Markets, and Wrecks and Children, Oh My!:Surviving Sa Pa

Up in the mountains, all bundled up!

Sorry for the long delay, faithful readers! It’s been a wild ride. Well, six wild rides. For six days we rode the motorbikes, a few hours each day. There have been break-downs (of the mechanical and emotional types), loose chains, broken lights, busted suspensions, landslides, overwhelming cold and mist, road work—but we made it to our Christmas destination on Christmas Eve.
Waiting for a landslide to be cleared up on the road.
Ricky gets his suspension fixed on day 4.

I don't really need to say anything, do I?
Sa Pa is a town in the north, at a very high altitude and is thus pretty cold, and often the mist rolls in and visibility is pretty low. For the past couple days, for our Christmas season celebrations we mostly stay in the hotel room watching bad Christmas movies (Jingle All the Way, anyone?) and go out only for food. Today, however, was an interesting day as we walked around the town.

The day started off with a walk to a restaurant for lunch (yeah, we didn’t actually leave til about 2pm). On our way, a tiny elderly tribeswoman came up to us and said “Walking? I walk too!” We walked a bit and told her we were about to eat lunch to which she replied “Ah! Walking Sa Pa, hungry!”  Then, she pushed her sleeves up and showed us the silver bracelets she was selling. We decided to buy one and got a picture as well. She was adorable.

She's cute 'cuz she's little!

As we ate, however, things took a turn for the…intense? There we were, eating our sandwiches and tomato soup, enjoying a nice hot chocolate, when we heard a crash sound outside. Ricky went out to see what it was and I followed a minute later. There was a man lying on the sidewalk. His helmet was a few feet away and  his motorbike was on its side. There was a puddle of blood near him. People had come over but weren’t really doing anything. The man was bleeding badly from the head, just above his eye, and his hands were scraped up too. I took off my scarf and Ricky held it to the wound as I held the man’s head up. We tried talking to him, but he wasn’t responding. Every once in a while he would try to roll from one side to the other.

We unclipped his shoulder bag to get it out of the way and tried to get anyone to call a doctor, but to no avail. After a couple minutes, a man lifted him up like a baby and carried him to a motorbike. This man held the wounded man just like that, like an infant, behind the driver of the bike. We were worried about his safety, but grateful that someone had taken the initiative to take him somewhere for medical attention. That doesn’t often happen in Asia.

We returned to the restaurant to clean the blood off our hands and finish lunch. I was caught between feeling good for having helped a little, and a little squeamish—not because of the blood or anything, just that I was so involved with the situation.

After that, we decided to walk down the mountain a bit and see the rice terraces. After a while, though, we decided that it would be better if we left earlier and on the bikes tomorrow instead. So we turned back and headed to the market to browse. Except browsing is impossible in Asia. Any time you look at anything, vendors won’t let you leave. Usually you can get away with a smile and a “no thank you” but not in Vietnam.

At one point I was looking at some earrings and made the mistake of asking how much they were. I really was just curious, because I tend to lose all my earrings, no matter how safe I think they’ll be when they aren’t in my ears.  I had to decline, especially at the $8 she wanted. But the woman linked her arm in mine and wouldn’t let me go! I eventually had to pull away and just walk off. But she did get down to $3 for the earrings, without me even trying to haggle.

Leaving the market, we passed through a large square where some local women set up their beautifully hand-embroidered cloth goods. A couple of little girls were playing with a feathery weighted toy (played with like a hackey sack). Of course, Ricky joined in, and then more kids joined in. I shared some strawberries I had bought and then we took our leave. It was quite an adorable scene.

Those little girls never knew what hit 'em.

Note the heavy mist in the back.

As we walked around the lake, the mist rolled in and out, leaving some places with excellent visibility, and some with virtually none.

And here we are again, in our not-so-warm room, after a very weird and eventful day in Sa Pa. Can’t wait to see what strange things happen tomorrow!

Oh, the Scams: Getting Hanoi-ed in Vietnam

We really wanted to like Hanoi. Really.  And we did for a while. But then it just got so hard. By the time we left today, we were fuming.

Me on Hammond's Minsk!

Day one in the city was actually pretty cool. Here's what happened:

 Ricky got to drive through the Hanoi traffic for about half an hour, while I was on a bike with another man.

Ricky and I were in a 3 person motorbike sandwich (Driver, me, Ricky). 

I sat on Richard Hammond’s pink Minsk from the Top Gear Vietnam Special episode. 

Here's a pic that was hanging up outside the bike shop. Richard Hammond has one arm on the red thing (actually a model ship) behind the pink bike.

Ricky in the jeep we got to "roll" in.

We rode down the crowded streets of Hanoi in a Wilson jeep.

We took a stroll around the lake.

We saw a show at the Water Puppet Theater. 

The Lake in the Old Quarter.
The Water Puppet show.

Day two was no disappointment either: 

We picked up our bikes. 

I learned to ride mine.

Everyone survived.

The next day was a big sight-seeing day. 

We saw  B-52 in a lake.

The B-52, still in the lake.
Got to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum,a few minutes before they closed for lunch, but it was kind of disappointing anyway, so we didn’t mind. 

Ho Chi Minh sees everything.
Got some lunch.

Paid for "free" parking

Went to prison (Now a museum), and saw John McCain's Pilot uniform, along with a French guillotine.

 Saw a strange temple where photo shoots were going on.

Saw an embalmed 250 kg turtle found in the lake in 1965.
That could make a lot of soup.

One of the lovely models.

Now, here’s where it gets bad. See, throughout the first three days, we’d been having problems with food. We had some gross pig-foot noodle soup, when we actually ordered something different, and some pitiful portions of other foods. At every turn we were overcharged, even after asking the price before ordering. One night Ricky got me a few donut-type things these ladies sell in baskets on the street. For just a few of them (they are small and round) the woman wanted 150,000 dong, which is about $7.50. He got her down to 20,000 dong ($1) but was irritated that she would even ask for so much.

We started getting the feeling that all the scams we had heard about were very very real.

So the next day (yesterday) we drove over to the Temple of Literature, which wasn’t actually all that interesting, except for that there were a bunch of high school graduates in their caps and gowns taking lots of pictures. We had parked the bikes a ways back. As we locked up the bikes with our chains and padlocks (we’re taking no chances) people across the street laughed. Oh well, we thought.

Soon, though, we decided to head back, because we were concerned about the safety of our rides. As we walked up, Ricky saw a couple of men looking at us and laughing, and one was sitting on Ricky’s bike. He walked across the street as we walked up. We unlocked, pulled out, and were getting ready to go, but Ricky’s bike wouldn’t move. His accelerator cable was missing. I looked across the street and saw that there was a repair shop, where all the laughing men were. So, what happened was that those guys broke Ricky’s bike so that we would have to go across the road for them to fix it. And everyone on our side of the street was pointing for us to go over there.

Well, we most certainly weren’t going to do that. Instead, Ricky pushed his bike to the shop where we bought mine to have the guy fix it. I rode on ahead and was going to meet him there, except I was angry and stressed and it was rush hour (but then, what hour isn’t rush hour in Hanoi?) and I got lost in the labyrinthine streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. One way streets, stop lights everyone ignores, and oh the honking! I was so tense by the time I finally reached our hotel and found out that Ricky had already left the shop with his repaired bike.

We pretty much just gave up on Hanoi then. Luckily we were leaving the next day.

So today we got packed up and Ricky went to pay, and the guy at reception kept saying we owed him 3 nights’ money, not 2, when in fact we had already paid for all but the last 2 nights. He demanded a receipt, because apparently they don’t keep any records there. Fortunately, we hadn’t thrown it away, but he still didn’t believe us. Ricky just handed him the money we owed and walked out.

Then we realized that they still had our keys for locking up our bikes (they bring the bikes inside at night), so I had to go in and ask for them. A woman looked for them while the man berated me for us being “bad people! You are not good people! I never see bad people like you! First time!” I just said ok and left. As we were tying our bags on the bikes he came out and loitered around, swearing at us and telling us he hopes we die on the road today, because, you know, professionalism.

We didn’t die on the road today, but we did get blatantly overcharged for two meals. But the drive is a different story.

So, I guess our opinion of Vietnam is up in the air right now. Our initial impression was that it was a fun and interesting place, but now all we see are the dollar signs lighting up in everyone’s eyes as we pass, even more so than in other places we’ve been.  We’re fairly committed, with the bikes and visa and all, so we’ll just have to see how things go.

The Next Stage of my 2-Wheel Evolution: Hanoi

I was a kid when I learned how to ride a bicycle. It was a normal kid thing to do. My family would go on bike rides together through the neighborhood, and my sister and I rode to school in the mornings. When I was in college I got a bike and loved riding around the beautiful Hawaii scenery.

When I moved to China last year, one of my first moves was to buy a bike, which was pretty scary because the traffic was more intense than I had ever experienced. But I learned pretty quickly and rode all around town. When winter came on, Ricky and I bought a used electric scooter. I had never ridden anything other than a bicycle and was pretty freaked out. Yes, I know. Scared of an electric scooter than never got over 35 km/h. But I was.

So Ricky took me to an area of our apartment complex and showed me how to do it. I was wobbly and slow, and I got off as soon as I could.

The next day, however, I decided that I needed to do it without the pressure of someone watching me go around a tight space with cars parked everywhere. I took it on the road, and it was absolutely no problem at all. I maxed out at 25 kmph and felt like I was riding the wind. (The 35 km/h only happens when you are going down a steep hill with the wind at your back. I did it once.)

After a couple weeks I felt like a pro, and after a few months I was brave enough to carry passengers. I know, my progress is slow, but it is there.

Ricky and I had talked about doing motorbike tours on our trip, but I didn't know if it would really happen. So when we arrived in Laos and decided here would be a good place to start, I got pretty nervous. I knew there was no way to take a dinky electric scooter, so it was the real thing we needed. Well, I was half right.

We ended up getting a couple of semi-automatic bikes. There were gears but no clutch. And when Ricky taught me to ride it, well, it was rough going. It was getting dark, and we were in a rural area in the hills. My practice road was muddy and hiding tree roots. I practiced for about half an hour, and felt like I got the hang of it, having succeeded in not falling.

A few days later we bought our brand new bikes, and I was immersed in a trial by fire as we drove through the traffic from the shop to our guesthouse. It was pretty stressful, and I accidentally downshifted when I meant to shift up, but I made it.

As most of you faithful readers know, our Laos trip went swimmingly.  You can check out here, here, and here for the good. For the not so good, check out this post. It was the scariest moment of my life.

And don't forget the moto-montage that swept the nation! (Or at least this blog!)

When we had to get rid of the bikes, it was a very sad day indeed, and once we started back up with public transportation in Cambodia and Laos we knew we needed to get back on the wheels ASAP.

So here we are in Hanoi, Vietnam, and I'm ready to start the latest stage in my 2-wheel evolution. See, we went bike shopping today and ended up putting deposits down for two used Honda Win100s. That's right. A real bike. With a clutch. When we were shopping, we took advantage of the near-empty street at the garage and Ricky taught me how to drive, for the third time. It was really hard at first, with neutral being impossible to find, and my short legs having a hard time holding the bike up and using the kick-start. I killed it a few times and was shot straight back to my teenager-hood, learning to drive and stalling the car at every red light.

Because I learned to drive on a manual shift car, the idea of the clutch wasn't foreign to me at least. I got the hang of it quick enough, but I'm still nervous for when I get into real traffic with all the stop-and-go that entails.

But here's the thing. I've learned before (several times) and I will learn again. I feel like I've made good progress in my 2-wheeled vehicle driving. We'll see what the next three months holds for me! It could be a disaster, but I've got a feeling it will just be a blast.

I'll have pictures later when we pick up the bikes!

Coping with Unexploded Ordinance, Part 2: The Good

Yesterday Ricky wrote about the secret tragedy in Laos, about how hundreds of people a year are killed or injured by UXOs dropped by the America military during the Vietnam War.

However, as is common when a tragedy strikes a community, a sense of togetherness prevails. People reach out to other people, to help them, to ease their suffering, to mourn with them.

I am speaking specifically of an organization called COPE, headquartered in Vientiane.  COPE is the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and is a non-profit organization that provides artificial limbs and other help to those affected by the UXOs.

A couple nights ago, we heard about a charity concert taking place at the center to celebrate its 15th birthday, so we took the free shuttle and headed there. There were tons of foreigners and locals alike, dancing along to Lao hip-hip group Cell-T club and pop singer Aluna. 

Aluna serenading the audience.

One of the most amazing things about the concert was that it was held at the center of the complex of buildings that comprises an area that caters to the physically disabled. To our left was a school for the deaf, and those kids were the first ones dancing when a new song started.  

These kids know how to rock.

When the birthday cake was brought out, it wasn’t long before Ricky and I had frosting all over our faces, much to the enjoyment of the deaf kids. Soon enough, they too had frosting on their faces, courtesy of me.

The event was amazing, and all the proceeds from food, beverages, t-shirts, etc. went directly to COPE.  The next day we decided we’d take a trip to the visitor’s center and see what it was all about.

We arrived at the visitors center and began an enlightening/heartbreaking/angering/touching tour. Along the walls were descriptions of the types of bombs used, and what kind of damage they were capable of. Next we learned about how villagers used metal remnants of the bombs to make everything from buckets to ladders to doors for their homes.  There was a display home set up, where we could walk through and see how much these people relied on something so dangerous.

Pots, pans, cups, and other things made from bomb pieces.

At one point I stopped to ask a staff member some questions. He was a young guy, missing both hands and was blind. His name was Peter, and he was a good-humored guy, asking me why my name didn’t sound American if I was from the States.  We chatted about the center and Lao architecture with easy smiles and friendly tones.

After that, we watched a short 8 minute video of an interview of a set of parents that lost their 9 year old child to a bombie. His two friends died immediately but he was taken to a hospital a few hours away. There was no oxygen or blood to help him, so they took him home and let him die.  The mother cried. The father was indignant. Their pain was real.  

We then read stories of people who had been injured by the bombs, losing arms, legs, eyes. Their entire lives were changed. Most of them lived in very rural villages where working in the fields was a necessity. There was no workman’s comp, no light duty. They simply had to carry on. Many of them made artificial legs from wood or bamboo.  Others simply had no other choice than to remain at home. Injured children had to stay home from school, and could barely move around without assistance.

Enter COPE. 

COPE is with the victim from day one of their recovery. They pay for travel, accommodation, and food for those that live in villages outside of the city. Once at the center they are measured for prosthetics and given ample physical therapy.  They are instructed and aided in making their homes more accessible to them.  They are refitted for new prosthetics when old ones are damaged or outgrown, all free of charge.  But most of all, they are given hope. Victims are taught that they can have a normal life, that they can carry on as before, with minor adjustments.

Furthermore, COPE offers help to those who suffer not only from UXOs, but also children born with clubfoot and people who have lost limbs in car accidents or suffer from other physically disabilities. 

Through COPE, families and communities are strengthened and brought together. There is more education on what to do if you come upon a UXO and trained people voluntarily trek through the jungle searching for UXOs to be detonated.  There is hope that the Lao people will overcome this trial.

The red poles mark UXOs found. They will be detonated by trained professionals.

After leaving the center, I felt so moved and wondered if there was anything I could do. I remembered the mother in the video saying there was no blood in the hospital, so they could not help her son. I remembered passing a Red Cross Blood Transfusion Center a couple days before, so Ricky and I headed there so I could donate.  Sadly, my iron was too low and I was unable, but if the opportunity ever arises, I would like to try again.

In the meantime, I’ll encourage you to visit COPE’s website. Learn more about it. Donate if you can. 

Laos is an amazing place. It is a country of survivors. They are some of the happiest, most cheerful people I’ve ever met, despite everything they have gone through and are still suffering today. They are hard-workers; they care for their neighbors and their community. They are determined to thrive. Their pain and tragedy is real, but they are full of hope and love.

I think that’s something we can all strive to be. 

Coping with Unexploded Ordinance, Part 1: The Bad.

First a little history lesson….

Most people don’t know much about Laos. Most people couldn’t point it out on a map, or even tell you which continent it’s on.

 Well, let me tell you a little bit about it.

Laos is a small country in South East Asia. It borders China, Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. And over the last thousand years, it has been invaded by each and every one of those countries, and other countries from the other side of the world.

The most recent of these wars that Laos has been involved in was the Vietnam war. Which doesn’t even make much sense when you think about it. How was Laos involved in the war between North and South Vietnam forces? During the Vietnam war Vietnamese troops made a series of routes called the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to carry munitions to the troops around the country.

When the Americans found out about the Ho Chi Minh trail they instigated “the secret war”. The secret war was in the late 60’s and early 70’s when American bomber planes and fighter planes attacked areas of Laos that they believed were involved in helping the Vietnamese carry arms.

Here are some facts about the Secret War:

·         *On average a plane-load of bombs was dropped on Laos every 8 minutes from 1964 to 1973. That’s nine whole years.
·        * The quantity of unexploded ordinance (UXO) dropped over Laos during this time exceeds 2,000,000  metric tonnes.
·      *   The American government orchestrated over 584,000 missions to deliver this ordinance.
·         *The number of cluster munitions (bombies) dropped over Laos exceeds 260,000,000
·       *  The estimated failure rate per cluster bomb is roughly 30%
·       *  The estimated number of cluster bombs (bombies) contaminating Laos today is 78,000,000
·         *The number of people killed by UXOs annually exceeds 300. The number of people injured or maimed is in the thousands.
·       *  Laos remains the most bombed country per capita in the world

As you can clearly see from the facts, there is still a massive problem with the unexploded bombs dropped by American planes almost 50 years ago. The reality is that more people die in Laos (a country about the size of Ireland) from bombs dropped by Americans 50 years ago, than have died of ‘terrorism’ any year except 2001.

Here is a map of where some of the recorded bombing missions (of rice farming villages) in Laos occurred:

Talia and I have traveled all over this country. There are people in every village affected by the remains of the American Secret War on Laos. Every couple of days you see a person without hands, missing a leg or with a badly damaged face, due to farming for sustenance in an area that hasn’t been cleared of bombs dropped half a century ago.

Here are some accounts written by children in the refugee camps during the years of the bombings:

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Cluster Bombs are designed to be dropped from a certain height, open in the air and drop a cache of apple or plum sized ‘bombies’ over a large area, each bombie giving around the same explosive force as a hand grenade.
A hanging model of "bombies."

The UXO situation wouldn’t be such a large problem if Laos were America or Ireland, where the economy allows for funds to be allocated to clearing land quickly to allow people to farm. And most people in Laos make such a meager living that sometimes farming alone doesn’t make enough income so the people of Laos have to find other sources of income.

Because of this a lot of Laotians turn to the scrap metal trade. A lot of adults and children go out into the countryside with spades and sticks to see if they can fish some of the casings from exploded bombs out of the ground, and sell the metal on the local markets. The people in Laos search fields, knowing there are unexploded bombs ready to explode, so they can have enough to feed their families,  or just to have some minor luxuries such as pots or pans.

One of the biggest problems with cluster bombs is that though many countries have outlawed the use of cluster bombs, many countries still use them. Even today.

Even today the United States use cluster bombs in areas of the middle east and as awful as it is to destroy a family’s livelihood (or even massacre entire villages with bombs dropped from drones controlled from hundreds of miles away) the land that cluster bombs are dropped on can remain unusable for decades, as we can see in Laos.

Check out part 2 of our article on cluster bombs when I tell you how people in Laos are living and COPEing with UXOs.

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