VIETNAM #1: Bad luck & bad bureaucracy.

Click on images to enlarge them.

In the Temple of Literature:
Turtles have religious meaning, hence the money.

Adventure travel is somewhat of a crapshoot. Odds are high that every world traveller will encounter at least one outstandingly bad government experience. We've been pretty lucky (Saudi and Myanmar visa refusals aside) but finally we've had one too.

It's July 1. After almost three weeks in Hanoi – Hanoi only – we yesterday flew out of Vietnam to Bangkok, Thailand. Black Bike arrived by plane too, is back on the road. Vietnam simply did not let the bike in, a major pain described below.


Clearly some rules have changed.
Evidently there now is a way to get in, with your bike.

Four white riders who live in Thailand (two of whom we know) found a full-time government-approved guide through a travel agent – they got entry.

Bravo! Man, are we jealous. Painfully jealous. My biggest mistake of this round-world ride was the false try to enter Vietnam described in this chapter. Costly error too!

Will update this bulletin later but meanwhile, here is David Unkovich's informative web site on SE Asia touring GT Rider [link]. Read up in detail before going there!

Here's a link to the recent April 2010 Vietnam ride postings from the four travellers [link.] Clearly someone has contacts high up in the Vietnamese government: You just need to work through that someone, whom we did not find.

Nonetheless, Vietnam is not for novice bikers. If you are not very good and alert in daredevil traffic, do not ride there. The death toll is high – the UN calls traffic deaths there an "epidemic". Even short of death, don't expect an ambulance to come quickly and airlift you to a first class hospital. That said, sure wish we could have ridden it!

See our Thailand North blog with many references to David and his excellent maps and services for riders.


Previously discovered biker alternatives

Rent a motorbike & professional guide in Vietnam: We chanced upon Digby Greenhalgh owner of Explore Indochina [link] [email:] while riding far north Vietnam (see Vietnam blog #2), us being in a taxi, he and his lady on a bike.

He's an Australian who has lived here for a couple decades (!) and has built a substantial bike-tour business, he has a big fleet of some 50 (?) bikes up to 650 cc.

If we were doing a fly-in bike tour of Nam, we'd hook up with him; let them arrange the tour, Vietnam is worth exploring by bike, some great riding, we sorely missed the bike!

... OR ...

Phuket Thailand-Based Bike Tour Guides for Vietnam: (See Thailand South blog).

Chanced upon them, a good bike shop; saw a poster on the wall and asked. Yes: They apparently organize tours of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and claim to even get their tours intoVietnam (!) [phone: 076-352069]

Don't ask me how they do it, must have some great connections high up. Sure wish we'd known about them sooner. If we could have, we would have hooked up with a group riding Vietnam for sure. Riding is far preferable to public transport if feasible.


Soaking in Hanoi, more ways than one: We have positive things to say about Hanoi itself and the friendly people we met there. The city itself is charming, interesting, worth a couple days visit as part of a trip through the whole country.

Nineteen days is a long time there however (!) – which we were unfortunately forced to spend.

Elegant little art details are all over town.
Beautiful sculpture atop a fence.
Cast bronze phoenix on turtle
at the Temple of Literature.

Mostly we were killing time nervously June 11-30, albeit in a fine hotel room – escaping daytime heat and shirt-soaking humidity; Thao did many miles more walking around than Wheezy could take. It's monsoon season, raining heavily and briefly, generally at night, cooling things to the mid-20's. Then the water evaporates, the sun comes back out, becoming the most humid place we've experienced. That's the first "soaking."

Due to awaiting the arrival/clearance of Black Bike from Delhi India, we could not explore the long skinny nation top to bottom as planned. (Why is it so long and mostly a very skinny strip by the way? Some history research is in order, perhaps it was a French colonial decision, or long before?)

The bike crate finally arrived ten days late, around the 20th, after a nervous unexplained delay in Delhi – but then it never got officially cleared by Vietnam. The last few days were spent ministry-hopping, waiting, spending, door-knocking. All in vain. A very costly bureaucratic pain, the first country in the world to allow me personal entry but then refuse my wheels – the worst bureaucratic situation of its kind I have encountered in some 80 nations. That was the second "soaking."


A slice of Hanoi:
Messy wiring, scooters galore and one of many great old temples.
Market scene:
Face masks, bicycle-vending carts are everywhere.
Hom market.

Hanoi Hotel: High recommendation of the very pleasant US$65 Hong Ngoc Hotel [link] [phone 84-4-828-5053] conveniently located in the walk-everywhere Hoan Kiem district. Superbly friendly and very helpful staff, excellent breakfast, all the amenities – including a sauna which was the farthest thing from our minds when the whole city is one.


Dining: Vietnamese cuisine is among the best of this trip and $3 or less buys a delicious meal for two. Spiced with hot peppers or mild, your choice always. Street food from little sidewalk stands is excellent, you sit on a stool literally on the sidewalk; abundant little restaurants, many air conditioned; superb baguette sandwiches loaded-up chicken, meats, fried egg, veggie made in front of you, more than one can normally eat; Pho 24 is a good sit-down eponymous chain we frequented. Fine local beers too. No funny tummy in 'Nam so far either. Cutlery or chopsticks your choice, normally.

Not just while traveling either; we eat pho, their great spring rolls and various noodle or rice dishes in Toronto at least twice a week, just because it's delicious. It beats Chinese to us as regular fare, is lighter, healthy and somehow one never tires of it.


Traffic: The ratio of small bikes to every car is 100:1 my guesstimate, an uncanny 150 cc scooter-swarm, unlike any preceding. Crossing the road by foot is taking your life into your own feet. One just walks across aggressively, trusting bikes to dodge you – it's that versus a long wait for any traffic opening. Even traffic signals do not protect you from constant light-runners.

Scooters are the most sensible transport in a developing warm-weather country. An equivalent number of cars would be physically impossible without massive road widening, out-of-reach purchase costs for most of them and much higher pollution in a densely populated nation of 86 million.

The driving is horn-honking, no-rear-view anarchy. Just go, then weave a lot. WHO states 33 deaths/day or 1,000/month occur on Vietnam roads, an 'epidemic.' Eighty-five percent of accidents involve motorbikes, many drivers in their teens. It would have been an accident-avoidance test on a big bike!

Crossing a square while avoiding buzzing bikes.
Hanoi Hilton – for those old enough to remember 'the other' one ...
where John McCain was a 5.5 years 'guest' [link.]

There are several nice sites in Hanoi, although none major. One goes there to experience it and the way of life.

But it's a fine, clean, safe-feeling and uniquely Vietnamese bustling capital city.


Theatre: The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre is a charming hour-long glimpse at traditional village culture, musical folk theatre unique to Vietnam. Other tourists give it mixed reviews [link]; we can understand 'not getting it', but recommend it anyhow as a must-do once in town. Especially impressive is the 1-string Dan Bau instrument and player, quite virtuosic and a lovely, pure, amazing sound [music video link]. Traditionally the Dan Bau was played by blind musicians; also said to have been a male-only instrument, women were not allowed to see or hear it – they were too likely to fall in love with the player. The puppets are fine craftsmanship, as is the entire in-water concept where puppeteers wear hip waders behind a curtain. To me, it was memorable, unique and the music quite special.


No Canines: One thing we noticed – it's one of the rare places on this trip with no strays. We do not recall anyone walking their pet bow-wow either. We did however see a dog restaurant with a German Shepherd statue out front as an ad ... the French eat horses too, cats are eaten many places we've been, so this is not judgmental – just an observation. Apparently dog meat is a bit of a delicacy in Vietnam, one in which we didn't indulge.


Further travels: We later explored the rest of the country, using public transport, but not with Black Bike alas – a train-bus-taxi trip once this unpleasant episode was well behind us. (SeeThailand #2 blog.) Thao's family are from there after all, we had to do a trip through.


Strong current travel advisory, regardless of what else you may read:

They will not let you in, unless you are luckier in the bribery ('tea money') and contacts than we were. It's simply not worth the extremely high risk.

So many other great places are available to drive through with little/no bureaucratic risk; pick another.

By way of explanation, Customs officials came up with these bizarre reasons why it's a no-go:
.....- The vehicle is not 100% 'brand new' (duh, you drove it there ...)
.....- 'No used vehicles are allowed.' Period. Due to some 2008 'directive.'
.....- The engine is too big, i.e. over the 150-250 cc range.
.....- 'Temporary import/transit provisions' for tourists do not exist.
.....- Not interested in the Carnet de Passage guarantee, ignore any other info.
.....- No other security bond is of interest, for example a credit card deposit.

The Government of Vietnam does not want you there, bottom line; at least not on your own wheels. Why not? Don't know. Communist one-party states are not necessarily transparent or logical.

It's not about secrecy because tourists can apparently travel anywhere using public transport. Communist neighbor China is also very difficult about letting you in on wheels, and that is about control of what you see and who sees you, although it has a strict 'approved guide' system in place.

Regardless of what some online sites say, Vietnam officials – and we met many in the ministries and Police – simply do not know what a Carnet de Passage is, blank stares when you pull it out. It is of zero value there – again, unless you have a pre-arrangement.


Why I took the chance:
. . .- The 1" thick Vietnam Lonely Planet book, normally a good source,
. . .- says a Carnet is essential and accepted: "... most important is a Carnet
. . .- de Passage en Douane ... a passport for the vehicle and acts as a
. . .- temporary waiver of import duty." Wrong.
. . .- Here's a blog [link] of someone who drove through in 2006, using a
. . .- Carnet. Changed.
. . .- A Vietnam 'Tours Expert' [link] says they used Carnets in 2008.
. . .- Maybe, but not today.
. . .- Another 2009 been-to blog saying a Carnet is 'most important' [link].
. . .- Wrong.
. . .- When discussing touring China, the biggest official road tour company
. . .- (NAVO) there wrote me that it is possible to cross into China via Vietnam.
. . .- Wrong.
. . .- Quite a few other examples gave us grounds for believing it's do-able.
. . .- Everyone talks on-line about needing a Vietnamese drivers' license.
. . .- It was never even mentioned.
In fairness and self-blame, other sites suggest against it, Google and you'll see. GT Rider [link] is an excellent site for motorcyclists, done by an Aussie who lives in Thailand and guides tours in the Golden Triangle – he states clearly 'no way.' We should have listened to him.


Digby teaching riding, jiggly pic taken from our taxi window.


The good news: OK, so we optimistically made a costly, time-wasting, big mistake by flying there with a bike. Tried everything to get it in. We two humans had visas, with no entry/exit issues. A couple weeks were wasted, a few grand in cash, but we made it out in good health, continued freedom, and (whew) with Black Bike.

One thing about Vietnam visas – they illogically start counting on the date of issue, not on the date of entry! Get your visa a few days before entry. We had to get our visas extended by a travel agent in Hanoi for $50 x 2.

Just to inform potential fellow road warriors, we experienced a week of utter crap, cold shoulder treatment by the Airport itself and the Customs authorities, buck passing all over town, Airport storage charges of $120/day (twice the rate of a good hotel room) while the closed crate sat in a warehouse.

The entire misadventure cost about $4,000 (cash only, no credit cards accepted at the airport or Thai Airways freight.) That's the equivalent of five years' average Vietnamese wages of roughly $800 per year – a fortune by their own standards.

. . .In context: Using wage equivalence in Vietnam versus USA – to them,
. . .it's as if LaGuardia NYC Airport & American Airlines charged >$200,000
. . .for an in-and-out, short-haul flight of a motorcycle.

Thao is Vietnamese-born, speaks the language – so we had a theoretical advantage; or perhaps being Vietnamese was a disadvantage. We sensed perhaps so. In any case, she too was appalled by the greed and corruption.

X-raying bike pre-loading.
Customs man's female partner asked for a $20 'tip'
for not making us unpack-repack the bike for inspection
and thereby miss the flight. She got a flat 'no'.
That being said, we met some very kind, helpful, honest non-Government people who bent over backwards, way beyond the call. And one bloody crook.
- Superb worldwide freight forwarder: TNT Express Worldwide [link]. Mr. Pham Hai Hoa, National Major Account Manager, tried hard to truck Black Bike for us Hanoi-Bangkok, for a very reasonable price, but Vietnam Customs prevented that (!) it had to fly out on the same airline, just becuz they said so.
- Superb airline: Thai Airways [link] flew the bike Delhi-Hanoi then Hanoi-Bangkok. Hanoi Freight Manager Mr. Hieu did his sympathetic best for us, very kindly so, even tried to find lower-cost alternatives the Vietnam Government prevented.
- Once we got to Bangkok, we chanced upon Mr. Krisda Naksomboon a Thai Airways manager who speaks English and stayed with us a long time just to help us out. Tipping was out-of-question, 'it's my job' he said.
- Thai Airways delivered Black Bike in perfect condition. However the 1.5 hrs flight Hanoi-Bangkok, even kindly discounted by 15%, was preposterous at US$1,400 due to their dominance on the route. By comparison I paid about the same to fly this bike Canada-UK, 5x the distance! Delhi-Hanoi on the same airline was half the price and 3x the distance. God Bless Competition.
- Crooks: The Binh brothers. customs brokers, crooks and utter bullshitters, tried to extort US$500 for 'bribery of Customs officials.' Only because we're foreigners was the price so high; my unconcealed anger got the price down to a still-ridiculous US$250. They didn't do much for it either, we followed one of them around as he figured it out on the fly. No idea how much they actually bribed, or what for, but they paid not a dime in legit fees - I also paid the US$1,000 official airport fees.
The whole airport freight thing is shabby and sleazy in Hanoi, top to bottom. I even spoke to a Canadian-Vietnamese lawyer, in case I could hire him to help. His honest advice: 'Hold your nose, pay it and get out.'


Flying within Asia. Check prices online, there are huge price differences! Malaysian-based Air Asia [link] is the hands-down winner on the Hanoi-Bangkok route, at US$79/person one-way last-minute on a nice plane. Other airlines were US$200-$500 for the same short flight.


An exemplary contrast is Thailand entry (see Thailand blog), 90 minutes away by air. It is a superb, totally modern, well-run airport, honest Government, airline and warehouse employees, all as helpful as can be. Four hours of paperwork and office-hopping, no issues. Legit fees were about $20. I did not need a broker or bribery, just did it, same day as we flew in.

BTW, a related aside, Thailand also does not use the Carnet de Passage, is also not listed as a member country on the back of the document, but Thai Customs quite reasonably recognizes it anyway: It is hard-money ($50,000 in my case) evidence you are serious about getting the vehicle home, not planning to sell it there. They want you as a tourist.

Once we tour the rest of the country, we'll add a second Vietnam blog.

But Hanoi has been another 'memorable' experience under our belts.

Museum of History, interesting Chinese-European-Vietnam design.
Huc Bridge over one of several peaceful downtown lakes.
Rooftops from our hotel window.
The famous One-Pillar Pagoda.
Not such a big deal and the pillar is a concrete post today.
Buddhists go there to pray.
Tortoise Tower 'Thap Rua' in lovely Hoan Kiem Lake downtown.
Bye-bye Hanoi.

You will be notified of updates automatically.


No comments:

Post a Comment