Adam Cohn - Vietnam & Laos Stories & Photography


Stories and photos from motorycling Vietnam & Laos 2011


Snake Oil Salesman

I’ve come across traditional healers in a few countries. In Benin, I met voodoo priests who used bloody ritual to cure scientifically-documented ailments. I also met a Canadian physical therapist at a hospital there who said that in at least one case since she arrived, the final diagnosis by the French-run hospital was a voodoo curse.

In Kigali, one of my housemates studied traditional healers in Rwanda. She was trying to learn about their influence in the community, their role in healing, and how they balance their beliefs with those of modern medicine. One phenomenon she described, which stood out to me, was that the healers found a common ground between their beliefs and those of doctors. So, for example, if a person came down with HIV and the healer attributed it to a curse, it was the curse that caused them to acquire the well-known virus. Since some people have risky sex and escape without HIV, their conclusion can’t easily be proven false.

In Jakarta, my friend Jefri showed me a photo he had taken of a traditional healer and suggested that we meet him. 

As a traveler, I try to withhold judgment. I feel that these beliefs and traditions far outlast any influence I should have over local custom, and that there exist contentious objectors who are far more qualified to implement change in local tradition than me. So I witness, I experience, I tell the story.

Traditional Healer, Jakarta Indonesia

Bidut runs his shop from a ramshackle shelter in adjacent to a busy road and a railroad. When we arrived, he was reclining, wearing only pants, and smoking an Indonesian kretek cigarette. His hair was pulled back in a haphazard ponytail, and his goatee was greying on the right side.

After shaking hands, I noticed that Bidut was missing a thumb. I had my own guess as to where it wound up.

Bidut has been handling lethal snakes and a variety of other wild animals for most of his life, as did his father and grandfather. The snakes are used in traditional healing rituals dating back to time immemorial. Bidut stated offhandedly that no one in his family had ever been sick. With one exception: his thumb.

Severed thumb

In 2004, a cobra moved a bit quicker than Bidut, and took a nice bite out of his left thumb. In a moment of hubris, Bidut didn’t clean the wound, and just went on with his life. Infection set in, and the thumb began to die. Without anesthetic, or even a swig of whiskey, Bidut severed his own thumb with a knife. At nearly 60 years old, that was the one time he’d been “sick”, and even then, he relied on his own remedy.

"OK"?

Bidut wasn’t bashful to show that in a plastic jar in his rail-side shack was his old friend, his left thumb. Seven years of hot Jakarta air hadn’t yet fully preserved it, and when he removed it from its home, the smell of rotting flesh was apparent.

After reveling in shocking us for a few minutes, Bidut put the thumb away and told a bit more about himself. During the Suharto regime, which ended in 1998, Bidut had been the government’s official snake handler. Bidut lived a life of wealth, clearing golf courses of deadly snakes for ambassadors, and measuring out shots of cobra blood for impotent governors.

When the regime fell, so did Bidut’s standing. Since then, he’s run this little stall, doling out doses of cobra blood to about 40 customers per week. He also captures and trades other wild animals. Some are used for consumption, such as monkeys whose brains are consumed via straws in Yogyakarta. But Bidut has a more conservationist vision for the other animals. He’s saving his funds and soliciting assistance to create a zoo to house the tigers, crocodiles, eagles, and reptiles which he’s come across in his line of business.

Snake

I asked, and the tiger, which Jefri had met but which wasn’t at the house today, was the descendant of one given to an Indian dignitary from an African dignitary. The Indian had brought it to Indonesia, and since the offspring was born in Indonesia, it was a legally-traded animal.

Python

I walked around the area adjacent to Bidut’s shack, and found an array of caged primates, as well as a collection of large pythons. In the back of his truck, Bidut had two recently-captured pythons, a small poisonous snake, and a king cobra. Bidut took each out for a few minutes, allowing them to move freely through the grass, and grabbing their tails occasionally to keep them from attacking him or us, such as when the king cobra reared up wildly hissing and flaring his hood. I previously thought that only happened in movies.

After showing off his snake collection, Bidut walked us over to his house, a block away from the railroad tracks. There, he talked of his goal to set the world record for sleeping with cobras. One thousand of them in a tank for 1 month, if he can bend the ear of Guinness.

King Cobra

In the house, Bidut procured a liter water bottle full of an oily liquid which had separated with a denser liquid resting on the bottom of the bottle. Snake oil. Again, I thought this was something from movies, or merely a figure of speech, yet Bidut explained that it would help with rashes, cuts, burns, blisters, eczema, and even bruises. Coincidentally an Indonesian cop with a billy club had given me a nice bruise when I refused to pull over for a traffic stop. Bidut insisted on applying a healthy slathering of snake oil to help heal my wound.

Snake oil

And finally, Bidut insisted on sharing one last honor with us. From behind the bench in his shack, he pulled out a wriggling sack.

“Cobras?” I asked, rhetorically.

Bidut pulled out a cobra about 4 feet long and after letting it explore the ground for a minute, picked it up, squeezed its head until the venom was in a small puddle on his workbench, and then clamped the head in a piece of bamboo. Bidut pulled out his large knife, and in one quick whack, off went its head.

Beheading

Bidut took the still-writhing body and held it over two mugs, draining out the blood into a mixture of Krating Deng (Red Bull) and rice whiskey he’d poured. He then peeled off the skin in one long pull, and removed the gall bladder, squeezing that over the two cups.

“Asthma, hepatitis, paralysis, breast cancer, urinary stones, backaches, high blood pressure, impotence, HIV” Bidut listed off the ailments that cobra blood is said to cure.

“HIV?” I asked.

“Yes, one man came to me almost a skeleton, and after treatment was a strong, healthy man again,” Bidut said, via Jefri.

Snake Blood Wine

Me, I just had a bruise and a bit of a head cold. My best hope was that the cobra’s sacrifice would relieve some pretty trifling ailments. Bottoms up! I primarily tasted the rice wine, with a richness that did remind me of the taste of my own blood. Jefri gagged a couple times, and I wolfed down a doughnut to settle my stomach.

It’s too soon to say whether the healer’s tricks will cure either of my ailments, but when I returned to the apartment and filled my glass with Emergen-C, I chuckled, knowing that there was hardly any more science behind my megadosage of vitamin C than the cobra blood which I’d consumed earlier in the day. And when my cold dissipates and the bruise fades, it will still be impossible to conclusively say whether any of the remedies, or simply the passage of time and my own immune system resolved the issues.

(Source: facebook.com)

It’s a Small World, After All

I just returned to my starting point in Hanoi minutes ago. Twenty-two days on the road, and I made a nice little loop in northern Vietnam and Laos.


View SE Asia in a larger map

My original estimates were much more ambitious, taking me deep into Thailand and possibly even Cambodia, but it was not possible. Why? Because the world is a really large place. I was on a motorcycle for at least eight hours every day, and I only made the loop you see above.

Now, to be fair, I was on a small motorcycle, driving pretty slowly and stopping for lots of photos and Vietnamese coffee, but still, this loop is a pretty good reminder that the world is physically huge. While you can fly all over the place quite quickly, physically crossing distances on earth is still a pretty significant undertaking.

That said, we all know that an idea, image, sound or video can be sent digitally around the world far faster than it would take to physically bring it there. Far faster than it even takes to create said idea, image or sound, most of the time.

There’s a huge global market for software and video games. That’s why I wasn’t entirely shocked to see my friend Andrea’s hand, and her and a few of my friends’ work on the video game Left For Dead 2 pirated and for sale in Bangkok.

Pirated Left For Dead 2

I’ve seen a lot in my travels, but this one still caused my jaw to drop and for me to giggle like a child when I saw it, and still as I type this.

A few years ago, my lifelong buddy Jack created a for-kids rock band with a couple other friends. They’ve enjoyed success in Seattle and parts of the US, but I would find it hard to believe that too many Vietnamese tots are boogying to the blues-influenced groove of Sidekick just yet. Maybe I am wrong. 

I was on the outskirts of Hanoi, in search of one of the green pith helmets which many Vietnamese men wear. I’d found the hat and was making the deal when I happened to glance up at the wall of the shop.

Knockoff Hats Vietnam

If I blinked I would have missed it, but somehow my brain latched on to one of those hats.

It is the Recess Monkey logo. Yes, the guys in Recess Monkey are savvy and crank out an appropriate amount of swag, but to my knowledge, none of it is manufactured in Asia, and they haven’t moved into sparkly mesh cap territory yet.

Knockoff Recess Monkey Hat

I wish that I could trace every step of the chain of events which led to the creation of this hat, but someone, somewhere, found the Recess Monkey logo and decided to turn it into a hat, along with more predictable choices like Rock Band, Finding Nemo, and Reebok.

So, while the physical world is still huge, clearly anything can make it to the other side of the world.

I hope that this is an indication of Recess Monkey’s destiny for greatness, as they have now joined the ranks of Nike, Armani, and Gucci. In the meantime, my jaw remains on the floor at the crazy odds it took for this to happen and for me to find it. What a small, small world!


View Recess Monkey in a larger map

(Source: facebook.com)

Around the World on a Laptop

I’m here, in a tiny town named Thanh Chuong, Vietnam. I ended up here because it was the town I was in as dusk was approaching. It had 3 guest houses and a little lake in the center of town, so it seemed like a fine place to stop for the night.


View SE Asia in a larger map

I chose my guesthouse because the front door says “Wifi”. When I arrived, from the first “xin chào”, I could tell that the owner had a lot of spirit, and that this was the right hotel for me. Thing was, for some reason my typical sign-language and stumbling through numbers was not working with with her. She was hitting me with questions, with machine-gun speed, and I understood none of them.

I pulled out my clunky Windows Mobile phone (yes, that story is coming soon), tapped into her wifi connection, and pulled up Google Translate. Stupid Windows phone didn’t support the Vietnamese character set, but she got the message: once I dropped off my things and showered, I’d return with Google Translate and she could interview me to her heart’s content.

So that evening, after grabbing dinner in town, she and her family, and then eventually a couple neighboring families, gathered around my laptop in the front room of the hotel. I opened Google Translate in a browser tab for their questions and a second tab for my responses. They didn’t get foreign visitors here, so they wanted to know where I was from, why I was here, how I had gotten here, and more about my life. The cool thing: I could show them all of it.

I showed them the map above, and traced out my journey from Hanoi, through Laos, to their town. We zoomed out, and then I zoomed us in to Seattle Washingto and showed them my home, from the Street View. In return, an old man in the audience told me that he’d worked in Domazlice, Czech Republic for 20 years, and even located his apartment on the map.

I wanted to show them my family, so I pulled up my mom’s Facebook page and we flipped through family photos. They admired the large noses which run in our family. I am appreciated in Vietnam. 

Google Translate + Family Photos on Facebook

They loved photos of my baby niece, and my friends’ babies. The real show for the evening, though, was taking these families from nowhere Vietnam into the mountains of Rwanda with me, to see gorillas.

Google Translate + Gorilla Photos on Facebook

Children and adults were all enthralled, with one of the girls running to the front door to call in some friends who were passing by. Soon, I had kids on my lap and surrounding me, with adults taking the nosebleed seats. People were pointing out how they look like us, have hands like us, and behave like us. The children laughed at the child Gorillas wrestling and pinching each other.

It’s possible that they’ve seen this type of thing on TV, but there was something different about showing them my photos and videos. It wasn’t David Attenborough dubbed into Vietnamese, it was someone who they shared tea with, whose house they’d seen. It was personal.

Before this trip, I think I’d forgotten how exciting technology is, and what an amazing time we’re living in. I still enjoy that in my travels I still get to amaze a lot of people when I show them their own photo on my digital camera. Now, if I want to, I can introduce a farmer in the middle of his rice paddy to my family on Skype.

I am sure the day will come where this is taken for granted, where every guest house owner will pull up Google Translate when a random foreigner drops in, and where flipping through maps and Facebook photos from across the globe isn’t exciting anymore. I feel lucky to be a bit of a pioneer in this little corner of the world.

(Source: facebook.com)

Three boys laughing when I show them their photo

Boys Vietnam

(0 plays)

Hard Work

I pity the electrician in Vietnam

Hanoi Electical Wires

Hanoi Vietnam Power Wires

Hanoi Vietnam Electrical Wires

Bamboo Power Poles

New Powerlines, Vietnam

(Source: facebook.com)

Fashion vs. Function

In northwest Vietnam, many many women wear their hair in a bun at the top of their head. The bun is kept in place with a mesh net and/or pin.

This hairstyle has probably existed for centuries, and its origin is probably simply that it keeps the hair from interfering with work or getting dirty, while also keeping the hair off of the neck and shoulders, a relief in the hot sun.

Vietnamese Hair Bun

Head coverings, such as pointed hats and decorative fabrics are compatible with the buns, even if the sun-shading benefit of the pointed hat is a little diminished.

Hat on a bun, Vietnam

So it’s not too surprising that a single hairstyle can be adopted by so many women, and can survive for so long.

While the pointed hat might work with the bun, the motorcycle helmet looks a little silly perched several inches above the head.

Vietnamese Hair Helmet

I suppose the hair lets a little more air flow in, keeping the wearer cooler, but I do wonder whether the hair aids or reduces the effectiveness of the helmet.

Vietnamese Hair Helmet

(Source: facebook.com)

Knockoffs

Wikipedia says that the counterfeit goods industry causes $600 Billion in lost revenue globally. Millions of dollars that don’t go to Louis Vuitton or Adidas because imitations can be found in so easily.


Knockoff underwear Vietnam

But wouldn’t it be fair to say that many knockoff purchases are made by people who would never have purchased the name brand item to begin with? I see it as a second category, rather than a substitute for the original.

Fake Louis Vuitton

(Source: facebook.com)

That Ubiquitous iPhone

If the night market in Hanoi is any indication, iPhones and BlackBerrys are the most popular phones in Hanoi.

iPhone covers Hanoi

In Hanoi, my friend Victory was proud of his iPhone 4 with the orange sticker around the edge. Everyone in his family had one and he was adept at using it while driving me through the convulsing traffic of Hanoi.

iPhone 4 Hanoi

When people comment on my phone, they often ask if it is American or Vietnamese, knowing that local phones are unlocked, but more expensive. In the countryside, kids get really excited to see it, even though it is a first-gen iPhone.

In Than Thuy, when I had dinner with the metalworker family, the son Quyen showed me his phone. It was locked when he handed it to me, and displayed the iPhone’s slide interface on the screen. I dragged my finger across the screen instinctively, causing the boy to laugh. It turns out the phone didn’t even have a touchscreen, and clearly wasn’t an iPhone.

I pointed at the UI. “iPhone!” I said.

“China!” he laughed. Apparently there is a Chinese operating system which puts iPhone iconography on the phone, even if it lacks a touchscreen. The iTunes icon indicated the music player, for example.

Chinese fake iOS

After copying some photos from my DSLR, Quyen wanted to copy a few from my iPhone. I hadn’t brought my iPhone cable. He told me to turn on Bluetooth on my phone while he clicked through a handful of menus on his phone. He set up a password and within moments our phones were connected through Bluetooth, sharing data wirelessly, and without having to pay for SMS, MMS or email.

Perhaps we don’t need this back home, as virtually everyone can afford the few cents for any of those messages, but all the same, I didn’t even know that Bluetooth sharing was possible!

I’ve taken a step back to think about how I have used the iPhone on this trip. Here are some of the ways I’ve put it to use on this trip:

Notepad

  • Noted exchange rates for each currency
  • Useful phrases and vocabulary in each language
  • The numbers to dial to check the balance on each SIM card
  • My phone number in each country, to show other people to prevent miscommunication
  • A note I passed to my host in a loud karaoke room where I knew he’d have trouble understanding me
  • List of books and movies suggested to me by people I’ve met
  • Various hotel names & phone numbers, in case I get lost coming home one night

Calculator

  • Calculating exchange rates
  • Calculating how much local currency I should expect from a money-changer
  • Verifying restaurant bills
  • When I am negotiating prices and haven’t mastered the numbers, I type them out and show the seller

Internet Browser

  • Google Translate
  • One night in Vietnam I read the Wikipedia history of the Vietnam War over dinner

Maps

  • In Africa, I had somewhat-detailed maps, so I could rely on my GPS a bit. In Vietnam, relied on my road atlas. When I am completely lost, or really need to know exactly where I am, I use Google Maps
  • When I need to explain that Seattle is not in Washington DC, I can show where I am from on the map

Voice Memos

  • I’ve made a few dozen little field recordings, ranging from music I’ve heard performed to children giggling at the sight of their own photo

 Photos

  • I synced up a few photos of friends and family to show people I meet
  • I show people photos of things I have eaten or seen, which I have questions about
  • I downloaded images of things I had trouble finding in markets, as a way to specifically show what I was looking for

 Camera

  • Photographed a map from a Lonely Planet, in case I had trouble finding my way

And those are just the native apps. I have also made use of TripIt, Facebook, and a couple games when things get slow.

If I had my iPhone 4 with me, I’d be using iBooks, but at least as of my departure, American iPhone 4s could not be unlocked to be used internationally. I see a problem here…

(Source: facebook.com)

A Word’s Worth

I arrived in Hoa Binh at dusk. The city appeared to be of a decent size, based on my road Atlas. I decided to find a hotel there.

I did a full pass through the city, looking for a sign with the word ‘hotel’ on it, or a building which looked like it might be a hotel. Nothing. I pulled over after crossing the city and dug out a vocabulary list my motorcycle dealer had given me. Nha nghe, the word for guest house.

I turned back, retracing my route back up the road. It turns out that there were guest houses all around me. It was like watching Fight Club or The Usual Suspects a second time; I just didn’t know how to see the clues during my first pass.

If learning one word makes such a significant difference, what if I had a larger vocabulary at my disposal?

The next night, in nearby Thanh Thuy, I was invited into the home of a family of metalworkers. They build bannisters, coat racks, and window frames.

As the mother poured me cup after cup of tea, we quickly ran out of shared vocabulary. Their teenage son ran upstairs and returned a minute later with a list of questions he had typed out in Vietnamese and English. The translations weren’t perfect, and I had a pretty good guess as to where they came from. Soon, we were all upstairs, gathered around the family PC, with Google Translate loaded up. Suddenly, there was no concept too esoteric, no statement too complex. Like flipping a switch, communication was possible.

Google Translate Vietnam

This is the future.

I am carrying an unlocked iPhone with me, and one of the pages I keep open in my browser is Google Translate. At first I was hesitant to use it, feeling like it might be cheating me out of some of the challenges of travel. However, when someone invites me to sit for tea or dinner, or when I have a complicated question such as troubleshooting my GPS’ wiring, it handily surpasses my typical sign language and sketches.

It’s funny to see who is impressed with the translation technology, as most people don’t seem to express it to me. One spry old lady didn’t know how to type, but would write down her questions and I would enter them into the phone and show her the resulting translations. She sold me a SIM card, probably having no clue how the whole thing works.

When I see something like the scene below on the side of the road, I usually pull over and try to figure out what is being made or done via gesturing. When I came across this scene, even after spending some time with the workers, I had no guess what they were creating.

Manufacturing in Vietnam

Do you have a guess?

Vietnam

We sat down for tea and I pulled out the iPhone. When I showed him the translation for “what are you making out there” he wrote down his response, which Google told me had something to do with elephants. I did a Google image search for elephants, just to make sure I understood him correctly. The whole family erupted into laughter. Vietnamese is a tonal language, and without diacritics, “voi” can mean elephants or carbonic acid, which is what they were actually making (probably as a precursor to baking soda). The limits of technology.

Google Translate Vietnam

An app exists which will “read” and translate any sign photographed with an iPhone. And with Google’s voice products, I believe that a verbal, natural language, real-time translator is not too far-fetched.

Contrary to what I might have expected, breaking down these language barriers hasn’t depleted any of the fun of travel. In fact, the ability to continue past “where are you from, how old are you?” adds to the experience immensely.

With SIM cards and airtime available at every roadside stall, and a power socket available wherever I run out of juice, I have a permanent safety net. Well, until I drive out of range of the nearest cell tower. For those who are hesitant to lose themselves in the middle of a foreign country, here’s one more reason why it is easier than ever.

(Source: facebook.com)

Hustle and Cuss

I could spend an eternity exploring Hanoi. But as soon as I had my motorcycle in hand, I was like a junkie with a score: I couldn’t wait to put it to use. I had to get out of town as quickly as possible.

I picked up the bike at 9:30, and after a thorough inspection and discussion about troubleshooting and maintenance, I had the bike. It took me some time to get my pack loaded and tied to the bike; something I’d shoot to be faster and better at with each passing day.

2007 Honda Win Hanoi

A GPS is a new addition to my travel gear. Reluctant to manage more gadgets, I’d resisted in the past, but am now quickly falling in love with each new addition. The GPS world is still a scattered industry. There is an open-source effort underway to provide free maps to the world, and there are numerous other groups who have created their own maps which are obtained in some cases by joining the creator’s forum or website, or purchasing the maps for varying prices. Similarly, instructions on how to obtain and merge maps into existing devices are lackluster, often requiring unusable software. I’d run out of time trying to get one of varying Hanoi maps installed on my Garmin. I had the Vietnam road atlas, so I could do it old school.

All I needed to do was leave Hanoi. Hop on the Highway 6 heading west.

Hanoi Traffic

Easier said than done. With my Garmin telling me only where I’d been, I watched the screen as I left a blue trail winding every direction but toward the highway. I circled for two hours, getting no closer to anything that looked like a freeway entrance. I pulled over and pulled out my 1st-gen iPhone. It slowly ticked along on the Edge network, for some reason unable to give me a precise location.

I was getting frustrated. If I spent too much time getting lost on my way out of Hanoi, I might as well just stay another night there, rather than have to drive in the dark. But I was packed up and on the road. I wanted out of Hanoi NOW.

There are many subtleties in city navigation when language is a challenge. When a doner kebab stand’s owner gave me directions, he explained that I just needed to turn left and then right. But as I proceeded down the street, there were dozens of seemingly viable lefts and rights.

I finally found what had to be the right freeway. I drove parallel to it on gravel maintenance roads for what seemed like miles, looking for an entrance. I began to sweat in the hot sun and the dust from nearby motorcycles and construction equipment burned my eyes and stuck to my skin.

When I finally found an onramp, it had a no-motorcycles sign on it. Deep breaths.  Perhaps it wasn’t the right highway after all. I continued on, so close to being on the road, but dangling just out of reach.  I took this trip to relax, to regain control of frustrations and a temper I felt surfacing at my old job. I felt my head begin to throb; I cranked the accelerator, and picked up speed. Where the hell is an onramp?!

My frustration boiled over. I looked around and it appeared that no one would hear me so I let out a scream at the top of my lungs, guttural and with all the volume I could muster. Suddenly I saw a man jump up from behind a disabled van on the side of the road. I’d scared the hell out of him.  Oops.

I turned around and returned to the no-motorcycles onramp. If a cop pulled me over, I’d play ignorant tourist. Finally, I was on the road, heading the right way, and as the road lifted up above the chaos of Hanoi, I felt my frustration abate.

As late afternoon arrived, I saw a sign indicating that I’d exited Hanoi. Not the most triumphant of beginnings, but I was on the road. First stop? Whatever city I arrived in next.

Exiting Hanoi

(Source: facebook.com)