxi driver took off with my phone in his hand. And then Tom loaned me his stuntphone for the week.

True blue cool.

Tom and I went out on the town the night before Michelle was to arrive to see what would happen… and “happen” things did. Tom immediately began chatting up some western girls we met and we all agreed to meet up at a bar later in the night.

The bar seemed cool from the outside, though once we were inside, it was pretty clear that we shouldn’t be there. Old westerd guys were being doted on everywhere by beautiful Asian girls in tiny outfits. Fun, and harmless enough, but not what we were looking for. Later that night while walking back to my hotel, two girls on a scooter pulled up alongside me on the curb. The one driving spoke pretty good english, though it was clear from the blank looks that the pristinely beautiful young girl on the back did not.

Then it got weird. The girl on the front explained to me that this was her sister on the back. The driver explained to me that the sister was 16 years old and that she was very clean and I could have  her for a one hour “boom-boom” for $20.

Yes, she used the words “boo-boom”.

At this point, my travel radar was going into high alert. I knew that I was somewhere I should not be and talking to people that I did not need to be talking to, so I quickly checked all around me told the girls, No, thanks,” and got the heck out of there and back to relative safety with Tom.

It is due in no small part to Tom’s help that I was able to quickly and efficiently locate and procure the big blue atlas (the best book for the job), and the two steel horses that will transport Michelle and I across the length of this country; from Saigon in the south, to Ha Noi in the north.

 

Thanks to Krystle from PR, my bike was named Dodge, which encompasses the most basic driving survival skill for riding a motorbike in Vietnam. Michelle, when she met hers, christened it, Jenky. I still don’t know what that means.

Michelle landed in textbook fashion: late. Though, since she was only about 30 minutes behind, she was still about 90 minutes early. It’s hard to describe how your heart can seriously grow wings and shoot through the ceiling when you see an old friend after such a long time. It was like winning the lottery.

Michelle was also kind enough to bring me things from the USA. Things I hadn’t seen in a while and I was pretty happy to get my hands on; deodorant, a watch, a helmet. Important things. Survival things.

There is a shortage of deodorant in Asia.

The following day, Michelle and I ran off to the Ku Chi tunnels for a day or surrealism, and went to meet up for a last night in Saigon with our man about town: Saigon Tom.

  

Many hours of beer, hammers, and bowling later, Miche and I bid a lengthy adieu to Tom and went to get some sleep before we started out long journey up the length of the country the following morning.

It was an early day getting out of town, and we spent a bit too much time talking to Kevin, the guy we got the bikes from, but soon enough we put the rubber to the road for the first time on our great adventure together. The air was wet and electric and charged everything around us with a sense of excitement and danger. In retrospect, that could have just been the feeling of being on the road with so many Asian drivers.

Tue
12
Apr '11

David in the land of Oz

It’s TRUE! I’m finally in Australia and I’m still reeling from the wonder of it all.

I can read all the signs, I understand what everyone is saying, the weather is brilliant; it’s a dream come true. I went to the grocery store and cooked breakfast for myself for the first time in many months. I loved it!

My cell number in Oz is 0450432057 so feel free to ring me up. Plans are fluid at the moment, but include Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, parts of Queensland and the Barrier Reef.

I’ll be going to the Opera this week and just generally reveling in the familiar and foreign alike. I may actually buy some new shoes!!!

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Mon
11
Apr '11

Jenky and Dodge: The Hai Van Pass-port extravaganza

Upon waking on the dang train to Danang, Michelle had some good news for me. The passports were being couriered up to our hotel in Hoi An and would be arriving the following morning. Our hotel in Hoi An knew of the mess and would let us stay there without our passports; flouting government policy. Disaster averted.

This meant, we could kick back and enjoy Hoi An… but first we had to get out of Danang.

When the bikes rolled off the train, Dodge looked much as he had when he went on; minus a couple screws. Jenky on the other hand looked like she had barely survived a UFC bout. Everything was bent, mashed, or just plain missing.

This meant we would spend a few hours enjoying the Danang train station while the nearby mechanic sorted everything out.

We had a nice ride out to Hoi An after stopping at a shop called “The Living Bread” and had, what some consider, the best brownie ever. Upon our arrival in Hoi An, however, Dodge had had enough and refused to start again.

Luckily (?), we were right across the street from a mechanic the likes of which I have never seen. He immediately began pouring shots of some brain numbing local firewater into brazenly unwashed glasses and shoving it at me.

They couldn’t seem to get the bike figured out by the time our shuttle driver got there, so we loaded the bags into the bus and rode to our hotel.

After a little decompression, Michelle went to speak to a tailor and I caught a ride back to pick up Dodge. Everything seemed to be running fine, so we took off on a pathfinding adventure. I wound up near some big pipes that ran across the river, so I parked and walked out on them and just sat and watched the water. I can’t say how long I was there, except it was light when I arrived and dark when I left.

I stopped to check out a restaraunt on the way back, Mr. Long’s, and Mr Long asked to pose for a picture on my bike. Odd, but it turned out to be a great shot. It looks like it fell out of the 1970s.

Miche and I sallied forth in search of food and found jewels and postcards and crazy locals. It was an enjoyable night, but we were both completely wiped out from the train sleep and crashed hard as soon as we got back to the hotel.

Mornings are brilliant with Michelle around. We get up slow, laugh and smile a lot and forget that we have a million miles to ride our steel horses before we can sleep and wake up again. We wandered around downtown Hoi An and found a couple neat little juice and breakfast places to camp out at. We even got some cookies for the road.

After food, we swung by A Dong Silk Tailors to look at making some clothes for me. Suits and Shirts and things rapidly got confusing, so I asked for a plain white work shirt and the one thing I have been unable to find in years of passive searching… a black bow tie.

Now, I just need to learn how to tie this thing.

The morning was gone, and the afternoon was rapidly approaching, and we had something huge ahead of us for the day. The real reason that any of us were in Vietnam, though the idea was originally that of Joe who was only there in spirit; The Hai Van Pass.

Returning to the hotel to pick up the bikes, we found that Reality had other plans. As we arrived to the hotel, the front desk informed us that the courier with our passports had just forgotten to swing by and gone to Hue instead. The next hour was weird answer followed by weirder answer on why the passports were not coming back to us, why the courier did not have them, and why the courier was suddenly no longer a courier, but rather a  bus driver. After an hour of headaches, through some miracle, Zsofi called and was staying in Hue about 100 meters from the place where the passports were being held. After about 20 conference calls, we got Zsofi to pick up the passports and made plans to meet up in a few days in Hanoi.

Finally! We could go to Hai Van Pass! Flying down the road it seemed I could not drive fast enough! Then I realized that Dodge truly was slowing down, drastically, then stopping altogether at the side of the road. Dodge refused to start again.

Michelle, like a true companion, stuck with me while we found a mechanic and sat down to make plans for extending our stay in Hoi An. 30 seconds after we sat down, the mechanic had put a new spark plug in and Dodge was running like a dream. The other spark plug, which had been replaced by Captain Wrinkles the day before, looked like it had come out of another bike after several thousand hard miles.

Scrapping our plans to extend, we hit the road with a fury. Getting through Danang was a pain, but we made it with the guidance of a very friendly and very slow local guy we stopped to ask for directions. Once we got out of town, this is what we found.

The pictures, like my words, simply cannot do justice to this ride. Though, second by a hairsbreadth to the road from Da Lat, this is the greatest coastal ride I have ever seen. Hai Van means “Ocean Clouds.” I see how it got the name.

As much as I enjoyed the ride, I was equally happy to watch Michelle ride. She seems to be listening more and more to the bike every day getting better at gauging road surfaces, throttle and brake response and everything that is necessary to survive on the streets of Vietnam. The roads were quite wet from the mist below and we both slid around a good deal, but no one went down.

On the ride back we exalted in our freedom and the feeling of the wheels beneath us. I stopped to give Hi-5’s to some construction workers and laughed the whole way. Once we made it back to town, we were both flying along with the certainty of trained professionals… which we are not.

Stopping after a roundabout near the edge of Danang, I asked a man on the corner for directions. That’s when I noticed that Michelle was nowhere to be seen. Entering the roundabout, she was right behind me, leaving it 30 meters later, she was gone.

I sat there, hand cramping from holding in the clutch for so long, staring around and wondering what happened until the man that gave me directions had grown so agitated he was in my face and speaking the directions very loudly directly into my goggles and pointing wildly down the road, thinking I had not understood.

I waited. I waited some more. I waited until the light of the day was an exhale on the horizon before I slowly started coasting down the street I thought Michelle must have taken when my phone began ringing.

Michelle had indeed taken this street and was near the end of it with a bike that had simply ground to a halt at Mr. Pizza. Easy enough to find, but less simple to remedy.

After making sure Michelle was ok, we took a look at the bike. Jenky’s rear sprocket had come loose, dumped the chain and been mashed up into the swing arm and associated components. With the leatherman in my pack and some elbow grease, I was able to get the sprocket back on and the chain in place so we could roll it down the street to a mechanics shop. I use the term “shop” loosely.

Everyone was quite helpful, offering gasoline or help fixing the bike. I assured them we had enough xang, gas, and upon seeing the first mechanics “shop” was a plastic bag filled with varying spanners, declined his help. The second mechanic we found was much more official. he had a wooden box instead of a plastic bag. So, seated on the street corner, we tightened the bolts as much as possible, and cleaned up my completely filthy hands with some unknown white powder the mechanic offered me.

I looked at my watch. This was where it got hectic.

It was after 8 p.m. We needed to be on the train by 10:30. After a short conference with the mechanic, Michelle, Jenky, Dodge, and myself, we identified the things that might limit us from making the train.

  1. We had not paid for the bikes to be shipped to Hanoi.
  2. The shipping office was closed.
  3. We needed to try on, and have any adjustments made to, the clothing we had ordered in Hoi An.
  4. The tailors were closed.
  5. We needed to pack and vacate our hotel room in Hoi An.
  6. We were 40 minutes from Hoi An.

I’m still not sure how we did it. Through a breakneck and aggravating 3 hour hurricane we managed to get someone to come open the shipping office and process the bikes, then catch a ride to Hoi An, while Michelle packed the room up, I swung over to the tailors and picked up my shirt and tie. We started a huge riot between competing taxi drivers to get us to the train station, and finally got one of them to give us a ride. We arrived at the station a little after 11 p.m. but still with time to get on the train as it was running about 20 minutes late. I can only imagine that time runs differently in Vietnam, because it seemed then as it does now; impossible.

This entry in the journal seems long, but the day was longer by far. At the end of it all, tired, wrung out, and nearly starving, we arrived on the train car to find 4 old Vietnamese and a 1/2 dozen dirty and disarrayed beds in a train compartment that generated some nasty odor that I couldn’t quite place.

Michelle looked up at me and said, “Feet.”

Fri
8
Apr '11

Jenky and Dodge: Spa Day and the lost Passports

After the muddy abuse the bikes took the day before, we decided it was time to handle some cosmetic issues with a good bath. This nearly cost me my life.

The bikes both have drum brakes, front and rear, which are not as responsive as the disk brakes I am accustomed to. Driving through the perilous Vietnam streets to the train station, a car cut right in front of me and hit the brakes. I did the same, but as the brakes were soaking wet from the car wash… nothing happened!

Screaming toward my impending demise on my freshly washed chariot, I took evasive action; nearly killing a hello kitty scooter and it’s occupants in doing so. Just part of your balanced Vietnam breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, Mecca seems to be the clear winner for all things foodie in Nha Trang.

After they were all cleaned up, we took the bikes to the train station to be packed up and made ready for the trip to Danang and nearby Hoi An.

I took some time to go do a mini Beach Day routine, minus the tire, on the coastline. The days there were overcast and colder than the south. Locals told me it was warm and sunny last year, but this year is gray and less inviting.

The hotel, Kim Ngan, offered to let us stay a half day extra, checking out at 6 p.m. for a few dollars more, and so we had a spot to shower and hang out for the day.

Everything went relatively smoothly until we were on the train and heading out of town.

I turned to Michelle and asked her to hand me my passport, as I assumed she had them since I had not received them at the hotel. She didn’t have them either. Our hotel, following the quaint Vietnamese tradition of holding each occupants passport during their stay, had neglected to return the passports to us as we paid our bill and left.

So it was, that after more than a year abroad, despite numerous and unsuccesful attempts to steal said passport from me, that it was finally gone; sitting in a drawer, while I was an hour away on the dang train to Danang and not stopping for another 10 hours.

In what I hope was a completely uncharacteristic display, and at a loss for anything to say or do, I handed my phone to Michelle to sort it out, took a sleeping pill, curled up around my helmet, and went to Dreamland to pretend this wasn’t happening.

 

Tue
29
Mar '11

Vietnam Road Trip: Day 4

The most exciting day of motorcycling I have ever experienced.

Listen to me, all of you; listen to me, NOW!

Go to Vietnam, get a good motorbike, ride to Da Lat, then take the 723 to the 2 into Nha Trang.

This was amazing.

We rode through mountains so high we actually went above the rainstorm and into the clouds. We rode through beautiful brand new mountain switchback roads. We rode through, and crashed in, gigantic muddy morasses. We broke, and duct taped back together, both our headlights, and multiple indicators.

Go and ride these roads.

Tue
29
Mar '11

Vietnam Road Trip: Day 3

Finding a rythum.

The morning turned out to be wildly successful. We found a dedicated suspension shop to replace the whole of Michelle’s rear suspension. Then another shop to add some juice to her battery and replace her spark plug. Jenky was looking good. This is important because we were about to do our longest day yet; 300 km of mountain roads to reach Da Lat in the Central Highlands.

There appear to be only three measurements of distance or time available in Vietnam. 20 minutes, 100 meters, and “go straight.” These are all acceptable as measurements of distance and time as these are the only answers we have received from anyone directing us toward anything for the last three days. At first we believed them. Then we started getting frustrated. Now we just laugh harder every time we hear them.

The ride was amazing; filled with greens the color of eyes from half-remembered dreams. The roads were a winding wilderness wonderland that nearly cost us our lives as much as it was “The time of.”

Though we had a pretty good streak going of gradually increasing the catastrophic mechanical failure to the bikes, Dodge and Jenky, today was flawless. We arrived in Da Lat in perfect working order… late… and in awe of the continuing phenomenon of wildly inaccurate directions.

Protip: The entire city of Da Lat starts shutting down at 9 p.m. and is completely done by 10. Take care of dinner plans early.

Mon
28
Mar '11

Vietnam Road Trip: Day 2

Getting better!

6 hours, 180 kilometers, 24 hours behind schedule.

Vietnam is truly a land of smells. Food, manure, fish, ocean, manure… did I say manure? The country side is beautiful. It is also erratic and incongruous.

We managed, with Michelle’s marvelous translation services, to find a truly award winning metalsmith who refashioned my kickstand/footpeg assembly. Dodge is no longer Popeye.

Michelle came up with a name for her bike, eschewing my choice of “Uncle Ho.” Her bike was christened “Jenky” today, for reasons no human will ever understand.

Jenky is also a one legged victim of a day in the country with Michelle. Michelle waved me over about 40 kilometers outside Pan Thiet complaning of a strange grinding noise from the rear of her bike. I, estute observer that I am, was quick to point out what I thought might be causing the problem.

We slowed it down and make it to Mui Ne for the night and have resolved to make it to a suspension shop tomorrow and see what can be done.

I chose these old Honda Wins for the trip as they are popular everywhere and spare parts are cheap and plentiful.

Looks like it was sound logic.

Sun
27
Mar '11

Vietnam Road Trip: Day 1

7 hours, 130 kilometers, and we are a day behind schedule.  They have a word for people like us: Overachievers.

Dodge, my filthy conveyance, managed a flat tire to start off with, then towards the end of the day, the left footpeg and kickstand completely broke off the bike. Jenky, Michelle’s bike, started leaking oil and began having problems with the starter.

All in all, it was a good day. noone crashed, noone was injured, and we stayed at a pretty decent hotel called the Tropicana. This was because noone in the next 5 towns could tell us where a hotel was. It was such a foreign concept that we eventually turned around and drove back to one we had seen hours earlier.

Directions to anything are pretty interesting here. It is either 20 minutes or 100 meters. If it is within 5 kilometers, a local will tell you 100 meters. if it is more than that, you will be told it is 20 minutes. by this measure, one could walk the 100 meters in 20 minutes and drive the 20 minutes from Saigon to Hanoi in about two weeks. I think I am going to write an article about debunking Asian ethnic stereotypes… they are all wrong.