Cycles of all sorts
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.
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.
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.
Story by Anderson Muth
Related readingAn introduction
24 hours in Bangkok
Muay Thai night
Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
An Angkor cycling guide
Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
Saigon's top 10 cafés
Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
Read 1 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (12)
- All stories
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (8)
- Cambodia (22)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (16)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (7)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (73)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (31)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (15)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (16)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.