Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
Today was more of a transit day. The scenery was not quite as jaw-dropping, except for when the road cut right through a lake. It was another hot day as well, but I felt pretty strong, especially with a massive breakfast of eggs and toast from the hotel.
The real fun of the day actually came about in Kon Tum, a bustling city untouched by Western tourism. I had the good fortune of running into one of the hotel workers as I was about to leave to eat some food. His name was Kan, he spoke great English, and he became my new best friend.
Kan loves Vietnamese food, and invited me to go and grab a late lunch with him. After my introduction to a dish revolving around dipping various items (spring rolls, noodles, fried crispy pork, tofu) into a fermented shrimp sauce, I was very happy. This will become one of the highlights of the trip: chance encounters that end with small plastic stools, good food, and even better conversation. Kan and I talked about a lot - life in America, life in Vietnam, etc... it wasn’t an official interview, but I definitely got some good background information for my project. Above all, we connected over a love of food.
I had a scheduled interview with a Facebook acquaintance, D’uong (pronounced Yuong) for that evening. In planning for this trip, I sent out a blast message on a few Facebook groups, explaining my project and trip. After weeding through a lot of comments, doubts, and well-wishes, that is how I came up with many of my interviewees. I will spend more time on this at a late juncture, but as an aside, this trip is a shining example (so far) of putting yourself out there and making the most of connecting with people.
D’uong is an interesting guy. He’s a local English teacher - which puts him in unique territory for me. I’ve talked to English teachers, but only expats. He moved to Kon Tum when he was 1 with his family. He opened my eyes to the slowly growing sector of local tourism. Young people living in the big cities like Hanoi or Saigon wanting to explore Vietnam. Apparently this is a relatively new phenomenon. In general, we talked about change, mostly centering in Kon Tum. It’s interesting because it is a town that is seeing a lot of economic development (banks, English centers, commerce) but little to no Western tourism. Five years ago, there were no English centers, now there are seven or eight. We talked for a long time as he was interested in the topic. I will do a much more in-depth exploration when I can listen to the audio again in the States and review my notes.
The big mistake of the day was a pitifully late start of 10:15 with full knowledge of the difficult ride the day would bring. These last couple days I’ve been losing a bit of my traveler’s edge. Some of this is out of my control - these long days have rendered me unfathomably tired. I need about nine hours of sleep to feel fully rested. But staying up a little bit too late watching Netflix and lazing around in the morning time came back today as a slap on the wrist.
The breakfast at the hotel, if nothing else, was a good way to start the day. A couple of hot Vietnamese filter coffee’s, a couple fried egg, tomato, sweet and spicy chili sauce sandwiches, and another toast with butter and jelly filled me right up.
The first 30kms or so we’re rolling countryside, pretty but not jaw-dropping (I’m getting picky). The real excitement for the day came in the form of 11kms of climbing with sections of 10% gradient. At this point it was about 85 degrees, full sun. I took breaks, drank a lot of water, walked the bike a couple times, got some good tunes going, reminded myself that this is why I am here, ate a couple packages of “Cream-O’s” (knockoff Oreos) and made it to the top, a sweaty but energetic puddle ready to tuck into the first plate of food put down in front of me. My British friend Stuart had happily shared with me the “rest stop” at the top of the climb had great food.
I wandered into the dark restaurant, squinting a bit from the sun. There were a few teenagers watching what looked to be Vietnamese vines on a TV in the corner, and some other local truck drivers enjoying lunch. I had a good chuckle from the Vines. A middle-aged, very nice Vietnamese lady approached me. Her “mom-mode” was in full swing. I was famished, ready to point, gesticulate, make chicken noises, whatever it took to get something. I found a plate of rice and pointed to it, adding “ga” which means chicken in Vietnamese (I probably didn’t pronounce it right). She kept saying back to me “ca” which means fish. I didn’t want fish, I wanted chicken. After just a bit of this back-and-forth, she threw me a lifeline: “poisson”? She spoke French. Incredible. “Poulet, legumes, riz”, I shared with her, thrilled to be getting somewhere. She spoke only a little, but it was enough to communicate. I took a couple of rehydration salts and took a seat. Wondering why this woman spoke French. The French haven’t been here in a long time, and she wasn’t that old. Soon my mind was off it as a plate of fried rice filled with garlic, onions, pineapple, tomatoes, and greens came into sight. On top, a whole leg of fried chicken.
I trundled onwards. After an aggressive descent with a gorgeous vista, it was back to the rolling hills. Just as much as they make the ride exciting, they are annoying. It’s slow going. I can’t maintain a constant speed like I can on a flat road and I have to change gears all the time.
With about 20kms left to my destination, I accepted my fate. Darkness. I stopped, switched to yellow glass lenses, and turned on all of my bike lights. The light setup on some of these trucks and buses are incredible. Oftentimes the entire fascia of the truck is covered in bright lights. The glare is blinding. But slowly, I pushed onwards, arriving at the hotel safely, demolished from the day’s ride.
Another huge hotel. I was the only guest. I was greeted by a cockroach in my room. To add insult to injury, the price of 630k for the night ($27USD) was outrageous. I checked in and wandered out, finding a street vendor selling ban xeo (rice flour pancakes stuffed with vegetables and pork, wrapped up in rice paper and dipped in spicy fish sauce). Juices dripping from my mouth, I realized that it had been a pretty good day after all.
My host, Scott, took me out for one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, bun cha. Sweetened fish sauce broth with rice noodles, carrots, and grilled pork medallions. I started a little later than desired, but it was ok. Good to be back on the open road!
It was already starting to get hot as I navigated my way out of Hoi An. Today I would be cutting East, back into the rural spine of the country to pick up the north-south Ho Chi Minh Road. About an hour into the road my stomach went on the fritz. I found a cafe and rushed into the bathroom. Now, I admitted to myself, it was time to find some Imodium. I found a pharmacy in the next town - I was hopeful to find something here. I’ve been to the pharmacies here now a few times, and each time is an adventure. Google Translate is usually sufficient, but sometimes it takes some reiteration and re-phrasing. I showed the pharmacist both a picture of Imodium and the active drug. Head shake. First, she offered me an herbal supplement. Not what I needed. Then live yeast samples. No. Finally, she pulled down “Axelrop” - same dosage and active ingredients of Imodium. Without health insurance, it was 10,000 VND ($.43USD) for 20 pills. I checked, in the U.S. the price is about $10USD for 24 pills. I popped a couple down and kept riding.
Today’s road, the QL14E was very quiet. Cutting through small hamlets, lakes, and muddy rice paddies. A light drizzle in the afternoon actually cut through some of the heat and humidity. I was glad for that, and it gave the road a photogenic slick look.To be sure, it was nice to spend time in the tourist Mecca’s of Da Nang and Hoi An, eating hamburgers and chili poppers, but I was ready to get back into the thick of it. This is why I am here, to immerse and make myself vulnerable in Vietnam’s heartland. It’s prettier, too, in my opinion. Near the end of the ride, I rode over a dam holding back a seemingly massive amount of water. The surface was a clean silver shimmer with trees and mountains in the background. It was absolutely gorgeous, you’ll have to look at the pictures!
I felt mentally prepared for the last 20kms of the day to be climbing, but I did not know that the lunch opportunities would end after 50kms. And so fueled by a Clif bar, two Gu shots, and the fierce desire not to have to ride in the dark, I pressed on. On a mostly empty stomach, the climb that should have been physically difficult became just as much of a mental battle. I’m happy to report that I made it into town before dusk, but only barely. Whether I seek it out or not, these physical trials have their place in the experience too. I’ll get into that more tomorrow.
The town of Kham Duc is small, but with a surprisingly decent hotel where I had an interesting interaction. There was an Australian family of four “easy riding” through some portion of Vietnam. This means that each day they ride on the back of motorcycles piloted by local tour guides. They were really nice people, but I can’t imagine myself enjoying this kind of trip. I’ve really enjoyed bopping around on the back of the Grab transportation scooters in the cities, to be sure. But on these less trafficked, rural roads, it is much more appealing to be in control.
There’s nothing like the slap of cool air on the face to wake you up. I was awake early, clinging to the back of a “Grab” scooter driving me towards a coffee shop and breakfast spot in Hoi An. I was going to meet and interview Manus Campbell, a U.S. war vet, expat, and charity organizer. This was exciting, as he was one of the first handful of people I reached out to while I was planning the trip. His story is interesting. Campbell, a marine serving in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, moved here in 2010, starting his charity organization HIVOW (Helping Invisible Victims of War) to lift up orphans and children exposed to Agent Orange (sometimes both). He is here to heal some of the wrongs the U.S. perpetrated not too long ago.
Manus and I sat on the patio of the local cafe. I didn’t pass on the opportunity for a French press and some scrambled eggs. After eating my breakfast and saving some coffee, I started the interview.
Manus has a healthy beard of silvery white hair, the same color as what is thinning on his scalp - which might be the reason for his beret. He’s dressed casually: jeans and white tennis shoes. He looks to me to be at peace, or at least on the journey towards it. We talked a little bit about his story, but I wanted to get into my research topic - changing cultures and economies of Vietnam. I apologized to him in advance that this topic might not be as much in his “wheelhouse” as healing from the war, but what I came to realize is that there is overlap.
One of the takeaways from conducting all of these interviews is that they each answer or address a piece of the puzzle. No interview tells the whole story. Manus’s was no different.
What I did learn, though, is that in reflecting on cultural and economic change, the Vietnam war can not be forgotten. The legacies of Agent Orange and un exploded ordinants affect Vietnam. And while it is something that many (the Vietnamese included) would like to move on from, it’s not that simple. We all want to move on, but in that path towards the future we have to take into account the past. Agent Orange is still having profound affects on second and third generation Vietnamese people, not to mention American veterans (which the U.S. has done little to recognize). The importance, then, of Campbell’s organization HIVOW is to change the economic narrative. To lift up those who would otherwise be left behind. My interview with him opened up my mind towards the idea that cultural and economic change is just as much about legacy as it is about the future.