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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.

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