Wheel alignment

Wednesday 27 April 2011

A bit perplexed....

This morning,  I saw some statistics on US motorcycle deaths which with the exception of a small reversal in 2009, shows a steady increase from the late 1990's.  I don't intend to debate all the reasons for the deaths as I suspect they're many and varied.  Also, if New Zealand motorcycle accidents statistics are anything to go by  (see this POST), they can be "interpreted" to prove whatever political point is currently in vogue.

US Motorcycle Fatality Statistics

However, the article which accompanied the graph revealed that statistics released from the Governers Highway Safety Association in America show that use of motorcycle helmets dropped 13% in 2010 compared to 2009.  Helmet use in the USA stood at 54% in 2010, compared to 67% in 2009.

According to the GHSA's figures, in 2008 42% of fatally-injured motorcyclists were not wearing helmets.

Only 20 states have a universal helmet law, requiring helmets for all riders.

If these statistics are anywhere indicative of the true picture, they leave me both puzzled and dismayed.  Although the article deals with fatalities, I suspect that they are merely the tip of the iceberg.  What about people who have suffered severe and on-going injuries as a result of not wearing a helmet?  I'll come back to that in a minute.

I could be completely cynical and say that folks choosing not to wear helmets is a great example of Darwin's theory of evolution at work, but that's not how I feel. America is among the most technologically-advanced countries on the planet, spends megadollars keeping people safe with advanced safety systems in other forms of transport such as cars and aircraft, yet all but 20 states fail to legislate for that most basic of motorcycle safety devices, the helmet.  What on earth is going on?  Is it cruiser riders of a certain persuasion or motorcycle posers of all kinds who have political influence?  If they don't wear helmets, I'm picking that their attitude to other protective gear is similarly casual.  Is it the motorcycle industry itself not supportive of helmet use?  Hard to imagine.

As an outsider, I'm wondering whether the logic which the rest of the developed world might use to support helmet use doesn't apply here and that freedom of personal choice (ummmm... like the right to smoke or drink yourself to death) is the over-riding consideration in these states which don't legislate.  Maybe people should have the right to decide not to wear a helmet but also lose their right to priority medical treatment?

Any motorcycle death is a tragedy in its own right to the family, friends and wider community.  When the cause is failure to wear a helmet, it must be almost impossible to bear.  Coming back to non-fatal but serious injuries caused by not wearing a helmet, the cost to the state/taxpayer must be enormous because of the long term medical care requirements.  You'd think that alone would be sufficient incentive to make wearing a helmet mandatory.  Because of the increased cost of medical care through motorcycle accidents in NZ, annual motorcycle licensing costs have jumped by a huge amount - almost double in some instances.  I now pay the equivalent of  US$418 for the Street Triple.  You could correctly argue that this isn't addressing the root cause of accidents but at least authorities are well aware of social and financial burdens to the community in the case of all forms of auto accidents.

So what am I missing in the case of US authorities not legislating for the use of helmets?


Wednesday 20 April 2011

Book Review: Proficient Motorcycling, 2nd Edition. David L Hough

I've never undertaken a motorcycling book review before so wasn't really sure how to start. Let's begin with a photo which might give a clue to my overall thoughts about this book!

Tags, tags and more tags!

I'd like to think I'm a reasonably proficient motorcyclist after 4+ decades around bikes but that raises the question of what sort of rider should I be reviewing it on behalf of?  Would it matter whether the rider was experienced or not?  In the end, I started reading it from cover to cover and every time I found a sentence, paragraph or whole chapter which said to me, "Hey, that's pretty important", I stuck a self-adhesive tag close by.  By now, you'll get the picture that this is one heck of a good book and it's not stretching things to say that if it was given away with every motorcycle sold, motorcycling accident statistics might be a whole lot lower than they are now.

Even though you might have been around bikes a long time, the book demonstrates a couple of things....

- There's always something new to learn.
- The brain leaks like a sieve and the book is a fantastic refresher for stuff that you'd forgotten.  Use it or lose it!

David Hough has been riding bikes, talking about bikes and writing about bikes forever.  His 70+ years of age and over a million miles on two wheels make him a person who is seriously worth listening to.  Before we get into the book content, a word about his style.  There are other good books about motorcycling proficiency but some of them are a bit technical or evangelical which can be hard going depending on how you learn best, or what your current level of experience is.  David's approach is both rare and extremely effective.  Let's take his section on braking as an example.....

The first thing he does is gets your buy-in straight away by giving real-world examples of the consequences of failing to use good braking principles, often citing his own mistakes or those he's witnessed in simple, uncomplicated language.  It immediately takes you to your own shortcomings and grabs your attention.  David then moves to the theory of braking, aided with photographs, sketches and again, uncomplicated language.  He then shifts to the proper techniques for braking in a wide range of environments, how and why they work and even sets you practice exercises!  And whilst he's dispensing this wisdom, David does it with gentle humour and is never condescending.   As an example of his humour getting the message over, he's having a discussion with a young rider who is recovering from a broken leg from a collision with a car.  The rider was outraged that the other person didn't have right of way which reminded David of a little ditty  his father used to say:

He was right, dead right, as he sped along
but he's just as dead as if he'd been wrong.

When read in conjunction with the detailed advice he gives, it's a powerful message to hone your situational awareness skills.  So is his comment, "You're only paranoid if they AREN'T out to get you"!

The other thing about this book which I really like is that each topic is treated in a holistic manner.  Not only are improved technical riding skills covered but the psychology of situations and their importance in getting a good outcome are superbly covered with the aid of both photos and clear explanations.  Being aware of your surroundings is a vital and recurring theme but your emotional reaction and the reactions of other road users to various everyday situations also has a major impact on outcomes. Not reacting adversely to a perceived slight by another road user and getting distracted from the task of staying safe is indeed wise counsel - and too often ignored!

Your job is to get out of the way and get over your indignation!

Everything in this book is valuable but if I may pick on some additional examples which have a personal connection, they also serve to demonstrate the tremendous breadth of the topics covered.  These sections are extremely detailed and I'd be willing to bet that most readers will learn a heap of stuff about the effects of riding in adverse conditions, how to recognise you're in trouble and what to do about it.  People are a lot more susceptible to risk than they perhaps realise.

Physiological effects of heat and cold on motorcyclists.
Some years ago, I was on a weekend ride with friends in extremely hot conditions.  I knew about dehydration risks from a largely academic viewpoint so drank what I thought was an adequate amount of water, but in reality, nowhere nearly enough and began to feel a little unwell.  That evening when we got to our destination, a beer and a delicious seafood dinner were setting me up for further grief which didn't appear until arriving home the following day.  Dehydration, exacerbated by eating shellfish triggered a dose of gout in a big toe.  I'd never previously experienced gout and I wouldn't wish the pain on anyone.  Our family doctor explained that dehydration and often in combination with seafood is a fairly common cause.  Had I read this book at that time, I'd have certainly been much better informed about some of the real risks of overheating and dehydrating.  The impact of cold and wet are also excellent.

Riding a road bike on dirt.
Sooner or later, most of us will find ourselves on a section of dirt, either from a wrong turn or road works that make a moto-cross track look tame by comparison!  Growing up in urbanised areas of the UK, I didn't have the early off-road riding experiences that many of my fellow Kiwi and Aussie riding mates seemed to get as a matter of course.  I owned dirt bikes after emigrating to NZ but by then, I didn't bounce too well!  Consequently, I've always been nervous about significant dirt riding on a road bike, especially with big sports tyres and loaded for a few days away.

That sinking feeling......

David discusses the topic of riding a road bike on dirt both from a practical and theoretical viewpoint so that you clearly understand what's happening and why, and what course of action to take.  I'm sure it's going to pay off in spades from a personal viewpoint!

Group rides
About 10 years ago, some of my regular riding partners and I met some other riders at the remote coastal village of Kawhia and decided to ride the 40-odd km of largely blind corners and narrow road back to civilisation with them.  I won't go into detail but their riding was so appalling that every other road user on that stretch was put at extreme risk of serious harm and we pulled out after a handful of km.  It was that ride which made me gun-shy of riding in large groups.  On the same theme, we live a few scant minutes away from a stretch of road called the Coromandel Loop, one of the most popular roads for bikers in the north island.  It's a safe bet that on a fair percentage of large group rides on the Loop, it will result in one or more people decking their bike.  As a result of past experiences, the only people I'll group ride with are half a dozen or so mates whom I've ridden with since time immemorial.

The relevance of  the paragraph above to Proficient Motorcycling is that it covers group rides in huge detail, including the organisation and dynamics of such events as well as a fascinating insight into the psychology of what can happen on such rides.  Some people love organised rides, others steer well clear.  I'm in the latter category but at least I know in more detail why!  For those in the other camp, reading this section of the book will definitely help you to stay safe and organise much better rides if that task ever falls your way.

It's a job to judge whether I've done Proficient Motorcycling any real justice in the main part of the review but let me say that if I was going to recommend just one single book to a rider, either new or experienced, it's going to be this one.  Both the content and style lend themselves to an easy understanding of each topic, as does the practical advice.  Going back to an earlier comment, experienced riders need skills refreshment as much as learner riders benefit from upskilling and the book will help immensely in this regard.  I'll confess that I'd heard of David Hough a few years ago simply as a prominent American Motorcycle author but had never read any of his work until our recent collaborative posts on this blog about ageing riders.  The most honest and contrite way to sum it up is that I'm very pleased to have corrected that omission.

One final comment for the benefit of the part of the world that drives on the left.......  the photos, sketches and narrative completely transcend whether you drive on the left or right hand side of the road so don't worry.

Proficient Motorcycling - the Ultimate Guide to Riding Well, 2nd Edition*
David E Hough
Bowtie Press
ISBN 978-1-933958-35-4

* Includes a CD of additional motorcycling information

Have a wonderful and safe Easter everyone!

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Advanced riding masterclass!!

On Sunday evening, I got home completely knackered and immediately after having something to eat and drink, fell asleep in the armchair!  The reason for the exhaustion?  Stress, combined with riding nearly 2 1/2 hours  to Auckland, spending close to 3 hours under the watchful eye of the Chief Examiner for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, then riding home again!  Rarely has a day ride been so exhausting and last October's 1000 miles in 21 hours ride in the annual Grand Challenge event was far easier in terms of stress.

Before we get into what happened, let's go back a bit....

In February, I made a post entitled Putting my money where my mouth is.  It was about 2 main things...
  • The need for all riders to either periodically upskill or re-skill as a major contributor to staying safe.  There's nothing like a formal external assessment of your abilities for a sharp reality check! It's also particularly valuable for ahem... those of mature years for the reasons detailed in recent posts about ageing riders. Embarrassingly, my last formal advanced training course was in 2003 and I'm now 63.
  • Being retired and having time to put something back into the community (the motorcycling community in this instance), becoming an advanced instructor would be a way of achieving this provided I have the ability and temperament to make the grade. Even if I can't, it's still going to be good for me personally.
Time has passed since that post but I've been quietly checking out options and also having on-going dialogue with eminent motorcycle author and presenter David L Hough.  Here's what I've been up to.

There were 2 basic options in my mind:

The first was becoming a licensed instructor under government regulations.  This involves having my driving licence officially endorsed as an instructor by completing written course work under the NZ Qualifications Authority which governs formal learning in the country.  At the end of it, there would be a practical assessment of my riding capabilities. Most of the learning was how to teach motorcycle skills at a basic level so it didn't meet didn't meet my personal requirement of upskilling.  Furthermore, the course material was designed to teach learners and those riders requiring refreshers.  It seemed to be mainly for motorcyclists wanting to set up a commercial training business which I didn't want to do anyway.
Another option  was with the Institute of Advanced Motorcyclists, a UK-based organisation with an autonomous branch in NZ.  IAM has a considerable reputation in the UK, and also funds worthwhile research into motoring and motorcycling issues.  It also has a strong voluntary component for acquiring and passing on skills which ticked one of my boxes in wanting to put something back into the motorcycling community.

Friends of mine, Dylan Rogers and his wife Jo, are both IAM Observers (IAM term for an instructor/examiner) in the UK.  We've had some lengthy conversations  and Dylan kindly provided an outline of how the process works over there.  Here's a prĂ©cis of his words:

To be an IAM Observer you will need to pass the IAM Advanced Mototcycle Test to become a Full IAM member. In the UK some advanced courses such as police Class 1 will enable automatic membership. 
  • An initial assessment with an IAM Observer from an IAM group local to you
  • As many rides as required to get you to 'test ready' standard (typically 6 to 8 rides with an IAM Observer)
  • The definitive guide to advanced riding techniques 'How to be a better rider'
  • Membership of your local IAM bike group, with invitations to group events
  • Full preparation for your Advanced Riding Test
  • Your Advanced Riding Test undertaken with a qualified examiner
  • An IAM Advanced Riding Certificate on passing the test
  • 12-month membership of the national IAM.
So then you have your IAM ticket and the next step is enrolling with your group and training to secure your Observer status.

This approach appeared to be exactly what I was looking for.  A programme with real teeth, where my ability to meet the required standard was by no means assured.  The learning would stretch me, and then some!  So that's it then... a voluntary component and rigorous, exacting standards - count me in to see if I can measure up!

I filled in the expression of interest on the IAM website, clicked SEND and sat back.  In due course, Philip McDaid, the Chief Examiner; got in touch and gave me a brief run-down.  We were soon to depart for S-E Asia on holiday so left it at that for the time being.  Last week after getting back, Philip and I spoke again .  There was instant panic when he said he could fit in an Observed Ride 4 days hence and could I come up to Auckland? All the excuses came bubbling up... haven't ridden for over 3 weeks, am I good enough - the whole 9 yards!  Along with those feelings also came that delicious, churning feeling of anticipation in the stomach.

Eek - no place to hide now!!

Thought I'd better shake the rust off so a couple of days beforehand, rode about 120 km south of us to a dealer I was buying a car from.   Concentrated hard on all the advanced techniques previously learned and rode like a complete plonker - trying way too hard and the result was very dispiriting.  On the way back, just relaxed and things came naturally again - phew!  Another pleasing, relaxed ride when I went out for a 2 hour run the following day.  If only I can hold my nerves in check tomorrow!

Riding to Auckland on the big day was an enjoyable affair in good weather and although I don't ride or drive a lot in dense city traffic, it wasn't particularly difficult to start controlling my environment and also avoid the idiots who hadn't a clue.  Arrived intact and fresh at a riding partner's place for lunch and catching up with him and his family and another mate, plus the fact that their home was close to where I had to meet the examiner; all helped to keep me on an even keel!

The meeting venue was the car park of one of Auckland's Institutes of Technology where Philip was conducting basic skills training to novice motorcyclists as part of his normal commercial business. The IAM training as previously mentioned is an unpaid voluntary process, so it was great that he was could fit me in so quickly.

Basic skills training for learners in Auckland

Philip came over and introduced himself, saying he'd only be a few more minutes, then we'd get on with the job at hand.  I also had the pleasure of meeting another senior IAM member, Wayne Holden from Hamilton.  After a licence check, Philip wanted to observe my core handling skills and techniques before heading out on the road.  Slow speed riding and hard, controlled braking were fine.  He then had me doing elliptical circuits of the car park, followed by riding in tight, ever-decreasing circles and picked up a fault!  I wasn't lifting my head and turning it sufficiently (right angles or thereabouts) to look where I wanted to go a decent distance forward.  As soon as I did that, the turns were much tighter and a lot more controlled.  A good result before even leaving the car park!! That's one simple example of why refresher training is so important to correct the inevitable erosion of skills and to learn new ones.

Now it was time for the observed ride.  Philip explained that it would be measured against the general criteria used for police motorcyclists - in other words, some pretty exacting, measurable standards. "But don't worry", he says, "We just want to see where you are now".  Lovely guy he may be with an instantly likeable manner, but I'm desperately trying not to show a bad case of nerves caused by not wanting to let myself down.  He tells me to ignore his position on the road as he'll be moving all over the place watching what I'm up to. Even gets me to remove my tail pack so he can get a full view!

Philip equips me with a radio receiver, checks that it's working and we're off for some observation riding in the built up urban areas of Auckland.  About 5 seconds out of the institute of technology and into the traffic, first bloody mistake; wouldn't you know it.  Concentrating so hard on situational awareness that I forget to cancel my indicator and Philip's voice comes through the earpiece to remind me.  About 2 minutes later, I repeat the mistake...... what a muppet!  Philip says later that he's a little lenient for the first few minutes to allow the observed rider to settle in to the process- phew!  We work our way through town, down mainstreets, through backstreets, up and down gradients and through it all, I'm being watched for position, hazard awareness and a multitude of other factors.  Sticking to the posted town speed limit as a demonstration of bike control is quite difficult on a bike like the Street Triple with slightly snatchy fuelling off idle but I drop it a gear lower than I normally would and the engine braking is vastly improved by raising the revs.  Now I'm starting to relax a little!

Next, we head onto the urban motorway which runs to the north-west of Auckland.  It's unusually busy for a Sunday and some lanes are stopping and starting at one particular off-ramp, calling for some slow speed handling and good positioning to get forward observation and make progress.  Not quite the straightforward run I was expecting from a motorway, but felt quite comfortable nonetheless.  Although we're sitting smack on the posted speed limit, there's cars charging past, cutting lanes without indicating and so on but with reasonable positioning and awareness, it's not an issue.  Taking control of your environment really works!

Soon, we're into the outer suburbs with a mixture of different road types, varying speed limits and multiple potential hazards.  Approaching an intersection, I make another mistake.  There are road works for a few tens of metres leading up to a junction with a 30 km/hr temporary speed restriction. I'm concentrating on the junction itself and the uneven road surface; either missing the sign entirely or mis-reading it.  Can't remember exactly how it happened but I enter the restriction about 10 km/hour faster than I should have done.  Philip draws this to my attention at the first debrief stop shortly afterwards and I'm mentally beating myself up, despite him saying that the rest of my riding has been really good against the criteria. A lot of bikes have been coming the other way from the Kumeu area and waving.  If anyone reading this was one of them and thought that the Street Triple rider being followed by a red Honda Pan European was a stuck-up prick for not returning the wave, let me apologise here and now - I simply didn't have enough spare brain cells left to raise a hand!

We're now in the countryside down narrow, twisty lanes and apart from not having travelled in this area before, I'm completely at ease as it's not unlike my home territory of the Coromandel Peninsula, complete with the usual range of motorists who cut blind corners!  Manage to make good progress (i.e. not dawdling along) and follow Philip's directional instructions until he calls a brief halt.   He says that I'm making good use of speed on the rural roads and my positioning for maximum sight lines on corners is good (unusual for a first-timer apparently), although I could use even more of my side of the road where it's safe to do so and to take up that position earlier than I'm currently doing.  He then says he'll take the lead for a short while as he thinks I'm now in the position to benefit from watching him, whilst listening to his commentary.

This is the part of the story where the "Masterclass" bit of the title comes in!  When I haven't ridden for a while, I sometimes talk out loud with respect to hazard identification which helps to dial back in - maybe 10 or 15 seconds in every minute.  Philip is from another planet in this respect.  His commentary is darned near non-stop, crammed with all the observations he's making, both front, rear and sides.  Some of the things he's observing are a mere dot on the horizon.  He's still making observations and giving feedback whilst cranked right over on tight bends, for heaven's sake!  Above everything else, it's his unbelievable situational awareness which shows just how far I have yet to progress to be right on my game.  I then take over for more country riding, trying to put into practice what Philip has mentioned and when we stop; he's complimentary that I've taken it on board.

Time is getting on, so Philip leads back to Auckland to where we started from, again giving a masterclass of riding skill and commentary.  Not entirely without incident though!  Coming off the motorway to the urban roads, we follow a taxi and then Philip moves to his right to begin a turn.  I've noticed that the taxi driver's head is swivelling all over the place and don't feel happy so roll off the gas a bit and next moment, the taxi changes lane without indicating and barges in between us.  There's a very good case for trusting your instincts!

Philip, completing the observed ride checksheet

Philip goes over all the items we've discussed again and as I don't ride on motorways with merging roads or anything similar too often, he reinforces the need for good quality shoulder checks at traffic merge points.  He then congratulates me on the ride, gives me a personal action plan, an IAM application form for associate membership and a reading list in preparation for the next steps to becoming an IAM Observer.  Although today has just got me onto the first rung of the ladder, I'm unbelievably proud to have simply got to this stage - there's still so much to extract and digest from the ride (which incidentally, has been one of the greatest riding days of my life, errr.... now it's all over!).  I thank Philip yet again and depart for the haul back to Coromandel, much of it being in the dark with some showers to make conditions interesting.  Interestingly, negotiating the lunatic traffic, a bit of rain and twisty conditions on the Peninsula in pitch black seems pretty straightforward after what I've been through and learned, which is of course, the whole point of it all.  On arriving home, I gulp down several glasses of water, grab a quick bite to eat and promptly fall asleep in the armchair as previously mentioned - that's stress for you!

Some musings
Doing the observed ride itself produced some massive learnings which I'll try and make habitual as soon as I can. It's all about riding to a high level and doing it consistently, not in bursts. Really looking forward to pushing myself further by seeing if I can make it to Observer level, both to raise my own skills and also to put something back into motorcycling after the pleasure I've had from it over 40+ years of riding. Is it worth considering by other riders?  It most certainly is but if you don't want to commit long term to putting the skills back into the riding community as an Observer, then there are commercial avenues to pursue advanced training which may be more suitable.

Earlier in the post, I used the phrase "controlling the environment".  I'm not sure whether this is an adequate description of what the IAM approach does but the training goes way beyond pure bike handling skills into manipulating the environment you ride in to improve your safety and much, much more besides.  This post hasn't described the incredible day I've just had with anywhere near proper justice but at least you'll get an idea of it's impact on me!

Finally, I have some sincere thanks to some people whose influence set me on this journey, although there's still plenty of time to curse them yet!  Often, you need people to give you a nudge to set you on a path and these guys did exactly that. That's why I'm giving some well-deserved public recognition.

Dylan Rogers, UK IAM Observer, for all his encouragement and information about the process and for not letting me off the hook when the resolve wavered a bit.

David Hough, motorcycle author, for all our correspondence and collaboration on strategies for ageing riders to keep riding safely. A great learning opportunity in itself.

Fellow Kiwi blogger Roger Fleming (Raftnn) for him putting his money where his mouth was in terms of  his incredible enthusiasm for upskilling and inspiring me to do the same. Enthusiasm is contagious!

And finally to IAM Chief Examiner Philip McDaid for giving up precious free time to help an old fart from the countryside.  Didn't think it was possible to learn so much in so short a time! A privilege to see just how well it's possible to ride and the fact that learning is a continuous process.

As previously stated, the IAM route might not be suitable or even available to many riders, but I hope the post encourages people to get out and reskill/upskill with an independent assessment of your abilities.  It might just be a life-saver and certainly raises riding enjoyment.

More posts to come as we enter the next stages...

Note:  For a summary of how it all turned out 8 months later after much blood, sweat and tears, click HERE

Friday 8 April 2011

G&J's Excellent Asian Adventure, final chapter

Gary and Sue stayed on to explore the Mekong Delta and then hop into Cambodia so it was just Jennie and me who took the shortish flight south to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur.  Dad was stationed there with the RAF in his early career and we were keen to see the place, even though it had obviously completely changed in the intervening years.  It's an island of some 700 sq km with a population of around 5 million of mainly Chinese and Malay descent.  It's connected to the Malay Peninsula by road bridge and is a business hub for S-E Asia with strong British connections.

Leaving the airport for our hotel late afternoon, we were immediately struck by the cleanliness and orderliness of the place.  The 15-odd km from the airport to our downtown hotel was planted with beautiful, flowering shrubs the whole way - looked like something out of Fantasy Island!  Singapore has an international reputation for strongly enforcing the rule of law.... the death penalty for drug trafficking, right through to $1000 fines for littering, smoking and drinking (even water!) on public transport and so on.  Jumping ahead a bit, but to illustrate the obsession with orderliness, we took a photo of a sign hanging in an amphibious vehicle we took a trip in.  Apparently, yawning on the trip is right up there in the heinous crime stakes along with eating and smoking - absolutely hilarious!

 No yawning, by order.  Understood?

 The central city and river waterfront is a curious place by day.  The Singaporeans are all tucked inside office blocks and shops, making money.  The only people wandering about in the mid-day heat and glare are tourists, and not too many of them either.  It's true what the song says about "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun" !  It's only after dark when Singapore kicks off with a vengeance.  We had our first meal by the river at Clarke Quay in an open air restaurant not far from the hotel.  Like most Asian food, it was utterly delicious and beautifully presented.  However, priced like Vietnam it wasn't!  Costs were higher than an equivalent meal in NZ and it was a good job that we were only staying for a couple of days.

Mmmm... and what culinary delights will we try tonight?

 Fantastic colour-changing fountain at Clarke Quay

Despite the high prices at the more upmarket restaurants, prices were more reasonable (but not by Vietnam standards) at the ethnic eateries outside the city centre and in the Little India area, there were kiosks catering for every taste.

 Bewildering food choice - Little India

During the day, we explored the city and whilst there's some old architecture, Singapore seems hell-bent on staying as modern as possible.  Fortunately, the quality of the modern architecture is beautiful and innovative so it's not an uninspiring eyesore like many modern cities.

 Arty-farty shot of 4 lane river bridge from below

The photo below is of a 280 metre high triple tower hotel with a casino in the basement and a boat-shaped observation deck on top, complete with large infinity pool.  Hmmm... not sure about swimming in that!  The lotus flower-shaped structure is a museum of technology and art.

Not your usual skyline

A visit to the botanic gardens had us slack-jawed for the whole time we spent there.  It's absolutely world- class and the volume and variety of orchids and lilies growing there in the open air is simply staggering.

Just some of the incredible orchids

That evening, we went on a "Night Safari" which was excellent.  It's a sort of zoo which has been designed to look like a natural jungle.  After dark, a small truck pulling open carriages takes you round to see the animals including tigers, rhinos and so on.  There's only low-level lighting to heighten the atmosphere and with no flash photography allowed, it wasn't possible to get any photos.  Innocuous animals like deer and so on wandered freely where we were but the things that were keen on eating you or trampling you to death were separated by very discreet security measures which were difficult to spot.  A really worthwhile outing.  I did take one photo there though - among the food and souvenir stalls at the Safari was an elongated tropical fish tank with a seat along one side.  For a modest charge, you could dangle your feet in the tank and the tropical fish would nibble off the hard skin.   It was extremely popular among womenfolk and by the delighted screams, I sincerely hope that their partners aren't going to find themselves redundant.

Well I never........

Next day, we'd booked a morning trip on an amphibious vehicle to see sights on the river and around town.  Close to the departure point, there was a tent selling "Drive a Ferrari or Lamborghini convertible  round the Singapore streets".  Really tempting but suspect that it would have needed a wallet considerably fatter than mine!

Serious toys

The combined river and road cruise in the amphibian was an absolute delight with great views of riverside buildings.

Amphibious vehicle - tacky paint job but great fun!

World's biggest observation wheel

New botanic gardens temperate house - opening in 2012

Stainless steel pedestrian bridge with a human DNA helix design

Museum of technology and art - lotus flower design

The photo below is a temporary self-contained apartment for tourists, $175/night.  It's built over a large statue which comes up through the floor from the steps below!  Due for removal in the near future.

Wonder where the waste water discharges???

Riverside pits for the Singapore F1 GP

Blue buildings complement the water very well

A word about things automotive......

Big bikes abound and as stated in the first post about our trip, Singaporeans seem to scoot over to Malaysia for their fun on account of the better motorcycling roads and undoubted more relaxed attitude of the gendarmerie to a bit of speeding.  Given the strong approach to law and order in Singapore, speeding probably rates up there with drug trafficking in terms of penalty.

All the cars are modern and immaculate.  We speculated that there were laws against dirty vehicles too but one local told us that an immigrant labourer kept hers clean inside and out for $30/month!  Owning a car in Singapore is pretty expensive.  There seems to be a thinly-disguised congestion tax as the local said that even before she bought her 1600cc car, there was a $40,000 ownership permit which had to be applied for, lasting just 10 years.

Ducati Hypermotard with Chinese single cylinder cruiser in the background

As we headed for the airport to catch our flight back to Kuala Lumpur and then bound for home in NZ, Jennie and I reflected on our Singapore experience.  Architecturally-stunning and immaculate but pricey compared with other Asian countries.  Some of their laws, especially for serious crime seemed pretty fair whereas other lesser ones appeared a bit draconian. Maybe that's the price to be paid for a regulated society where crime statistics looks to be exceedingly low.   However, Jennie's remark that the place lacked soul, was sterile and resembled a giant theme park summed it up perfectly.  On further reflection, it also reminded me of the town in Jim Carrey's movie, the Truman Show!  We'd certainly recommend it for 2 or 3 days as a stop-off point en route to somewhere itself but definitely not as an end destination.

Well, that concludes our Excellent Adventure and hope that you've enjoyed the ramblings contained in each part. If you fancy going to intriguing, adorable Vietnam, my recommendation would be not to put it off for too long as it will inexorably drift closer towards western culture.  It would be a tragedy if that happens too quickly.

Finally, an amusing incident which has never happened before.  We got home late on a Sunday afternoon and because our body clocks were out of whack, sleep was a pretty broken affair.  The next night, we crashed except that I needed to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night.  The scrambled remains of my brain said that we were still in a hotel in Vietnam but which one?  I shuffled round the bedroom in the pitch black trying to find the bathroom entrance.  Having failed dismally, I then found myself in an another bedroom which I took to be the bedroom of another hotel guest and fled back to our room where I sat on the edge of the bed for a good 5 minutes until it all clicked.  You'll be delighted that I then found the designated receptacle with no further difficulty and slept the sleep of the innocent!  Funny what sleep deprivation does!   

Wednesday 6 April 2011

G&J's Excellent Asian Adventure, part 5

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
Da Nang airport was well-appointed and modern but boarding the aircraft was still the disorganised scramble which we'd experienced at other local airports, and it would have been nice to board by air bridge given the heat and humidity.  Da Nang is a dual civilian and military airport and whilst boarding, two fighters took off with a colossal amount of noise.  The air force seems to be equipped with Russian fighters which are  highly regarded in terms of ruggedness and reliability, even if these (MiG 21's or Sukhoi) are a bit long in the tooth now.  Our flight was held on the taxiway whilst one of them landed, jettisoned its parachute and then taxied right in front of us. Picture taken from inside the plane, hence the blurring.

MiG or Sukhoi fighter

Arriving in Saigon just before lunchtime, we checked in to the hotel and then wandered out to find something to eat. This is where my dining experience turned into pure comedy, errr...for the others, that is!  Vietnamese food is invariably served with little bowls of dipping sauces and delicious, fairly mild chillies and so on.  Lunch this time was no exception and the selection of spring rolls we ordered came with an assortment of interesting little bowls. In one of them was the usual scarlet ringlets of chopped chilli, accompanied by what looked like the diced flesh from a cucumber.  It looked extremely inviting so I heaped a load on the end of my chopsticks and shovelled it in.  Next moment, my head exploded and I was in a world of pain.  How on earth can anyone eat anything that hot????    In spitting it out, some got onto my lips and it felt that I'd been smacked in the mouth by Mike Tyson.  Nose and eyes running, swigging beer like there was no tomorrow, I had to endure a certain amount of piss-taking by my fellow diners who then wisely avoided that little bowl.  I don't know what the white stuff was, but cucumber it wasn't.  My lips were still tingling slightly the next morning!

After lunch, it was time for a walk round Saigon city centre to see a few sights.  It's a clean, modern city although there are still a lot of old buildings from the days of French colonialism which are immaculately preserved.

The gorgeous opera house

 Opera house by night

Despite being in the centre of a modern city, pavement trade still flourished and added to the colour.  We found a shop which specialised in model replicas of old sailing vessels, some seriously large as the photo below shows.  Incredible in detail and like most other things in Vietnam, real value for money.  Whilst we were there, an employee was out on the pavement building a crate from scratch to house one of the model ships which had just been sold.

A seriously large model ship with amazing detail

Business enterprise  is everywhere and in the photo below, some guys are running a motorcycle and cycle service business from the pavement.  In the background, a bicycle is being serviced and in the foreground; the scooter is being overhauled.  Cables have been removed for lubrication and note the bowl of old engine oil on the kerb!  The scooter owner sits in the luxury customer reception chair whilst the work is performed. What a joy to see!

 Pavement motorcycle service business

That evening, we enjoyed cocktails in the famous Saigon Saigon bar at the Caravelle Hotel we were staying in.  Must say that the city views were lovely and the cocktails were value for money.  The Singapore Slings were far superior to those in Singapore and at about 1/3 of the price too!

Singapore Sling with accompanying Dragon Fruit decoration

Saigon Saigon Bar with Notre Dame cathedral in the distance

The following morning, we visited Notre Dame cathedral which was beautifully kept and an architectural delight, again reinforcing the religious and civil freedoms in the country.

Interior of Notre Dame cathedral

However, there was one building which transcended the cathedral in terms of architectural splendour and this was the French-inspired Central Post Office.  What a magic place!

CPO - what a wonderful, vibrant building!

 Beautiful telephone booths inside the CPO

With its decorative ceramic floor tiles, rich red wood and beautifully-painted walls, it was a building which simply made your head swivel and grin in pleasure. Hats off to someone who knew how to design "happy" buildings. The surprises of the CPO weren't weren't quite finished though as our guide Giau reverentially pointed out an elderly gentleman seated at a bench (below).  This gentleman, well into his 80's, started work at the post office when he was 16.  Long retired, he holds an emeritus post.  He's the last public letter writer in Vietnam.  This means that he's there to help people with writing difficulties to compose letters, or offer translations into to other dialects or languages.  And he comes in every day.  A genuine living treasure.

The last public letter writer - something immensely sad about that

Next stop was a lacquerware factory just down the road.  Lacquerware was right off my radar before this visit so it was an entirely new experience.  Vietnamese lacquerware normally uses rose, cherry or walnut as a base which is wet or steam-moulded to the desired shape as required.  It's then impregnated with a stabilising lacquer and often with a gauze skin to prevent cracking.  Coats of natural lacquer tinted with pigment are then applied, along with decorative mother of pearl, eggshell or other coloured paint.  Each coat is sanded back to provide a lustrous, smooth finish and to expose the decorative medium.  The 2 photos below show decorative material being applied and sanding back of one of the dozens of coats.  Pieces often take 4 months to complete because of the drying time between coats.  I fear the piece of plastic in the wallet is about to get another hiding!

Applying tiny pieces of mother of pearl

Sanding back to expose the image

Simple, elegantly finished platters

We stopped off at the Vietnamese War Museum for a couple of hours.  Going there perhaps seems at odds with a carefree and fun-filled holiday but how could you not go after all had been seen and heard about the conflict which filled our newspapers and TV for so long in decades past? What I write next is neither a condemnation nor tacit approval of the reasons behind the war, it's simply how I felt being at the museum.  The war happened at a time in history when opposing sides were terrified of each other's ideologies and it has to be seen in the context of predictable responses at that time.  The different rooms of the museum depicted various aspects of the war.  Two rooms had photos taken by western journalists covering Agent Orange and the brutalities perpetrated by both sides.  Normally, I'm a pretty controlled type but I stood there wiping the tears away whilst I was in those two rooms.  I wasn't the only one either.  Little wonder that veterans on all sides were changed people when it was all over. I think it was what happened to children which really tipped me over the edge. What also made it emotionally harder to shrug off  was that nowhere in the museum was there any left wing political rhetoric or blame for what happened - it was what it was.  This again shows the Vietnamese to be exceedingly special people.  NZ infantry and Special Forces plus our Aussie cousins fought alongside America and I asked Giau how her countrymen felt about our respective countries.  She replied that good people are good people everywhere and if anyone has to be singled out, it might be politicians everywhere who should hang their heads in shame. Wise, generous and humbling, especially from a 26 year old.  

I recently saw a quotation by Harry Emerson Fosdick, an American clergyman, which succinctly sums it up:   
"The tragedy of war is that it uses man's best to do man's worst".

To end this narrative on a lighter note, Kiwis, Aussies and tourists from the Americas seem to be well-liked by the Vietnamese as being down to earth and easy to get along with.  Overall, previous colonial masters the French are not regarded with quite the same level of affection!

US Fighter bomber - Northrop Freedom Fighter?

What big eyes you have, Grandma!

Skyraider - a BIG plane!

Gatling gun on a Huey helicopter

Having seen the museum, we then travelled in a reflective mood to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong in the Saigon area.  Large amounts of them still exist although they'd been tidied up a bit to let the "larger" western tourist experience some parts of them.

Giau explaining the extent of tunnelling

A well-concealed entrance

B-52 bomb crater still visible and still deep

Sharpened bamboo stake booby trap

After the above-ground part of the tour, we were asked whether anyone wished to go underground.  Jennie and Sue weren't keen but Gary and I were up for it.  Descending into the first level, the heat was diabolical and the confined space didn't help either.  The photos below were taken with flash but they were quite poorly lit in reality.

Large entrance way

Crouching and twisted sideways in over 40 C temperatures

It was a fascinating and appalling insight into the conditions which prevailed.  It would have been an absolute nightmare for both the Vietnamese and the Tunnel Rats who went in to clear the tunnels.  It certainly helped to understand a little more about the conflict which happened all that time ago but at the same time, seems like yesterday in some respects.

Jackfruit tree at Cu Chi. Delicious either fresh or dried 

Local workboat and floating water hyacinth - an invasive weed which apparently didn't exist in Vietnam 2 decades ago

Another innovative motorcycle conversion between Cu Chi and Saigon

We had come to the last evening of our stay in Vietnam and we all went with Giau for an evening cruise on a multi-decked Sampan on the Saigon River for yet another memorable meal, accompanied by a Philippine woman who sang beautifully with the backing of a synthesiser.  However, the musical highlight of the evening was when a member of the audience, a Vietnamese woman around 60 got up and backed by the synthesiser, sang House of the Rising Sun in French!  What a voice, what a standing ovation!!!

Dinner cruise on the Saigon river

Some reflections on Vietnam:
Loved the place with a passion.  Rich history and culture and wonderful scenery.  Heaps to see, do and buy at very competitive prices by western standards. The hotels we stayed in were close to flawless and the service was superb.  At the other end of the scale, our eldest son was impressed with backpacking arrangements and homestays when he visited a few short years ago. The further south you go, the warmer it gets and the people become increasingly laid back.

The food - divine!  Healthy, delicious and a huge range of options. Even local eateries seem to have high health standards.  Bottled water is recommended and is available everywhere and cheap.  Local beer is also delicious and cheap! 

The people.....  charming and good-humoured to a fault - loved 'em to bits. Giau, our guide was sheer magic.  On top of her game, a real wit - who could ask for more?

A small group tour was perfect for us as it could be personalised and the guide was able to take us to unexpected places on a whim using local knowledge.  Active Asia, who have branches in NZ and Vietnam organised a superb tour and we also got the right balance of time to ourselves.

Would we return? Darned right we would!  We still have the Mekong Delta and the north-western hill country to cover and we can combine it with travel plans elsewhere in Asia.

I'm sure that doesn't cover everything but you get the gist!

Next time, the final holiday destination - Singapore.