VN Biking

Biking Vietnamese Backroads--Spinning past troubled times 
15 January 2012
[Don't forget to check out the YouTube video of some of our riding experiences--second image from the bottom of this page.]

And remember Chris and I are traveling with our new best cycling buddy, Graham, from Australia who you will see frequently in these pictures and videos.

And now the cycling starts:

The first bike day it smells like riding inside a jasmine blossom due to cashew trees in bloom. Every day subsequently has been a wonder. Since then we smell salt fields, fish farms, drying herbs and tea and kelp along the road, savory cooking, and sea breezes . Everyone calls out to us from fields and porches. Kids race us on foot and bike, trying to slap hands with us as we buzz by. People pass us on motos, slow down, and practice their English. They smile broadly and are proud to chat with us, saying, “hello, hello!” or  “what's your name?"

When they smile it melts your heart. This is the reason I can keep pedaling. It takes my mind off of how out-of-shape and semi-miserable I am. The delightful Aussie who is with us, named Graham, bicycles two hours a day minimum, and recently did a ten-week trip across Canada. I cannot hope to keep up, but  I must say Don is the star of the trip. Today he had pity on me and let me draft him all afternoon. It helps so much. We are cycling about 80 Kilometers per day (48 miles) but it is often on muddy or dirt roads or crazy bumpy quasi asphalt, so it takes a big toll on arms and derriere.

Our tour leader, Van, is a lovely, beautiful Vietnamese gentleman. He is young 40s and has two kids.
Our support driver, named Hong, is amazing, too.
We travel in a Mercedes van where the 4 bicycles are stowed in the back. 
It is air conditioned. They take us outside the busy towns where there are literally millions of motos and trucks. 
Then we begin our cycling through villages that seldom see tourists. When we need something to fortify us, we stop at local outdoor markets and point out fruits we would like to try, or drink coconut milk through a straw,

and villagers crowd around us and stare as though we are space aliens. 
Old women punch me and try to ask me things, like how old I am. I tell our tour leader, Van, to say I am 63, and then the women adore me and want their pictures with me, especially the 75-year-old woman who looks 85. 
It is a hard life. I don't know why they punch my arm, but that is how they get my attention. Most older people are missing many teeth. Van explains that some people in the countryside smear a black organic substance over their teeth to deter decay. It makes their gums look toothless. Others chew betel nut, revealing red teeth and gums when they smile widely to greet us along the road.

As we ride, our van driver Hong awaits us maybe 15 K up the road. We pull over, and he has cool towels that he has stored in an icy cooler. We use several on our faces or arms or legs. Ahhhh. Then he has cut watermelon or mangoes or papaya or dragon fruit for us to slurp. While we are eating he replenishes our water bottles which are mounted on our bicycles, and Van makes sure our brakes and gears are in order. Our bikes are cleaned and maintained every night, and the frames have been fitted to our measurements.  Everything is fabulous.  At noon, Van selects amazing family restaurants, and he insists they put all utensils into boiling water; he goes into the kitchen to make sure all the food is fresh and hot. Sometimes he sends back certain dishes. He does not want us to be ill on the trip.

As we whiz by on bicycle, there are a myriad of crops, all depending upon whether we are in mountains or close to the sea:  tapioca, rubber trees, coffee, bananas, rice paddies, mango, papaya, cashew, bamboo, teak, morning glories, mint, cilantro, basil, lettuce, sugar cane, mystery fruits, tea, peanuts, and flowers of all kinds. Along the road, we see shrimp, tea, coffee, rice and herbs spread out to dry, sometimes on mats, or often on the roadside itself. A few times, if there is traffic, we are forced to ride on top of the drying products.  (Note to self: always wash rice before cooking!!)

 Squat Toilets , Wooden Ferries  and S-nnaa-k-k-kes!
Sometimes when we stop at a roadside fruit stand or small store, I ask if there is a toilet.  I am often escorted into the owner’s  home, or through a back way to an outbuilding. The sink is usually outside the toilet facility. Toilets, while squat type, are very, very clean. Instead of flushing, one throws a bucket or dipper of water into the ‘Turkish-style’ toilet which has footprints on the ground and a place to squat. 
Hong Kong airport; that is why many upscale restrooms have gel cleaner to use on the toilet seat.  Somehow, I almost get their point. How can you really clean it?

A most frightening moment occurred after a sweaty break on a mountainous climb off the coast. We had snacked on sliced mango, orange, and banana under sweltering sun, indulged by Hong who hovered near the van to make sure we were fortified for a long climb through coastal hills.  I needed to relieve myself, so climbed up the bank of a coffee field.  For privacy, I pushed further back among the crops, wary that there could be snakes or something else I wouldn’t want to meet.  After eventless relief, I hustled back to my bike, the last to depart.  As I pedaled onto the road, a HUGE, long, writhing grey cobra flipped out of the coffee field at my side. I practically fainted, but rode on, with no one around to hear my stuttered warning. One other time on the bike trip I saw a thin, green rapidly whipping three-foot-long  snake arching along the roadside; it made me happy to be above ground atop a bike. [ed. note: I think Christina needs a little more Buddhist meditation!]

Sometimes we must cross rivers either on slashed-together wooden bridges
 or in small wooden ferries which carry at most our four bicycles, maybe one other moto, and a woman with woven baskets of market goods. 
The ferries navigate via longtail motors, and we stand or sit in the boat, hardly able to absorb the river, the bank, the wait for the ferry, and how we managed to wheel our bikes onto the body of the boat. 
There is so much to see, and suddenly we are at the bank of a river and loading up before we know what happens. It all happens fast, as if in a dream. And we smile.

Leaving Space and Calling Out, and Listening Hard
The traffic traveling beside us on moto is amazing. We see motos covered with chickens hanging by their feet,
ducks, huge potted bonsai plants being transported, a moto with two pigs on the back each housed in rattan type tubular cages with a passenger woman nestled atop, families of four or five people wedged onto one moto,
tables, stacks of bananas, bamboo, sticks, tile, multiple bags of rice, herbs, double beds, pipes, wicker baskets of fish, and you just think of anything in your house, and it is hoisted onto a moto approaching you as you cycle down the road.
Always you leave space for these items as you pass. The rule here is that the biggest vehicle has the right-of-way.  Many of our roads are banned to anything except pedestrians and motos and bicycles or agricultural small tractors (called Japanese water buffalo).

Road talk is a new game in Vietnam.  If we want to pass a slow-moving pedestrian or another bicycle, we say, “wa wa!”  Of course that is not the correct spelling…only the words Van gave to us hurriedly the first day when suddenly we were speechless. [Our high-tech mountain bikes failed to come with that little bell on the handlebars one jingles with their thumb.] It is Vietnamese for something that makes people know we are there in case they have not heard us. I still don’t know what it means, but it works. We have also learned how to say hello as we cruise by: Xin chao!  While we are cycling, people call out to us from the rice paddies or fish farms, or from the doorways of their shops or homes.
Sometimes I begin to tear up. It is so beautiful and dear. The small villages have loud speakers near the rice fields so that workers can hear the news several times a day. Of course this is communist news, but when I inquire if Van thinks it is a problem with the communist news, Van tells us the only problem is that sometimes the speakers are broken or the winds carry the news away and it is hard to hear. I am now thinking that much of our news with the government spin in the US is about the same. In fact, the more I pedal, the more I see how similar our people are to the people in this country, or in any country for that matter.  The basics of life and the routines of life are the same. We all want our families, love, food, water, and a life that is fulfilling. I can see that when a farming family raises their heads from the rice paddy, maybe from behind a mud-soaked water buffalo. The sun slants off their conical hats and they shout out to us, “Hello! Xin chao!”

Tet-The Lunar New Year
Van says that the war is in the past. Here they do not call it the Vietnam War. They call it the American War. Today we went to My Lai and wept.
We wrote in the visitors' book.  It is a low point for the USA. But Van tells us that when the New Year (Tet) comes here, people look at their past conflicts, either with family members or other governments or friends, and they say, "Now is the new beginning. The past is over."  The first day of the New Year is for doing nothing, reflecting. People stay at home. The second day is for family, visiting grave sites, honoring ancestors.  People burn artificial money or old items in front of their homes or businesses to signify that the old is gone and the new has begun.
The third day, people visit their teachers. Then after that, there are some weeks of holiday. People have yellow chrysanthemums at their house to decorate it, or trees with kumquats, or branches of dyed pussy willows.
The Tet Lunar New Year here will be Jan 23.  We have learned that the New Year here is behind USA, and that the lunar calendar here is 355 days so that when they celebrate New Year, it occurs in January. There are some months with 34 days, and the calendars here have both Gregorian calendar numbers and Vietnamese lunar calendar numbers, with leap years to catch up.  In public, calendars have both the usual calendar that you and I see in the Western world, with the Vietnamese calender numbers underneath. It is a tradition. Van says he uses the Western calendar for business, but he knows also what month and day it is in Vietnam.  Here, it is still December until our western Jan. 22.

The beauty of traveling with Van, our guide, is that we can ask him any question whatsoever. When we stop for lunch, he goes into a small rural restaurant and immediately orders for us and we have the most exquisite, amazing food  I could ever imagine. There is four times the amount we can eat. We had, for instance, morning glory soup. Morning glories invade my garden at home and I constantly try to evict them. Now I know how awesome the soup is.

How to do a tour with Vietnam Backroads
If you would like to travel with Van, he can take you for one or two or 15 days in Vietnam. Laos or Cambodia.  He will kill you on the cycling if you request it, or he will do a low-paced trip where  he allows you to stop anywhere for photos or food or whatever you want, even homestays. Don and I may be medium hardcore in his cycling realm, but he says he has all kinds of people, including some clients who do not wish to put in more than 20 or 30 k a day and like to mingle in the markets and villages. For sure Van stops us and pulls us into Buddhist weddings, households where rice paper is made, where rice is hulled, where round woven boats are made, into a Buddhist funeral where we meet the family and pay respects, into a cashew hulling factory where 200 Vietnamese girls are working, or quickly into a roadside room where people are hulling rice. He translates everything and interrupts to make sure we are comprehending whatever it is we are seeing along the road.  At one point we cause a traffic jam of 75 people where we stop to refresh ourselves on oranges and observe a local fish market perched at the intersection of two obscure roadways. Everyone is gawking at us. Don and I realize that we have not seen a Westerner for three days. I cannot recommend this experience enough. We still have six more days in Vietnam and I am sure we are not finished with new adventures.

Today we rode right up to the door of our hotel in Hoi An, a picturesque  historical city. We will be here for two days, and do a bike excursion tomorrow. Can't wait to get up for breakfast, which will be amazing with noodle soup and many other surprises.

The next pic is of all of us after cycling up to 5700 ft near Dalat [but not from sea level].

And since this Vlog is about the main emphasis of our trip, bicycling, here is a little sequence of our last big pass starting by the South China Sea and scaling Hai Van Pass towards Hue--and that was just in the morning:

But wait, there's more! Here is a video sequence that shows some of the different kind of terrain, roads and places we biked [once you have started it you can view it in a larger scale by clicking on YouTube:

Hey, great. Anyone still here? Okay, well it's not like I'm doing this for you anyway. I get it. But here are even more highlight pics of our bike trip on a Picasa Web Album. Remember to click on it and then the slideshow option near the upper left. Use your arrow keys to spin forward, or back. Then you can get back to our Vlog by using your browser's back button a couple of times:
VN biking
Thanks for getting this far. Seriously, any of you who are reading this, I will watch all of your travel pics and videos and read your blogs. U R the best! Or one of the best.

In our next VolkVenture, we'll explore Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] or "Hannoy" you with something. Stay tuned.