Life and adventures from a high school perspective
I set a new record this morning. 11:30 in the saddle time, but it was well-earned, in my opinion, and knowing that it was a fairly short day, I didn’t feel bad. I was desperately behind in my blogging, so I decided to sit down again at the Radio Cafe to plug away. Two coffee’s later, I was off. Lyle had left 1.5 hours earlier, done waiting around for me.
Today’s ride was, dare I say, nearly perfect. The sun was often muzzled by clouds, and very soon after leaving Huong Khe, the route actually took me off of the HCM road, onto a smaller, scenic byway. There was some climbing to do at first, but I was well rewarded by expansive vistas opening up on both sides. I took some GoPro video which I’ll process and upload when I have some time! Admittedly, the road surface was not quite as smooth as the main drag, but the scenery more than made up for it.
About 20kms from the destination of Quy Dat I rode into a seemingly affluent town. There were some older buildings interspersed among new construction, and several large motorbike and electronics stores gathering crowds of people. I grabbed a truly fantastic bowl of beef pho. The broth was tea-colored, with circles of orange fat floating on the top and loads of fresh onions. It was just what I needed to put some fuel in the legs. Pho power! Lyle informed me that there was a good climb into the destination town of Quy Dat, but I felt invigorated from my pho.
It was in fact a pretty decent climb. The first section I attacked calmly, listening to some Astral Projection (Dad will probably get that one at least). As was the case earlier in the day, each pedal stroke was rewarded with hazy hills spreading out along the horizon. This was truly remote, and I loved it. Construction workers, truck drivers, and motorbikers waved me on towards the top. I felt invincible. The descent was also fantastic, approaching speeds of up to 30mph; but with a firm grip on the handlebars, strategic application of the brakes, sliding rear wards on the bike, and pushing off of the pedals, I felt the wind on my face without drama. At the bottom I crossed a small stream, and then it was more up. This time it was properly steep, I dug in, selecting the 2nd to biggest gear selection on my bike. My promise to myself is that I will save that last gear for when I am about to cry - and it wasn’t going to be today!
It was about 4:30 by the time I arrived into town. The sun was starting to set. I found Lyle at a local coffee shop chatting up the locals - classic. I pulled off the road, and ordered a coffee, sitting with Lyle and three Vietnamese men. By the looks of coffee and tea glasses filling the table, the group had been there for a while. But nevertheless, the late-comer was welcomed in graciously. Using Google Translate, we actually had a pretty good conversation with the locals. In addition to the coffee, I was also served ramen and cake. Lyle and I said our goodbyes, and headed back to the hotel.
I called it an early night, just taking the time to relax in the room. Shower, plan out the next few days, etc... Tomorrow is going to be a big day, 70 miles. I am going to be riding with Lyle for the first 40, a friend of his lives along the route and he is going to peel off to visit with her for a day or two. But we will have one last lunch in a small expat community at a pub. I’m already getting excited about some good pub food, as much as I love noodles, I think that I’ve earned some fish and chips! After that, I’ll have 30 miles to go into the fairly large fishing village of Dong Hoi. I’m hoping to get there fairly early so as to walk around, relax at the hotel, perhaps a massage?
Time spent on the bike: 3:26
Average speed: 12.7mph
My stomach sickness has converted itself into sniffles and a little cough - just as annoying, but much less debilitating. This morning was one of the first proper loafing times of the trip. I slept in and took some time to relax in the room this morning. It was fantastic. I also had a breakfast voucher for the resort, which, I should now describe in more detail. It is a complex, with a small network of roads between palatial different building - the hotel, restaurant, cafe, and event center were the few I saw, all separated by large ponds, connected by walkways. I wouldn’t call the place dirty, but it is definitely a bit rundown. The concrete is in need of a good power wash, and strangely, almost every single brick paver in the roundabout in front of the restaurant building was loose. Riding a bike over it felt like the ground was shifting beneath the wheels, which is one thing that the ground should not do!
On the little breakfast menu it said “omelette with bread” - which both Lyle and I ordered. Minutes later, a slightly warmed French bread, accompanied by two plain fried eggs and two slices of cucumber arrived. No salt or pepper in sight, I was delighted when I found a red bottle of the sweet and sour sauce that is very popular here. The breakfast was tolerable, but certainly nothing to get excited about.
Lyle and I headed out around 11, planning to have lunch in our destination own of Houng Khe. I stopped only to discreetly use the bathroom in some bushes, eat a gu shot or an Altoid, and take pictures. Today, the ravages of logging and new infrastructure were the most astounding of the scenery, other than expansive river views and distant, horizon-cloaked mountains. In one place, it looked as if they were building a dam. This country does not stop building. Other than the public works, I am trying to figure out where all of this money for real estate is coming from. New houses are being erected next to farmers truly humble living shacks. But one thing remains the same, men and women, cigarettes often dangling from lips, dirt-stained toes often dangling out of flip-flops.
I arrived in Houng Khe around 3:00 this afternoon, and after showering and washing my riding clothes in the sink (a true art), I spent some time walking around the city. There is a nicely sized lake right in the middle, with a truly eclectic mix of newly-constructed big box stores and mom-and-pop street vendors lining the streets. In all cases, pedestrians must take to the streets. Motorbikes festoon the would-be generously sized sidewalks, as does piles of sand or gravel for the next days construction. It’s incredible. I got to walking in this back alley behind some train tracks. It was a good reminder for today that not everything is roses in Vietnam. Looking at the street-market buildings from behind, it is actually just a dirty cluster of tarps carefully suspended to make some kind of building. But it was the garbage that was really astonishing. Piles of plastic char and fresh refuse on top rose to meet the tracks from the ground five feet below. A few old women traipsed on top of the rubble holding flaming plastic bags, trying to get more of fresh plastic mass to catch. It was a firm reminder that Vietnam’s trash disposal system leaves a lot to be desired, and it’s often polluting the air that we are all breathing.
But on a happier note, Lyle and I took an early dinner at a Bun Bo Hue restaurant with a few locals inside (always a good sign toward the quality of the food). Bun Bo Hue is a noodle soup dish flavored with lemongrass, rice vermicelli, pork, beef, fresh bean sprouts and basil (which we avoided to hedge bets against getting sick) and congealed pig’s blood. The latter is served in a cube. I tried some, it had a texture resembling tofu, and not much of a discernible flavor - nothing to go out of one’s way for. On Google Maps, I found an intriguing coffee shop, one reviewer described it as a perfect blend of Western and Vietnamese coffee shops coming together in one building. There are Vietnamese books on the wall, fairy lights everywhere, and motorcycle helmets, gloves, backpacks, cameras, and burlap coffee bags hanging from the walls. And thank god for no Karaoke. Instead, I was delighted to listen to this kin of Vietnamese easy listening pop stuff - it’s really nice! Of course, the coffee is outstanding: just a bit of condensed milk in the bottom of the with a filter on top. The coffee goes drip drip. Mix, and enjoy. As I was hanging out with Lyle, I saw a guy wearing technical looking clothes and a small backpack wandering around on his phone across the street. It was dusk, and I couldn’t really tell if it was a Westerner or not. I kept plugging away on the blog, and a few minutes later the guy wandered in front of the coffee shop. And that is how we met Michael, a Californian bicycling a similar route down to Saigon.
He’s retired and in great shape with a healthy moustache and a thinning tussle of hair. Thick glasses with a thick lanyard indicate “sophisticated traveler”. Over a cup of coffee, Michael told us that he lives in Berkeley, and does two big trips per year. He’s been traveling by bike since 2000, and, it would seem, has seen much of the world on two wheels. Way cool. He hadn’t eaten yet. At around 7:00, we all went for dinner (for Lyle and I, second dinner). We found a Korean barbecue place across the street. Pork belly, pork loin, beef, shrimp, noodles, and rice commenced, all wrapped up in fragile sheets of rice paper. Struggling to keep the components in the wrap, juices dribbled onto hands and the table. Used napkins were everywhere - our best effort to maintain the mess. We laughed and smiled in between bites of pork belly, mopping up fingers in between rolls. This is what it’s about.
Time spent riding: 2:31
Avg. Speed: 13.4mph
This morning was rough. I woke up with a headache and a stomachache, texted Lyle, drank some water, and went back to bed for half an hour. I didn’t feel much better after I woke, so I stumbled to the local pharmacy. Using Google Translate, the nice lady behind the counter determined that some probiotics would be the best bet. I have some Cippro with me, but I’m trying to save that for a real emergency - this was not. I went back to bed for about 45 minutes, really doubting that I would feel much better. I expected this to happen, but not so soon into the trip. And this small town was not the place I wanted to convalesce from traveller’s sickness. Miraculously, I felt a good deal better when I woke. I hurriedly packed my bags and applied sunscreen to my reddening thighs.
It was a 55 mile day today, and Lyle and I were marginally concerned that our 11:00 start would be cutting close to the sunset at 5:30. My solution was to take fewer breaks. I skipped breakfast, save a couple Clif bars and a cup of coffee. And kept snacking throughout the day on stroopwafels and gu shots, barely sustained without a proper meal in the belly. The scenery today was again, exceedingly beautiful, similar to yesterday. The road was nicely maintained. The one difference in the riding is that it was markedly less busy than previous days. Fewer trucks hurtling down the road, fewer posses of motorbikes. The cycling itself passed quickly, one of my teachers at school was able to download the whole first season of Bob Dylan’s short-lived SiriusXM show “Theme Time Radio Hour”. It’s great to ride to.
The other thing that propelled my legs was the promise of a nice resort hotel. I arrived to the town of Pho Chau around 3:45. I was also going to meet up with a local accountant in town to talk about my academic project on the changing culture and economies of Vietnam. I was blown away by the sheer size of the resort. Massive buildings, lakes, swimming pools. Empty. The whole thing. It was incredible, we must have been the only guests in this place. Nevertheless, the beds were comfortable. This was the most expensive hotel yet 450,000 VND (~$20 U.S.). After showering and relaxing, Lyle and I rode the remaining 4K into town to meet with “Alex”, the local accountant at his favorite restaurant. Dinner was simple but excellent, fatty strips of pork belly, bok choy sautéed with garlic, and tofu.
After dinner, Lyle, “Alex”, and I headed back to the hotel. Lyle called it a night, and I sat down in the hotel lobby with “Alex”, set up a microphone, and got to it In retrospect, the interview was more useful than it felt in the moment. “Alex” has slow, stumbling English, but he told me that he is self-taught from YouTube videos - impressive. He wanted to learn English to be able to communicate more readily with the Western world, he wants to travel, leaving his hometown. He remarked that economic disparity is a real issue. Subsistence farmers struggling to make ends meet live just a mile up the road from people who have two or three cars from logging exports. Real estate companies and private parties are coming into the area to build large houses and then disappearing. At the same time, “Alex” informed me, the government is funneling millions of dollars into projects like the resort we’re in right now. A lot is changing economically - new buildings, real estate investments, and modernization in the city. But much is staying the same - cattle-driven plows and carts and never-ending days in the fields under an unrelenting Vietnam sun.
Time spent riding: 4:23
Avg. speed: 12.8mph
Distance: 56.38 miles
I made the decision to sleep in a bit today - 6:30. I woke up feeling sore but well rested. I had to pack up, but also wipe down and re-oil the bike chain, as the dust and road grime wreaks havoc on all those little moving parts. In the morning light the hotel room looked more dingy than ever. Overnight, the bathroom had developed a smell of sewage - not from me! I was looking forward to heading out onto the road. Lyle was a bit ahead of me, but just as I was getting ready to leave, my stomach took a turn for the worse . I went to the bathroom and sat down for a few minutes. I was annoyed, I was sure that I would get sick on this trip, but not so soon! I started to feel better as soon as I walked out of the hotel into the sun - perhaps this was a sign! Lyle and I had breakfast next door - bun cha. Char-grilled pork in a rich, fish-saucy broth with sliced carrots and a plate of noodle clusters on the side. This was one of the best dishes so far, and I really wish I would have been feeling better while I had it. After breakfast, the two young ladies operating the restaurant insisted on getting pictures (see below). If things don’t work out in the U.S. I know I will have a place to go in Yen Cat!
Lyle and I set out on the road around 9:00, which is actually not terribly late. With only 55 miles , spirits were high, and I was able to ride through my earlier stomach-blues. Again, the scenery was exceedingly beautiful, although perhaps less mountainous today than yesterday. These first days have all been on the Ho Chi Minh Highway which is a very well maintained rural highway. There is a lot of truck and bus traffic, and the drivers are absolutely mental. They overtake at every opportunity, not just when it is safe, but when they feel like it. That being said, nearly every truck, bus, or car gives me nearly a full lane when passing - a much better number than in the U.S. The road cuts through many rural hamlets, farms, and the occasional factory (complete with smokestacks) tucked away on the roadside. There is a lot of motorbike traffic, everything from old women heading to the farm to people dressed in full suits or dresses headed to work.
And there’s construction everywhere - these people just don’t stop building. Power lines criss-cross the road, covering the distance to mountaintops on the horizon and everywhere in between. Several cement trucks pass per day and all over the place people carve just a little bit out of the jungle for some new construction. This morning I stopped to have a can of “winter melon tea” from a cooler at a construction site with a few amiable workers. They were building a house or something right on the side of the road. Even with all of the cement and brick, the jungle is unmoved. Thick, dark, luscious green blankets the mountains and valleys, interrupted only by flood plains, rivers, or farm plots. It’s incredible.
The town of Tan Ky is the biggest I’ve stayed in so far, with the nicest hotel too. It’s a bustling place with non-stop bus and truck traffic at the city-center roundabout. Right before town I had a wee collision, or rather, I was collided into. I was going for a left turn. I checked my mirror before I moved over in the lane and saw that there was a motorbike a ways behind me on the right side of the lane. No problem, I thought, as I moved to the middle of the road to complete the turn. Then I was on the ground, landing on both forearms and my left thigh, but fortunately not hitting my head. The motorbike which had been on the right side of the road ran right into me, sending me into the pavement. Fortunately I was going slow, so there is next to no road rash. But much to my confusion and anger the motorbike did not even turn around to see if I was ok. A middle-aged man stepped out of his shop next door. I got up quickly and pulled myself off the road, giving him a thumbs-up sign. I took a few minutes to dust myself off, fuming that I was so close to the hotel, but fortunate that I was walking away with barely a scrape. I changed in the hotel, found Lyle, and then went for a fantastic hot coffee with condensed milk, I might be headed back there tomorrow morning.
Dinner tonight was a greasy, unhealthy, invigorating experience. On the street corner right next to the hotel a young woman had a coal-fired grate and two deep pans filled with fry oil. She was making these kind of latke pancakes, but they were sweet, and not potato. Also on tap: frozen fried chicken drumsticks, fried pockets of rice stuffed with egg, and this lovely homemade orange dipping sauce. Accompanied with a co-ca (coke), Lyle and I were set, watching trucks tear around the roundabout, we tore into our chicken. Noodles are great and all, but this was a happy break from the usual, and a fitting end to another successful, beautiful, rewarding day.
Avg. Speed of 14.0mph