Thursday, December 11, 2014

Riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail - Part 1

When it comes to bike tours and where we’d like to go, sometimes our rationale isn’t so…..rational.  Once we went to Bulgaria because we met someone who grew up there until she escaped at 10 years old and went back once after it opened up for a vacation and thought it would be nice bike touring.  So we went, but only after I accidentally bought tickets to Budapest because I got it confused with Bulgaria and had to change them to the “right” destination!  Of course, Western Europe is pretty much the bike touring mecca, but our desire to escape the clutches of dreary, pre-winter Salt Lake meant that we would go in November and therefore that precluded much of possibly also cold/dreary Europe.  We both had long thought that Vietnam might be a fun, exotic, interesting, and nice place to go - and many bike tour companies do guided trips there – so….why not Vietnam?  When I was told that it was a former French colony and one of the few lasting legacies of that era were good pastries everywhere (not quite true, as it turns out) and wasn’t all that hot or humid (also not true) the deal was sealed.  So off to Vietnam we went.

Vietnam is sort of a dog bone-shaped country, with the upper lobe being the mostly mountainous Northern Highlands that drop into the Hanoi plain, the middle section being skinny with mountains ramping up from the sea to Laos, and the bottom smaller lobe oriented around the Mekong Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon; renamed shortly after the last of the Americans ignominiously bailed out in 1975)

It’s about a thousand miles from Hanoi to Saigon, and with a little less than two weeks of riding and lots of sights to see we knew that we’d likely not be able to ride the entire length of the length of the country.  But we guessed that public transportation would likely be no problem to augment kilometers as necessary, and we chose to go north to south, mostly because on a map it looks like it’s downhill all the way (and we figured that we’d take advantage of the days marching towards the solstice and maybe cooling as we traveled; not that it matters that much at 17 degrees north)

We flew into Hanoi and were impressed; a big city that is a bit beyond “bustling”.  It took me years of floundering in arrival cities, but I finally realized the value of pre-booking a first-night hotel and that paid off to ease the transition somewhat into a really intense place.  We stayed in the Old Quarter with all the rest of the white tourists and spent an afternoon wandering around checking out the sites, trying figure out how to get across the streets without getting nailed by one of the 4.2 zillion scooters that are fearlessly blasted around town by Hanoians. 
There are a LOT of scooters!

Totally uncontrolled  and chaotic intersections, but it always flows just fine.

New Tourist - easily identified by clutching the Lonely Planet guidebook  - wondering about the viability of getting across the street
Doing her best (swift) Abby Road impersonation
How many restaurants in the US advertise themselves as "cheap and cheerful?"  More should!
Hanoi's peaceful oasis in the heart of the city
they are importing all the best aspects of Western society....
I have a penchant for getting shots of (fellow) dork tourists, and this guy seemed ripe.... 
these folks were trying to worship in a Buddhist temple, trying to ignore said dork tourists who were snapping pics of them doing so.
Asians take their badminton very seriously
According to the Lonely Planet, PDA's are sort of frowned upon in Vietnam, but these lovebirds couldn't resist (and dork tourist captured the moment!)
Park City Utah's sister city?
Ash wisely suggested we engage the hotel to drive us a ways out of town in their van before we started riding, which proved to be a great move; the streets are a dizzying maze and trying to navigate using the very-few street signs that exist and not get run down by the aforementioned scooter frenzy had the potential to fray marital bliss, much less life and limb.  Like a lot of big cities, the ‘burbs stretched far and our first few hours “outside” of town were still pretty traffic-filled, but soon enough the city faded behind us and we started a long grind into the nearby mountains that we didn’t really anticipate, so it slowed our pace a bit.  
The kids loved to yell "Hello!"  We yelled back, probably a hundred times per day
Out on the road!  
The pace slows a lot outside the city, as always. 
Right at sunset we crested a pass and ironically we had come far enough from the city that we realized that we may not be able to make it to a place to sleep that night (we didn’t bring camping gear).  But after a long exhilarating blast down into a deep valey we rolled into a cool little village few minutes past dark that turned out to be a backcountry tourist destination and were shortly showered, fed, and watered. 
Very cool little guest house that we shared with a guided group of Brits
the local ladies did a dance show for the guided group
Beyond that our days consisted of riding, sweating, and seeing sights along the way.  We started on the actual Ho Chi Minh Highway, which is the secondary road a ways inland that parallels the coast highway 1.  We meandered our way down, and hit a few of the must-see places.
Lots of limestone karsts and pretty rustic farming
I wished I had an umbrella on my bike....
some fun mellow riding
We bumped into this work crew having lunch together and they invited us to their feast, which of course included a few shots of the local moonshine! 
this lovely lady was the ringleader of those lads and spoke great english. They insisted on not letting us pay for the meal. 
Phong Nha is a national park that is quickly becoming known for its caves.  The Hang En cave was just “discovered” last year and apparently already become quite the phenomenon, with the only access being via one outfitter and involving a 7 day “trek” that is currently going for $3000….and is fully booked for the next year and a half!  Despite the fact that it’s apparently the “most beautiful natural feature in the world” (according to some expert source) we not only forewent that, but also another one that was a 3 day journey, and instead opted for the 2.5 hour afternoon total joey tourist trip into the Phong Nha cave itself, which we saw described as “Tailored Adventure Tourism” (it’s not often you see the words “tailored” and “adventure” juxtaposed!).  Despite it’s somewhat cheesy nature, the ability to float a km into a remarkably-beautiful cave was pretty cool (literally!   A nice respite from the heat). 
From the boat
The cave entrance
Ash in the too-lit-up cave
gratuitous nice river/mountain/boat shot
Locals breakfasting on the riverside deck
heading out for another day in the saddle
We were only a few km from the center of a town where we planned on spending the night and I started pedaling squares due to a bonk.  So Ash served up a nice bakery to fuel me for the next few minutes!  
I guess there's got to be a job for everyone; these ladies are the train-gate openers/closers.....
Hue is a city in the center/north the former capital of Vietnam and is home to the Citadel, which is essentially the imperial palace of Vietnam where a series of emperors lived and ruled from.  After a thousand-year occupation by China the first emperor  -around the early 1800’s – was quite The Man, and they generally went downhill from there, until the last one who basically bailed after WWII because he was too into big game hunting and hanging with babes in Paris in lieu of leading a country (come to think of it, who can blame him?).  The Citadel was described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as being a weedy, ruined mess but it was actually fairly restored/complete (the fortress was 10km around), and quite interesting.
mixing it up with the scooters heading into Hue 
Every town has a great market, and Hue is no exception.  This gal was letting a few customers slip by, however....
Dragon fruit.  Most of its glory is in the look, not the flavor, unfortunately.....
anyone for pickled cobra?
A bowl like this accompanied many street vendor meals
And sometimes (every time) I got carried away with it...
the entrance to the Citadel
dork tourist who thinks he's funny
This was a photon of a turn of the century "fight between elephants and tigers".  Fair?  I wonder which generally prevailed?
This was from the 20's.  A bit bohemian!
Dork tourists doing what they do best
Dork tourists doing what they do best! (note zipoffs)
On the Citadel's wall
We found these killer little deep fried bean/sesame things   -that cost about 20 cents - that we deemed donut holes, and we were always on the hunt for them as power food.  We had read other accounts from westerners touring Vietnam talking about eating Clif Bars.....who needs those when you got donut holes! 
The hats are so endearing on locals....
and so awkward on Westerners!
South of Hue we decided to brave the busy highway 1 to get to the next tourist town and on the way get a chance to climb over what apparently is a pretty famous pass called Hai Van.  It was made famous during the “period of American Aggression” (as it was referred to in a Hanoi museum we went to) because it was on of the first places the Americans landed, took over, and then kept because it’s a strategically-high mountain in a long section of otherwise-flat beaches.  Highway 1 was indeed crowded with lots of trucks, buses, cars, and of course the ubiquitous buzzing scooters
not super pleasant riding
but still smiling! Note 50 cent poncho with arms...
but at least we had torrential rain as we got a little lashed by the tail of the typhoon that was honing in on the Phillipines.  But the highway went through a tunnel under the pass, and for an hour or two we had a brilliantly-quiet climb, and the only rain break of the day came as we descended, which enabled us to enjoy that as well. 

Da Nang is the third largest city in Vietnam, and we were a bit daunted by the prospect of riding right through the heart of it.  Then as we pulled into town we realized that an enormous and key bridge was being rebuilt, with no convenient “detour” signs (maybe there were, but we didn’t know Vietnamese for “bathroom”, much less “detour”!).  However, we quickly realized we didn’t need signs; we got in the scooter canal and basically flowed with all of them twisting and turning our way through streets that effectively became sidewalks.  We were pretty much in fast single file motion, and it was high intensity, because while we could match the scooters’ speed in the confines of the alleys, there was literally no way for us to stop without getting mowed down and causing a traffic jam.  Ash yelled over her shoulder “are we going the right way?!”  and I hollered back “dunno!  But we gotta keep going!” Eventually, of course, we popped back out on the main drag with the “detour” behind us and soft-pedaled a bit to let the adrenaline subside.  One of the most memorable kilometers of riding on the trip for sure. 
Bowls of Pho (we found out it's pronounced "pha") were always appreciated as mid-day salty/hearty refuels.
always served up by cheerful proprietresses.  

Outside of Da Nang we had about 30km of flat beachside road our next destination, and it would have been a nice wind-assisted cruise if the typhoon’s tail hadn’t given a quick flick and really opened up.  We were tantalizingly close to our destination, but it was also getting late and it was raining so hard we felt like we were getting a bit waterboarded!  Remarkably – for such a poor country – this section is filled with fancy golf resort hotels like St. Regis, Hyatt, etc and we were sorely tempted to pull the plug and throw down the $200 for a night there, but we persevered and right at full dark we rolled into yet another nice little $10 local hotel in the tourist mecca of Hoi An. 

To be continued....

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