Triplogue - Vietnam II

13 July, Hoi An to My Son and back, 22km (f)

"Beep-beep, beep-beep" was the first noise I heard after the four o’clock revelry of whichever country won the World Cup this morning. Stumbling downstairs catatonically we nearly bumped into the manic waiter-cum-receptionist-cum-bellman who seemed to be everywhere at once. "Football, you watch?" he questioned us. Very disappointedly his face dropped upon the realization we would have no high-points of the match to share. He pulled us into the restaurant, sat us down at a table in front of the television and turned on the videotape he’d made of the bout between the French and Brazilians. We were decidedly more interested in eggs, coffee, juice and bread than soccer so he volunteered that the French had emerged victorious.

As I ate my eggs I thought I overheard our friend (now acting as a tour guide) try to sell a boat trip up the Thu Bon River to the Cham ruins to some other tourists. (In fact he was hawking a bus trip) I proposed the idea of taking a boat to see the ruins to Andrew and he was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. A Nguyen at the front desk (fifty percent of Vietnamese share this name so Andy and I have started referring to them generically as such) was anxious to accommodate this (what we will later realize as ill-advised) request. For a mere thirty dollars we could be transported 3 hours upriver and two down. We’d need to bring bikes, we were advised, because the site is eleven kilometers from the riverside. We agreed that this sounded like the perfect day. A leisurely ride on a boat observing typical Vietnamese life, reading, playing backgammon and being tourists is just what the doctor ordered.

A few moments later after a visit to the bank we were introduced to our crew and our bikes were placed on the bow of a boat proudly emblazoned with the word "Tourist" on all facings. We would not be traveling anonymously. The captain was named Duc and spoke passable English through teeth much in need of some dentistry. His first mate looked to be in his early fifties, was skinny as a rail and missing the lower half of his right arm. He smiled warmly at us from the tiller while I wondered if it had been a boating accident or if our country’s devilishness (more likely) had been the cause of his mutilation.

Duc pointed out all the sights and made explanation while teaching us Vietnamese using our phrasebook as an aid. Duc was especially fond of the word prostitute, which he repeated often. We shared bananas, cookies and drinks with them as we made our way up the river past Thu Bon boats. It seemed that far more folks lived on the river in a boat than in the towns. Fishing, doing laundry, cooking, bathing, boat repair, weaving fishing nets and mysteriously wading were but a few of the witnessed activities. Wading was something our crew would become well acquainted with.

Hoi An had been a bustling trading town. Merchants from China, Indonesia, Malaysia and virtually all over Asia had come to purchase silks and porcelain that had been brought down the Thu Bon River and many of them had set up offices in Hoi An. At some point the mighty Thu Bon silted up and that put an end to the trade along the river. Just a few kilometers out of Hoi An we became acquainted with this problem.

At first we began to weave back and forth in the river, avoiding countless sand bars often stopping to seek the advice of other boaters on the correct course to take. Then we found ourselves stuck on the shallower bits of the river, forcing our crew to jump overboard and lift the boat off of the sand or walk in front of the boat seeking a navigable path. In the end it took fifty percent longer than we thought it would to reach our docking, leaving us to ride to My Son in the hottest part of the day. We’d have to rush there and back in order to make it back to Hoi An before dark.

The road to My Son was probably constructed and last maintained at the time of My Son’s habitation (4th – 13th centuries). Huge sharp rocks composed the roadway that rattled our bikes and the huge dump trucks that thundered by occasionally.

Within a few kilometers of My Son we began to see that this was likely a tourist trap. Drink stands and restaurants advertised "Free Information" and "Free Parking". The one thing that was strangely absent were other tourists, leaving us wondering if we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. The other question that baffled us is how other tourists would actually get to My Son as there was no way a large tourist bus could actually navigate the drive that led to the entrance of the site. At the entrance there was a little stand selling souvenirs and, thankfully, cold water. We greedily slugged down some water, bought our tickets and entered the park. At first there was some confusion. The tickets were 50,000 dong each, the entrance was still three kilometers from the site and we were not allowed to ride our bikes there. The park rangers finally volunteered the information that our ticket included a Jeep ride to the site. We piled into an American Jeep (Willys circa 1940) and bounced down the road. I had high expectations for our visit. Our guidebook compared the Cham sites of Vietnam to Borobudur in Indonesia. Leaving the Jeep we met the only other tourists we’d cross this day. They left hastily in a pool of sweat without returning our greetings.

In the sweltering heat of the midday I was bound to be disappointed no matter what we would find. The first bit was a collapsed compound of temples and walls made of brick. It was hard to imagine the former splendor from what remained. In two partially restored rooms in the compound there were a few replicas of carvings left from the facings of the stupas and temples. Wandering around the site we found a few other JAPOR (Just Another Pile Of Rocks) masquerading as points of interest. I have to admit that I was little reticent to explore the surrounding hills. Our guidebook warned us that the Viet Cong had used My Son as a base of operations and that the countryside had been heavily mined. It further cautioned that grazing cows sometimes stumble upon UXO’s (Unexploded Ordinance) and explode. We stepped gingerly along the poorly marked paths between the sites in fear of meeting a cow’s fate and becoming hamburger. Most disparaging was to learn that we Americans were largely responsible for the poor condition of the ruins because we bombed the area heavily during the war.

We left the site and rode back to the entrance on an ancient Russian bus in the company of some of the Park staff, whose chief responsibilities seemed to be grunting at us and lying about. The ride back to the river seemed even longer and hotter than the ride out. We stopped in the town for a bowl of noodles and something cold to drink. Some villagers were celebrating some occasion at the restaurant by drinking copious amounts of rice wine and beer, which they happily shared with us.

After lunch we piled back into the boat, said goodbye to terra firma and headed back for Hoi An. We found just as many un-navigable spots on the return as we found on the way there, much to the frustration of our crew. Regardless of their trials they always grinned at us as they slogged through the mud and sand freeing the boat countless times. We passed bigger boats trying to go upriver whose crews were literally under the boats trying to hoist them over low spots in the stream. Some of the boats were tethered together to form floating villages complete with floating markets and other businesses. The setting sun’s light played on the scenery giving us more photo opportunities then we had film.

When we finally arrived back in Hoi An it was well after our meeting time with Bu who had promised Andy his new under shorts. We ran into Bu, a little flustered that we’d missed our rendezvous. He’d been to the hotel and looked for us around town thinking we’d run off without collecting and paying for Andy’s green silk shorts. Andy promised to stop by for a fitting the next day and Bu was relieved.

Siegfried and Roy on their way up th eThu Bon River


Cham ruins at My Son


Happy Hour near My Son


Curious villagers trying to direct us to My Son


The road to hell


Typical Vietnamese candy-colored house

14 July, Death Loop around Hoi An(a), 121km (a)

It’s a miracle that we survived today. What promised to be a relatively easy loop through the pastoral Vietnamese countryside ended up being more of a challenge than either of us had bargained for.

The day started out pleasantly enough. We hit the road good and early in order to beat the heat and get glimpses of the myriad glories of Vietnam in the morning. At six a.m. the market was already happening, full of howling women on boats jockeying for a mooring place. Hoi An’s normally peaceful streets were filled with people on bicycles, on their way to God knows where. At the outskirts of town we spotted a funeral party about to depart in three chartered buses.

Ten kilometers of winding, recently paved road followed, passing through the brick-making and ship-building villages we had spotted yesterday from the boat.

Without any warning our bucolic backroad dumped us onto Highway One, the main transport artery of Vietnam. The road was busy, but mostly with two-wheeled traffic. Old wooden French-built buses --on the verge of toppling over from the mountains of bicycles being carried on their rooftops-- had to pick their way through the thick clouds of cyclists, who typically ride four or five abreast. As we crossed the long bridge over the Thu Bon River I fantasized about a bicycle trip covering the 2000-plus kilometers of this road –totally feasible, especially if armed with earplugs to combat the incessant honking.

After ten kilometers of Highway One we turned off onto a secondary road, and I was surprised to find it teeming with traffic –nearly all of it pedal-or animal-powered and carrying heavy burdens. Just as I was marveling over how much effort goes into carting shit around, I noticed an old woman doing just that. She was scooping up water buffalo pies from the asphalt and placing it on to her hand-drawn cart. Everywhere we looked our eyes were greeted with scenes of traditional rural life, virtually unaffected by the modern age. Vietnam, I’ve decided, is Asia with a capital "A."

Our first rest stop was in the tree-shaded terrace of a lively café. As we sat down at the only open table (thankfully located far from the speakers blaring syrupy Viet-pop) we noticed that every single patron (the clientele is exclusively male at such places) was staring at us with a dumbfounded expression. The staring continued throughout our stop, though no one dared to speak to us.

As we continued our way through more scenes of rizicultural splendor, two guys on a motorbike pulled up alongside us and provided a sort of escort for nearly an hour. While neither could muster up the courage to address us, they grinned at us all the while, seemingly honored by riding alongside a spectacle as strange as us. Unlike their Honda-straddling brethren, this pair was careful to give us the right of way and never once swerved into us.

Before long we had passed the crossroads leading to My Son, noticing that we’d covered in ninety minutes of riding what took us four hours by boat yesterday. Shortly thereafter the road petered out into a dirt track, with big puddles of mud. When we stopped at a roadside stall for water and directions, what appeared to be the entire population of the village swarmed around us to stare. No one was able to help us get our bearings, partly due to the gross deficiency of our (three) maps, and partly because everyone wanted to put us back on the track to My Son, in the opposite direction. In village logic, white foreigners visited My Son and that is therefore where we wanted to go. This notion was to plague us the entire day. No matter what town we asked directions for –even if it was 500 meters ahead of us—the local folk would always point us back towards My Son.

A student who spoke some English appeared out of nowhere and was able to help us out a little, pointing us down a sorry excuse for a road which quickly dwindled to a cattletrack running along a diked canal. We zigged and zagged aimlessly through the ricefields, turning one bend to find ourselves on what was obviously once a large airplane runway (built by the Americans during the war?) We thought the runway might lead to a road but were wrong, and were soon on an even narrower track than before. Just as we were about to give up and turn back, a road appeared in the distance. Opinions of locals as to which direction to go varied (the continuing My Son problem), so we threw caution to the wind and set out on a quixotic quest over one of the worst roads I’ve ever seen, consisting entirely of pointy boulders. It took us over a pass and into a godforsaken dump of a village, where we paused and sweated profusely as inbred-looking onlookers stared. I doubt if any of them had ever seen a pink person in the flesh before, much less two lycra-clad sweaty cyclists. Judging by the slack-jawed reception we got, we might as well have been Martians. Fred and I guzzled down a couple of drinks, looked at each other and said, "Let’s get outta here," in perfect unison, making the near-fatal mistake of not filling our water bottles.

From here the road was even less impressive, if such a thing is possible. I groaned when I saw it leading straight up into some steep mountains. With the road in such bad condition, it would take hours to get up and over the pass. Remarking that the sun was at its zenith now, and that we were down to our last sips of water, I began to look at the situation in survival terms, half-wishing that I’d been a boy scout. There wasn’t any traffic to hail down, and (odd in Vietnam) no people around to ask for water. It looked pretty bad, but I was careful not to worry Fred needlessly. Just as I was preparing myself for the worst, bouncing along miserably at five kilometers an hour, I noticed a difference in the road ahead. It looked paved! What I first took for a mirage was in fact a miracle: the road over the pass was smooth and well-graded.

The climb was tough nevertheless. We had to stop and crouch in the ditch under brambly shade a couple of times, rationing out our last drops of water and allowing our bodies to cool down to a functioning temperature. Here we were, under the blistering noontime sun, climbing a major pass in the middle of nowhere without water. Hadn’t we learned anything from this trip? I began to feel responsible for even suggesting today’s loop to Fred, who was definitely looking worse for the wear.

Reaching the summit, we nearly wept with relief. Spreading out ahead of us were the fertile plains of populated Vietnam and… a cluster of mountain drinks stands. How they make a living with so few people on the road (we hadn’t seen anyone in hours) was anybody’s guess. --Though the woman who ran the stand we stopped at is still telling the tale of two sucker cyclists who parted with 30,000 dong for a couple of bottles of warm, nasty-tasting fizzy water.

It took us a long time to find the motivation to head back down to civilization. After a reasonably satisfying swoop down, we were dismayed to find that our road was undergoing major construction. We gave our butts rests at every opportunity, pausing at every place serving drinks we could find and spending dong with wild abandon. Lunch didn’t happen until late in the day, in a strange place catering to miners working the nearby quarries.

Highway One came not a moment too soon. Its relatively smooth surface tasted like the sweetest ambrosia to my aching posterior. A tailwind pushed us along at 30 kilometers an hour, yet it still seemed to take an eternity to get back to Hoi An, where we spent the rest of the day replenishing lost fluids.

15 July, Hoi An to Danang/Hanoi, 35km (f)

At breakfast Andy couldn’t figure out how his hands came to be stained green. He looked quizzically around the room trying to figure the cause. A few moments later he dashed from the bathroom pulled down his new shorts to reveal his blue-green butt. Pulling back the covers of the bed revealed the same colored stain on the bedsheets, obviously he’d slept in the new shorts. Bu had apparently left his mark on Andrew.

We wound our way through the streets of Hoi An just after a late (8:30) BikeBrats breakfast. I’d refined my Vietnam breakfast this morning. The Ho Chi McMuffin now sported a cube of laughing cow cheese along with the egg and bacon on a French roll. With a full stomach I said goodbye to the third town in a row that I’d found a special bond with. My sweet-and-sour feeling would dissolve into pure sour in just a few kilometers.

We were buzzing along against the wind back up to Danang at a good clip along a potholed road. Andy was drafting me and we’d make our destination in just over an hour at the current rate when "it" happened. As we passed a petrol station I spied an adolescent "waving" at me. A second look revealed that he was actually chucking a good-sized rock at me. I braked hard to avoid it when I heard the sickening cry of Andrew as he realized he’d be unable to stop before piling into me. His front pannier caught my rear wheel and he fell to the pavement wondering why the f___ I’d stopped so quickly. While I mopped up Andrew the kid fled. We put his bike back together. (He’d broken one of his pannier straps) Explained to the bewildered onlookers in rather bad and angry Vietnamese what had happened and headed off. My rear wheel was rather worse for wear. It now wobbled rather severely, attracting the attentions of all the other cyclists on the road. When we finally reached Danang we sought refuge at our favorite haunt, Chez Christie’s. Coincidentally Mark was there for lunch. He escorted me to a bike repair shop to fix my hobbled wheel. The shop was a typical Vietnamese affair. An umbrella, box of tools, a pump and a graying guy situated on the sidewalk at a street corner. As limited as his resources were my mechanic deftly repaired the wheel and sent me on my way.

With nearly all restored from our morning’s mishap we headed to the train station. We’d be meeting Wendy in 36 hours in Hanoi and were both looking forward to seeing Vietnam through another’s eyes. When we arrived at the train station we hoisted our bikes up the front stairs and began to push them into the terminal when we heard a chorus of angry shouts from the railway personnel in attendance. At first I thought we’d committed a capital offense from the sound of their voices and would spend the next ten years in a re-education camp before being executed. Soon their tone softened and they directed us to the baggage office where we could surrender our bikes to be loaded on the train. Together the bikes and the bag we checked cost more than one of us did. Doi moi (Vietnamese Perestroika) seemed to have reached new levels when the baggage agent offered to exchange dollars for us from the railway till. We’d have obliged her by changing money but her rate was not even close to the bank rate. Consequently we went to a nearby hotel to seek some money for our voyage. This is when the day’s second disaster was realized.

We asked the desk clerk if she could exchange traveler’s checks and before she could reply "no" I wondered aloud if Andrew had retrieved his passport. His answer was unequivocal and negative. We were just about to board a train, Andy’s passport was 30km away and we had a meeting with Wendy in just a few hours. We enlisted the help of the hotel staff, located Andy’s passport back in Hoi An, and arranged to have it forwarded to Hanoi --all within five minutes, thus averting the near disaster. There would be no averting the next one….

We entered the train station waiting room and were lulled into a false sense of security by the comfort of the waiting lounge. It sported some of the most effective air conditioning in Vietnam, a huge fish tank, comfortable seating, a refined and well-dressed clientele and, most important for two hungry BikeBrats, a well appointed snack bar. When the stationmaster called our train we found our car and stepped aboard. We had some difficulty finding our berths because they all seemed occupied. After wandering back and forth three or four times the conductress arrived to settle matters. She directed us to our cabin, showed us our berths and immediately started shouting at the people who were occupying them. Matters improved slightly. The family of three that were in my bed moved across the cabin and up to the other bed and the random dude in Andy’s moved down to occupy the lower with the two guys that were already there. The cabin itself was about two meters wide, three meters high and just over two meters long. There were only seven of us in the matchbox-sized thing so the situation was entirely serviceable – not! It was not nearly as cramped as it was filthy. The floor may never have been cleaned, the walls were smeared with all kinds of stains and no one knows for sure what indignities the sheets may have suffered over their undoubtedly long lives.

Just when I was growing to accept a very uncomfortable ride to Hanoi the ticket controller arrived and tried to shoo the extra passengers from our cabin. It looked like he might have some success when the father of the family in the upper bunk lost his temper and began shouting at full volume. He appeared to have won the skirmish because the controller left the room tail between legs and all family members still in the cabin. Our "booby-prize" was a set of clean sheets that were tossed to us by some member of the train staff while dad had his meltdown.

Dad and the random passenger did finally part just about bedtime leaving just Andy, me, mother and child and the extremely placid old man in the lower across from us. The gyroscopic fan did its level best to keep us cool when the train stopped to let oncoming ones pass. In spite of its efforts and the breeze through the window while we were moving, the better part of the night was spent moist with sweat. In spite of the heat, the dust and the crying of the aforementioned child, we managed to get a few hours sleep before the dawn light bathed the coastal hills in warm yellow light.

Our view of Vietnam from the train was filtered through the metal mesh of the guards over the windows. Designed to keep rocks from flying through the windows they made me feel like a form of livestock on its way to market or a prisoner in transport. As the sun rose so did the temperature. Andy and I lounged in our underwear to beat the heat, reading about Hanoi and playing backgammon to while away the hours. Mercury reaching its apex for the day, we arrived in Hanoi. The moments before reaching the station we watched our fellow passengers transform themselves into businessmen, changing from their pajamas to slacks and shirts. We observed masses of bicycles, motorbikes and trucks lined up at the railroad crossings. Crowds pushed forward to the front of the gates there and truncheon-bearing guards beat back the most aggressive ones.

Arriving in the station we felt as though reborn. No longer were we prisoners of our hot dirty little box, we were BikeBrats once again. We were, still, minus our bikes, which took an inordinate amount of time to materialize despite the huge tariff we’d paid for their passage. We spent the next two hours patrolling the tree-lined park-filled streets of Hanoi for a place to stay and ice cream to cool our bodies. We stumbled upon an unmarked little factory churning out ice cream bars by the thousands. Hanoians lined up by the tens to buy the treats from staff that were surely relics of the communist regime. Despite the stark nature of the shop and the staff we slurped down a couple of delicious cones and bars each before resuming our search for accommodation.

Tacky statuary in the Marble Mountains


Christie's staff taking a breather


Elegance on wheels: Reunification Express to Hanoi

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