OK, by now I was getting jumpy about getting out of Hanoi and onto my bike. I liked Hanoi but I'd already been there three weeks, and was aching for the open road. There was just one hurdle left, and that was getting to the jump-off point. When I was planning this trip, I really wanted to ride all the way from Hanoi to Saigon. However, I didn't want to go it alone, and not a single organized trip makes the whole journey. When I asked why, they generally replied that Americans don't get enough vacation to make the whole trip, so they want a shorter trip. Besides that, the scenery in Northern Vietnam and the accommodations are much poorer than they are in the South. So most of the tours ride from Hue to Saigon, and either fly or take the train from Hue to Hanoi. Most travel from North to South because that's the way the prevailing winds blow, and us bikers are lazy and don't like headwinds. I mainly picked Marcel's group because the price was reasonable, and his trip rides 200 km farther than any of the others did.
To get to the jump-off point, we took the most misnamed transportation option in Southeast Asia: the Reunification Express. This is the name for a train that spends most of it's time crawling along at 30-50 kph (20-30 mph) and takes 48-50 hours to go the 2,000 km (1,200 Miles) between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Of the 4000 train cars in service, 600 date back to French colonial days. The rest of them aren't all that new either. Of course, we got a deluxe sleeping car accommodations so I figured I didn't care how long it took. I had sleeping drugs with me, so I thought I'd just sack out and sleep the trip away. WRONG. Apparently, the operators figured that crawling along at a speed I can almost maintain on my bicycle wasn't annoying enough, so at every stop they played music LOUDLY. It was really annoying marshal music at that, and seemed to me to be a completely unnecessary addition to a stop at 3:00 in the morning.
In the morning, we got up to get out and by mistake I told the two Australian guys that were bunking with Marcel and I that we were there. Of course, I was a bit groggy so I didn't quite connect up in my head that we were getting out 200 km before the town that they were trying to go to. I didn't figure it out until much later in the day. Fortunately, I ran into the same two guys in Hoi An a few days later, and they did manage to figure out that they were in the wrong town and get back on before the train left. They thanked me politely for almost ruining their day<g>
We met up with our bus there, and hauled all the bikes to the hotel and put them together. Then we went on a sightseeing trip out to Phang Na Cave. It was a nice place to visit, although all my photos turned out boring as can be. That's hardly surprising since all photos of caves turn out pretty dull.
This cave is in what was North Vietnam, and just a few km from one segment of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Keep in mind that the HCM Trail was not a single trail as you would think of a road or something, but a whole series of trails through the jungle from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia into the South. There were actually hundreds or thousands of routes that people used in small groups to move supplies from the North to the South. The part of the trail I saw was just one of the feeders for the HCM trail. Of course looking at it, it looked just like any other ox cart from fifty feet away, and from the air I doubt you could see it at all. That's one of the reasons the Americans never managed to shut it down. It's hard to find people moving supplies by bicycle from the air, and there was a lot of that going on.
This is the biggest cave in Asia. It goes back into the mountain 18 km (11 miles), and has lots of room inside. During the war, the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) stored equipment, supplies and men inside the cave. The U.S. naturally proceeded to carpet bomb it with B-52s, but all they got for their trouble is knocking down one big rock on the entrance. It wasn't even enough effect to slow down the transfer of men and materiel in and out.
After the cave, I was starting to get excited and pumped up. I finally got to ride with the big boys, right? Wrong! The next day, we got up and took the bikes out of the bus where they were stored for the night, and it started to rain. Nobody really wanted to start out the very first mile of the ride in the rain, so we waited around for a while for it to stop. It never did stop, so we finally loaded the bikes in the bus and proceeded to slink down the highway :(
We passed the DMZ on the way by. This area was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, but I couldn't see much evidence of it from the road. We stopped and took some photos in the rain, and then moved on.
Our next night was spent in Dong Ha. There's nothing special about it except that it's about 100 km from Dong Hoi and the next day we Started Riding. Yeah!!!! This is progress. I left the U.S. with a shiny new bicycle two months before, and I was finally touring.
Naturally, it started raining during the day, but we were started then and we kept going the 75 km (45 miles) to Hue. I had ridden about the same distance in a circle around Hanoi in a day, but didn't really have much experience with distance riding. It turned out that my bike was much better for wet riding than the diamond frames, and I stayed much cleaner and drier than the rest of the riders. If you are going to ride in the rain, I of course recommend a recumbent bike. If you can't swing that, at least put a mud flap on the back tire. Marcel had a flap that simply went in a straight line over the back of his tire. It weighs practically nothing, and has no aerodynamic drag. I didn't think it would do much, but it in fact worked pretty well. At the end of the day, he was almost as clean and dry as I was, while the Belgians had a big mud streak down the back of their jerseys.
We seemed like a pretty evenly matched group. All of the other riders in the group ride a lot more than I do, and they're all stronger riders than I am. However, I wasn't too bad and didn't really slow the progress down any. Marcel commented a few times that we were a strong group and finished several of the rides faster than is typical, so that means the slowpoke of the group (me) can at least match the average pace.
For most of the ride on this and subsequent days, everyone in the group seemed to maintain about the same speed over time. The diamond frame riders kicked my ass on the steep hills, I was way out front in some cases, and most of the time our comfortable speeds all seemed to be pretty evenly matched. All of us except Marcel that is. It suspect he could ride faster than I do if he was dragging an anchor behind him.
At this point, we were actually riding on what is generally referred to in guide books as the "Infamous Highway One". Most guidebooks talk about it like they would talk about handling a poisonous snake: as in do it if you really have to but I wouldn't recommend it. The road is reputed to be terrible in almost every way. I must be contrary, because I generally found the road to be just about ideal for my purposes. Of course, it's crooked and poorly maintained. As expected, it has sections that aren't paved, or even all that smooth. Naturally, about twice a day we passed a bus that's broken down and someone is doing major repairs in the middle of the road while all the passengers stand around for a few hours or days. As always, we're sharing a road that's about a lane and a half wide with trucks, busses, cars, moto-bikes, bicycles, tractors, and farm animals. However, I just don't see what all the fuss is about. It seems like a perfectly good road to me.
Etienne told me a funny story about the reaction to me. He says he enjoyed watching the reaction of the kids as we went by. Most of the riders were a few hundred meters in front of me. The kids would see the bikes go by and they would break into a big smile and say "Hello" as he rode by. Then he would watch their eyes turn back to my bike, and their eyes would get as round as saucers and they would burst out laughing. He got a great kick out of this particular phenomena.
|Travel Tip||Guidebooks are a double edged sword when traveling. On the one hand,
they give you valuable advice about what's available to see and do, and
just wandering at random is obviously a dumb way to travel. On the
other hand, if you overuse them they tend to herd you in with the rest
of the tourists, and I think make you miss out on some of the genuine
experience. Having said all that, I think a good guidebook is
essential. I've looked at several, and taken several along with me.
Most were total crap, but there are some good ones:
I don't claim to have checked out every kind of guidebook, but I can tell you I've rued the day I bought any book other than one of those above. As always with books, the best thing to do is go to a well stocked bookstore and look at a lot of them.
One other caution is that most guidebooks have maps, and they're generally worse than worthless. You can use one in a pinch, but most of the time you will want a proper map.
The next stop was the imperial city of Hue, where we spent a day sightseeing. Hue is pronounced sort of like Whey. That's not quite right, because the word is about a syllable and a half to western ears, and the middle syllable is sort of a cross between a U and and O. This is a common first name, and I had a friend named Hue in Saigon try to teach me to say it right but I never quite managed it. Hue is located about halfway between Hanoi and Saigon, along the banks of the Perfume River.
Like most really old countries, the capital has changed places several times. For a large part of the dynastic periods I mentioned before, the capital shifted back and forth between Hue and Hanoi. The borders also shifted, with Hue being the center of a kingdom smaller than present Vietnam for a time, and a long series of battles and such between rivals controlling the south and the north. The capital shift was usually done to stroke the ego of the new ruler, or to try to distance the new regime from the old one, or to move the new regime's army farther away or closer to rival armies to make the place stronger militarily. Regimes frequently make a new capital to break from the old regime, and they frequently move it back to an old capital to try to give their reign more legitimacy by association with an old regime that is looked on favorably.
Most recently, at the start of the 19th century, a prince from one of the old dynasties collaborated with the French to overthrow a different dynasty. He assumed the throne and founded the Nguyen dynasty that technically ruled Vietnam until the last Emperor Bao Dai abdicated in 1945. Note the word technically. The French took real control of the country not long after the start of the dynasty, and kept the old emperors around just to give their rule a thin veneer of legitimacy. The emperors never had any real control during this time.
Due to it's long history as a cultural and business center, as well as it's royal functions the city is one of the real cornerstones of Vietnam. The most featured attraction these days is the Citadel. This is an imperial walled city where the imperial family used to live. It's patterned in some ways like the Forbidden City in Beijing, but with a distinctly Vietnamese architecture. The Viet Cong took control of the citadel during the Tet Offensive in 1968 and held out against the U.S. forces for two months in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. Micheal Herr wrote about it in Dispatches (see previous page). It cost one U.S. casualty for every meter of wall cleared, and I have no idea how many Vietnamese casualties.
Miraculously, after such heavy fighting quite a bit of the citadel is still undamaged, but large parts of it are either completely gone or riddled with bullet holes. Also, a lot of it was built 200 years ago out of lacquered wood, which isn't all that ideal for long life in a tropical climate. The structures are being slowly rebuilt, and oddly enough they're getting a lot of help from Poland in the effort. I never did quite figure out why Poland is involved, but kind of think it's just because of one Polish historian that made it his mission to see it happen. The parts that are restored are quite beautiful, and have a distinctly Vietnamese architecture.
Unfortunately, it was raining on the day we were there, so we wandered around and saw the citadel but the conditions weren't quite ideal.
We also saw a pagoda, but after Bangkok and Hanoi, I'd seen about all the pagodas I really needed to see.
In Hue, Etienne and Jacques had an experience that is fairly typical for Vietnam. They were hanging out while Rita and Leah did some shopping, and three very young children came up selling postcards. This is a typical experience that happens everywhere. I've seen children as young as five or six selling stuff, although most of them are in the ten to fifteen age range. These kids always presented me with somewhat of an ethical problem. On the one hand, buying from them simply propagates a bad system. These kids should be in school, learning how to make a proper living. On the other hand, their sales are frequently the difference between a family eating or starving, and I can't change the world overnight. I never knew if buying from them was helping out someone that really needed the money, or just encouraging a bad system that needs to change. In the end, I could not make up my mind which course was more ethically correct, so I took to buying from them when they had something I wanted. For those that didn't try to rip me off outrageously, I gave them a small tip. For those that did try to shaft me, I walked away.
In this particular case, Etienne got hit by these three kids. The oldest one put the pressure on, so he looked through her postcards to see if she had one he particularly wanted. She didn't, so he didn't buy anything from her. However, he did take pity on the smallest one and bought something from her. At this point, the oldest one started to cry and claimed he had cheated her. This kind of experience is fairly typical.
Photo Courtesy Etienne
After Hue, we rode the 110 km (68 miles) to Da Nang through the Hai Van Pass (Pass of the Ocean Clouds). This was a great ride, with a 10 km (6 mile) climb from sea level up to the top at 1,200 meters (4,000 feet). Near the top, they have clouds all the time, which gives the pass it's name. This was my first chance to really climb on my bike, and test the widely held theory that "recumbents can't climb". I had naturally climbed the biggest hill I could find while I was in Nice, but it wasn't all that big. The bike did OK up the hill. Everyone else was a bit faster than I was, but not by much.
way up the pass, we ran into a bus or truck that was broken down at the side of
the road about once per km. This was a fairly common occurrence as we trucked
along. Lots of times we saw busses, trucks and other vehicles getting major
maintenance in the middle of the road. The passengers end up just hanging out
until the machine is fixed or another one shows up. Some of the maintenance is
the kind of thing you would expect, such as changing tires and such. However, a
lot of it was major maintenance. The Vietnamese are masters of keeping old
equipment running. They definitely remind me of my old sawmill days. The
frequent maintenance looks pretty bad, but considering the age of most of these
busses they're doing quite well to have them running at all.
At the top, we had some water and a small snack, and then got to zip right back down to sea level. What took a few hours to climb took just a few minutes to go back down. Then we proceeded to ride the rest of the way into Da Nang. The pass looked like the photo above.
Da Nang became well known mostly because of it's part in the American War. The first 3,500 U.S. Marines came ashore there in 1965 (we already had more than that here as "advisors", but these were the first regular troops), and Da Nang was one of the first to fall when the communists rolled into town in 1975. Two jets evacuated refugees, most of them U.S. soldiers in a complete panic that was broadcast around the world. So many people tried to climb on that when one of them took off, people fell off the wheels into the South China Sea.
Da Nang is the fourth largest city in Vietnam, and it was an important deep water port for the Americans during the war. The war was a contest of massive heavy industry against extensive guerilla warfare. American's had five to seven support personnel for for every combat soldier (the infamous REMFs), and a single American division used more non-food supplies than the entire Viet Cong. This required the construction of extensive port facilities throughout the south, and they're all still there.
The Da Nang region is smack in the middle of the country, and the region was an important cultural and trading center for the Champa kingdom and others as the borders moved around from time to time. The Champa kingdom was eventually overthrown by the Vietnamese.
Several times during the trip, we stopped to look at Vietnamese markets. In general, most places that had a market area had something similar to the Old Quarter I described in Hanoi, except that it was much more concentrated. One area would have a whole bunch of small stalls selling the usual eclectic but frustratingly similar mix of merchandise. The market areas resembled the Egyptian markets in a lot of ways.
Etienne had an experience that was commonplace. He went into the market in Dong Ha. A man introduced himself in English, and offered to be a "guide". Etienne thanked him politely but told him that he did not need a guide. The guy just wouldn't give up. As the group moved through the market, the guy would keep re-appearing, making comments on the merchandise, offering this and that, and generally being a nuisance. The gang finally sat down for a beer, and the "guide" was still there. Etienne offered him a drink, but the man refused. He then wrote on a piece of paper in perfect English that he wanted money, not a drink because he had four children to feed. Another crippled man came by in a hand crank bicycle (which are very common). Etienne gave the "guide" some money and told him to give some to the guy in the bicycle, but the guide just disappeared with the money. Nearly identical experiences happened to me several times, except I rarely gave the guy any money.
In the morning we visited an exceedingly dull museum (maybe the HCM museum weirdness wasn't such a bad idea), and then took a short 30 km (20 mile) trip to Hoi An.
On the way, we passed by Marble Mountain, which is as you would suspect a big mountain with a bunch of marble. As you would also expect, there are lots of people here making a living carving statues out of marble. There is a pagoda on the mountain that you climb for about 15 minutes to get to. It was a pretty nice pagoda, and Marcel explained all the spiritual significance of the design.
Behind the pagoda is a cave Huyen Khong, in which the Viet Cong had a guerilla base and field hospital. The Americans bombed it and knocked a hole in the cave, but apparently missed the pagoda somehow.
Of course, once I'd seen the pagoda I proceeded to climb up to the top of the mountain, which is much more spiritual for me than any building ever is. The view from up there was very good, and I was sorry to have to go back down.
The primary reason I was sorry to go back down was that at the base, they had just what you would expect which is a whole bunch of shops selling marble goods. Naturally, any time you have a bunch of shops selling tourist stuff and a bunch of tourists in the same place, you end up with a bunch of touts. It's completely impossible to just wander through the stores and look at the goods in peace, or even just wander around the area. The most annoying and persistent were all kids that should have been in school. After a while I got tired of being hassled and went over to wait by my bike.
The marble work was all done quite nicely, particularly if you watched how the work was being done. Most of it was being done what I would call the hard way. The most advanced tool anyone had was a disk grinder, and those weren't all that common. Most of the people were doing it the old fashioned way with hammer and chisel. They also exhibited the mass-production mentality you would expect, so while there were about 40-50 shops, they were all selling almost exactly the same pieces and in fact I could have picked up any of the same pieces at a dozen places between there and Saigon. Most of the stuff in the tourist area was reasonably small and easy to transport, but not small enough that I wanted to carry it on my bike. I did however buy something in Hoi An and shipped it home. It was a piece that most have taken days to do, and it cost 18 USD. They had everything from tiny little works about the size of a ring, to marble statues bigger than I am. I asked who bought the big stuff, and they said "Americans", which I would translate to mean Americans and Europeans.
Hoi An is much more of a tourist town than Da Nang, which is primarily a big commercial town. Da Nang and Hoi An have traded places back and forth as big ports and commercial center. Hoi An was king during the 16th and 19th centuries, and Da Nang seems to be the big commercial center for the moment. Hoi An has become a sort of laid back tourist town. It seems like the tourists outnumber the locals. This was OK for me since I'd been studiously avoiding tourists from the beginning, but my Belgian friends found it too touristy for their taste. This was the town where I met up with the two Australian blokes that I'd got to leave the train early, and was heartened to find out they hadn't been hosed by my bad information.
Hoi An was absolutely the best place I've seen on the entire trip for clothes shopping. The town is loaded with clothing shops, and this being Vietnam all of them do custom tailoring for a very low price. You can get things custom made out of quality materials in a matter of hours. Marcel got some pants custom made for 10 USD plus the cost of the material. I liked them so much I got some similar ones in Saigon, but I wasn't as happy with mine as he was with his. I stopped and talked to a few people that were getting clothes fitted, and everyone seemed very happy with the work. Just walking down the street would be a shoppers dream, because all of the shops have display works that were just absolutely gorgeous. You could easily get western clothes, Vietnamese clothes, or just about anything you could adequately describe. The reason I liked this place better than some other shopping districts I ran across is the variety. Vietnam shopping districts tend to have a whole bunch of places showing pretty much the same things. Walking around in Hoi An, I saw a lot more variety in color, style, patterns and embroidery than I did anywhere else in Vietnam.
There are of course other types of shopping in Hoi An as well, but I think you get the idea. If you want to shop, I recommend a stop in Hoi An. It's also a good place to just be around some tourists for a while if you're getting a bit of Vietnam Fatigue.
Quang Ngai and Qui Nhon are ordinary little Vietnamese towns that just happened to be at the right distances for cycling days. They were both nice little towns with nothing much happening. Quang Ngai was the place I had the small sea birds I mentioned back on the first page.
On the way from Hoi An to Quang Ngai we passed China Beach. This was a very popular beach for R&R for American soldiers during the war, and nearly every combat soldier that ever went to Vietnam spent at least one liberty there if they survived long enough, or at least tried to. It was made famous for my generation by a television series called China Beach which was one of the first to really start bringing Vietnam back into the American consciousness.
13 km from Qui Nhon is what's left of the village of My Lai, the sight of the infamous My Lai Massacre. In 1968 some troops from Charlie Company lead by William Calley went into the village, lined up 504 civilians and killed them all in cold blood. The soldiers pulled men, women and children out of their huts indiscriminately, lined them up by a ditch and shot them in the backs or the back of the head. Picture any old photos you've seen of Nazis lining up Jewish people and shooting them, change the Nazi uniforms to U.S. Army, and you have the picture.
Take a look at this chart from the small museum they have. Pay particular attention to the expanded section in the middle. The third column in that chart is the Vietnamese word for Age. It seems quite unlikely to me that someone that's 1 year old could be even be a communist, let alone Viet Cong.
My Lai, along with the associated cover-up and subsequent exposure was an important event in the war. What's unusual about My Lai wasn't the number of people killed, or even the composition of those killed. The U.S. killed more people than that every day for over 20 years. The vast majority of those killed were civilians that generally had nothing whatsoever to do with the Viet Cong or anything else, but were just trying to survive. It wasn't even unusual to wipe out entire villages with heavy weapons or from planes flying 30,000 feet in the air. What was unusual was the level of personal brutality exhibited by the troops on that day, and the effect it had on public opinion in the U.S. when the word got out about what ordinary American soldiers in their early 20s were capable of. This combined with the very large Tet Offensive later in the year were two of the things that really started turning public opinion around, and ultimately probably helped end the war.
The My Lai site has some nicely done statues that were made by some of the survivors of the massacre. A few people survived primarily because an American helicopter pilot eventually figured out what the soldiers on the ground were doing, and made an effort to put a stop to it. He landed his helicopter in between some soldiers and some of the people they were after, and ordered his door gunner to open fire if they kept coming. He then hauled all the people he could out of the combat zone on the chopper. A few survivors also made it by lying still under the bodies of their relatives that were shot and dropped on top of them.
The My Lai site has a museum that's well worth looking at. All of the museums in Vietnam used to be loaded with rhetoric placing the harshest possible light on the American's actions in the war, but they're lightening up in a lot of places, apparently to encourage tourism. For example, the museum in Saigon used to be called the "War Crimes Museum", and it's been renamed to the "War Remnants Museum", and the anti-American tone has been reduced a lot. The museum at My Lai is still as harsh as it's always been, and in fact paints a more accurate picture than the toned down version that will be there in a few years will be.
I was profoundly moved by my visit to My Lai, and I think every person in the world should be required to visit some place like this, or a German Death Camp, or the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, or any other similar site. It's one thing to read about the massacre in a book or on some cyclist's web page. It's quite another thing to stand on the very spot where it happened, look at the little humps that used to be huts where people were getting on with their lives, look at the ditch where they were killed, and just picture the whole thing in your mind. I think if more people did some kind of pilgrimage like that, we would end up with less war.
Throughout Vietnamese history, there have been two distinctly different groups that are constantly somewhat at odds with each other. There are the "hill tribes" or various other names given to the people that live in the highlands, and there are what I call the flatlanders that live in the plains near the coast. The two groups have been trading partners for thousands of years because they need each other, but they've always been at odds because their lifestyles are different, their cultures are different and so forth.
Most of what you and I think of as Vietnamese history consists of the political machinations of the flatlanders, who have always outnumbered the hill tribes. The invention of wet land rice farming greatly increased the output of this segment of the population, and so they make up the bulk of what we think of as Vietnamese.
Now based on that, you would probably guess that the communists are primarily flatlanders, and you would be absolutely correct. The hill tribes bounce back and forth between just wanting to be left alone, or fighting for one side or another. The French recruited them extensively for fighting. The CIA did the same thing during the American war. Several of the regimes in control of the south during the war made a real effort to just wipe them out, and others made an effort to use some tribes for fighting, and wipe out others.
During my visit, they had another one of the endless disputes and it ended in some kind of ugliness in the Central Highlands. The government sent a fax to all tourist groups to reroute around the problem area, so Marcel had to change our itinerary at this point. Originally, we would have gone over to Pleiku in the Central highlands at this point and ridden through the highlands for a couple of days to Da Lat. We couldn't do that, so we rode on down Highway One to Phan Rang.
We stopped for the night in a few beach towns along the way. They were all very nice. They mostly tend to be pretty quiet, with nice and un-crowded beaches. If you're a beach person, you could do nicely just hanging out in any one of these towns. Nha Trang was my personal favorite.
On the first day of this segment, I had my first flat of the trip. As one would expect, this one was a valuable lesson in life called "when you're threading your way between giant potholes, keep your eyes on the road". I'm glad I had this happen, because I would never have come up with that one on my own. I was going down a particularly rough section of road, and something off in the rice paddy caught my eye. While I was gawking, I slipped over a foot and ran into a pothole about the size of a moon crater. This served as a convenient test of my front suspension, which did work quite well since I didn't end up swallowing any teeth or my tongue. I said to myself "Oh, that was bad", and then felt the telltale squirriliness of a flat tire immediately. I got off and just changed over to my spare tube, which took about as long as it takes to gather a dozen onlookers and moved on. It turned out the tube was pretty much ruined as far as my patch kit was concerned, because the holes were too big to fix reliably.
At the next town, Marcel and Leah went looking for a tube and got an example of Vietnamese inventiveness. My bike is a bit of an oddball size for the Vietnamese. My front tire is a 20 inch, or the same as a BMX. Needless to say, BMX's aren't all that common in Vietnam. Nobody had the proper sized tube, but one of the guys said "No Problem". He took a 26 inch tube across the street to another guy that just chopped six inches out of it, and glued it back together. I was a bit skeptical, but I got a chance to test it the next day.
I was once again threading a narrow track between potholes, but this time there was a nasty crosswind across the road. This time, I got to learn the valuable lesson of life: "If you have a gusting crosswind on one side, a pothole on the other, and a truck coming up behind you on the other side, STOP for a minute and then start up again once either the pothole or the truck disappears." I of course demonstrated that I had about as much brains as the pothole, and ended up getting hit with a crosswind at the same time the truck passed. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be much of a problem because the wind doesn't deflect me all that far, but in this case I went into an even bigger pothole than the day before. It was a convenient test of just how big of a pothole I can hit without taking a spill, and the answer is "just a bit smaller than that one". I went down, which was more embarrassing than destructive and had to test out the newfound Vietnamese tube. Fortunately, it worked fine and I was good to go, except for the fact that it was starting to look like I needed eight more tubes to get to Saigon.
The climb to Da Lat was the hardest day of the trip, and much harder than the Centuries I've been making myself do for the last week. We rode 110 km (72 Miles) with a climb of 1,400 meters (4,800 Feet). That's roughly equivalent to riding from Oakdale to Pinecrest, or from San Mateo to the top of Mount Hamilton. This particular day covered 30 percent more distance than the longest ride I've done in the last five years, and had three times as much elevation gain. I started at 7:00, and finished at 5:30. The rest of the riders finished a couple hours ahead of me, but I did manage to limp in finally. This is mostly due to my lack of training, and the fact that I just couldn't sustain a good speed for that length of time. I did however finish this and every other km on the trip route, so I felt pretty good about that.
This particular leg of the trip was a lot of fun, and somewhat instructional. Touring gradually changes your perspective in funny ways. As I write this from Australia, I'm beginning more and more to really understand what touring is all about. I don't think I quite get it yet, but I'm on the right track. One thing that I can remember changing is a sense of time and effort. Back home, I can remember thinking "That is one tough hill. It's going to take an hour to climb.". On the ride up the hill to Dalat, I can remember looking at my watch and thinking "Cool, only another hour and I get to stop for lunch". The entire concept of time kind of dilates out, and I end up thinking of things in a whole new time scale. I was originally worried that I'd be bored to death by distance touring, but for the last week I've been spending eight hours per day in the saddle, and I'm not getting at all bored yet.
On this trip, I also really came to understand one of my new Wadeisms, which is "When you don't feel like riding, you must ride.". I've found that once I got my body in some kind of half-assed good condition, riding always makes me feel better. If I'm not feeling well mentally, emotionally or physically, riding always improves things. I suspect this is some kind of endorphin response that I never really connected with before. Now the thing I have to keep in mind is that the times when I just don't feel like dragging my ass out and onto the bike is the time that I most need to actually do so.
Da Lat is a nice town. It's worth visiting, and if I were going to live in Vietnam it's one that I would consider as a home. We did a day sightseeing there mostly to recover from the ride of the previous day. They have an imperial residence there, which is where the French had Bao Dai living while he pretended to be the emperor of Vietnam. We toured that, and it was pretty interesting. We also toured a museum that had a lot of really old relics from the Bronze Age and forward, covering a lot of Vietnamese history that most of us know absolutely nothing about. At that point, I had just picked up my long history book on Vietnam, and was still reading back about 1000 BC. They also have one of the only golf courses I saw in Vietnam.
In Da Lat I bought a very nice silk embroidered picture for my wall. It's the first bit of art I purchased on this trip, since I'm quite picky about what I buy. This picture is made from very find needlework stitching using silk thread. It reportedly takes a skilled craftsperson three months to make it. I had a few others in the shop that I really wanted, but decided I'd spent enough for one day. I'm getting optimistic that once I quit riding and settle down again, I'll have enough stuff that visitors to my house will quit asking when I'm going to move in.
After Da Lat, we whipped down another 100 km to Bao Loc, which is about 50 km from Saigon. I should have been able to kick ass on this part of the journey because my bike is much more aerodynamic than a diamond frame, and handles and brakes better. Alas, I lacked sufficient nerve to take advantage of it. At this point, I'd only spent about 30 minutes total going down steep hills, and I didn't really have enough confidence to really crank the speed up. On the other hand, the other riders are wild and crazy, so they whipped out in front of me and stayed there.
On the way there, we visited a sugar factory. I liked this place because it reminded me of my earlier days in the sawmill. Everything is quite old, and processing is done pretty much like it has been done for the last hundred years I'd imagine. It was interesting to tour the place, and taste the product in various stages of production.
The guys working this factory got all of us to step on a scale, and seemed to get great amusement from the results. They seemed to think I was some kind of water buffalo or something, since I was the heaviest by far and seemed to be the heaviest guy they'd ever seen. They were checking my boots for lead weights, and just laughing uncontrollably. Of course, with the Vietnamese that isn't all that unusual. These people have a strong sense of humor, and find lots of things funny. You always have the impression that they're laughing with you and not at you, and it's very enjoyable to interact with them on a regular basis.
The cycling part of the tour ended in Bao Loc, because almost everyone in the group had enough sense to not ride in Saigon. I was planning to stay another week in Saigon, so I sat and worked on my computer at the cafe while everyone else packed their bikes up. Then we rode the bus into Saigon.
Let me digress from the trip a bit to talk about what people wear around here. The most distinctive and recognizable piece of clothing is the Ao Dai (pronounced OuZai or OuYai, depending on where you come from). Traditionally made of silk, it consists of a combination of long loose pants, along with a one piece top that has panels coming down the front and split up the sides from the bottom to just above the waist. This is a style that originated in Vietnam, and isn't really seen anywhere else, which I (and every other man in the world) particularly like. The Ao Dai was banned by the communists after the war due to economic hardship, but this was relaxed and they're making something of a comeback. Most people that wear it now have to wear it as a work uniform in tourist places. They're also worn for formal occasions.
Leah told me a funny Ao Dai story. It seems an American GI during the war saw these and thought they were very sexy. He wrote to his wife and had her send her measurements, and got one made and sent back to her. She wrote back saying she wore it to a party, and everyone thought it was very sexy. She sent a photo, which pointed out that he forgot the pants. His wife didn't know any better so she went to the party without them.
The vast majority of Vietnamese wear clothes that wouldn't be out of place in America. In Hanoi and most of the north, just about everyone wears ordinary pants and a shirt, along with open toed shoes or sandals. The pants are most often blue or black, and the shirts are mostly white, blue or black. I noticed almost a complete lack of red or any pastel colors. I almost never saw anyone wearing shorts, dresses or T-shirts. Part of that is because it was the middle of winter, and it was downright cold for people living in a tropical environment. I was frequently out riding my bike in a T-shirt while everyone around me was wearing pants, shirts, jackets, scarves, hats and gloves. Lots of people working with tourists wear the Ao Dai, but generally change out of it into pants and blouse before leaving work.
As we went south, the clothing styles changed as we went along. Leah explains it as the south being more formal. That may be part of it, but the additional factor as we went south is that it's warmer all the time. Once we crossed Hai Van Pass, we pretty much passed into an area that just about never gets cold at all, and southern Vietnam is downright tropical. Remember that Saigon is about the same latitude as Honduras.
School kids almost always wear school uniforms in the south, and the uniforms are very consistent throughout the south. Middle age kids of both genders usually wear blue pants, and a white button-up shirt. Many also wear a red bandana around the neck, which is ostensibly supposed to show their appreciation to HCM for the fine education they're receiving. Of course, as with most things related to the communist party, appreciation is neither spontaneous nor optional.
Younger kids wear the same thing, but the pants are sometimes replaced with shorts. Older girls change over to white Ao Dai's sometime around high school age. They have a whole set of procedures for dealing with the extraneous material floating around so they can ride bicycles and such. Periodically, we would be cruising down the road and run into hundreds of kids on bicycles or walking home. The kids always had a great time with our group, and we quite enjoyed passing them.
As you go south, you start seeing the clothing that always gives the Vietnamese the reputation of wearing "pajamas". This turns out to be just a practical response to a hot climate. People wear loose clothing, because it's more comfortable. The material is typically a silk/synthetic blend that's very cool, breathes well and doesn't need ironing every five minutes like silk does.
Saigon stands out as being a bit different from the rest of Vietnam. There, I saw a lot more variety in clothing, both in color and in style than I did in the rest of the country. Most of it is still basically stuff that would be completely unremarkable in any western country.
Another thing that you see very frequently on women is extensive sun protection. For most Vietnamese women, if they tan they tend to stay dark. They don't like the effect, so lots of women wear long gloves that cover their hands and arms, as well as a bandana covering all of their face up to the eyes any time they're outside in the sun. A hat is also very common. You can see an example in the next photo. Vietnamese men also usually wear hats, because it's a very sensible thing to do in a tropical climate. One accessory you almost never see though is a motorcycle helmet. They sell them all over the place, but it was an unusual day when I saw more than one person wearing one, and most of the time I never saw anybody wearing one. Bicycle helmets are not only rare, but they're unheard of. I found it impossible to buy one, despite a lot of effort, and I never saw a single one on anybody but our crew.
Finally, we rode into the mystical city of Saigon. I think all Americans of my generation conjure up dozens of images with just the mention of the name. I drank in the sights as we went into town, and tried very hard to squeeze the experience down to it's essence. The best single word to describe Saigon is MORE. Compared to the rest of Vietnam, Saigon has more of everything. More people, more cars, more moto-bikes, more money, more corruption, more smog, more traffic lights, more noise, more western corporations, more variety in both style and color in clothing, more overweight people (and that's NOT just because I joined them), more night clubs, more stores, more congestion... more of everything. I came up with that concept on the first night, and the longer I stayed in Saigon the more it seems to fit.
I must confess that I really fell in love with Saigon, and had a very hard time leaving it. It's very difficult to explain why, because nearly everything in the last paragraph should have sent me running and screaming. I don't even understand it myself, but that's the way it is, so I give up on explaining it.
Here's a quote from my journal entry from the third day in Saigon:
"I was once a young and foolish boy. I thought I'd been a few places, and seen a few things. I even had the audacity to think I knew a few things about traffic. Yes, I was in fact young and foolish at one time... that time was 4PM this afternoon."
Traffic in Saigon is much busier than in Hanoi or the rest of Vietnam for that matter. First off, there seem to be a lot more money floating around in Saigon, so the percentage of bicycles is much lower because everyone that can afford a moto-bike gets one. Increasing moto-bike traffic brings the average speeds up considerably. Etienne and I disagree on the ratio of cars to bikes. I thought there were proportionately more cars in Saigon than in Hanoi, but he thinks there are more in Hanoi. Regardless of that, there's no question that the cars in Saigon were on the average newer, cleaner and more expensive. Saigon is where I saw the first new car dealer I saw in all of Vietnam. There must be some somewhere in Hanoi, but I never found one.
The streets in Saigon are generally wider, of better quality, much busier, and a lot faster than in Hanoi. Saigon has lots more stop lights. In Hanoi, having a stop light was a bit of a novelty, and in fact I was reading a travelogue from a guy that went through about 1995 and they were putting in the very first one. In Saigon, they're very commonplace and most appear to have been there since the war. Riding a bike in the busiest parts of town feels a bit like being in a video game. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but that was the feeling I got the first few times I rode in it. Keeping in mind I'd already ridden nearly 1000 miles in Vietnam, I still got a huge thrill the first time I cranked up the old Strange Machine and headed out in a random direction looking for traffic.
We spent two days in Saigon with the group, and did the usual touristy things. We went to the War Remnants museum. I didn't get any photos there because I had a dead battery and just never got around to going back. The museum was very interesting. The government is obviously in the middle of trying to tone down their anti-American rhetoric, probably assuming it's bad for tourism. The museum had a lot of the old displays, but some that appear to be trying to strike a more gentle angle. For example, an entire room was dedicated to American photographers that were killed in action trying to photograph the war. Lots of displays appeared to be mixes of the old hard-line rhetoric from when it was called the "War Crimes Museum" to the new identity of "War Remnants Museum". The old line was "look what the terrible Americans have done to us", and the new line is more like "we all need to remember that war is bad". That isn't quite the sentiment, but it's the closest I could come up with.
We also went to the "Chinese Market". Saigon has a Chinatown that has been the home to ethnic Chinese merchants for centuries. One of their big markets is a place you have to see to believe. It's about the size of a very small shopping mall in the U.S., but it's jam packed with several hundred stores all side by side. It's a very concentrated bunch of merchandise, and it has more than the usual variety that one would find in Vietnam.
Since both of my younger sisters recently had babies, I decided to go
on a baby clothes buying binge. Fortunately, for an uncle, buying baby clothes
is a cinch. It's nearly impossible to go wrong. If there are newborns in the
family, you simply buy clothes completely at random. No matter what you buy,
it's almost certain that they will fit some baby in the family at some time. In
most cases, you don't even have to be all that gender specific. Avoid pinks and
life is easy. Most of the clothes were
dirt cheap extremely
expensive as any good uncle would never settle for second best. Most complete
outfits cost 20,000 VND (1.40 USD), and the most expensive one I bought cost
80,000 VND (6 USD), and that was just because I couldn't be bothered to bargain.
All of those prices could probably have been chopped in half.
We went out to the Mekong delta which was a nice relaxing final day for us. The Mekong is the third largest river in Asia, and one of the largest in the world. It starts out in the Tibetan plateau, and flows 4,500 km (2,800 miles) through China, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam; draining 800,000 square km (300,000 square miles). In high flood, the river moves one million pounds of earth per second.
The river splits out into a very broad delta in southern Vietnam. The annual floods produced by the monsoon season produce a rejuvenating effect on the land much like the Nile that I described in the Egypt page. This makes the delta and the plain around it very fertile. It's called the bread basked of Vietnam, although Rice Bowel would probably be a better term. Some areas get three crops per year. Naturally, since it was a huge part of the food supply, the Americans decided it was a good idea to spray toxic defoliants over large sections of it to "deny the enemy cover". The delta has mostly recovered from that, although there appear to be some long term health effects from the introduction of Dioxins to the food supply.
While we were waiting for the boat, I completed one transaction that I found to be quite amusing. I bought a small cheap backpack in Bangkok for a few dollars that I liked because I can fold it up in my pannier bags. It's not really a very good backpack, but I got kind of attached to it for absolutely no good reason at all. One of the straps had torn loose a few weeks before, and I had a tailor on the way back from Ha Long Bay sew it up. Something else tore again, so Leah walked me over to a guy that did upholstery work and talked to him for a few minutes. He proceeded to take the thing and double stitch every seam in the pack. In the end, he wanted to charge me 5,000 VND (.33 USD), but that seemed inadequate to me so I gave him a 50,000 VND note (3.33 USD). It took me a few minutes to convince him that I wanted him to keep the whole thing, but in the end he took it. The amusing part about that is that this brought the total repair cost for the bag up to much more than I paid for it in the first place, and more than a new replacement would have cost. I thought it was amusing anyway.
We stopped at a small island that was the home of one of the most bizarre religious groups of the time. Their prophet took little bits and pieces of Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Confucianism and a few others and crafted it into a strange and eclectic mix. The funniest part of the temple we visited was a tower that had a small rocket on the bottom that said "NASA". At sunrise, the local disciples used to run the rocket up the pole, and pray for something or other. Of course, the most amusing part of this stay was how I navigated the island. It was a fairly small island, and I got bored with the temple, so I just moved off and found the only supply of beer on the island. I simply sat down there with my laptop and wrote in my journal, correctly assuming that the Belgians would show up sooner or later at the beer supply. It's comforting to know that there are some things in life you can count on.
Next we visited a candy factory where they make candy by hand out of coconuts. As usual, it appeared to me that they were definitely doing things the hard way.
The really fun part here is that I bought a few pounds of candy to send back home. I'm the world's worst procrastinator so I usually end up sending my packages from the airport since that's the last time I could possibly do it. In this case, I was even worse because I ended up sending a package that had been in my hotel room for over a month from the Bangkok airport. While I was in Saigon, I started eating the candy one night when I had the munchies. That was a very bad move, because the candy has all the addictive properties of heroin or cigarettes. I ended up continuing the theft of my nieces and nephews candy legacy to the point where I finally gave up and just took it all to Australia with me. If you'd been here when I ate the last two pieces about a week ago, you could have seen a grown man cry. It was pathetic.
Our organized tour ended after the trip to the Mekong, and we said our reluctant goodbyes. I quite enjoyed the time I spent with the gang, and I'm fairly certain that sooner or later I'll go visit my friends in Belgium, and I suspect I'll probably take another trip with Marcel as well. He has lots of cool tours all over the world.
In retrospect, I could quite easily have done the trip by myself but it wouldn't have been nearly as much fun or as good of an experience. I was quite happy that I had the backup of doing the group ride before it was time to head off on my own, and the trip was both a good way to shake out the bugs in my bike, and get my fat ass in some kind of shape. Now I don't pretend to be in "animal" condition yet, but I think the photos below should show at least minimal progress.
|Before: Hanoi, Januray||After: Saigon, March|
|That's the same belt you see, but I had to have the handyman across the street in Saigon drill two new holes in it, and I whacked off some length with my Leatherman. I'm currently using a notch on the belt that's about three inches (8 cm) from where I started.|
After the rest of the gang left town, I went out to dinner with the young American women I met in Ha Long Bay. They are teaching an English class. Now, the answer to the obvious question is "No, they don't speak Vietnamese". Let me digress a second.
English is a very difficult language for Vietnamese to learn, and in fact it's generally regarded as one of the most difficult languages to master as a second language for anyone. The problem with English is that it's a complete hodgepodge of influences from all over the world, all of which are not well integrated. Our syntax and grammar is a complete mess, and the language is full of contradictions, exceptions, strange spellings and the like. All languages have this to some extent, but my understanding is that English is worse than most.
In addition to the inconsistency, learning English for people speaking Asian languages and vice-versa requires a paradigm shift. Like most Asian languages, Vietnamese is a tonal language, which is a very different system than English. English is an atonal language, which means a particular word only means one thing, no matter how you pronounce it. There are some exceptions, such as the word "Dude". Sometimes different words sound exactly the same but are spelled different, and usage is terribly inconsistent. In general though, "one word means one thing" is the rule with lots of exceptions. In English, you add tones to words or sentences to give them emphasis, or to convey some emotion associated with the words, but you aren't changing the essential meaning. In most Asian languages, tones change the meaning of a word. So one word with a rising tone might mean "bus station" and with a falling tone it might mean "chicken".
English is the most popular second language in the world, and has become the de-facto language for international trade and relations. The Vietnamese people know this, and a substantial portion of the population works very hard to learn English. The basics are usually taught in middle or high school by a Vietnamese teacher, and a lot of people take courses after that to learn the language. In fact, when I met people that went to "university", in most cases that was an English language school. There are similar schools for other languages, but English is the most popular.
The classes that Mindy and Emily teach are advanced English classes. The students already know basic English, but frequently learned it in highs school from teachers that didn't know it all that well. They take these classes to learn the language better, in all aspects: pronunciation, spelling, grammar, reading, punctuation and the like. If you want to get past the very basic stuff, you really need to have a native English speaker teaching you, because they know all the rules, and more importantly they know all the exceptions to the rules which is where the real problems lie. So there are a whole raft of these schools all over the place (in lots of countries, not just Vietnam). They provide room and board and some small salary to people that will come over and teach. Quite a few people I met in Saigon were doing just that, either for a while like Mindy and Emily are doing, or until they get tired of Vietnam and leave.
The class consists primarily of ordinary discussion on just about any topic. Anything that can get the students listening and talking is acceptable. Naturally, an American riding a funny looking bike around Vietnam meets those qualifications, so I went and talked to their class for an hour and a half, and showed them all of my toys. I even taught them a little geek-speak and cyclist-lingo. All in all, it was a fun class and time well spent.
While I'm on the subject of language, let me digress even more. Many eastern languages use the Chinese system of writing that uses ideograms, or pictures for concepts. This is probably one of the most intellectually crippling problems the Chinese and other Asian countries have had for the last few thousand years. Imagine using Windows with nothing but icons, and no text at all. Everything is an icon, and the best you can do to shorten things up is combine the icons. Carry that thought through to it's natural conclusion, and you have Asian writing. Alphabetic writing rates up with the invention of zero as one of the greatest and most significant intellectual discoveries in history.
Vietnam used a modified version of Chinese for a very long time, but in the 17th century a French Jesuit priest invented a new system called quoc ngu. It's based on the standard Roman alphabet, but he added a bunch of little tick marks and accents to show the different pronunciations, as well as the tones (there are five). If you look at this script, it looks just like English writing with a bunch of extra marks spread around here and there. I'd have to say that this is about the only thing of any real value that I can think of that the French or the Catholic church contributed to the country, but it is a very good system, both for the Vietnamese and for visitors. It's good for the Vietnamese because it's easy to learn, so they can move on to learning more important concepts instead of spending a lot of time learning the meanings for thousands of symbols. It's good for Americans, because the writing uses the same letters we use, and similar spelling. This means that we can match up words on street signs with maps, and do simple tasks like that quite easily.
Most Vietnamese words are a single syllable, and long words that sound just like multiple syllable words to the ear are actually distinct words that are pronounced together very quickly. Quite a few concepts are expressed with two words together, just like a multiple syllable word in English.
Quite a lot of the place names in Vietnamese are two words in Vietnamese, but westerners always shorten them up to one word. The most blatant example is the name of the country itself. In Vietnamese, it is Viet Nam, which means "People of the South". Hanoi is really Ha Noi. When names don't follow the pattern, it usually means it's a foreign word in the first place. For example, Saigon is a French name. The Mekong River Delta was mostly swampland when the French arrived, and Saigon was built under French control. The language has quite a few words borrowed from French, English and Russian as well, and there are currently Japanese words sliding into the vocabulary as well. For example, the universal way to answer the phone in Vietnam is the word "Hello".
Teaching English is one very popular way to travel and live in a foreign country when you don't have any money and don't happen to work for a Silicon Valley company that will let you work remotely. If you are just itching to go somewhere for a while, but can't afford it you should at least look into this. If you're interested in this, there are several books on the subject in any good bookstore. You can also email me, and I'll put you in touch with someone that's actually done it.
Mindy, Emily and I went to dinner at a restaurant that turned out to be a really good American food steakhouse called the Wild Horse Saloon. By then I'd been eating Vietnamese food for two months solid. I really like Vietnamese food, but I was ready for a good steak and they obliged me with an excellent Ribeye.
During that dinner, one tooth that I've had trouble with for 30 years fell out. It is a bit embarrassing having a tooth fall out on the floor, but since this particular tooth has fallen out many times over the years I've learned to deal with it. These things are to be expected for a tooth that was broken off at the gum line (all my brother's fault), and has had four root canals and three crowns. Mindy recommended a dentist, and she turned out to be fabulous so I stayed in Saigon for two more weeks to have her fix some other problems with my teeth. I didn't really need the work done, but she was really good, her charge was less than the 50% I'd have to pay as my share in the U.S., and I wasn't tired of Saigon yet so I wanted to stay a few weeks.
Of course, once I stayed two weeks in Saigon I met some friends and two weeks turned into four weeks and then six. I changed to a relatively cheap hotel room (10 USD per night), and stayed for a while. Note that I said relatively cheap. If you travel backpacker style and bunk up with other people and/or give up your own shower and daily cleaning of the room it's easy to get it down to 5-8 USD per day. It's not particularly difficult to eat for less than 10 USD per day, even without going to the extreme of making your own meals. I stayed at the midrange which gave me a room with all the amenities including a phone. Of course, making overseas calls with the lame-assed Vietnamese phone system turned out to be difficult or impossible, so I actually never managed to talk to anyone back home until I got to Australia, but the phone was useful once I had a few friends in Saigon.
It's really quite easy to meet people once you stay put and visible for a while. Having lots of cool toys makes it easier, but they are certainly not required. I don't know how many conversations start out with the equivalent of "Cool Bike", or "How much does that laptop cost?", but these certainly the only tools in the old toolbox for meeting people.
The hotel I stayed at had a pretty small room that wasn't all that comfortable for working in, so I took to sitting downstairs in the lobby for a few hours while doing my work or playing with PhotoShop. Most hotels in Vietnam have breakfast either included in the price, or readily available. This one was no exception, and breakfast usually cost me 10,000 VND (.66 USD) for eggs and bread. There were two tables out in front of the desk right by the street. The lobby was up one floor from the street, so I could easily sit there at the table, and either watch things happening on the street, work, or just talk to whomever stopped by to chat. The latter turned out to be quite a few people, and I talked to Vietnamese people that were visiting and staying in the hotel, guides that were there to pick up tourists, the hotel staff, other visitors and expats that were living in the hotel.
It was quite interesting talking to the people that have been here for a while. Most of the people I happened to talk to were Australian or American. Most give the impression of people that are sort of addicted to the place. Most of the time, someone that's been here six months to a year couldn't give me a very good explanation of exactly why they're still here. Some of them just loved the place and didn't want to leave; some were there for some specific length of time to accomplish some specific task; some had been there and left and kept getting drawn back as if by a siren's call, and a few couldn't explain it at all. We naturally discussed the attraction to death, as well as the various experiences both good and bad we had dealing with the Vietnamese people. One American guy I met that was there teaching English summed it up with something a British guy told him early on. The British guy's explanation was "It's a magic place". That sounds a bit weak on scientific evidence, but I never got a much better explanation for why people that stay there do so.
One Aussie named Terry was the most articulate person I ever ran into about the allure of the place. He had some theories that made perfect sense to me, and some that didn't but it was fascinating discussing it with him. He's been here off and on for five years, spending more time in Vietnam than back home. He's planning to stay there more or less permanently. He contends that there are cycles to the relationship between Vietnamese and foreigners. For the people that get hooked on the place, the first stage is a sort of infatuation stage, where people just fall in love with the place and the people. Then he says if you stay around long enough, you find that a lot of the things you loved about the place turns out to be just a facade they put up to deal with foreigners, and end up hating the place. Then if you stick it out long enough, you get to know the real people of Vietnam, and therein come to love it again, but for the right reasons this time. I'm not sure I agree with him, but it was an interesting discussion.
I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with a Nigerian guy named Ossy. His family owns a supply company for fishing equipment in Nigeria, and he was here buying material from Vietnamese manufacturers. He was a lot of fun to take around to meet my other friends, because he has a knack for asking questions that are completely out of left field. He always said what was on his mind, and I found that quite refreshing. I also liked walking around with him because it was nice to have someone around that was taller than I am for a change.
While waiting for one of my dental appointments, I had my first serious unpleasantness of the trip. It turned out OK in the end, but I can assure you I had a very unpleasant few minutes. I was a bit early for the appointment, so I went to a park to sit on a bench for a few minutes. Since I was sitting two meters from the bike, I just left the pannier bag with my computer on it, which I never do. Some kid came and talked to me for a few minutes, and then a Vietnamese woman walked by in front of me and pointed where the bike was. Guess what, NO BIKE. The little weasel talking to me was a decoy, and some other kid came along and took the bike.
Fortunately, the kid that took the bike couldn't ride it. Even if he could ride a recumbent (not rocket science but you need a few minutes of instruction), the boom on an SWB is adjustable for the height of the rider. As you can guess, the thief was just a wee bit shorter than I am, so he was pushing it up the street.
Someone from across the street saw the kid take it, and ran across to point out the direction he went. He and I took off running up the street that the thief went down. After about a block, a moto driver came along, which makes him the first one I've been truly happy to see yet. I jumped on the back, and he took me another block and I saw the kid pushing the bike, and took off running after him. He heard me coming up behind, dropped the bike right in front of me and took off running so fast he left his shoes behind. I tripped on the bike and went down before I could grab the little weasel. Then I had a choice of chasing after him or staying with what I came for, and elected to just let him go. I'm not entirely sure what I would have done with him if I caught him anyway. In the end, he didn't get anything and I got a valuable lesson in life.
While we're on the subject, let me point out that I left the bike unguarded a lot in Vietnam, and for most of the country that's perfectly safe. The only real danger zone is the tourist areas, and Saigon is the worst. Like everywhere in the world, the vast majority of Vietnamese people are honest and hard working people. Every population has a small percentage that are dishonest, and those people go where the pickings are the richest. In Vietnam, that's Saigon. It's not uncommon for people in Saigon to drive by on a moto-bike and grab purses, fanny packs, backpacks and the like. They will even grab glasses from your shirt or off of your head. Some people will also fake accidents, and one of the "victims" will lift your wallet. Of course, an exposed camera or video camera hanging off of your wrist is like carrying a pound of steak to a buzzard convention. Don't let this alarm you, and don't freak out about it. I'm pointing out things for you to be aware of, not things for you to be afraid of. All in all, these things happen but I think a visit to Saigon is considerably less risky than a visit to New York. You just have to be aware and somewhat careful in any urban environment.
One group of friends that I met and spent a lot of time with showed up on the radar because of a haircut. One fine day, I was out on the Strange Machine doing my usual Columbus Style tour of Saigon. On this particular day, I'd gone out into the burbs in the northwest corner of the city. When I got tired, I stopped for an ice cream and coke, and had a very nice conversation with a woman who's husband worked for the Americans during the war. He died a few years after he came out of the "reeducation camp", mainly because he was denied medical care. The astounding thing about this to me is that she didn't really blame the Americans for that result, and in fact seemed fairly philosophical about it all. All in all, it was a very nice visit and I stayed for an hour or two just chatting with her about her life here, her family (3 kids all living abroad), why she lives where she does and all sorts of things. Random encounters like this were absolutely the best interactions I had in Vietnam or anywhere else for that matter.
On the way back, I was going down a street that looked just like most other streets in Saigon and arbitrarily decided to get a haircut. I'd needed one for weeks and been putting it off. I just happened to glance at a tiny little hair shop at just exactly the moment when the nagging little voice in my head was chiding me for being such a procrastinator. I took the opportunity to stop in for a haircut and beard trim.
You should understand how a haircut works in Vietnam. If you want just a plain old haircut, you stop at a barber. Most barbers I saw work outside on the sidewalk, but I think I never saw any others just because I never learned the Vietnamese word for barber. The alternative is to go to a beauty shop. These are much like the American counterpart, except that a scalp massage is an essential part of the process, and the sequence is reversed. First the hairdresser cuts the hair, and then shampoos it, and then gives a thorough scalp massage. The massage handles everything from the eye ridges just above your eyeball to the far back end of the scalp. The whole process takes an hour or so, and it's quite relaxing.
I stopped in this place for a haircut, and the usual reaction occurred. This is not in a tourist section of town so I'm sure that they don't get many tourists. One of the people in the shop invited me over to her house, so I went over there and met the family. I ended up getting to know the people there quite well, and they became some of my best friends in Vietnam. I went over to their house for dinner several times. My friend Hue makes a mean bowl of Pho, and Chocolate Chip Cookies which were the best dessert I had in all of Vietnam. I also went out to dinner, out for karaoke, and out with the gang for birthday parties and such quite a few times. Hue made a good effort to teach me to properly say "Hue", but I turned out to be a poor student and had to settle for the Americanized version of her name. They were one of my very favorite groups of friends from the entire trip, and I was very sorry to leave them at the end of the stay.
One day about three weeks later, Uyen (pronounced Win... well sort of), who is the owner of the hair shop invited me to stop by for her grand opening of a new shop. It's about three times the size of the old one, and much nicer. It had been raining earlier in the day and looked a bit threatening, but I decided to ride anyway. I figured a little rain wouldn't kill me. I could have taken a taxi for about 50,000 VND (3.33 USD), but that just didn't sound like much fun. It's only 10 km to the shop. While I was riding along, the rain started back up with a vengeance. It ended up raining like pouring piss out of a boot. I could have stopped under an awning somewhere to wait for it to quit, but that seemed like a defeatist attitude. The rain was warm, and riding in it was FUN, FUN, FUN. Man, was it fun. That's the most fun I had riding the whole time in Vietnam. I ended up riding along in a street that had running water up over the axels of my front wheel, sharing the street with a few other bikes, moto-bikes, cars, trucks and the whole array of the usual Vietnamese vehicles. It was loads of fun riding over railroad tracks that I couldn't see, and just trying to guess what was in the water in front of my tire. It probably wasn't the most prudent ride I've ever done, but I definitely think it was the most fun.
Hue introduced me to a running club called the Hash House Harriers. This is a club that has branches all over the world, and it's been around since the 30s. It consists of around 70% expats, and 30% Vietnamese. The club meets every Sunday to run for about two hours, rain or shine. Now, I'm not much of a runner but decided to give it a go anyway, and it turned out to be a blast. If you ever go to a place where there is a branch, you really should go out for a run.
These guys have the best system I've ever seen for allowing a bunch of people to get together and exercise. If you've ever tried this, you know the problem you get. The fast runners don't get a workout because they have to wait for the slow ones, and the slow ones get worked to death trying to keep up with the fast ones. The solution the harriers have is excellent:
Now the great part of this system is that someone has to go out and find all of those piles of paper, and run down those dead ends. The fast runners go out front, and when they get to a branch they start spreading out looking for paper. The slower runners just chug along and follow the group. It usually takes the fastest runners just about enough time to find the trail to allow the slowest runners to catch up. Anyone that's feeling their oats can be at the front and look for paper, and when they get tired they can join the people at the back of the pack. There's always someone up front to look for paper. One of of the "hares" actually knows where the trail goes, so if the group gets lost they can keep them on track.
I went out and joined in this madness, and it was a lot of fun. I ended up joining up with them nearly every weekend that I was in Saigon. Spending two hours out running around rice paddies and vegetable fields in the hot Saigon sun or the pouring rain may not sound like all that much fun, but I tried both and found it to be a blast.
The Harriers also have a traditional set of ceremonies that take place at the end of the run. These mostly involve people standing around drinking beer or soda. Of course, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. No hats or sunglasses are allowed, the mug must be held in the left hand, and a ritual chant starts the drinking. You have to drink everything in the mug, and whatever is left you pour on your head. The club call's itself a drinking club with a running problem. This is a bit overstated, as the guys never get drunk and obnoxious and it's all good harmless fun for the entire family.
One of the runs was Hungarian Day, when we had a bunch of Hungarians visiting, and for dinner we had traditional Hungarian cuisine. This photo shows the Hungarian visitors, as well as my Nigerian friend Ossy who was made an Honorary Hungarian. See if you can figure out which one he is. We also got the cool T-shirt you see in the photo. That is one of the few shirts I still have that survived the purge of the first thousand miles of hauling everything with me. In fact, I don't have any normal street clothes left that I brought with me, except for my winter gear. All of my non-cyclist clothing came from Vietnam.
After the run, usually about half of the group goes to dinner at some restaurant. I really liked this club and would highly recommend it. Nearly everyone speaks English, or at least Australian, the run is good fun and you don't have to be an athlete to participate. Kids are more than welcome and both treated well and included in the fun. All in all it's a great bunch of people.
As I went down through the country, I used my digital camera quite a bit, and I inevitably ended up taking photos of the people I met. This started out almost accidentally, dealing with children. Vietnamese kids are as curious as all kids are, and so lots of them would come up and check out whatever I happened to be doing at the moment. Sometimes it was because they had never seen anything like one of my toys, and sometimes just because they were curious. I started pulling out my camera, taking a quick photo, and then showing it to them on the display on the back of the camera just to amuse them. That trick is absolute pay-dirt as far as amusing the kids goes. They loved it, and most had never seen anything like that before. Keep in mind that most people here can't afford film and processing, let alone a camera so many people have never handled a camera before. If I had time, I'd go to the next step of downloading it to the laptop and showing them that, and it was an even bigger hit.
Once I had taken the photo, I was usually talking to the kids parents anyway
and I started collecting addresses and telling people I'd send a copy of the
photo in a few months. As I went along, I started taking photos of a lot of the
people that I interacted with, which was quite a few. The people in Vietnam are
very friendly, and nearly everyone I ever met that spoke English was happy to
chat for a few minutes or hours. Sometimes the conversation would start out
talking about one of my toys, and sometimes it went the other direction. Taking
the photos got so common that Etienne started referring to it as
When I got to Saigon, I had a bunch of photos on my laptop and a bunch of addresses as well, so I set about printing them out. This naturally led me to a photo shop, and of course once I started printing a few photos, I wanted to print more. I got a copy of Adobe PhotoShop and started editing the pictures on my computer, and that became the start of a whole new
er..ah.. hobby. PhotoShop is an interesting program. In some ways it's extremely
cool with the things you can do, and in other ways it's extremely frustrating. I
can tell you this though. If you want to get good with whatever lame excuse for
a mouse your laptop comes with, PhotoShop is the way to do it. My computer has
the worst pointing device ever invented, but a few days editing pictures got my
skill level up to something approaching respectability. It's still not as good
as a mouse, but I'm not willing to add a mouse to my travel weight, so I just
live with it.
For most of the trip, I had wanted to have a calling card; something like a business card I could give people to point them to my web page. I was going to get one made in Hanoi, but was too lazy to do so. I was originally going to go with something like a business card, but in the end that just seemed too boring. People might confuse me with some other bearded white guy on a funny bicycle. So I finally worked out a system where I made a calling card that looks like this photo. I printed them out on photographic paper at 5x8 cm which is about the size of a wallet size photo, or just a bit shorter and wider than a standard business card. The term TechNomad is a one that I lifted from another guy that rode a bike across the U.S. in the early 80s with a really early portable computer. I liked the term, so I naturally adopted it, even though most people have no idea what it means. For you non-English speakers, a Nomad is someone that wanders around from place to place. Tech is a term often added to English words to say "technical", so a TechNomad is someone that wanders from place to place doing something technical. The photo is one that Leah took from our bus on a stretch of Highway 1 near My Lai on our fifth day of cycling. I only have one of my pannier bags on the bike because the rest are on the bus. I have two bags like the one you see, and two bigger ones that mount over the rear wheel.
Now let me tell you, this card was a hit. People really liked them, and lots of people keep them as souvenirs. A lot of people ask me to sign the back, which was completely unexpected. Some of my friends really liked the cards, and wanted to know if I could make one for them. There's nothing hard about that, so I set about doing exactly that. I also shot and printed standard size photos for all of my friends, and even played around in PhotoShop to make enhanced versions where I replaced backgrounds with gradients, removed people from the background and the like.
Naturally, all of this photo work caused me to hang out at the photo shop until everyone there knew me by name and treated me like family. Once I was hanging around the photo shop a lot, I started seeing that they had to do a lot of manual work to print a file. Sometimes it needs rotation, it always needs resizing, and the aspect ratio is frequently wrong for the size of the paper. The calling cards also took a bunch of manual work to consolidate a bunch of identical photos into one big one so I could print out a big sheet which is chopped up into little pieces. I also wanted to have more control over how my own photos printed out, so I downloaded the developer's kit for Photoshop and wrote a cool gizmo in Visual Basic to take control of it and do lots of nifty things for resizing and working with photos. As one would expect from a computer geek, I wasn't satisfied with anything short of writing the ultimate automatic photo resizing, consolidating and modifying gizmo. If you are into digital photography at all, send me an email asking for "PhotoShop Plebe", and I'll be happy to send it to you. I left a copy of it with the photo shop, and they have it in production use as we speak.
The most helpful and skilled person in the photo shop was Phuong. She's a young lady that really knows her way around PhotoShop, and she gave me some good pointers here and there. She and several of the others do all kinds of digital photography work for customers. Most of the time, this consists of scanning in photos either from negatives or from a print, and then fixing it up. The fix up might involve removing a background, removing noise from the photo, trying to fix exposure problems or bad framing, or whatever else may be wrong with it. I learned a fair bit about PhotoShop by watching them and picking up the occasional technique that I hadn't picked up before.
Phuong is also the one that understood what I was trying to do with my photo automation gizmo, and gave me the info I needed to write it. It turned out that they burned CD's at the photo shop as well, so I took the opportunity to make some backups of my hard disk, since I'd come very close to losing all of my email and photos since the beginning of the trip. This involved plugging my computer into their network and going online, all of which they were quite happy to do, or at least stand aside and let me do. I was a bit surprised by what I could get away with in places like this. In a lot of Internet Cafes, I would plug in a Lap Link cable and install software for transferring files, and do all kinds of wacky things like that and nobody ever raised an eyebrow.
Karaoke is very popular in Vietnam, and I ended up going out for it quite a bit with my various friends. Now ordinarily, I consider Karaoke to be about as much fun as having my teeth drilled, but it was a lot more fun than I expected. The surprising thing is that most of the people I ended up going out with can really sing. I don't mean just half-assed pretty good, but very good. Of course, it was usually in Vietnamese so I couldn't understand what they were saying, but I'm not tone deaf (contrary to what Noelle thinks), and I can tell good singing from bad. Vietnamese music is actually quite nice to listen to, and I'm not sure if being ignorant of the lyrics helps or hinders the experience.
Naturally, when the mic was passed to me I just kept on passing it. My singing is so bad it makes dogs howl and small children cry for miles around. I wouldn't subject a death row prisoner to my singing, let alone my friends.
One club had what I dubbed "Manual Override Karaoke". This consists of a small band with two or three players, one of whom has a synthesizer and the other two have various other instruments. They play the music, while the singer works from a paper copy of the lyrics. This is a better idea than it sounds like because the musicians can compensate for small flubs in timing or whatever, and the result is pretty good. All of the tables have flowers on them, and if you like the singer you fold a 10,000 VND note into the flower and give it the singer, who gives it to the band as a tip. Some of my friends occasionally even sang a song in English, and they could all sing very well.
This club had an interesting concept in uniforms. I call it the Shotgun Approach. They apparently couldn't decide who their customers were, so they simply had someone dressed to appeal to everyone. They had male waiters wearing everything from T-shirt and flip-flops to suits. They had female waitresses wearing everything from pants and a blouse, to the traditional Ao Dai, to long party dresses, to short skirts.
The other thing I found interesting about the whole Karaoke phenomena is that it seems to be a fad that came and died out. If you walk down any street in Hanoi or Saigon that has lots of bars and restaurants, you'll see tons of of signs advertising Karaoke, but most of the time you don't hear any sounds coming from it and the place looks deserted.
I briefly mentioned the Wild Horse Saloon above. Most of the beef in Vietnam is OK but not great, so places like this import beef from Australia or the U.S. This particular restaurant gets it from the U.S. I ended up addicted to the place, ate dinner there a lot while I was in Saigon, and got to know the staff quite well. If you ever go to Saigon, go there and try it out. Mention my name (which is usually "Mr. Wade" for Vietnamese people) or "the guy on the orange bike", and they'll probably still remember me. I made a habit of going in there and working with my laptop for an hour or two while having dinner.
The Wild Horse had great food, and once I started going there I started meeting people and making friends. Some of them invited me to come visit them at their houses, and I got a chance to meet their families and eat some real Vietnamese food. I ate with Vietnamese families a few times, and in every case the food was most excellent, and highly recommended.
Since I ate there a lot, I spent quite a bit of time listening to the live band they have there most nights. It's a pretty good band, playing mostly 70s and 80s tunes (oldies to you kids out there). Like most live bands, it's difficult to hear the exact words they're saying so you just go along with the flow of the music. It took me a few weeks of listening to find the funniest part of their performance though. They don't know most of the words. Listening carefully reveals that they just make up random sounds for about half of the lyrics. Once you're clued into it, it's funny as can be but I still liked listening to them. In the end, their performance was good and there's no point in nitpicking it to death.
The restaurant had a fifth anniversary party which I attended. By then, I knew most of the staff so I brought along my camera and took a bunch of photos. Naturally, the flash drains the battery pretty fast so I missed some of them, so I brought it back later and managed to get a photo of everyone, and printed copies which went over pretty well. Of course, one or two of them saw my calling card and wanted one, so the last two nights of the trip I ended up sitting at the bar where I could plug in and editing photos with Photoshop. As I say, it's a tough job but somebody's gotta do it.
My best trick at the Wild Horse was what I call the Solitaire Trick, which only a geek would think of. The staff got in the habit of playing Solitaire on my computer while I was eating. One of my friends, My Linh won her first four games in a row. I've never seen that before. After this had been going on for a while, I decided to have some fun so I hacked the Solitaire program file and replaced the pattern on the back of the card deck with photos from a few of the people that worked there. I of course didn't tell them, but just started up the newly modified program and let them discover it. Of course, Solitaire is a really old program so it only supports 16 colors. The photos come out a bit art-deco, but that just adds to the effect.
All told, I spent about six weeks in Saigon, and three months in Vietnam. I really came to love the place. I don't love every aspect of it. There are a few aspects that are either constantly annoying or disturbing or both, but all in all it was very difficult to leave. It's the first place I've ever visited where I had difficulty leaving at the end of the stay. For most other places I've visited, when I left I had had just about enough. Part of this is due to the fact that I stayed in Vietnam long enough to get attached to the place, and to at least make a start on understanding the country and it's culture. I've never visited any other country for more than a week or two. Part of it is the mystery and magic of the place. It's completely indefinable, and I can't objectively explain it to anyone, least of all myself.
Vietnam has a different culture, and a very different way of life, but the people have a basic humanity that reaches across all of those differences to make a bond. That's the best I can do for an explanation. If you want a better one, you need to go there yourself, and I would without reservation recommend a visit to Vietnam for anyone. It's a magic place.
You have a choice of two destinations from here. I've studied the American War pretty extensively, and have some very harsh things to say about American involvement in it. If this interests you, then move on to that page. If it does not, you can skip that page without losing the thread of the story.
Vietnam - The American War if you want to read my thoughts on it
Vietnam - Final Thoughts