Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Trying to train with Thuy and Tung, but the bus was best.

A very quick one. Time to leave Quy Ngon (“wee nnnon”), which means putting the bike and myself on public transport. Why? Because in this part of Vietnam, the choices of road are Highway 1 along the road, and various better roads that unfortunately head west into the highlands. Bummer. The silver lining is that I will cover about 250km in just a few hours of luxury and safety. The reality was not so shiny.

A walk into town, and a photo of the great General Quang Trung (“Kwong Chung”, 1753-1792). Did you know there’s a bunch of rules about statues and how the people are sitting on the horse? I’m fairly sure that sitting on a horse with two legs in the air means that he died in battle. 

In other news, there is a lot of wandering around looking for the train station, and taking a short-cut takes me to an area where it is exciting to meet the locals and the locals are excited to meet me. Although the first effect I had on a schoolgirl was for her to scream and run into a house. But it was OK because she was just getting her friend who could talk some English and several other friends who would take photos and chatter about who knows what in Vietnamese. Such good fun. Clearly, the cavalry have arrived, and I’ll get to the train station soon. But there’s disagreement about which was to send me – the shortcut (complicated) – or the main road (longer). In the end I’m helped by Thuy (“toy”) and Tung (“tongue”) who will take me on the shortcut. He has very good English, so this is quite special – back lane, guide with English, nearly there.

At the train station they very kindly do the asking for me. Then, as the deal is being sealed, I mention that I have a bicycle. No bike. Really? You don’t take bike? No bike. Well, it’s goodbye to Thuy and it’s goodbye to Tung. Thanks!

Looks like it’s going to be a bus trip. which is OK. All I need to do is rock up to the bus station and wait for a bus to leave for Nha Trang, which is on the main Highway South, so there’ll be a lot of them. Walking home there’s a lot of thinking and planning, planning and revising, revising and scheming, when – out of nowhere  – appears a shop FULL of western treats, especially biscuits.

Those of you who have travelled in countries like Vietnam, Bolivia, Cambodia, China, Niger and about 100 others will know that western food isn’t always “on tap”. 

However, after several weeks in Vietnam the attractiveness of “dead” food has dwindled, and the photo is all I take. 

The last photo montage is an even more amaze-balls shop – a bakery where the craftsmanship is awesome.

So…the bus trip. It was a minivan, which is more comfortable than a minibus. After mucking around with the price, we wait an hour for enough people to show up to make the trip profitable. When we are ready to go, they put me in the front so as not to scare the local people (except the guy next to me who seemed terrified). And….off….we….go! But stop just outside the bus station, where we wait and wait and people slowly arrive and get (is it cheaper to get on here?). Half an hour and I reckon that the passengers must be running low on cigarettes. Then we move, and keep on moving. Let’s hope that the rest of the trip is faster than 100 metres in almost 2 hours. My wish came true…

The seat belt didn’t work. In Vietnamese the driver tells me that I don’t need one, and I reply in charades and a little Vietnamese that in my last Vietnamese bus accident the driver was badly hurt. He laughs, lights a cigarette and checks some texts on his mobile phone. From here it must get better, I’m thinking. So foolish. The driving gets faster. The overtaking gets crazy. At one stage we are on the wrong side of the road, racing a competitor’s minivan side by side down the highway while the driver talks with one hand and gives the finger to the other driver. It’s a good thing we aren’t going at top speed. Or are we? We are doing 130 km/hour on a patchy-up old road (it’s an 80 km/hour zone). Occasionally, our driver gives the finger to another driver that doesn’t move out of the way for him (but he doesn’t get out of the way for anyone else). Although the trip is just awful, the scenery is excellent. One beach, at Dai Lanh about 80 km North of Nha Trang, is stunning. The fact that I’m writing this tells you that the driving wasn’t that bad. The coves and beaches and headlands were beautiful and I’m starting to relax. Breathe. Breathe. Then, flying around a corner, we almost run into a bunch of people and vehicles stopped on both sides of the road. There’s been an accident. A minivan has hit a motorcyclist hard. Very hard, judging by the dent in the front of the minivan. The rider is dead, face down on the road. With so many people stopped taking photographs, it is difficult to see if anyone else is involved. The passengers in the minivan would have taken a beating (no seatbelts when the driver hit the brakes and locked all of the wheels up). Lucky that he didnt take the minivan over the edge. He stopped just a couple of metres short of the Armco. Our minivan weaves through the scene and in no time it’s foot flat to the floor again. Several people light up cigarettes, and driver has about 3 in quick succession, which requires some juggling, because he is talking and laughing on the phone at the same time. How on Earth can he be laughing so much?

Me? I’m doing deep breathing exercises and resisting the urge to grab the driver’s phone and throw it out the window. On reflection, I realise that most people on the bus were comfortable with the situation, or at least accepting of it, and I could have been more relaxed. After all, almost every bus passenger and motorcycle rider going down the highway that day arrived safely. There are no guarantees.

Happier, smilinger, funnier next time. Tam biet.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Monday 27 October 2014 in photos. Tam Quan to Qui Nhon. 

Hi readers. It’s time to ride again, and it looks like being a wonderful day. The route is partly along the coastline, some of the road is a minor highway, the sun is shining brightly and the maximum temperature will be around 30 degrees. Just a few hundred metres from my hotel, a place has something cooking. I ask for am omlette, but it’s something more like egg white, rice flour, mungbeans and prawns. They taste great, and at 25c each I let loose and have four.

Riding away, there’s a thought wandering around in my mind about representing the day in photos. Do I make my rides look unnaturally good. Or am I taking too many photos of potholes and bad roads and making cycling in Vietnam look bad? The solution is an odd one, but stay with me for a minute. To make sure that the day is honestly presented, I’m going to take photos at set points on the ride – and every 10 km seems the obvious interval because there will be 11 or 12 photos. And if other places look good or bad, I won’t take any photos there. Just every 10 km. But will they be any good? Decide for yourself.

Yes, it was a great day of cycling, with quite good roads (for Vietnam) and beautiful scenery. One of the better days of riding on this trip, and I believe it was honestly captured in these images.

What do they show? 10km is a fellow mixing concrete out in front of a house being built. It’s normal to use the road for mixing concrete. 20km is a little beach between steep headlands. 30km shows prawn farms, while 40km shows the road rising over a long high coastal sand dune. 50km shows cropping land and a farmer drying corn on a tarp, while 60 is on a bridge over a small coastal river. 70 and 80km are obvious, and yes, I cheated and took an extra photo. So spank me. More coastal beauty at 90km and town humdrum at 100km. Then, a huge road with no houses and no industry. Just 15 km of four-lane highway, leading to an enormous bridge (120km). The bridge is big. The Golden Gate Bridge is a puppy and this one is a Great Dane. The photo shows maybe one quarter (with three quarters behind me). 

A few more km and I arrive in Qui Nhon.

That was a lot of fun. Thanks for taking the ride with me, readers.

Tam biet.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. Friendliness and Hello! and Please come back!

There’s nothing like a bit of friendliness and hospitality, and Vietnamese people are full to busting with both. A funny thing that happened today. Maybe not funny to you, but this is my diary and I have an abnormal sense of humour. Those are the rules, dear reader.

Somewhere a few hundred kilometres north, maybe in Hue, shop owners started to say “Please come back”. They really caught my attention, because it’s more complicated English than usual. The “please come backs” (PCBs) were a day or two apart at first, but over the last two or three days, it seems that the vendors at food and drink places not knew about it, and used it well. Clearly, the school teachers or the tourist bureau or persons unknown were putting the word out to say PCBs. The culmination of all of their efforts happened today. I received a high quality “Please Come Back” at a hilltop drink stop at lunchtime. With its near-perfect pronounciation and delivery. Wow. 

The next one was even better – almost perfect. Clear, loud, full of emotion. Even more surprising, the speaker was only 12 years old. They were so full of enthusiasm they walked out onto Highway 1 to say it to me. Riding towards them, they are standing in the middle of the Highway, giving me every bit of English they know…. “Hello! Please come back!”

An alien in Vietnam. A day in the life. In brief.

Alien in the sense of foreigner, obviously. A day as in sunup to sundown. Brief=notes. Why am I writing this? I don’t really know. As long as your expectations are very low, you won’t be disappointed to read it.

8am. Breakfast of eggs on a fresh bagette. Then, confusion when I ask for salt. A helpful woman brings  me both a mix of salt+pepper (Chinese salt?) and regular (interestingly lumpy) salt.

9am. Off to the post office in a taxi with a nice older taxi driver. He doesnt bweep the horn very often and leaves room for the cyclists and scooters carrying families around. In Vietnamese I say that I like bicycles and he understands and smile. He charges a reasonable $1 taxi fare so a $1 tip seems reasonable. 

10am. At the Post Office, filling out multiple forms. They decided for me that I can afford air mail, which is a good choice. One woman in particular has good english and helps me through the forms (that are in Vietnamese and which I only understand a little)

Hmmm. Why did i carry half a kg of stuff over so many hills when it only costs $7 to send it by air mail to Australia? Especially the coffee dripolator that is large and metal and a funny shape. And makes quite bad coffee. A learning experience for me (code words for “I’m an idiot”).

10.30am. Leaving a tip for the helping woman, she runs after me trying to give it back. But when I realise that she (a) doesn’t really want to terrorise me, and (b) won’t actually put it in my pocket, I stop and just say no. 

Next, I say “cafe” and point in various directipns. The helping woman gets a bit agitated and says she doesn’t drink coffee. What? “I don’t drink coffee” she says. OK. I need to make it clear this is about me. So I point to myself strongly and say cafe. This is taken to mean that I really strongly want to take her out for coffee. Confronted by my strong romantic desire towards her (the sort that she has seen displayed by western men in movies), she loses her ability to speak English and indicates that no matter how much I wamt to take her out for coffee the boss wont let her go. Thank the Lord for that! Anyway, I don’t want to embarrass her by saying I have no romantic interest in her, so how do I get out of this mess? Not speaking and not gesturing helps, and then someone else puts forward an alternative theory about my intentions, and soon everyone is on the same page and ideas of weddings and children are put behind us all.

11am. I’ve decided to write a diary about this stuff and put some lines into my phone over coffee and complementary green teas. This is it (photo below) including cold green tea (represented by the empty glass on the left), a glass with ice in case I want to have a cold version of the hot green tea or the hot coffee. On the right, there’s a glass of hot water to dilute the strong coffee (a good idea, in my opinion, but not usual). And a sachet of sugar, which is most unusual. At the bottom there’s a short coffee with some condensed milk in the bottom and bottom left the dripolator full of powerful Vietnamese coffee. Affronted by the head-smacking per of Vietnamese coffee a few weeks ago, I’ll now be missing this when I get home.

Walking into town I see a kid on an ebike wearing a cap that says iPho. What? Looking at the genuine Apple logo and the font, it’s obvious that the cap is too small to fit iPhone on it. So he has shortened it to iPho, and everyone knows the rest. But then I think of this:

It’s supposed to be just “iPho”, because Pho is the ubiquitous Vietnamese noodle soop that is obviously unsuitable for being electricized. To prove its importance in Vietnamese culture, I turn around and Mother Nature has put a Pho (pronounced “fur”) stall right there, so I take a photo in an attempt to prove this unlikely story. Something (that I don’t quite understand) makes me think that all of this is a great joke. When will Apple bring out the iPho? I don’t know, but it will be available in new, bright colours.

Next a stop at the bike shop, but not to buy anything, or to check out the latest models. Instead, gathering information about buying rather than bringing a bike on my next trip to SE Asia. An alloy frame with alloy 26″ wheels (tougher than I use now, but also light) and Alvio gears costs 400,000 VND ($200). Selling it for $100 before going home makes it a reasonable option for next time, especially if it’s a long trip. My bike (“Tooloola the Tourer” – don’t laugh) is fancier, but she is feeling the pain of rural Vietnamese roads, and will need a couple of hundred bucks spent on her when I get home. No decision happening now, but one day it will be handy to know.

12noon. Taxi back to the hotel, and Happy Day, the housekeeper has cleaned my room. Nothing special to celebrate usually, but I have bypassed the slot in the wall that needs a key tag to turn on the power. As you probably know, when you take the key tag out when you are leaving the room, it turns the power off. But I substituted the tag with a credit card when I went out, so that the air con would keep the room cool. The housekeeper cleaned the room AND left the power on AND hasn’t reported me for being a bad person. Woohoo. 

1pm. Movie on TV: “Life of Pi”. What was that all about? I don’t get it. Postmodern constructivism gone berserk, killing itself in the process. Small loss. Apologies to all of the readers who saw something special in that movie.

Later…Writing this blog. Eating peanut M&Ms. And suddenly it’s 2pm and the blog is far far far too long. So I stop except to say….one day when I say the blog will be short, it might be. Maybe not in Vietnam, where a half a day is like a novel. See you later. Not really. Embarrassed. Bye again.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. A doodle through East-central Vietnam. Quang Ngai to Tam Quan.

It’s me again. The guy with a bicycle and a 3 month visa and a love of Vietnam. Today I rode around a part of Vietnam that isn’t visited much by Westerners. Having spent a few days in this area, it’s easy to make a list of the reasons not to visit this area. 1. You love hanging around lots of westerners. 2. You like lots of pagodas. 3. You only stay in five star hotels. 4. There are only three reasons, and none of them make any sense to me.

Quang Ngai is a spread out place, but mainly along Highway 1 (AH 1), so I took the other “highway” South, and it only took a few minutes and less than 5 km to be out in the countryside.

The road wasn’t too good (top left of the montage below) and thoughts  of tens of kilometres of potholes and rocks were difficult to avoid. But it was mostly a very good road, and the scenery was excellent. Mountains, rivers, rice and corn and goats and buffalo. And chickens – always chickens scurrying off the road as I go past.

There were lots of kids going to school. For some reason, a lot of them are back out on the road at 11am. Perhaps they go home for lunch? I’ve been told that many children work on the family farms or in the business in the afternoon. 

After half of a day of riding around the countryside, I’m just about to take a shortcut, but I’m confronted with the narrow dirt road with a garnish of food and plastic rubbish. So, despite shortcuts being a lot of fun, I take a slightly longer route and ride a little bit more on the dreadful Highway 1. Then, just up the road I see the “!” sign. Applying heaps of brainpower, and careful observation, and riding up and down, there wasn’t a “!” anywhere near the sign. Back out on the road and it’s time for a map check, when the pigs in the basket shart acting very cute and making happy pig sounds. The owner has put a block of ice on top of their basket to keep them cool. Sweet,

Last, but definitely not least, on the way into Tam Quan, there is a cafe that has coffee and cake. This is a rare thing – especially off the tourist path, where a lot of cafes don’t even have coffee. I have an excellent coffee and the cutest cake with a cat face, and the young hipsters running the place charge me 90 cents. It is quite difficult to get them to accept a small tip. Amazing. Best of luck to them with their business.

You gotta try something new now and again. Start a business, ride a bike, plant a tree. Do stuff, any stuff, as long as its new. 

Tam biet.

Bicycle maintenance. Vietnam has devastated the drive train, but the tyres are terrific.

It’s been a few weeks since I reported on the bike. Vietnam is tough on a bike. After about 500 km of extremely tough conditions and 1500 km of moderately tough conditions, a few things are going to fail or wear out. But not as many as I expected. The frame and seat and rack and panniers and lots of stuff have lasted very well. Just yesterday I had a spoke replaced and the badly buckled rear wheel straightened (for $2.50!). While the wheel was off the bike and she was upside down I took some photos of the low down stuff. Wow, when I saw the photos of the chain and gears and bales and pedals on the big screen I got a shock about the badness. If I do another trip in similar conditions, I’ll make sure I can change the chain and cassette, and maybe the rear derailleur after about 2000 km. 

As I said last time, the Continental TourRide tyres have been amazing. They are extremely tough. And after 2000km, they look like they could last for another 5000km. 

That’s it.