30
Jun 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 4)

DAY: 04Screenshot from 2014-06-15 01:05:26
Distance: ~300km
Endpoint: Huế
Pho Consumed: 0
Today’s Author: Felix
Screenshot from 2014-06-15 01:05:12

Despite our intention of getting an early start, we managed to ignore our alarm and didn’t get out of bed until around 10.  After grabbing a quick bite (seafood soup, rice, more egg, and mystery meat) and loading up the bikes, we hit the road around 11.  Departing from the humble village-without-a-name, we headed into some excellent riding roads.  Although the temperature was scorching, we encountered little traffic and had a pretty enjoyable ride.  However, we did see our first Westerners in a couple of days – first a pair heading north, one of whom had a GoPro on his helmet, then a few shirtless gentlemen on scooters in the twistys.  We stopped after about 30 minutes to snap some photos, then continued on.

The end of the mountain roads deposited us in a deep valley at the north end of the Phong Nha park area, with a nice wide highway.  Around 12:15, we stopped for fuel and to check our maps, then headed into the park towards Paradise Cave.  Despite a distinct lack of signage or instructions for tourists, we made our way 20km into the park and found ourselves at the entrance to a tourist site around 12:45.  We parked our bikes (5,000 VND) and grabbed some cold drinks, then headed off towards the cave after buying entrance tickets (120,000 VND).  Presented with the option of hiking towards the cave mouth or taking a small electric cart, we decided to walk (hey, we could use the exercise, right?).
A 15 minute or so walk on along a paved path brought us to the base of some stairs, where we began our ascent towards the cave entrance.  Along the way, we encountered a friendly gent from SF who had hired a guide; she was quite helpful in directing us towards the cave entrance.  Reaching the top of the stairs after another 15 minutes or so, we headed into the cave.
Phong Nha is noted for its extensive cave systems, which extend for some 70km underground; only 20km or so of these have been fully mapped.  Visitors to Thiên Đường (aka Paradise) Cave is one of the largest caves in the world, extending for some 31km underground, with the larger chambers over 100m in height.  Tourists are permitted to explore the first kilometer or so on their own, and up to 7km if accompanied by a guide.  Being neither guided nor experienced spelunkers, and wanting to make Hue by nightfall, we spent about 45 minutes exploring the blissfully cool caves before heading back out, stopping briefly for a cold drink.  In the interest of time we also opted to skip Phong Nha cave, which is supposed to be spectacular, as it contains a large underground river.
Heading back onto the highway around 3 (after another cold drink), we made fairly good progress until we hit a massive thunderstorm.  Stopping briefly to acquire/put on rain gear, we quickly became soaked anywhere we weren’t covered by waterproof clothing.
 Although we reduced our speed in the interest of safety, we made it through the worst of the storm after about an hour.  We stopped at a gas station around 5:40 to check our maps and get fuel.  With the light failing rapidly, we began to encounter some fairly dangerous riding conditions.
First, the Vietnamese seem to have in indifferent attitude towards the use of headlights, even after dark, causing some fairly obvious problems.  This is exacerbated by the fact that motorbikes can (and often do) drive in the shoulder of highways, leading larger vehicles to think it’s perfectly safe to move into the oncoming lane to pass (two wheelers are expected to get onto the shoulder and out of the way).  Third, most of Vietnam’s highways are unlit at night, which only compounds the headlight issue.  Finally, construction zones appear to be ubiquitous, frequently necessitating rapid maneuvering and going quite slowly.
We also had to stop at train crossings twice, which saw just about everyone (trucks, vans, bikes, etc.) jockeying for position – including moving into the opposing lane on both sides of the crossing!  Fortunately our bikes had enough power to get us away from the worst traffic snarls.  Between the traffic, the train crossings, the poor weather, and the lack of light, we reached our hotel in Hue around 7:45 (including a harrowing ride across a 4m wide bridge absolutely PACKED with scooters over the river in the city).
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Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam.  The city is divided in half by the Pearl river, with the older part of the city (and the famous Citadel) to the the northwest of the river, and the newer portion of the city to the southeast.
When we saw the “Google Hotel” listed in our guidebooks, we knew we couldn’t pass it up – although they didn’t seem to understand Zach’s request for an employee discount.  Fortunately, the hotel was clean, offered us free beer, and took our dirty laundry.  After a quick rinse and change, we had a beer in the lobby and stopped by a large electronics shop.  After a lot of gesticulating, the staff were able to help us finally get our cell phones’ internet speeds back up.
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We then headed to dinner at a tiny shop recommended by one of Felix’s Wharton classmates, Bánh Bèo Cung An Địnhh, where we enjoyed some traditional Hue food (mostly different sorts of rice cakes with shrimp, meat, and other bits, served with a slightly spicy and very salty/oily fish sauce).  The place was literally a hole in the wall – 20m down an alley with no visible signage – but the food was delicious.
We then headed back to our hotel, stopping at a shopping mall and getting soft-serve at an American-style fast food joint.  On the way, we also saw a few Vietnamese guys riding matching Kawasaki Z1000s – a rare sight in this part of the world.  Back at the hotel, we got cheap massages and turned in for the night.

04
Jun 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 3)

DAY: 03Screenshot from 2014-06-04 23:53:31
Distance: 395km
Origin: Middle of nowhere
Endpoint: Middle of nowhere, 50km north of Phong Nha
Pho Consumed: 1

Today’s Author: Felix

 

Screenshot from 2014-06-04 23:53:40

Awakening to the blessed frigidity of the little hotel’s air conditioning, we decided we’d try to push a bit further today and set a goal for ourselves of reaching the Phong Nha national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site approximately 400km from where we spent the night.  Before heading out, we grabbed a quick bowl of beef Pho for breakfast at a shop about a hundred meters down the road from our hotel that some locals pointed us towards.  Thus far, our meal plan of “wander down the street until we see a sign for Pho” has worked remarkably well (no digestive issues, either).

 

As an aside, neither of us has the faintest idea why the Vietnamese prefer to eat hot noodle soup for breakfast in a climate where the mercury can hit 100F before noon (not to mention the near-constant 100% humidity).  Admittedly, it is incredibly delicious and quite filling, but it seems a bit… counterproductive.

After finishing our tasty-as-usual breakfast, we walked back to the hotel, loaded the bikes, and headed over to the gas station to fill up and do some basic maintenance checks.  The bikes seems to be in pretty good shape, only needing a bit of oil on each chain and for Zach’s engine.  We set off around 10:30, and quickly found ourselves on the Ho Chi Minh highway – a two-lane paved affair much more hospitable than the previous evening’s terrain.  Able to open up the bikes on the open road, we were able to easily hit 80 to 90 kph. Judging speed proved to be a bit tricky as each of our speedometers disagreed with the other, and neither agreed with the combination of Google Maps and our wristwatches.

We stopped for a quick break around 11:20 to snap some photos in an absolutely gorgeous valley, but didn’t dally for too long as the heat was already becoming miserable.

We made a longer stop around 12:30, roughly 100km in, giving us an average pace of roughly 50 kph.  While no one at the shop we stopped at spoke a lick of English, we were able to gesticulate sufficiently to procure a few bottles of wonderfully cold water and a bag of potato chips.  Unfortunately, our communication skills did not extend to having the shopkeeper take a photo of us, so we had to settle for a selfie.

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After getting back on the highway around 12:45, we made pretty good progress.  During this trip, we’ve seen all sorts of insane cargo loads on motorbikes and scooters, seemingly supported by some invisible magical force (Communist Party line: something something something indomitable will of the Vietnamese people, etc.).  However, on this particular stretch, we passed a gentleman with a full-sized refrigerator balanced on his passenger seat- secured only with his left hand!  Anyways, after about 60km, we came upon an ambulance with its sirens off going roughly the same pace as us, and we followed it for another 50km until our next stop for fuel and water, around 2:30.

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Following our fuel and water break, we passed some more incredible scenery, including a very pretty lake and a few rivers.  One thing we noticed is that the Vietnamese seem to have a fondness for hanging out on bridges and looking at rivers.  We started seeing more trucks, including a few with massive loads of grain hanging off in every direction- picture a gigantic mushroom shape with some wheels sticking out of the bottom and you’ll get the general image.  We also passed a very tall big rig with some passengers – riding 25ft up on top of the cargo!

We did have a brief moment of rain, but managed to outrun the storm and only suffered a few minutes’ worth of drizzle – although we did stop to move our electronics into a pack, which we then put under a rain cover.

We made one more stop after another 100km or so, where we enjoyed some overly sweetened drinks of mysterious composition (no water) and attempted to top up our SIM cards as we both seemed to have exceeded our limit of 3G data service and had been consigned to the indignity of EDGE data (#firstworldproblems).  After more gesticulating with some very confused but helpful locals, we managed to put more money on our phones, but our data service still seems to be relegated to EDGE only.  We did, however, also manage to procure some delicious cookies (think reverse oreos; chocolate creme, vanilla cookies).  The town also had a pretty large and impressive-looking church that we passed on our way out.  Interestingly, there was a similar church less than 2km away in another town, but we haven’t seen any others like them before or since.

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As the light began to fail, we entered a more mountainous area with some incredible riding roads.  Kilometer after kilometer of nice 50 kph sweepers stretched out ahead of us, but we had to be careful as there were still a few trucks on the highway.  These trucks weren’t well suited to the road and presented a serious road hazard for the unwary.  As things began to get darker, we also noticed that many of these trucks had been customized with bright strips of wildly colored LEDs – certainly a different take on the trucker aesthetic compared to Smokey and the Bandit.  Also of note is the fact that we didn’t see any Westerners the entire day, including on the road – perhaps fewer people do this trip than we originally thought?

We ended the day in a tiny village along the highway, where we were directed to a perfectly serviceable guesthouse.  Thankfully, they had air conditioning – the air was still quite hot, even at 7pm.  While we didn’t quite make it to Phong Nha (turns out Google lied and it was more like 450km), but we did hit our 400km goal almost exactly.  After haggling a bit over the price of the room, we sat down to a simple dinner of soup, egg, rice, and greens.  Before we turned in, some friendly locals insisted we share a drink with them.  After a round or five of cheap but surprisingly drinkable vodka (and a lot of smiling, gesticulating, and hand-shaking), we were able to beg off and communicate that we had to be up early to hit the road again.


01
Jun 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 2)

DAY: 02Screenshot from 2014-06-02 00:08:13
Distance: ~65km. Not so much.
Origin: Mai Chao
Endpoint: Somewhere on highway 217
Today’s Author: Zach
Screenshot from 2014-06-02 00:08:08
Given that we had to wait for the wheel to show up, we decided to take it a bit easier today. We woke up as late as our bodies would let us, which was about 10AM. I stayed in bed until 11:30AM working on these blog entries, barely made any progress. Writing and editing blogs via “WordPress for Android” is a miserable, miserable experience. I’ll spare you the details for now, needless to say many hours today were spent going through past days.

The homestay place made us lunch, and again there was a massive amount of food. The second picture below is when we had finished eating — it looks as if we hadn’t even started! Such a waste!

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We took a walk around the village that we were in afterwards. The walk itself was fairly miserable given how hot it is outside, but we’re starting to get used to simply being hot and sticky all day. We stopped on a bench after maybe half a KM. We were walking through this town of sorts with lots of “stilted” buildings (no first floor). We posit they’re all built on stilts for the raining/flooding season. We’re not sure if it’s a town either, because it was completely empty in the middle of the day. Perhaps the locals are simply smarter than us and chose not to be outside at noon on a massively hot day. The locals also have this habit of burning things — we’re not sure if it’s their trash or something else. Either way, from certain vantage points you can see how the fire smoke literally blankets the valley. Despite how picturesque some of the photos were, the whole valley had the slight smell of burning and the air didn’t feel so wonderful.

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A tiny bit of the modern world in this rural oasis. We were quite thankful!

We found a shop with a refrigerator and enjoyed our first properly cold beverage in over 24 hours (we’re still spoiled). We then made the arduous walk all the way back to the home stay place where I proceeded to sit in front of a laptop for almost 3 hours putting together photos etc. for this blog whilst we waited for the new wheel. Enough whining though…

Felix and I had a bet on whether or not the guy would show up with a vehicle of some sort that was capable of properly transporting an object of such size and shape of a motorcycle wheel, or if it’d be a dude on a tiny moped carrying it in his lap whilst reaching around the wheel to awkwardly use the grip-controls. Well, sometime around 6PM, bang on time, a dude shows up on a scooter holding a new wheel. 50,000 Dong for Felix!

The local mechanic tried to replace the wheel at the hotel but even for Vietnam that was a silly idea. Using our handy-dandy Google translate we convinced the guy to let us just ride the back the 2KM to his shop with a proper jack. So, 5mph back to his shop we went. 20 minutes later the bike was good as new!

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The “Mechanic’s Shop”

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We scrambled back at the homestay to get ready to get on the road before sun set. We quickly realized though that this would turn into a night ride. For the sake of the moral victory, and with a promise to each other to be extra cautious, we decided to give the night ride a shot. Holy goodness, are we idiots.

We set off from the homestay somewhere about 8:30PM. The roads were pretty smooth for about the first, I don’t know, 10 minutes?  The three hours following that can really only be described as straight out of the Darwin awards book. The smooth flat road transitioned into a fairly steep, windy/twisty mountain dirt/mud road. Had we not been on proper dirt bikes we absolutely would not have made it — a normal scooter or motorcycle would’ve gotten caught in the mud. We averaged about 20kmph (12mph) for the next 3 hours. Normally when riding I try and have interesting thoughts in my head, think about work, life, etc. etc. Not tonight. 99% focus and concentration on the 10ft in front of me that my headlights illuminate and 1% focus on my rearview mirror to ensure Felix is still there. The vast majority of the route was unpopulated and there was virtually no traffic on the “roads.”  For a while we wondered if we’d ever see lights again!

Around 11:15PM we found ourselves in something that passed for a “town”. That is to say there was more than one building in a row and the road was made of something other than mud. We stopped in-front of the building that remotely resembled a storefront and made the internationally recognized symbol for “I want sleep” (two hands against a leaned over head). The gentleman there, who was previously locking up, became very excited and started gesturing to us. I was thinking, this can’t be for real, is this guy really the proprietor of some kind of hotel?!   He lead me into the back into what looked like a proper motel, with AC and all!

Needless to say we happily paid the man whatever amount of money he wanted without negotiating (a whopping $10 for both of us together), took quick showers, congratulated each-other on being alive and passed out.  Whew!


31
May 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 1)

Day: 01Screenshot from 2014-05-31 21:53:03
Distance: 169km
Origin: Hanoi
Endpoint: Mai Chao
Today’s Author: Zach
Summary:
Left Hanoi for first day’s ride.  Some pretty photos, and Felix has a crash.
Screenshot from 2014-05-31 21:53:10

About 170km on day one. Mostly on highway and up/over a mountain.

 

Felix and I got up fairly early with the intention of getting on the road before lunch. We met a friend of Felix’s that he knew from his Wharton MBA program at a fancy breakfast cafe. The cafe was really rather nice by any standard and was still reasonably priced. I think we all ate perhaps a bit too much — sadly we forgot pictures of that meal. Just imagine a giant fruit salad, an egg sandwich thing and smoothies.

The one piece of riding gear we couldn’t get from the rental place was gloves for me. So, we set out to try and find proper motorcycle gloves for sale in Hanoi. Turns out there is one motorcycle gear shop pretty much in the whole city, even though the interwebs told us there were two — the first one only sold snow gloves. With the help of Felix’s friend (a native Vietnamese) we found the shop and got some gloves — I paid an american price for them, but safety’s worth it!

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The bikes all saddled up for the first time!

Alright, no more lollygagging, time to get on the road! We packed up the room and took all our stuff downstairs (it took three trips in the elevator, with saddle bags etc.) and got ready to load up the bikes. The first time we put all our gear on it was around noon. In the sun. In front of the hotel. Strapping down bags. Sweating buckets. It took us about twenty minutes to finally get it all secure and roped up; hopefully we get better at this! We then went back inside to the AC to look at the map and plan our day 1 trip one last time.

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We figured trying to follow any real preset route to get out of the city would be hopeless, so we set off heading vaguely in the direction of the highway (south east). Turns out this was a pretty good strategy and we ended up doing pretty well and got remarkably close to the highway when we stopped to check the GPS. Felix and I both have years of motorcycle riding experience and didn’t have any trouble blending into the unashamedly chaotic streets of Hanoi, though for a novice I can imagine it would’ve been way too much. I can only describe the experience as organic; unmolested by the vampiric fun-hating health and safety people that would dare to add rules to a traffic system. Street lines? None of those. Traffic lights? We found maybe two of them. And, I’m going to get flak for this I know, but I feel like the system works rather well. There are millions of motorbikes on the street, and I’m certain in the city there are hundreds of accidents a day, but since in the city everybody is doing maybe 10-15mph max at all times, they’re all extremely minor. And the upside is there is almost no standing still, traffic flows rather well and you get where you’re going quickly. Even for the full size cars, they’re almost never standing still and can make their way through pretty well, though admittedly there are not many four wheeled vehicles in the city.

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I lost my first pair of $2 sunglasses. Picked up a new $2 pair on the way out of Hanoi.

It took us about 45 minutes to get out of the major city area, though we never really left civilization. All along the roads there were buildings or huts of some sort. People living in some way most of the way. About 30 mins out of Hanoi we stopped in some shade to get water. We bought a pineapple from a vendor (which is really a charitable description of what this was) which we watched them cut up right infront of us. $1 for 2 pineapples! A great road snack.

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A lady cutting up a fresh pineapple for us. This is the entire extent of her store. We’re maybe 30 miles outside Hanoi, and he only civilization (if you can call it that) is this one road.

After our short water/pineapple break we got back underway. We used a bit of a “stop and go” navigation technique. We’de ride for maybe 45 minutes or so, or until we hit a major fork in the road, and check GPS there. Look at what the next few turns where and then keep riding until we forgot what the turns were. Check GPS again, rinse and repeat. Seemed to work fairly well all in all.  On some of our stops we simply had to stop and take photos.

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All along the road, there were many obstacles. Trucks trying to overtake each other forcing traffic off onto the side of the road, cows crossing the road, children in the road playing badminton, more cows crossing the road, people with crazy stuff on their bikes taking up more than a whole lane’s width etc.

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Unfortunately this picture came from Google Images, as we didn’t actually have a camera mounted on the bikes. But it’s fairly accurate.

As we continued on, there continued to be people living pretty much all along the main road so far. We found a really gorgeous clearing somewhere around 5PM. Took a bunch of photos. Even there though, there were locals nearby. Everybody knows the word “hello” even little Vietnamese children!

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Kids by the side of the road that knew “Hello”. Literally in the middle of nowhere Vietnam countryside.

We kept going, though now we were somewhat racing the sun. Felix didn’t want to ride in the dark, which is understandable. I was in the lead and was going at a fairly good pace. Went up a big mountain for some of the best riding I’ve ever had. Stellar views, well paved roads, windy twisty bits, straight bits, up bits, down bits, you name it! There is nothing like the thrill of a good ride on a motorcycle.

We got to the bottom of the mountain for our last intersection and Felix took the lead for the last 10km or so. About 2km into the stint we came across a left hand bend in the road. I guess it tightened up a bit more than expected, I had a thought myself that it was quick and I guess Felix did too. He must’ve just lost concentration for a split second and went wide, road in the gravel for a few seconds, kept it together and would’ve been fine had it not been for that stupid wooden mile marker. He hit it going maybe 25mph or so. His bike did a complete cartwheel.  Or three.  Felix super-manned over the handlebars and tumbled into a ditch, ending up on his back.

I parked and got off my bike as fast as I could without also falling over. He was moaning, so definitely not dead. That’s a good sign. I got his helmet off as quickly as I could, had him move all his limbs. No problems so far. He was calming down a bit, I made sure for him to not move. After a minute or so he calmed down and it was clear there were no serious injuries. So, I took that opportunity to take a photo. He promptly gave me the finger. After another minute or two I helped him up, and he could stand no problem.. Yay for high quality safety gear!

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He’s clearly in intense agony.

So, now for the bike. It was about halfway into the ditch, thankfully it stopped well short of landing on top of Felix. With the help of a local we managed to get it out of the ditch for an inspection. Bent clutch pedal, broken luggage rack, bent wheel. It did start up just fine though.

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This guy is just awesome.

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Bit of a ragid shop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The local guy that helped us pull the bike from the ditch gave us a lift to a local mechanic shop.   I guess shop is the right word for it, more like flat area with some tools. There they fixed the clutch and luggage rack with some of the most clever mechanical techniques I’ve ever seen.They even gave unbending the wheel a solid effort, but ultimately it wasn’t going to happen. The dudes were really amazing, incredibly kind and unbelievably clever as mechanics. Much better than me or anybody else I’ve ever seen work on a vehicle. We called the bike rental place and they arranged for a wheel to be sent down to arrive the next day. Not so bad for middle of nowhere Vietnam!

From there we paid the mechanics, what we found out was a fairly generous amount (10$), and limped the bike the last 7km to the home stay. Glad just to no longer be riding and to have arrived safely, we dropped our stuff and were about to go to bed when we realized we were both starving and hadn’t had lunch or dinner. The home stay made us a MAMOUTH home cooked dinner. 5 peoples worth of food for 2 people. It was delicious, but also hugely wasteful.

The room itself is basically just a bamboo hut. Kind’ve a nifty place to stay really. I almost didn’t mind the lack of AC. Almost.  We both passed out sometime north of midnight looking forward to fixing the bike and getting on the road again for day 2!


13
May 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Prologue)

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About to get on our bikes for the first time to leave Hanoi. 100 degrees, 100% humidity, multiple layers of protective bike gear and we’re jazzed!

Welcome to the start of mine and Felix Pomerantz’s motorcycle journey from North to South Vietnam!  I’m Zach and I’ll be your narrator.  Felix is a friend of mine going back to when I used to live in NYC.  I live in China now a days, Felix lives in Philadelphia.

The basic plan was to meetup in Bangkok (much cheaper to fly from the east coast USA to Bangkok than Vietnam).  There we would do some planning, ensure visas for all the places we wanted to go were in order, do some tourism and then head to Hanoi, Vietnam.  From there, we’ll rent motorcycles and spend twelve days traveling south, stopping at all the major cities along the way, SCUBA diving, having adventures etc.  After nearly two weeks on the road we will then relax in HCMC for a few days before stopping briefly in Siem Riep, Cambodia and then to Myanmar for some quick spots of nature tourism before Felix heads back to the US through Bangkok and I back to China. I’m going to try and publish the blog everyday, but my only typing apparatus is my phone and cell coverage/available time will vary.  Please forgive me if there are some lapses at first.

Tips on visas for those interested:  As Americans you just get a stamp at Thailand.  You need an invitation letter and $45 cash in person at Vietnam to get a Visa on Arrival (letters can be found online for 25$ or so), same for Cambodia (prices may vary slightly) and for Myanmar we went to the Myanmar consulate in Bangkok and filled out paperwork in person there.  Note that it takes at least 6 hours to get that done!

Bangkok

Bangkok frankly was a bit of a letdown from a tourism perspective for me.  It’s a giant city and all the tourism stuff seemed more about the tourists than about the locals.  There is a tipping point in tourism, in my opinion, where it’s no longer the tourists exploring the local environment and being amongst locals and instead it’s the locals creating a tourist environment.  The more popular and well developed the tourist location the more likely I’ve felt that way in my travels so far.  I’m sure it’s still possible to have an amazing and properly local experience in Bangkok, just not by naively following Lonely Planet.  So, given that this was the quality of our Bangkok trip, please forgive me for instead jumping straight to Hanoi, where we are definitely living in the local’s world.

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While delicious, this omlette from a restaurant across the street from our Bangkok “guest house” was decidedly not thai-authentic.

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Journey number one — a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi.

Hanoi

We landed in Hanoi and went through the visa process without issue.  We spent an hour or so in the airport deciding what we would do for the day, getting sim cards etc ($15 for unlimited 3G for a month!).  Took a cab to downtown where we got our first taste of the developing world in Vietnam.  Triangle hats, and motorbikes.  Holy hell motorbikes.  Everywhere.  They come by the thousands.  And there are no rules on the road other than fear and bravery dictate right of way.

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A normal intersection in Hanoi — beautifully lit through some trees you’ll see motorcyclists going in every which direction, completely without any official sense of order. Surprisingly though, we only saw one accident the whole time, and it was basicaly a non-incident. No damage, nobody got hurt, everybody continued about their business.

Our cab driver was very nice and stuck with us as we struggled to find the exact location of the hostel.  The hostel is in this extremely narrow building with a ton of service folk.  There was even a bellman to open the door.  At an 8$ a night hostel there was a man whose job it was to open the door.  Imagine that!  We checked into a large room with six full size beds that they called a dorm.  At first it was just us but some other travelers showed up later that night, including a nice French lady who made fun of a shirt I bought.  Well, it is a ridiculous shirt, more on that later.  We then went to checkout the motorcycles… And on the way had our first meal, proper Vietnamese food!

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Pho Bo. Or, Beef Pho. Delicious, and it cost about $1.50.

After checking out the bikes we went to the Hanoi Military Museum.  I won’t say too much about this, other than there are a lot of profound thoughts to be had about visiting a war museum for a country that celebrates victory against one’s home nation.

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After the museum we signed up for a boat cruise to a place called Ha Lon Bay — about a 4 hour drive east of Hanoi on the ocean.  We booked the boat to leave the following morning; I’ll skip blogging about the boat cruise for now, and simply leave a couple photos here to summarize that part of the journey.

We got back from the cruise around dinner time on Monday.  We went to a place that was super highly reviewed on trip advisor and was conveniently about a block from where we were staying.  We were a bit confused when they didn’t really have a menu.  The had one thing, noodles.  And if you don’t like noodles, too bad!  They were like Pho, but not: less soup, more sauce, thinner noodles, more peanut and tons of delicious, and still about $2.  The restaurant is apparently one of the highest rates in all of Hanoi — which is amusing because the facility itself is really, by any western standard, a dump.  But in that way, it’s local and charming — it was about half tourists half locals, and felt authentic and awesome to me.  A well spent $2.

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25
Apr 14

Pulseaudio crash with A2DP, Bug #641

This is just a milemarker for those who may also be having an issue similar to what I experienced lately.  Hopefully the below summary is useful to somebody.

Problem #1: Bluetooth speakers connect to Ubuntu Linux just fine, but audio quality is crap.

Solution #1: Some BT speakers somehow get auto-identified as bluetooth headsets (aka for making phone calls) instead of speakers (primarily for music), and thus use a lower quality bluetooth profile.   Pulseaudio (On ubuntu in the sound settings -> hardware tab) allows you to easily toggle between profiles.

Problem #2: Switching between the standard profile and the A2DP higher quality profile causes pulseaudio to crash.  The crash output is something along the lines of:

E: sink.c: Assertion 'pa_frame_aligned(length, &s->sample_spec)' failed at
 pulsecore/sink.c:939, function pa_sink_render_full(). Aborting.

Semi-Solution #2: I don’t know of any proper solutions to the problem as of yet.  Googling gets you to to places like this,  http://comments.gmane.org/gmane.comp.audio.pulseaudio.bugs/2317 which only suggest a workaround of changing the default-sample-channel setting in daemon.conf to 2 instead of the default of 6.  This fix worked for me (I only have 2 BT speakers), but obviously may be problematic for more complicated setups.

I haven’t tried using a more modern build of Pulseaudio/Pulseaudio modules yet, totally plausible that its fixed in trunk.  It’s not exactly trivial to get a fully updated version of Pulse in a 12.04 Ubuntu LTS release, however.  For now, it’s working so I’ll save poking that bear for another time.


06
Nov 13

Life v2.0

My Story

When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I would say a firefighter, and later, I’d say an accountant. It turns out I’m not very good with a firehose or with numbers, and so by the time I was in college I changed my mind and decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur and start my own company.

Given that, I was very excited when, In my junior year of college, I was invited to visit a local start up (little did I know ‘stop by for a visit’ means ‘come do some interviews’). I arrived and was shown into a small room with a table and a few chairs. As I was sitting there alone, awkwardly twiddling my thumbs wondering what I’d gotten myself into, in walked this tall, somewhat pale guy whose face I recognized but couldn’t quite figure out why. Halfway through the interview I realized it was a student in one of the classes I was teaching. After the interview he asked if I wouldn’t mind grading the latest homework assignment so he didn’t have to walk to campus to turn it in!

And so began my internship and eventually full time work with Invite Media while also in school. I’d schedule my classes to have Fridays off, so I’d spend evenings M-Th at work (5-11 or so) and all day Friday in the office. I remember Tuesday and Thursdays I would have a class that ended at 1PM, but I would run out at 12:59PM because there was a 1:02PM bus to the office that I could just make if I ran.

Somehow though, this never felt exhausting. I loved all of it. I never complained about working too much, or being tired, or hating my job or my boss, or that the work was too hard (and it was hard). It was an unforgettable and highly educational experience. Invite was acquired in May 2010 by Google where I stayed, first as a tech lead at Google/Invite and later as an APM in ads/cloud before finally jumping ship to start a new company, WiFast, in late 2011.

It had not taken all that long, but I was living my dream. Over the next 18 months we raised money from a group of incredible investors, hired 15 of the smartest people ever known from all over the USA and built technology that still makes my head spin. I had an amazing time working with incredible people and loved every minute of it.

And so we come to now. I left WiFast this summer and have had a lot of time to reflect upon having had my ‘dream jobs’. I’d worked for somebody else’s startup, a hugely successful and large tech company, and finally run my own start-up. I didn’t know what to do next, so instead I have basically lived the life of a retired 25 year old gear-head for a few months. I built a new engine from scratch for my 1985 sports car, helped some friends strip down and build a racing 1978 Volkswagen rabbit, raced outdoor go-karts, indoor go-karts, conquered every windy mountain road within 100 miles and spent countless hours just shooting the breeze with professional race car drivers and mechanics. All the while I’d been looking for what I wanted to do next with my life.


Purpose built VW Rabbit Race Car (left).
Me building a new engine for a 1985 Porsche 944 (right)

The future

And so now it comes time to explain why I’m not starting a company in 2014. Even though I had a blast all along the way in my career so far, there is still something missing. The following anecdote may help explain things:

In college I was privileged to be lectured to by Tom Cassel; he told a story that I will always remember of a company he ran and sold. He describes the feeling in the office the day after the sale was completed.

After years and years of dedication, of nearly going bankrupt, of having to sell everything and start over, to the highs of owning multiple properties and employing hundreds if not thousands of people, of having a change in regulations turn their business upside down overnight, he walked into the office and looked at the faces of all of the people that worked there. There were no balloons, no streamers, no loud music, barely any smiles. In fact, the office was quieter, almost to the point of somber.

What he realized is that it wasn’t the dream of selling the company that kept people going. It was enjoying the journey along the way.

“The journey is the reward.” — Tom Cassel

I feel as if starting another company now, after having just been with three american tech companies in various forms would simply be continuing an unconsciously guided journey; simply doing what feels natural. I want to be in control of my journey and spend what time I have enjoying and doing things in a deliberate way.

I have decided to accept an offer to work in China. The job is pretty cool, I’ll be an Entrepreneur in Residence at Tencent, one of China’s largest tech companies. Let’s be clear here though, Tencent is awesome, but the chance to live in China, literally the opposite side of the world from where I grew up both geographically and culturally, and to spend time exploring southeast Asia is REALLY awesome. I do not know exactly how long I’ll be there, but I do know my goal is to have different kinds of goals. To spend time exploring myself, exploring a new world around me, exploring how different cultures work and enjoying every moment of every day.

From Aerosmith’s “Amazing”:

Life’s a journey, not a destination
And I just can’t tell just what tomorrow brings

Epilogue

Since this is kind of my farewell-and-thanks-for-all-the-fish-USA letter for a while, I might as well take this time to thank some of the folks who have really made the difference in the past few years. My co-founders at WiFast: Alexey Komissarouk and Scott Kyle, as well as advisers, friends and family: Jack Abraham, Dr. Jonathan Rosenfeld, Omar Koukaz, Jessica (Jecca) Conard and Bruce Goldberg, and my immediate family, the Goldberg’s and Greenbergs.

Cheers,
-Zach


21
Jun 13

Consumer operating systems in 2013

<geek-rant> We’re halfway through 2013 and it just took me nearly 3 hours to get my brand new Lenovo laptop to dual boot Linux and win 8. (Story about needing win8 comes later). What the crap? Don’t worry, equal hate for both platforms in this rant.

1) For starters, win8 boots *awfully* slowly, even before I started messing with things (like, 3x longer than ubuntu on the same machine). Also, thoroughly not enjoying win8 in the half hour I’ve used it so far today (McAfee? Authorization dialogs that take over the entire screen? Every 10 seconds? And, goodness does it feel sluggish doing basic things)

2) Why does the ubuntu liveusb not have working graphics? I had to manually edit the kernel boot params to disable modesetting to even get to the installer!

3) And of course, once the installer was done it broke the ability to boot into windows (it actually wrote a grub config with an invalid command AND using the wrong partition AND using the wrong chainloader directive??!?).

4) Finally, it didn’t even install itself correctly! VESA was broken and it didn’t download FGLRX during install, so I had to setup the proprietary AMD drivers by hand, from VT1, with 80 columns of white-on black text.

Granted, the machine is running hardware that’s less than a year old, but that’s not an excuse anymore. If it were 2005 this would be alright, but it’s absolutely unacceptable in 2013.

Clearly something is systemically wrong here — but what, and how does the ecosystem need to change to fix this? Consumer operating systems are painfully simple compared to what’s running state of the art in the datacenter (I know this from first hand experience), we as a collective geekdom should be able to solve this.

</rant>


05
Mar 12

Broadcasting audio from ubuntu via HTTP (aka stream audio out to sonos on ubuntu)

This post is for all the folks who, like me, have tried (and failed out of frustration) 20 different times to stream local audio from an ubuntu machine to some other thing on the network via HTTP.  Today my goal was to get the Sonos in the office to stream from my machine — aka whatever was playing on my machine should come out of sonos.  I finally sat down and got it done with icecast and darkice today.  The basics for this article come from here.

OK, so without further ado, the basics:

sudo apt-get install icecast2 darkice
sudo nano /etc/default/icecast2

Change ENABLE=false to ENABLE=true.  The reason this is false by default is that icecast is actually a community radio streaming thing that is intended for multiple people to use.  Therefore it has some passwords in the default configuration file (/etc/icecast2/icecast.xml) that they want you to change before turning the thing on at first.  Since this is just us using icecast and we’re all on the local network, I chose to go with simplicity and defaults here.

Now, create a new config file someplace you like (perhaps ~/.darkice.cfg) which contains the following:

[general]
duration = 0 # duration of encoding, in seconds. 0 means forever
bufferSecs = 1 # size of internal slip buffer, in seconds
reconnect = yes # reconnect to the server(s) if disconnected
[input]
device = pulse
sampleRate = 44100 # sample rate in Hz. try 11025, 22050 or 44100
bitsPerSample = 16 # bits per sample. try 16
channel = 2 # channels. 1 = mono, 2 = stereo
[icecast2-0]
bitrateMode = vbr # variable bit rate (cbr for constant)
quality = 1.0 # 1.0 is best quality
format = mp3
bitrate = 256 # bitrate
server = localhost # or IP
port = 8000 # port for IceCast2 
accesspassword = hackme # source password to the IceCast2 
servermountPoint = mystream.mp3 # mount point on the IceCast2 server or any name
name = mystream

Now bootup icecast

sudo /etc/init.d/icecast2 start

Now start darkice (the thing which actually reads pulse and sends it to icecast. Icecast then provides an HTTP URI you can use to give out to others)

darkice -c ~/.darkice.cfg

Now head on over to your consuming device and give it the url http://MY_IP:8000/mystream.mp3 (replacing MY_IP with your machines ip, aka 192.168.1.105).  In sonos you go to the “Radio” tab, hit “Add” then type in that url and a fancy-shamancy name.  Click the radio you created and shazam, good to go!

Note: there is a 3-4 second delay using icecast.  I’m not sure how much of that is icecast vs. sonos, but for just audio streaming its great.  That is, until I decide I really want to watch a youtube video with the audio coming out of sonos and I spend a few hours putting jack in the system…

Note: this was all done on Ubuntu 11.10 using standard repo versions of icecast, darkice, pulseaudio etc.


15
Jan 12

The problem isn’t piracy, it’s your product and publisher.

<provocative opening statement> A common saying you hear now a days in arguments about piracy is “I think people should get paid for their creative work”.    Yeah, well I don’t. </end troll-bait>

I think you should get paid for how well the free market likes you and decides to pay you.  It is your job to figure out how to be a businessmen and make money.

But I’m just an author and don’t understand business!

Then hire the person who is supposed to understand these things — a publisher!  It’s their responsibility, it is why you hire them, to make money in the marketplace with your creative work.  Historically they’ve been quite good at this.  Now that the market has been made more competitive (piracy is, after all, just a competitor to the work a publisher traditionally does) guess who are the ones complaining loudest?  That’s right, the folks who are supposed to be competing in the marketplace — the publishers.  Rather than compete against a competitor they are complaining for regulation to help keep their business afloat.

To paraphrase Gabe Newell’s Piracy is a service problem:  If you are being pirated, it means there’s something wrong with the service to begin with.  Somebody finds it more enjoyable or values more the experience of pirating your work than to get it via the channels you are offering.  Therefore you need to find a way to make your product more valuable than the pirated one.  Let me repeat that: It is your responsibility, as the person who wants to make money, to find a way to make your users happy enough that they want to pay you.

I don’t know of any other example of a business where I can launch my business, make money, have a competitor come in and then beg the government to make them go away.

Anybody who is complaining that piracy hurts their business is simply avoiding the problem that they aren’t providing a product that the marketplace likes enough to make money. Sure, piracy is incredible efficient so it makes your problem harder but that’s not the marketplace’s fault. Technology’s job is to make life more efficient and better for end users, I like to call it progress.

So rather than legislate to defend the old business models of a sector which was supposed to be market savvy to begin with, why don’t we let the market be efficient and have people innovate and let the businesses or technology that can provide the most end-user value win?

Discuss.