While Da Nang itself was not particularly worthwhile, I was able to spend most of the day with a mutual mutual friend, expat Ronnie Defour. He is Caribbean, raised in the U.S., lived in SoCal as a pharmaceutical salesman, and moved to Vietnam nine months ago to change it all. I don’t think he’s ever planning to move back; he loves it here. He teaches English part-time, works out constantly, and does some volunteer work. It seems like he’s really living.
Part of this change in Vietnam that I am examining is caused by expats moving to the country with money, bringing their own traditions, and making waves. But I was interested in interviewing Ronnie because he comes off almost as the anti-expat. As he would call it, the “expat-local”. That is because, unlike many of the expats who have moved here, Ronnie chose to embed himself in the local community. For him, this new chapter of his life is all about cultural connection. Sipping on an iced Vietnamese coffee at his neighborhood shop, he tells me that he thinks that being an expat means engaging in a cultural exchange - giving a bit of yourself to the community but learning a lot in return. This is the kind of change that he wants to see. It’s important to note that from what I’ve seen, not all expats think like this. Many are interested in transplanting their own culture here, which isn’t without merit. I recorded an extensive interview with Ronnie, and when I get back home, his audio recordings (and others) will be presented as part of my findings. For now, these notes are partially to serve to jog my memory, as well as to share a bit of the process with my stateside audience.
Today’s ride was incredibly short, barely even worth mentioning. I left Da Nang at around 3:00, but not before giving my bike chain some quick attention. Yesterday’s water and road debris had completely seized the chain, and it needed a wipe and some new oil to run smoothly again. The bike is completely filthy, and tomorrow I will look for a hose to clean it off. Running without fenders saves a lot of weight, but makes everything dirty. Today’s ride: 15 miles on a fairly busy oceanfront main road connecting Da Nang to Hoi An. Technically, I’m not staying in Hoi An. Another friend of a friend has a house in the hottest new tourist area, An Bang Beach. And so, after leaving Da Nang, discussing utopian ideas of some kind of cultural melting pot, the responsibility of expats and tourists, etc... Resort hotel after resort hotel, American restaurants, tourists on motorbikes. An Bang Beach is a bit more laid-back, but no less tourist-centric. Less than ten years ago, I’m told, it was a small fishing village. It’s this paradox that, although garnering some of my base-level discomfort, deserves attention. This is one interesting piece of Vietnam’s story that I’m getting ready to dive into in the coming days.
It was a cheeseburger, fries, and a coke for dinner. I’ll be heading back into Vietnam’s heartland on Sunday, so best to burger up now! It will be an early night for me too. In addition to resting my legs tomorrow, I have an exciting interview with an American veteran and expat who has lived here for the last decade running a charity that assists with children’s education. As always, thank you for following along. It means a lot to me to have “ground support”.
This post is the first in a series of shorter posts where I write about more general experiences, not necessarily falling into a single day’s diary. Thanks Dad for the suggestion, and certainly mention something in the comments if you’re curious - I might address it!
When I first started planning this trip, one of my concerns - and one of the most common concerns of my peers - was the language difference. Vietnamese is incredibly tough to learn, and it was not realistic for me to gain any appreciable foothold on it before my trip. And so, I plundered on, with the thought of Google Translate and hand gestures providing me with some reassurance. I knew that communication would be tough, but I wanted that difficulty to add a unique edge to the trip.
Of course, in the larger, more tourist-driven cities like Dong Hoi, Da Nang, and Hoi An, communication is no problem. Local employees are used to catering to Westerners, and usually have a good grasp of English. But in rural areas, other than “hello”, there is no English. It’s certainly helpful that I’m not a picky eater. I usually just point at what someone else is eating - hasn’t failed yet. Google Translate often comes in handy at the pharmacy to get across my cold symptoms. In general, communicating hasn’t been as hard as I anticipated. Pointing, gesturing, and hoping has not yet failed to yield food, drink, or a bed.
But it’s the aloneness that I didn’t expect quite as much. This was mitigated in the first week travelling with Lyle. But since he’s behind me, I don’t have a companion to speak in English too. I’m not complaining, of course - this is all part of the experience and the challenge. Being in some of these bigger cities and meeting up with Facebook mutual friend expats has been nice. But I expect tomorrow’s plunge back into rural Vietnam to be isolating. I’ll be leaving the tourist beat, heading back into Old Vietnam - I’m incredibly excited about that for other reasons. But I’ll also be leaving behind the comforts of English. Here’s to eating whatever is offered, sleeping wherever I find lodging, and seeking comfort in the uncomfortable.
My host mom at Sahi Homestay sent me on my way with a delicious “Vietnamese style” omelette and two French baguettes filled with margarine in my belly. Good fuel for the long day to come. The first 50 miles passed quickly. I was excited to get off the main highway, cutting directly towards the ocean on an immaculately paved, seldom trafficked road. It was marshland to either side. I got a great shot of a bunch of water buffalo walking on a small path in the middle of one of these marshes. This road connected to another, slightly busier, but no less beautiful road to parallel the sea. This was the kind of bike riding that the whole trip centers around. It’s not touristy, cutting through small, quiet enough hamlets. Even in remote areas, there is a kind of quiet intensity to the people. Then the rain started.
In these conditions, it’s better to get wet than to don rain-gear, as I’d just sweat right through it. There was something fun about riding in the rain. A new feeling for the country, a grittiness to the ride. Yah, that novelty wore off after about thirty minutes. No matter. Back on the main road, I had my first experience with duck sandwiches, fueling up for the main task of the day, the Hai Van Pass.
Top Gear fans will probably be familiar with this feature of the country, it’s a steep, often treacherous mountain pass. About 10kms of climbing with ramps up to 10%. I was just hoping my legs made it to the top. Conditions were grim at this point. The rain was coming down, and I felt like I was climbing into a cloud. But there was still a beauty to it. On the mountainside, wet, jungly leaves formed a variegated pattern. The fog that I was in obscured the ocean on my left side so that I could just barely make out the waves crashing below. It was super cool. With the rest day from yesterday, my legs didn’t let me down, and I made it to the top in time for an iced coffee and a quick break. But there were still 20 miles or so to get into Da Nang. The descent was worthwhile. As darkness, fell, the rain continued, making a memorable slog into the city. But spirits were high as I arrived to my mutual friend’s mutual friend’s house and hurried to the neighborhood grill for a seafood feast.
Time spent riding: 5:42
Average speed: 12.5mph
Distance: 71.42 (I suspect this to be a bit low because my cycling computer was on the fritz)
It’s nice to sleep in. Not too much on the agenda today. Hue is famous as it is holds the imperial city from the Nguyen Dynasty (the last dynasty of Vietnam). As it is not only a point of interest, but also ties into how tourism is an agent of change in the country, that was on the list. In the afternoon, I had an interview scheduled with a Facebook connection. But first, breakfast.
I walked a couple miles into town, mildly annoyed that on my rest day I should have to exert myself this way. I found a swanky French villa on Google Maps that served Vietnamese food. I was the only one there, sitting on a regal patio overlooking a small garden and the street. With a yogurt, cappuccino, orange juice, and fried rice paper crepe filled with shrimp, pork, and greens ordered, I sat back to enjoy it.
The imperial city “the citadel” is huge. Tourists flocked around the main entrance. Much of the citadel has been rebuilt since the Vietnam war, as it’s undergone bombing and attacks from the Americans, and the French before that. I cannot convey how big the space feels, but it is a big square, two kilometers a side. It’s all in varying states of repair, small shops selling ice cream and coffee jockeying for position in the strangest of places.
With the citadel “done”, I headed over to a coffee shop to meet Luke, a middle-aged, balding Brit who has lived in Vietnam for ten years, settling himself in Hue after a period of sporadic movement within the country. Luke is an English teacher, but the reason I met with him is because he’s also working in the tourism industry in Hue. Part of my project is looking at the effects of tourism on Vietnam - how it’s changing cultures and economies within the country. Hue is a good place to start, as it has such a rich history as well as a decent tourist draw - but not as much as places like Da Nang or Hoi An.
A tour for Luke means experiencing local culture, not curating it. He thinks that Hue has been slow on the uptake with innovative tourist ideas. He points to Phong Nha. And although neither of us like it very much, they have the best pizza. That attracts people. But is that the reality that tourism should be aiming for? Some of Luke’s ideas for tours are outside of the norm. The concept for one of his tours, “Vietnow”, would seek to connect current events to Hue. For example, Vincom seems to be taking over Vietnam. It’s a conglomerate company owned by Vietnam’s first billionaire. They just opened one of many Vincom Plaza’s in downtown Hue. It’s essentially a massive shopping mall, in addition to a whole bunch of smaller “VinMart’s” over town. At the same time, Dong Ba Market in Hue is an individual vendor, traditional style large market that caters to tourists as well as locals. Not exclusive to Hue, but all over Vietnam small mom-and-pop corner stores have survived for years selling necessities like soap and oil. Only time will tell if the entry of massive corporations like Vincom will yield any positive results, or rather, just put people out of business. At the same time, companies like Vincom are pumping in economic investment and providing jobs. What I’m starting to find out, if nothing else, is that nothing is as clean-cut as it seems, and I’ve still got quite a lot of time in-country to try and make some sense of it, as difficult as that is.