Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

Blogging since 2003. Thank you for reading :))

Friday, December 28, 2012

"Perfect" 10

Hai Van Pass
Dec distance: 652 km

21-28 Dec, Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, 507 km

Among the Indochina countries I've cycled in, I've read the most about Vietnam. I've planned this trip for years, eg in 2008 I formed a group, giving as much as ten months' notice but people pulled out. After a few more attempts in subsequent years, I'm too embarrassed to say "I'm going Vietnam" but not go. To avoid further embarrassment, I ask only speedy B and even if he pulls out, I'd go solo.

Vietnam is the tenth country I've cycled in. I chose Quang Tri Province because of its historical significance and because Danang is far away from the manic traffic of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. It is also my 13th expedition. And my first with catastrophic failure (I didn't invent this phrase!) - it was so bad that when it happened, I knew the ride was over for me and it's time to go home. Still, to paraphrase, a good "incident" is one you can walk away from.

Meanness and kindness
Day 1: 21 Dec, Danang environs, 72 km. The games begin when I walked out the airport. Taxi touts quote me the fare, saying the hotel is "very far". My (triangulated) research tells me this is double what it should be. Another guy appears later with a decent price. The driver wrestles with my bicycle box. I sit in front of the cab in a foetal position. It's only a few minutes to the hotel, which lets me put the bicycle in the room with no fuss.

And this is why I tour with fat tyres on MTB
Cycling in the city is an art. As the joke goes, Americans drive on the right, British on the left and Vietnamese on both sides of the road. Going round the traffic circus is, well, a circus. There are multiple near collisions, horns honk, but no one is frazzled. They literally go with the flow. The air isn't good. Lady scooterists wear masks, guys wear machismo.

On my orientation ride, I head away from the city. Six lanes of road end up as a country road. I go offroad, past rice fields and into a village. There are dogs but they leave me alone. I head back to the city. It gets dark around 5.30 pm. I am lost. A couple on a motorbike who speak some English (“what is your name, are you Korean“) ask me to follow them through the city. I'm now in rush hour traffic, and I keep  close to them to keep up my nerve. At the hotel, I wait for B to arrive from the airport and off to dinner we go.

Nightstop: Duy Anh Hotel 

Monkey business
Hoi An: view from lunch spot
Day 2: 22 Dec, Danang to Hoi An to Danang, 114 km. I have two close calls with motorcyclists in separate incidents; one stopped broadside in front of me in the middle of the road, while the other cut in in front of me.

At Hoi An, we lunch on a little island where local youths eat, and we order through sign language. The staff show us how to eat food we've not seen before. We return to Danang via scenic coastal route, instead of AH17.

As we make good time, we head for Son Tra Peninsula. B's iPhone GPS shows there's no road to the top of Monkey Mountain, while my map does. Since we can't find the road, we just take the road as it come. The end of the road is a high class hotel, which seems to have uniformed staff clad in polo t-shirts at every junction. They want us to park our bicycles in the carpark, out of sight. No thanks, we'd rather go hungry.

Boats, with Son Tra Peninsula in background
We stop for "dinner" at 4.30 pm, a simple meal of fried rice which takes half an hour to come, and comes with nothing fried. The vodka lady (she serves liquor, based on what she serves and what's printed on her clothes) says "shhh" and gives us another plate of rice, gratis. By 5.30, it is dark. I can barely read my map in the dark. B's phone has run out of juice. Some dead reckoning, compass reading (it's always "on"!) and asking for directions (including misdirection) gets us back to the hotel. It was a guy who came to help and have me a pat on the back who set me right. I'm glad to be back at the hotel. Things look different at night and dodging night traffic is an experience.

Nightstop: Duy Anh Hotel

Cold weather, warm hospitality
Day 3: 23 Dec, Danang to Hue, 114 km. We weave our way out of the city to the coast. The sea is angry, grey and frothing blow the grey sky. I get wet, is it from the rain, sea spray or both? It's uphill, then downhill at 8% gradient on the wet road, wet rims and cross winds. There are helpful road signs of cars hurtling into thin air.

Hai Van Pass fortifications: abandoned, except by tourists
We pass two duos of cyclotourists, all warmly dressed. I wave. We are in tropical clothes, no rain wear. At the 500m peak, I clamber up to take photos of the fortifications.

It is cold, especially going downhill. Ah, the familiar feeling of shivering cold and wet, cold feet. My fingers are numb and wrinkled; water can be squeezed out of the half-finger gloves. It is kinda scary going downhill on windy and winding mountain roads. Several times, I'm blinded as rain gets into my eyes, wrap-around glasses notwithstanding. Rain even seeps into my sealed map case. And how did moisture coat my phone, which is sealed in two ziploc bags? Is it condensation, which formed when I zoomed downhill from cool hill top at ear-popping speed into the plains?

Down the hill, we get fleeced. Shopkeeper points to Coke bottles, and delivers canned knock-offs in the same red and white livery. She asks us for a favour when she findsbout where we're from. She'd like us to change some money so she can get Dong back, but gives us a bad rate. She then charges double the price of the real thing Coke.

B's bicycle (with carbon frame, rims and pump) punctures. Later, I'm almost hit by a small truck which pulls out spitting distance away from me.

We manage to find the hotel in the maze that is Hue. Staff ask us to leave our bicycles outside the hotel; they'd take them in at night. "It's our responsibility", they say, feelings hurt, as we proceed to chain our magnificent machines together. They send cold lime juice and cut fruits (watermelon and mangoes) to our room. Boiling water and hot showers, we help ourselves to.

Hue is decked out for Christmas - shops, eating places have faux fir trees, Santa, fake snowflakes. Clearly, this place is geared towards tourists from the West.

Nightstop: Jade Hotel

Boat on the road
Ferry service on an underwater road
Day 4: 24 Dec, Hue to Dong Ha via Sia, 128 km. After the hotel breakfast (my choice was dessert-sized, which B topped up with the usual tasty baguette with pate), we're off to find another coastal route away from AH1 motorway madness - a road I looked for yesterday, but didn't find.

I turn off the highway on a hunch and end up on a picturesque village road. When I stop to ask directions, people crowd around to help. A stretch of bad, gravel road ends up underwater. Ooops! But there's a boat, which pulls back to "shore" for us. Early Christmas present!

Back on the above-water road, we pass tombs on little islands. It's only later that I realise it wasn't meant to be that way; the place is simply flooded. One tomb was the same size as a decent home for four. That's for the rich (dead). For the poor (alive), some live in the cemetery, including one on a boat.
It is cold, especially when we stop for lunch. I realise how cold it is when I cough out vapour, and it isn't steam from the noodle soup.

Ok, enough suffering. I break out my raincoat, on its baptism by water. On the road, my fat tyres whirr deeply, rain pitter patters lightly on my raincoat and wind roars in my ears.

"All together now, 'this is a road, not river'." Photo courtesy of B
I see a lady wading in water, and motorbikes stop at the high watermark. Is the road passable? I point where I'm going, lady nods and wades on. And so we roll, in faith. From road markers, I guess where the road ends and the fields begin. I hope there are no big holes in the road; my machine isn't equipped with sonar ...

It is cold. At a rest stop, a customer removes a pot from a wood-fire stove and gestures B to warm his hands over it.

This trip so far has brought the saying home: "you can say anything you want"
a. We didn't find the coastal road yesterday, but that meant we weren't whipped by the cold sea wind
b. I regretted (initially) using fat tyres instead of thin slicks trying to keep up with B, but on bad roads, I have peace of mind, even when B's aero wheels slice through water while my knobbies splash like a paddle boat
c. It's good to be back on the highway, after cycling through "causeways" which wind through flooded fields, and more flooded roads.

Ben Hai River. Once, people here were sitting ducks
At the hotel, B asks to put our bicycles in the room. The hotel staff wheel our filthy machines in, no questions asked. I dump my baggage there and head for the historic Ben Hai River.
It is further than I estimate, and this turns out to be a race against the dark. On the way back, as I head downhill, a motorcyclist pulls out. There's no way I can avoid colllision. I bellow. He must've heard the desperation in my voice, and stops. I shoot past. This madness is like East Coast Park, expressway version.

Back at the hotel, I check my machine, and replace my rear brake pads, which have worn thin. Little do I know what that portends.

Nightstop: Phung Hoang Hotel

The rim reaper
Day 5: 25 Dec, Dong Ha to Lao Bao, 79 km. I wonder what Vietnamese make of Christmas. Why is a fat guy in red and white (and I've not seen fat people here at all) give away things for nothing? If he needs to pee, does he stop on the road without pulling his reindeer and sleigh to the roadside, just as some cars and buses don't pull to the side when people get off to pee?

No panniers required
Does he pull out without looking for oncoming traffic too? I notice that when cars, trucks and buses pass motorbikes and cyclists, the bigger machines toot maniacally, to deter the smaller machines, which seem to say "if I don't hear you, you're not there, because I use my ears to detect you, not my eyes". And as Santa slices through the air, does he greet kids with "hellowhat'syourname"?

As I cycle, I realise I no longer need songs in my head. Cycling, and being in the here and now, is enough. And here is Highway 9. For about a decade last century, people died in these hills. Some hills have names, others just numbers. Everyone who died here, has names. Some bodies were never found. Some were blown to bits, or became red mist.

Khe Sanh
B's tyre punctures; side wall torn. I inflate my tyres so I can go faster; they've become squishy. Cycling here is harder than I thought. This is not as high as Hai Van Pass, but these are hills, nonetheless, with roads at 7-8% gradients. But of course. Why else would this have become a war zone?

Downhill I go at up to 59.3 km/h. No holds barred, no brakes, no pedaling, just gravity. As I level up, my rear tyre feels weird. I look down, slow down. Puncture? I've just about stopped when BANG! My rear wheel locks.

My Made in France rim has met its Dien Bien Phu. The rim has exploded, it tears over 40 cm, like paper. The water torture yesterday, the high tyre pressure and the stress of today's downhill and past journeys have taken their toll.

People hear the explosion. Those across the road, point to a motorbike repair shop just metres away. B, who is ahead of me, returns in moments. A motorcyclist had overtaken him and pointed in my direction. At the shop, I say "taxi". Someone fiddles with his phone, uses sign language to say "expensive" then suddenly flags down a van. Which turns out to be a public bus. I would never have known. There's room enough for my broken bicycle, among the passengers and cargo. This is not just a passenger bus, it is a delivery van. What a string of fortuitous coincidences.

Oh wheel, you let me down
More like, the other way round
What if my wheel had blown while I was going downhill? Why am I so calm? I should be lamenting my fate, instead of accepting that my ride is over. I'm just a few km from Laos. And perhaps another 300 km left to cycle before I go home. Now, it's all over.

The bus driver stops at my hotel. He hands me my broken bicycle and looks at me, as if to see if I'm ok, before he boards his van.

In my haste and perhaps shock, I realise I've not thanked the kind people who, individually through simple acts like pointing and flagging down a bus, collectively got me back safely. This is the first time I've encountered catastrophic failure. The first time I've aborted an expedition. If my tyre punctures, I'll be back on the road in minutes. If the frame breaks, I have stuff that might fix it. If there's some bloodshed, I've got a first aid kit. And emergency medical evacuation. But a broken wheel? Game over. I check the airline schedule and make several calls to Danang, so I can go home early. Fortunately, there's someone at the hotel who speaks English.

B returns from the Lao border crossing. It's good cycling weather today. I brief him on route details and pass him the maps he'll need to cycle back to Danang.

Nightstop: Phung Hoang Hotel

Walk on the wild side
(non-cycling days henceforth)
Day 6: 26 Dec, Dong Ha to Danang (by bus). Today is no alarm clock day. It's 60 km for B, 0 for me. I zip tie and tape my rim to avoid gashes. I push broken bicycle to the bus station, pay half a million(!) to board it. The bicycle goes into the back of the bus: bag, front wheel and all. No need to remove anything. The bus crawls to pick up more passengers; I'm glad it isn't as crowded with people and cargo, unlike yesterday.

Hai Van Tunnel
The journey takes about 4 hours, including ten minutes in the Hai Van Tunnel (I later find out this is the longest road tunnel in Southeast Asia). At Danang, the bus station is perhaps 1 km away from my hotel according to one map. Another states the distance is over 2 km. I choose to be an optimist and walk. It turns out to be an hour's walk away. Several people laugh as they see my 'naked' rim. Others point somewhere, presumably to bicycle shops. I see a couple of bicycle shops; that kind of shop that sells tricycles, bicycles and motorbikes. The tape and zip tie break somewhere along the way.

Cycling around a traffic circus is an experience. Pushing a laden bike even more so, as traffic whizzes about from multiple directions. At the hotel, I park bicycle in hotel room and skip lunch. Sheer single-mindedness. Not hungry until the job is done. Then I visit some shops I'd passed. At a supermarket checkout, the cashier counts the change carefully, more for my sake than hers. Each counter has a securify card who looks at the grocery bill.

Nightstop: Duy Anh Hotel (for subsequent nights too)

No entry
Day 7: 27 Dec, Danang. Since I'm here without a seviceable bicycle, I go into pedestrian mode to see the sights. There is a highly-recommended military museum. I have the correct address but am shooed away by rifle-toting guards. The address is correct, but the place is wrong.

Danang Cathedral
The museum is further down the road, but no entry. The helpful sign in English says there is a minimum group size. I wait for a group to appear but go away disappointed after waiting about an hour. There are two other visitors, plus me which makes three but the guard takes delight in saying "no", with a smirk. Two locals plus a foreigner doesn't count; it seems everyone must be a foreigner; no mixing of locals with foreigners.

I head for Danang Cathedral then, to give thanks for being safe. So, military museum is open for visitors, I'm prepared to pay entry fee but am denied entry into the compound although the place is busy with people in uniforms. The church is closed, I don't have to pay any fee and there is no one about, but I'm allowed into the compound. A caretaker appears, closes the main gate with me (and another tourist) inside! When I approach the caretaker, he motions me to exit via the back entrance, then disappears, leaving me and the other tourist to leave whenever we want.

Breakfast in bed
Day 8 28 Dec. I buy baguettes for breakfast and make coffee for breakfast in bed. This is B's first unsupported solo ride on foreign soil and we go our separate ways home today. I pass him my Danang city map and tell him how to go to market before his flight. We have a quick debrief before we part ways.


What I liked most about this trip
  • Up Hai Van Pass 
  • Cycling on country roads and bad roads on my dear Little Red Tank 
  • The kind people who showed me the way, including those who flagged down the bus to Dong Ha Baguettes 
  • Nice hotels (Duy Anh, Jade) 
What I disliked: the rules/guard at Danang military museum

What I found interesting
  • Cycling on underwater roads 
  • Wheel explosion. It doesn't consume me with regret; I'm grateful all I have is a little scratch to remind me of my mortality. It's given me some perspective and I did get driven through Hai Van Tunnel. B cycled in the drizzle and had his legs coated black with dirt. I also got to walk and wheel bicycle through Vietnam city traffic safely, and gave some entertainment to gawkers along the way.


Lennon said...

Hi Kevin, glad to know you're alright! I've yet to hear of such failures until I read your account.

True enough, a little Googling shows such incident does happen, though it may not be common.

Do take care, fix your bike, and keep your expeditions alive!

Best wishes,

Horseman said...

Hi Lennon thanks for your message and the link. I've gotten my bike fixed, with downhill rims. "Bullet proof" now eh? Hope the rest of the bicycle holds up :p