Monday, April 30, 2007

Day 22-27: Learning every day

Hoi An continued to live up to our expectations, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to this cultural town. The architecture of the village is protected by international heritage law, preventing old buildings and structures from being ruined or replaced, and modern architecture is not to be constructed. As a result, Hoi An is consistent in its artistic beauty, making it an especially romantic, warm, attractive and enriching place for tourists to fall in love with. Unfortunately, the effect is a town targeted towards tourism, where prices tend to stagger over the years and the Vietnamese of Hoi An see every opportunity to make an extra dollar from all visitor to enter the town. Freelancing motor bikers are standing in every corner of the streets yelling ‘motobike’, twisting their wrists as if they were accelerating the throttle, repeating ‘motobike’ over and over until the next tourist walks by, and the process starts all over again. The result is a constant mantra of ‘motobike’ throughout the town.

On our third day the tourism of Hoi An became even more apparent when we booked a tour to the My Son archeological site. Although we have witnessed numerous Cham temples on our journey so far, we still had to pay a visit to the largest, most famous of them all – the Cham temples at My Son. We were picked up at 5:00 to make it to the sun rise over the temples, but before all tourists had been picked up, every seat of the bus filled, all groups of tourists gathered and seated at a restaurant to purchase an over-priced breakfast and the guide had calmly finished his soup, the sun had risen way above the mountains. Disappointed we were lead to the site like a herd of cows, and the guide monotonously started informing us about the history of My Son like he has done so many times before. At that time we realized how spoiled we were, traveling through the country on bicycles, seeing and experiencing things many other tourists never could dream of. We promised ourselves not to go on any more tours in Vietnam.

However, like other tourists we wanted to make use of the tailors of Hoi An. I had two T-shirts made, two caps, and a summer dress for my girlfriend. We also did extensive shopping in the Hoi An market, buying few souvenirs and gifts at bargain prices. We have developed excellent skills of bargaining and price negotiation. In other countries of South East Asia you must always bargain when purchasing clothes and souvenirs, but in Vietnam you must negotiate every purchase, even when buying water at a food stand, or getting an ice cream, or paying for breakfast on the road, or renting two chairs at the beach, or buying dinner in a small village. The Vietnamese people are very friendly and helpful, but they are also smart and do not miss an opportunity to make an extra dollar. Consequently, the prices vary tremendously throughout the country, and you must pay extra attention to when you are being fooled or tricked. We have paid 3000 Dong (Euro 0,20) for a whole branch of bananas consisting of 20 small bananas, but in urban areas you can easily pay double just for one banana.
Getting up on our day of departure from Hoi An was difficult since we now were used to sleeping in after three days of rest and recovery. Our bodies hurt, but not from exercise, more from staying out late at night and enjoying 3000 Dong (Euro 0,20) local fresh beers. On our last night in Hoi An we had made dinner at one of the local restaurants with instructions from the head chef. It was great fun and we learned a lot about Vietnamese cooking as well as drinking fresh beer at a rapid pace. Nevertheless, we were on our way, cruising along the deserted road next to the Cua Dai beach before lunch, heading towards China Beach, about 25 kilometer north of Hue and 10 kilometers east of Vietnam’s fourth largest city, Danang. The road was newly built and carried us quickly to our destination despite tired bodies. Arriving at China Beach was exactly what we wished for. We checked in, rehydrated and walked 30 meters to see a huge open beach, stretching as far as the eye can see. The turquoise water was foaming as one to two meter waves crashed into the shore. After lunch we swiftly rushed back to the hotel, borrowed a pair of surfboards and tried out the immense waves.

The next day was going to be our last beach-stop traveling north on Highway 1A; Lang Co Beach about 30 kilometers north of China Beach. Lang Co Beach has nothing special to offer but for a secluded beach and lots of Japanese tourists who apparently cannot swim, thus we took the opportunity to relax and update our dairies. Every morning when we have pedaled out at 6:00 we have just missed the sunrise. Therefore, on the day we set course for Hue, we decided to begin cycling at 5:00. We lived up to our promised, but the weather Gods thought differently, and this morning the sky was covered with clouds, not letting a single beam of light through. Instead, we were blessed with an extraordinary beautiful landscape all the 65 kilometers to Hue. Before entering the city, we stopped to have a chat with some young boys walking a herd of bulls. I find it amazing how a small ten year old boy, with nothing but a weak whip, can handle a group of large animals weighing up to a ton each. We were impressed by their herd of bulls and skills, and they were equally excited and awed about our bicycles. A fair trade of experiences took place.

Hue is another tourist paradise and we were not up for crowding with hundreds of other people, looking at the same thing at the same time. In one afternoon we finished the necessary attractions and decided to make our own tour the next day, cycling along the Perfumed River. The following day, after lunch at the river bank with a breathtaking view, and three Vietnamese coffees each we crossed the Perfumed River to explore the other side where tourists rarely set foot. Cycling around the isolated villages was fascinating, but also very demanding as children ran after me, screaming “Helloooo”, pulling my bicycle, jumping onto my rare rack, smashing it with sticks, and finally I had had enough, and wanted to pedal back to the hotel. Unfortunately, we had been so caught up cycling the landscape that we had lost our way, and to be able to get back we had to find someone willing to take us back across the river. Finally we found an elderly woman who charged us 10000 Dong (0,60 Euros) to take us and our bicycles on her small, narrow canoe, which could capsize at any time. Luckily, we and our bicycles made it alive back to the hotel.
Now we have just arrived in Hanoi after a long, but comfortable bus ride. At our arrival I headed for the Chinese embassy to apply for my Chinese visa. I wanted to leave as much time as possible for the authorities to process the paper work. To my astonishment, the embassy was closed due to a Vietnamese holiday and do not open until another 10 days. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

DAY 17-21: Getting fit

Quy Nhon is an anonymous town located by the ocean. Although it offers a beautiful beach, few travelers bother to make a stop here, and when they do, it is often due to a mistake in communication with the bus drivers. The town is dirty, chaotic place, and like with all towns and cities of Vietnam, full of mopeds driving in all directions, obeying no traffic laws. Initially we had only planned one day here but we decided to give Quy Nhon a chance despite the first poor impression. On this day we rented a motorbike and drove inland to take a break from the coastal scenery. However, we quickly understood that we have already seen much of this type of environment when traveling the central highlands. Now the surroundings were just swishing by faster as Daniel was speeding at 80-90 km/h. Squeezed on the back of the moped, I was not only praying for my butt to survive the bumpy dirt roads, I was also pleading for my life. In the early afternoon, about 90 kilometers later and extremely sour butts; we had seen a few Cham temples, Vietnamese traditional brick constructions and numerous rice fields. Now we deserved a visit to the beach, and for dinner we indulged in fresh crabs, which we selected ourselves.

We have followed the initial route plan, and we felt no different when we headed for the bus station in Quy Nhon to take the bus north, about 170 kilometer, to Quang Ngai, avoiding a less interesting and familiar route. I had worried about bringing the bicycles on a bus, but at our arrival at the station, we were quickly greeted by friendly men who packed our bicycles in a minibus, charged us 6 US dollars each, and drove off to Quang Ngai almost immediately. We had not booked or purchased any tickets beforehand. Sometimes traveling can be so easy. Our stop in Quang Ngai served only one purpose; a visit to the Son My (My Lai) memorial where one of the most horrible massacres of Vietnamese civilians took place during the Vietnamese War (here referred to as the American War). During the war, the Americans suspected that the local farmers where supplying the Viet Cong with food and shelter in this area, and an operation was ordered to”teach the villagers a lesson”. More than 500 civilians were massacred and the Americans had no casualties but for one soldier who reportedly had injured himself to escape the horrifying act. Being at the memorial and walking around the newly established museum, I was reminded of what an unnecessary, brutal war the Vietnamese war had been and how many innocent lives had been wasted.

In ordinary fashion, the next day we got up early to bicycle 110 kilometers north to Hoi An. This was going to be the longest stretch we had covered so far, and probably the longest on my 100-day journey, thus today our stamina was going to be put to the maximum test. However, we immediately felt that during the last weeks of cycling we have built up surprisingly good strength and pedal-power. Before breakfast we had already covered 30 kilometers and stepped off our bicycles with no pains or moans, just happy to stuff ourselves with food and drinks. Life on the road has increasingly become a routine, and we have found our ways of dealing with all obstacles along the way. For breakfast we stop at a café where locals are already having their share of an early meal. We peek at their food, and if it looks appealing, we smile, show two fingers, nod or occasionally practice our limited Vietnamese. The villagers take great part in our routine and watch every move we make, waiting for a reaction to the food. Energized, we smile and pet our bellies, they light up and respond with bigger smiles and giggles. When we wave them goodbye, the whole family takes part in the farewell and it almost feels sad to leave them behind. Once on the road we take turns leading the way, never keeping more than 100 meters apart. Occasionally we chat, but mostly we plug in our headphones, filling our ears with our favorite music to avoid the noise from the road. The honking of the trucks is inescapable, though, as they tend to blast their horns as they are passing you, leaving only centimeters from their trucks and your eardrums. We have had no encounters with dangerous traffic so far, and it seems like mopeds, trucks and cars respect our presence on the road. When we run out of water we stop to refill our bottles, and most often take the opportunity to snack local food and try various freshly squeezed juices. On our way to Hoi An, I found my favorite drink at one of the cafes; a mix of small mandarins (small mandarins resembling mini-limes), and fresh bamboo. The Vietnamese press them together in a manual pressing machine, mix it with sugar and pour it over ice. Yummy! It is occasions like this that make our journey worthwhile and unique. We have noticed that life on the road is the most interesting, where we are exposed to rare situations, have the opportunity to experience the authentic life of the Vietnamese people, taste their food and meet with locals.

As a result, the 116 kilometers to Hoi An was exclusively pure pleasure. Our muscles did hurt, we were tired and in need of a long shower, nevertheless we felt great as we rolled up to a café of central Hoi An. We felt like heroes on our bicycles, like beaten soldiers, proud of our accomplishment. We sat down to order some juice, and quickly realized we were back in tourist land when the café charged us ten times the price for a fresh juice of what we paid the same day on the road in a small village.

Still, Hoi An is a beautiful small town. Its picturesque alleys, river front and crowded market make it a fantastic place to spend a few days. All you have to do is ignore the hundreds of tourists wandering the streets, often traveling in groups, wearing the same hats saying “Welcome to Hoi An”. Hoi An is famous for its master tailors who can sew up just about anything you ask them to at a very reasonable price. Bring a picture of the latest Hugo Boss suit or Dolce Gabbana dress, and they will take your measurements, tell a price (always negotiable) and have it ready the next day. We are looking forward to spending two more days in this loveable town, continuing to indulge in all it has to offer. We have already spent one day at the Cua Dai Beach, 5 kilometers to the west, relaxing, resting our muscles. A fair amount of shopping has also taken place. I am looking forward to report more from Hoi An next time.


Thursday, April 19, 2007

Day 12-16: Life is good

After three days of cycling we were looking forward to taking a few days off in Nha Trang to enjoy the beach, refuel with western food and converse with other tourists. Besides Ho Cho Minh City, Nha Trang is the first place where tourists are seen everywhere. Normally you would imagine this to be negative, but we were excited to speak English and hear other stories and adventures from other tourists. We met a few Swedes, an Irish couple, few Canadians and Aussies. All are exceptionally friendly and open-minded. You easily strike up a conversation and the topic is easily chosen; travel. Our first day in tourist paradise we spend at the Nha Trang beach, trying to even out our "farmer's tan" we had contracted from the last days of cycling. (T-shirt and cycling shorts do not exactly give you the most even and beautiful sunburn.) Although I was laying in the shadow the whole morning, comfortably in my sunbed under the straw umbrella, I was burned beyond recognition. My chest and ankles had suffered the most. My mother was right, you do get sunburned in the shadow. The beach is a peaceful place but for the annoying Vietnamese women who constantly are attempting to sell you various things as you are trying to relax and appreciate the surroundings. Daniel finally got so annoyed that he took the effort of making a sign that read "No, thanks". This way we did not have to say anything every two minutes someone approached us. We simply moved our eyes slowly towards the sign and nodded simultaneously. It worked perfectly.

Nha Trang offers a variety of activities. However, we were were focused on relaxing and sunbathing, and we were having a great time doing it. We have experienced and will have enough action later on. Nevertheless, we did go diving on our second day. Daniel is a scuba diver instructor which turned out perfectly for me since my last dive was more than ten years ago. I needed some assistance. We made two dives. Due to the fact that I had forgotten almost all about diving, the first dive was mainly painful and uncomfortable, but the the second one quiet the opposite. We swam through colourful corals and saw lots of fish, and I was happy to have had the opportunity to catch up on my diving skills.

After three days if no cycling it was time again to get back on the road. The next destination was Dai Lanh, about 85 kilometers north of Nha Trang. We were on our way just before 6:00, and 30 kilometers later we stopped for breakfast. We have learned how to select good spots and this time was no different. We have also developed an addiction to Vietnamese coffee. It is with no doubt the best coffee in the world. Its strong, concentrated and mocca flavour is to die for. To top it off, you add a bit of condensed milk and ice. A solid breakfast is essential when cycling, and before we knew it were where at Dai Lanh beach. When we checked in I got one of the stomach aches me and Daniel had developed the last few days from uncooked squid we had for dinner in Nha Trang. The pain was sharp and intense, and it felt like someone had cut my stomach open with a razor blade. The only cure was an available toilet seat. I started heading for our cement bungalow located 100 meters down at the beach. Walking in the fine, powder-like sand, dragging my bicycle with me was strenuous and slow. About half way the pain got more intense and the pressure unbearable. I knew I had only seconds before I needed to relieve myself. I started running. I won't make it, I thought to myself and horrible images entered my mind. Just outside the door of our dirty cement bungalow I dropped the bicycle, kicked in the door, took three quick, long steps towards the toilet, jumped onto the toilet seat, slid off because of my sweaty body, rebalanced and the rest is history.

Dai Lanh beach was a beautiful, remote, secluded place and its exceptionally fine sand and clear blue water made it worth stopping in this otherwise scary city. The next day we were happy to pedal to Song Cau, and leave the unfriendly people of Dai Lanh behind. After a morning swim and at about 6:30 we were on our way. Only after a half an hour I knew this day was going to be hell. I mean that literally. The sky was clear, the wind almost still, resulting in extremely high temperature. Normally the sweat on your body cools you down when cycling at an average 20 km/h, but when the wind feels like a hair blow dryer, it is to no use. After lunch I was exhausted, weak, but mostly over-heated. Every 20 kilometers we had to stop and I would get a bucket of ice, rap it in my scarf and rub my entire body until the ice had melted. This technique worked and I was feeling much better in the afternoon. However, by the time we reached Song Cau and covered 90 kilometers, including two mountain passes, we were drained out of energy, our legs hurt, stomachs in pain and ready to put the bicycles away for the day. My travel book (Lonely Planet) mentions that there are hotels in this small village, but there were no hotels to be found. We asked several locals, using our phrasebook, (you can forget English, and any way of gesturing sleeping and hotel) and all pointed north and showed ten plus five fingers. We were not at all up for an additional 15 kilometers at this point, but had no choice. We pushed on at a slow pace, not saying much, just excepting fact. The locals were right. 15 kilometers later we were finally there, and the hotel staff greeted us with big smiles, and dollar signs in their eyes. After dinner we passed out in our air-conditioned room at 20:15, proud and satisfied of our accomplishment, and not regretting any of the day's experiences.

The final stretch to Quy Nhon is only about 30 kilometers from Song Cau and we had already taken care of 15 kilometers the previous day. This route is not part of Highway 1, which we have been pedaling since we left Phang Rang, about 350 kilometers south. This road is a beautiful stretch along the mountain side facing the ocean. Although it is certainly a challenging route with its hilly terrain, it is stunningly beautiful. The mountains are to the left, the ocean to the right, and we were right in between, traveling on our own power, up and down the hills. It was a feeling all must experience.


Saturday, April 14, 2007

Day 8-11: This will be great

After the rough days of cycling the mountains we certainly deserved and needed a couple of days rest. Dalat was the perfect spot to recharge our muscules. Because of its high altitude, Dalat is slightly cooler than Bao Loc and Di Linh, and temperatures are significantly lower than Ho Chi Minh City. As a matter of fact, Dalat is often called the City of Eternal Spring due to its year-around mild average temperatures. At night it actually gets a bit chilly. The climate reminded me of a Swedish Summer when it is at its best.

But before we could enjoy this picturesque, small and hilly town I had to get my camera repaired. I was devasted when I noticed that my handle-bar bag had not been fully waterproof. The built-in rain cover is appearently just for show. The 2.5 inch camera display had taken in water and there was no way of knowing how much water had leaked in during the heavy rainfall the day before (see previous post). Daniel’s advice could have saved my Canon 400D from a disaster I never would have imagined. He instructed me to not turn the camera on and maybe someone could take it apart, dry the internal parts and then resemble it when dry. Amazingly this worked. An old man, who had been running his camera store way before the digital revolution, charge me 100,000 Dong (7 Euros), and returned it to me as if I just bough a new camera. I was releaved, to say the least.

The first day in Dalat we spend running errends and rest. We were so determined to not strain our muscles that we rented a motorbike just to transport ourselves from one point to the other. On day number two we got in touch with one of the Easy Riders of Dalat. Easy Riders are dedicated freelance motorbikers who offer you a full-day ride around Dalat and its sourronding attractions on the back of their old Russian and German motorbikes. We hired “Nam” for a full day, a wise and knowledgable, middle-age man who showed us almost all that you can see around Dalat. I sat behind Nam on his rusty machine, while Daniel decided to become an Easy Rider himself, riding his own motorbike. We visited Pagodas (place of worship), coffee plantations, Vietnamese silk farming and production, Tobacco fields, Waterfalls and more. At every stop Nam told a tale in broken and monotone English. After each story Daniel and I would look at each other and try to figure out the point of the story. Most often there was none. Nam was a fantastic guide, but not a story teller.

The next day we left Dalat and headed for Phang Rang, which is located south of Dalat, near the southern coast of Vietnam and 1500 meters below Dalat. As a result, we expected an easy day of cycling, although we had to cover more than 100 kilometers on our bicycles. It was a beautiful day when we started pedaling at 06:00, but to our disapointment we were not traveling downhill, we were still pushing ourselves up and down the mountains of Dalat, and the frustration was building up for every kilometer we were ascending. After 30 kilometer, and at an altitude of about 1650 meter, we finally reached the turning point. The road started to swirl its way down the steep mountain like a snake on the move. Potholes and sharp turns were the only obstacles to overcome as we were free-wheeling down the bumby roads with speeds exceeding 40 km/h. With my favorite Opera playing loud in my headphones, it was an unbelievable feeling of happiness. All of a sudden my life was summerized in front of me and I realized how fortunate I am, having good friend, supporting family and a girlfriend who understand my crazy idea of bicycling through Vietnam and China for 100 days.

Unfortunately the enjoyment only lasted 30 kilometers and quickly we were down at sea level once again. It was interesting to see the vegetation change from pine trees to palm trees; less apealing was to feel the temperature rise to a staggering 40 degree Celcius. Consequently, the last 30 kilometers were extremly warm and demanding. Right before we entered Phang Rang, we stopped at a welder to get Daniel’s handle-bar rebuilt. It is stunning how dedicated and passionate the welders of Vietnam are, because about one hour later, and lots of welding, Daniel had his new handle-bar ready, which now allow him to sit more straight up when he desires.

The ride from Phan Rang to Cam Ranh was only 45 kilometer, nevertheless a rough one. We did not need to fight steep mountains, but this morning the headwind was fierce and strong. Out of pure aggravation we pushed on with full power, draining the last energy of our legs. Despite the short ride, we were completely exhausted once we reached Cam Ranh. After a huge lunch we simply passed out in our air conditioned room for two hours. We spend the afternoon pedaling around the small streets of Cam Ranh harbour. When heading back to the hotel, two fishermen stopped us, gesturing something we could not understand. They wanted us to follow them. We rode out in the harbour, in a patchwork of dams. The dams contain lots of fish we found out, once the fishermen started to pull in their huge nets. It was a fascinating sight and we thanked them for letting us take part of their daily life.
The next morning we started our journey at 06:00, avoiding the unbareable mid-day heat. With less wind than the previous day and a very tasty, solid Vietnamese breakfast (Vienamese coffee, bean sprout panckakes with chili) we finished early in Nha Trang at 10.00. The 60 kilometers we just had cycled were surprisingly easy, and we were very pleased to see westerners again after a few days in remote places where English is not spoken. Now it’s time to take a few days off and enjoy the soft, warm sand and turquise water of Nha Trang.


If you are interested in a full cycling route report, you can find that on the left side of the page.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Day 4-7: The first days of bicycling

Finally we started cycling. Both I and Daniel urged to get out of the polluted and congested city. After a 7-hour bus ride, and 153 kilometer northwest of Ho Chi Minh City, we finally reached Bao Loc, where our cycling was planned to start. We both were so anxious to get started that we spent the entire afternoon and evening pedaling around the small town of Bao Loc. Westerners could not been seen anywhere, and we realized we had arrived in a very remote place where tourists never stop, unless they are on a bicycle. Everywhere children screamed out “helloooo” to us, as if that was the only word they knew in English. We later found out that that was indeed the case. Along the roads children constantly run out in the streets and yell out their only knowledge of English over and over, and we politely answer back and wave our hands. In Bao Loc we still found this very amusing and were very flattered by the attention. Early in the afternoon we passed a school where children were crowding the streets getting ready to bicycle home. In seconds we were swarmed by giggling children. Their laughter quickly rubbed off and we just stood there laughing in the middle of this crowd of young kids.

People were very friendly in Bao Loc. My rear rack had cracked during the air transport. It was still functional, but I wanted it fixed. In matter of minutes of cruising around town we saw a middle-age man welding together an iron gate. He could not help us but he directed us to a workshop nearby. A very patient man awaited us and swiftly got to work. After an hour of skilled welding and sculpting he had solved the problem, all for 30000 dong (about 2 euros).

The following day was the first real bicycling day. The plan was to visit the Dambri falls north of Bao Loc, then head straight for Di Linh, a total of about 85 kilometer. As we started to pedal towards Dambri falls I realized that the hills where harder to overcome than I expected. Even the slightest angle uphill will slow you down tremendously with a fully loaded bicycle (bicycle plus gear equals about 40 kilograms). On top of that our lowest gears did not work, in spite of a routine check-up the day before. It was killing both of us. However, after 30 kilometers we reached the Dambri waterfalls, one of the highest falls in the area. The 90 meter fall is breathtaking both from the view above as well as below.

From the waterfall we had about 55 kilometers to Di Linh, but before pedaling the last 35 kilometers we stopped by our favorite bicycle store and had our gears repaired. Daniel even bought new gear shifts to ease the shifting. The road to Di Linh was mostly uphill but the lower gears made it possible; still painful nevertheless. Di Linh is even smaller than Bao Loc and sadly less friendly. Instead of children laughing, they were throwing rocks at us. Ordering our dinner also turned out to be somewhat of a nightmare. After several minutes of all form of communication (not only do we speak differently, the western way of common sign language is interestingly also different from the Vietnamese) we could not converse what we wanted to eat. The menu was to no help as it was in Vietnamese. At the point of giving up we just pointed at a name on the first page of the menu. A few minutes later we had whole fried small fish, including head and fins, and microwave defrosted crocodile on our plates. Not exactly what you want after 85 kilometers, mainly uphill, on a bicycle. We left the restaurant hungry that night.

I am sad to report that nothing about Di Linh was positive. We could not even get a decent breakfast before heading for Dalat, an additional 72 kilometers northwest. We knew this day was going to be tough, but nothing could completely prepare us for what we were in for. Dalat is the highlight of the central highlands, and is located at 1500 meters above sea level. For us, that meant we not only had to pedal the 72 kilometers, but also push our way up 500 meters from an altitude of 1000 meters where Di Linh is located. Fortunately, we had already taken care of some of the altitude the day before. However, it turned out to be a gruesome day. Daniel started to get problems with his right knee, and we were also suffering from the 85 kilometers to Di Linh the previous day. After lunch the pain set in and our average speed increasingly slowed down. We were still on schedule, nonetheless, since we had started bicycling at 06:30. When we saw the road sign “Da Lat 10 km” we were relieved and ready to put the bicycles away for the day. So we thought. When an old woman shortly after pointed us the directions I realized that there was much more to come. She did not point right or left, she pointed up.

We stopped to gather our last resources of energy. At that time the sky opened up and heavy Southeast Asian tropical rain poured down on us with full strength. The road swirled its way up the steep mountain. Neither I, nor Daniel had the power to push ourselves up at times. It was simply too steep and we were exhausted, weak and our legs could not pedal hard and fast enough to keep balance. I got a second wind after 3 kilometers and gave full power, thinking this is all I have. But when the road angled steeper and steeper I was forced to jump off the bicycle once more and walk a few hundred meters. That was when I saw a truck moving at a slower speed that the other traffic. It was approaching slowly when I knew exactly was I was about to witness. My instinct was right, there was Daniel, holding on to the end of the truck with his left hand, balancing the handle-bar with the right. The truck was pulling him up! As soon as he saw me, a big satisfying smile emerged on his face. You could not wipe that smile off with anything on this planet. At first I though “CHEATER!”, but quickly realized that I had at least another hour of brutal pain and unbelievable heavy rain. I was soaked and cold, exhausted and weak. I took the opportunity and bicycled all I could to catch up with the truck. Faster, faster, I kept repeating to myself. I reached the truck but could not get a solid grip. When I grabbed the truck my fingers simply slipped off. I tried again, and again, and again. For a minute I was chasing the truck and yelling to Daniel to move up so I could get up on the right side of the truck where Daniel was comfortably holding on with a firm grip. Just before my legs collapsed completely, Daniel finally pulled himself up, closer to the front to give me room in the back. Now we were both holding on to the right side of the truck, which pulled us all the way up to Dalat.


For all Daniel's pictures and stories (Swedish) visit his site here.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Day 1-3: Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City, or locally still referred to as Saigon, is a hectic, congested, polluted, noisy, smelly, hot, sweaty, crowded but fascinating city. I could not survive a month living in this large city of officially six million people (another two million with all unregistered inhabitants included), but it is a fantastic place to visit. Although it is part of the south Asian region, Ho Chi Minh city feels different to its neighboring capitals. The contrast of old and new is more prominent, it is louder and sadly more polluted, surely an effect of the almost four million mopeds congesting every street corner of the city. They travel in groups of hundreds in all form and sizes. It is so prominent that it has become a signature of the city. Men and women wear scarfs over their months to filter the toxic air. At first you think that they are overreacting, or trying to make a fashion statement, but I fully understand them after a few days here. My throat is hurting and my nose is slightly stuffed from all the exhausts and smoke.

Nevertheless, I truly enjoy my stay here. Getting here, on the other hand, was not as pleasant. Bringing a bicycle on board a plane in today's over-protected airports, with lots of equipment, is a tricky challenge. Amazingly after a few repacks, a newly bought return ticket from Vietnam, and lots of ass-kissing, I managed to arrive safely with no additional luggage charges. Luckily, the return ticket, that I was force to purchase was also fully refundable. I will not be needing it as I am crossing into China by bicycle.

Thus, after a almost 30-hour journey it was a relief and great fun to see Daniel as he met me right in the heart of the Pham Ngu Lao area, the pack-packers paradise. We have not seen each other since last summer. He looks the same, but for the tan he picked up in Nha Trang just before meeting up with me. I should also mention that he does look a bit more muscular (should I not, would he certainly leave a clever comment) . Daniel picked the perfect hotel to start our journey. Big and roomy for repacking, large clean bathroom and two separate beds (thank god). The room even has air condition to more easily get used to the heat and humidity at first. This luxury is temporary, though. It gets over 35 degrees Celsius during the day and never really get below 25 degrees at night, but from experience I know that you fortunately do get slightly acclimatised after a short period of time.

My first day was entirely devoted to spending time with Daniel, catching up on all that has happened the past years. A few Tiger and Saigon beers certainly enhanced the conversations, and we talked all day and all night. The following day we spend running various errands buying clothes toiletries and more at the Ben Thanh Market, close to our hotel, and one of the largest market in HCMC. Here you can find just about anything that can be purchased in the city. If you ever go there, stay away from the food section. It has a very particular smell of rotten fish that takes time to get use to. My third day in the city was cultural-day. We visited the major sites, such as the War Remnants Museum (Vietnam War) Reunification Palace (once the symbol of South Vietnam government), Notre Dame Cathedral, and the famous french-style post office.

What about bicycling? We have managed to do a bit of pedalling around the city. However, I do not recommend it during rush hours. Word cannot describe the insanity that goes in the streets of Saigon. You must witness it, or just take a look as Daniel is crossing a ordinary street. Please do not try this at home!

Tomorrow we take the bus to Bao Loc early in the morning, and do some serious cycling in the afternoon. The following day the real adventure begins as we head for Di Lihn and later Dalat.

See you in Dalat next.