Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Vietnam - Day 1 (How Bikes are Made)

Unless I've talked to you recently or you read my facebook post, I am sure most of you are shocked to hear that we just returned from a trip to Vietnam. Vietnam has been at the top of my vacation destination list (along with Thailand & Indonesia) for a couple years now. I've been itching to go to Southeast Asia with Kyle, especially since he has gone to Taiwan and China so many times without me these last few years.

Unfortunately, Kyle didn't really want to go for vacation because he hates the tropical heat. So we went to Spain last year instead. Just two months after that trip, Kyle found out a bike factory in Vietnam was finally "ready" for them to come visit. It is a branch of the company they work with in Taiwan - a new facility they opened to compete with the bike factories in China.

As soon as they knew a trip to Vietnam was in the future, Kyle and Kevin promised to take me and Kelley with them. Midway through December, they realized that there was only a two week window the beginning of January that would work for everyone involved. So we bought tickets - three weeks before our Jan 3rd departure.

We did minimal planning. We knew the company would take care of us the first few days, we had almost no time to plan, and plus Kevin....doesn't like having his trips planned out. That part was a stretch for me, there is so much I wanted to see and do, I just get excited and want to figure out how to squeeze it all in. We left with a rough idea of some things we could do, but really I spent very little time thinking about it.

After 2 hours to San Fran, 13 hours to Hong Kong and 2 more hours of flying to Vietnam, we were exhausted. Thankfully we arrived at 10pm and went straight to bed. We were in a pretty fancy hotel that the factory had recommended for us. Apparently it is where Bill Clinton stayed when he came, but I would rank it somewhere with the Westin in terms of quality and it was a whopping $130 a night. And only came with ONE free buffet breakfast per room.

The guy who created & founded the Vietnam factory, Samuel, arrived at 8:30am to pick us up. After eating our way through the incredible breakfast buffet that included breakfast options from around the world (pho, spring rolls, stir-fry noodles, deli meats, smoked fish, tropical fruits, pastries, omelet bar, waffles) we walked out into the glorious, amazing, warm moist air and gasped. Is there anything lovelier than leaving winter for a couple weeks and basking in 80 degree sunshine? I think not.

The factory was a fascinating one hour drive to the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The first thing we did was tour the aluminum frame factory.

Each frame is welded & made by hand. There are machines there, but they are all manual - you pull the lever so the machine will bend a metal tube to just the right angle for that particular bike.
Bike Tubes
It was fascinating, I'd seen Kyle's pictures before, but really amazing to see everything getting done in person.
These guys were my favorite. Whenever a frame is finished, they stick it in this contraption that checks all the angles and makes sure the bike lies flat. And if it doesn't? Why, you hit it with a hammer till its correct of course! Serious!

Samuel, Kyle & Kevin
Samuel took us to lunch after we toured the factory and it was as amazing as I had dreamed. (yes, I do dream of Vietnamese food) We had the most delicious tea I have ever tasted in my life - unfortunately I have no idea what kind it is. I'm trying to decide if its appropriate to email Samuel and find out. Yes, he was super friendly and spent two whole days showing us around, but he is also the very busy CEO of the factory. Kelley and I talked with him quite a bit and it was fascinating to hear his life story.
Anyways, back to lunch...its hard to remember specific dishes, we ate pretty similar foods for most of trip. Fried thumb sized spring rolls, lemongrass grilled short ribs, rice steamed in a banana leaf, crispy fish skewers...and for dessert, fresh mango and pomelo dipped in chili salt.
After lunch, we visited the carbon fiber frame factory, which blew my mind. Carbon fiber frames feel like they are made of plastic. But apparently they are super strong, strong enough to handle anything an aluminum welded frame can handle. First, we saw huge rolls of carbon fiber sheets. Each sheet is the thickness of say....a sticker and is comprised of thin wispy carbon threads, all running the same direction, that are held together with glue. Ripped with the grain of the fibers, it is super easy to tease them apart, but against the grain, they were cutting with huge metal blades.
Next we went into the room where they assemble pieces of the frame. Its basically just like playing with... stickers. They remove the backing from each pre-cut piece of carbon fiber and stick it onto plastic wrapped wooden dowels. It is EXACTLY like sticking stickers on a piece of wood. They do about 7 layers of stickers, carefully changing the angles of the fibers to each other so that the finished product is strong. In the joints, etc, they put on many smaller stickers to reinforce those areas, on the long tube pieces, just a few larger stickers.
The black piece you see above is finished, but if you pressed on it, it would crumple up relatively easily because the dowel has been taken out. Because its just made of stickers at this point.

Detail of the stickers

Each section of the bike is made, completely by hand. Its almost entirely women applying the stickers because apparently they have steadier hands and better attention to detail for the work. Each woman has one piece she works on and creates, over and over. All the precut "stickers" are put in numbered boxes and she has a diagram showing how each one is to be applied. At the end they weigh the piece to make sure not a single sticker was missed.
When the frame is finished, they put it in these metal molds to be fired. Plastic tubes are still inside where the dowels were and as the frame is cooked, they are filled with air which creates the smooth taut surface.
Cooked bike frame coming out of the molds. It now is just one solid, hard piece of plastic.
One of the most amazing parts of the process is the painting & decals. Each bike is hand masked for paint and decals are also applied by hand - no rulers, no measuring...somehow everything ends up relatively straight and perfect but I have no idea how they do it. Super crazy.
After the factory tour, the guys had to work with their designer. Kelley and I read for an hour or so and then started to die of boredom. We walked around the big open area in front of the walled compound, took glamour shots of each other and chased fish in the fountain. Finally we peeked into the meeting room and requested a basketball for the hoop we'd been wistfully eyeing.
Success! Samuel even came out to play HORSE with us and we both got whooped by a fifty year old Taiwanese business executive. Sweet. Later when we were chatting, we asked him what he did in the Taiwanese military services as a teen and his answer? "I played basketball". That eased the sting of our defeat somewhat.
Finally the guys were finished and we headed to dinner at a famous seafood restaurant. First course was sugarcane shrimp - my most favorite thing, although I adored every rice paper roll I ate. They mince up shrimp into a paste, maybe add some stuff to it (?) and then press it onto a piece of sugar cane before grilling it. To eat, you take a crispy piece of rice paper, add lettuce, the shrimp, pineapple, basil & some vermicelli noodles. Wrap (like a salad roll, except the wrapper is still chewy instead of soft) and dip in a mixture of fish sauce, lime, sugar, & chili....fabulous.
We also had drunken shrimp, which involved them pouring cognac on live shrimp and then LIGHTING THEM ON FIRE at our table. Sick. But hilarious when a flaming shrimp tried to make an escape by jumping out of the bowl. Even more hilarious when we all yelled in surprise and then cracked up loudly...and then realized the entire restaurant was quietly looking at us.
But my very very favorite thing was the baked crab. They picked all the meat out of a crab, mixed it with....apples, butter, something pasty (breadcrumbs?) and sauteed onions and then put it in the empty shell, put cheese on top and broiled it. (bit of a french influenced dish I think) I think we had a seafood hot pot too, but the crab was by far the best. Samuel loves pomelo, so we had that again for dessert along with pineapple. I love tropical fruit for dessert. I could do that after every meal and never eat sweets again I think.
The end of day 1. Phew.


Vale said...

Good to see you back in the blogging world- your excitement is so clearly conveyed through your writing voice. Loved hearing about day 1!

Shauna said...

Awesome, love it! Thanks for the tour. And I can imagine the laughter was quite loud after the burning shrimp tried to escape. :)

Misha Leigh. said...

YUM, YUM and wow.