Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Rough Start

(PICTURE: I'm going to miss green rice fields.)

This past Thursday was Independence Day in Vietnam. To celebrate the Vietnamese beating the Americans, Thursday and Friday wer a national holiday.

Huyen and I decided to take a road trip to Babe Lake which is located about 250 KM north of Hanoi. I told Huyen we should take my motorbike since it was a rental and well, the people who I rent from charged me an arm and a leg to keep the bike for 8 more days (an arm and a leg costs $24 when usually I pay $30 for a month).

There are always two problems with road trips in Vietnam:

Problem 1: The highways are scary as hell and frankly not fun to drive on.

Problem 2: My butt/anyone with nerve ends in their butt begins to hurt immensely after about thirty kilometers on the road.

For this trip, Huyen and I solved both problems:

Solution 1: I borrowed an extremely detailed map of nearly all Vietnamese roads from Long (where this map was on our bike trip I don't know.) Huyen and I took the highway for about an hour total during our 12 hour trip to Babe. Once we left Hanoi we saw nothing but gorgeous moutains and green rice fields.

Solution 2: Huyen sewed together His & Her Butt Pillows for my bike:

(PICTURE: Our butt pillows and luggage for our four day trip.)

That said, our trip got off to a rocky start. Just minutes after getting onto our first country road, I heard a POP. I chose to ignore it until Huyen said, "Stop! We have a flat." Sure enough we had a flat tire. Luckily we were literally 8 feet down the road from a repair shop. The shop fixed my inner tube and tire. He also tightened my brakes. My bike was as good as new.

(PICTURE: My bike getting its back tire fixed.)

The second rocky part of our trip happened a few hours later. Huyen and I were on a road that the map key classifies as a "dirt road." We were literally on a path in the middle of nowhere that was even tougher to drive on because 40% of it was muddy. Huyen and I finally got through the narrow path and emerged on a four foot wide paved road...where three cops were waiting for us.

The cops waved me down with a baton and I pulled over on to the side of the road. The head cop saluted me, which I thought was a way of saying "You're a foreigner so no problems here." Yeah, it didn't mean that. Instead it meant, "I'm going to try and blackmail you for money." The cop asked for my driver's license and passport. Luckily I was carrying my driver's license for the first time ever. Literally I had never actually carried it before because it's too big to fit into a wallet and nobody actually carries their license with them here. After I surprised the cop with my IDs he asked to see the motorbike registration/ownership papers. Since I rent the bike I don't have those papers. The cop shook his head and then showed Huyen his official notebook. By "official" I mean he had a notebook you can buy at any convenience store anywhere in the world. On the back of the notebook he had HAND WRITTEN some sentence with numbers next to them. He told Huyen these were the official fines for our offenses. Yes, offenses. Apparently we had two. Not only didn't I have registration papers BUT he said our license plate was on crooked. Yeah, it wasn't. The cop wanted 350,000 Dong. He said that was the fine or they would take my bike and hold it for thirty days. Huyen apologized to him and gave him 50,000 Dong. The cop quickly pocketed the money like he was doing us a favor.

If this wasn't ridiculous/infuriorating enough, a motorbike rode up to the three cops while we were stopped. On the motorbike were THREE MEN (three people on a bike is illegal). All three men WERE NOT WEARING HELMETS (not wearing helmets is illegal). Also I'm pretty sure all three men were DRUNK (I'm not sure if drinking and driving is illegal here). Yeah, the cops waved them through the checkpoint.

As we were leaving the head police officer told Huyen that there were two more police check points ahead. About fifteen minutes later we saw a checkpoint and did what any responsible person would do in that situation: we blazed through it while looking around obliviously. The cops didn't stop us.

On our way home Huyen and I were stopped by another checkpoint. I took off my helmet and mask and the cops saw that I was a foreigner. One of them said, "Let him go, he's a foreigner." They all laughed at me and waved me on. Man, why can't all cops be as cool as that?