Ok, this place feels different. I am already accustomed to people offering me stuff on the street, but if I say no, they usually stop. Not in here. First thing to learn: be assertive. Second thing to learn – there are rules, but it doesn’t mean they are going to be respected. Third thing – everything has a money value – even a friendship.
I wanted to spend my days in Vietnam volunteering. The first day I arrived I was asking around, but the only job I was offered was promoting a bar. I talked with those guys that were promoting this bar and it felt like a wrong thing to do. Trying to become a friend with someone so that you will get him into the bar so that he spends money there. I said no.
I knew that I want to buy a motorbike in Vietnam. I was reading a lot about riding a motorbike here and I wanted to buy the Vietnamese “classic” (or classic piece of crap): Honda Win. 95% of these motorbikes are Chinese copies that have a similar design to the original Honda Win, but the reliability is much lower. You can get a basic one for about 200 USD from a backpacker. The speedo won’t work and it will probably say 0 or 1 km. So you are actually buying a new motorbike :D. The transmission from the front wheel for the speedo breaks very fast. This is 95% of Chinese Honda Wins. Ok, there are few nice ones. Sufat and Detech brand. These will probably work a little longer and the power is going to be different from the other brands even when it has the same displacement. Before buying one, I was reading a lot. I also believed that I am able to tell if the motorbike is fine or not because I was riding my BMW for a while. Well, this is not a BMW. And this is not Europe. So thing number one is that if you buy something cheap, it is not because you hacked the price, but because you are actually buying something that costs that money. If you are buying something expensive, it is probably expensive, because you are being scammed. This is a socialist country, but so far the most capitalistic one I’ve ever seen. Interresting combination. It feels like money means everything here.
Ok, back to the motorbike. I checked-in to a hostel that somehow became my base for the first month. This hostel is called Funky Jungle Hostel and for the price it was very nice. 85,000 VND with a breakfast and a free beer in the evening. Vietnam is a party country – everyone enjoy low prices a loose laws. I’ve met a guy that was smoking a spliff inside of the hostel. He offered me a hit and I accepted. Things ran smooooth since that moment. He told me how things work in here and he told me a lot about these Honda Wins. I also met Karina – a Russian girl from UK teaching English in Vietnam and Amanda – Canadian tankgirl. We stayed up quite late together, making a Circle K our small pub.
After the first night I installed Grab application (Asian UBER) and for a few VND I went to several second-hand motorbike shops. Using Grab is probably also the best way to get used to the Vietnamese traffic. Riding a motorbike here requires some balls. I recognized two main rules. 1. If there is a space in front of you, go. 2. If you bump into someone from behind, it is your fault. They don’t play on green and red lights so much. It is there, but it doesn’t mean much for them. Also, if you are foreigner, a crash will be always your fault. But with money, everything is solvable.
I went to the motorbike shops that I found on the internet and I also went to the motorbike street with a whole army of these little screaming machines. I didn’t like any of the them, but I still offered those sellers a reasonable price, because I knew that I can repair those bikes. They were rather waiting for someone more stupid to come. Eventually I reached this shop called Vietnam Motorbikes. I found this one on Craigslist. They offered me a Sufat for 300 USD. I was way too tired arguing with other sellers and in here the motorbike worked fine, everything looked fine, they told me that I have 1 month of repairs for free, rack for free, helmet for free, USB charger for free… and I said yes. And this is the beginning of my bittersweet symphony, my friends.
The same day I met Atwin from France and Julia from Italy and we agreed upon going to Cat Ba island together the next day. I still needed to buy a guitar, a tent and a sleeping mat and so I told them that we will meet up on the island in the evening.
I still don’t know how it works for the shop owners, but if there you are looking for something in Hanoi, there is probably a whole street with shops selling the same thing for the same price. I found out where the musical instrument street is and I rode there on my new motorbike. There were plenty of guitars to choose from, but the prices were too high. There was one with a hole in it and I was eventually able to get the price from 2M VND down to 1,100,000 VND. I told him I still need to check other shops and that I might eventually come back. I went to several shops, but none of these satisfied me until I finally found a guitar hidden behind another guitar. When I saw the texture the wood and when I played it, I knew I found the One. The price was 1,500,000 VND with a case and a strap in the end. It would normally be 2,100,000 VND. Haggling is a skill you need to learn the first day you enter Vietnam.
I had the guitar, I still needed a tent and a sleeping mat. It is really difficult to buy some camping gear in Vietnam so I was forced to buy what they had. The best thing they had was a one-person tent for 800,000 VND. They had only expensive sleeping mats, so I decided to get it later.
My 130 km journey to Cat Ba island began. When I look back, I was risking again. New old motorbike that is designed to break, in a hurry with a guitar on my and my big backpack on the rack riding on Vietnamese roads filled with truck being driven by young junkies that don’t respect only the size of vehicle. If you are small, you stop, if you are big, you can go, others are scared. But that time, I didn’t think about it like this. I was just enjoying the ride.
I stopped for a soup next to the highway. Family business. They brought me a nice chicken soup with a whole basket of vegetables. It was very good. A small kid was taking a look at the case of my guitar. When I finished, I opened the case, so that he can see. Other kids wanted to see me playing. I took a chair and I began playing and singing. Soon a whole family sat around me and in front of me, there were 3 phones live streaming. I didn’t care. I played for them and they loved it.
Buying Honda Win was a beginning of my bittersweet symphony. After few km, the engine started to vibrate, backlight didn’t work, electric started didn’t work and my maximum speed was about 50 km/h. I just wanted to reach Cat Ba and solve this later.
I continued to Cat Ba Island through industrial port of Hai Phong and eventually I found a pier. Nobody around. I though I was mistaked so I continued searching, but then, after riding in fields, I realized that it was actually there.
On the board I found, there was written that the last ferry goes at 6 pm. Now it was already 7:30 pm. So I was sitting in front of a building right next to the pier and I was searching for some hostel or AirBnB. Nothing around. Fuu…what to do? I was asking one Vietnamese guy, but he didn’t speak English. Another Vietnamese guy came, he didn’t speak English as well, but he showed me a room where I can sleep. He somehow understood my problem. It was a bunk bed without a matrasse. I was very glad for that. I played my guitar new guitar for a while and then I went to bed. They woke up at 4 am changed their clothes and I realized that those guys are actually a ferry guard, I woke up with them, packed my stuff and I went to the ferry with my motorbike.
I needed to go to Cat Hai island first and then I finally reached Cat Ba island about which I am going to write next time.