Life and adventures from a high school perspective
Everything about this morning was uninspiring. I stumbled out of bed around 8:00, meandering down to the morning breakfast buffet, preparing to gorge myself on mediocre American food, like a lazy tick. I got a bit of work done, but much of the morning was an undisciplined free-for-all on Facebook, email, WhatsApp, and Apple News. On the other hand, for all of the going that this trip has been so far, it feels really nice to “do nothing” for a morning. It was a short 40 miles today into the city of Hue, which I was very excited for.
Today also saw a brief departure from the Ho Chi Minh road, the route instead opting for the more heavily traveled 1A. It’s a bland, separated dual carriage way. But it gave me some time to plug away, and think about some of the questions I’m starting to ask and think about for my project. Tomorrow in Hue, I am going to chat with a tour guide operator expat, which I think will yield some interesting conversation. Part of the project is looking at the changing culture of Vietnam. And the tourism narrative is one that has to be taken into account - it’s shaping economies too. The question is, how can tourism uphold traditional culture while also being accessible and forward-focused? I thought the Tree Huger Cafe in Dong Hoi was a great example of a well executed tourist shop.
Economically, what effects is tourism having on Vietnam? From what I’ve seen - and this is true all over the world - tourism’s economic force is very localized. The small city of Phong Nha, for example, with the largest cave in the world, was a booming tourist Mecca. It’s clear that dollars are flowing in. There’s new construction all over the place, and the buildings are generally nicer. But just a couple of miles or so in either direction and you would not know that Phong Nha existed. How does tourism benefit certain communities while leaving others adrift?
What role does / should the government play in all this. This is a big question, but it seems to have something to do with everything else that I’ve brought up.
The city of Hue is nice, home to the royal citadel which I’ll be exploring tomorrow during my much needed rest day. I’m staying at Sahi Homestay, which is just a bit outside of town, but an absolutely beautiful architectural piece. I’m in a shared dorm with one other guy who is riding his motorbike all over SE Asia. He seems to be in no rush. I think he’s spent a while in Hue, but a nice guy. I was really ready for a cheeseburger last night, so I headed to Nook Eatery for a “double double”. Double patties, double cheese, double bacon... it was superb. Two German uni students were sitting next to me and we talked for a while. They’re on vacation too. We might get together again tomorrow for dinner or something. While we were eating, there was a soccer game on, Vietnam vs. Indonesia I think. Every time Vietnam scored a goal, you could hear the whole block erupt. It was quite funny. In the downstairs of the restaurant, a bunch of tourists, as well as all the servers, fixed their gaze on the TV, chilled bottles of wine sweating in ice baths.
Time spent riding: 3:15
Average speed: 13.7
It was tough to leave Dong Hoi today, after my second cup of coffee at the Tree Hugger Cafe and breakfast at the hotel, I was staring down the barrel of a 70 mile day. It was 10:45 by the time I left, cutting it a little close. Within just a few kilometers, the city bustle of Dong Hoi melted away into bucolic Vietnam. But the hills were gone, replaced with flatness. It made for less interesting riding, that’s for sure, but plenty of time to think. I was making incredible time, with 35 miles dispatched in only a couple hours, dovetailing nicely with a lunch spot tucked away from the road. In a metal cafeteria tray, I was presented beef, chicken, vegetable salad, rice, and a little omelette. Simple, but delicious, and great fuel for the bike. It was actually a fairly large building; I was sitting out on the patio. As I was finishing lunch, some excitement behind me sparked my attention.
The owners and some locals had a pig in a wicker cage against a corner. One of the men had a long, bamboo rod with an extension cord wrapped around it plugged into the wall, exposed diodes at the end of the pole. One of the women doused the pig with water, then, zap. Almost immediately, men worked to break down the pig. There was no pork on my plate that afternoon, but I guessed it would be on the menu tonight. These, were simple, rural techniques. But I would guess the distance my beef and chicken traveled before my cafeteria style plate were minuscule. This is what America has lost. I paid my bill, a whopping $3.50 with a coke, and carried on the road.
In the afternoon, it was rote deforestation that captured my attention. For the entire trip, I’ve seen trucks of various sizes hauling timber, but today was the first day that I got to see where that timber came from. Vast, orange wastelands became the not-so inspiring scenic reprieve from my ride. It was depressing, but gave me a reason to think about the severity of some of the larger environmental issues threatening Vietnam. Pollution, trash disposal, and exploitation of natural resources. Additionally, this logging, according to the accountant “Alex”, is fueling economic inequality in rural areas - an unsubstantiated claim, but one that is worth looking into when I have a bit more time.
The city of Dong Ha is an uninspiring metropolis. It’s the capital of Quang Tri province, and seems to be a hub for Vietnamese business. The restaurant scene is abysmal. I checked in to the most expensive hotel of my trip. - the Sai Gon Dong Ha Hotel, paying 750k VND ($32.37). Yikes. It was a nice hotel, to be sure, but I much preferred last night’s lodging in Dong Hoi. Like Dong Hoi city itself, the hotel had more charm and ambiance. I guess the hotels reflect the towns they’re in. I was properly knackered. I hadn’t slept much the night before due to my cold, and I had an early morning to make a call with my college counselor (thanks Ms. B!) In addition to the 70 miles and a day spent in the sun, I had no problem collapsing in bed at around 8:45. I turned on the tv to find the last twenty minutes of one of the later Men in Black movies, set a not-so ambitious alarm for 7:30, and went to bed.
Time spent on the bike: 4:28
This morning was an early start. Fantastic nights sleep at the hotel, but I woke again congested and coughing. It clears up after a bit in the morning, and I am super hesitant to take antibiotics over a cold. The day had a melancholy tinge - after lunch in Phong Nha, I was going to push on and Lyle was going to stay behind. My ride for the day would be around 70 miles into the waterfront city of Dong Hoi. There was a notable climb in the middle which both Lyle and I were looking forward to.
We both stumbled out of the hotel around 7:15, looking for a bite to eat, quickly finding a small shop filled with locals. We pulled up a couple of plastic stools to a communal table and pointed at some soup / porridge looking thing. Our bowls arrived. Yellow broth, rice, and some fish-like strands with lots of greens. The taste was ok, not my favorite but very palatable. Through some Google Translate I discovered that it was, in fact, eel porridge.
The first 20 or so miles were absolutely spectacular - some of the best riding on the trip so far. The rural Ho Chi Minh road sliced neatly through rural hamlets, on either side, limestone cliffs rose up. It was a cloudy day, and the hilltops faded into sky. The leaves here are different - thicker, fuller. Chalky limestone facades pierced through this haze. In between the road and where the mountains started, long, flat fields made up the gap. I saw several people tilling with water bison and no doubt ell-worn tools. It was between 60-65 degrees, and I was on the edge of warmth in my warm weather cycling kit. Then the hill started.
I couldn’t attack this one with quite the same intensity as yesterday, but I put on some good tunes, and plugged away. This is where packing light pays dividends. I couldn’t imagine that Lyle would have an easy time with this in all of his overpacked glory. Nevertheless, I pushed on. Propelled, at least in part, by the promise of some American food at the halfway point. I love Vietnamese food, to be sure, but I was read for some good old comfort food.
It was a strange feeling coming into the tourist stronghold of Phong Nha, the base of operations for the popular cave tours (skipping that this time). I started to see English on the signs, more hotels and restaurants, and a more Western feel. It was nice to see English again, to be sure. But it felt like a departure from the authentic. Lyle and I had just spent a whole week immersed in rural Vietnam, getting a real taste of the Vietnamese culture, people, and country. Now, it seemed to be unraveling. I started to see more Westerners and knew that the transformation was complete. The Vietnamese on motorbikes wave, the Westerners on motorbikes do not.
Lunch was a casual affair. Lyle met up with his old friend, Denise, who moved to Vietnamese nine years ago. I was starving, inhaling onion rings, fish and chips, and a coke. Admittedly, the food was mediocre, but it was the first Western food I’d had in a week - and I was weak. Lyle and I hugged it out, agreeing to meet up in Saigon if he didn’t catch up to me on the road. The riding that afternoon felt a bit different. Probably a sense of spreading wings more fully, but also a tinge of sadness to be leaving behind a great traveling partner. Maybe it was just the ungodly amount of fish and chips I’d had at lunch.
The city of Dong Hoi is quiet for its size, located on a river, and catering to expats, but in a cleaner way than Phong Nha (it’s hard to describe). My hotel, the Long Nam, is the best yet at 250k VND - the most comfortable bed, the hottest water, and the cleanest room. I also had my first experience with a blind massage tonight. The massage itself was decent, certainly loosening up some of the hardened muscles from seven days in the saddle without respite. The neck and shoulders are rough, in particular. But at a price of 90k VND for the hour ($3.88) - it’s unbeatable. At this price, I could have one most every night this week. I’ll be back on the straight and narrow soon enough - I had a burger tonight before heading back to the Tree Hugger Cafe. This is my favorite place in Dong Hoi, although I haven’t checked out Stuart’s recommendation of the Bicycle Cafe, owned by a former Vietnamese pro-cyclist. The Tree Hugger serves Western and Vietnamese coffee. I had my first cappuccino in weeks this afternoon, and am currently working on a traditional coffee with condensed milk. In the menu, little snippets of Vietnam’s food and drink history, with pictures of Vietnam all over the walls. There is a small boutique upstairs that is apparently dedicated to selling local communities’ wares, supporting economic development of rural Vietnam. The Tree Hugger Cafe, so far, is the best example of a business recognizing the cultural and economic change it is part of and realizing the responsibility it has to direct that change in the best way possible.
Time spent on the bike: 4:57
Average speed: 13.3mph
As I should have expected, the weekend was an absolute whirlwind. I landed on Friday afternoon, and fortunately customs went smoothly. It was about 75 degrees and humid as I stepped out of the airport. In the back of a taxi cab, memories came flooding back. Hanoi looked just as it had last year: green, rural, industrial, expansive, all in one glance. I made my way to my sister’s friend’s parents’ friends’ house a little after 1:00. Jill and Darren live in a relaxed, but still lively expat community called Tay Ho, situated right on a lake outside of downtown. They are both teachers, traveling the world as work allows. They just moved here from Ghana in August, with their two sons Sai and Renzo.
I had one errand to run that afternoon: picking up a SIM card for my phone. This allowed me to try Vietnam’s “Uber”, known as Grab. But the twist is that you can just hop on the back of a scooter instead of into a car. It’s cheap and fast. This became a common mode of transportation for me over the weekend, allowing me to see the city and its traffic in a really neat way.
One of the highlights of the weekend was a belated Friendsgiving dinner with my host family and a bunch of their friends. Not only was the food excellent, but the company opened my eyes to a new way of living.
In addition to spending time with Darren’s family and friends, I had time to meet up with several mutual acquaintances for coffee or food. Martin is one of my school teacher’s friends, Nguyen is my mutual friends’ daughter-in-law, and Donald is a South African expat who met one of my cycling acquaintances on the road last year.
Martin and I met for breakfast on Sunday morning. He stepped out of his apartment with keys dangling from his waist, and large, reflective sunglasses perhaps covering the result of the previous nights festivities. Martin is only here for a year teaching science, and he’s a bit of a pessimist. He doesn’t like the air quality, the traffic, and some of the expat community. He tells me this sitting ensconced in his favorite Western bakery / breakfast cafe.
“This is where I come when I just need a break from all of this,” he tells me as he gestures out the window and onto the busy street below. Indeed, the room is quiet, sedate almost. The food is Western, as is the coffee. And I have to agree with him, after spending the weekend eating and sipping coffee on street corners (which I love) it is nice to have some peace and quiet and a plate of eggs. Martin is going to be heading back to the U.S. after a year, he is quick to add that his time in Hanoi was only ever meant to be a head-clearing time in his life, not a permanent move. Walking back, he wishes me luck on my travels before peeling off to sit with some expat buddies at the corner bar sipping on green-bottled beer.
Donald the South-African is an earnest, tall fellow. When I was first researching this biking trip, I stumbled across a blog authored by a Brit who completed the ride in November of 2018. Stuart told me about a place called “The Bikers Rest” that he found on the first day of his trip - a hostel and coffee shop owned by Donald and his wife Thao. As of now, The Biker’s Rest is no longer in existence, but Donald and Thao moved to Hanoi. Donald and I grabbed coffee at Hanoi’s “coffee club”, a 5th floor lounge overlooking Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake District. It’s nicer air conditioned with relaxing music and plush chairs. Donald is a hairy guy, with a few understated bead bracelets on either wrist. My goals for the conversation were several: to hear some of his life story, to get some advice for the first days of the bike trip, and to try to dig into my research question a little bit. We hit all three.
Donald worked in the South African navy for quite a while, getting to travel the world. In 1985, he first came to Vietnam with a bunch of his navy buddies. They had Honda CB500 scramblers shipped over which they rode from Hanoi to Saigon. At that time, the wounds of war were still fresh on the country. Donald remembers the depressing state of abject poverty that he and his touring mates saw so much of. But the country was still beautiful - it’s that first trip that drew him back after a successful career as a general contractor in Dubai.
He had a couple of interesting things to mention in regards to how Vietnam is changing. He pointed out, as I have also seen, that there is quite a bit of construction going on everywhere. But apparently a lot of it is under the table, and projects start and stop all the time, leaving half-finished buildings strewn about at random. The culture in Hanoi is changing also, there is a push to make more restaurants and bars open late-night. He remarked, as did Martin, about the lack of garbage collection infrastructure, which leads to trash on the streets being burned rather than collected. I am going to keep in mind what Donald said as I ride through the country, looking for parallels and ways to further my understanding.
Nguyen is a mutual facebook friends daughter-in-law. The degrees of separation are starting to stretch beyond reality, but I find it pretty funny. Nguyen is a tattoo artist, and she does some really beautiful designs (don’t worry Mom, I DID NOT get a tattoo). Nguyen and I grabbed a cup of coffee on the lake. She moved here from Saigon, and does not like it nearly as much. Her ultimate dream is to get to the U.S. but apparently the power of the Vietnamese passport is quite small. She would have to prove that she had a certain amount of money in her bank account. To add insult to injury, Hanoi does not recognize tattoo parlors as a business, so her work is under-the-table. Singapore is a more achievable reality.
Darren treated me to a Shiatsu massage at his favorite massage parlor, and we had one last dinner in his neighborhood, Tay Ho. The hospitality of this family made my landing and integration in Vietnam much easier, and all the harder to leave Hanoi. I called it an early night, sleeping surprisingly well considering that tomorrow would be the first day on the road for my most ambitious trip yet.