17
Oct 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 8)

DAY: 08Screenshot from 2014-10-15 07:40:46
Origin: Nha Trang
Destination: Dalat
Distance: 140km
Pho Consumed: 2
Today’s Author: Felix
We woke early for our diving trip, heading downstairs to the dive center around 7am (convenient, right?).  Since the bus wasn’t scheduled to depart until 7:30, we headed across the street to a restaurant with Russian signage, which seemed to be the only place open on our street. We had a decent western-style breakfast, but unfortunately had one of our only poor service experiences in Vietnam; the food took nearly 30 minutes to appear, even though we had simply ordered some coffee and toast.  After trying (and apparently failing) to impress upon the staff our need for expediency, we finally made it back to the dive center around 7:45.
Awaiting us were our companions for the day, a handful of French tourists and Natalie, a Malaysian-Canadian girl on the second day of a dive certification class.  Fortunately everyone seemed cool with our tardiness, and we all piled into a minibus and headed for the dock.
Arriving at the dock, we hopped on our boat and met the rest of the dive crew as we headed away from shore.  Our divemaster for the day, Nguyen, was a chill dude who spoke pretty good English, and we felt that we were in good hands.  During the 40 minute ride to the dive site, we got a refresher on some basic scuba skills since Felix hadn’t dived in a number of years and Zach isn’t certified.
Arriving just off the coast of a small island, we were pleased to see that the water was almost perfectly clear.  After getting geared up, we followed Nguyen and hopped into the water.  We spent the first 10 minutes or so reviewing our basic scuba skills (hand signals, mask clearing, buoyancy control, etc.) and headed off after Nguyen to explore the reefs.  We were also accompanied by a cameraman who did a bang-up job of capturing our adventures.
While perhaps not the most amazing diving in the world, the reefs were teeming with life.  Although we stayed in relativey shallow water (~8-10m), we saw a host of incredibly colorful smaller fish, as well as a plethora of anenomes and coral.  We also played with a giant jellyfish (!), which was apparently safe to touch as long as you stayed away from the tentacles on the bottom.
After about 50 minutes, we headed back to the boat and enjoyed a light snack of mangoes and baguettes.  Felix also sampled a proffered Vietnamese cigarette – apparently the “White Horse” brand is produced locally in Nha Trang.  We then geared back up and headed down for another dive.
On our second dive, we went a bit deeper – perhaps 12 or 15 meters.  For the most part, the marine life we saw was pretty similar to our first dive. We did briefly glimpse a school of larger fish about a dozen meters away, but they swam off fairly quickly.

Returning to the boat once more, we hung out for a bit as we waited for the rest of our group to return before we headed back towards the city.
Back on land once more, we piled back into our minibus and headed over to a small cafe for lunch, which was included in the price of our trip for the day.  We enjoyed some pretty tasty noodles accompanied by mystery meat, but we trusted our French tour leader and chowed down (apparently the cafe is owned by his Vietnamese wife).  The noodles were followed by crepes slathered in mango sauce for dessert, which were delicious if a bit too saucy.  We also chatted with Natalie about her traveling adventures throughout Asia, which was a nice change from our usual mealtime discussions of tech, business, and motorcycle-related soreness.
We headed back to the dive center / guesthouse, took quick showers, and packed up our bikes.  After settling our bill and getting directions to a Honda mechanic, we set off.  Unfortunately, it turns out that our bikes (XR150s) weren’t sold by Honda in Vietnam, and the dealership was thus very confused about our request for maintenance services.  We got directions to another garage in the more “Vietnamese” area of the city and headed off in that direction, but were unable to sufficiently explain our issue to the mechanic (Felix’s headlight was exceptionally dim).  Giving up, we gassed up and left the city around 4.
Heading towards Dalat, we were greeted by a new road in relatively good condition, as well as some very threatening stormclouds in the distance.  However, we got incredibly lucky and had some of the best riding of the trip; there was almost no traffic, the roads were both excitingly twisty and in pretty good shape, the scenery was incredible, and the temperatures dropped rapidly to a pleasantly cool level.
We passed a number of natural waterfalls, as the storm had just passed and there was plenty of water on the ground and in the hills.  Rapidly gaining elevation, we were treated to some incredible vistas over the mountains as the sun was beginning to set.
After a couple of hours of really outstanding riding, dark began to fall and we started to get a bit chilly.  On our way into the city of Dalat, we passed a dozen or so kilometers of lit up greenhouses, which made for some very pretty scenery.  We also began to notice large, American-style McMansion type homes; Dalat is clearly a city favored by wealthier Vietnamese.  This became more apparent as we entered the city proper; compared to much of the rest of Vietnam, the city is relatively well-kept and well-developed.  Near the center of town is a charming small lake, and nearby is a massive golf club.
We arrived at a small hotel recommended by Lonely Planet, the Dreams Hotel, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the elderly couple who run the place were both very friendly and spoke decent English.  We were also shocked to hear their adorable grandchildren running around the lobby speaking perfect English without a hint of accents whatsoever.
After checking in to the room and availing ourselves of the modern shower facilities, we headed down the street to grab some dinner.  We quickly stumbled upon a pizzeria that seemed promising and enjoyed some surprisingly decent pies (“Four Cheese,” “Mexican,” and Margherita).
Following dinner, we decided to wander around a bit.  After passing a number of bustling restaurants, bars, and shops, we happened upon a fancy-looking bakery.  As we hadn’t gotten Zach any cake for his birthday nor had dessert yet, we popped in and, after a quick glance at the prices, started piling a tray with refined carbohydrates (plus two party hats, because why not?).  Total bill for our sugary indulgences?  About $5.  What an awesome country!
Heading back to the hotel, we dove into our haul.  Zach put his friend Leona on video chat so she could see us in our party hats stuffing our faces with cake and sweets in the middle of Vietnam.  After polishing off most of our dessert, we headed to bed after what was clearly one of the best days of the trip.

15
Oct 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 7)

Day: 07Screenshot from 2014-10-15 07:11:08
Distance: 287km
Origin: Binh Duong
Destination: Nha Trang
Pho Consumed: 1
Today’s Author: Felix

Screenshot from 2014-10-15 07:11:02

Somehow missing our alarm, we still managed to be up by 8.  In the interest of expediency, we had the rest of our emergency-ration faux-moon-pies for breakfast.  Leaving the hotel at 9:55, we gassed up and did a quick maintenance check on the bikes before we hit the road.  The road along this stretch was in pretty good condition, and we passed a few gigantic golden buddhas and temples as well as some very picturesque beaches.  We covered about 130km before stopping for lunch at a small shop in a seaside town and grabbing a bowl of Pho.

Heading back onto the road, we passed more beaches and reached Nha Trang around 4:15 in the afternoon.  On our way into the city, we passed through the non-touristy part of town, went past a gigantic temple of some sort and over a nice bridge surrounded by colorful fishing boats.
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Nha Trang is much more developed than anywhere else we’ve been in Vietnam, with high-rise luxury hotels lining the pristine beach.  The streets are crowded with Westerners frequenting the many hotels, bars, restaurants, and so forth that are all designed to cater to them.  One thing we were surprised by was the prevalence of Russian signage – something we haven’t seen anywhere else in the country.  We later learned that the city is a major vacation destination for Russian tourists, with as many as 10 direct flights from Moscow arriving daily.
We checked in at Angel Dive Center and Guest House and made arrangements for our scuba outing the following day.  After cleaning ourselves up a bit, we headed down the block to a high end beach bar and restaurant for some birthday drinks for Zach.  The prices were ludicrous, especially for Vietnam, but the setting was incredible and the drinks were delicious.
Heading inland a couple of blocks, we had dinner at a nice Vietnamese place called Lanterns which was very highly rated on Tripadvisor and consequently packed with tourists.  To one side of us were a pair of very creepy Russian gentlemen (one older and one younger), and to the other was a large group of Korean sailors on shore leave.  The food was pretty good, and we hit up an extremely legit gelato shop for dessert – doing the tourist thing certainly has its advantages!

 


08
Aug 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 6)

DAY: 06Screenshot from 2014-08-08 20:41:22
Distance: 370KM (-50 from goal)
Origin:Hue
Endpoint: Middle of nowhere 50km shy of Nha Trang
Pho Consumed: 1 each for dinner
Today’s Author: Zach

Screenshot from 2014-08-08 20:41:10

We targeted more than 400KM today, including a 3-4 hour stopover in a city called Hoi An.  That roughly translates to 8 hours of riding, plus 3 hours of tourism, would mean we’de need to take advantage of every minute of daylight that we had.  As such, the alarms went off promptly at 5:30AM.  And then again at 5:40AM.  And again at 5:50AM.  By 6 Felix was in the shower and my eyes were partially open.

We finally stumbled out of the “Google Hotel” for the last time around 7AM, ready to hit the road bright and early.  As we road south towards Hoi An we quickly found out that our headaches with Rt. 1 were not yet over, and in fact that road was a miserable bus-overtaking-truck-in-a-2-lane-highway-move-or-become-pancake the whole way.  Every now and then we would ride through a town where it would open into a 4 lane highway with a center barrier which was wonderful.  Until the breaks in the barrier every 200 meters or so where motorbikes would pull U-turns without even looking and nearly run into whomever happened to be in the fast lane on the highway.  Maybe this system of lawlessness works in Hanoi where everybody is doing 20kmph the whole time, but when you have cars and motorcycles doing 100+ on a 4 lane highway simply darting into the road becomes a nonstop series of heart attacks.

To add to that, we had a bit of mechanical trouble with the chain on my bike.  Pulling over to the side of the road, taking out the toolkit and working those good-ol mechanic muscles did the trick.  Not without a good bit of extra sweat though!

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I’ve also had an interesting thought.  There are so many motorbikes, each following an individual routing algorithm, that it actually visually looks like a fluid flow.  I witnessed the stream of bikes moving about 60kmph on a highway and watched a bus drive perpendicularly through the road.  The bikes slowly bent around the front of the bus — continuing to pass of course, as the bus crept slowly into the road.  As soon as the rear of the bus was onto the highway the bikes were now going around the bus on both sides.  As more and more of the bus moved through the highway the flow of bikes slowly closed off on the front, and continued opening up behind the bus.  Literally like the bus was moving through a river of motorbikes.

So, enough whining, time for some good stuff.  Felix claims that just outside the next major city, Da Nang, Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear went up and over a mountain and Clarkson labeled it one of the best drives in the world, and he would know!   Now-a-days they’ve built a tunnel through the mountain, but with that kind of recommendation, we decided to go up and over.  We were not disappointed!  The views were spectacular, and we even found a heard of goats on the way up!

At some point on the mountain we realized that we didn’t have any pictures of us actually riding the bikes, so we stopped to take some action shots.  Over 300 of them, as it turns out.

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We mostly just sailed straight through Da Nang, but with one exception.  The main highway through town, very abruptly, was completely closed.  And the river of motorbikes didn’t seem to mind at all — they just turned left and right.  I made the instinctive decision to simply follow the river.  We ended up being part of a 1KM long snake of motorbikes winding through these tiny 1 meter wide alleys.  It was the most ridiculous thing.  These alleys are probably normally just people going about their business on foot, but today was literally host to a constant stream, with zero intreruption, of bikes going way too fast with literally no space inbetween them.  We eventually wound our way out of the alleys and back onto the highway.

We sailed straight past our destination of Hoi An by about 8KM.  Our first legitimate wrong turn in ages.  We turned around and found a tiny hidden offramp that was literally a steep dirt downhill.  No wonder we missed it the first time!  We followed this awfully skimpy excuse for a road for about 5KM east to go from the main highway to Hoi An.  This road could more accurately be described as an alleyway than a road.  Whilst on the almost-a-road-but-not-quite a motorbike pulled up next to me with a girl on the back who started yelling at me asking about what hotel we were going to etc.  Skeptical of the free advice, and also mostly trying not to fall off this tiny road or run into a wall, I managed to ignore/shoo off the shouting girl.

We finally got to Ancient City of Hoi An and promptly got yelled at by some security guards that we couldn’t ride our motorcycles in.  Instead they pointed us to this fat dude with half a shirt who would “park” our bikes for the day.  Without much choice, we handed the guy the equivalent of $2 and parked.  It was near 11AM and neither of us had eaten, we were also extremely hot, sweaty and dehydrated (read: irritable).  So, we sat down at the first or second restaurant we found, and did the usual TripAdvisor double check, 4.5 stars, excellent!

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2014-05-18 11.52.582014-05-18 11.42.46

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a delicious but a bit excessive lunch we set out to look at some old stuff.  We looked at some old stuff.  Here are pictures of some of the old stuff.  It was old.

Around 2PM we made our way back to the bikes to find that the Fat Man had not stolen all our stuff, yay!  Our helmets were nowhere to be found though.  We tried knocking on the door of what we thought was the Fat Man’s shop but didn’t get an answer.  After a few minutes a nice lady from the shop across the street called to us and pointed at her head.  We pointed at our heads.  She then pointed to behind some manikins in her store where, voila, there lay our helmets.  Onwards!

We filled up for gas outside of town and set fourth towards our destination: the biggest city within spitting distance of Nha Trang, our destination for day 7 and the next major stop in our journey.

The roads were, unfortunately, none better than this morning.  Highway 1 is an absolute nightmare the whole way.  We road for a solid 4 hours and covered less than 200KM before it started to get dark out. Averaging less than 50kmph is really frustrating, constant stop and go.  Felix described it as a “constant battle” and it was.  We pulled over at dusk and discussed night riding again.  Our past experience was pretty obscene and we were both keen to avoid a repeat.  However, the road was in much better condition, there was less traffic and I posited that perhaps it might be acceptable.  We decided to give it a try for a short while and see how it went, and pull over if it felt dicey at the first town we could.

We made it about 25KM, or about half an hour, before it started to feel stupid and unsafe.  We stopped at this giant 4 story building (very rare and unusual for these sorts of towns) that had a big sign outside that said “HOTEL” (amongst other unintelligible things).  We were greated by a giant family of about 12.  A whole bunch of kids, a tiny dog, what we assume is mom and dad as well as grandma.  Clearly a family business.  We negotiated a price by typing numbers into my phone ($10 for the night) and proceeded to move our things upstairs.  The room had AC and a fan and the beds weren’t made of lead, so to me that was success.  We took a quick rest before going out on our usual “find a sign that says Pho” journey for food.

About 1 minute into our “Find the Pho” journey we found the Pho.  We ordered the Pho (by saying Pho and holding up 2 fingers for 2 people).  They gave us Pho.  The Pho had meat in it, but it wasn’t the usual Pho kind of meat.  It was some kind of fake Pho meat, so we wondered.  So we didn’t eat the fake Pho Meat, just the Pho.  It was good Pho.  We paid $1.50 each for Pho.  Pho-inished.

 


06
Aug 14

Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 5)

DAY: 05 (tourism in Hue day)
Distance: 0KM
Origin:Hue
Endpoint: Hue
Pho Consumed: 0
Today’s Author: Zach
Screenshot from 2014-07-01 10:27:59
Woke up early around 9:00 AM with the intention of doing some morning tourism and mid-afternoon/evening ride to the next town.  As usual though somehow it takes us a bit longer to get everything ready to go and out the door.
2014-05-17 10.35.52
We ended up downstairs talking to the front desk about tourism etc. sometime around 11.  (I said we weren’t so good at waking up…).  We had a checklist of things we needed to do though:
  • Horn stopped working on my bike during the rain yesterday, need to get that fixed
  • Both bikes need oil changes / chain lube
  • Pick up laundry from the night before
  • Find some way to do tourism in Hue
  • Find a place to store our bags while doing tourism.

We managed to figure most of these things out and were on the bikes heading towards a “Honda repair” place somewhere around 11:45.  Predictably, the place the hotel guided us didn’t exactly exist, but there are enough scooters in this country that tiny corner mechanics are fairly easy to find even without a map.  We pulled up to this tiny hole in the wall and attempted to explain the maintenance/repair work we wanted done.  I think we successfully communicated most of it and he started working.  I then called the actual owner of the bikes to let him know what we were doing to them, and to confirm with the mechanic that everything was in order. 2014-05-17 11.34.182014-05-17 11.34.09

 

 

 

 

 

 

20 minutes later, a swapped fuse and two quarts of oil, $13 and both bikes were good to go!  Funny how these bikes have a grand total of one fuse in the whole system!  My car, from 1985, has at least 50, and this motorcycle from 2013 has one!  Sorry, this blog is about our adventures in Vietnam, not pondering on the mechanics of cars/bikes. We got back to the hotel and decided we were overdue for some local style ‘Foreign’ food.  The hostel was able to graciously provide (these guys have proven that they will literally do *anything* to take our money).  We, with a bit of trepidation, ordered a pizza and a burger.  Both because we had been eating some pretty sketchy Vietnamese food for the past week and also because we were curious how well they did American cuisine.  I’ll spare you too many details:  they get a solid B.  Burger and pizza were both well within the range of acceptable, though of course far from spectacular. 2014-05-17 12.05.582014-05-17 11.57.29           We then got in our private car with driver AND tour guide, for just us.  (<mechanic> The car was a rebadged Chevy Equinox, no idea what the local name was.  Either way, very fancy for the local culture, and had AC!</mechanic>) We set off for our first destination: the Citadel and Forbidden City.    You can read about these locations online at Wikipedia if you want to know all the actual history, some of our photos are below as well.  Our personal experience was rather straightforward.  The most notable bits:

  • Our tour guide spoke four languages: English (ish), French, Italian and of course Vietnamese.
  • He is afraid of China (politically)
  • He’s a bit bitter at America for blowing up about 80% of the forbidden city in the Vietnam War (which they call somewhat unsurprisingly call the ‘American War’).
  • Even sacred destinations like the Tomb of an King are covered with these hyper tourist-focused shops selling trinkets and soda.  It really ruins the atmosphere in my opinion.  Maybe one shop at the entrance for cold water, but beyond that it’s a bit tacky.

Post touristing we decided that night riding again wasn’t in the cards, and we would instead wake up early the following morning and do some early morning riding.  So, we checked back into the hotel and moved all of our gear back up into the hotel room. After what seemed like an eterinty Felix finally made up his mind about where we would eat dinner.  Apparently cross referencing Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and personal recommendations from friend’s is a tedious process!  Sounds good to me ;)

The place turned out to be pretty fantastic.  The menu was massive and neither of us could make up our mind as to what to eat.  Thankfully the restaurant foresaw this problem and has a variety of “Menu Europeen” style items on the back — price fixed menus.  We chose a pair of the price fix menus ($15 each for 4 course meals) and relaxed.  The food arrived bit by bit and was all delicious.  I would describe it as Vietnamese style but with European influences.  Sadly our very refined waitress did not speak any French, though we found out on the way out that the proprietor was himself French. Landed back at the hotel around 9PM on a Saturday.  We’re heading to bed around 10PM — the lamest travelers you ever saw!  5:30AM wakeup, alarm set!


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.