Sunday, 1 October 2006

The Amazing Race 10, Episode 3

Gachurt (Mongolia) - Ulan Bator (Mongolia) - Hanoi (Vietnam) - Vac (Vietnam)

The first destination for the teams on “The Amazing Race” this week was the “Hanoi Hilton”, where prisoners of war including U.S. Senator John McCain were confined and tortured during the “American War”. (That’s what the war is called in the country where it was fought, to distinguish it from Vietnam’s wars against other foreign forces).

Like the racers, my companion and I arrived in Hanoi late at night, and took a taxi straight to the Hanoi Hilton. In our case, this was the hotel, not the prison. I wouldn’t normally have stayed at such an expensive and un-Vietnamese hotel, but I had made reservations for our first night at an Internet special rate of US$25 per night. Probably it was a pricing error. But having confirmed it, the hotel honored the price. The Hilton is a new hotel in a prime downtown location: the hotel chain procured the site in exchange for paying to renovate the grand French-colonial Hanoi Opera House next door.

Photo of Hanoi Opera House

Hanoi Opera House as seen from our room in the Hanoi Hilton

Hanoi is one of my favorite cities. My partner and I celebrated our 20th anniversary there, although by then we had moved to a more romantic (and generally cheaper) place than the Hilton. This season the racers got more time to enjoy Hanoi than when the teams rushed through in transit in “The Amazing Race 3”.

The racers’ first task was to search the Hanoi Hilton (prison) museum for the flight suit in which McCain parachuted into West Lake when his plane was shot down over the city he was trying to bomb.

There’s a monument nearby, on the causeway across the lake, depicting McCain in his flight suit, his parachute, and his plane (with the USAF logo on the wing), all falling from the sky.

Photo of monument

Monument on the causeway near where McCain landed in West Lake

The race didn’t visit the monument, but a bicycle ride across the causeway and around West Lake makes a nice excursion from the central city. Sitting at the peaceful white-tablecloth restaurant just past the monument, eating the signature shrimp fritters in egg batter for which West Lake is known, it’s hard to imagine that this beautiful city was once in the sights not of tourists but of bombers, in one of the longest and heaviest aerial assaults in history.

Photo of restaurant

West Lake shrimp pancakes

But most of the current population of Vietnam has been born since the end of the American War. Even older Vietnamese today extend a sincerely warm welcome to American visitors, including military veterans. Most Americans, they have been told and they believe, opposed the war. In general, those who survived the American War blame the American government, not the American people, for what they suffered.

All but one of the teams chose the “quick and dirty” task: molding fuel bricks out of a slurry of coal and water. We saw these pressed cylindrical bricks with tubular air channels used for heating and cooking throughout Vietnam. The alternative task took much longer: assembling a traditional Vietnamese wicker birdcage, like this one we saw.

Photo of birdcage

Traditional Vietnamese birdcage

The time it took to build a “simple” birdcage, and Lauren and Duke’s elimination, is an object lesson in how much time and labor in a Third World country, at Third World wages, can be invested in commonplace items that First World tourists can afford to buy on impulse as souvenirs.

The most conspicuous change in Vietnam between my visits in 1994 and 2001-2002 was the number of motorcycles that had displaced bicycles on city streets.

Photo of motorcycle traffic

Hanoi street scene. (The bundles at the right are part of the load on a cargo bike.)

Crossing the street in such dense two-wheeled traffic, whether of motorcycles or push bikes, is an act of trust. You could wait forever without seeing a clear path to the far side of the road. The only way to get across is to step right out between the vehicles closest to the curb, and keep moving slowly and steadily across the flow of traffic, so that each oncoming bike can judge your speed and tell whether to pass just in front of you or just behind you. If you slow down, speed up, or (worst of all) stop abruptly or try to run, you are likely to get hit by a bike that can’t predict your path or doesn’t have time to avoid you — as we saw happen to one of the racers.

The problem for tourists in a place like this is that motorcycles are exceptionally dangerous but also ubiquitous and the only way to get to some places. If it’s too far to walk, and the road or track is too narrow or otherwise impassable for four-wheeled vehicles, the temptation to accept a ride on the back of a motorbike, or to rent one for the day, can overwhelm our common sense.

Terry and Tom were almost eliminated by a 30-minute penalty for violating the “Amazing Race” safety directive against operating or riding on motorcycles in Vietnam. As for me, I’ve never come closer to renting a motorbike than on Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay, where it looks like the race is headed next week.

Is the race rule appropriate? Yes.

Moon Handbooks founder Bill Dalton’s comments in his Moon Handbooks: Indonesia could be applied to equally to Vietnam and many other countries:

Indonesia is no place to learn to ride a motorcycle. Ride one with great caution as serious motorcycle accidents on Indonesia’s madcap roads are common. Chickens, dogs, and children dart out unexpectedly into the road, there are giant potholes, big trucks lumber down the road straddling both lanes, and cars travel at night without using their headlights. Boulders, small rivers, and landslides on the road in the rainy season are other hazards.

As I note in The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World, “Motorized two-wheeler crashes are the leading cause of death among Peace Corps workers.” But that’s not the only thing you ought to think about before you rent a motorbike. Here are some more pointers from my book:

Both your regular and international driving licenses must be specially endorsed for motorcycles for them to be valid for any motorized two-wheeler. I hope you wouldn’t rent a big motorcycle unless you were already an experienced rider. But you might not realize that operating even a small scooter or moped legally requires, in most countries, both a regular license and a motorcycle endorsement. If you want to be able to rent a moped or scooter anywhere along the way, get a proper motorcycle license in your home country before you get your international driving permit. Even if you don’t care about the law, do it for your own safety.

People who rent small scooters and mopeds to foreigners would lose most of their business if they rented only to riders with valid motorcycle licenses. So they don’t check. But that doesn’t mean the police won’t check your license, either at routine roadblocks or traffic stops or if you’re in any kind of crash. You can probably bribe your way out of a charge of riding without a license, as long as no one gets hurt, but it could be expensive.

It’s all too easy to get in trouble on mopeds or scooters. We tend to think of them as just like bicycles: “child’s play.” But what is only a fender-bending crash in a car can leave a motorbike rider with scrapes, gashes, broken bones, and the possibility of serious infection from the wounds. Foreign travelers often use two-wheelers to get to remote or rural areas where medical treatment is a long way away. If you went by motorbike because cars can’t get through (because the roads are too narrow or muddy, or the ferries or fords are too small to carry cars), getting back on the bike may be the only way out, no matter how badly you are hurt.

People who rent out motorbikes by the day in the Third or Fourth World don’t usually even pretend to offer insurance. If you get hurt while operating a vehicle illegally (e.g. without a proper license), no insurance will cover you anyway. If someone else gets hurt, and you are operating your vehicle illegally, you will be presumptively at fault, and may be liable for criminal charges.

My recommendation? Play it safe, and rent a bicycle instead.

Photo of Edward on a bicycle

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 1 October 2006, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Since Senator McCain was a Naval Officer and flew A-4s off a carrier, I would be surprised if his aircraft wing had "USAF" written on it. Still, there were plenty of USAF planes shot down nearby if the North Vietnamese just wanted a similar wing for their display.

I agree Hanoi is a nice friendly city to visit. I started a two-week bike trip there in 2000 with some great meals. Seemed like every kid in town wanted to shake our hand/touch us.

John G. Nettleton, Colonel, USAF(Ret)

Posted by: John G. Nettleton, 4 October 2006, 09:54 ( 9:54 AM)

Perhaps it's artistic license, or perhaps the artist never saw the actual plane, but if you look closely, it's definitely depicted on the monument with the "USAF" and logo.

I saw some actual pieces of downed American warplanes at another museum in Hanoi, but I don't recall seeing anything identified (at least not in English or French) as being from McCain's plane.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 4 October 2006, 10:23 (10:23 AM)

I thought having people "race" through the Hanoi Hilton was very disrespectful and should not have occured. It says alot about our money hungry society that only one team took the time to honor the place. Fortunately, the good Karma paid off for them since they won that leg of the race!

Posted by: C. Gregory, 4 October 2006, 13:58 ( 1:58 PM)

Photos of Senator McCain at the monument in Hanoi in 2012:

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 8 September 2015, 11:18 (11:18 AM)
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