First off I want to take a moment to thank James Bleakly of Black Sheep Bikes, www.blacksheepbikes.com. He has been so supportive, and was masterful in helping to bring to life the original “Tangle” tandem-singles, and I’m so happy with the new “Tangle Free” – the full-suspension version. I’d also like to thank Cindy Marnoch of Answer Products, www.answerproducts.com. The SPV technology that goes into their forks and shocks works perfectly. By just added on letting out air, it’s possible to get an equally spectacular ride as either a single or a tandem. Thanks you two!!
I also gotta give props to Lufthansa Airlines. Seriously had to be the cleanest plane I've ever been on. Granted it looked like a newer plane and all, but still, the thing damn near sparkled. Then I got to my seat and settled right into the economy seat that all airlines should strive to offer. It had these wings on the headrest that could be pulled out so that it nestled your head in perfect comfort. Totally no need for one of those blowup or cushioned boomerang things that many travelers use to keep their neck from flopping over when they try to sleep. Stroke of genius from the designer it was. I hadn't gotten the most restful sleep the night before, so I was outta it for nearly the whole flight. Waking just in time to catch the flight attendant for the snack, which was rather nice: a small roast beef sandwich, a cup of fruit and a full size chocolate bar. Hard to believe they were in alliance with United Airlines, who had lost my bag for six, yes six days on my flight from Los Angeles to Bangkok.
Soon after the meal, the tires made their short squeal signifying that we had touched down on Vietnam soil. What a scary sound and realization that must have been for the troops. For some it was the beginning of the end. Others it was the beginning of likely the longest 365 days of their lives. And still for others, the most unfortunate ones, it was the beginning of something that still hasn't ended.
Side note (written in Hue): There are six Vietnamese men sitting at a table near me with over 30 empty beer bottles either on or under the table. It's Monday at 10:30 in the morning, and there is no sign that they will be slowing down any time soon... Hell, it's five o'clock somewhere in the world.
I'm a product of a generation that was raised after the war had ended, or was born in the final years as America was pulling out. We were too young to remember any of it, so all we have is what we see in the movies and TV, or what we read in books. This fact couldn't have been more clearly represented by the words that floated into my mind as I first looked out the window of the plane as it taxied into Ho Chi Minh International: "Viet-f**king-nam," a line out of countless Vietnam television shows and movies. Here it was just shy of thirty years from America's withdraw, and I, an American, was planning to ride south from Hue to Saigon.
Saigon. The city's name may have been changed to Ho Chi Min politically, but for all I saw and heard during my trip to Vietnam, the word hadn’t reached the masses. One person would say one thing, the next person the opposite. The same thing for signs. Even the train station hadn't read the memo: it still said Saigon Station.
Unlike many of my other journal entries I’ve written for the countries I’ve visited, I’m writing this two months after I have left. Furthering the difference, which, if you’ve read any of the previous journals I have written, you may notice a change in detail as well. The reason for this being that I’m writing this one all from memory. All the other ones were written from my personal diary that I had kept during the trip. So this will just be a few of the highlights.
In Vietnam, the only thing I wrote was the little you read above. Why you might ask. I’ll tell you why, and I can sum it up with two words: Kristi Ficek. I had met Kristi though mutual friends about two years prior, and had hung out and ridden with her on a couple occasions. Each time we were in the same company, it made for some epic times, so I knew that when she mentioned that she was interested in being my stoker for Vietnam, it would be good times all the way. I was completely right! From the moment we met up in Bangkok, throughout Vietnam, and to our final rushed good-byes in Bangkok, it was non-stop big smiles, huge belly laughs, nutty adventures, meal after meal after meal, and a continual dialog of comedy, contemplation, speculation, and down right off-the-wall wackiness. Therefore, I never had a chance to do any writing. And I wouldn’t go back and change a thing!
We met up in Bangkok and had a couple of days to get our Visas that we’d need so that we could both teach in Korea after cycling through Vietnam. We did that and went out to do a bit of site seeing. Well, at least we gave it an effort. Both of us have spent a good number of years in Asia, so you might say we were feeling, “you’ve seen one temple, one Buddha, one Wat, one little kid trying to sell you Tiger Balm, you’ve seen them all.” About the only thing we did accomplish was to weasel our way into the Oriental Hotel, which is the swankiest hotel in Bangkok. Yes, there’s a reason and a story behind that…
I had told Kristi that I was staying at the Siam Oriental, a place I had stayed at several times in the past, but all she could remember was the “Oriental”. She thought something was up the minute the taxi let her out in front of the Oriental Hotel, but she thought that maybe I was treating myself. Before she could even make it in the door to inquire if I was staying there, she was rushed by hotel workers, who took one look at the way she was dressed – in standard backpacker fare – and pretty much told her she was in the wrong place and that she couldn’t go inside. Therefore, when we went back together, I took the lead and we charged in with our heads up and our eyes forward. We made it inside, and when confronted by the snide employee asking us if we were staying there, I spouted out, “no, but my uncle is, and we’re meeting him for lunch.” We didn’t really wait for his response, and walked over to the restaurant on the deck out back, took a look at the menu, and then walked back out of the hotel. It was a pride thing. No way was someone going to infer that we weren’t good enough for their hotel!
That set the tone for our trip. We were going to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, and nobody could tell us otherwise.
Kristi is a rock star when it comes to a travel partner. Most everything went totally smooth, and even the things that didn’t just made for good laughs. To begin with, Kristi and I had taken separate flights from Bangkok to Saigon. Hers arrived earlier, so she found us a hotel, got us train tickets up to Hue the next day, and arranged a car to come pick me up at the airport so I didn’t have to lug the bike box around looking for a place. I reiterate, she a rock star!
We got the bike put together that night, and got some sleep. It had been over a year since I had cycled through the streets of any Asian city, and I have to admit there was a slight bit of nervousness at first. Especially coming to the main street off the alley that the hotel was on. I took one look at the chaos of scooters, motorcycles, and bicycles and had to ask Kristi over my shoulder which side of the road they drove on in Vietnam. You couldn’t tell at all! They were going up and down the road in all directions on all sides of the streets. There was that slight pause, but that was all there was. Next we became a moving part of the swarm. Weaving our way in and out with ease. It’s a strange way it all works – with the lack of clear laws and such – but it does work. You just go with the flow. You see your opening and you take it. You can’t hesitate because everyone reacts to your actions and are counting on you to do what it looks like you intend to do. It felt so good to be back on the bike, back in Asia, with miles and miles of open road awaiting. Oh, let me rephrase that: kilometers and kilometers… I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s just the American in me. But to me “kilometers and kilometers” just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Too many syllables to it, or something.
There’s something to traveling. A Murphy’s Law. No matter how much time you give yourself. No matter how much preparation you’ve put into it. Whenever you have to get on a bus, a train or a boat, it always turns out that it is leaving way before you would like it to. This was the case for Kristi and I. We went to the train station to inquire about putting the bike on the train and found out that the train that Kristi had gotten us tickets for was canceled and that the only train we could take was leaving in less than an hour. Luckily we had already packed our bags, so Kristi hopped into a taxi and jammed back to the hotel to get our bags as I dealt with getting the bike on the train. As it turned out, the bike wouldn’t go until the next day on the cargo train. She got back just in time for us to quickly gobble down some chicken and rice. It was then that Murray, Murphy’s brother, showed up. Our original tickets were for hard sleepers. The tickets we ended up with were soft chairs – we had thought they were soft sleepers. So, this meant 25 hours in chairs. At least we had air-conditioning. The whole time we were on the train the two of us kept thinking just how happy we were that we only had to do it once. The whole way back to Saigon was going to be on two wheels.
The day after we got to Hue I had to wait for the cargo train to bring my bike so Kristi took a tour up to the DMZ, Khe Sanh, and the Vinh Moc Tunnels. My bike arrived a little after noon, and then I spent the rest of the day cruising the streets of Hue, and checked out the Citadel, the Imperial City and the Forbidden Purple City, which is not much more than a wide-open field after the destruction that occurred during the Vietnam War. Later in the day I grabbed one of the guys that was working at the hotel we stayed at and did some further exploring. I spotted some ladies that were selling crabs on the side of the road was going to buy some for Kristi and I, but he took me to a friend’s restaurant where he said I could get some fresher ones. For less than ten bucks I got two huge crabs that they boiled up and bagged with some butter and green onions. Back at the hotel Kristi and I brought out the Leatherman Tools and dug in. Life was good!
Eager to get on the road, we weren’t discouraged by the impending rain and rolled out the next morning. I’ll be the first one to omit that I hate rain. And it just so happened that it was the rainy season for Central Vietnam. But, it never really got to me. I never had a chance to think about it. Kristi and I have so much in common and such similar beliefs that we pretty much never stopped talking the whole way to Lang Co Beach.
Lang Co Beach was a highlight of our trip. For the average tourist who flashes by on a bus, the town itself isn’t much more than a few hotels and restaurants clumped together along Highway 1. For us it turned out to be a quaint and quiet fishing village along a crescent shaped beach that we lazily cruised up and down before we checked into a hotel. The owner of the hotel had came over to the restaurant we had eaten lunch at, and asked us to come take a look at his hotel. He turned out to be the highlight. After we got cleaned up, we went out to the lobby where over tea, he spent a few hours telling us all about his experience in and after the war, how the people of the north and south differed in their opinions of the war and America, and just about life in general. He frankness and openness gave us a real insight into Vietnam, the Vietnam War, and the Vietnamese people. We couldn’t have been happier or more content.
We just passed through Danang on our way to Hoi An. My sister who had been in Hoi An just a few weeks prior to us getting there had told us about some great restaurants and tailors. After two days of drizzle and rain we were happy to know that we were going to have an opportunity to do some laundry and have a day off the bike. But, it was no day off! With the numerous good eats to be had, the interesting shops to stick our heads in, and getting all our tailored clothes and shoes done in time to get them to the post office before it closed, our heads were spinning. Hoi An was a shopper’s paradise. For around $100 I got a custom tailored suit, blazer, five shirts and custom made dress shoes. Best Benjamin I’ve ever spent!
For those of you who might read this before you head off to Vietnam, I must point out the bakery – I forget the name – and the Mermaid restaurant in Hoi An. Go up one block from the water and make a left (with your back to the water). Near the end of this street, where it, too, meets the street that runs along the water you’ll see the tantalizing treats in the display case inside the bakery/restaurant on your left. If you can keep the drool from rolling down our chin for long enough to order one of their stupendous treats such as the double chocolate tart or mango cheesecake, you’ll taste buds will thank you with every bite. The same goes for the Mermaid restaurant. Try the green mango salad, the white roses, the grilled tuna… Oh, who am I kidding? Try everything you can on their menu. We did, and believe me, everything was orgasmic.
Na Trang ended up being to be a big disappointment. We were hoping for sun, sand and surf. The surf and the sand were both there, but without the sun, it was hard to enjoy the other two. Nonetheless, we found some fine places to eat, and eat we did. If you haven’t got the picture yet, Kristi and I loved to eat. It’s safe to say that our whole trip was based on thinking about or looking for the next place to eat, stop for a coconut, or get a cup of coffee. Kristi is a coffee fanatic, and seeing that Vietnam was renowned for it’s fine coffee, she was living it up. Or better put, drinking it up. Then there were the coconuts. We really should have kept count. On average, we both drank and ate two a day. So for twenty-six days, that’s over one hundred coconuts between the two of us. That’s a lot of coconuts by anybody’s math.
What ended up happening was that we were going to fast. We’d wake up late, take our time getting out the door, have a leisurely breakfast and lunch, make stops to check out the scenery, and stop for coconuts, and we’d still arrive before we wanted to. See, once we got in to many of these small towns there was nothing to do after you showered and ate, so we kept trying to eat up as much time on the road as we could. On several occasions we’d finish up one coconut each, and seeing as we had nothing better to do, we’d order up another round. It’s a simple life out on the road. Simply amazing in it’s effortlessness of pleasure.
I forget now where we met “our friends”, but I think it was in Sa Huguh. They were a Dutch couple that had bought bicycles in Hanoi and were heading south. It’s funny because we never learned their names. We’d pass them nearly every day on the road where we’d ride along chatting with them for awhile, but still never got around to finding out their names. After a couple of days of not knowing, it just became funny that we didn’t know, so we’d just laugh and get excited as we’d see them up ahead. The highlight was when we were making the long climb up to Dalat from Phan Rang and as they pass us in a van that they had put their bikes in, our male “friend” was hanging out the window waving to us with the biggest smile on his face. It was perfect timing because from then for the next I don’t know how many hours, it was nothing but granny gear all the way.
The climb to Dalat was nasty. We figured that we did around 1,850 vertical meters of total climbing that day. By the Lonely Planet guidebook for cycling Vietnam it looked like two major passes, but it was more like two major passes followed by countless false summits. I was very thankful to have Kristi’s strong legs and superb company. We did cheat on about nine kilometers by grabbing onto a slow moving truck. I wanted to hold on longer but the weight of a loaded tandem and two people is a lot of strain to put on one arm – especially when you have to concentrate on steering with the other. Near the top we tried a second time to hitch a ride, but due to our exhausting and slow reflexes, we went down instead. Once we untangled ourselves and saw that neither of us had more than a bit of blood and dirt, we got back on and kept going. It was pitch black and getting cold by the time we saw the lights of Dalat. And it was about that time that one of the mounting screws on the rear rack broke. By then Kristi knew me very well and helped the best she knew how: she walked away. A lot of cursing later and I got a new screw in place and we were back on our way. It was a short descent into Dalat and we were freezing, totally spent, and as hungry as fat-farm escapee. We checked into the first hotel we got to and went out to a fantastic meal. The next day we found a better hotel and had a relaxing day of massages and more good food. Dalat was about the only time Kristi and I split up. Through Phat Tire Adventures, www.phattireventures.homested.com, she booked a trek and I booked a mountain bike ride. Brain, the owner, was super cool and even though there wasn’t a scheduled ride for that day, he arranged a guide to take only me on a ride. I was hoping for a bit more single track, but nonetheless, it was an epic ride, and my guide Duong was one hell of a good rider. I highly recommend looking them up when you get to Dalat and are looking for some adventure, they do kayaking, trekking, rock climbing, canyoning, kayaking, and of course mountain biking!
All the climbing was worth it when we left Dalat and had a day of nearly all coasting. Two days later we made it to Nam Cat Tein National Park. We had planned to do some exploring there, but instead just took a day and relaxed. Aside from the day in Hoi An and the day in Nha Trang, we had spent every other day on the bike. It was peaceful, but has a long way to go to compare with U.S. national parks.
It was a long 150 kilometers from the park to Saigon, but we charged it hard and made it there in good time. We had two days to look around Saigon before we both flew back to Thailand. The highlights there were the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum. But, one thing was for sure: after the hour bus ride out and back from the tunnels we were even more thankful that the rest of Vietnam had been done on a bike. It was two very enjoyable days, but sad at the same time. We both knew that they were some of our last days together. Vietnam was amazing, and I fully have to thank Kristi for making it so….