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