Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
My morning started with wandering out of the hotel, fresh-eyed, looking for food. This kind of no set destination exploration is an absolute boon every once in a while. No deadline. No place to be, all the more reason to slow down and enjoy it. Of course, the streets were us bustling with motorbike traffic and the occasional truck. Parked motorbikes, and piles of sand or bricks often make navigating the sidewalks an adventure all on its own. I made my way back to the market I walked past yesterday, quickly realizing that I had only scraped the surface. A few vendors were on the streets, but ducking under some short umbrellas and a haphazard roof of sheet metal, tarps, and hope I discovered a new world.
The dimly lit, regimented market had an earnestness that I took an immediate liking to. I enjoyed seeing men and women cleaning fish, meat, and vegetables for the day. There really is no barrier between you and life. The uneven concrete floor is wet with water, messy with fish scales and food scraps. I found a restaurant stall, and pointed to one of the other patrons dishes and taking a seat on the small stool. One of my favorite meals so far consisted of rice cake pucks, sweetened fish sauce broth, crumbled spring rolls, barbecued pork, and I think fish. It was an awesome find. I might be back there tomorrow morning if they open early enough!
There were a couple things on the agenda today, as there was a coffee museum that I wanted to visit, in addition to a coffee village, both owned by the Trung Nguyen coffee brand (most popular coffee in Vietnam). The museum itself was interesting, not at all linked to just Vietnamese coffee. Rather, it looked at brewing methods from countries all over the world. It was pretty neat. The “coffee village” was not what I had expected. More of a secluded garden with a nice cafe. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable just to sit and listen to the different fountains. There’s a lot of movement inherent to this trip, and not moving is often a nice change of pace.
There was more ambling around after this, I was really leaning in to this whole relaxation thing, eventually finding a place for lunch. I’ve hit a wall with Google Translating menus several times, and today was no different. Eventually the manager came over, using Google Translate to suggest some items. It all turned out for the best, with crab soup, barbecued beef pieces, and clay pot fish coming out of the kitchen.
The rest of the afternoon was meandering. Coffee shops, blogging, walking around. I spent some time back at the hotel preparing for tomorrow’s mini-epic: 110 miles (180kms) with some steep climbing right at the end. I’m hoping to be wheels down earlier than 5:00 tomorrow, as I anticipate a long day in the saddle. Don’t worry, there are a couple bail points if I don’t make it. I packed up a bit for tomorrow, filled water bottles, retrieved laundry from hotel, and brought back a couple of banh mi - one for dinner tonight, one for breakfast tomorrow. Now it’s time to eat some pastry and call it an early night. Here’s to tomorrow’s adventure!
The first gift of the day was moderate climbs in moderate climes. Fueled by a bowl of soup and a coffee, I made short work of the mostly mild gradients. My strategy lately has been not to push myself too much, but just to shift down and keep on pedaling. The weather this morning was also fantastic. Sunny with scattered clouds but not Hoi hot. The wind, for the most part, makes the riding more enjoyable. But when I’m going downhill gusts can really catch the bike like a sail and push me all over the wide shoulder. Something to be cautious of. The climbing continued, riding along a spine, slopes fell away, sometimes on both sides to reveal fairly flat green, some areas more densely populated with houses than others. One a far mountainside, there were even some wind turbines, a first sighting for me. I was making good time, stopping at around 11:30 for lunch in the town of Buon Ho, about halfway to Buon Ma Thuot. I purchased an egg banh mi and a steamed bun from a street vendor. With two small plastic bags dangling from my handlebars, I kept riding in search of a coffee shop.
What ensued was hilarious, I found an awesome coffee shop. Lot’s of flowers, airy, natural light. All the good stuff. The owner informed me that she had just opened a week ago, and asked if I would be willing to help film an advertisement for the shop. How could I refuse? After finishing my sandwich, it only took a couple of takes for them to film me riding my bike into the coffee shop, sitting down, and having a drink of coffee. We also filmed a short conversation, and they sent me on my way.
My destination, the town of Buon Ma Thuot, serves as a kind of tourist stopover in between more popular areas like Dalat. It’s also the coffee capital of Vietnam, and should be a good place to spend my rest day tomorrow. I found a respectable hotel, and then walked to a nice coffee shop to spend some time writing. Buon Ma Thuot is a decently sized city, with not a lot of tourist influence it would seem. Most everything is in Vietnamese, and I could only find one Western restaurant (guess where I went for dinner). Coffee shops are everywhere. Heaven. After a pretty good cheeseburger for dinner and a good chat with the local owner of “La Garden”, I headed back to the hotel, brewing some ginger tea and settling down for a fairly early night. It’s nice to go to bed without having to set an alarm.
I was ready for a longer day today, fueled by a couple awesome street sandwiches: French bread, rich, orange fried eggs, cucumbers, chili sauce, pork sausage, and fish floss (mashed, ground, dried fish for those wondering), and a cup of coffee. It was already starting to get hot at 9:30, but there is really not much to do about that.
There were finally, some stretches of flat road to break up the rolling hills. This has been a sight for many days but I’ve forgotten to mention it. The Central Highlands are the heart of Vietnam’s coffee farming, and it’s harvest time. Riding through small towns, driveways, sidewalks, and sometimes the shoulder of the road are filled with spread out coffee beans drying in the sun. Also, there is a lot of latex harvesting here, characterized by uniform rows of trees with cups attached midway up the trunk. It’s a cool sight to pass by grids of trees on both sides of the road.
After a really nice coffee stop (I spent way too long there), I had a slightly mediocre lunch. It was rice topped with a strange assortment of vegetables, egg, what I think was pork, and a fish cake. The whole dish tasted slightly fishy, in a strange way. But the source of this flavor seemed to come from one of the green, stalky vegetables. It wasn’t bad, I just didn’t like it. Nevertheless, I forged on, enjoying the occasional flat stretch before the rolling hills took over again.
The hotel tonight, unimpressed. Ea Drang is a smallish town, but I stumbled across a Korean barbecue place that made up for the lackluster lodging. I should know by now, really, about portion control, but no. Using Google Translate, I asked for spring rolls, fried rice, and pork and beef to grill. It was all delightful, the fatty strips of pork, in particular, shined through. The technique here is to use the grill in the middle of the table to cook the protein, and chopsticks and scissors to cut it, then make rice paper rolls filled with pork, vegetables, and sauce. Devour. Repeat. Just as I was starting to eat, a young man came over from the table with about ten others, inviting me over since I was eating all alone. I told him that I’d love to after I was done eating, but that I couldn’t really bring my whole meal over to their full table. I ate somewhat hurriedly, excited to make some new friends.
I discovered that I was in the company of the narcotics department of the Ea Drang police - and I was on my best behavior! My new friend, “Joe” informed me that he was a firefighter, but that the rest of the table was celebrating a large drug trafficking bust. It’s fairly rare, but still a problem. We had a good time talking. They’d gone through quite a good deal of beer. I can usually tell if people at a restaurant are having a good time depending on how much trash is on the floor. This case was no different. When we all got up to leave, the carnage was uncovered. Beer cans, greasy napkins, and bits of food all over the floor and under the table. This is par for the course here, it all gets swept up after the table leaves. It’s a casual approach, I don’t think the higher end restaurants are like this, but I appreciate the laid-back nature of things here. I asked the officers not to pull me over while I was riding the bike, and walked back to the hotel, stomach content with food, and mind content with the impromptu festivities of the evening.
I truly owe quite a bit of gratitude to Kan. He wanted to meet me at the hotel at eight to go for breakfast. He was really excited about eating frog noodles at a popular restaurant. We drove past the restaurant and after a brief exchange with the owner, he exclaimed that they were out.
The result was worthwhile - one of the best meals I’ve had here. A skillet with a fried egg, bacon, cucumbers, butter, beef strips, and warm pate served with French bread to make little pockets out of. Spectacular. It was actually surprising how good Kan’s English was. He said he was self-taught, watching YouTube and TV shows. But I rarely had times where I struggled to make myself understood (or vice-versa). What was the most spectacular, though, was being able to connect so fundamentally with someone over food. He informed me that in Kon Tum, “Jollibee”, which is a knockoff of KFC, just opened.
The difference is in the freshness, Kan told me, explaining that all of the various foods in front of us had been bough this morning, the owners of the shop waking up incredibly early to make it to the street market. Food culture in Vietnam will be something I spend a more significant amount of time with in a stand-alone post, keep your eyes... peeled.
After breakfast and coffee, Kan drove me out of the town to a small ethnic minority town of the Ba Na people. It was really fascinating how quickly the urban hustle peels away to dirt roads and a broiling sun. I’ve remarked on this many times on the bicycle, but these roads were even more remote, potholed dirt strips that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen (the smooth pavement keeps me satisfied). The town was really just a hamlet, people going about their day. Behind everything, a fairly large river served as a hard boundary. Even with only thirty miles on the agenda for the day, it was getting late, hot, and time to go.
The riding was, again, nothing exceedingly spectacular. I’m happy to report that I seem to have a pretty good handle on how to deal with the heat. Lots of sunscreen, obviously, but also lots of water. I have four liters of capacity, although I rarely fill all the way up (three liters in my hydration pack and one liter on the bike). Buying water here is no problem at any of the small convenience stores. Come to think of it, I’ve never actually bought water on the road, only filling up in the morning. Sadly, I’ve cut back a bit on coffee consumption in pursuits of maximum hydration and safety. Riding when its 85 degrees, humid, and full sun is no joke. But the real trick is these rehydration salt chews that I bought before I left. They’re kind of like Tums, and have a brief lemon flavor before an uncomfortable saltiness. They seem to have really taken the edge off.
Pleiku is the capital of the province. Unexcitingly urban is how I would describe it. Decent hotel. Dinner was a bowl of chicken pho and a street kebab (popular here), before heading to a coffee shop, and then a large bakery, where I splurged. One slice of tiramisu, chocolate mousse, one small flan, two small egg custards, and a small chocolate croissant. Sitting on the back of a Grab scooter on the way back to the hotel, I felt truly present, and really lucky. It was a cool night, my rolled up lightweight khakis keeping my legs cool. A lot of noise, still, from other trucks, cars, and motorbikes, and lights from the storefronts and neon arches (a fixture of most mid-sized to larger towns) on the main thoroughfare. Back at the hotel I tucked into some well-earned dessert and tucked myself into bed, closing one more day of the trip, of which the biking portion, at least, is starting to come to an end.