Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Riding the Ho Chi Minh Part II

Ok, where were we? 
Hoi An is the Florence of Vietnam:  a quaint, beautiful, riverside city with some of the oldest and prettiest landmarks in the country that is a mandatory stop on the tourist trail.  As such, it has the resulting industry well-ensconced to service the swarming hordes of zip-offers with cameras dangling around their necks that are worth more than most local families’ annual incomes.   Like all Westerners, we eat up those kinds of places as well, so we joined the rest of our sweating white compadres in trooping around the town ogling at sights, taking pictures, eating at the great restaurants catering to westerners, and being tempted to engage one of the 500+ (?!!!?) tailors who will make custom suits for ridiculously-cheap prices (I wasn’t that tempted:  a) trying to keep nice custom clothes looking new in bike panniers is a challenge at best, and b) realistically, keeping nice custom clothes looking new for this guy is a worthless endeavor anyway!). 
Some dorky tourists doing what they do

Koreans are good at being tourists too; distinguished by their high-tech outdoor clothing
More dork tourists doing what they do well!
The gratuitous shot of the beautiful bridge that's featured on their approximate $1 bill
This Californian opened his own book exchange in Hoi An and was very helpful to us

We of course sniffed out the esoteric, expensive foody place catering to tourists!
Not sure why anyone would want to get Vietnam's best pizza when they already have such great food!  
Only in Vietnam can one find the Specialized Pinarello!
And a sweet bamboo bike!

Even tourist towns have a great market, and those little hearty Asian bananas are so good
there were more flies than tourists swarming around this area
But a morning’s worth of tourist-wandering was all we needed, and we went back out on the road.  We wanted to get off the busy coast highway and work our way back inland for two reasons:  less traffic, and the weather forecast called for 100mm (4 inches) of rain on the coast!  (and less inland).  With our large-scale map and many small roads/towns in the area and no sun to navigate by we were taking some chances on our reckoning, and we were hoping that the one town that did show up on the map 100+km away had a hotel to wash off the grit. 
back on the soggy road

with some of our buddies
We didn't see much english, and when we did we were kind of scratching our heads about it

It was here – beyond the safe confines of the tourist city – that we thought about the concept of “adventure”:  yes, to do something new/steep/scary near your home can seem pretty adventurous, but rolling off into unfamiliar, relatively unmapped terrain in the rain hoping that we were going the right direction without knowing a word of the language and not knowing if we’d be able to find a roof overhead that night (we didn’t bring camping gear on this trip; it seemed superfluous when we were packing) definitely started to feel a bit “adventurous”.  This feeling got a bit more acute when we found ourselves on a good sized road that was eerily empty:  no cars, no scooters, no homes, no people, no workers….nothing.  And the road was near a biggish river, so as the kilometers clicked by (we were lured on because of the niceness of the quietness of the road and we felt like it was going the right direction) the thought that the road would simply end at an either washed-out or in-construction bridge that would mean a big, time-consuming backtrack – and thus create a bit more of an “adventure” – loomed large in my head.  
when a Vietnamese road has a cow chilling in the middle of it, something could be amiss
However, a lot of bike touring creates in people an attitude of “we’ll figure out something”, and sure enough it turned out that although the road was indeed washed out a quick portage over the debris was all that was needed and a couple of hours – and another healthy dousing by a very solid rainshower – later found us in the one town on the map. Sure enough, our presumption that if it was big enough to be on the map meant that it was big enough to have a hotel proved to be correct; there was exactly one, and while it was a little on the grim side and we were greeted in the room by a huge cockroach, the warm shower to rinse off the road grit, moderately-clean sheets, and styrofoam “mattress” were good validations to our assumption of a bit of adventure. 
An "adventurous" day that ended with a shot with the hotel owner
after a particularly-dusty day
Back on the smaller, inland Ho Chi Minh highway there was less traffic, but something that was impossible to anticipate before coming to the country was that Vietnam had embarked on an ambitious project to widen all thousand miles of it.  Unfortunately for us, they apparently decided that since the tearing-up of the existing road was the easy part they might as well do that to most of it, and then do the hard part of reconstructing it a little bit at a time.  So there were literally hundreds of kilometers of torn-up road and hundreds of…..meters of actually-rebuilt roads!  That meant that most of the time meant the pavement either didn’t exist or there were narrow strips of pavement that forced the traffic into even-narrower-than normal roads, which prompted everyone to honk that much more!  
They had done a little work on this section, but it was like this for a long ways...
They'll get around to fixing this one of these years
We bobbed and weaved through the construction as we could, and for sure there were many sections that were unscathed, so overall it wasn’t bad riding (and the rain began to wane), though our standards for “good riding” were slipping quickly!  Overall of the 13 days of riding we had 3-4 days that were great: rolling hills, some decently big climbs/fun descents, small roads, and relatively little traffic, 2 days that were a bit grim, and the rest were decent. 

She didn't let a little rain douse the enjoyment of her cigar!

The girl in the red was standing on the bike's rear wheel footpegs just prior to this photo, as they were blasting down a descent at about 40mph!
Typical roadside folks
One of the great things about Vietnam is the general niceness and happiness of the people.  They love to wave and yell “Hello!” – at least, to western dorks on bikes – and probably a hundred times per day we’d wave and holler “Hello!” back, at which point they would laugh super hard.  If only it were so easy to make people’s day like that in America!  It made us think about the concept of happiness:  Vietnam is not only still ruled by a communist regime, it’s also quite poor (which is why many of your consumer products are being made there now; it’s the latest Asian country that manufacturers are moving to in order to capitalize on ridiculously-cheap labor) but it’s remarkable how generally happy the people seemed to us.  Of course, we had no idea what the reality is of their true satisfaction or happiness (Bhutan – also a fairly poor Asian country - has created a “Gross National Happiness” index: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_National_Happiness ) but it’s doubtful that the per-capita anti-depressant useage in Vietnam  (even if they could afford them) is even close to that of the US.  They don’t have much but apparently don’t appear to need much (though western marketers are certainly working hard to create “needs” and desires there). 



We loved the ornate furniture....
This was one of hotel proprietors, whose name translated to "Jammy Boy" (we think)
It's nice to know Jammy Boy might approve under the right circumstances
Another day or two of riding got us into coffee-land.  Vietnam’s coffee crop is second only to rice and the country is second only to Brazil as a global coffee exporter, and the terrain that apparently is conducive to coffee-growing actually looks similar to that of vineyards.  We had a few times where we felt like we were riding through the Tuscany of Vietnam, albeit without the beautiful chalets, castles, and estates of Italy! 
A very sophisticated coffee bean drying process
"Tell me about your Vietnamese coffee, and why should I buy it?"
One issue that we had was that in addition to the rain and road grime that covered our bodies our bikes were getting pretty hammered as well.  But these little hotels we stayed at were so neat and tidy that I didn’t feel very comfortable cleaning the bikes in them nor using their towels as rags (as noted above, they don’t have much….).  So the steeds were a bit neglected.  
A water bottle fender worked ok, as did some bailing wire, bolts, and a Voile strap to hold my broken rack together. 

One day we had rolled 10-15 miles out of a fairly big town when my drive train started to “pop” like I had a stiff link or somesuch, then my wheel’s cassette went alarmingly to simply spinning forward with no engagement at all.  I have seen freehubs (the part that the cassette mounts on) break before, and I was pretty alarmed that had happened and that the only fix was a new wheel, which would have been problematic at best.  Ash suggested we pull into one of the ubiquitous scooter repair shops, which I agreed to, but pessimistically since I didn’t think he’d be any help.  I showed the shop guy what was going on, he disappeared into bowels of his shop and reappeared with a bottle of gasoline and a big mallet!  I wasn’t sure how to say “Whoa dude, hold on there; what are you going to do!” in Vietnamese but before I knew it he just absolutely doused the drivetrain in gas, spun the pedals backwards for a bit, then spun them forward and…..the drivetrain fully engaged.  I just sorta stood there for a second as he gave me sort of a disgusted look, waved me off, and walked away, while Ash absolutely cracked up beside me.  I just muttered “that is not supposed to work!”, got on my bike, and we headed down the road with the bike pedaling just fine……
powered by Pho....

...and roadside banh mi sandwiches
As we approached Ho Chi Minh City we knew we weren’t going to make it all the way there in our remaining time so we flagged down a bus and jumped on.  
The view of the dust from the bus
We were trying to connect with my shoe world compatriot Dave Dolph who recently moved there for Oboz footwear, and it was going to be tricky to determine exactly where to get off in a very nondescript industrial suburb north of town when no one could really communicate.  We figured out to have the bus’s co-pilot call one of the factory folks, and sure enough all of a sudden the bus stopped, they pushed us out of it, our bikes came out of the luggage compartment, and then the bus roared away in a cloud of smoke as the co-pilot leapt back in the door, leaving us to wait alongside some random big road in some random area.  But shortly one of the many scooters pulled up and it was a familiar looking white guy, and we were golden. 
Dave has quickly learned to navigate the scooter mayhem
One fun aspect to our trip was trying to document the ridiculous loads that people piled on their scooters.  In the Ho Chi Minh airport we actually saw a book that was exclusively that.  We saw many more, but these are a start:

this one was particularly impressive. 
All in all a good trip.  Not the place for someone looking for an idyllic bike tour (go to France or Italy for that) but a great way to delve into an interesting country....

And be a dork!

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