Ho Chi Minh Bound: Sun shines on QL20 (37)

In stark contrast to the ride into Dalat, which involved crossing the Phlegethon, where torrential rains and mountain climbs were the least of woes; the ride out was positively a treat.

Sun shines through the evergreens. From the road, you can catch glimpses into the valley. Slow down and savour the moment. Inhale deeply. For a second the smell brings you home. Soft pine, cool fresh air. Look to prolong this place for an eternity, to disappear into the forest. Mixed emotions. It is a beautiful day for a ride, but leaving this town feels like leaving home. Love the mountains. Glide gently downhill. Unhurried. Feel the wind on your legs, sun on your face. Paradise.

Pedal out of the mountains and into the valley. Fields on either side bordered by tall, hulking masses. Brilliant blue skies and puffy white clouds. The weather is on your side. The country is beautiful.

Start pedaling up again. The sun is hot. Stop for juice- C hai, please. Stretch out in a hammock. Let the traffic fade away.

Go to pull bike bike out and there is resistance. Look down.

Not one, but two. Flat. Tires.

With purpose, move methodically, unstrap all the bags. The guys playing pool point fingers down the road, a Xe May. Smile. I’ve got this. Don’t need him. Unpack the tools. Unclip the breaks. Unhitch the front wheel, unbolt the back. Pull out the tires. Laziness in Dalat bites me in the ass, the spares still have holes.

Thuan comes to help. Together we are a pit crew, working fast.Out with the old, patch the holes, in with the new. Pump, pump, pump and they’re in. Know I’ve held my own because Thuan shakes my hand and hands over a beer, while I bungie everything back to the bike. Mot, hai, ba, yo! Thuan starts shotgunning his beer. Laugh heartily. Alright Thuan, we’ll do this your way- bottoms up, cul sec. Before leaving give Thuan the most awkward since junior high. Cam on, man.

Get back on the road, pedal up under the hot sun. The alignment on bike bike’s brakes are totally fuxxored. She is chirping like a bird. Hop off and tinker around. The ear piercing singing fades. Tiredness creeps in. Like magic, the playlist I’m listening to pounds some old favorites. Let the dance party begin. Sean Paul. Mamas and Papas. Offspring. Tom Waits. A smile spreads across my face. Legs find some motivation. Thank you, you knew just what I needed.

Pedal power town into the nearest town. Decide save last 30k we had planned for tomorrow and repair some more holes.

It’s been a day. Not a bad one though. 🙂

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dHCM Southbound: Me gusta viajar, Me gustas tú (31)

Days unfold like a storybook.

The downhill into Dak Glei through to Plei Can marks the end of the mountains. Silent thanks. Hillsides are a perfect patchwork of colors. A quilt crossed with shades of green, red and yellow, hand-hewn by earth and man. Move into the heart of the valley. Roll along the undulating countryside hills. Up and down, wind along the simple riverside path. Float along the breeze. Eyes drink in the fields and distant mountains.

Pass through small towns. Towns from another era. Whole families sing out hellos. I sing back. An “I love Vietnam” shirt flutters on the line. Homes with impossibly tall thatch roofs sit purposefully on the roadside, unchanged by the years. Pass by a simple dirt foot field, only the bamboo goalposts mark it’s purpose. A scooter whizzes past, he’s wearing a ‘Brack Oba My’ jersey. Tickled pink.

Double with two old men. Relaxed and easy, they share their scooter. The stoop of their shoulders and gentle bent of their arms tells you everything you need to know. They’ve shared this ride hundreds of times before, since long before you were born. Wide smiles are exchanged.

Coffee in Plei Can, turns into an extended stay. The town is lively. It starts raining and for the first time, Ho Chi Minh is coming too soon.

Gradually, the pattern changes. Hillsides dotted now with vegetation. Going into Kontum the traffic picks up. The city, like any provincial capital is functional. Feeling good, feeling the rhythm, head for Pleiku instead of stopping. The sun and wind are playing on my team.

After Pleiku, the traffic keeps coming, and so too does the road construction. Every road has it’s story and from Pleiku through Ea Drang, I’m fed a steady diet of gravel roads. Bump, bump, bump. Issue a low hum, just to hear timbre change. Modernity creeps in slowly, bamboo goalposts are exchanged for sturdy metal ones.

Just outside of Ea Drang the rack breaks. Strap the bags to the handle bars, throw the big backpack on and pedal along for a bit. Literally a hot mess. Hom comes to my rescue, scoops me into his bus and feeds me cake and water. After 90k in the sun, the tired must read on my face.

Wake and climb the hills out of Ea Drang, thankfully it’s a good day for a ride. Hard work, more gravel. Rewarded. Look down into the valley. Simply beautiful. In the morning, the scent of pine is everywhere. Stop for coffee and close my eyes. Pine from trees and smoke from wood burning fires fill my nostrils. Happy memories of campfires flood in. For a moment, this roadside hammock cafe brings me home.

Break off the main highway and take the back road into BMT. A wonderful decision. The horns are gone and the silence is golden. Can breath again. Fly down narrow country roads, that open and pass faux forests of deciduous trees- all planted in straight lines. Evenly spaced, as far as the eye can see, this looks like an oilfield reclamation project. Strange and beautiful.

Come upon an unexpected town. It follows the communism urban planning standards fantastically. Brutalist archway, with a red banner and yellow writing, marking the entrance to town? Check. Central dividing boulevard lined with small, expertly groomed topiaries? Check. Gratuitous hammer and sickle ornamentation? Check. Happy communism billboards depicting happy workers in hardhats and smiling children around Uncle Ho? Check. It is a delight.

Pumping Spanish and Portuguese dance music, roll into BMT having a full scale, on-bike dance party- it’s been a good afternoon. Happy, refreshed and ready for the climbs to Da Lat. Desperate for conversation, a short bus trip may be in store for bike bike and I.

(Dak Glei- Plei Can- Kontum[lunch]- Pleiku- Ea Drang- Buon Ma Thout)

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Rainy days: Trundling down the Ho Chi Minh Highway (27)

On the road again after a break in Hue and Hoi An (“disneyland”).

Leave Hoi An buoyed by friend love and inspiration. On the road for less than an hour and it begins to pour, this will be more or less the story of the next three days. Prune hands and prune feet.

Wake up. Tired. Pull on damp clothes, damp socks, damp shoes. Shiver. Nothing dries. Three days of damp clothes. Everything is musty. Sigh.

Today, yesterday, the day before: uphill. Hard days, tough climbs. Up, up and up some more. Sore muscles. The roads are beautiful, nested in the trees, cocooned by dense brush, fog dips down to kiss the mountain tops. It really is beautiful, the river beds, effervescent green hillsides, the mountain top views – but I am tired.

Each day has bright spots and dark spots. The days blur together like watercolour. Think back.

Pedaling up a hill and he starts jabbering at me fast and in vietnamese from his motorbike. Not uncommon. Pull over. Like a blur his hand races forward under my poncho. He grabs my crotch. Feel his fingers dig in. His fingernails are sharp. Scream like a banshee. He races off. Stand stunned. Sobs escape. Feel so violated. Keep pedaling. Dark spot.

Head for dinner most downtrodden. A group of friends pulls up a chair for me- an invitation to hot pot. Bright spot.

Wake to bed of ants. Fucking ants. Dozens upon dozens of tiny ants. Dark spot.

Uphill. Feeling most exhausted. Spot a kiosk, finally. Invited for lunch. Dance to Gangnam style. Bright spot.

More hills. More rain. Feel cold. Wet. Feel the drops hit my face again and again. Poncho is seemingly decorative and the packing tape repairs aren’t holding. Wet. So wet. Cold. Shiver. Shirt, shoes, bags. Wet. Feel the water squish between my toes. Dark spot.

The rain clears. Meet some crazy germans at a beautiful waterfall. Dinner together. Bright spot.

More climbing. More rain. Cold. Dark spots. The town that marked for lunch never appears. Fuel tank empty. Sense of agency dwindling. Chain keeps slipping. Dark spots.

Stopped on a fierce incline, Andreas of Ulm catches up to me on his motorbike. A most welcome face. He makes me laugh. Bright spot.

Keep pedaling. Walk when needed. Someone get me a ladder. Roll wearily into Dak Glei. Exhausted. Simply exhausted. Broken spirited. Don’t know how many more mountain days I’ve got in me.

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Gong show through the Hai Van Pass to Da Nang (21)

Curled in a hostel laughing. My pants are most unintentionally inside out. This describes the day. Gong show: Amanda style.

A picturesque road out of Hue. Through tiny towns, past smiling faces. Pull up to the sound, to the sand. Not another soul on the beach. Sun shining. Waves crashing. Heart beaming.

Hit bumpy roads. Highway 49b is just a narrow black tarmac, barely big enough for one. Treated to temples and low-lying fields that sparkle under the sun. Rice paddies dotted with wide-brimmed hats. Smell the salt. Feel the humidity like a comfortable old coat. The paddies become jungle and green fronds reach out to hold hands. Shade covers the road. Dirt colored with a rich hue of red. School kids are everywhere. With each smile mine grows, that thousand-watt feeling comes back.

Meet a group of cyclists on a tour. The first cyclists I’ve met. Another Edmontonian?! This day is too good. Play tag with them. They treat me to some of their phenomenally cold water. Crest a couple of tricky hills and finish with a lovely dinner near under a glowing orange harvest moon. Happy sigh.

Start the morning off right. Know the pass will be difficult. Grab a big bowl of pho. Universe is sending love my way. Back visiting his former home, an old vietnamese-american drinking beer for breakfast, pays my bowl. He wishes me luck.

Head up. The road up is slow. Pedal, stop, water. Repeat. Keep going. Determined ride, not walk up pass. Decide, slow is okay- I’m literally taking the scenic route after all. Pedal, stop, water. Repeat. Keep going. It doesn’t take long for my legs to feel leaden. They get heavier with each rotation.

Take a proper break near a bridge. Two bikes pull over. They smile, “we saw you riding yesterday”. They run a motorbike company. With love, wishes of encouragement and gifts of water, wet napkins and orange-yoghurt drinkboxes, they’re off. I sit a while longer. Admire the mist, the sea, the steep verdant hillsides. Listen to the quiet stream and the gentle roar of the sea below– wild static. Sorry friends, this channel isn’t available.

Keep going. Near the top, pull over and stretch out the length of a concrete barrier, relax under the shade. Drift in and out.

Pedal the last 50m to the top. Pass the women selling kitsch.

A yelp of excitement. Little fist pump. It’s really the top. Made it over the top. Look down. The road before me is long. It’s all downhill from here. Finally.

Start down. Haven’t gone far before my chain gets stuck. Pull over. Stick my hand in. Wrestle around and finally wrench the chain free. Kickstand breaks. Fuck sakes. Hands to elbows are jet black. Send a silent thank you out to my bridge friends for wet napkins.

Keep going. Can feel the brakes slipping. Can’t get my bike out of first gear. Try all the tricks I know. Nervously, hop back on. Downhill on first gear feels like riding on a tightrope.

Pull over. Tighten the brakes out of necessity. Nervous. Don’t like doing my own brakes. Reluctantly, keep going. Decide to glide slow the rest of the way.

The air gets heavy. You can feel it before it happens. The skies open up. Intermittent rains start. Pull over. Cover my bags. Get out thick floor-length green poncho, wrap it loosely around my shoulders. The saddest looking superhero you’ve ever seen. Laugh heartily.

Brakes loose traction.

Snap.

If the rear-break wasn’t gone before, it definitely is now. Laugh over crying. This is ridiculous. Literally, all the things have gone wrong.

Covered in a green tarp, with a brakeless-kickstandless-stuck-in-first-gear bike, start walking down. Step, step, step. Almost out of the pass and just before the bay. Realize there will be no more riding today.

Flail like a crazy woman and flag down the nearest van. Petra and Oliver of Freiburg to the rescue. In their silver steed, they scoop us up and deposit us at the doorstep of a hostel in Da Nang. Profuse thanks are issued for the duration of the ride.

What. a. day. 🙂

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hải_Vân_Pass

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Subtle Differences: The Road to Hue (14)

Duong Ho Chi Minh is a comfortable 2-lane highway, tucked from the glare and bustle of cities. Gentle, meandering. Grass creeps to brush the white line. Still and quite greet the ears, an old friend finally returned. Crossed by friends on the road. A welcome interruption.

Stare into vast swaths of impenetrable green. Dense brush and denser canopies. Cannot possibly understand how someone thought to fight a war here. Idiots.

Pass pines tapped like maples and wonder what kind of syrup their making. Snigger.

A parade of dead butterflies. Make note. See each one. Watch their small paper wings flutter on the breeze. One last dance with the wind before they are swept away.

Feel the heat. It has changed. Eyelids slick with sweat long before lunch. Nine feels like noon. A bead of sweat creates a seam between suspender and rib, and slides down slowly. Another glides down the gastrocnemius. Concentrating becomes the hardest part. Thoughts are long and scattered. Harder to keep a rhythm, any rhythm. Briefly wonder what it would be like to cycle somewhere cooler. A Brigitte Jones voice interrupts my thoughts, “would be cycling prodigy, like a two-balled Lance Armstrong”. Chuckle heartily. How absurd.

110k later pull over at a nga nghi in Dong Ha. A room with a distinctly brothel like feel. Delightful.

The morning greets me with a flat tire. Lazy and anxious to get rolling, pull into a mechanic. Surely he can fix it faster.Unload, unlash. Thankfully, I bought quick release nothing. Sigh.

He has no tools that fit. This has to be the most ridiculous town. Change my tire with my tools and my spare in front of the mechanic. He seems to think I am incapable and rather abruptly pushes me out of the way, only once the job is nearly done. He decides to tinker with the rear breaks. Uh. Okay. Has the audacity to ask for money. I light up.

Cycle away. Half a block later realize the breaks are looser than a hooker’s vagina. Fully depressed the pads aren’t even touching the wheel. Curse. Parental mantras cross my mind. Never let someone fix things that aren’t broken. Never let someone else fix things that you can fix yourself. Get out the tools again and tighten the breaks properly. Keep going.

Grump along. Hate QL1A. Loud, smelly. Double with trucks carrying ducks. A smell most fowl.

Hate QL1A. The heat is unbearable. See the waves radiate up from the pavement. Feel them beat down from the sky. Feel like a double baked potato. Like I am trapped in a covered fishbowl under a heat lamp. Stop for water. Refill bottles. Stretch. Drink a juice. Keep going.

Some kilometers later and reach down for the bottles that have been forgotten at that faceless roadside kiosk some [in]finite number of kilometers back. Too tired to curse. Add water bottles to the shopping list. Hit another kiosk. Buy tiny bottles. Jam the holsters with napkins and grab some navy sowing thread. Jimmy the small waters into place.

Finally see the sign marked tp. Hue. Sigh of relief. Cross tiny bridges and enter the walled city. Relax.

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Hue, at last. Hue, at last.

Day tripper: Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng (12)

Been thinking about the last few days. The more seen, the less words and pictures do it justice.

Yesterday breezed down the HCMD with friends to visit Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park.

The mouth of Paradise cave was small, unassuming. Unsure what to expect. Step in. Immediately swallowed whole. Jonah in the belly of the whale. Blown away by view that opens unto the deep. Cool air greets a warm body. Step down, down, down. Though illuminated, much remains dark. Like a family, each rock, each facade, has a different personality. Some drip, burble and ooze. Some are razor sharp or seem suspended mid explosion, blasted. Frozen. Absolute zero. Shades of tan and brown and black. Slowly oxidizing, shades of red.

Go in deeper, walk further. Space is endless. Enormous. Vast. Feel small. Minute. Beyond insignificant. Reach out and touch the near, the low hanging. Rough and smooth. Or wet. Polishing and refining. Listen to the drips falling. Space gains another dimension.

Head down toward the river. Smooth, round stones, under foot. Skip through lost and found trails, under a dense green canopy, across springy bamboo bridges. Late sunshine filters in. Butterflies flit gently across the path. Slip into the cool water. Nested in a valley, this is better than a dream.