Vietnam bike ride

Friday, February 24th, 2006 through Friday, March 10th, 2006

I spent two weeks in Vietnam, touring the countryside as part of a charity bike ride for Kids First Vietnam. I had a good time, and enjoyed my first "real" trip outside the country.

Feb 26th 2006
Day 1: Arrival in Vietnam, wandering around Hanoi.
Hanoi is bustling. 98% of the road traffic is motorscooters or motorcycles. Only a few cars. And lots of horns. My ears are ringing very slightly from all the noise. Louder than the plane!

We walked around randomly, starting by circumnavigating the rather pretty Hoan Kiem lake. After the lake, we got lost several times whilst exploring the shopping district. :) The streets are very narrow, and sidewalks are either nonexistent or taken up by parked motorbikes, so we spent most of the time playing in traffic.

Scott and I kept getting tempted by the food on sale from the street vendors. It looks great and smells even better . . . I wish we could sample some!

Feb 27th 2006
Day 2: Ha Long bay, visiting Hai Phong orphanage.
It's finally starting to sink in that I'm really here! (Part of that is probably due to the fact that I'm no longer stumbling around in a haze of sleep deprivation.)

We breakfasted at the hotel this morning. Decent baguettes (nothing special, unfortunately), but out-of-this-world coffee! My God! I have never before had such rich drip coffee. It has a distinct vanilla-almond flavour--almost enough to make me suspect an additive, except that it wasn't the slightest bit sweet. But it wasn't bitter, either. This is what coffee is truly meant to taste like! I have only had a few cups of coffee prior to this that even come close . . . and sadly, they were not cups I brewed myself. I guess I still have a lot to learn about coffee. :)

To paraphrase Agent Cooper, this was a DAMN fine cup of coffee.

After breakfast, we all piled into our minivan for the trip to Ha Long bay. ("Ha Long" means "Descending Dragon". Incidentally, "Ha Noi" means "The city where the river bends".) While en route to Ha Long, we were treated to almost continual view of rural Vietnamese life. It seems that a fair amount of that is centred around rice paddies. The paddies are (usually rectangular or oblong) sections of flooded flat land, separated by small raised dikes. Rice is planted in one paddy, allowed to grow somewhat, and then transplanted to adjoining paddies. The farmers appeared to be simply bundling handfuls of rice plants and tossing them into neighboring paddies.

It is remarkable how wet the landscape is.

We boarded a junk when we arrived at Ha Long bay, and motored out to an island in the bay housing one of Vietnam's natural wonders: Thien Cung cave. This is a medium-sized limestone cavern, and was full to bursting with tourists. Many pretty rock formations, all tastefully (or not-so-tastefully) lit, but nothing spectacular. :)

Following Thien Cung, we were given the opportunity to do a quick kayak trip through another associated limestone cave, this this one was flooded. Scott, Crystal, Anna Lou, myself, and Collin jumped at the opportunity, and were quickly bundled into two-man kayaks. I've been in single kayaks before, but two-man kayaks were a new experience for me, and one I do not intend to repeat any time soon. I ended up soaked, cold, and rather annoyed at my boatmate. It was sorta fun, but . . . meh. Sadly, the tide was out too far to be able to enter the cave.

On the plus side, though, the dock where we boarded the kayaks had a number of holding pens for tasty (?) marine life, so we got to see examples of the local marine fauna, including cuttlefish! They were a lot larger than I expected, maybe 50 cm tip-to-tip, and they weren't doing much. I watched 'em for a few minutes and didn't see so much as a colour change.

As the final activity for the day, we visited the Hai Phong orphanage. Everyone there was very friendly, and the kids were adorable. They fed us (mostly meat . . . which I didn't realize until too late in a few cases). The kids would just put food into my bowl if they thought it was too empty, so I ended up with a few meaty tidbits which I politely (I hope) ignored. After a while, I realized that they couldn't keep filling up my bowl if I put it down, which worked great until they started handing around bananas. :)

The children sang and danced for us (and we for them), and then we were treated to a tour of the grounds. During the tour, the power to the orphanage complex went out twice. While we were walking back though the darkened grounds, children with flashlights would occasionally appear at some of the doors. The adults in our party shouted something in Vietnamese which sounded remarkably like "Stop worrying, go back inside, and go to bed!" Even though I couldn't understand a single word, the meaning was remarkably clear. :)

We have our first bicycle ride tomorrow. I can hardly wait!

Feb 28th 2006
Day 3: Ninh Binh, cycling 35km to Tam Coc limestone caves, my birthday!
Happy birthday to me! What a great way to turn 31 (though technically I think I turn 31 tomorrow, since I'm now on the other side of the international date line).

We biked about 35km today, starting from our hotel in Ninh Binh and making a loop through the Hoa Lu district, to the limestone caves at Tam Coc.

Cuong, Crystal, Scott, and Anna Lou got me a tasty cake, beautiful flowers, wine, and a card. Very unexpected, but very appreciated!

As for today's ride, it was spectacular. The morning piece through Hoa Lu was incredibly picturesque. The people were clumpy . . . we'd see one or two folks, then go five minutes before we saw the next person, then go through a village, which may or may not look deserted. I don't think any were actively unfriendly, and most were outright personable. The children in particular were always shouting out "hello" or "xin chao", and smiling and waving. I was surprised that my smiling muscles didn't get tired--I had a silly grin on my face for hours. :)

The scenery was breathtaking. Everything was so green. It was almost too beautiful to think of people actually living there--people live in cities, not in beauty.

We eventually arrived in Tam Coc, and had an unremarkable lunch. Well, not totally unremarkable. I asked the waiter, in Vietnamese, if a dish had meat in it. He understood me, and told me I could eat it! How cool is that? :) Cuong gave us a rudimentary language lesson today while we were driving from Hai Phong to Ninh Binh. The vocabulary I've retained so far is xin chao == "hello", chao == "goodbye", cam on == "thank you", xin cam on == "thank you very much", khong cam on == "no, thank you", xin loi == "excuse me" or "please", zat tot == "very good", khong sao == "no problem", xe may == "motorcycle", xe dap == "bicycle". It is a challenge. :) I can (to a certain extent) say the above phrases, but I cannot yet hear them. The exception is xin chao, which is very distinctive. And you hear it a lot from the kids as you pass them. :)

To continue the narrative, the limestone caves were, unfortunately, mostly unremarkable. I would have rather kept biking. :) After boating through them, we set off to return to Ninh Bihn. We took Highway 1, which was unpleasant. Biking on a busy street is bad enough in the US, but in Vietnam there aren't really any traffic laws. And everyone uses their horn. Not to express frustration or anger, but as a beacon--"I am here", "I am merging", etc.

The bed here at the hotel in Ninh Binh is very soft . . . it's like sleeping on a firm gel, and it's calling my name. Chue ngu ngon (good night!)

Mar 1st 2006
Day 4: Cycling 80km through Hoa Lu district to Thanh Hoa, visiting temples and a rural one-room kindergarten.
Well, I'm pleasantly tired now. 80 km without much in the way of buildup is a bit of a challenge . . . a challenge I am pleased to say that Anna Lou and I rose to!

Scott has, according to Dr. Hung, a mild case of the flu. He was feverish all last night and neither him nor Crystal got much sleep as a result. Scott spent most of today riding in the car, though he did cycle for a couple of hours after lunch. Crystal ran into difficulties about 15 km from the end of today's route and ended up in the car for the rest of the trip . . . and Scott joined her out of companionship. She was in quite a lot of pain. I feel vaguely bad about this; I can't help feeling that I should have done more to help them prepare for this trip. Working out on a stationary bike in a gym is all very well and good, but it does not substitute for actual time in the saddle.

For most of yesterday and today, we were pretty spread out. Cuong and I set a brisk pace, while Anna Lou rides very leisurely. Scott and Crystal are somewhere in between. After the Bushs bowed out, Cuong asked us to tighten up, so he and I rode at Anna Lou's pace. That was actually rather enjoyable; you're riding with people, which makes a big difference. I have to keep reminding myself that this isn't a competition. I'm here to have fun and see the countryside, not to race through it as fast as possible. :)

In the morning, we visited the former capital of Vietnam in Hua Lu. Very pretty temples. We then cycled through rural areas and stopped at a one-room kindergarten, where I bought candy for the children and Anna Lou gave them soccer balls. :) As we were leaving, a gentleman came up and offered us a drink. I told him "no, thank you" in Vietnamese, and he shook our hands and gave us a big grin. :)

It is truly remarkable to be cycling through these rural areas. We'll pass gnarled old ladies and smile at them and wave or say "xin chao". 80% of the time, their face just lights up with the best smile!

After lunch, we got on Highway 1 for a long time. Busy busy busy. The drivers here use their horns a lot, and some of the bigger trucks have horns that are physically painful. I wonder what the incidence of hearing loss is here.

While we were going down Highway 1, I passed a primary schoolyard. The kids were all outside, and it seemed like about half of them were up in a tree. I heard a chorus of "hello"s, and replied "xin chao!" Upon hearing that, the whole tree burst out laughing! I wonder if I mispronounced it--if you say it with a rising tone on the last syllable, Cuong tells us it means "I like porridge". :)

The food here continues to be excellent. (It got substantially better when folks realized that I am an chay (vegetarian)--that tidbit of information apparently didn't get relayed to anyone.) Lots of tofu and vegetables; what Cuong refers to as "monk food". I told him today though that "your country makes me wish I wasn't vegetarian." :)

I think I sent my postcards this morning. I handed them to the desk clerk as we were checking out of the hotel. Hopefully they will make it safely to America.

Mar 2nd 2006
Day 5: Cycling 75km along Cua Lo seaside to Vinh city.
Today's route was glorious. That's a strong word, but it is not undeserved. We cycled along the beach for most of the afternoon. Very beautiful, and very undeveloped.

The first half of the day wasn't so great, though. It was entirely along Highway 1, so we saw lots of traffic, breathed lots of dust and Diesel, and heard lots of deafening automobile horns. As wee were entering Dien Chau, my right clipless pedal broke. The ride mechanics looked at it, but were unable to fix it. Not a big surprise--I'd probably have to take it in to a shop to get it repaired in the States. Unfortunately, the mechanics misunderstood me and ended up throwing the pedals away (ouch!) instead of holding on to 'em. After lunch in Dien Chau, they swapped normal pedals onto the bike, I changed shoes, and we were good to go. Sadly, I rode the final 1.5 km into town in the car, so I cannot say that I did the full ride. :(

Almost immediately after lunch, we rode to the Dien Thanh beach, where Anna Lou and I spent a few minutes wandering around (Scott and Crystal were asleep in the car). We then biked along parallel to the beach for several kilometres, occasionally passing through farmland. Very rural and very beautiful.

I held a more leisurely pace today, and as a result am not totally exhausted tonight. When it was only Cuong, Anna Lou, and myself (Scott is still recovering, and Crystal bowed out about 10 km from the end of the route), I have to admit that I opened the throttle a bit. :) But I am trying hard to balance my time in the group: riding with each person as much as possible.

At one point near the end of the ride, we passed through a largish village. The schoolkids were out en-masse, as they were going home from their lessons. One of them--he couldn't have been more than eight--ran alongside me for a bit, then jumped up on the rear bike rack! He rode along with me for about 30 seconds, laughing and shouting. :)

The hotel (the "Green hotel", actually, haha) is very nice, and it has those wonderful foam mattresses. I shall sleep well tonight.

Mar 3rd 2006
Day 6: Cycling 85km to Dong Hoi, crossing Ngang pass.
Ah, the worst is over. Today was reputed to be the toughest day of cycling. 85km and cresting Ngang pass. The pass turned out to be 135m of elevation gain, over about 3km. Not exactly challenging. :) I made it to the top without stopping, and arrived first (yay!). The others arrived presently, and none of them ended up walking. Go us!

The pass was very uncrowded, traffic-wise, but after that, things got busier. The past few days of cycling along Highway 1 had given me a nasty cough, so today I wore a bandana over my mouth and nose. It helped a lot.

I awoke at about 04:00 or 05:00 this morning, after going to bed at around 22:00 the night before. It seems that I'm getting by on about 7 hours of sleep each night. Not intentionally--I'd love to sleep more, but my body seems to have different ideas. :)

After lunch today, I hit my wall. I didn't have much of an appetite yesterday or today, and I'm guessing that I simply ran out of fuel (maybe coupled with the coughing, too). It was a really big effort to finish the day; I was seriously thinking about stopping and waiting for the support van. :( However, I had (fortuitously) added a bit of Gatoraide to my water, so I was able to burn sugar for the last 15 km or so. Not the best way to finish a ride, but, well, the ride was finished. :)

I've had two people so far come up and rub my legs. It's a little disconcerting, but is apparently due to my white skin and what Cuong called my "elephant legs". I'm pretty sure he meant that as a compliment. :)

Mar 4th 2006
Day 7: Cycling 80km along the Ho Chi Minh trail to Phong Nha cave.
This trip has been a lot of fun so far, but I am getting a little tired of doing nothing but eat, sleep, and cycle (with occasional 'cultural' events). Boy, am I getting tired of the food. :) It's tasty, but there's not much variety to the vegetarian bill of fare. Cuong is doing the best he can, but it seems that the Vietnamese diet is primarily meat-based. I'm not sure how the Buddhist monks here survive on this. :)

We did a loop today through (mostly) rural areas, and visited Phong Nha cave. This cave was an important storage depot during the war, and is now a national monument. The cave is accessible by boat, and is very pretty.

(I just had to get up to let an enormous beetle out of my room. It was banging into the windows and being very noisy.)

On the way to Phong Nha, we passed a few rice fields that had circular ponds in the middle. These are bomb craters. They are too deep for the farmers to easily fill, so they just work around them.

After we departed Phong Nha, we cycled along the Ho Chi Minh trail for a good while. A very nice gentleman named Hung pulled up beside me on his motor scooter, and we talked for several kilometres. It is somewhat difficult to have a conversation when (a) cycling along a highway (b) cycling up hills on a highway and (c) speaking with someone for whom English was not a native tongue. Despite this, I quite enjoyed the chat, and the kilometres seemed to melt away. (See? What was I saying earlier about it being easier to cycle with people?) According to Hung, the central value of the Vietnamese people is industriousness--being busy, always working.

A little further along, we stopped at a house where conical hats were being made. Crystal and Scott bought five. (One hat takes about 3 hours to make, and costs roughly one US dollar. This works out to be the average daily wage for rural Vietnam.) The family was very nice, and the grandmother (of the next door family?) came over to talk--she had never seen foreigners before, it seems, and was just tickled pink. :)

The family had five daughters, all under 10 or so. They were stitching hats when we arrived, and wow! do they work fast. The kids were a delight to watch; they were very shy, but also very curious. The family eventually relaxed enough to start asking us questions. :)

Mar 5th 2006
Day 8: Cycling 50km to Dong Ha, visiting Vinh Moc tunnels and the 17th Parallel.
400 kilometres. 400 kilometres. 400 kilometres. What an incredible experience.

We started from Dong Hoi this morning, and cycled to the tunnels at Vinh Moc. These tunnels were built during the war, and housed several hundred people for almost a decade. We got to go through a bit of the tunnels. They were very dark, very low, and very close--claustrophobes need not visit. It seemed like every time the guide would say "watch your head", I'd slam mine into a support beam or the roof. These tunnels were definitely not built for tall Americans. :)

On the way to the tunnels, we passed through a rural seaside village with a gravel road. Crystal took a downhill corner on this road a bit too fast, and fell. She got a nasty set of scrapes, and actually ended up with a minor fracture of her right arm. After the doctor patched her up, she and Scott got in the van to catch up with Cuong, Anna Lou, and myself--we were a kilometre or two further down the road, waiting anxiously for news of Crystal's health.

After visiting the tunnels, we cycled to the Hien Luong bridge. This bridge crosses the infamous 17th Parallel--the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. It was a rather peaceful setting (if you disregarded the noise of Highway 1 less than 50 metres away) . . . hard to imagine how important this site was in the past.

Following that, we then got in the van and drove to Dong Ha for lunch. We had been planning to bike the rest of the way, but I believe that Cuong had a schedule to adhere to, and this morning had slowed us down a bit. While we were in the restaurant for lunch, Scott's eye lit upon a big display of Pringles and Snickers bars. He was overjoyed, as the food here (while tasty) has been very monotonous. Scott isn't the only one bored with the food; we've all been discussing what the first thing we'll eat when we get home will be. Peanut butter seems to be a popular choice. :)

We idled over lunch, because the restaurant was about 5km from the Kids First Village, and Cuong wanted us to arrive there at a specific time. Which we did, to much backslapping, handshakes, and hugs from the non-riders. While I was happy to see everyone again, all I really wanted was a shower and a bed. :)

Mar 6th 2006
Day 9: Touring the Kids First Rehabilitation village.
Not much happened today. :) Really: it was a very low-key day. Well, except for one thing . . . I finally got internet access, and got to catch up with folks from home! The internet cafe was simply a room with a row of PCs. The room could have been a shop, a garage, or a restaurant--that multipurpose floorplan seems to be very popular here. The computers weren't terribly clean (but they weren't terribly dirty, either), the connection was slow, but the cost was 5,000 dong per hour. US$0.30. Wow! When I sat down, the PC was displaying a kiosk which confused me. The Vietnamese patron sitting to my right noticed my confusion and helpfully reached over and clicked the "Go to Windows" button for me. Very kind--we have been witnessing similar acts of kindness here on a daily basis.

Other than the internet access . . . we toured the Kids First Rehabilitation village. This is quite an impressive facility, and its modernity looks very out-of-place here. I think this organization is truly trying to do the right thing.

We had both lunch and dinner at the Kids First village--very tasty food (all prepared on site by trainee chefs), and different from the same-old, same-old food we'd become used to on the ride. :) I think tonight is the first night I haven't felt the urge to dip into my stash of supplemental food. :)

So, all-in-all, a very downtempo day. I hope my remaining three days in Vietnam are much more interesting!

Mar 7th 2006
Day 10: Touring Hue, visiting the Tu Duc palace, visiting the Duc Son Buddhist orphanage.
We drove to Hue today. This is a bustling city, reminiscent of Hanoi. Since the ride is now over, we have a lot more free time--I actually had an hour to myself this afternoon that I spent reading The Princess Bride, and free time in the evening (went and found an internet cafe).

On the way to Hue, we stopped for two political meetings. One was with Party officials and the other was with a Women's League group. My job was just to sit and look pretty, and since these were formal events, I had to wear long pants. :( Difficult in such a hot and humid climate. This afternoon we had pho for lunch. The waiter understood us when Scott and I pointed at ourselves and said an chay ("vegetarian"). They made us rather lacklustre vegetarian pho. A for effort, but C- for tastiness. I think I prefer Americanized pho. :)

Following lunch, we went to visit Tu Duc, an historic site containing the summer palace and tomb of an ancient monarch and his son. The landscaping was beautiful, and I think I got several good scenery photos.

Our final organized event was a visit to the Duc Son Buddhist orphanage. We played with the kids, and I got to hold a cute one-year-old named Bao Lo. He was a bit sleepy when they handed him to me, and went wide-eyed with surprise when he (eventually) realized that I was somehow different from his usual caretakers. :) He overcame this, though, and ended up blowing me kisses when I left. :)

The group then went out for ice cream at a local 5-star hotel (too fancy for my tastes, and all the guests were caucasian). Then I went and found an internet cafe. :)

Mar 8th 2006
Day 11: Visiting the Citadel in Hue, Scott has pizza, flight to Ho Chi Minh city.
Today was a free morning in Hue, and a free afternoon in Ho Chi Minh city (a.k.a. Saigon). In Hue, we hired "cyclo" drivers to take us to visit the Citadel. A cyclo is a bicycle mixed with a sedan chair and a rickshaw. The driver sits on a bicycle seat behind the customer (who sits in a lawn chair) and pedals this odd three-wheeled vehicle through the streets at a pace slightly faster than a brisk walk. The Citadel is an ancient administrative site--it used to be the capital of Vietnam, many years ago. The current government has partially restored it, and "the walled city" is now a major tourist attraction. And it has lizards. :) And carp. :) And (for some reason) an elephant wandering around the grounds.

After visiting the Citadel, we had lunch at a pizza place (greatly to Scott's delight). While Vietnamese food is good, it gets monotonous fast :)

We then boarded a flight to Ho Chi Minh city, where we had another culinary deviation--Chinese food. I got to drink cocoanut milk out of a cocoanut. That was kinda neat. :)

Ho Chi Minh city is very different from the rest of Vietnam. It looks a lot more like a Western city, with traditional storefronts and well-dressed professional 20-somethings. There are a lot of these quasi-yuppies, and they all seem to drive motor scooters, even more so than in the other cities we've visited. The roads are like rivers, flowing with densely-packed streams of these scooters. I am so glad I didn't have to drive here. :)

Not much else to tell about today--now that the ride is over, this seems to have turned into one big shopping trip. :(

Mar 9th 2006
Day 12: Touring Ho Chi Minh city, last dinner in Vietnam.
My free day in Ho Chi Minh city was interesting. Lots of shopping, so I was finally able to find my maps. Yay! I couldn't seem to find a flag, though. Oh well. What I'm most disappointed about is that I couldn't find any good coffee, despite sampling many many cups of espresso from local merchants.

I must have walked several miles as I criss-crossed the area of the city around our hotel. Sadly, I spent the entire day by myself, as I didn't manage to meet up with anyone sharing my interests. After getting bored with shopping, I took a book and sat in a coffee shop and people-watched for a while. :)

Earlier in the day, I found an internet cafe and sent some email. Prices in Ho Chi Minh city are higher than elsewhere: In Dong Ha, the rate was 5,000 dong/hour for internet access. In Hue, I paid 2,000 dong/hour. Here, though, I paid 18,000 dong/hour. Wow. Surprisingly, it was hard to find any internet cafes. Elsewhere in Vietnam they seem pretty common, but in Ho Chi Minh city, for whatever reason, I had to search for quite a while before stumbling across one.

One of my (unrealized) goals was to bring back some of the wonderful Vietnamese coffee that we had been drinking throughout the trip. So I stopped at several coffee shops and sampled their offerings. None of them had what I would consider to be even 'acceptable' coffee--I now strongly suspect that what we had been drinking each morning is flavoured coffee. It's actually fortunate that I didn't find any coffee, though--after re-reading my Vietnamese customs forms, it turns out that I'm only allowed to export 3 kilograms, and had I found coffee that I liked I would have bought a lot more than that. :)

We arrive back in Seattle in 29 hours. I have a few souvenirs, a bag full of dirty laundry, and a head full of wonderful memories. I leave Vietnam a little richer than it was when I entered, and I have helped do something very special for the children of this country.

Mar 10th 2006
Day 13: Heading out of the country, a few shots of the interesting infrastructure in Ho Chi Minh city.
Ah, a day of travel. I was unable to sleep more than three hours on the night before we left, and didn't end up getting any sleep on the plane. At the final count, I had been awake for 34 hours by the time I got to bed in Seattle. :)