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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Life in Laos

It wasn't the easiest ride getting out of Vietnam. The road to the border was narrow and had interspersed sections of smooth, rough, and really rough. At one point early on, the road turned to a broken mess, and I went through a flowing pool of mud. My bike is still caked in dirt from that moment. I kept expecting to hit the last Vietnamese community before the border, and yet there kept being just one more. A sign that had the English words, "Frontier Area" let me know I must be close. Seeing a couple more guesthouses I hadn't known existed, I found myself wishing I had gone further the day before, if I'd just known.

When I did pass the little village, I soon began the switchbacked climb through the mountains. With the narrowness of the road and the lack of visibility around many turns, getting passed by traffic was often worrisome. Thankfully, this being a road up a mountain to a remote border crossing with nothing in particular on either side, there at least wasn't a lot of traffic. The bad part is that most of that traffic was big trucks transporting goods across the border. At one point I had no choice but to pull off and get the heck out of the way (luckily there was a place to do so) as some construction happening on the road ahead had caused a jam up of semis vying to go in both directions. I waited ten minutes for that mess to resolve, as they lurched forward and backward, turning inch by inch, to clear a path for themselves. There were a couple other moments when vehicles came whipping around corners from the other direction, completely in my lane. It was a climb that was often quiet, taking in the beautiful tree covered mountain scenery, punctuated by nerve-wracking moments as traffic suddenly materialized. I kept checking my Garmin, looking at how close the border was as the crow flies, yet how far with the winding road.

It was a real relief when at last I reached the border. Just my luck, right as I was about to get my exit paperwork done to leave Vietnam, there was a sudden power outage. It really wasn't that long, but I felt like I waited forever before power came back and I got my exit stamp to go on my way. On the Laos side, I filled out my paperwork, waited for what seemed another age but really wasn't, got my photo taken, paid my $39, and got my stamp. I asked what I do now, not sure if there was anything more involved. The immigration officer smiled and said, "You go to Lao." Those were the four best words I heard all day. There was another truck jam at the border, but seeing no movement at all, after getting emboldened by a couple women riding through on scooter, I roo rode right between it, and coasted downhill free and clear on the surprisingly smooth road along a river valley this side of the border. I squandered some of my traffic free time taking pictures by the river, but it was well worth it.

It was easy, scenic riding from there to Lak Sao for the night. I got a little nervous when the first couple ATMs didn't work for me, but thankfully the third did. My hotel was really quite nice for the night. I went to a restaurant that should have good food for me, sitting down in the large space devoid of patrons, with a couple workers cleaning. One handed a menu, then continued cleaning, ignoring every attempt I made to signal I wanted to order. Then they were both outside and I was alone in the huge space. Eventually I went outside, talked to someone else, and they handed me a menu. I asked if I could order...and they said no! There was no one working. I was really hungry and was more than a little annoyed to be handed a menu, twice, without explanation that ordering was in fact impossible. Thankfully there was another spot nearby, and I was able to get my usual vegetable fried noodles, hopes of variety dashed.

It was an eventful 67 mile ride the next day. That morning I woke to find the karst mountains that had the previous night looked like a cut out dominating the skyline of the town I was in had vanished, into endless white. It was very foggy, and I had my tail-light flashing bright to make sure drivers could see me through the haze.

About twelve miles in I arrived at Dragon Cave. For a small admittance fee, I got to explore the cave and surroundings, having the place all to myself. A wide but short passage that required me to duck opened up into a large open chamber that made for an incredible sight. I spent about half an hour exploring the cave. A combination of man-made stairs and natural rock led out another exit from the cave. It was then a fun trek through the jungle, that involved things like walking over a wooden plank between boulders and using a bamboo pole as a hand rail while scrambling down rocks. It was fun I should say, except for all the mosquitoes, that swarmed all around me at every step. After making it back, I got brunch served at the restaurant next to the cave.

After that, it was fast, easy riding on the flat or gradual hills, while karst mountains jutted up on either side. I saw the signs for Kong Lor Cave, and with great struggle, continued straight. I had really wanted to see the cave, which apparently a boat takes you through,u basically an underground river through a mountain. But I just wasn't sure if I could afford the extra day it would take to see the cave the next day. It made me resolve that I would have to come back one day and do this area, called the Thakhek Loop, seeing all its many caves. It was all easy going until I hit the big climb of the day not long later, wickedly steep and switchbacked, forcing me into my lowest gear with sweat dripping into my eyes. But when I finally reached the top, there was a great view, with a viewing site where I was able to get a couple drinks, and where I took selfies with some folks at the observation area. Then of course there was the blazing, thankfully straighter, descent. There was one more, much lesser, climb after that, and then I was free and clear on the flatland (which was good, because I was getting low on daylight). That night I got a roughly $6 room in a speck of a town called Thongnamy. I would learn that was standard price for a fan room at a guesthouse in Laos, which is hard to complain about. The cleanliness though left a little to be desired.

For some reason, maybe the wind, I was riding the struggle bus a bit that next morning. I got passed by a family on an old school tractor of the sort I became accustomed to seeing in Cambodia, and usually that goes the other way around. But after I got some breakfast in me from a mini mart and the road changed direction, things turned easy again and my pace picked back up. It was a very exciting moment for me when I reached the Mekong River, the highway running right along side it for awhile. The Mekong marks the border from Laos to Thailand. I looked out across that river and could see, now three countries later, the country I started this trip in, even if a part of it I have never been to. I have in fact crossed the Mekong once already, far downriver from here, in Cambodia, the day I left Phnom Penh. Going across the Tsubasa Bridge to ride high above the river was easily the most memorable part of that day, and it felt fitting that meeting the Mekong was the biggest part of today too.

Soon I arrived in the little town of Paksan. I got a cheap room at a guesthouse and an expensive meal (but one that had me bursting to the gills) at a bar/bistro by the river. The owner, who apparently lived in the US, chatted with me a little, and kept coming over to make sure I was good. The owner of the guesthouse was really nice, but the room was less than clean, but I figured standards had to change when in a small town in Laos.

I felt a little differently when I got bitten in the night. It was not a good night's sleep. I got on the road in not the best mood that morning, but then I had an experience that turned it all around. Eli here. I am glad that I set out that day with a short distance in mind (just 36 miles) in order to stage myself about 60 miles from Vientiane for the next day. It worked out quite well as I ended up with something other than biking to do that morning. While I was visiting a temple in Paksan, right at the start of my ride, a monk approached me. We talked for a little bit and he asked me if I wanted to come with him to see his school. Of course, I said yes, and so we walked the short distance just across the road to Phianchalern College. The monk, Bosca, spoke to his teacher, and then soon showed me into the classroom of second year English students. I spoke English conversationally with them to help them get practice with a native speaker. I don't know if I did a very good job of it (actually I think I can say pretty well I didn't), but it was a fun, unexpected experience.

Afterward, Bosca briefly brought me into the first year class, and then we chatted for awhile outside. I learned about him and his country, and he even taught me some useful phrases in Lao. He gave me some snack food for the road too as we parted. I hope someday we get the chance to meet again.

The ride itself today was fairly uneventful. I rode through some pretty country and saw some more beautiful temples. Toward the end, I did run into some other bike tourists, who made my trip look quite small. There was British couple who had started in Australia, rode Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and were now on their way to Vietnam, ultimately planning to ride all the way back to their home in the UK. And then there was a man who said he set out from his home in Africa (he didn't say where in Africa), and had been on the road for four years. It's always good to remember that a trip like mine is very minor in terms of what a lot of bike tourists do.

I got what I thought was a nice guesthouse that night. I also got a good meal (getting to put what I learned from Bosca to use in the process), though with flies getting all over it at every moment, which I can't say I enjoyed. ...The guesthouse room turned out to be more superficially clean than actually clean, and worse than that, or the cockroach I saw on the wall, was that I again woke up with bites. I have been practicing smart moves to keep bed bugs (which is what I guess they were) from getting on my stuff, but everything is getting quarantined when I get home.

Yesterday I rode to Vientiane, where I spent the day off today. I saw a lot of temples, both on my way to the capital and within it. At one of the temples I stopped at, a Buddhist monk struck up a conversation. He gave me water and corn on the cob, and we ate together while making our best effort at communicating. He asked for a selfie and we shared contact info. As nice as taking pictures of the beautiful wats and stupas is, the even better part of visiting temples is the friendliness of the monks and getting a chance to talk with them.

Riding into Vientiane was quite easy and stress free. The highway became divided and gained a shoulder closer to the city, and traffic was still relatively light. I felt far safer riding into the city than I have on the highway in the countryside, where cars often come by fast and close. Once I arrived at the hotel and got checked in, I went wandering about a little. Vientiane is a very small city, especially as a capital, with a population of only around 800,000, and it has a quiet and peaceful feel to it compared to most cities I have been to. It has wonderful sidewalks and little traffic by Asian standards, making it extremely walkable. I went to a halal Indian restaurant (there is a small Muslim population here), and got masala and naan. It was not only delicious, but a a very welcome variation to my usual meal. I checked out a few temples. I walked along the waterfront, seeing a children's carnival of sorts, many restaurants, an outdoor dance class, and all sorts of fun things as the sun got low. Then I wandered through the night market and splurged $3 on a t-shirt as a practical souvenir (though not that practical, since now I am up to five shirts and not as many of anything else).

I was so excited to do laundry this morning at the laundromat I have known to be in town since I was in Vietnam. I had read the reviews, and found to my delight I had the baht coins needed for the dryer and wouldn't even have to buy them at a loss from the owner. I was so ready. I waited impatiently to get breakfast at the hotel, and afterward I put on my rain pants and rain jacket as my pants and shirt, feeling ridiculous, and walked to the laundromat to launder almost all my clothes. ...Only to find it closed. It was majorly disappointing, with how much I had built up the idea of using a washer and dryer in my mind. I had the hotel do my laundry instead, for a little more money, and knowing it wouldn't go through a dryer, but needing it done. I then wandered around the city, enjoying the low traffic, and marveling at the crosswalk buttons, which seemed so novel after not seeing one for so long. Much of my time was spent checking out some of the city's many beautiful temples. I also saw Patuxay Monument, which is beautiful and offers a great view of the city, but it feels strange that its interior is filled with stalls selling trinkets. I hit up a Buddhist vegetarian place for lunch, which was quite good, though I was disappointed their buffet wasn't currently going. And I wandered the peaceful Chou Anouvong Park. Then I headed back to the hotel to just chill in anticipation for the big ride tomorrow, which looks like it will be nearly 90 miles out of necessity to reach a guesthouse. Oof. But we are getting close to the end now!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Vietnam Vaccination Saga Finale

It's been awhile. I best get this caught up before I feel overwhelmed and let it slip. So where were we? ...Ah, yes. I was headed toward Da Nang where I would get my day 7 shot, shot number 3.

I took some narrow, rough, and interesting back alleys to start that morning. I remember after some meandering, passing a sandy cemetery and suddenly coming out on a big, brand new road that neither my Garmin nor Google knew existed. I've seen that a number of times here as the country is constantly under construction. It's always tempting to follow those roads to find out where they go, but I had a different route planned. I was headed, on a whim, to a little coastal town where the government had commissioned artists to paint murals. It wasn't anything too grand, but it was a fun route and there were lots of locals excited about seeing a foreigner. "Hello." I have heard that word so many times since coming to Asia. A couple days, it seems like the only English I hear. I hear it shouted by children, as they walk along the road, from atop bicycles, from the back of motorbikes, from their homes, from their schools, exclaimed urgently, begging for a reply in kind. I hear it from adults too, often with childish glee. Hello. That simple, pervasive word and its impact was on my mind a lot as I heard it over and over that morning by folks off the beaten tourist path. Sadly, the road I turned off onto after that was extremely flat and boring. I was just glad the wind wasn't against me any more, so at least it wasn't slow and boring. Then, all of a sudden, on that boring stretch of road there appeared a theme park in the distance. It felt a little surreal, a theme park with pirate ships and a castle and typical Disneyland stuff, out on this lonely road. I hadn't any interest in the park itself, but I did stop for drinks at a stand across from it. Once I got closer to Hoi An, I knew I was officially back in tourist region (I mean, the theme park on the way should have been a clue), as I saw Westerner after Westerner on rented bicycles, often in large groups. At a certain point I stopped by the side of the road, and a woman on motorcycle came up and asked if I was headed to The Marble Mountains. As it turned out, that was indeed my plan. She said I could follow her there. Once we arrived, she directed me to park my bike in front of her family's jade shop, and that she would keep an eye on it. I am very glad that I looked up The Marble Mountains, and that I got out early enough this morning to be able to spend a couple hours exploring. If you have no problem going up and down a lot of stairs and doing a little climbing up rocks, and you enjoy seeing beautiful temples and statues inside massive caves, well, it's definitely the place for you. I had a great time clambering up through one cave, staring at the massive scale of another, and walking up a lot of steps to stand at the highest point and take pictures of the beautiful surroundings. It was a wellspent afternoon, and the cost of admission was quite small. Of course, I then had to get myself talked into buying a gift at the jade shop... I was distressed to see white marks on my bike when I returned, only to learn they were chalk with the lady's name, to indicate she was watching it. She had me look around the shop, and became really pushy when I indicated I didn't really want anything. I ended up talking her down to a price I felt I could afford to take a small jade and amethyst bracelet for Rachael. Afterwards I came to my homestay in Da Nang,  went out to a little pizza place for dinner, before heading to bed thinking I was ready for the morning.

I wasn't. Eli here. I got my third rabies shot that morning, but it proved to be a bit of an endeavor... I went to the International Hospital right when they opened at 7, and was told not only did they not have the same vaccine I had been getting, but a doctor wouldn't be available until 10. I was not waiting until 10 with the miles I had to go that day, over a mountain pass. I trekked over to the Family Hospital. ...Where they also didn't have the vaccine, and directed me to a preventive clinic, a good ways away. Thankfully, when I finally got to the clinic, it was a quick 20 minutes in and out, and $9 to get my shot. I got a hasty baked goods and Nutriboost breakfast, and hoofed it back to the hotel quick as I could, really wishing I had taken my bike, but I'd had no way to know when I started that I would be doing so much walking. With all that, I ended up with a late start at nearly 10am, a little concerned I wouldn't have the time I needed. The view of the ocean in Da Nang was gorgeous and I wish I had more time to enjoy it and stop for pictures, but I hurried to begin the big climb up to Hai Van pass. Along the way to the top, I met a couple bike tourists, and I encouraged myself that if they were going from Da Nang to Hue with as much gear as they were carrying (it was quite a lot, including a solar panel, as it was clear they were doing a lot of camping and quite self sufficient), I certainly could with my minimal load. It was work getting up, but not nearly as bad as I expected, and the views were incredible. I got a tourist to take a few photos of me, something I don't get often. The fog rolled in while I was at the top and restricted view, but it cleared during my the very quick descent (though slower than it could have been, because I got stuck behind a tanker for a little while). I was on flat ground from there all the way to Hue, with the wind in my favor at last, and I flew right along the whole rest of the way to Hue. Down an alley full of hotels, I arrived at mine, showed my booking, and got a room not quite what I expected, with a shared bathroom for one thing... Only to get a surprise knock at my door to explain that I was in fact, not in the right room, or even right hotel, and the sign I saw for mine was for the next one over (the receptionist who saw my booking couldn't actually read English). Oops. I apologized profusely on my hurried way out the door, unlocking my bike and going just a few feet over. I then got settled into the right hotel, where I was given a very different reception, a welcome drink and fruit while being told about my tourist options for the next day.

I spent that next day exploring Hue, with a little over 20 miles of biking and a lot of walking. I briefly considered taking a bus and boat tour because I wanted the time off the bike, but then decided that would limit my freedom too much, and kept to what I know and stuck to riding my bike. I started the day by crossing the beautiful Perfume River and heading to the Imperial City. I paid a small fee to park my bike, and they chalked it and gave me a claim ticket, something I would get used to (unhappily, as when they did it on the saddle, it didn't come off easily at all), as it was the same at each stop. The Imperial City has some interesting architecture and history, though sadly the majority of the buildings that once stood there were destroyed during the Vietnam War. I wanted to be excited, but for some reason I honestly just wasn't feeling it that morning. Leaving the Imperial City, I rode along the river to the Thien Mu Pagoda, an impressive temple with an iconic seven story pagoda, and my spirits rose a little there. Then it was a beautiful ride along QL1A to get to Minh Mang Tomb, that section of riding actually one of my favorite parts of the day, making me glad I took the bike. You don't actually get to see the tomb itself, which was a little disappointing, but the grounds that surround it are quite scenic and well worth peacefully rambling through. I took the long way around the lake though, and it probably wasn't worth the walk, though at least it was devoid of other tourists. The man who held my bike for me had said that there would be no charge if I bought something, but he seemed to have forgotten that by the time I got back, hah. Then, truly saving the best for last, I came to Kai Dinh Tomb. What it lacks in the expansive scale of the other sites I visited that day, it more than makes up for in grandeur and commanding presence. For an emperor who was short lived, short-reigned, and not terribly well liked, Kai Dinh has an impressive mausoleoum, with a unique blend of Vietnamese and French influences in its design. It was by far my favorite part of the day. A vendor there had called out to me when I was parking and then watched my bike for me, and actually did hold to the agreement to not charge me if I bought a drink. After that, I rode back to the hotel, feeling a bit of Deja Vu as the final part of my loop took me on the exact same road I took through the city to get to my hotel yesterday (at least I knew the way this time!). Back at the hotel, I relaxed with a bath, an exceptionally rare opportunity as this is the first bathroom with a tub I've seen all tour. Then after a nice dinner this evening, I treated myself to a couple scoops of icecream at none other than a Baskin Robbins on the street right near my hotel. It cost as much as dinner, but it was definitely worth it. It was hilarious listening to a patron there singing along to a Disney song to the annoyance of the workers. It was ultimately a restorative day, despite my early ill mood.

It was a short, easy ride from Hue to Dong Ha that next day, without much to say about it. There I had my first Warmshowers host since leaving Thailand. I had a little trouble finding the alley they lived down, but a neighbor kindly directed me. It was a really good experience staying with him and his family. He has plans to travel around Thailand, and amongst other things, we chatted about my experiences there and the differences from Vietnam. He directed me to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant, recently open, unknown to Google Maps, at a beautiful location by a pond full of water lilies. After coming back, I met his friend who lives there, and got to see his collection of war artifacts. He would buy them from local merchants and homes (a picker as we might call him in the US, like that show). It was impressive, though also difficult to look at his collection of things like US mortar shells as anything but a sad remnant of a bloody war on this beautiful country. He looked at my belt, and gifted me one he said was better, US Army issue. He had me put it on right there, while I felt humbled and a little awkward. My host and his family shared a nice dinner with me in the evening, sitting not at the table inside, but on the front porch, legs crossed, a bit of a different experience for me. I embarrassed myself with chopsticks and was offered a spoon. My host didn't know they used fork and spoon primarily in Thailand, with chopstick use being rare there. During dinner we watched the TV as they talked about the Iranian missile strike. I am very far from Iraq, but somehow being abroad, the dread of possible war, after seeing those remnants displayed just hours before, felt even more potent. I was invited to go to a fair with the family, but I felt the need to retire to my room, talk to Rachael, and prepare for the next day. The bed was hard, and the dogs woke me at times, but the good evening was well worth it.

As my host headed for work, I got back on the road, headed to Dong Hoi. My shorts and my damned waterproof socks I am not sure why I took this trip were not quite dry from the line (I had gotten to machine wash my clothes that night for the first time since Thailand!). So, looking ridiculous, I rode with my shorts clipped to my backpack and my socks on my wrists... No one ever said I won't be a dork to get the job done. It was a little further ride that day, but still flat and easy-going. About midday I encountered a British tourist, doing a trip similar to mine, but starting in Bangkok (my shorts had dried and I had put them away, but I sure wondered what he thought of me wearing my socks on my wrists). We chatted a little while riding, but he was keeping a pace just a little faster than mine, and he carried on his way. He stayed in view for some while until I stopped for some pictures and then he was gone. After arriving in Dong Hoi, in true Hobbit fashion, I had first and second dinner (you could call the first a late lunch, but that is less fun), hitting up a pizza place, then walking along the river for awhile, before going to another Western catered restaurant before returning to the hotel for the evening.

It was another easy 50 mile ride from Dong Hoi to the little town of Ky Long the next day. I took a very slight detour that morning to ride on a side road along the ocean and check out some neat sand dunes where I'm told people do some sand surfing. From there it was all highway, mostly inland along fields, but coming up against the coast at a couple spots (ones I would have paid more attention to had I realized then they would be my last glimpses of the Pacific here in Vietnam). At one point I saw a large group of cyclists who appeared to be on a guided tour, headed south on the other side of the divided highway. I shouted hello and waved, but not one of them seemed to notice I existed. I thought I might see the British cyclist from the day before, since he is headed this same way, but no such luck. I stopped at a cafe that evening and struggled with Google Lens to figure out what I could order, cheese sticks and strawberry shake, not the best. Afterward, a couple women approached me and asked to take a photo with me, for no other reason I can guess aside from being able to say they ran into this Westerner in town. Of course, I said why not, and smiled for the camera as I always do. It made me feel less bad about the Westerners doing the same sort of thing with Buddhist monks and the like. My hotel that night was really nice, except I somehow ended up with a smoking room, and the smell was pretty bad (but hey, not mold or bed bugs right?).

It was a beautiful, just over 70 mile ride to Vinh, my last city in Vietnam. It was fairly uneventful until about mid-ride as I neared Ha Tinh. I passed some more churches and remnants of manger scenes as I got to town. At one point while I stopped to open and eat a bag of candy, a woman came up on motorcycle and asked for it. I offered to share, but she made it clear she wanted the whole bag. I was a little dumbfounded, but reasoned she must need it more than me and gave it to her. Though it left a little sour taste in my mouth losing that sugar I was craving. A little later, while riding through Ha Tinh, a motorcyclist came up beside me and chatted while we rode. Our conversation was strained (he heard me saying I was from the United States as Switzerland instead, but that's somewhat my fault, as I have learned no one understands United States, only USA, or better, though less accurate, America). He offered for me to come back to his home, but I declined politely, having miles to make. He turned off, as I rode on out of the city. Most of my problems with dogs in Asia have been while walking, but there was an exception late in my ride that day. I had a pack of three dogs come after me and drive me off the shoulder, a semi blaring its horn behind me. I'm actually thankful for the semi, as I think it's what finally scared them off. Then of course, right when I relaxed, I heard that terrible panting, and saw another dog in my mirror running after me. I sprinted at over 20mph to not let him catch up. Dogs... But they were wiped from my mind quickly as I then rode through a gorgeous valley of rice fields with mountains on either side, by far the most scenic part of the day right before arriving in Vinh. I got a fancy hotel (central air!) with a great view from my room. Though when I went to dinner at the hotel restaurant, I found myself barraged by every kind of meat option and almost nothing for me. And the hotel is a little far from everything else, so I felt some regrets.

I took a personal day the next day with nothing but a couple chores planned. So far every day before that I haven't been on the road has involved a lot of walking around, often some biking, and a great deal of sight seeing. I finally opted for a day doing none of that. I woke a little late, stuffed myself at breakfast, and came back to the room to chill and watch a movie. A little before noon I went out into the foggy, rainy, and windy weather, which I actually found quite welcome. I found the clinic that I hoped to go to the next day, closed, but hopefully open in the morning. I walked to Central Park, and also found it disappointingly closed. I got a large lunch at a vegetarian place, stuffed myself to bursting. Then after a short walk, I got doughnuts at a bakery (can't say I'm not at least trying to put my lost weight back on). I then shopped at a convenience store to get a bunch of junk food for when I soon won't have access to it in Laos. Somehow, I ended up paying for and getting hot sauce that I never set on the counter and have no idea where came from. A mild irritation at best, but it bugs me a little that I have nothing to really do with it but throw it away. By the time I got back to the hotel it ended up more walking than I planned, but I still had quite a bit of time in the evening to just relax.

This morning after breakfast I successfully got rabies shot number 4 without any difficulties at all. Somewhere in Thailand I will have to get my 5th and final shot in two weeks, and then I am done at last. Today was a very short 30 mile ride, to stage myself closer to the border, ensuring I can get across and to a place to stay tomorrow. It was a beautiful ride. Google directed me along some wonderful side roads through scenic countryside and small villages. I saw impressive cemeteries in the midst of rice fields. I got to see water buffalo being used to work fields and to pull carts down the road, as well as other glimpses at rural life. I had the chance to stop at an interesting temple with not a tourist, or anyone else for that matter, to be seen. It was a short ride, but not an uneventful one. I got to my hotel in the early afternoon. I thought it was the only option, but some after the fact searching shows there is another, seemingly far nicer hotel just a bit further, which also would have put me closer to the border for tomorrow. Oh well. It is far from the best (the bathroom is fairly moldy), but cheap, and not the worst I have been in so far by far. As I walked through town here, a group of women called me over to join them at their meal. I could only eat the oranges, but it was really nice and I enjoyed chatting with them through a neighbor boy who came and served as interpreter. I am going to miss Vietnam, the people, the chay restaurants, the walkable sidewalks, vending machines, the beautiful scenery... It will be hard to say goodbye tomorrow. But Laos will be a new adventure, and one that will bring me closer to home.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Vaccinations in Vietnam

The 85 mile ride from Dalat to Nha Trang, despite being overwhelmingly downhill overall, was not an easy one. I was at 4500 feet up in Dalat, and would climb up to well over 5000 after leaving the city, and I knew that I would end the day at the ocean, sea level, so I knew there was a massive descent coming way sooner or later in the day. And yet, mile after mile up and down hills, that big descent did not seem forthcoming. I stopped at a cafe outside a small zoo up in the mountains (the zoo itself I had not the time or interest for), and got some overpriced icecream and soda. I sat on a bench in the corner where I could see my bike, which happened to be where a mangy dog took residence on a fly covered blanket. There was a small child who wanted very much to pet the dog, and kept clutching at my knee while he did so. The dog was his interest, I was just something to hold onto while he bent toward the dog. His parents seemed concerned that I would mind, but I just kept eating my icecream as the kid clung to my knee and petted the dog. Something about the innocence of the incident and the way that child had no reason to think of me as anyone different (or as anything but a handhold) stuck with me. After I finished eating, a zoo worker approached me to tell me about how he had ridden his bicycle up the coast of Vietnam himself. I asked him if the descent was coming soon, and he indicated it wasn't too much longer. When it finally came... Oh man, that really was a monstrous descent, and amongst the most memorable I've had. It was a real test of my brakes too, as I wound down the mountain on some serious switchbacks. For awhile I was stuck behind a forerunner (I found its name funny at the time as I was following it) that was less confident on the turns than I was. It was a lot of fun and the views were breathtaking. I was able to take video for the first 15 minutes, when I came to the first slight plateau where I could stop, checking to see that 15 minutes had burned most the GoPro battery. I saw a couple bike tourists on their way up, getting relatively close to the top, but I had time only to wish them "Good luck!" before flying past, wondering in retrospect if I shouldn't have said something more encouraging and if it would be taken wrong. After getting to the bottom, the last 20 miles were mostly, blissfully, flat. But I had the East wind from off of the ocean making it feel like I was back to a gradual climb. I made it into Nha Trang with very little sunlight left, 85 miles, 4000 feet of up, and we'll over 8000 down. I got set up at my hotel and then went out to get dinner. On the way, I stopped to look at my phone for directions...and a dog ran right up and nipped me on the leg. I cursed, and someone called the little jerk off. It was really minor, barely broke the skin, but the thought of rabies swelled in my mind. I hoped to wash it off at the restaurant, but they said there was no wash room I could use. I was given some tigerbalm to put on it, whatever that was supposed to do. I ate quickly, went back to the hotel, washed thoroughly, and then started researching. I ultimately decided I needed my shots, especially considering the low vaccination rate for dogs here. Late at night, wanting nothing more than to sleep, I headed to the hospital. ...I got directed in circles, realized my only hope that late was the emergency room, saw the line, saw the long form with no English, couldn't get anyone to talk to me, and gave up. I got chased by two more dogs on the way back... I went to bed stressed at the end of what had been an awesome day.

Thankfully, I was in Nha Trang, where there's the Pasteur Institute and a vaccination clinic I could go to that morning. I got my first shot of many that morning for an astoundingly low $10 after a few hurdles. Then, with a bit of a late start, I hit the road. ...Well, kind of. And there, I decided to do something important; find a rock. It's a ritual of mine, that I've been doing since my second tour. Just a few days ago I had lost my wallet, only getting it back thanks to some serious kindness and luck, and now I had created a huge logistical hurdle to avoid a deadly disease all because I hadn't been paying enough attention to not get bit by a dog. In my life I have often been overwhelmed with self loathing over errors and failures of far lesser consequence. There have been many times I have even gotten so bogged down in self resentment, I have scarcely been able to function. And yet, now, huge of mistakes I had made, I found that I was able to forgive myself for them. I realized that I can forgive myself, even when I really mess up. So, I stood at the coast of the Pacific here in Vietnam, for the first time ever from this side. And it felt as if I had somehow come full circle from where I began when I set out for the Pacific on my first bike tour all those years ago. On my second tour, making my way down the American Pacific, I scratched my guilt into a rock and tossed it into the ocean. It would end up becoming a yearly ritual for me. I scattered my jealousy across the Great Lakes. I threw my shame into the Atlantic. I let go of my self doubt in the Gulf. And there, at the beach in Nha Trang, I released my self-hatred into the South China Sea. And it felt really good to finally be rid of it. Of course, much as this ritual has come to mean to me, I know it's just that, a symbolic gesture, substantive only in the mind. But that's where our inner struggles occur, and symbolism helps us make sense of them. When negative emotions rear up, I calm them by telling myself I have cast them into the water, and it doesn't matter that it's all in my head, because there's where the feelings are too. There will of course be times I falter and still fail to forgive myself. But the important thing is that I can forgive myself for that too. I tossed that rock into the big ocean waves, and with a lighter load, if only in my mind, I started that day's journey.

Luckily I only had a 55 mile day planned, so even with my very late start I managed. I saw some of the most beautiful coastline I'd ever seen. My favorite stretch was where just out of Nha Trang the main road went inland, and I stayed on the coastline along a road that was blissfully low on traffic. As the day progressed, more and more clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, giving me a bit of a fight, and it was evident a storm was coming.  Then finally, right before I arrived at the budget resort where I stayed in a tiny beach bungalow for the night, it began to rain. It felt good to see and feel rain, after going over a month without witnessing the slightest hint of precipitation. I tried to explain that to the receptionist showing me to my bungalow, but he didn't seem to understand. It was odd being at the resort seemingly alone, sitting down at a table in a huge outdoor dining space all by myself. The dogs who kept following me around, I admit made me nervous. The bungalow was cozy and would have been fine (even had a mosquito net of sorts around the bed), if it weren't for the ants... I should have taken the warning about not bringing food in for "sanitation reasons" (the warning that was only in Vietnamese I should note), because the little bastards got into my trunk bag. I would end up drowning them all in a shower, giving my bag a much needed cleaning in the process, the next night to get rid of them.

That day was largely uneventful as I continued my way up the coast, with only a short time of it was spent right along the ocean. I passed by flooded fields and through small towns, while fighting a headwind the whole way (something I have become accustomed to). I was glad I got a good breakfast at the resort and stopped for vegetarian banh mi for lunch, because I completely failed to find anywhere that would serve me vegetarian food in the tiny town I was in that night. When I stepped out to get food, the son of the hotel owner asked where I was headed. I explained I was vegetarian, and there was a lot of clamor between him and his mom on where I could go. I should have known then I was not going to be in luck. They suggested a noodle place I failed to find. I walked first one way, then back the other. One place I thought would have something for me, the man took one look at me and said, no, no, no, as he stalked back to the kitchen. ... Yeah, it's a great feeling being denied service (something that has only happened to me in that town), and I am wholly against the notion that we let people in the US refuse service to others based on their religious convictions or any other reason. If you ever face the feeling of being turned away in a small town where there is nowhere to go, and you don't understand already, you will. A woman at a cafe I thought would serve me also just pointed me away as soon as I approached. And every other place was very kind and happy to serve me...just not vegetarian. I at least managed to hit up a grocier right before they closed, and get some junk food to get through the night, but it was a sorry excuse for a meal and I felt pretty defeated, swearing off staying in too small of a town like that.

It was a short, beautiful ride the next day up the coast, just 40 miles, in order to put myself in Qui Nhon, to get my second rabies shot at the general hospital in the morning. One of the few moments from the ride that stuck with me was when I stopped off the side of the road to take pictures of my bicycle against the backdrop of the coast and two guys showed up on motorcycle. I thought they were going to judge me for some reason...but it turns out they were doing the exact same thing, taking pictures of their motorcycle with the ocean behind it. It gave me a good inner laugh. That evening I indulged a little and went to a pizzeria run by an Australian of Italian descent, bringing pizza as he is accustomed to it to the region. While I could have certainly gone to a chay (Buddhist vegan) restaurant for much cheaper, it was really nice eating pizza the way I'm used to (with delicious cheese imported from Australia), plus it was fun talking to the restaurant owner too. I got really lucky because they were closing early for New Year's, and I was their very last customer. The Aussie had spent the last five years in Vietnam, and we talked about the Christmas phenomenon (and how Halloween is apparently a thing here now too), pizza, the fires in Australia, and I even asked what to expect from the hospital (when I asked if I could ask a possibly unusual question as preface, he said he didn't have any weed, because he gets asked a lot, and I found it funny). He assured me the hospital visit would go fine. I hit Vin-mart and stocked up on junk food afterward (clear yet how after going hungry last night what I had on my mind?). Later when I went down to make sure my bike would be brought into the hotel tonight, I had a fun interaction via Google translate with the son of the owners, who explained he had also biked across Vietnam, and he gave me a wristband from that ride as a souvenir. It was a fun day.

I got rabies shot number 2 that next morning. It took a little more time than the first shot, as I initially went to the wrong part of the hospital, then after talking to a very helpful English speaking doctor, at the vaccination area there seemed some kerfuffle I didn't begin to understand over my paperwork, and after getting my shot I was asked to stay for half an hour to make sure I had no reaction (and believe me, waiting around at that point was hard). It also cost over double what the first did, but at $23, it's still shockingly cheap compared to what it would be in the US. I mean, it cost me nearly $1000 for my other vaccinations I got stateside... Once that was done with, I went back to the hotel, and quickly hit the road. It was cloudy all day and there was light rain on and off throughout most of it. I found it interesting watching as everyone else on the road donned their ponchos to stay dry, while I opted to enjoy getting wet and the cooling effect it offered (though I could have gone without all the mud). There were some small hills to climb and as always, the wind to face, but it wasn't a hard day, and with my late start, I was happy with the 65 miles I did. Before coming to my hotel, which is quite nice, but in an odd, out of the way spot from most of town, I hit up a Chay (Buddhist Vegan) restaurant. As a vegetarian in Vietnam, when I see "cơm chay" I know I am where I need to be. The food is always delicious, cheap, and I know I can eat any of it. The only shame this time was that the chef/owner had to go out before I could order a second helping! But at least I was able to get some vegan candy to go from her son (though sadly one of those items was a bag of green bean and durian cakes, which you would expect). I watched Rick and Morty and Lost in Space on Netflix at the really nice, and cheap, hotel room I had that night. It was hard to want to sleep.

Which caused me to stay up way too late and get a later start that morning and this one, a trend I am looking to put a stop to tonight. The last couple days' rides to Quang Ngai and then to Tam Ky were short, easy rides that were fairly uneventful. Today was just 40 miles that were so flat and quick, it was one of those days that I felt shamed to not be going further. But from a practical perspective, needing to stay in Vietnam until I get my fourth shot, my pace is fairly locked down, with no sense hurrying to Vinh to wait around. I hit up another super cheap Chay restaurant tonight, where I just walked in and she went back to the kitchen and came back with a heaping plate of food, which only cost me 15000VND. My room tonight would be simple but nice, if it weren't for the mold... Yeah, less than ideal, but at least I have no known allergies to it. Tomorrow I reach Da Nang, where in the morning of the next day I intend to get my third shot. Stay tuned for my Vietnam Vaccination Saga.