Veering Through Vietnam

Saturday, July 08, 2006

And now, the end is here, it's time to face the final curtain....

Ottawa, July 7

Here I sit at my mother's computer, back in the order, quiet and expensive surroundings of Canada's capital (and my birthplace, almost 38 years ago). contemplating the fact that my bike trip is now well and truly over. The past few weeks have been a very different experience from the rest of the bike trip, an uneventful but relaxing addendum spent mostly on beaches and in buses.

Unable to catch a plane to Phu Quoc Island, my original destination of choice for the end of the Vietnam leg, I decided to make the best of a bad job and backtrack up the coast by bus to the beach town of Mui Ne. It was a good choice. Sitting in my comfy bus seat, reading Fast Food Nation, it took only 5 hours to cover 200 km of over-developed concrete nastiness. I tumbled off the bus, found a comfortable beach bungalow and settled in for four days of serious sloth. The very fact that there were beach bungalows to be had (albeit concrete bungalows with air conditioning) was an indication of how Mui Ne was different from all of the other beach resorts I had encountered on my way down the coast, all of which were ugly, overcrowded strips of high-rises, big hotels, brothels/massage parlours, karaoke joints and loitering touts, pimps and drug dealers. Mui Ne consists of a long golden beach, washed by decent surf, backed by a single row of small hotels, many of which are little bunglalow developments aimed at backpackers. It's a great place to sit on the beach, read a few books, do some bodysurfing and watch the World Cup soccer at one of the restaurants or bars along the beach. Mui Ne is best known as a centre for kite surfing, but the prices being asked for rental and lessons would have been expensive even in Europe, so I took a miss and did lots of bodysurfing instead. I also got started on writing my second book, an account of my Silk Road ride in 2002 and 2004. I didn't get done as much writing done as I had wanted, but still it was good to unplug from the frantic noisiness of cycling along Route 1A, sleep a lot, go running along the beach and link up with German and Dutch soccer fans beside Jibes Bar's big-screen TV. It was hard to leave Mui Ne on the afternoon of the 20th and head back into Saigon. My last night in Vietnam was spent drinking bia hoi (at a new bargain price of 3500 dong, or 22 US cents, per litre) and watching Germany and England play their last World Cup group matches; I staggered back to my hotel at 4 am.

Two hours later, when my alarm went off, I deeply regretted having stayed up that late. I rode my bicycle through the remarkably orderly traffic of Saigon to the airport, located only 9 km from my hotel, well within the suburban sprawl. I took off my pedals and seat, turned the handlebars up and sideways to make the bike flatter and more compact, and half-deflated the tires before checking it in as one of my pieces of luggage for Kuala Lumpur. I arrived in KL, still groggy despite sleeping most of the flight, and realized that, since my bike wasn't allowed on the airport train, it was going to cost over $20 to take a minivan into town. Instead, I decided to have one last bike ride, covering the 70 km into the city. It was a penny-pincher's false economy, as I got caught in a colossal cloudburst which seeped into my luggage around my raincovers and soaked much of my clothing, and got hopelessly lost in the convoluted maze of KL's meandering road network. I got to the train station too late to catch the night train to Bangkok and ended up spending the night in a hostel.

The next three days were a blur of transport, as I caught buses all the way north to Bangkok (24 hours of non-stop travel; by the time I got to Bangkok, all those wet clothes in my luggage smelled really delicious in the tropical heat!), picked up some luggage which I had mailed to myself poste restante from Japan, dropped that off in a luggage storeroom at a guesthouse on Khao San Road along with my bicycle and biking gear, and caught a night bus back towards the Malaysian border, traveling with only my guitar and a small daypack as luggage. I spent the next evening in Kota Bharu, the interesting city in the northeast corner of Malaysia, eating myself silly in the wonderful night market. Finally, early in the morning, I shared a taxi to the boat jetty at Kuala Besut and caught a speedboat out to the Perhentian islands, the lovely tropical islands that are a highlight of Peninsular Malaysia.

Despite having missed my rendezvous with my friend Greg, we found each other on the beach soon after my arrival and we settled into an overpriced hotel. The Perhentians are a victim of their own popularity, with too many backpackers crowding the hotels and making for slipshod, ugly development and ridiculously overpriced accommodation and food. On the other hand, the natural beauty of the islands is impressive, and we spent the next three days snorkeling, diving and walking, inbetween bouts of chess and eating. Visibility was not what it might have been in the water, but we still saw plenty of turtles and blacktip reef sharks and a huge stingray, among other things. We went diving at Redang Island, the more expensive and more pristine neighbouring island to the south, and it was well worth the extra time and effort involved in getting there. Given the crystalline waters and untouched nature to be found on Redang, it might almost be worth spending the extra money and staying there rather than on the Perhentians.

After Greg headed back home from his lightning 50th-birthday trip, I moved to the cheapest accommodation on the islands, the isolated D'Lagoon, for my last three days. It was a great location for snorkeling and for running along jungle trails. I saw more than my share of sharks (including tiny juveniles in very shallow water, a slightly spooky experience), turtles and big schools of oversized bumphead parrotfish. I did some writing, played lots of guitar and generally enjoyed myself. The undoubted highlight, however, was on the last night, when a green turtle came ashore and laid eggs on the beach. It was a prolonged, difficult process that lasted all night, with the turtle digging three separate unsuccessful holes before finally depositing a hundred eggs like soft-shelled ping-pong balls. The owner of the hotel has a logbook detailing all the turtle visits over the past 15 years, and the day before the turtle arrived, he announced that there was a 90% chance of a turtle visit, an impressive feat of prediction. The Perhentians, with lots of isolated beaches, is a big turtle hatchery, and it's nice to see that efforts are being made to preserve the eggs by reburying them deeper, away from the tender attentions of the Jurassic-looking monitor lizards which dig up the eggs and feast on them.

So then it was time to bid farewell to the beach, go back to Kota Bharu for more good food and find myself very nearly stranded. I needed to get to Kuala Lumpur for my flight to Japan, and discovered to my distress that Sunday's buses to the capital were completely full. I asked at every bus company at the bus station, and was knocked back at each one until I finally got the last standby seat on the last bus of the morning. That stress overcome, it was an uneventful ride to KL and a taxi and train ride to the airport. As I lifted off, I realized that the trip, after two and a half glorious months of liberty, was over.

Looking back on the trip, I tried to summarize the highlights and lowlights to myself. The beginning section, riding through the mountains of the northeast, was in many respects the best riding of the trip: almost-deserted roads, beautiful villages, lovely karst cliffs, short but steep climbs and that wonderful, unexpected off-road odyssey in search of Viet Quang. The northwest, with its colourful tribal outfits, big mountains and relentless climbs, was also excellent from a cycling standpoint, although it's a bit more touristed than the northeast. And the ride from Phan Rang up into Dalat was tough but absolutely beautiful climb through forested mountains. From the point of view of nice tourist sites, the climb of Mt. Fansipan, out of Sapa, was great. I liked Dien Bien Phu and its surroundings a lot. Hoi An was far and away my favourite town, since it had so much historic architecture, unlike most of the add-water-and-stir concrete wastelands that pass for Vietnamese cities. Hanoi, despite its size and streetside chaos, has real character and more historic architecture. Jungle Beach was a great deserted beach on which to chill out, and Mui Ne was very pretty and peaceful, with a really nice swell and long stretches of sand. I liked the feel of Dalat, although it's far too full of busloads of Vietnamese domestic tourists. Hue, as a former capital, was also an oasis of civilization. And, for a history buff like me, the Cham towers spread along the coast, from Hoi An south to Mui Ne, are a welcome break from the cultural desert of modern coastal Vietnam. Of course the cheap, tasty beer everywhere, and tasty food in the cities (nem lui, roll-it-yourself kebab spring rolls—mmmm!) is good fuel for cycling.

The main lowlight is easy. The relentless noise, fumes, chaotic traffic and ugliness of Route 1A, day after day for nearly a month, were incredibly unpleasant. I've ridden on worse roads: the Grand Trunk Road from Islamabad to Nowshera in Pakistan is much, much nastier, but at least it was over in a day and a half when I rode there in 1998. And the ride through the streets of Calcutta, across the Howrah Bridge, was short, brutish and very, very scary. But day after day the riding along 1A was just dispiriting, hot, dangerous work, unrewarded by beauty, culture or friendly folks. In retrospect, I should have ridden the inland highway, routes 14 and 15, aka the Ho Chi Minh Highway, but all the cultural sights and beaches I wanted to see were along the coast. Perhaps the best idea for cycling in Vietnam would be to ride the northeast and northwest and then cut inland into Laos and perhaps Cambodia. Certainly most long-distance cyclists ride through Thailand and Laos rather than Vietnam, and probably for good reason.

Other lowlights? Not terribly friendly locals much of the way; not hostile, but also not at all interested in communicating. Getting ripped off constantly in commercial transactions. Ugly architecture outside of Hoi An and the tribal villages. Not very exciting food in most of the north, consisting of stodgy white rice and meat. Extreme heat and humidity throughout the country (my own fault for coming in the hot season). Generally dull scenery along the coast. Expensive accommodation. And the nasty model of tourist development throughout the country, based on high-impact coach tours, complete with high-rise hotels, hookers, loudspeakers and karaoke (in national parks!).

Overall, the trip left me thinking about the course of "development" in Southeast Asia and the role of tourism in that "development". People's lives are unquestionably easier now for citizens of Malaysia than for inhabitants of Vietnam: they have cars, they have money to spend on vacations and fancy restaurants and fashions. They are healthier, they live longer, they have less stress about money. On the other hand, Malaysia is now a country with much less local colour than before, more similar to the West in terms of traffic jams and urban sprawl and expense. For travelers such as myself, Malaysia becomes a less interesting place to travel the more it becomes a good place for its citizens to live.

Vietnam is much poorer than Malaysia, yet already it is becoming a less rewarding place to travel. My sister cycled through Vietnam in the fall of 1996 and found it an enchantingly different place; on subsequent visits, she has found that the breakneck pace of change has made Vietnam not necessarily much richer, but certainly more unpleasant, crowded and unrewarding to travel in. I wonder whether this is the inescapable fate of countries as they become monetarily richer. If so, it is a pity. "Development" already seems inextricably linked to pollution, traffic jams, destruction of the natural environment, extinction for animal and plant species and a depressing uniformity and deadening sameness of culture around the world. I travel to see the different, to experience a different point of view in terms of culture or world outlook or way of life. As the world becomes more similar, my desire to travel diminishes. Why travel somewhere if you already know what you will experience or learn there? Certainly the style of tourism development in Vietnam alluded to above is not to my taste. The Vietnamese are following in the footsteps of the Chinese and, before them, the Japanese: the Niagara Falls style of tourism development, in which more is better, and kitsch is best. It seems to be a universal aspect of human nature that people, taken as an aggregate mass, like this sort of thing, but it doesn't make it more appealing.

I think that from now on I will try to stay off the beaten track more than ever when traveling; life is too short for Highway 1A or Nha Trang or even Long Beach on the Perhentians. We are fated to become our parents as we age; what our parents' generation did to the Caribbean and the Spanish coast and Waikiki and Kuta Beach and the Gold Coast and Ios, we are doing to the Perhentians and Nha Trang and Ko Samui and Goa and Dahab. I hope that 2 years of immersion in Burma will cure me of this traveling malaise. My next two projected long bike trips, in Mongolia next summer and in the Caucasus in 2008, should be a step in the right direction too, towards places of wilderness and natural beauty and ancient cultures that still maintain strong roots in people's hearts, independent of the capitalist monoculture that is choking the world's ethnosphere like so much Nile hyacinth. I just hope that by traveling to these more out-of-the-way places, I don't contribute too much to spoiling what makes them special. It's a cruel dilemma for the post-modern traveller.

So thanks to everyone for following my travels online, and stay tuned to my next blog, Myanmar Meanderings, for my explorations of what should be my home for the next two school years.

Peace and Tailwinds


Thursday, June 15, 2006

Sai-going, Sai-going, Sai-gone!

Saigon, 4020 km from the start

I'm free!!!! I escaped from the hot and unpleasant confines of National Route 1A this morning and rode into surprisingly civilized and quiet Saigon, vastly relieved to be out of the traffic, diesel fumes and ear-splitting din of the highway.

I think I last wrote from Dalat. My second night in Dalat the hotel was full of local farmers in town for the market, and it was quite possibly the loudest hotel I have ever been in. Graydon's travel tip of the day: try to avoid hotels full of Vietnamese if you want to sleep, as your night will be punctuated by shouted conversations, screams, stomping footsteps, slamming doors and thorough-going clearing of the throat and nasal passages until after midnight, and then starting again at 5 am. I was an unhappy and groggy character that morning!

I rode for 110 km to Bao Loc that day. On the way out of town, a construction worker lobbed a stone at me from atop a three-storey building, then smiled broadly and waved at me. He seemed genuinely puzzled when I swore at him and chucked a rock back. The ride began with a wonderful downhill out of Dalat, and stayed in the highlands all day, giving a slightly cooler temperature and some decent views. Unfortunately Highway 20 proved to be just as busy as Highway 1A, and narrower, so not great cycling from a noise or safety standpoint. I passed a few waterfalls, but was put off going to see them by the Niagara-style cheesy tourist attractions clustered around, and by the 15 tour buses parked in the parking lots. Domestic tourists love Dalat and flock to have their photos taken with locals dressed as Native Americans, turtles, bears, Vietnamese emperors and just about anything else you can think of, while being bombarded with 120 decibels of appalling music and being importuned to buy atrocious souvenirs by hundreds of aggressive salespeople. I did sneak into one very pretty waterfall near the end of the day, when all the tourists had zoomed off to Saigon or Dalat. A little boy, annoyed that I didn't respond to the "Hello!! Hello!!" he was screaming into my face, pinched my arm, hard. I think he was genuinely puzzled when I pinched him back. He discovered that adults have much stronger fingers than children. I spent the night in Bao Loc, a major centre for tea and coffee production.

I rode into Cat Tien national park the next afternoon, after a long downhill back to the sweltering lowlands. Cat Tien is one of the premier national parks in the country and gained fame among nature lovers when a small population of Javanese rhinoceri were found there in 1999. I didn't see any rhinos or any large animals (there are supposed to be deer, leopards, gaur and civet cats), but the place was alive with birds. I recognized lots of them as familiar friends from riding through Malaysia, Thailand and Laos, but without a guidebook I couldn't put names to many of them. I was enchanted by the raucous flocks of parakeets and by the huge, solitary stork I saw sitting on a tree. It was wonderful to be out of earshot of the extreme loudness of Vietnam and the Vietnamese. I was somewhat surprised, wandering around the park HQ, to find the National Park Service operating a sawmill (aren't they supposed to be protecting the forests?) and a karaoke/massage parlour (likely a brothel). Not what you might expect to see in a national park at all. At least, though, they're trying to save the rhinos and preserve bits of rainforest not defoliated by the Americans, although they're allowing settlers from other bits of the country to set up farms in parts of the park which doesn't sound too promising for conservation.

Refreshed by a night of peace and quiet (there weren't enough Vietnamese tourists to operate the karaoke, I guess, or else the torrential tropical downpour killed the noise), I rode out onto Route 20 yesterday and ground out a long, hot day in hellish traffic and noise. The hilly terrain meant that trucks and buses were labouring, and they were emitting enough diesel smoke to give you instant lung cancer. Bored, I counted how many people shouted "hello" to me during an hour; it was well over 60, meaning that if that's average (and I think it was below average), I have had at least 20,000 people shout "hello!!" at me during this trip. I used to think it was a greeting. Then I changed my classification to that of a challenge or a demand. Then I realized that it was the equivalent of zoo-goers shouting at the monkey in the cage, trying to get the monkey to acknowledge their presence. "Yo! Monkey! Look here! Hello, monkey!! Dammit, monkey, look at me!!! MONKEY!!!" The afternoon was spent riding through rubber plantations, which I usually don't like (they seem like sad, sterile replacements for the diversity of the tropical forest), but which at least had the virtue of having nobody living in them.

After a restful night in a surprisingly swish roadside hotel, I set off early this morning for the last 60 km. Traffic increased to a furious pace, but then, just as I was expecting truly hideous conditions into Saigon, the roads got wider, green spaces appeared and traffic lessened and became marginally more orderly. I rather liked riding in the streets of Saigon: fairly slow traffic, but no real traffic jams, streetlights that people obeyed, and a few parks and graceful colonial buildings to look at. I took the obligatory "I MADE IT!!" photo outside my guesthouse and set off to see some museums.

The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was marginally interesting, and the Fine Arts Museum, aside from a few good Cham sculptures, was an eerie, forgotten, half-lit place where bad art went to moulder. The War Vestiges Museum, though, is an obligatory stop in Saigon, full of pictures and displays and leftovers from the wars with the French and the US. Some of the pictures of US soldiers torturing villagers, or of the aftermath of napalm or phosphorus attacks, not to mention the heart-wrenching shots of Agent Orange babies, were enough to make you sick to your stomach. As at the My Lai memorial, I really felt sad that as a species, we haven't inched forward since then, as recent revelations in Iraq have shown. An interesting tidbit was that Senator Bob Kerrey (distinct from his fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry), who was Democratic governor of Nebraska and served two terms in the US Senate, was the commander of a US Navy Seal team which landed in a small village and massacred 21 villagers, disembowelling a grandfather and three of his grandkids. It goes to show that war crimes do pay sometimes (take a step forward Ariel Sharon, Vladimir Putin, Andrew Jackson, Slobodan Milosevic and others too numerous to mention who were elected to high office despite, or even because of, ordering or participating in war crimes against civilians).

So in a fitting conclusion to the Vietnam trip, my planned RnR on the beaches of Phu Quoc Island has been scuttled by the fact that no seats at all are available to or from the island as it's now school holidays in Vietnam. Even the islands here are completely overrun by domestic tourists. I don't know what I'll do; I may take a bus to Mui Ne for a few days on the beach there.

Anyway, I'm glad the cycling is over. It's rare that I say things like that, and reflects what a great cycling destination central and southern Vietnam aren't. My next big bike trip should be the exact opposite of this one: Mongolia next summer with the XTreme Dorks. No traffic, endless skies, no food, little water, nomad tents dotting the grasslands and complete freedom. Can't wait!

Thanks for sticking with me through this trip, audience. Until next trip, I remain

Yours Nomadically


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Delicious Dalat

Dalat, 3670 km

It's a grey but exquisitely cool day here in the highland town of Dalat, and I am relieved and reinvigorated by the escape from the tremendous sweltering heat and humidity of the coast. I rode up yesterday in the longest and toughest day of the entire trip (2700 vertical metres over 110 km), and although I arrived tired, I was also exultant at having escaped the endless grey ugliness of National Route 1A. It has done my soul a universe of good to have ridden all day on a quiet road through pine forests and to have gotten great views of a pretty landscape.

Two days ago I rode out of Nha Trang hoping to have a big day, to reduce the length of the day to Dalat. Alas, it was not to be. It was, of course, very hot and humid, but I'm used to that now, psychologically if not physiologically. The problem was the wind, which kicked up before lunch and was blowing a full gale by mid-afternoon, reducing progress to a frustrating, soul-sapping crawl. I had planned to reach the city of Phan Ram by about 2, spend an hour exploring its Cham towers, and then ride several hours towards Dalat. Instead, it was 4:30 by the time I struggled into Phan Ram, and with only an hour and a half of daylight left, I decided to cut my losses and put up in Phan Ram. It was surprisingly hard to find a hotel; the first two I found wanted ridiculous sums, and one of them had an explicit twin-pricing policy, with foreigners paying 35% more than Vietnamese. Since being ripped off is not my favourite part of travel in Vietnam, I kept hunting until I found a little mini-hotel for $6 (cheap by inflated Vietnamese standards). I had a good evening, eating a smorgasbord of street food and banh xeo, the shrimp pancakes I have grown to love. I ran into two Ukrainian aircraft engineers working in Phan Ram (there seems to be a lot of military aircraft flying in the Phan Ram skies) and chatted to them in Russian for a while, to the bemusement of the local Vietnamese.

Yesterday I awoke late (6:30, an hour after sun-up) and paid the price later in the day. On the way out of town, I visited the Cham towers of Po Klong Girai, some of the most impressive surviving towers and still in use by the local Cham populace, impoverished and marginalized survivors of a culture that once dominated half of Vietnam. The towers were pretty heavily restored, but still had a magnificent dancing Shiva over the main doorway and had wonderfully ornate roofs. I was lucky; while the first tour bus of the day were arriving, I sat down and sketched the towers from a distance, and by the time I was done, their bus was departing. I prowled around to my heart's content completely alone on the hilltop, and just as I was leaving, the next tour bus arrived.

The first 50 km of riding were gently uphill on the coastal plain, and then it got serious, with 35 kilometres of steady climbing that topped out at 1550 metres elevation. Just when I thought the hard work was over, a roller coaster of a road undulated the last 25 km into town. I was racing the setting tropical sun, and I lost; it was well and truly dark by the time I got into the city, which made finding my way to a hotel a tricky proposition, not helped by the hallucinogenic street layout of this hilly city.

Today I explored a couple of the major sights of the town, after a lazy morning spent in bed reading The Ghost Road, a masterpiece by Pat Barker about WWI. I stopped into the Crazy House, quite possibly the strangest, most exuberant architectural folly in the world. Imagine Gaudi designing sets for Alice in Wonderland, or The Hobbit, and you get a flavour. It's supposed to be a hotel, designed by the daughter of Ho Chi Minh's successor as leader of Vietnam. The overall theme seems to be trees, and the whole structure is encased in a web of realistic-looking concrete branches, rather like a huge strangler fig has overwhelmed the house. Inside I don't think there is a single straight line in the building, as the architect allowed her imagination to run riot. The corridors and stairs meander drunkenly inside more concrete branches, while each room is named after a different natural item: ants, kangaroos, hornbills bamboo and the like. Beds, chairs, sofas and tables take on organic, irregular shapes that look amazing but might not be so good for lying or sitting on. The garden is full of avant-garde art and imitation spider's webs, outsized Russian babushka dolls and hobbit's houses. It's quite simply breathtaking, although kitschy at the same time. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that concrete can be moulded into such irregular, rounded shapes. Like all good follies, it's unfinished; like a miniature Sagrada Familia in that respect, as in others.

I also went to see the summer palace of Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam. Built in 1938, it retains all its original furnishings and fittings. I'm sure the furniture was the last word in taste at the time, but it has aged poorly, looking cheap and shoddy and like what you find at summer cottages in Canada. The bathrooms, too, make you realize how much taste in bathrooms has changed over the decades. Outside, a legion of Vietnamese dressed as cowboys, leopards, cartoon mice and a host of other creatures waited for the hordes of Vietnamese tourists to pay to have their pictures taken with them. It looked like a fairly depressing way to make a living. The biggest lineup, though, was to pay a dollar for the right to dress up as an 11th-century emperor in yellow silk robes and silk riding boots and be photographed.

So, since there are so few news updates to give, it's time for more thoughts that have accumulated under the mullet over the past few weeks.

Musings from Under a Mullet

The other day I counted how many motorcycles on the road here have only one person on them. From a sample size of 100, I arrived at a figure of less than 40%. So 60% of motorcycles on the road here have at least 1 passenger, and frequently quite a few more than that. I wonder how many babies, carried in their mother's arms, die by falling from the bike when it has to brake or swerve suddenly. It's nice, however, to see such efficient use of fuel. I'm sure the average Vietnamese has an ecological footprint that's tiny compared to mine.

On the topic of passengers on two-wheel conveyances, I saw a novelty the other day. Two schoolgirls were pedalling a bike together; the one on the seat pedalled only with her left foot, while the girl on the luggage rack handled the right pedal. Such an asymmetric arrangement cannot be comfortable, you would think. But bodily discomfort does not seem to faze the Vietnamese; you see them seated with all their weight supported on the crossbar of the bike. You try that sometime and see how much that hurts after a while. I saw an entire family of 5 on one bicycle the other day, which I think is my all-time record for people on a bike (other than the 13 I saw at the Beijing Circus).

Having been ripped off more times than I care to remember, it's the exceptions that stick in the mind, like the man who owned a cafe who gave me a free water because we'd had such a good conversation. It's very rare here to be given anything for free, unlike in Islamic countries, particularly in Central Asia, where there is a cult of hospitality to guests. Here in Vietnam, the only cult is that of the quickest and most bucks possible extracted from the stupid foreigner, which is already the universal reputation of Vietnam on the backpacker circuit.

As I move through the country, I'm amazed at the tremendous variety in facial types that I see here. I thought that most Vietnamese would look roughly Chinese, but, especially in the central and southern coastal areas, there's a lot of Malay-looking faces. Other places, in the mountains mostly, there are people who look Polynesian, with bigger noses and lips and strong cheekbones. It seems to me that Vietnamese culture has spread from north to south over the centuries without necessarily displacing the people, so that the great variety of indigenous tribes have been absorbed into Vietnamese society, giving it this tremendous diversity. I just wish that the great diversity of traditional tribal clothing that I saw in the northwest were to be seen everywhere, as it's easily the most interesting feature of modern Vietnam.

Looking at the role that the average male plays in Vietnamese society, you have to wonder why the women keep them around. I suppose you could argue that this is the case in most societies, but the average man here defines his virility and social utility by the 4 H's: Hondas, hookahs, hooch and hookers. While the women work in the kitchen and the fields, the men gather around to drink themselves silly (at 7 am!), to criticize the world over their bamboo water pipes, to drive around aimlessly on their motorbikes, or to patronize the local houses of ill-repute. It's not an edifying sight. I'm sure that the local men, seeing that I ride a bicycle, don't smoke, don't visit the brothels and have a solitary beer at the end of the day are convinced that I must not really be a man.

The women here are more muffled against the sun than anywhere I've ever seen. When women go out on their motorbikes in the 38-degree steam bath of midday, all you can see of them is a hint of the eyes. They're wearing sun hats, face masks and, if they have a short-sleeved blouse on, shoulder-length gloves, all in the name of keeping their skin as white as possible. It's amazing the lengths they'll go to; I saw a woman wearing a jacket over a turtleneck sweater the other day. I would die instantly of heatstroke if I had to wear that many layers. But people here don't seem to sweat at all; their sloth-like torpor for most of the day probably helps, but I sweat just sitting indoors. They are cut from sterner stuff.

It occurred to me the other day, in a blinding flash of insight, that the old French word for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Indo-Chine, was a perfect description of this area. Geographically half-way between the two great cultural well-springs of Asia, Vietnam was always a frontier between the Indianized and Sinicized worlds. The north, around Hanoi, was part of China for 12 centuries, and the Vietnamese culture is deeply Chinese in its style: Confucian, Daoist and Mahayana Buddhist, not to mention using Chinese characters until 150 years ago. The centre and south looked to India for its culture, with the Funan and then the Cham importing Hinduism and Theraveda Buddhism, Indian alphabets and architecture. Some people see the victory of the north in the Vietnam War as the final victory for Sinicized culture over Indianized culture here. Whatever the case, I think as a tourist I find the Cham architecture and art to be far more interesting than the northern Vietnamese. Go India!

There's a principle in quantum mechanics that you can't observe the state of a system without altering the system in the process. This is a good metaphor for my effect on the typical Vietnamese roadside village. Before I arrive, life is continuing its placid usual pace. As soon as I heave onto the horizon, one excited shout alerts other people, and suddenly the village is alive with excited hollering, kids running, boys pursuing me on bikes, farmers turning around from their planting to have a good look at me. It means that if I want to take a photo of someone working in their fields (plowing with buffaloes is particularly photogenic), I have to work very fast before they're alerted by their neighbours and stop what they're doing to stare at me. I'm sure that it takes quite some time for the excitement to die down after I pass. I'm the Quantum Disturbance on Wheels.

I cannot for the life of me crack the southern Vietnamese accent. I'm having so much trouble communicating these days that I'm getting very frustrated. Even the phrase "how much does it cost?", which is "bao nieu" is not understood a lot of the time. It drives me mad, but of course the fault is my own, since I'm sure my accent and lack of tones does make me sound like a gibbering babboon to Vietnamese ears.

The other day, while talking to the two Ukrainians, I realized what one of the great annoyances of Vietnam is. Everyone absolutely shouts at each other, even when talking face to face. The Vietnamese who were discussing us some distance away drowned out our own attempts at conversation. The whole culture is remarkably immune to noise: loudspeakers, traffic, horns and the ever-present cacophony of karaoke. Rather like China in that respect, and a bit wearing on the nerves after a while.

My personal pet peeve here is the lack of change. As soon as I pay for something, the pantomime begins: looking in pockets, at the back of the cash drawer, in biscuit tins, in the kitchen. It's invariable; there are no small bills or coins to be found. Certain countries are like this: India, Indonesia and Uzbekistan spring to mind. The state of cash drawers here doesn't help in the search; rather than having bills sorted by denomination, there is a hopeless higgledy-piggledy mess of paper that is impossible to sort through efficiently. Third World is definitely a state of mind more than a state of poverty.

Well, off to watch the French Open tennis and the World Cup before setting off on the last 3 days of riding tomorrow morning. Hope everyone's busy seizing the day. Remember what Thoreau said: "As if you could kill time without injuring eternity! The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." So stop killing time by reading this blog and get back to living!

Tam Biet!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Almost There

Nha Trang, 3440 km from the start (and less than 500 from Saigon)

I'm in the bustling beach tourist town of Nha Trang and I'm not impressed with it. Partly it's that it's a noisy concrete jungle like Surfer's Paradise or Ibiza, and partly it's the contrast with the absolutely perfect beach I have just arrived from. Whatever the case, I'm not lingering, and should be on the road first thing tomorrow morning.

I think I last wrote from Hoi An. I spent an extra, unexpected day off the bike there when I overslept and decided it was too late to set off that day. It was a nice day, spent sketching, playing guitar, reading and eating, and was well worth it.

My first day back on the bike was the first day of June, which brought home to me how little time I have left; I fly out of Saigon on the 21st of June. I laid down a big day of 144 km in tremendous heat. Luckily the ride was interrupted by a few sights to see, most notably two Cham Towers. The Cham, an Indianized state along the central and south-central Vietnamese coast, built a whole series of tall red brick Hindu temples that have survived to the present as just about the only really old structures in the country. In Hoi An I did a day trip to My Son, the longest-occupied and biggest Cham temple site. What the ravages of time hadn't done to the My Son temples, US bombs and helicopter-borne sapper teams did, and the biggest temples there were blown to smithereens in 1969 to prevent the VC from using them. On my ride south from Hoi An on June 1st, I took a look at two temple complexes, Chien Dang and Khuong My. Amazingly, although these towers loom high over the countryside at 25 metres in height, I managed to bike right past both of them, located 50 metres from the road, even though I was specifically looking for them. I really liked both sites, as they were utterly deserted and allowed me to poke around and take photos at leisure. There were some bits of sculpture frieze left on the buildings, which to me always really makes a building interesting. Architecture is OK, but sculpture stirs the soul of this ruins-hound.

At the end of that day, I followed an endless dusty dirt track to a beach near Son My. That name may not mean much to you, but one of the tiny hamlets in this district was called My Lai. Ring any bells? By coincidence, in a week when the US military is being investigated for an alleged massascre (or several) of civilians in Iraq, I visited the site of the most notorious massacre of the Vietnam War, in which 500 civilians were gunned down, blown up with grenades, raped and bayoneted by US soldiers in March, 1968, in reprisal for attacks on US troops. The next morning, I visited the memorial site and its museum. Only one soldier, Lieutenant William Calley, ever faced disciplinary action for this massacre, and he served 3 years of house arrest before being released. Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who stopped Calley's platoon's rampage by interposing his helicopter between civilians and Calley's men and training his heavy machine gun on the US soldiers, died sometime in the last year and I read his obituary in The Economist. The obit mentioned that when he testified at a US Senate hearing into the case, one senator told him that "the only soldier who should be court-martialled for what happened at My Lai is you, you traitor." This kind of "my country right or wrong" attitude is, sadly, all too prevalent today.

I left the Son My memorial deeply moved, and even more impressed than ever by the Vietnamese capacity not to hold a grudge. Anyone over the age of 45 in that area would have known someone personally who died in that massacre, and yet the older people I saw along the road were uniformly friendly and smiling and welcoming.

A short day (78 km) brought me to the pretty bay of Sa Huynh, where I ate well and loafed on the beach all afternoon. On the way into town, I met a 12-year-old girl whose parents ran a little shop who spoke good English and was completely self-possessed and calmly confident. I really enjoyed talking to her. I meet a few Vietnamese who speak good English, but most of them are either working in the tourist trade or English teachers. To be that good at English while living in a nowhere highway town is remarkable, particularly as she told me that she had never talked to a real live foreigner before. It was one of the really positive, soul-warming encounters I have had with the Vietnamese for a good long while.

A longer day, of 127 km, brought me to the major town of Quy Nhon on June 3rd. It was made longer by my attempts to add 3 more Cham towers to my collection. I missed one of them (again!) after nobody I asked had any clue and all gave me conflicting directions. By the time I found someone who knew, I was an hour down the road and loath to turn back. I did, however, find another tower not in my guidebook, as well as the site of the second Cham capital. The Cham, over the course of centuries, were pushed southwards by the Chinese-influenced Vietnamese state centred around Hanoi, and sometime around 1000 their first capital, near Hoi An and My Son, fell to the Vietnamese and they moved a few hundred kilometres south. This second capital was the one which the Khmer kingdom of Angkor captured in the 13th century in a campaign depicted in great detail on some of the temple and palace walls of Angkor. Not much left these days except for fragments of a wall and one tower under restoration. From the central hill, I spotted another tower in the distance to which I duly headed. This one, Banh It, was the most atmospheric of all, atop a hill, buffeted with cool gale-force winds and contrasting wonderfully with the blue sky and distant ocean. I lingered there, sketching and taking photos, before setting off into the teeth of the gale into town. A boy on a bicycle passed me and he and I raced all the way into town; he did well and kept up with me, but stayed drafting behind me; when I dropped back and made him lead, our speed dropped dramatically. I managed to cycle past yet another Cham Tower in the process, and had to backtrack to see it. It was a good day; 4 Cham Towers and two swims.

The wind continued the next day, making the ride to the Soviet-style new town of Tuy Hoa longer than expected. I entered town along a new boulevard wide enough to land a 747 on, found a hotel and then went out to check out the inevitable Cham Tower (another nice hilltop location, but crowded with picnickers). I ate my favourite Vietnamese meal (nem lui, roll-yer-own kebab spring rolls) and crashed, tired out by the wind, the heat and the appalling dullness of National Route 1A.

It was a perfect day to make a detour off the hated highway. Unfortunately, the detour didn't happen until after I stopped for a swim and came back to find that someone had filched my watch and emptied my wallet (which only had the day's budget in it, luckily). As it was the third time I'd had things stolen in Vietnam, I can now officially state that travelling in Vietnam is as risky for your material possessions as is travelling in western Europe (where I also had things stolen 3 times; that time it was more valuable things, though). Luckily the thief, who had to work fast, didn't realize that my camera equipment was all in my camera bag on the front handlebars, or I would really have had a fit, instead of just muttering imprecations as I rode off. In my annoyance, I forgot to attach my swimsuit to the back bag on my bike to dry, and it blew off somewhere along the road.

In an annoyed mood, then, I cycled 22 km onto a peninsula just north of Nha Trang to the Jungle Beach Resort. I once ate every evening meal for a month at another Jungle Beach Resort, on Havelock Island in the idyllic Andamans, and this one was very similar. At the end of a road, with zero traffic, far enough from a village to hear no karaoke or motorcycles, backing onto dense jungle, with a long, deserted beach out front, it was just what I had been craving. I realized that, aside from the nights I spent on Mt. Fansipan and one night in the Northeast, it was the only time I haven't stayed in a decent-sized town with all the noise, annoyance and general unpleasantness that that entails in Vietnam. It took a place like this, developed by a Canadian guy, to escape from the horrible model of tourist development that Vietnam has chosen for itself.

I spent two days doing very little, and loving it. I swam a lot, I read a lot (devouring Joe Simpson's magnificent The Beckoning Silence), I played guitar, I contemplated chess problems, I watched the sun set and the wonderful southern stars come out. I ate exquisite meals, chatted with the occasional other guests (practicing my French and my very rusty Russian) and completely unplugged from Vietnam. It was by far the nicest place I stayed in Vietnam and it was rather sad to realize that this was because it was insulated from the ugly, annoying aspects of modern Vietnam. I certainly hope that Phu Quoc Island is another haven of tropical peace at the end of the trip. Until then, I'll grin and bear it, and keep a closer eye on my possessions.

It was a short spin into town today, which was just as well as it was harder than ever to ride along the squalid, noisy, smog-choked strip of misery which is Route 1A. Tomorrow, though, should be my last full day on 1A before I turn off to Dalat and then take a coastal road most of the way to Saigon.

I was going to mention lots of details, musings and random factoids, but I'm tired and eager to watch some French Open tennis. I'll just say that I've had a haircut (in Hoi An) and it wasn't nearly as traumatic as haircuts usually are for me. It's much shorter on the top and sides, so it's a bit of a mullet, but I think it will grow in well. It's already bleaching white blond in the fierce sun.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Random Musings, Vignettes and Thoughts

A few disconnected thoughts from the road, accumulated over the past few weeks.

Why is it that, as I've gotten further south, where it's hot all the time, it's become harder and harder to find cold beer and decent ice cream? Most places, I have to have ice cubes in my beer to make it drinkable, and ice cream is as scarce as hen's teeth. Don't people here find it as hot as I do?

On the other hand, with every kilometre further south I get, the more people know how to speak at least a little English. American influence lingering from the war? Or just more tourists around, so more commercial incentive to learn? Or just a more city-based, educated society, with better English teachers?

With more exposure to tourists, the South is also more of a place for getting ripped off. You can see it coming; the sly grin, the look of grasping avarice, the discussion amongst the locals about how much they're going to charge the foreigner. I hate it; the only antidote is to ask the price of absolutely everything and be prepared to walk away, to bargain and to reprimand.

I thought I'd seen every possible method of rowing a boat during my travels, but the other day I saw a completely new idea. A kid lay on his back in a rowboat with his feet tied or taped to the oars, and he pedalled his legs as though he were riding a bicycle, alternately dipping the oars in the water. Ingenious.

The recently-completed rice harvest featured some very impressive feats of transport: oxcarts piled high with rice stalks, farmers staggering under loads balanced over their shoulders on a length of bamboo, and my personal favourite, the harvest bicycle. Two wooden racks hang from the bottom of the bike frame and support enormous piles of rice stalks, completely enveloping the bike. The driver pushes the bike with the aid of two long poles, one attached to the seat post and the other to the handlebars. In the Dien Bien Phu war museum, they mentioned that these bikes were used by Ho Chi Minh's army to transport up to 200 kg (!?!) of supplies at a time. Something to think about the next time I curse my heavy luggage.

I pick up more and more fellow riders these days. They're always schoolkids trying to impress their friends, and they rarely last very long, but occasionally somebody stays with me for 4 or 5 kilometres. Very occasionally it's a bike with two kids on it; they take turns pedalling as fast as they can. It's nice to see them expending more energy than the average citizen of Vietnam.

I watch milestones on the highways religiously. Usually they give distances to the next town, or the next major city, or the one after that. Recently, though, the milestone painters have been getting adventurous; I went for 25 km without seeing one nearby town mentioned. Instead, I learned the distances to Saigon, Nha Trang and a host of other towns 1000+ km away. Good for general knowledge, but bad for trying to figure out how far it's going to be to a decent lunch stop. The last little while, though, it's been back to the nearby towns. I wonder if each province's milestone painters have autonomy over which distances they're going to give?

I love the various cycling styles that you see around the world. Here in Vietnam, they have a couple of methods of riding two to a bike that I've never seen elsewhere. My favourite is when one rider sits on the saddle and the second one sits on the luggage rack and they both pedal at the same time, the one at the front putting his feet on top of the other one's feet on the pedals. Often I see boys riding around alone on a bike but sitting on the luggage rack with the seat right in their chest, which can't be comfortable. I've seen three on a bike a few times, with the third person sitting backwards on the handlebars, quite a feat of balance. You also see people on motorcycles pushing (with their feet) or pulling (with their hands) friends on bicycles. I wonder why it is that, like in Japan and China, everyone rides around with tires that are almost flat, and seats that are much too low, with their knees sticking out sideways like Charlie Chaplin or Groucho Marx walking. Of course, the smallest kids can't really fit on the bikes, so they either ride through the frame, or on girl's bikes sitting right on the cross-bar which has got to hurt after a while.

I've now been offered 8 daughters to marry (everyone is in shock that I'm 37 and unmarried) and 4 children to take away with me. I explain that neither wife nor kid will fit on my bike, but I think the mothers concerned aren't convinced by my excuses.

Things you think about while cycling. Lots of men in this part of Vietnam wear mustaches. Here's the question: are there more adult men with mustaches in the world or without? Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Latin America are mustache countries, while most of Europe and North America and China are not. It will all come down to the swing countries in Africa and SE Asia. What do you think? I think it's pretty close to 50% of the world's men that have mustaches.

I've been surprised by how few cycle tourists I've met here in Vietnam. Four on Cat Ba, one in Sapa, three groups in the NW and exactly one on the coast. I would have expected more, but maybe it's the wrong season, and maybe long-distance cyclists go through Thailand and Laos into China, rather than diverting into Vietnam.

In Hue I met a bunch of South Vietnam Army vets working as motorcycle guides. They were pretty bitter about how they were treated by the North Vietnamese after the war, being sent to re-education camps and finding it hard to get jobs. They also mentioned that all the well-maintained war cemeteries all over the country are only for those who died fighting for the North; the South's soldiers get no memorials as they were imperialist lackeys.

I wonder sometimes why some people are so good at picking up what I'm trying to say, and others are so bad. I undoubtedly speak Vietnamese with the worst accent known to man, but sometimes I'm frustrated by my listeners' inability to make the connection. I asked a lady the other day the way to Vinh Moc, a nearby (12 km) famous war site that thousands of tourists visit. To get there, you have to turn right at the corner where her shop is located. I asked in my execrable Vietnamese "Is this the road to Vinh Moc? I want to go to Vinh Moc." She didn't get what I was asking, and tried to show me the way to Vinh, a city 250 km away up the coast. I kept repeating "Vinh Moc" and she kept on not getting it until her neighbour said something like "He's asking for Vinh Moc, dummy" and pointed me in the right direction. Another time I asked for "bia hoi", the key phrase for "draught beer". I knew this restaurant had it because I could see "bia hoi" on their sign outside. The owner did not understand what I was saying and kept pulling out various bottles of beer: Bia Hanoi (OK, close), Bia Heineken (not so close) and Bia Tiger (no resemblance). If you were a bartender and someone asked for a glass of "drift beer" or "druft beer", you'd likely get the idea that he wanted a draft, wouldn't you?

OK, I have to get some sleep before hitting the road south tomorrow.

Xin Chao!!

Monday, May 29, 2006

A-Hoi An

Hello Faithful Readers:

I'm in Hoi An, not far from Hue, where I last wrote, so this will be an shortish update.

My last day in Hue was spent cycling out into the countryside in search of some imperial tombs from the 19th-century Nguyen Dynasty. It was a lovely day, if a bit hot, and I really liked the excursion. My first tomb, Gia Long, which took absolutely forever to find as it's off the tourist trail, the beaten track and even the dirt road. When I finally got there, though, it was love at first sight. A couple of water buffaloes and their minder were my only company. The tomb complex, a series of red-brick pavilions and pillars and enclosures, was in ruins. Very atmospheric ruins. I love overgrown, deserted ruins, and these were what I was looking for. The Nguyen Emperors liked their tombs to be surrounded by water, so there were ponds thick with water lilies and lotuses. There were wildflowers growing through and over the stairs of the memorial temple, and two huge pillars stuck their heads up through the surrounding forest. It reminded me a bit of Sri Satchanalai in Thailand, although, given its recent date, a better parallel would be Ayutthaya. In December I had a look at some of the Ming Imperial tombs outside Beijing, and I much preferred this one; a more human scale, less overwhelming bombast, and the key ingredient of water.

I bumped, ferried and pedalled my way back to the main road and had a good look at Ming Manh and Thieu Tri. Ming Manh was in much better shape than Gia Long, and it gave me a better idea what Gia Long must once have looked like. There were a few tourists, but at times I had the whole beautiful, graceful, harmoniously laid-out complex to myself. The actual grave of Ming Manh was at the back of the complex, underneath a sizeable tumulus of earth overgrown with pine trees. This is exactly the same as the tombs of the Tang and Han emperors outside Xian in China. Apparently the 200 servants who buried the body were all beheaded afterwards to make it more difficult for grave-robbers to find the exact location of the corpse. The amazing thing to me is that this is not something that happened 3000 years ago (the Egyptian Pharaohs played the same trick on their grave-diggers), but rather 160 years ago. This is the sort of behaviour that causes revolutions amongst the people. Thieu Tri was more like Gia Long, and I pottered about happily for an hour or so among the ruins.

That evening, to my great delight, a local camera repair shop fixed my digital camera. When he unscrewed the camera body, a piece of metal fell out, which is never a good sign. I had been contemplating disassembling the thing myself, but when I saw how complex the wiring was inside, I was glad that I hadn't. $10 very well spent, I think.

The next day I got up, had a final enormous traveller's breakfast (musli with fruit and yoghurt, banana pancakes and fruit shakes) and hit the road. It was a sizzling hot day, and I had a big climb in front of me into the coastal mountains and Bach Ma National Park. I got to the bottom around 11, dreading the heat of the climb, but I was saved by the stupidity of park regulations. "No bicycles or motorcycles allowed on the road into the park!" I was told. When I asked why, I was told that it was too steep and dangerous, and would I like to rent a jeep for $25 to ride up. I pointed out that surely a bicycle was environmentally friendlier and less likely to scare the animals and birds, but logic will never get you anywhere in the face of otiose bureaucracy. I decided that if the park management were that dense, I didn't want to give them my money, and I cycled away in annoyance.

About an hour later, a little boy walked to the far side of the road as I was passing, waited carefully for traffic coming both ways to be clear, and threw a handful of rocks at me. Luckily his aim was poor, and the few pebbles that didn't miss me entirely rattled harmlessly off my spokes. However, of all the obnoxious things that little (and not so little) boys do to me on my travels, throwing stones is by far my least favourite. In Pakistan and Tibet I was regularly pelted with stones, and I hate it. It's so unfriendly, dangerous and unnecessary. Unfortunately for this little Vietnamese boy, the gap in traffic made it easy for me to wheel around and give chase, which he had not counted on. I pursued him down a little road and he darted into a yard and was gone. As I returned to the highway, though, I spotted him hiding close to the scene of the crime. I put my bike down and ran after him, and this time, since I was on foot, it was hard for him to escape. I was yelling at him, and he was shrieking in what seemed to be genuine fright. At last I caught up to him in a little tea shop next door, and the look of pure terror on his face as he hid behind the adults made my day entirely. Without having actually to hit him, I was able (I hope) to put sufficient fear of God (or at least of avenging foreign cyclists) into him that he will never again throw rocks at passing tourists on bikes. I cycled away happy at having done my good deed for the day.

My smiles were increased by my next two detours from the main road. First up was Suoi Voi, a lovely series of swimming holes in a cold mountain river. Huge boulders separate the pools and provide privacy and peace, and my overheated body was glad to soak in the cool water for a while. Shortly after that, I found my way to Lang Co, a thin sandbar peninsula separating the South China Sea from an inland lagoon. On the uninhabited northern stretch of the beach, I swam and bodysurfed and read my Louis de Bernieres book and swam some more. When I rolled into the main tourist town area of Lang Co, I was glad I had swum where I had. Lang Co was a busy strip of hotels , all of which were full, or at least the first 10 I asked at. I finally found the last room in town, a concrete sweatbox, had a meal of crab (I ordered clams, but apparently the English menu got mixed up between the two) and tossed and turned all night in the heat on my rock-hard tiny bed, listening to passing trucks blasting their air horns.

Yesterday I awoke a bit groggy. "Lang Co is so quiet, isn't it?" asked the woman who ran the hotel. "Quieter than what? An atomic bomb?" It really was one of the most remarkably noisy places of the whole trip. I started the day with a couple of peanut butter baguettes (baguette sandwich stalls seem to be everywhere now, to my delight; I hardly saw any in the north) before tackling the pretty Hai Van Pass. It took 54 minutes (yes, I counted) to sweat my way to the top, 450 metres above sea level), where I had great views back to Lang Co (everything looks more beautiful from far above, I find) and ahead to Da Nang. The descent was wonderful, and I sped into bustling Da Nang.

The only thing I did in Vietnam's fourth city was to go to the Cham Museum. The Cham empire, originally centred around Da Nang, was a contemporary of Angkor, and, like its more famous neighbour, was a Hindu state that looked to India for cultural influences. There were lots of worn, weathered statues of Vishnu and Shiva, and I spent a couple of hours taking pictures and trying to sketch a few statues. I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the major Cham temple ruins over the next week or so as I head south.

I sped out of town to China Beach, a favourite RnR site for US troops 40 years ago, where I had the best meal of my trip so far in a seafood restaurant overlooking the South China Sea, and then relaxed on a deserted strip of beach for a couple of hours. During the second hour, a Vietnamese teenager came up to where I was lying and sat there, staring at me, watching me read. His capacity to withstand boredom was phenomenal. I finally got up and left, and he remained, gazing at me, until I had vanished around the next bend in the road.

The ride along the beach road to Hoi An was pure misery, through endless potholes, construction and dust. It was worth it, though. Hoi An is lovely, an oasis of history and architecture in the cultural desert that is most of modern Vietnam. I spent today happily wandering the old streets, poking around old Chinese merchants' houses, relics of when Hoi An was the major international port of Vietnam from 1600-1850. Now, like Venice, it basks in the warmth of its bygone glory and packs in the tourists. I think I will spend another couple of days here, lounging in the best hotel of the trip so far. I slept so well last night that I don't really want to leave my enormous bed and cool, dark bedroom. Tomorrow a visit to My Son, a major Cham site, is on the books.

Until next time,

Tam Biet!