Sunday, May 20, 2007

Day 43-48: Eating and drinking

Fortunately I had planned one full day rest in Dien Bien Phu to recover and refuel after three challenging and demanding days cycling the roof of Vietnam. The next morning I woke up early from severe, almost painful hunger. I had been dreaming about pancakes and fruit shakes the entire morning, thus excited I rushed out into town to find myself a restaurant that could fulfill my needs. However, Dien Bien Phu is not a large city and still few western tourists make it all the way west in northern Vietnam, close to the Laos border. As a result, no pancakes or fruit skakes were to be found anywhere. The best I could find was a six-egg-omelet and an ice coffee.

Dien Bien Phu is known for one of the last battles of the French Indochina Empire, ending a long period of colonial suppression. It was here that the French colonial forces met their match in 1954 in an historic 57 day siege by the Viet Minh forces. The battle is well presented at the only museum in town. I spend the morning of my first day off wandering around the site, once again reminded of the horror of wars. The rest of the day I spent eating and drinking, before going out for dinner to indulge in more food and drinks. I could simply not satisfy my hunger. I returned to the restaurant I had visited for lunch when the owner made his local specialty exclusively for me. It was the most delicious fried rice I had ever had, prepared with various vegetables, spices and Vietnamese sausage of some sort. I was hoping for a dinner of the same quality. Indeed the chef and owner delivered as anticipated. He served me three tasty dishes, rice, a couple of beers and countless of rice wine shots. At the point where his wife started yelling at him for drinking heavily, I started turning down his generous offers, but he did not listen to me or his wife. He kept pouring rice wine into my shot glass, even when I covered the glass with my hand he would just keep pouring, laughing and making jokes, soaking my hand over and over. When I finally asked for the bill and gestured that I had to go to bed, get up early the next day and cycle to Tuan Giao, 80 kilometers to the north-east, he nodded understandingly and charged me 30,000 Dong (1,80 Euro) . We had a great time and I thanked him for his superb food, hospitality and generosity.

The road to Tuan Giao was expectedly hilly and I crossed one big mountain pass early in the day. Today the major challenge was not the hills or the passes; it was the condition of the road. The entire stretch was under construction, making it difficult to gain speed even when traveling downhill. By the end of the day my bicycle had become so filthy that as soon as I arrived in Tuan Giao I had it washed and polished for an astonishing 5000 Dong (0,30 Euro). From this day on I had my bicycle washed each night for the same price, and each time it would look like it did the day I rolled it out of the bicycle store in Germany where I bought it eight months ago. I was impressed by the bicycle how well it had been performing on the bumpy roads, and that it still was in one piece. Up until this day I have not had a single flat tire, broken spoke or rattling chain. My gear cables have gotten slightly stretched, making it more difficult to adjust the gears but that it is fairly normal and usually easily fixed.

I left Tuan Giao energized by another great meal the previous evening, heading for Son La 86 kilometers south-east. I deeply regret not getting an updated map over the north-west region in Hanoi with more specific information regarding road conditions and mountain passes. Every day I would venture out into the unknown, only aware of the total distance I would have to pedal. The day I cycle to Son La this became very obvious as I was unexpectedly faced with an extremely steep climb soon after leaving the hotel, lasting 17 kilometers. It was not the highest climb I had tackled, but certainly the steepest of them all. The 12% and 14% percent warning signs confirmed my theory as I was cursing, pushing myself and the bicycle up the road at a constant 7,5 km/h. When I reached the top I was almost expecting a group of cheerleaders ecstatically welcoming me with songs of hurray. Instead, I was met by a totally destroyed road covered with rocks, pieces of old tarmac and huge potholes the size of half my front wheel. The road did not improve and the longer I rolled down the mountain the more frustrated I became. I had fought my way up that damn mountain at creeping speed and now I was forced to go down the other side at almost the same pace. Bloody hell, no. As my underarms were starting to cramp from constantly breaking, I was letting go of the brakes more and more to gain speed and relax my muscles. My bicycle jumped up and down as I was free-wheeling down the shattered road and I was praying that it would handle the brutal beating. When I reached Son La late in the afternoon I had fought my way up two additional passes, but by now it had all become a routine. Pedaling downhill I would conserve my energy for the next pass to come, and when it arrived I was most often ready for another work-out. I would make sure to have enough water (lesson I learned from the first day; see previous post) to last me through the pass, and enough snacks to keep the blood sugar leveled.

Son La appealed to me. I decided to stay here for one more resting day before pushing it to Hanoi, which would take three more days. I was not up for any sights or museums and looked forward to just relaxing and resting my legs. On my way to Son La through the mountains I had been offered some of sort of alcohol numerous times, most often rice wine, and it seemed like wherever I would sit down to eat, drink or simply rest, I would instantly have a beer or a shot glass in front of me. Most often I politely turned down the offers, repeatedly shaking my head and smile. Son La was no different. On the contrary, here people drank throughout the day. After a visit to the local market and stocking up on my favorite snacks, I sat down to enjoy a cool, refreshing sugarcane juice from one of the smaller restaurants in the center of Son La. Quickly I was surrounded by a five men, six large glasses and a few of liters of “bia”. As this was my day off I accepted their company, we raised our glasses, toasted and after an hour all bottles were empty. The men stood up, nodded, gave me a last smile and went about their business, as if this was part of their daily routine. It certainly seemed like the people of Son La had made a habit of drinking regularly. The same day, at lunch time, a group of policemen in their military green outfits with red and gold details sat down at the table next to me after finishing their midday meal. Again, I was offered alcohol with authority, but I respectfully turned down their offer, hoping that they would not arrest me for not drinking. It did not stop them, and they gladly poured down one shot after the other of rice wine, slamming the glasses hard against the table, shouting and laughing. Then, like the incident earlier in the day, they stood up, nodded and went about their business, driving off in their rusty open-air police van. Great police work, I though to myself.

Leaving Son La I had a long and eventful day ahead of me. I had to accomplish 115 kilometers to Moc Chau, pedaling east towards Hanoi. Fortunately I felt well-rested and the first 25 kilometers flew by. I still decided that I could use another early meal, stopping at a small restaurant along the road. As I have done so many times before, I ordered my Pho Bo (Vietnamese noddle soup with beef) and sat down at the table, grabbed the chopsticks waiting for the food to arrive. I looked up to see twenty faces starring in my direction, but this has also become routine, so I did not notice anything out of the ordinary until I looked down again at the food that had been just placed in front of me. What was that? It was rice porridge of some sort, and scattered in the gue were unrecognizable pieces of meat. When I found out with the help of my phrasebook that the meat was pork I started eating, chewing the meat carefully still not entirely convinced of its kind. The crowd continued to follow my every move waiting for a response. Out of pure politeness I gave the thumbs up as I looked over to the kitchen where the chef was lifting up slimy, white pig intestines out of a huge steal bowl. I looked down in my bowl and instantly made the connection. I looked up to see all other guests nod in approval with emerging smiles on their faces. I later found out that what I was eating was rice porridge with blood filled pig intestines. At the time I just knew I could not keep eating, and so did the waitress and kindly brought me the same dish without the meat.

Luckily I had brought enough snacks to last me until lunch. At 90 kilometers and exhausted, I stopped again at a restaurant on the side of the road to witness once more drunk people slamming their shot glasses of rice wine on the table, laughing and making load conversations. My entrance seemed to enlighten the party even more and I was quickly invited to join. Again I had to struggle to turn down shots of liquor. I failed miserable. The women explain that you do not turn down an offer from a woman; the men assured that you do not reject an offer from an older man. I was in trouble. When I lost count of shots I knew I had to take a longer break than usual. When I finally returned to the road I was still extremely full from all the food and tired from all the rice wine. The hill that appeared in front of me just five minutes after leaving the party did not improve my condition. But I had put myself in this situation so I had to get myself out of it. Right before entering Moc Chau it started to rain intensively, fully completing my day.

The rain was not going to stop and the last two days it more of less rained constantly. In Son La I had invested in a new poncho which covers me completely as well as most of my bicycle. It came very handy as I pedaled 117 kilometers to Hoa Binh, breaking the long distant record, and on the last day of the north-west Vietnam tour pushed the last 75 kilometers to Hanoi. It had taken me ten days to reach Hanoi from Sapa, cycling eight days, resting two. With the additional two days in Sapa it added up to twelve days, same as planned. Proud I rolled into Hanoi and the first westerner I noticed crossing the street right in front of my bicycle was the Dutch fellow I met before leaving for Sapa, and then also half way to Hanoi on one of the mountain passes. He had cycled the exact same route in the same number of days, but in the reverse direction. We laughed, shared experiences and decided to meet for a beer later that evening. I had a lot to tell and so did he.


I have received my Chinese visa and leave Hanoi today. I will report more about that next time. See you in China.

Full route report of Vietnam