Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
Nothing much to report from today. Some highlights: a relaxed morning that I didn’t feel guilty about, slow and repetitive pedal strokes, dodging some surprise raindrops by pulling into the living room of two nice Vietnamese men and munching on some Creamos sitting on a plastic stool watching raindrops fall, and starting to come to terms with being so close to the end.
Certainly this meditation did not all come about today, but rather in bits and spurts throughout the whole trip. But, now is as good of a time to write about it as ever. Simply put, this trip has been awesome. My bike ride through Vietnam has taken the better part of a year to plan - from logistics to safety and contingency plans to everything in between. There was a lot of buildup, but the payout is worth it. I’m out here, maneuvering my bike and very few possessions through Vietnam: new, old, urban, rural, rich, poor, hot, cold, steep and flat, tired and awake, but always excited, always with eyes wide open, and always with an understanding of just how lucky I am.
Now, the trip is not quite over yet. I still have a sizable amount of time left here and a couple of other adventures up my sleeve - but with every pedal stroke the biggest, most important chunk is approaching an end. My charge to myself is to be excited by the destination, that is only appropriate, but to continue to be even more captivated by every second I get to spend on the Vietnamese tarmac.
The early morning wake up saw the first of the day’s excited energy. I felt really good coming off of a decent night’s rest and the relaxed day before, but now it was back in the saddle, and today would be a big one.
On all of my cycling trips nowadays I like to have one hundred mile day. If you’ll allow me to wax poetic for a moment, I find it is most often the mind that gives up first. My legs are stronger than I know, and on long days like this they do not fail. These long days are exercise for the mind just as much as they are for the body.
I had the first thirty-odd miles dispatched by 8:00, stopping for a quick cup in a decently sized lakeside city. The ride profile for today was ambitious - 112 miles with a 1,400 foot climb about 70 miles in. Good fun. I felt really strong through the afternoon, even with the heat and the sun. Textbook Vietnam beauty the whole time. The flat rice fields are unbelievably green - that is not an effect of the camera. I was even unfazed when the road turned to potholed dirt and gravel. Slowing down and paying more attention seemed to do the trick. The smooth pavement returned for the first of the two big climbs. I had been saving a playlist from a particular teacher for this moment, and great music seemed to keep my legs spinning well, even as the gradients approached ten to thirteen percent.
The second climb was tricky, not so much because of the steepness, but I felt like my brain would be shook loose by the poor road quality. It was truly indescribable. My low profile, slick road tires roll quickly and quietly when the pavement is smooth, but when it’s like this, forget it. The top of the climb seemed to approach as quickly as the base, and I found myself devouring a steamed bun and iced coffee in a roadside hammock. Many of the cafes here have hammocks set up for the customers. On the other side of some foliage, my prize revealed itself: a gorgeous view of the whole valley, tinged with a hazy pink sun-setting sky. But I could not linger, with about twenty miles to a crappy hotel, and thirty miles to a nice hotel, I had to figure out my game plan on the bike. I enjoyed a nice descent cutting right through the fading pink.
As darkness fell I pedaled on, the road transitioning back to dirt was quite the annoyance at this point. See, this is where the mental game starts to become a reality. The last miles were ponderous on the sub-par road conditions, but I pushed on all the way to a nice town about 40kms west of Dalat. As I was riding I realized the metric conversion for 112 miles is just about 180kms. My 18th birthday is in just a couple of days, so I think it only appropriate to chalk this up to a 180 for 18 early birthday celebration. I can’t think of a better way to spend it. A really awesome bowl of duck pho was my reward for a job I considered well done.
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.