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Saturday, December 28, 2019

Hectic and Calm in Vietnam

So, last we left off I was still in Phnom Penh. I took a quiet, easy day for my second and last day in the city, just as planned. I just wandered around on foot, saying no to one tuk-tuk driver after another (they got really pushy at times, especially outside places that were closed). I loved walking through some of the nice green spaces and along the river, beautiful escapes from the traffic. I was disappointed to find out the Royal Palace was closed for lunch time, and wasn't about to stick around and wait. I marveled at the outside, politely told off the pushy tuk-tuk drivers (I mean, they were trying to walk in front of me), and walked the riverfront. There were countless flocks of pidgeons there and feeding them seemed a popular pastime. I checked out the beautiful Wat Phnom. I wandered through the Central Market, and actually bought a $4 cotton shirt saying Cambodia with an elegant elephant, produced from a bag full of the same shirts in every color. I had seen ones in Thailand just like it but saying Thailand. But I like it. I'm wearing it right now. It was a good walk and a fun day.

It was a largely uneventful day following to Neak Loeung, with the most notable part being the ride over the big Tsubasa Bridge at the end and seeing the gorgeous view it offered. My room that night had a sink that looked about to fall out of the wall. To my great surprise, right after I got settled, I got a knock on my door. I was shown to another room with a functional sink, and also an upgrade to AC. I wasn't going to complain. I got dinner at a coffee shop that made me feel at home. I messed up and got seafood in my rice and egg. I learned, and I used my Khmer vegetarian card I had downloaded the next morning for breakfast and had no trouble.

I rode on to Bavet at the border. The road got very bumpy toward the end, and there was also a fair amount of construction going on. It was the roughest I had dealt with in Southeast Asia, though still better than many of the highways I have been on in the US. I had a nice hotel at Bavet Square, about the only option that wasn't a super expensive Casino. It is Chinese run, as are many of the businesses there. I had to park my bike outside with the motorcycles, but at least the security guard locked it up...by the front wheel, so I supplemented with my own lock. The Chinese restaurant I went to that night started playing Country music after I arrived, which I found hilarious. After sundown, Bavet Square was really happening, with Christmas lights, live music, a miniature train for the kids, and all sorts of other things. It was fun to just walk around and feel the energy of it. It was interesting too come morning to see the space that had been so vibrant at night, completely empty, none of the lights on, all the magic gone, just a quiet, peaceful space.

I started my ride toward the border by immediately wiping out... It wasn't my proudest moment. I was trying to cross the highway quickly to get onto the shoulder...except the shoulder there isn't road, it's deep gravel the exact same color as the road. I scraped my knee, tore my bar tape a little, and scratched my front shifter. Nothing but cosmetic damage, but I still felt bad to damage my damn Dura-Ace shifter (don't ask why I have a Dura-Ace bar end shifter, I work at a bike shop and get pressured to buy nice things I don't really need). I quickly got on my feet, embarrassed, but fine, and kept riding. Compared to the crowded, hectic crossing from Thailand to Cambodia, entering Vietnam felt almost anticlimactic with how simple and uncrowded it was. I think I may have paid some sort of small unofficial fee I might not have been supposed to, but it also got me to the front of the line, so I am not complaining. It was quick and easy, and I was soon unceremoniously out of Cambodia and into Vietnam. Now riding into Ho Chi Minh City on the other hand... That was one of the most intense experiences I've had. It is a very densely populated city and the level of traffic is unlike anything I've seen before. There were periods of congestion where I felt like I was in a sea of motorcyclists, as far as I could see ahead and as far behind as I could see in my mirror. And as far as I would stick to the right, I always found them on either side of me, as they will even jump onto the sidewalk to try and get ahead of traffic. I think that was one of the things that truly got to me, how much they just ride on the sidewalk to get around traffic, with nothing done to prevent it save for some physical barriers put up on some sidewalks to deter it. I imagine that because of how slow traffic is usually moving, it is more scary than truly deadly, but any collision is most undesirable, and it feels amazing every moment you're NOT being hit when in such heavy traffic. And don't get me started on the chaos of round-abouts or the hazards of left hand turns. It  was more than hectic enough to make up for the easy border crossing, and I was very glad to finally arrive at my hotel, which I actually walked the last couple blocks to out of fear of making two left hand turns. I spent that evening in a failed attempt to buy useful things from a bike shop, with an ATM that wouldn't give me cash, only finding sleeves that were too pricy and in black (because my current ones are getting worn out), and then not being able to purchase even those because my card wouldn't work, and of course, then after it was too late to get back to the shop, finally finding an ATM I could actually get money out of, all while being stressed as hell about walking in that traffic. ...It was a whole thing. I should note, my trip to a different bike shop at the end of the next day was equally unhelpful, but I decided I will get by.

The hotel at least was quite nice, with the best breakfast I have had (outside of the stupid fancy place Rachael and I had in Chiang Mai). I spent the next day exploring the city, seeing Independence Palace, the outside of the Saigon Notre Dame cathedral (because it is undergoing renovation), the Post Office just across from the cathedral (a converted post office that is now a tourist haven), Jade Emperor Pagoda (which had turtles outside it, and it was delightful), and the War Remnants Museum. The museum was an important place to see, but not a fun one. It was a grim, honest reminder of the atrocities my country committed against the one I am in now. Of all the difficult things I saw there, seeing living victims of Agent Orange was definitely the hardest. I don't know what to say, that will be meaningful, nor whether I should in this blog. But I think it is a place that, as an American especially, if you get the chance, you should go.

I ignored the Christmas Eve partying going on that night (commercialized Christmas is huge here in Southeast Asia), for a quiet evening in the hotel. Christmas day I spent in a stressed effort to figure out how the heck to get out of Ho Chi Minh City, with a number of navigational troubles and changes happening to my original route. It was a big relief to finally get out of the metro area. Arriving in the peaceful town of Long Khanh that evening was probably the best Christmas gift I could ask for after the stresses of Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic was light (by Asian standards), kids were riding bikes down the street cheerfully, crossing streets was easy, there were nice green spaces, everything I could ask for. I went to a nice pizza place for dinner that required some serious Google translate to figure out, but was quite good. And my motel that evening was super clean and nice for a very cheap price. It was a good Christmas, even if a little lonely.

The first 40 miles of the next day were largely flat and easy riding. I passed through a small town that must have a large Christian community because it was full of nativity scenes, a sight I have seen here and there, but nowhere like that one town. There is a small Christian population in this country, less than 10%, but it many ways it feels more vocal than the more dominant Buddhist population. As I rode on a pleasant, low traffic road surrounded by stunningly green rice fields, with the mountains looming ever larger ahead of me, it seemed like I was headed straight for this immensely steep mountain, but then the road turned, and it was actually largely downhill for awhile on a very rough road through the jungle. Then sure enough, there came the inevitable climb, a steep but short rise up a rutted, winding road, to reach a resting spot where I could look below and see the straight stretch of road I had come down, before it began zigging and zagging up to where I was now. From there, things leveled out, with a few downhill stretches, taking me through small, peaceful villages where children waved and shouted hello with contagious enthusiasm. Then I hit the highway, with real traffic, but it was fine, because there was a big shoulder. Then the second, much longer climb of the day started, and right where I needed it most, the shoulder went away. It was the sort of situation that makes up a cyclist's nightmares, a long, steep climb on a two lane road with no shoulder, generally a guard rail that makes it so there isn't even a place to get off out of the way or rest, and heavy traffic that is full of buses and trucks, with lots of desperate vying to pass. A motorcyclist encouraged me with a thumbs up, and I was reminded how much the little things make a difference, even as buses are blaring their horns and blazing past way too close for comfort. At one point, I stopped pedaling, and hugged close to a guard rail as a bus passed me, looking like it was coming right at me, shockingly close and at high speed, to get around another bus in its lane. It was ugly. There was at one point what appeared to be a neat rest stop, with a large Virgin Mary statue, but I was in no mind to stop at the time. At one point, after I found a small space to pull over, a rarity on that stretch, when I got started again, the sweat poured into my eyes so badly I was temporarily blind, and I had the thought, what a dumb reason I am going to die over now... I didn't stop after that until near the top, where there were vendors selling desperately needed drinks. Just a little ways on from there, another motorcyclist would tell me, "Good job!" and it took me only a moment to realize what he meant, as I started descending at last. There was a little more climbing through Bao Loc but I had shoulder and life was good again. I was too tired to see much of town. But I had a good homestay that night, where I met an interesting English-speaking gentleman who was there longterm, while he was in-between living situations with his family, waiting for his house on an organic farm in the jungle to finish being built. That evening I also hit a great, unbelievably cheap vegetarian restaurant, where I thought the price was 50,000 dong, which seemed perfectly fair, when she actually charged just 15,000. It was a great evening after a tough day.

Which brings us to yesterday... Yesterday was one of the biggest roller coasters of my bike touring career. Much of the day was spent going up and down small hills (I had been told it was relatively flat before the big climb to Dalat, but I was glad I looked at the topography and didn't believe it). But there was some truly gorgeous scenery along the way. Things did flatten out right before the big climb. And it turned out it was much better than the one up to Bao Loc. For awhile, I was on a peaceful motorcyclist/byclist only road adjacent to the main highway, and I dared wonder if that would last. Of course, it didn't, and I merged with traffic on the two lane road up the mountain. It didn't always have shoulder, and it was a bit rough, but it was enough to make all the difference. Toward the top, I stopped at the paid entrance to see waterfalls. I parked and locked my bike, and reached into my belt bag to grab my wallet. ...But my wallet wasn't there. Frantic searching ensued, checking over and over as if it might magically reappear if I just kept digging through the same items in a small bag, quickly followed by panic. Trying to calm down, I reasoned that I was near the top of the climb, and the best thing was to get to the hotel, hopefully be able to pay with the little USD I had squirreled away in a pannier, and then see if I could get some sort of taxi to the spot I last remember having it, when I bought some soda from a small grocier before starting the climb. Of course, stressed, I got temporarily lost in the maze of Dalat, but I finally got to the hotel as the sun was getting low. As I awkwardly and worriedly explained my situation, to my amazement, the hotel manager calmly talked me through things and then said he would take me on his motorbike to where I thought I had lost my wallet. After a short time in the hotel room to get my wits about me, I was riding down the mountain in the dark on the back of a motorcycle driven by one of the kindest souls I've ever met. It wasn't a short ride down, and I feared I was wasting his time and generosity. After we got down the mountain, we made a few passes, before we identified where I had taken a photo by the grocery I had stopped at. I got off the motorcycle and walked along the road. And after just a few steps, there, by the light of my phone, I found my wallet, lying in the grass, by the side of the road, right next to where I last remembered using it to pay for soda. I made what were probably some embarrassing noises of excited amazement as I high fived my hero, whose name at that point I didn't even know. I got him dinner and coffee with another guest at the hotel as thanks (though it wasn't nearly enough to make up for what he'd done). It was a wonderfully unexpected end to the day, talking to Ha (the hotel manager who saved me), and Nick, his guest from Singapore he had become friends with in his short stay in Dalat, chatting and getting to know each other, and knowing we wouldn't have if I hadn't lost my damn wallet. It was a day of ups and downs (72 miles, 4900 feet of climbing), one major mistake, and the biggest rescue of my life. It was a reminder, partly to not be stupid and drop your wallet on the side of the road in a foreign country, but also to not lose hope, keep calm, and remember how good people can be.

Today, I walked around the beautiful city of Dalat, and went with Nick to the historic train station, where we took a train to this really incredible temple...and then got stranded because we somehow missed our train ride back, requiring us to get a taxi to get back. It was a fun day, and I will be sad to leave Dalat tomorrow. But there are many, many miles yet to go on this adventure, and I need to up the pace just a little to complete my loop back to Chiang Mai on time. Tomorrow it is onward to the coast. I'm excited to see the Pacific again, for the first time from this side.

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