Overload

I’m not the best person to hear tourists’ “I saw the craziest thing on the road today” stories. For one thing I probably see the same thing or more disastrous almost daily and I don’t feign surprise or interest well. And worse, I’ll probably share one of my own inconceivable stories that comes from a solid year on the Sai Gon streets. Either way, I’ve robbed their ‘four people on a bike’ story of its magic. I don’t like this part of my personality and I’m really trying to work on it.

To purge myself, I’m sharing some of my best/worst photos of overladen vehicles and improbable cargos. These photos are a simultaneous testament to people’s ingenuity, pragmatism, craziness, and desperation. Generally these people and their cargo are trying to make a living or just getting from one place to another; just stand back with your faces set to stunned.

An entire pottery shop on a bicycle.

Overload cups
If this was my bike, there’d be broken pottery just everywhere.

A lot of people train their dogs to ride on their bikes with them; small mixed breeds, terriers, pugs, etc. This guy gets his Great Dane to squeeze itself in front of him. I ran down the street after them.

Overload Dog
My 9kg terrier used to get the entire backseat of a sedan to himself and still managed to find something to complain about.

Another mobile shop; if you can’t find the basket that you want here, then it probably doesn’t exist.

Overload baskets
You don’t even have to get off your motorbike to buy that gourd you needed!

So many plants on this mobile nursery, that I couldn’t see the rider.

Overload florist
Just a palm tree taking some orchids on a ride.

I think it is only sheer willpower and good intentions that is keeping this motorbike and cargo together. Maybe some rope too…

Overload Garbage
You can’t imagine how uncomfortable this is.

Tourist cyclos (most tourists call them tuk tuks) do double duty taking cargo around town. Saigonese people are daring and skilled motorcycle riders, but not ‘four queen-sized mattresses’ talented.

Overload Mattress
Note the garbage collector to the right of the picture also – this is what hard work looks like. 

These are light, plastic containers but the size of this cargo alone makes riding extremely difficult.

Overload plastic
I walk past the woman that owns this motorbike most mornings, we’re ‘waving buddies’ now. 

Sadly, this is the best example I have of long poles being transported on a motorcycle. I never seem to have a camera when I’ve seen full-length street lights being transported this way; one on either side of the bike for balance. Maybe one day.

Overload Poles
You don’t want to be riding next to them going around corners.

Almost colliding with 30kgs of water spinach is a typical, early morning event near a traditional open-air market.

Overload veggies
Vegetables that are so keen to be sold, they drive themselves to market.

This is my best/worst photo of an overloaded Saigonese vehicle. He could barely reach the throttle to start moving and his riding looked pretty wobbly. Even the Saigonese native standing next to me couldn’t believe what we witnessed. This is why your stories don’t impress me.

Overload last

Cargo witnessed, but not photographically recorded.

  • Lobster tanks with water oxygen system – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
  • Small refrigerator – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
  • Box of live tree snakes – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
  • Small mahogany armoire – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
  • 60 live gold fish in bags – hung from frame on motorbike.
  • 1.5 metre, potted mandarin tree – strapped to back of motorbike.
  • Live, baby black bear – dragged in a cage behind a motorbike to advertise a circus during Vietnamese New Year traffic (the worst, craziest and loudest of Vietnamese traffic). I’ve never seen a more terrorised and frightened creature in my life.

McPork

When Viet Nam’s first McDonald’s opened in Sai Gon last year; it attracted a bit of international press. Global reactions ranged from disbelief that there wasn’t dozens of them already, to horror that one of the last strongholds against American corporate greed was being crushed beneath the ubiquitous Golden Arches. But really, nothing about the arrival of McDonald’s should have been surprising.

Suddenly remembering my childhood fear of clowns and am regretting this whole post.
Suddenly remembering my childhood fear of clowns and am regretting this whole post.

For one thing, Vietnamese people love trying to kill themselves with sugar and transfat as much as the next person. And they’ve been doing it with lots of international fast food chains; including KFC, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Starbucks, Dominoes, Gloria Jeans and Lotteria. And Jollibees… Jollibees everywhere.

Vietnamese people are also generally interested in trying all the foods and drinks they see in American and Korean movies and television shows. I’ll admit to my own curiosity the first time I went to America; I ate more corn syrup than was nutritionally advisable and I was lucky to escape without developing Adult-onset Diabetes. So, of course people are going to want to try a Big Mac, when they’ve been hearing about them their whole lives.

McDonald’s have even come up with the McThịt (McPork), the first Vietnamese-style burger on the menu, to appeal to consumers who want to eat something with vague Vietnamese flavours at six times the cost of something they could find just down the street. The McThịt joins the ranks of bespoke menu items found in non-American McDonald’s including; the McFalafel in Lebanon, the McNürnburger in Germany, the McKřen in Czech Republic and McArabia Grilled Kofta in Egypt.

What might be surprising to the uninitiated are the circumstances of the opening of McDonald’s in Viet Nam. When McDonald’s looked around for the obligatory Vietnamese partner, they found the perfect person for the job in Nguyễn Bảo Hoàng, also known as Henry Nguyen. He and his family fled Sai Gon in the 1970s and settled in America. Nguyễn went to Harvard and returned to Viet Nam were he became the head of the Vietnam arm of investment fund IDG Ventures, having previously worked for Goldman Sachs. He even held a job slinging fries at McDonald’s as a teenager in America. And not that it matters; he just happens to be married to the daughter of Vietnam’s prime minister.

I can only offer a polite golf clap to McDonald’s for making a pragmatic choice in partner. Viet Nam’s laws and regulations can make it very difficult for foreign investors to crack the market and officials are more than able to delay or end investor’s plans unless someone with experience and connections is able to convince them otherwise.

Whether McDonald’s hiring of this prince among businessmen violates the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act isn’t for me to decide, that is for the US Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission to determine. Though, it has been said they frown on American corporations who hire people specifically to influence those in power, which definitely isn’t the case here.

Reassuringly, if the McDonald’s job doesn’t work out for Nguyễn, he is still has being the Head of Vietnam’s Pizza Hut to fall back on. And surely his wife’s salary as the Executive Director of Vietnam Capital Fund Management would be able to cover a few bills.

McDonald's Vietnamese Menu.
McDonald’s Vietnamese Menu.

The Tourist Tax

It is your first time in HCMC and you find yourself hungry after a long day of walking around parks and museums. Your stomach might still be adjusting to the local food and you want something safe and light to eat. Luckily a fruit seller wheels her cart over to you to have a look. There are so many unidentifiable fruit on offer, but then you spot some nice, harmless and reliable bananas. “How much for the bananas?” you ask, pointing at them. She pulls out three 20,000 dong notes and says something in Vietnamese. This is great, the art of Commerce punched through the language barrier and you understood each other. You hand over the cash and smile and wave as she leaves you with your fruit. It is only later that you discover that the same amount of fruit is usually sold for half the price. You probably feel a little cheated; the lingering taste of bananas turns to betrayal in your mouth…

That woman preyed on your ignorance and added the dreaded “Tourist Tax.” Additional charges given to people that don’t know the going rates for goods and services. But I want you to stop right there and cheer up my friend, you still just bought a whole bunch of bananas for about a dollar and a half! Even with the Tourist Tax, you still thought it was a pretty wonderful deal. The fruit seller just saw an opportunity to make a little extra money from someone that could part with it. And believe me, as a tourist or an ex-pat living in Viet Nam, you are always going to have more disposable income than that fruit seller. Even if you are one of those backpackers that lives on $5 a day and survives on that beef jerky you smuggled in from home, you are still in a better financial position. You are on holiday, you have options.

This is the fruit seller’s real life, she works seven days a week and she probably has children to feed. I don’t want you to get the impression that every transaction you make is going to have Tourist Tax included, it actually happens pretty rarely. Generally, people don’t increase their prices on a case by case basis. Just remember that when it does happen, try to understand someone else’s struggle, keep some perspective and quickly get back to enjoying your time in Viet Nam.

At this point in my stay in Viet Nam, Tourist Tax is something I recognise and know how to avoid; knowing the price of something or asking for the price in Vietnamese is a strong signal that I know what I’m doing and local prices are always offered. But as time moves on, I find myself not minding too much if I am charged a little extra; it is fine – I have extra, a lot extra.

Be aware that my definition of Tourist Tax is different to outright scams, of which there are many and you should look out for them. Scams seem like a good post topic; I’ll probably write about those later…