Cycles of all sorts

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First published 4th November, 2009

The Saigon sun blasted me awake mid-morning in Pham Ngu Lao, where it was iced coffee with a Laughing Cow omelette for breakfast. The micro-sized chairs looked far less tempting than standing, so a cheesy baguette-in-a-bag was juggled along with a lidless cup of ca phe sua da: easier than it sounds when everything tastes so delicious.

Back to the hotel for a mental refuelling and a challenge: finding a bicycle repair shop. Despite our constant affection, our bicycles are in desperate need of a tune-up, primarily since we burnt down our brake pads while cycling a steep 17km descent out of Kirirom National Park in Cambodia. While local shops are great for small problems and inventive fixes, for proper parts and a thorough inspection, a specialty shop is required. Like any major Southeast Asian city, however, they are a rarity in Saigon: we had exactly one option, Golden Rose Trading & Travel.

We attempted to call them from our hotel, but one service Golden Rose does not provide is English phone support, as the mobile number the Vietnamese-speaking woman at the store gave me didn't work... or something. Specifically, the man at our hotel held both his hands out and wobbled them back-and-forth, like hovering 'spirit-fingers,' in that quintessential Vietnamese gesture for 'no'. But, blessed with the knowledge that a working number most likely meant a working store, and after a quick glance at a map to determine we were travelling south for about 5km, we pedalled off with address in hand.

Our destination was called Phu My Hung, South Saigon, or District 7, but saying 'foo me hung' correctly proved the most effective in gaining assistance. Vietnamese is a tonal language, so most vowels have little marks that serve as cues for pronunciation. They also make it dizzyingly difficult for an English-reading traveller, since the brain attempts to anglicise everything it reads right away.

Amid plenty of traffic, we crossed two districts and two bridges, arriving in the neighbourhood without too much trouble. Then the frustration began, nicely coinciding with the heat, as locals repeatedly gave us conflicting directions. First we cycled well past the Sky Garden Building, then overshot the turn when a disco we'd been told to look for never appeared; retracing our steps we finally found the correct turn, only to miss the actual shop since finding Building 2 proved a bit tricky. Amazingly, across the street from a cheap vegetarian buffet, in a modern new one-storey strip mall, we found the store.

Not only were there brake pads, an English speaker, and cold drinks, but the staff seemed genuinely knowledgeable and understood our varying requests: "Just the new brake pads, front and back, on mine;" "I'll take the more expensive pads on the back, cheapest on front, plus my 3rd gear doesn't work;" "me, too." Things became quite official when we were each required to fill out an order form, check the services desired, and double-check the prices on all items. With forms attached to our bicycles, helmet count verified -- "five bikes, but four helmets?" -- we departed in a van taxi, a rare treat, as the work began.

Bike shop repair guy, cigarette in hand

We spent the afternoon at the War Remnants Museum, which provided an in-depth examination into war atrocities, strongly emphasised the suffering and struggle of the Vietnamese, and featured more than a few Agent Orange victim photo galleries. Speaking of ethics, we pushed the morality of our cycle-shaw ride aside, after all cyclo-drivers need work and what's wrong with supporting a fellow cyclist? Plus it allowed us to experience the intense traffic of District 1 from a unique, if not slightly clichéd, perspective: behind a camera lens while being pedalled around in an enormous baby-stroller. Our round-trip was completed in the rain, which undoubtedly was directly connected to our drivers' requests for tips, but it's hard to say "no" to such cute old men who have just worked so hard to cart us heavy Westerners around.

Eat, tourist, eat, is a terrible cycle, one which we usually utterly fail to escape. A multi-part-meal ensued, first seafood BBQ, then chicken and fried rice, washed down with an 11,000 dong bia hoi at a bar perfectly situated for people watching. We had planned to head back to our hotel, but before we had left a fellow American traveller -- we'll call him 'S' -- arrived shaken and full of adrenaline, with a unique story to tell:

Seems 'S' had been enticed by a cycling shaker, the young men who cruise through Pham Ngu Lao nightly offering scandalous massages, but things had ended unhappily. While showering after the shoddy massage, he'd sneaked a peek back into the rented hotel room, and caught the masseuse pilfering through his wallet. An argument over the obvious theft then turned into a slippery tug of war. With feet wet from the shower, the very real battle to retain his clothes resulted in two painful falls on the tile floor, until he took to higher ground -- the bed. Shirt and shorts recovered, and upper hand gained, the losses overall ended up being minimal.

Apparently not only a far from smooth criminal, the faux-masseuse took our new friend for the sucker he isn't: With only a few thousand dong in his wallet, the demanded "one thousand dollars" was laughably unrealistic, as was the fact that taking 3,000 Cambodian riel from 'S' somehow took precedence over grabbing the $2 American that was thrown to the floor in disgust. Perhaps more impressive was the 100,000 dong that 'S' had been able to keep on the grounds that it was needed for a taxi ride home: This rookie robber actually had some twisted sense of compassion! Apparently after emerging from the hotel, enraged, 'S' had stalked the streets for 20 minutes with a bamboo pole in hand looking for the shaker.

Cyclo riding in Saigon

The fact that even the Lonely Planet Vietnam prominently warns of this scam really completed the too-tragically-funny-to-be-true moment. There seemed only one solution for the moment: some more jugs of bia hoi. The icy beers and salty peanuts went down smoothly after we turned down the fried chicken feet and necks offered to us by some drunk Vietnamese men at a neighboring table. Thankfully their calls for "Cheers!" and "Yo!" provided enough camaraderie to skirt the culinary divide.

Amid the revelry, a strange thing occurred: twice the con artist nemesis of 'S' cockily rolled by, jingling away, sure in his victory. But ashamed or closeted our fellow traveller was not, and for the second time that night a manhunt began, though this time 'S' wasn't alone. Justice, not retribution, was the goal though by our third time stalking the block it was beginning to look like all the shakers were in on the conspiracy. Then out of nowhere he appeared on the dark and mostly abandoned street. Creeping slowly along on a decrepit cycle, one arm jingling a shaker while the other smoothly steered, he had the reassured look of a guilty man. His innocuous greeting of "hell-ooo" quickly resulted in our friend darting after him,. He tried to pedal away, but 'S' caught up and grabbed him by the back of the shirt and dragged him to a stop. We grabbed the guy's bike and accessories while things sorted themselves out.

Almost immediately the shakedown-in-reverse transformed into a virtual movie scene, as at least 25 people emerged from the previously quiet and shut-down street. We gestured and yelled at him in English to pay up, while he tried to play it cool in Vietnamese to the crowd. Soon enough four policemen had arrived, as had at least that many volunteer translators. The details came out from both sides, and though many civilians had batons by the ready, people were completely on the side of the somewhat foolish tourist. A choice emerged: either ‘S’ got back 100,000 dong (all that the thief had in his wallet), or the police would take the con artist to jail. The money was casually handed over, and the throng peacefully dispersed.

As the now-loathed jangles of yet another shaker were heard, we drank one final jug of the bia hoi and reflected upon the night's events. With the sun long since down, a tranquil calm had descended upon the busy city, one we were now finally happy to embrace. We can only hope that our fellow traveller had learned a valuable lesson, though whether it was to stop soliciting "happy-ending massages" or to be more careful when doing so has yet to be determined.

Two days later, after the obligatory Cu Chi Tunnel and Cao Dai Temple tour, we returned to the Sky Garden Building, which was simple to find thanks to our knowledgeable taxi driver. Our bikes, glistening with shine and properly repaired, sat ready for us. We also acquired some much needed chain lube, an unexpectedly valuable commodity in SE Asia -- it is quite difficult to find since all the local shops only use motorcycle oil. Our bikes actually had a bit of a thick slimy feel to them, like they'd been dunked in cooking oil or something, but at least all the parts were thoroughly cleaned, and that was what was needed most. In a flurry receipts were shown, our piles of dong disappeared, and we were out the door and on our way back into the madness.

Our next intended destination, the temple-laden streets of Cholon, proved just beyond our reach. After hours of head-butting the language barrier and receiving shoddy directions, we'd managed to cycle around the greater perimeter of Ho Chi Minh City, but not actually succeeded in seeing any of the sights within. We settled for a tasty pho dinner, and a peek in at a few now-closed temples, before retreating back to Pham Ngu Lao as darkness descended once again. But our bicycles were fixed, we'd gotten more exercise than initially planned, and at least we didn't have to pedal around for the next few hours trying to shake up some shady business!

We'll be running a new entry from Anderson and the team every Wednesday for the duration of their trip across Asia. We hope you find it an interesting view into what another's journey through Asia can be like. There's a delay of a few weeks between where they are and the story appearing on Travelfish, so if you want to know where they are right now, be sure to check out their blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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  • Wow, I'm impressed that you cycled around Ho Chi Minh City! When I was there in January, I could barely cross the street without being afraid I would get hit by a thousand motorcycles. Kudos to you for being so brave!

    Posted by Grace on 4th August, 2011

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