Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
I was ready for a longer day today, fueled by a couple awesome street sandwiches: French bread, rich, orange fried eggs, cucumbers, chili sauce, pork sausage, and fish floss (mashed, ground, dried fish for those wondering), and a cup of coffee. It was already starting to get hot at 9:30, but there is really not much to do about that.
There were finally, some stretches of flat road to break up the rolling hills. This has been a sight for many days but I’ve forgotten to mention it. The Central Highlands are the heart of Vietnam’s coffee farming, and it’s harvest time. Riding through small towns, driveways, sidewalks, and sometimes the shoulder of the road are filled with spread out coffee beans drying in the sun. Also, there is a lot of latex harvesting here, characterized by uniform rows of trees with cups attached midway up the trunk. It’s a cool sight to pass by grids of trees on both sides of the road.
After a really nice coffee stop (I spent way too long there), I had a slightly mediocre lunch. It was rice topped with a strange assortment of vegetables, egg, what I think was pork, and a fish cake. The whole dish tasted slightly fishy, in a strange way. But the source of this flavor seemed to come from one of the green, stalky vegetables. It wasn’t bad, I just didn’t like it. Nevertheless, I forged on, enjoying the occasional flat stretch before the rolling hills took over again.
The hotel tonight, unimpressed. Ea Drang is a smallish town, but I stumbled across a Korean barbecue place that made up for the lackluster lodging. I should know by now, really, about portion control, but no. Using Google Translate, I asked for spring rolls, fried rice, and pork and beef to grill. It was all delightful, the fatty strips of pork, in particular, shined through. The technique here is to use the grill in the middle of the table to cook the protein, and chopsticks and scissors to cut it, then make rice paper rolls filled with pork, vegetables, and sauce. Devour. Repeat. Just as I was starting to eat, a young man came over from the table with about ten others, inviting me over since I was eating all alone. I told him that I’d love to after I was done eating, but that I couldn’t really bring my whole meal over to their full table. I ate somewhat hurriedly, excited to make some new friends.
I discovered that I was in the company of the narcotics department of the Ea Drang police - and I was on my best behavior! My new friend, “Joe” informed me that he was a firefighter, but that the rest of the table was celebrating a large drug trafficking bust. It’s fairly rare, but still a problem. We had a good time talking. They’d gone through quite a good deal of beer. I can usually tell if people at a restaurant are having a good time depending on how much trash is on the floor. This case was no different. When we all got up to leave, the carnage was uncovered. Beer cans, greasy napkins, and bits of food all over the floor and under the table. This is par for the course here, it all gets swept up after the table leaves. It’s a casual approach, I don’t think the higher end restaurants are like this, but I appreciate the laid-back nature of things here. I asked the officers not to pull me over while I was riding the bike, and walked back to the hotel, stomach content with food, and mind content with the impromptu festivities of the evening.
I truly owe quite a bit of gratitude to Kan. He wanted to meet me at the hotel at eight to go for breakfast. He was really excited about eating frog noodles at a popular restaurant. We drove past the restaurant and after a brief exchange with the owner, he exclaimed that they were out.
The result was worthwhile - one of the best meals I’ve had here. A skillet with a fried egg, bacon, cucumbers, butter, beef strips, and warm pate served with French bread to make little pockets out of. Spectacular. It was actually surprising how good Kan’s English was. He said he was self-taught, watching YouTube and TV shows. But I rarely had times where I struggled to make myself understood (or vice-versa). What was the most spectacular, though, was being able to connect so fundamentally with someone over food. He informed me that in Kon Tum, “Jollibee”, which is a knockoff of KFC, just opened.
The difference is in the freshness, Kan told me, explaining that all of the various foods in front of us had been bough this morning, the owners of the shop waking up incredibly early to make it to the street market. Food culture in Vietnam will be something I spend a more significant amount of time with in a stand-alone post, keep your eyes... peeled.
After breakfast and coffee, Kan drove me out of the town to a small ethnic minority town of the Ba Na people. It was really fascinating how quickly the urban hustle peels away to dirt roads and a broiling sun. I’ve remarked on this many times on the bicycle, but these roads were even more remote, potholed dirt strips that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen (the smooth pavement keeps me satisfied). The town was really just a hamlet, people going about their day. Behind everything, a fairly large river served as a hard boundary. Even with only thirty miles on the agenda for the day, it was getting late, hot, and time to go.
The riding was, again, nothing exceedingly spectacular. I’m happy to report that I seem to have a pretty good handle on how to deal with the heat. Lots of sunscreen, obviously, but also lots of water. I have four liters of capacity, although I rarely fill all the way up (three liters in my hydration pack and one liter on the bike). Buying water here is no problem at any of the small convenience stores. Come to think of it, I’ve never actually bought water on the road, only filling up in the morning. Sadly, I’ve cut back a bit on coffee consumption in pursuits of maximum hydration and safety. Riding when its 85 degrees, humid, and full sun is no joke. But the real trick is these rehydration salt chews that I bought before I left. They’re kind of like Tums, and have a brief lemon flavor before an uncomfortable saltiness. They seem to have really taken the edge off.
Pleiku is the capital of the province. Unexcitingly urban is how I would describe it. Decent hotel. Dinner was a bowl of chicken pho and a street kebab (popular here), before heading to a coffee shop, and then a large bakery, where I splurged. One slice of tiramisu, chocolate mousse, one small flan, two small egg custards, and a small chocolate croissant. Sitting on the back of a Grab scooter on the way back to the hotel, I felt truly present, and really lucky. It was a cool night, my rolled up lightweight khakis keeping my legs cool. A lot of noise, still, from other trucks, cars, and motorbikes, and lights from the storefronts and neon arches (a fixture of most mid-sized to larger towns) on the main thoroughfare. Back at the hotel I tucked into some well-earned dessert and tucked myself into bed, closing one more day of the trip, of which the biking portion, at least, is starting to come to an end.
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.