Friday, November 29, 2002

Tuy Hoa

Friends: To the victors, evidently, go the better roads. The northern part of the one thousand mile long Highway 1 connecting Hanoi and Saigon was smooth and wide and clear sailing, but the southern sector has had only a few short stretches of the quality of the north. All too much of it is under construction and in great need of repaving. We had been warned by three different travelers who had bused the southern section of the road that it would be virtually unbikeable. They said they barely survived the bus ride.

None of these people were bicyclists, so I knew enough not to take their warnings too seriously, though they did rattle Laurie a bit. She's learning though not to pay attention. Back in Laos a veteran traveler went on and on trying to talk us out of bicycling a stretch of road through the mountains. She had been in a bus accident the day before and was convinced it would be suicide to bike such a road with all its blind and steep turns. I've heard such stories over and over and know they are grotesquely exaggerated. She had Laurie alarmed though and inclined to take a bus, but Laurie trusted my experience and was willing to bike it. It was indeed a strenuous ride, but not dangerous in the least.

One of those who told us it would be impossible to bike the southern part of Highway 1 was one of the older Australians we met on our trip to Halong Bay. He asked Laurie, with total bewilderment, why she would want to bicycle around Southeast Asia. It was as simple as she likes to ride her bike, though she could go on ad infinitum on the many reasons, as I could too. The roads have indeed been rough, but rarely do they reduce our speed to under ten miles per hour. We had also been warned that there was more traffic in the south than the north. That may be true when we close in on Saigon, but so far there is a lot less traffic, both motorized and unmotorized. We still get blasted by horns, but not every 30 seconds as it was in the north. Our only complaint is the rain. It turns out we chose the rainiest month to bicycle this part of Vietnam. If we had known we wouldn't be here, though we both agree that we are happy that we didn't know. Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia book does say the rainy season ends in October. But its Vietnam book mentions time after time in each blurb on the various beach towns we have been passing through that November is the wettest month.

Its not the first contradiction we have discovered in the Lonely Planet books, the so-called traveler's bible. The bike specific Lonely Planet book for Southeast Asia continually contradicts its all-travelers Vietnam book. And I'll resist ranting about the many inaccuracies in Lonely Planet's road atlas. It continually underestimates the mileage between towns, sometimes by as many as 50 kilometers, as if someone messed up between kilometers and miles when determining the distances. We want our money back.

We are assured that in another 100 miles we will escape the rain, and most assuredly when we turn in land to go to Saigon. That won't be soon enough, especially for Laurie who had a flat tire spate herself today in the rain, though only a pair, half of the four I suffered the other day. She's also spewing venom on a regular basis at the bike mechanic who talked her out of putting on a rear fender. She and her gear are a mess after a day of rain. A fender would have made a huge difference.

Later, George

Thursday, November 28, 2002

Qui Nhon

Friends: Laurie tells me she's never heard anyone vomit louder than I did a couple of nights ago. She certainly heard me at my loudest and most pained. Shortly after lights out I was struck without any forboding by the urge to vomit. For the next two hours I wore out a patch between the bed and the toilet, expelling whatever poisons wanted out.

It followed an equally nauseating four-flat tire day, with the last three after dark and in the rain. Pained as I was by such ill-fortune, I actually went to bed with relief after finding a bike store that had a 27-inch tire. It was a triple miracle. Even if there had been a bike store in this town, I doubted it would be open at such a late hour and could only pray that if there was a bike store that it would have a 27-inch tire. I was also relieved that I hadn't damaged my front rim, as I rode the last five miles into the town on a flat tire, having given up on patching another tube in the rain and in the dark. I thought finding the tire had ended my miseries for the day, especially when we also discovered a woman with a blender who made us a couple of fruit shakes before our late late dinner, not until after nine.

I don't have much experience at vomiting, so I wasn't all that adept assisting my stomach in expelling whatever wanted out. It was in and out of bed every ten or fifteen minutes. Not only was I disturbing Laurie's sleep, but her peace of mind, as we had both pretty much eaten the same thing all day. She feared the same urge any time herself. What a battle that could be in the bathroom for the toilet. But Laurie could rest assured that she'd only had a mouthful of a couple of questionable meat dishes we had had this day, while I had heartily chowed down on both.

Twice this day we shared meals with Vietnamese in their homes. The first was lunch with a 23- year old economics student. He encountered us on the road on his motorbike and, as happens several times a day, slowed to have a conversation. Rarely does it go beyond a minute or two, curtailed by their limited English and our even more limited Vietnamese. But this fellow, Tong, was very determined to keep a conversation going, difficult as it was at twelve miles per hour with traffic zooming past and his very minimal fluency. He escorted us for over an hour and also waited out my first flat tire and then took us to his home, about a mile detour, for lunch. Our appearance more than surprised his younger sister and neighbors.

His home was quite austere, essentially two bedrooms and a kitchen. Tong had a bed with a thin mat as a mattress, a desk and a bureau with his one luxury, a radio/tape player. He had one wane fluorescent bulb for illumination. His walls were adorned with several pages ripped from magazines, one of Britney Spears and another of a player from Liverpool's soccer team, a favorite team throughout Southeast Asia. We arrived at 12:45 and told Tong we had to be on our way by 1:30 to reach our destination forty miles away by dark at 5:15. His sister had to go out to get food for lunch. There was still chopping going on in the kitchen at 1:30 and it wasn't until two that rice and vegetables and strips of pork and a fried egg and various condiments were ready. Tong gave us a lesson in how to eat the food. Laurie and I were fully prepared to make the sacrifice of some night riding for this rare opportunity. But it could have been that pork, which Laurie only sampled, that did me in later that day.

Or it could have been the meat served to us by another family that took us in as I worked on flat tire number three at 6:30. We spent nearly an hour with them as Laurie and the wife of the home/restaurant really hit it off even though their shared vocabulary amounted to about three words. She sent Laurie off with a couple of glossy wedding photos and would take no money for the food and drink they gave us. The food was mostly a platter of dark meat of several types. I thought it was duck, but after the meal when Laurie went to the bathroom out the back of the house she noticed several caged dogs, as we have seen in the market for eating. The thought of that later that night was the one thing that facilitated my vomiting. Still, it took all too long for my marathon to end. I was in considerable pain and wondered how long we might  be marooned in this town if I was really sick. At least it had Internet and fruit shakes, our two greatest pleasures.

When I awoke at seven, I was surprised that I had finally gone to sleep and then even more surprised that I could walk without a wobble and even felt like putting something in my stomach. We were lucky our next destination was only forty miles down the road. I could hobble such a distance. But I also had the chance to test out my health, as well as that of my bike, with a nine-mile ride out to the site of the My Lai massacre that morning. Laurie feared it would be too emotional of an experience for her, so I went off on my own.  I rode without any gear on my bike, making pushing the pedals much less of a strain than usual. I felt only a hint of weakness from my rough night, meaning there would be no need to spend the day in rest.

The most difficult part of my ride out to My Lai was finding it, as it wasn't very well marked and I rode right by it. I came upon a My Lai Peace Park under construction further down the road than where I understood the My Lai memorial was. I mistook the Peace Park for the site, even though there was no museum there as I had been told there would be.  After doubling back, then I did find what I was looking for.

It was here in March of 1968 that American soldiers led by Lt. William Calley rounded up and gunned down some 500 villagers, mostly women and the elderly. It was covered up for over a year, but he and others were eventually brought to trial. Calley was sentenced to life in prison, though he was released after three years. No others were sentenced. The museum had over a hundred photographs of the actual operation, as an army photographer was on the scene. Some of the photos were marked "U.S. Prosecution, exhibit so and so." There were more recent photos of U.S. soldiers who had returned twenty years after the event, including the photographer. There was also a lengthy statement from a U.S. helicopter pilot who tried to intervene and did save some of the villagers. The memorial site included a dozen or so sculptures. A ditch where 170 villagers were gunned down en masse remained. Bullet holes in trees could be seen where various villagers had been executed. I had the place to my self. It was hard to imagine the horror that had gone on there.

I was greatly relieved to discover that I was okay to ride and have been fine since my bout of vomiting. Today is Thanksgiving, and that we both have our health is our greatest thing to be thankful for. I'm being told it is closing time here, so I can't go on about our great Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant run by a couple of New Zealanders. I had meat and potatoes, while Laurie had spaghetti with two cheeses. All is well.

Later, George

Monday, November 25, 2002

Hoi An

Friends: We climbed the much-hyped Sea Cloud Pass this morning, a mountain that divides the North from the South. It lies 15 miles north of Danang, a seaport of a million that is Vietnam's fourth largest city after Saigon, Hanoi and Haiphong. The DMZ (demilitarized zone of the Vietnam War) was a bit north of this climb. The views out over the China Sea, as we made our ascent from sea level to 1,500 feet in six miles, would have been in a league with those of Big Sur if the pass hadn't been living up to its name--caught in the clouds and clouds with rain in them.

Our first two days in Vietnam were rain-free, but the ten days since have not. Today we had off and on drenchings all day. As we passed through Danang, we biked for several blocks through water up to our bottom brackets. Half of each pedal stroke was under water. But at least our over-night train trip jumped us 400 miles south from Hanoi, so the rain isn't so cold and we had no contrary winds. My Gore-Tex jacket, purchased for this trip, has kept my upper body perfectly dry, quite an improvement over the poncho I have always settled for over the years. And also my Ortleib panniers, another acquisition for this trip, thanks to Debbie of Rapid Transit, are perfectly waterproof, giving me great peace of mind. I wished I had had them in Bolivia last spring. The rain doesn't much bother me, other than having to share Laurie's misery of having less than water-proof panniers. Even though her every garment is wrapped in its own plastic bag inside her water-resistant panniers, water manages to seep in. She festoons our hotel room every night with clothes. focusing the fan on them. We had hoped when we crossed the Sea Cloud Pass, said to form a weather barrier for the country, the rain would be behind us. Maybe today will be the last of it, though it is still drizzling as I write this at nine p.m.

This old city, built along a picturesque canal, is a gathering place for tourists. It has features of its own and is a jumping off point for some fine beaches and other attractions. There are loads of tourist agencies catering to the tourists, offering trips to nearby attractions and providing visa extensions, something we needed to do. When we arrived at two p.m., we went straight to one of the agencies hoping they could process our extension by tomorrow morning. We were told we could have it by eight this evening. We also learned we could get a half-priced two-week extension rather than a one-month extension. We only need a couple of days, so it was all good news. Now we have some breathing room, rather than feeling pressed to get to Cambodia by Dec. 4 when our visas expire. We would have had nine days to do 700 miles. In most circumstances that would be no problem, but there are all too many sites to see and since camping is difficult here and not all towns have accommodations, we are somewhat restricted in how far we can go each night. Plus its getting dark by 5:15. We sure wish November had 31 days. We could desperately use an extra day.

The ease of the visa extension was another of the many potential headaches and hassles we feared that we have avoided. We were also somewhat nervous about our bikes getting to Hue with us on the train. There was no guarantee there would be space for them in the baggage car. To improve our chances we took them to the train station early enough to travel on a train preceding ours, as they ended up doing, awaiting us in the baggage room at Hue when we arrived at ten a.m. after our eleven-hour train ride. We felt grateful once again to Igor, the super-factotum in Hanoi who eagerly plunged into any and all tasks, and looked after us most dutifully. I was happy to give him one of the Swiss Army knifes I had brought along to bequeath upon someone who had done us a great favor. Laurie too was happy to give out one of her rare tips of the trip. We were only sorry that we hadn't thought to get a picture of this truly zealous worker. It was hard too not to think of how dreadful it would be to have such a person as an enemy. Such thoughts creep in from time to time as I talk with men here. I'm ever attentive for any lingering hatred or resentment. I have yet to detect even a hint of it. Those incidents of hostility we experienced our first day in the country were truly an aberration and just from teen-aged boys being teenagers.

This afternoon we stopped for lunch at a small open-aired rural restaurant along the road. As has generally been the case, it has been hard to spot restaurants. We have to look in to buildings as we pass to see if there are tables and anyone sitting at them. There were three tables of men in this one. It turned out, though, that they were there more to drink than eat, even though it was a Monday. They did have plates of food in front of them, but they were more snacks to go along with the whiskey they were drinking. We were able to get a plate of squid. Two guys from different tables at separate times came over and offered a shot glass with whatever poison it was they were drinking. They were most cordial and not insistent or insulted when we declined, as has happened to me in other countries. It can get ugly at times. These men, like the many roving vendors in cities tourists haunt, aren't bashful in approaching us, but they aren't a pest or a menace, as we have experienced in our travels elsewhere. And we are grateful for that. Laurie mentioned she was happy she wasn't in this grungy, napkin-littered, restaurant by herself.

We will be continuing down the coast for the next week before heading over to Saigon and then on to Cambodia and its so-called "Roads from Hell." An Internet acquaintance has been sending us reports from there. Her latest tells us the last 100 miles out of the country to Thailand were so devastated by rains that bridges have been swept away and that no buses are traveling that stretch. The road is littered by trucks on their sides. I can't wait. Its been more than a week since we've had a good, long day on the bike. Tomorrow we will do about 70 miles, our most since crossing into Vietnam. We will overnight not far from the My Lai massacre. Not sure if we'll be able to visit the memorial there.

Later, George

Friday, November 22, 2002

Halong Bay

Friends: Back in Hanoi for a day after a two-day outing with a tour group to Halong Bay, about 100 miles away. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the symbols of Vietnam--a cluster of nearly 2,000 islands, most of which are just jutting spires of limestone. For a mere $27 we were driven to the bay in a mini-bus with 15 others, fed lunch, put on a boat for a three-hour cruise with a stop to explore some extensive caves then deposited on Cat Ba Island, put up in a hotel, fed dinner, given breakfast, spent another three hours cruising amongst the islands back to the mainland, fed lunch and driven back to Hanoi. We thought it was a remarkable deal until we learned there were people in our party who had only paid $15 for all this. We paid extra to insure we wouldn't be crammed on a boat with too many people, but it turned out we didn't need to do that. But we weren't upset, as it was a marvelous experience and we met some most fascinating fellow travelers.

It is amazing how cheap things can be here. There is intense competition amongst the tour operators in this so-called non-capitalist country. Besides the outing to Halong Bay, there are many others tours on offer off into the surrounding area of Hanoi. The Vietnamese are exceptionally well-organized and even more exceptional in their desire to please. There is a factotum we call Igor at our hotel who goes double-time to meet any of our needs. This morning he gave Laurie and I a motorcycle escort, clearing traffic for us, as we bicycled to the train station to check in our bikes so we wouldn't have to worry about that tonight when we board the 11 p.m. train to Hue, some 500 miles south of here. We'd much prefer to be biking, especially after being confined to a bus for eight hours the past two days, but it's over 1500 miles to Bangkok and we don't have quite enough time to bike it all and see what we'd like to see before our Christmas Eve flight home. Those two bus trips of four hours each were almost torture, having to look out at the scenery and not being able to experience it and be a part of it. It was the first time we had been confined to a bus since we departed Bangkok 1,500 miles ago. We felt greatly deprived. I felt similarly as we cruised amongst the hundreds of islands of Halong Bay. I wanted to be out kayaking, propelling myself, as we saw a few doing. But it was still a most relaxing and uplifting experience to lay back on a boat and be mesmerized by the intoxicating scenery that could have been designed by Gaudi. At times I felt as if I were floating through Alaska's Inside Passage, though all about us were a stream of wooden boats with dragons painted on them carrying 50 or so passengers. Halong Bay isn't merely a tourist attraction. The Vietnamese come to see it as well, especially in the heat of the summer. It was too cool and overcast for any swimming this time of the year.

I had to pull myself away from the non-stop conversation of our group, a hard thing to do, and sit on the roof of the boat for some solitary communing with the scenery. Laurie and I were paired up with a retired Israeli couple, the only others in our group of fifteen who had also inadvertently paid the full price, not realizing they could have bargained for a better price. The husband had immigrated with his family to Israel from India when he was five years old. His wife had immigrated from Tunisia. His braided gray pony tail hung nearly to his waist. We stayed up late talking with them on the balcony of our hotel, nibbling on snacks they had brought from Israel. Two 60-year old Australia men, vacationing together separate from their wives for the first time, were equally fascinating. Our group also included a woman from Paris of Vietnamese heritage, a 25-year old Englishman who'd been on the road four months and had vowed to make his next trip a bicycle tour, a Canadian guy traveling with an Irish woman and a Swiss woman.

The Swiss woman was an actress/director, mostly in theatrical productions, though she had also appeared in a couple of movies. She had yet to see a movie in her travels and meant to the evening we returned. Laurie and I have also gone all this time, nearly six weeks now, without any cinema, a travesty, since it was cinema that had brought us together over a decade ago working as volunteers at the Facets cinematheque. When we returned to Hanoi, the three of us rendezvoused at one of the few supermarkets with an assortment of Western food at the tip of the lake at 7:30 to see something, anything. There were two nearby theatres to choose from. Laurie and I had already checked one of them and it's fare was something non-Western. Nadja, like me, didn't care what we saw. We needed a movie-going experience. Nadja regularly attends Switzerland's premier film festival in Locarno each August. It has an international reputation and is renowned for its free evening screenings in the town's grand plaza on a giant wall, an experience that is high on my list of things to do. "Lagaan", the Indian spectacular of a year ago featuring cricket, was launched at such a screening. Nadja has also attended Berlin's film festival, as I have on two occasions. One of those years, we were both there, though we couldn't pinpoint if we had attended any of the same screenings.

The movie at the first theater we meandered to had started 20 minutes earlier and was the final screening for the night. We couldn't determine what it was, other than it had won an Oscar in 1994. We considered going in late, but decided to give the other theater a look, even though it was going to be something in a language we didn't know and without subtitles we could read. Laurie bowed out at that point. Nadja and I arrived at that theater at 8:40. Its movie likewise had started at eight and was the final screening of the night, even though it was a Friday night. We had no idea what nationality the movie was or what it was about. The ushers at first tried to turn us away, even though we were perfectly happy to pay full price to see the last half of the movie. Evidently they figured the movie wasn't for us. They spoke no English and we obviously spoke no Vietnamese, so they were trying to save us. They didn't realize we just wanted to experience a Vietnamese movie theater and Vietnamese movie audience and have the pleasure of sitting in a large dark room watching images flash on a screen regardless of the language being spoken. Maybe it was our persistence or maybe Nadja's blond hair and big screen good looks, but they eventually let us slip in to the last row under the balcony.

The theater wasn't even a quarter full and most everyone was sitting in the back of the theater. The characters on the screen were Asian. We quickly learned it was neither sub-titled nor dubbed. Instead a woman's voice on the sound-track translated everyone's dialogue, a presentation that neither Nadja or I had ever experienced. I had been told that the majority of the movies shown in Hanoi are Korean, Chinese and American. It didn't seem to be Chinese. It was certainly polished enough to be Korean, a national cinema that is thriving and has been a force on the film festival circuit the past few years. If we understood Korean we would have been able to understand the barely audible dialogue of the characters under the voice-over. The biggest surprise was that this wasn't an action movie of any sort--no violence or gun-play or car chases or even sex. Instead, it was a sensitive love story of a couple of 20-year olds who argued and cried and reconciled. A few of the audience trickled out, but we sat and glowed in the novelty of this experience for the hour left of the movie. There was no fidgeting from Nadja. I could see her at rapt attention beside me. She was a movie-goer extraordinaire to be enraptured by this. Nadja had said the Swiss see more movies per capita than any European country. She was certainly proving her devotion, though she admitted that she didn't know if any of her friends would have endured this.

Afterward, we sat at a cafe along one of Hanoi's many lakes, as the nearly full moon shined down on us, going on and on not only about our love of movies but of skiing, something she learned to do before she learned to ride a bike and an activity I devoted several winters to.

The only biking I had done all day was riding a few blocks from the hotel Laurie and I last stayed at to the one we had been transferred to, but it was still a great, great day. Tomorrow, if our bikes make it to Hue with us, we get to ride over Sea Cloud Pass, the only climb on the 1,000 mile Highway 1 that links Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Later, George

Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Hanoi 2

Friends: Autophobes will be happy to hear that Hanoi, or at least it's central district, is virtually car-free. Unfortunately, it is not free of all internal combustion engines, as its streets are clotted and clogged and overwhelmed by a non-stop flow of motorbikes with only a sprinkling of bicycles. As with the bumper-to-bumper traffic of Bangkok, all that traffic initially appeared to be outrageously perilous, especially since few intersections have a stop light or stop sign or traffic cop and no one pauses before entering an intersection, just weaving their way right through. But all are surprisingly adept at avoiding contact. Bicycling with Hanoi's legions of motorbikes is no more treacherous than bicycling with Bangkok's bumper-to-bumper automobile traffic. Though the traffic in Hanoi flows faster, it is much much more enjoyable to be hobnobbing with lone figures astride two-wheeled vehicles, though they be motorized, than slinking along with enclosed four-wheeled metal boxes.

We have yet to see an accident or ever suffered the skip of a heart beat. It's actually fun to submerge ourselves in Hanoi's mongrel mass of perpetual motion. It's even fun to walk through it from one side of the street to the other. The traffic throbs along at not much more than ten miles per hour, and even though there may be a dozen or more two-wheelers buzzing along shoulder-to-shoulder, spanning the road, a pedestrian can step out into the current and everyone will micro-swerve just enough to let him pass through. It is a marvel, another of those experiences that has to be seen to be believed.

Watching and participating in the traffic flow is just one of the many delights of this vibrant and most unique city. As with the traffic, the Vietnamese are an energetic and bustling people. The amount of street life is boggling. There is loads of room for it, as there are literally no parked cars in the town center. Unfortunately, that can't be said of the motorcycles. They all park on the sidewalks and don't leave much room for walking. Parking for bicycles is often hard to come by. One frequently has to shell out 1,000 dong for the privilege, a little over six cents. Sidewalk and curbside sellers are crammed into any open space. Chief among them are people with little barbecues cooking fritters or corn on the cob or noodles or shish-kabob or a wide assortment of mystery foods. There are hundreds of small shops that open out on to the sidewalk with their goods spilling out on it. The years of deprivation and shortages are long past. There isn't a great amount of affluence, otherwise the motorbikes would be giving way to the automobile, as has happened in Thailand, but there is so much economic activity, it is obvious that people have money to spend. It was seemingly a great economic step forward when the motorbike started overwhelming the pedal bike here. If you wish to enjoy this car-free city, don't tarry long. The bicycle has been virtually suppressed in Thailand, as is happening here. And everyone with a motorbike aspires to an automobile. Seeing how industrious the Vietnamese are, the automobile will all too soon take over this country too.

We looked at half a dozen hotels before finding one to our liking. Laurie was determined that we have a room with a balcony. When we settled on one, we also used its services to book a two-day tour to Halong Bay and an overnight train to Hue. And for a modest fee they secured our visas for Cambodia. The woman who made all these arrangements flew into a minor panic when we told her we couldn't pay just yet, as we didn't have our credit card with us. It was back at the hotel we spent our first night at, awaiting a vacancy at her hotel today. The two hotels were only a few blocks apart and we were prepared to move right in, but there is such fierce competition between hotels and booking agents, she feared someone else might steal us from her before we finalized these transactions. She wanted to give us a motorcycle escort, as we rode our bikes back to the hotel where we had spent the previous night, to retrieve our belongings. She feared we might be enticed to stay at that hotel or some other hotel might grab us and offer a better deal. Her franticness was almost comical, but the competition among hotels is so cutthroat, she had very real reason to be concerned. We insisted help wasn't necessary, that we could easily carry all our gear on our bikes, but she insisted on not letting us out of her sight. To assure her we'd be back, Laurie left her passport.

So we're off to Halong Bay tomorrow morning for a couple of days on a boat looking at the spectacular karst (limestone) formations in the Gulf of Tonkin, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We've been receiving conflicting reports on whether the water will be warm enough for swimming. We were able to swim 200 miles south of here outside of Vinh, but it is sweater weather in Hanoi.

We've spent two days exploring Hanoi. It is a city of lakes and divided by the mammoth Red River. Only two bridges span the river. They are each a mile long, one for bicycles and pedestrians and the other for motorized traffic. The lakes range from less than a mile in circumference to many, many miles. They make decent landmarks, but we've still gotten disoriented here more often than anywhere we've been. The narrow streets form quite a labyrinth. At least there are plenty of readable signs, though the streets frequently change names. We've worn out our maps, folding and unfolding them. We're frequently offered assistance by the pedicab drivers, who'd love to give us a lift, and guys on motorbikes, who take passengers. But the level of harassment has been very minor, and frequently, when we do get harassed or someone tries to beg from us, someone comes along and reprimands and shoos away our harasser. People have come to our rescue everywhere we've been in our week in Vietnam, whether at the beach or at the Internet or out and about town.

There is an extraordinary amount of good will here. People seem to be continually on the alert to come to our assistance, as if they all work for the tourist bureau. It is a quality that ought to be enjoyed quick, before it is lost. It doesn't take long for a people who have recently begun receiving visitors after years of isolation to transform from being very helpful to wanting to take advantage of them. I saw the transformation in Guatemala between 1979, when I first visited, and in two subsequent visits over the next ten years all by bicycle. The first time was with my friend Crissy. We had been wintering in Mexico in the small fishing village of Puerto Escondido, a couple hundred miles north of Guatemala. We regularly met travelers who recently been to Guatemala All raved about how warm and welcoming the people were.

So few travelers ventured to Guatemala, the locals treated them as if they were guests they wanted to please. That was exactly the response Crissy and I received. It was shockingly to meet such kindness and cordiality, especially after spending so much time in Mexico. Years of big-shot Americans flaunting their money and treating the Mexicans with less than respect, had understandably made them wary and not always so friendly. In Guatemala people offered us water without us asking and whatever assistance we needed and were happy to have their picture taken. On my second visit, I met a young Guatemalan who had recently returned from the United States, where he had worked as an undocumented laborer for several months. He could earn more in three hours than he could in a week in Guatemala. He was most staggered that he could earn enough money in two weeks to be able to buy a car. It wasn't much a car, but it was still a car. Owning a car is utterly unimaginable for the average Guatemalan laborer earning two dollars a day working in the fields. When he and everyone he knew gradually learned how rich the backpackers and tourists were, not only from first-hand reports of the few Guatemalans who went to America, but also from witnessing the spending habits of the wealthier tourists who came after the backpackers, it greatly altered their perception of them and how they responded to them. Their shift in behavior was glaringly evident when I biked through Guatemala five year after my first visit. The prevailing attitude switched from one of "What can I do for you," to one of "What can I get out of you." I saw it happen to Puerto Escondido too. Once Puerto Escondido was discovered, in less than a decade, it went from a town with one restaurant serving spaghetti to dozens of restaurants serving all manner of Western food. The locals lost their charm and cordiality with it. The Vietnamese are in the middle of that process.

I was surprised to see more than a dozen buildings of ten stories or more sprouting up across Hanoi when I climbed to the top of the one hundred foot Flag Tower, built in 1812. I knew of three such buildings in the town center, but wasn't aware of the others. The Flag Tower is part of the Army Museum. Across the street is a small plaza with a statue of Lenin on a pedestal. The focus of the museum was more on Vietnam gaining freedom from their French colonizers than on the "American War." The American War lasted just eight years, from 1965 to 19783, while the era of French control began in the 1850s and lasted more than a century. The American War was referred to as, "The resistance war against the U.S. for national salvation" and "The U.S. War of Destruction in North Vietnam from 1965-1973." There was quite a bit of military hardware in the courtyard surrounding the museum. Just about every visitor to the museum wanted their photo taken in front of a Mig Jet, that shot down nine U.S. jet. There was also some B-52 wreckage and various U.S. military vehicles that had been captured. By far the most impressive item was a bicycle with 370 kilos of cargo strapped to it.

There was a similar bicycle, though not so heavily laden, at the vast and modern Ho Chi Minh Museum near his mausoleum. It, too, placed greater emphasis on Vietnam ousting its French oppressors than on the war instigated by the United States. It contained a considerable amount of Ho's writing, much of it championing Marxism-Leninism. Ho wrote, "We won great victories first and foremost thanks to the irreplaceable weapon, Marxism-Leninism." There was no update to the caption, "In today's world only the Russian Revolution has been successful."

Of the few people at the Army Museum, most were westerners, while Ho's museum was thronged with visitors, practically all Vietnamese. It is an impressive, largely glass, modern two-story building. Unfortunately, none of the many video displays were working. Ho issued a declaration of independence from France on Sept. 2, 1945 and served as Vietnam's first president until his death in 1969. He is quite revered. His photo is on every denomination of bills, which go much higher than those of Laos. Laos peaked out at 5,000 kip, a mere fifty cents. Vietnam has bills of 500, 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000, all the way up to almost seven dollars.

We also visited the former prison where many American pilots were incarcerated, including John McCain. The prison was in the heart of the city. Only a wing of it remains, as the tallest building in Hanoi, the Hanoi Towers, rises right above it. The prison was built by the French in the late 1800s. Much of its history concerns the incarceration of Vietnamese political prisoners. Ho was never imprisoned, or at least there. A sign at the entry to the prison warned "No frolicking." There was just one cell devoted to the American prisoners. One photo identified McCain. The introduction said the Vietnamese, "Brought down thousands of aircraft and captured hundreds of American pilots...Having committed untold crimes on our people, but American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead they were treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter." There were half a dozen photos of groups of prisoners behind big spreads of food and being read letters. One showed half dozen prisoners standing in a chapel. Eagle-eye Laurie noticed one had his middle finger pressed to his chin, but not too flagrantly, as another finger was slightly extended along side it.

Not all out sight-seeing was restricted to the War. We also visited Hanoi's Temple of Literature, a walled in courtyard with several buildings that date to 1076. It was originally erected to honor Confucius.

In all our wanderings we failed to find any peanut butter. We could have purchased M&M's and Tang and Prego spaghetti sauce and Snickers though. The best find of the day was a used book store willing to trade Laurie's Kafka for Lonely Planet's guide to Cambodia.

Later, George

Monday, November 18, 2002

Hanoi !!

Friends: And here we are in Hanoi. Bangkok to Hanoi via northern Thailand and the mountains of Laos, some 1,500 miles. This has become a significant journey. Five days in Vietnam and we have to keep reminding ourselves this is the Vietnam of all those movies and books and tales of friends who served here. Fortunately, neither of us knew anyone who earned a spot on the Vietnam War Memorial. If we let our thought drift back to that distant past, we can feel the nightmare this place was at one time. There is no evidence, though, of all the carnage of that time, other than the occasional glimpse of an older guy lacking a limb.

There is no animosity to speak of, rather the opposite. Several times a Vietnamese of my age, in his 50s, has approached me, offered his hand and then walked away, without saying a word. I don't think it has anything to do with how far we have traveled by bike. Rather, it is assumed I'm another returning vet who has come back for some sort of catharsis, and they wish to let me know they appreciate that I've returned and that there are no hard feelings. Some simply ask if I've been to Vietnam before, a polite way of asking if I'm among the six-and-a-half million Americans who served in the military here.

As we closed in on Hanoi my thought began dwelling more and more on where we were. The last 20 miles before the outskirts of this city of three-and-a-half million were on a divided four-lane highway with little traffic. There wasn't much need for horn blasts, though an occasional driver couldn't resist, even from the opposite direction across the divided highway, as some sort of welcome. With such relative calm, our thought could wander. We had a minor skirmish going ourselves warding off the chills from a cool wind from the north and an all day drizzle that had our speed below tens miles per hour. Each kilometer post with Hanoi written on it wouldn't let us forget where we were headed.

I could feel a welling of emotion not unlike what I felt after the seven days I spent in a courtroom attending the trial of the SUV road rage murderer of a messenger friend of mine. When the first degree murder verdict was given after two days of deliberation I felt empty. And when reporters asked for my reaction afterward I found myself choking on the emotion of the moment. I could feel a similar welling now. But only because I dug for it. We have seen nothing so far in our five days here that would cause them. Maybe when we start going to the various museums and memorials devoted to the war, such feelings will be stirred. What minor hostility we have experienced wasn't from anyone who knew our nationality. We have yet to encounter another American here, just Europeans among the Western set, so the locals do not assume that foreigners are Americans. People always seem pleased, however, to learn that we are Americans.

We arrived in Hanoi less than five hours ago, an hour before dark. It took us most of the last hour of light to find a hotel, as the first two recommended by Lonely Planet were full and several others we checked weren't up to our standards, at least when we had options. The traffic hasn't been as horrendous as we had been warned, especially compared to that of Bangkok. The majority of it is motorbikes. They clog the streets wheel-to-wheel and shoulder-to-shoulder flowing at a similar steady speed as if they were a steadily moving current of water particles. They are so dominant, a Dutch couple traveling by bicycle we had dinner with last night told us that there were no bicyclists in Hanoi, just motorcyclists. We couldn't believe that to be true, and it wasn't. But there are so few, we could understand that by Dutch standards, there appeared to be none. Bicycles once dominated not so long ago, but with affluence, they have been choked out by the motorcyclists. There are still a handful of bicyclists, so the motorcyclists have experience in accommodating those of us on pedal bikes.

We found a hotel in the old city. We are eager to explore its narrow, windy streets and its many shops and sidewalk sellers. There is at least one building of 20 stories or so, unlike the capital of Laos, which didn't have a building of more than three or four stories, other than a monument or two. But like Ventiane, it could be a capitol city free of American franchises. We have seen none so far in our wanderings. Maybe there will be a McDonald's or KFC or some such thing near the skyscraper, not that were interested other than as a symptom of its Westernization. Thailand had plenty. In fact 7-Eleven was its most popular grocery store in any town of more than 10,000 people. We were always happy to see one, and in fact were eager to, as they were air-conditioned and had a self-serve drink machine that dispensed crushed ice just like back home. We were hoping there'd be 7-Elevens in Laos and Vietnam as well, but so far we have yet to find one.

We've had nine straight days of biking since Ventiane and are looking forward to several days of rest. We plan to take a two-day trip via bus to Halong Bay, 100 miles away. That seems to be what every traveler does in Hanoi, just as everyone who visits Chang Mai takes a three-day trip to visit the hill tribes. We're nearing the half-way point of our two-and-a-half months away and are beginning to feel the pressure of time to do all we'd like before we return from Bangkok the day before Christmas. We're hoping to meet up with the Aussie cyclists we spent a couple days with in Laos and also the Dutch couple we dined with last night in Ninh Binh. They were just a week in to a six-month bike ride from Hanoi to Singapore. This was their dream trip. It was inspired by a one-month bike tour of Northern Thailand two years ago. They knew that wasn't long enough. We closed down the restaurant, breathlessly gabbing away, extolling the bicycling life. Our conversation was so animated and lively, I was aware of others in the small restaurant of travelers listening in, as I would have too, and then resumed our gab-fest over a prolonged breakfast this morning before we set out in the rain, they south and us north.

The few of us who travel by bike are instant friends and share a camaraderie as if we've known each other for years. I've had many a tour when I never encountered another touring cyclist or just for a few minutes on the road as we passed going in the opposite direction. The handful we have met on this trip has each been one of its highlights. We delight in checking out each other's gear almost as much as we love hearing about each other's love for what we are doing. The Dutch couple had super-insulated water bottles that even had a temperature gauge built in to them. They registered 45 degrees after spending the night in the refrigerator. They also had two kickstands on their bikes, one on the rear stay and the other on the front low-rider rack to prevent the front wheel from swinging around. They were enthralled by my spare tire stuffed between the spokes of my front wheel. I have yet to meet another cyclist who knows that trick. They don't have to worry much about dogs as the husband is a police officer who trains police dogs--Belgian shepherds, as they are meaner than German Shepherds.

Dogs are the least of a touring cyclist's worries in Vietnam. The few that are to be seen are remarkably well-behaved. If they're not, they could well end up in the frying pan. I was startled today to actually hear a dog barking, but it was a puppy who didn't know better. The honking motorists, unfortunately, more than make up for the lack of dog barking. They yelp at will with their horns, and, as with dog barking, it is contagious and competitive, and for many, once they start, there is no stopping them. It is beyond annoying. It is infuriating. In India it nearly made me cut my planned three-month trip short. Vietnam is no where near as aggravating as India. The incessant horn-blowing was just one of the travails of traveling in India. Almost as aggravating were the swarms of people who continually mobbed me. We had been warned the Vietnamese could swarm as well and give us no peace. But those warnings all came from people who had been here a while ago. The locals have become accustomed to Westerners and are no longer so curious. We still attract people here and there but only a thimble full by India standards. We drew the attention of several young men this afternoon when we stopped on the divided highway into Hanoi under an overpass, the first we had encountered since Bangkok. We wanted to get out of the rain and have a bite to eat and there'd been no place to stop for miles. A couple of guys on motor bikes pulled over to check us out, and several guys from some nearby fields came over. They were shivering and were surprised we were in shorts. A couple of them were bold enough to put their hands on my legs to see if they were cold. They weren't at that point, though after 15 minutes or so we had cooled off enough for Laurie to have goosebumps, which a couple of them pointed out. Another stroked my beard. But these were gentle, friendly gestures that we didn't mind.

Vietnam continues to surprise and enthrall us. One must ever have his camera at the ready to capture the odd sight or moment. I could have shot a dozen rolls already just of all the wide-ranging loads we have seen carried on bikes. As we sat sipping our fourth smoothie in little more than 12 hours two towns back at one of the typical intersections without stop sign or stop light or traffic cop in the middle of a town with a non-stop stream of all manner of traffic converging from all four directions, I wished I had a video camera to capture the spectacle of it. No one slows their speed, but all still pass through unscathed. We saw pony and cattle-pulled carts along with scores of bicyclists, some carrying a half-ton load on a front-loaded transport bike, and all the usual motorized vehicles and pedestrians, too, some carrying a pole on their back with two overloaded baskets at either end, too wide to be on the sidewalk, trotting along in the road. It had to be seen to be believed. We could have spent all day watching it without becoming bored.

Later, George

Saturday, November 16, 2002

Thanh Hoa, Viet Nam

Friends: The first rain of our travels, along with a head wind, made us decide to abort a bit early today here in Thanh Hoa, a vibrant city of 100,000, rather than continuing on to Ninh Binh, another thirty-five miles down the road. It means we are ninety-five miles from Hanoi rather than sixty. But we are happy to be here, even though when we returned to our hotel, after a late afternoon stroll, we surprised a couple of rats who were perched upon our sack of food hanging from a bungee cord draped over a rafter in the ceiling. So now we have to decide whether we want to upgrade from our five dollar room to perhaps a more rat-proof fifteen dollar room.

Last night we had our grungiest room of the trip and felt lucky to have found it. We had reached a city shortly before dark that seemed sizable enough to have a hotel, especially since it was at the intersection of two significant highways, including Highway 1. We asked several people at the main intersection of the town if there was a hotel nearby. All told us there was no hotel in the city. But we had been told by the Dutch cyclists we met a couple of days ago, that there are four categories of hotels in Vietnam, and that the two lesser categories are such marginal hotels not everyone is aware of them or would recommend them to travelers or tourists. They told us to be persistent and to keep asking, as someone might eventually know about such a place.

We had yet to encounter anyone who spoke English, so we continued down the road in search of a likely suspect. I saw several well-dressed men by an impressive looking building. There were no English speakers among them, but one, who turned out to be a police official, understood what we were looking for and said yes, there was a hotel and that he'd take us there. He hopped on his motorcycle and led us back a block to the very intersection where we had asked several passersby about accommodations. At that very corner, across the street, he led us into a three-story building. The lobby was quite commodious, but upstairs was a series of bare bone cubicles for workers. There was a lone room available. Without the backing of the police official, I doubt they would have let us stay, as it was men only--there were about twenty-five of them who shared a lone toilet and shower down the hall from our room. Laurie was given quite a few dirty looks and was even smacked in the head by one fellow in the hallway as she walked behind me as I escorted her to the toilet. The stench in the bathroom from a floor level urinal with several decades of encrusted urine on its ceramic tiles was strong enough to level Tacoma.

Later that night, as we were walking back to our cell after dinner, a most charming and demure twenty-year old girl invited us to join her at a friend's nearby restaurant. She was another of the many Vietnamese women we have encountered who had a smile bright enough to light up Las Vegas, smiles unlike any. Everyone smiles in Thailand, but not with the luminosity of the women here. We can't say the same for the men though. Ho and her friends were eager to meet and quiz a couple of Americans. Ho served as translator. Laurie and I pass as husband and wife with a couple of children, sparing us the complications of explaining our friendship and our unconventional lives. The older adults were quite pleased to learn that Laurie and I were the proud parents of two children. They positively beamed that our trip had been a gift from them. The next day, as we were biking in the rain, Laurie said, "Next time we ought to say we have six children and they are all honor students and exceptional athletes." Concocting their bios occupied us for many miles.

Biking Highway 1 has been an extraordinary experience. It forms the backbone of Vietnam, running its length for over one thousand miles from Hanoi to Saigon. It carries a river of traffic of Amazonian proportions, much of it non-motorized. It is two lanes wide with a nice wide shoulder for all the bicycles and animal-pulled carts and other slow-moving vehicles, while right along side of us buses and all varieties of trucks, from 18-wheelers to pick-ups, roar by. There are also plenty of motor bikes and even an occasional automobile. It is a non-stop riot of people and product. It is a thrill to be a part of it. Through the larger towns and many of the cities, the cyclists multiply to beyond critical mass proportions. The bikes are all of the one-speed persuasion, but, unlike India, they are not clones. There is great variety to the type and color and even a greater variety to what they are transporting. We passed four guys, each with three 55-gallon drums lashed to their bike. When I stopped to photograph them, they waved and smiled broadly. I was only going to photograph the first pair, but as the others passed, they gestured that they wanted their picture taken too.

There are as many women bicycling as men, and plenty of boys and girls as well. The women especially seem to be enjoying themselves as they pedal along. Their eyes brighten even more when Laurie passes. Yesterday, two thirty-year old sisters rode alongside us for half an hour. One chattered away in Vietnamese and I chattered back in English. She too had a megawatt smile that had to be seen to be believed. She was as delighted and gleeful to have our attention as the small children of Laos. It is rare to see such genuine and unfettered warmth. Many of these women carry loads that dwarf the loads Laurie and I are carrying. And they can nearly maintain our pace. Though they aren't traveling the distances we are, they easily could.

When we paused for a couple of hours at a beach ten miles from Vinh yesterday, four women pored over Laurie's bike as if it were a holy relic. No one on this trip had admired it with such respect and intensity. One even pointed out that her handlebars needn't tightening.

We haven't gotten used to all the horn-blowing from the trucks and buses barreling past. Some of the horns are of ultra, off-the-charts, decibels. When a train passed us the other day and tooted its horn, all the trucks responded like a pack of barking dogs, proving they had a much louder bark than the pipsqueak toot of the train. I've yelped in genuine pain several times when the pitch and intensity and the angle of the noise hit my left ear drum just wrong. Some of the trucks can be heard from way down the road, blasting their horn like a sharpshooter blasting at a flock of geese. Unlike India, where every driver assaults every moving object along the road with their horn and where all horns sound pretty much the same, as the bulk of the traffic is an identical Tata lorry, there is a great variety to the horn blasts here. When one isn't in the midst of the cacophony, listening to the range of sounds can be fascinating, almost symphonic. But when one is their target, it is murder on the ears.

Today was Saturday, which may explain why at times we went a couple minutes or more between horn blasts. Any respite is a relief. But it's still not as bad as India, where 99% of the trucks blasted their horns and with greater venom than here. There is much, much more traffic on Highway 1 than I encountered in India, but not even half of the Vietnamese drivers toot, and many of those only moderately. But the loudest of the Vietnamese are louder than the loudest of the Indians and their loudness is compounded by the faster speeds they drive here. Vehicles couldn't drive much faster than twenty-five miles per hour in India as the roads were so horrendous. Highway 1 here is smooth enough in most places to allow speeds of fifty miles per hour or faster and when horns are launched at those speeds, the noise is hurled with ever greater ferocity.

I am happy to report we had no one grab at our bikes today, nor did we have anyone veer at us from the opposite lane to give us a little fright, as has happened, nor did we have anyone zip by us as closely as they could. It looks like all those untoward incidents of our first day were isolated, very localized incidents. I wouldn't say they were freak occurrences, as they were clearly premeditated and seemed as if they would be common on that isolated stretch. I can hardly remember any such incidents in all my previous tens of thousands of miles of touring over twenty-five years on five continents. I have been stoned by kids, and by kids who meant it, in Guatemala and Morocco, and haphazardly in Bolivia. We're not prepared to call Vietnam a cyclist's paradise, but it has been a most unique and interesting experience our first three days that we are happy to be having.

We had a most rewarding stroll about Thanh Hoa this afternoon and evening. There is an abundance of food vendors and sidewalk cafes, unlike Vinh where it wasn't so easy to find a place to eat. We even spotted a blender, our first in nearly a week, and had the two best smoothies of the trip, one after another--one of papaya and the second of soursop, a fruit we had never sampled before, but was a sensational discovery. It was berry-like with a hint of lemon flavor. We'll have another tomorrow morning for breakfast before we leave town.

Not so pleasant, however, was the sight of several dogs caged for sale to be eaten in the market. That was nothing compared to the semi-truck that pulled in to a gas station we had stopped at that was transporting hundreds of them, half a dozen to a cage, each with the most devastating hang-dog expression imaginable. My photo will be sure to bring gasps of horror. Dog-eating is more common in the north of Vietnam than in the south. There is a town six miles north of Hanoi famous for its dog restaurants--sixty along a one-kilometer stretch. We made a note of we can avoid it. There is a certain lunar phase when it is popular to eat dog. Even before seeing today's critters, there wasn't much of a chance that we would have been indulging.

Tomorrow we will pass by some spectacular limestone formations.

Later, George

Thursday, November 14, 2002

Vinh, 2

Comrades: We awoke at six a.m. this morning to the clamour of non-stop horn honking from the early morning traffic. An hour earlier our sleep had been interrupted by someone knocking on nearly everyone's door announcing the bus to Hue. I was surprised to notice from our fourth floor room that all that horn blowing came from just a tiny proportion of the traffic on the main boulevard below. Nearly 95% of the traffic was two-wheeled--motorized and unmotorized. The occasional car and truck needed to blast its horn to clear the way. The more distinctive horns could be heard from blocks away. Laurie looked out and said, "This is out of control."

Before heading out of Vinh towards the coast we indulged once again in the Internet. It is ten miles to a beach that is said to be the third best beach in the north of Vietnam. That's not saying too much, as all the better beaches are in the south. If it is inviting enough, we may linger before beginning our assault on Hanoi. We were able to find an ATM machine last night. We both withdrew one million dong (15,000 to the dollar).

I am happy to report that Vietnam has ice, not always in cubes, but ice nonetheless. The ice at the first restaurant we stopped at, twenty miles into the country, was a palm-sized hunk that the waitress/cook broke up by smashing with the bottom of a soft drink bottle--not the most sanitary method, but one learns not to be too concerned about sanitation in places such as this. She was the nicest, most ebullient person we've met on the trip. It was a great welcome to the country after the somewhat surly customs officials. The people so far have alternated between being very friendly to dour and outright hostile. She communicated with us entirely in pantomime and a bright smile and dancing eyes. She even invited Laurie back to wash her face, smudged with dirt from all the dust stirred up by the traffic on the road.

We'd had two encounters in Laos with Vietnamese who were also most outgoing and energetic. They were proud to tell us they were Vietnamese, as if they didn't want us to think they were Laotian. One was a family that ran a restaurant where we and a couple of Australian cyclists, Andrew and Ilias, we had teamed up with had a fabulous lunch. We were treated as if we were world-famous adventurers. They couldn't do enough for us, bringing out more and more food, and topping it off with whiskey. Whenever we said thank you in Laotian, they corrected us with the Vietnamese version.

Click here for a larger version of the picture

Later that same day we were rescued by a Vietnamese gentleman who spoke fairly fluent English. The four of us had ended up in a town without a guest house shortly before dark, even though we had been told earlier in the day that there was one to be found. We were struggling to communicate with someone who spoke no English who seemed to be telling us we could sleep in his restaurant. The English-speaker came along and said he might be able to find a place for us. He did, right across the street in a house with an empty upstairs room that had three beds with bare slats and springs. We all had sleeping pads and sleeping bags. The Aussies didn't have a tent so they were truly desperate for a place to stay. Laurie and I could have headed out and camped, as we had already done twice in Laos, but we were enjoying the Aussies' company too much to abandon them.

This is the largest version of the picture
The other Aussie, Andrew, modeling the peasant hat both he and Illias wore on their bikes to shield the sun.

The previous night we had ended up at the same guest house. Our dinner together was one of the more memorable meals of our trip. It was the usual noodle soup, not much more than a snack for touring cyclists. Each of us guys had a second bowl and didn't leave a morsel. As we lingered and talked the restaurant was closing. The family invited us back in to their quarters to join them for their meal. There were two large bowls of sticky rice, which we rolled into balls and then dipped into one of three meat dishes and a bowl of long greens.

One of the meat dishes was full of insect parts in a stew. Another had a small cranium of an indeterminate animal. Only one of the family spoke any English, but not enough to explain what we were eating. One of the Aussies tried out a variety of animal noises to see if any matched the animal parts. He also imitated shooting with a rifle to see if they had hunted it. It could have been dog or rat or bat but it wasn't. All the dishes were beyond my spicy threshold, so I just marginally dipped the rice. The greens, too, were nothing like any of us had seen. Here we were, eating insects and weeds with a Laotian family in the back of their restaurant and loving it.

Two days later when we came to the intersection where we went our separate ways, we encountered a Dutch couple, husband and wife, who had been on their bikes fourteen months and had come through Africa before flying from South Africa to Bangkok. This was almost a once in a generation confluence of cyclists from three different continents meeting on a fourth continent. We were the first touring cyclists the Dutch had had more than a passing conversation with in all their time on the road. They'd met none in Africa. Lucky for us all, we met at lunch time. It was a lunch that could have gone on well into the night, but Laurie and I broke it up after three hours. We concluded the meal with a couple of shared watermelons.

After two days together it was hard to say goodbye to the Aussies. We had shared many good times and laughs and had come to know them as well as friends we have known for years. They were both in their early thirties. This was the first tour they had undertaken. One had been a courier in Sydney and also participated in Sydney's Critical Mass. He said it was fairly tame, as it was a virtually sanctioned ride, escorted by a dozen velocops. The other Aussie was unemployed other than busking every Friday and Saturday night. He was a singer/rapper. For a year he saved all the coins he earned to pay for this trip.  When he went to take it to the bank it weighed over 150 pounds. With luck we'll cross paths in Cambodia. They aren't doing as many miles as we are, and will head straight to Saigon, rather than swinging up to Hanoi as we will.

Sorry for the semi-incoherence of this. I've already lost one lengthy email. Now I'm just slopping it out, rushing to get as much down as time allows. Much has happened since my last communication from Laos five days ago. Our second night of camping in Laos, the day before we crossed into Vietnam, was interrupted at three a.m. by an invasion of biting red ants. It took us several minutes to find their entry point, though all we had to do was follow their neat and orderly file with the crumbs they had scavenged from our dinner. Once we found it we sealed it with duct tape and doused it with mosquito repellent. Then we crushed all the ants in the tent. We would have slept through the invasion if the ants had restrained from attacking us and had simply been content with our crumbs. They were voracious enough to eat through my heavy-duty Ziploc bag into my stash of nuts. I didn't appreciate that at all. I wasn't about to lose them. Later in the day I dumped the nuts and ants in my Tupperware bowl and set them out in the hot sun. The ants quickly fled.

Later, George

Vinh, Vietnam

Comrades: The port city of Vinh was the start of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the most bombed city in Vietnam during what the Vietnamese call "The American War." This city of 200,000 has been completely rebuilt. Only two of Vinh's buildings survived all the bombing. Which two we don't know, as we didn't arrive until after dark this evening. We came nearly ninety miles today from Laos and I won my first bet of the trip from Laurie, and the first bet that she would accept. I've continually been offering bets when she expresses pessimism about whether there will be a cold drink in the town ahead and such, but she has never been willing to wager. But today, as we climbed out of Laos on the roughest road of the trip, actually forcing us off our bikes at times, she said, "I hope the road in Vietnam is better than this." I said, "I bet it will be." She wanted to know the stakes. "How about one of those peanut clusters Vinh is famous for."  That she accepted, and we shook on it as we pedaled along.

It took better than an hour to get through customs, mostly from run-arounds on the Vietnam side, before we were allowed to begin our descent from the 2,400 foot pass separating the two countries. We knew in an instant that I had won the bet, and though Laurie wasn't happy about losing, she was happy that she could crouch down over her handlebars and let it fly. Her neck was happier yet, as the past two days in Laos on a bumpy, but paved road, it was getting jarred good. Before we embarked on this trip I would have been happy to have been told we could find roads as good as the rough stretch out of Laos, but we had been spoiled by fairly good roads our first 400 miles in the country.

Our first sixty miles in Vietnam today gave me flashbacks to the horrors of biking in India. We were afflicted by more horn blasts than we had had in 1,200 miles through Thailand and Laos. Most of our previous toots had been greetings of friendliness. Not here. As in India, horn blasts are like blanket-bombing, unleashed recklessly at all and sundry. Fortunately, few reach the decibel levels of those of India and the horn-tooting is not as universal, but each approaching vehicle has my ear drums cringing in anticipation of assault. I jerk my head ninety degrees whenever a vehicle passes to avoid a direct line of fire should there be one. I will have to put cotton in my left ear if it persists.

After we descended to the flats and began to have more company on the road I heard Laurie shout, "Let go, you're slowing me down." It was one of those rare times I had gotten ahead of her. I turned to see a pack of teen-aged boys bicycling alongside her. And then I felt someone grabbing on to my bike. I disengaged my foot from my toeclip and he instantly let go. I then dropped back and rode beside Laurie as the boys circled and taunted us with a non-stop barrage of the two English phrases they knew--"What is your name?" and "What time is it?" I would have just ridden away from them, but Laurie was rationing her energy for our long day and didn't care to sprint. This went on for fifteen minutes before they turned off. Laurie said she had read in one of our guide books that such grabbing would happen. None of the several cyclists we have met who bicycled here, however, had mentioned it. Hopefully this will not be a regular occurrence. If it were, we surely would have heard about it. It is the first time I have experienced such a thing.

Not long after that incident we came upon a cluster of younger boys along the road who lept to their feet as we approached. We expected a chorus of "hellos" as we had been receiving here, though not with the exuberant glee of the Laotians. But instead, one threw an orange at Laurie. Somewhat stunned, she said, "I've never had that happen before." She didn't want to think ill of the boys and added, "It was just innocent fun, you have to remember." A while later a barefoot, feral-looking boy on a bike came rushing to the road as we approached and shouted, "Money," and thrust out his hand. He rode after us screaming "money, money" for a minute or two. These less than friendly outbursts all occurred on a narrow country road that is a tributary to the main Route 1 that links Saigon and Hanoi. When we joined up with Route 1 at the end of the day we had no more such incidents, just plenty of traffic to contend with.

It took us better than an hour to find an Internet cafe in Vinh, not until after ten p.m. and we are now closing the place down. Hopefully we'll find another before we reach Hanoi in three days.

Later, George

Saturday, November 9, 2002

Ventiane 2

Friends: While Laurie went shopping on our rest day in Ventiane I stopped in at a prominent Buddhist Temple near the largest and most holy of Laos' Stupas. There were more than the usual one or two monks in their bright orange dress milling about. As I casually roamed about, pushing my unladen bike, a monk in his late teens smilingly approached and asked in fairly good English, "How are you?"

He was the first monk to speak to me in the month we've been traveling in this deeply Buddhist region. He wanted to know about my bike. He gasped at how far it had brought me and the terrain it had crossed. He asked if he could give it a try, even though it was way too big for him. He was a bit wobbly, but it brightened his smile even brighter than it was. He was a student monk attending high school, living here at this temple, one of the few in the country and the only one in Ventiane that housed students. This was Saturday, so he and his fellow monk students had the day off. A couple other monks joined us. They too were passably conversational in English, an extra course they take in the evenings in addition to their high school classes.

They told me of their routine, rising at four a.m. every morning, washing and then praying before going out barefoot and with bowl to receive food from whomever cares to gain merit by giving. I had risen early myself one morning in Luang Prabang to witness the ritual. There are a dozen or so temples there. The monks from each march single file from eldest to youngest down the streets in search of people with large pots of food. There were lone individuals and also clusters of two or three or four people along the street ladling out food to the monks. As each monk passed, they would scoop a single spoonful of food in to their bowl. Each might serve 100 or more monks, and each monk received food from a dozen or more givers. Most of those giving were older woman, but there was an occasional middle-aged man. Merit is an essential aspect of Buddhism. In Chiang Mai locals were urged to recycle as a means of gaining merit.

After half an hour or so of conversation, Monk Bouaon invited me to his room for a drink of water. His room was nicer than many of the hotel rooms Laurie and I have stayed at. He had a World Cup soccer poster on his wall and several dozen books stacked above his bed. He had a fan and a radio. From under his bed he pulled out a stash of individually wrapped coconut wafer cookies. As we talked, we were joined by several other student monks. I learned that Bouaon was actually 22. He hoped to graduate from high school in May and then go to university. He was one of eight children and the only to become a monk. He and his friends all agreed that life in Laos has improved considerably over the last several years, ever since the country has been opened to Westerners. He said the roads used to be so horribly pot-holed, I wouldn't have wanted to have bicycled here then. There is still a shortage of decent jobs. I hung out for over an hour, until it was time for them to tend to some afternoon chores. Though he doesn't have email, he gave me a small business card with his temple's address.

Later in the day I met a retired, 65-year old German cyclist, who had bicycled Laos several years ago with his wife and had loved it so much, they have wanted to return ever since. They confirmed that the roads were greatly improved, and that the people were as friendly as they had been then. I wished they were heading the same direction as Laurie and I, as they would have made for great company. They have been committed touring cyclists ever since their first tour ten years ago, going off on a tour every year since, mostly in Asia. I was hoping he was an even more veteran touring cyclist than he was as I began talking to him and learning of his travels. As I revealed more and more of my travels and how long I had been at it, he said he regrets from time to time that he hadn't discovered cycle touring earlier. He said he rarely meets anyone who has traveled more than he has, then added, "You are the Lance Armstrong of touring cyclists." He told of taking a speedboat six years ago. He hated it, but decided to give it another try, except chartering the boat for just himself and his wife and ordering the captain to go at half speed and not to pick up any passengers. He said the captain was actually able to restrain himself and that going at a slower speed made the experience a real pleasure.

I meandered some 35 miles around Ventiane today on my bike, giving each of the wide, but far from glamorous, boulevards a look. I failed to find an up-scale business district or even middle-scale. There were some outlying areas of semi-affluence, but as far as nice office buildings and shopping areas, Ventiane has none. The sidewalks are all broken and worn. Even the area around the Presidential Palace with the American and French Embassies and guest houses and restaurants and Internet cafes catering to travelers would pass as a slum in most cities. It is a nice place for ex-pats to disappear to.

Laurie encountered an ex-pat we had met in Luang Prabang, the nervous, paranoid type who was full of dire warnings. She was a 40-year old woman who used to work for Microsoft, but fled the U.S. when Bush the Second took office. She told us it would be suicidal to bike the road through the mountains out of Luang Prabang. She warned us to be wary of what we sent by email out of Laos, as she claimed they are all censored. I told her that when I send out mass emails, including one to myself, I received it instantaneously without any censorship. She said she receives reports from friends all the time who say the emails she sends them are full of misspellings of words like religion and communism. "You can't be too careful," she told us over and over in little more than a whisper.

As my thought roamed today reveling in how wonderful these travels have been, it also veered off to considering what regrets I might have. There are always sites I wish I'd seen and fellow travelers I wish I'd spent more time with and pictures I wished I'd taken, but never anything very significant. I somewhat regretted not taking one of the three-day package treks out of Chiang Mai every other traveler we've met seems to have taken. They all include an elephant ride and going down a river on a bamboo raft and getting a dose of opium. For those traveling by bus getting out and doing something physical in the outdoors has been the highlight of their trip. Its not much of a regret, as no one had an experience to compare to ours in Chang Mai being embraced by Esther and her friends. My biggest regret may have been failing to draft a slow-moving motorcycle that had a monkey in a cage on its back. Laurie and I were riding side-by- side when it chugged past us. I didn't react in time to chase after it, which I could have easily done. On my own I'm always on the alert for a slow moving vehicle to latch on to. I keep imagining how that monkey would have reacted with me just a foot or two from its face, pedaling furiously to stay in its draft.

We thought when we reached Laos there would be no more side-by-side cycling on its inferior roads. The roads are a far cry from the quality of those in Thailand, but there has been so little traffic until we came within 30 miles of Ventiane, we have still been able to ride side-by-side and while away the miles and hours in conversation. Many of you have been the subject of our musings as we comment on the emails you have sent. After Laurie heard from a cousin in Nebraska she spent a lot of time with as a kid she told stories of their many adventures and pranks. As nine-year olds they once doused themselves with ketchup and laid down alongside the road in their small town of 700 hoping to get rescued. No one came along before they grew tired. They snuck out one night at one a.m. and roamed their deserted town wondering what it would be like. She said it was years before they ever told anyone. Her cousin and her three sisters and brother still live in Nebraska. Laurie said the postcards she's sending there will be the talk of the town.

I had a good day spotting favorite tasty treats we have discovered along the way. For the first time since Chang Mai I have found those Thai Power Bars that Esther introduced us to--the bamboo sticks filled with sticky rice and coconut milk and beans. I've also found a few women selling apple fritters and a guy with a cart selling meat filled pastries, among my favorite hunger quenchers. I've returned several times to a woman who makes very thick and filling honey dew melon smoothies. I'm restocking my reserves for our push on to Vietnam and the mountains that lay between. Rest days are for eating as much as anything.

Later, George

Friday, November 8, 2002

Ventiane, Laos

Friends: Day seven in Laos and we see our first hammer and sickle. It was on a flag outside an apartment building on the outskirts of Ventiane, the capital. We arrived early this afternoon and in our initial exploration of this city of 140,000 we've only seen a couple more.

We've returned to our old friend the Mekong, which we left five days ago in Luang Prabang. It is now better than a kilometer wide and remains the border with Thailand. There is a bridge about twenty miles out of town, built with Japanese funding less than ten years ago. There isn't another bridge for hundreds of miles. We intend to linger for a couple of days here before heading over to Vietnam a couple hundred miles to the east. I was reminded of Belize City and Calcutta as we made our way into the heart of this city. Everything here is fairly ramshackle and dilapidated and makeshift. I kept waiting for things to improve as we reached the central business district, but it is largely one big shantytown. Every building has been in need of a coat of paint for a decade or two or three. The streets are all in need of resurfacing. Yet, it has its charms. Its not pretending to be anything other than what it is.

There are wide boulevards, thanks to the French. Laos, like Vietnam, was once a French colony. There's little traffic, so the motorbikes ride several abreast. There are some bicyclists, but not a great many. I was able to find several bike shops around the market, as I am in need of spokes. I have gone through the three spares I brought for my front wheel. I still have three slightly longer ones for my rear. My bike survived the much rougher roads of Bolivia earlier this year without a broken spoke, but I've had a spate of bad luck here. It is much more common for spokes on the rear wheel to break from the brunt of the weight, mine and my gear, but my 48-spoke rear tandem hub has been imperturbable over the years. The 36-spokes up front ought to be enough, but my problems go back to the slight pretzeling my front wheel suffered at the hands of American Airlines into Helsinki a year-and-a-half ago. I was able to straighten the wheel then and survive 2,500 miles in Scandinavia with only one broken spoke up front. I thought I needn't be concerned after that. I've put another 3,500 miles on the bike since then without repercussions. I'm not sure when I've broken the spokes, but I may not be as wary of rough spots as I chat away with Laurie. I had to stop at several shops before I found one with the spokes I needed at a tenth what it would cost back home. I also bought a tire. My rear tire had developed a bulge and needed replacing. I've still been flat free the thousand miles we've come. Laurie has had one, back in Thailand just as we were leaving a small supermarket, an easy place to replace the tube.

Our greatest trauma of the trip, other than when speedboating, came last night as our good fortune in finding a place for the night just as it got dark failed us. We reached a good-sized town that we were certain would have a guest house or hotel at our appointed time, dusk, but it had none. As we slowly trolled through the town, looking and asking for a place to stay, a guy on a motorcycle, who was fluent in English, pulled up alongside us and asked the usual "where are you from/where are you going." He told us there were no accommodations to be found in this town, but there was one five kilometers down the road. It is so rare to find an English speaker in a town such as this, unfrequented by travelers, and to have such a person come to us, Laurie was convinced he had to be a "guardian angel," and felt relieved that with such luck, we had no reason to ever be concerned. I could not disagree.

When someone tells us a place is five kilometers away we know it could be anywhere from four to eight kilometers, if we're lucky. By the time we had gone four it was pitch dark. We had bright flashing red lights to safeguard us from traffic approaching from behind, and our headlights could alert traffic coming towards us, but they weren't bright enough to search out hotels unless their signs were obvious and well-lit. We stopped several times to ask if the guest house we had been told about was still ahead. Someone with a smattering of English said it was two kilometers further on the right. I understood someone else to say there was a Vang Veng Resort ahead with a wave to the left.

The road at this point, closing in on Ventiane had widened to include a shoulder, the first in 150 miles, affording us some breathing room from the minimal traffic. We welcomed what there was, as it illuminated the road. We were riding at half-speed in the pitch dark. We could follow the road okay, but we could barely discern what debris or objects might lay about it. We were getting nervous, though Laurie said, "I'm not freaking out yet." As always, she has been an exceptional traveling companion, accepting the bad with the good and not stressing out, even when it would have been easy to. After seven-and-a-half kilometers we saw a neon sign and some flashing Christmas tree type lights up ahead on the left. The sign said, "Vang Veng Resort." There was no indication, however, how far it was down the side road. We climbed a slight hill and then saw more flashing Christmas lights adorning several structures on the shores of a small lake.

A guy came trotting over to us and said to follow him to the accommodations. Around the bend we saw a dozen bungalows with different colored tin roofs laid out in a neat horseshoe. It looked like it could be expensive, at least compared to what we had been paying. How much were we prepared to pay for this? We had yet to pay more than five dollars for a hotel. Moments ago we would have been happy to pay anything for a bed. No response from Laurie. If its too much we could simply ask to camp. She still didn't reply. The guy asked if we wanted a room with air conditioning or a fan. We were glad to have a choice. The bungalows weren't as nice on the inside as they looked from the outside. They had no hot water and came with a squat toilet. The price was 50,000 kip, less than five dollars.

We had the resort to ourselves. It was a most surreal setting. We were the only ones in a dining room with twenty-five tables. There was live music coming from one of the light-bedecked buildings by the lake. When we wandered over after dinner, there were only two men sitting and listening to a three-piece band. It was a newly constructed complex and had yet to be discovered. They must have had cash problems, as we were charged 4,000 kip for a bottle of water that we didn't even ask for and should have cost 2,000 kip at most. At other hotels we weren't even charged for such a bottle. But it was still a pittance and nothing to be upset about, only an incongruity to add to a bunch of other incongruities. The next morning we were charged triple the normal price for eggs and coffee. A kilometer down the road, we came upon that elusive guesthouse on the right hand side that others had told us about.

Later, George

Wednesday, November 6, 2002

Vang Vieng, continued

Friends: Laurie and I finally put our tent and sleeping bags to use two nights ago. I'm almost embarrassed to admit we didn't camp once in Thailand, making it the first country of the many I have biked that I didn't camp. We will have a chance to rectify that when we return to Thailand in two months, completing our circuit of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

We left Luang Prabang just after noon Monday with the marginal hope of reaching a town with accommodations that night. Our map indicated the town was eighty kilometers away, though our guide book gave a distance of 135 kilometers. Its not the first time our two Lonely Planet publications have been in conflict. It was through mountainous terrain, so even fifty miles in less than six hours of light was no certainty. We could have left earlier to make sure we'd reach it before dark, but we had lots and lots of climbing over the next 150 miles and preferred to start off with a half day and not demand too much of our legs on our first day in the mountains.

There was even more climbing than we anticipated--over 11,000 feet in 110 miles. We managed thirty-six miles and 3,800 feet of it before we ran out of daylight that first day. We were on a steep climb with a cliff wall to our left and a sheer drop to our right, offering minimal camping possibilities. Years of experience had me confident that something would turn up, even as night closed in. Laurie trusted me, or at least kept her worries to herself. And then, with less than ten minutes before pitch dark, we came upon a slight bulge in the road with overgrown grass and an abandoned wooden stand for selling produce. We stopped to see if there was space and security for camping. Beyond the stand was a path down the cliff-side. It was steep and showed no sign of recent use. By removing the wooden slats from the backside of the stand there was just enough space for our tent. Bushes to one side shielded the tent entirely from the site of traffic coming up the road. Only the most observant driver on the descent might catch a glimpse of us. It was highly unlikely though, as the driver would have to keep his eyes on the road coming into the corner.

There had been little traffic during the day. We knew there would be virtually none after dark, so we set up camp with only minimal concern of discovery. The stars were beginning to shine brightly by the time we had erected the tent and we'd stowed our gear. It had been cool enough that we hardly worked up a sweat on the climb. We were both down to about a bottle-and-a-half of water. We were lucky to have supplemented our supply an hour earlier at the only road side stand in the only small village we had passed through since leaving Luang Pragang. The person who sold us the water put his hands together and held them against his ear and tilted his head to the side for the universal sign of sleep. He then pointed up the road and shook his head, indicating there was no place to sleep up the road. We appreciated his concern, but we knew better. If I hadn't experienced so many miracle campsites just as it was getting dark over the years in country after country, from densely populated India to mountainous Colombia, I might have regarded our campsite as a miracle. Maybe it was, but then I have experienced countless miracles over the years. I am a believer, knowing a campsite always awaits me.

We had a lovely dinner of peanut butter and bananas on some wheat crackers we had bought a week ago in Thailand for just such an occasion. We had enough for breakfast as well. We read for awhile by candlelight and were asleep by 8:30. We weren't woken until shortly after six when we heard footsteps pass by our tent and head down the trail. I called out "Sabadi," but received no response. When we peeked out the tent, we discovered we were engulfed by mist. We were at high enough altitude for it to be a cloud. We were on our bikes by seven. After half an hour we began encountering workers, mostly women, along the road carrying baskets, heading to their fields, maybe down the very path we had slept beside. For twenty minutes there was a sporadic stream of people coming down the road, including a guy with a rifle. Unlike the day before, they paid us no attention, even though we passed within an arm's length of them. Several women and children covered their faces with their shawls when they saw us. Laurie asked, "Does my hair look that bad?"

They expressed no hostility, just extreme stoicism, though I did notice a few turning to look at us in my rear view mirror. This was definitely no place for Chicago's Cycling Sisters to do one of their topless rides. But this response was an aberration, perhaps the usual early morning malaise that afflicts most commuters on their way to jobs they detest. The rest of the day we received the same enthusiastic greeting we had experienced everywhere else in Laos, with one lone exception. A couple of hours later as we were climbing, a fellow touring cyclist flew past us from the opposite direction with a mere "hello," maintaining his momentum rather than stopping for an exchange of information. Touring cyclists are so rare, he should have been thrilled for the opportunity to get a report from us of what was ahead and what our experience had been, as we would have liked to have heard from him. We would have warned him about the speed-boats and recommended our hotel. We would have liked to have known how much more climbing awaited us, and where he had spent the night. This wasn't New Zealand, where there are so many touring cyclists that few even bother to acknowledge another on a bicycle. He was just the second we had seen in the 800 miles we had biked the past three weeks.

We were prepared to camp again that night, though we were hoping we wouldn't have to. We were caked in several layers of sweat from the strain of all the climbing we had done in the seventy miles we had covered and would very much have liked to end our day with a shower. We knew of a guest house in the town of Kasi, our hoped for destination. Despite the strain, we were utterly enthralled by the stunningly spectacular mountain scenery. It was unlike any we had seen, a never-never land of limestone mountains with jutting promontories and dramatic formations. There was a mini-Matterhorn and a row of jagged peaks that might have been escapees from the Tetons. Just as it looked as it we might be camping in their midst we came upon an unexpected small village with a recently built hotel, our nicest accommodations of the entire trip other than Esther's in Chang Mai. It was one of the rare places that offered not only hot water, but towels and toilet paper and soap. We didn't object at all to paying 30,000 kip for it, less than three dollars.

The people here are so unaccustomed to communicating with foreigners, it is difficult at times to determine the cost of things. Sometimes people hold up a number of fingers, each indicating 1,000 kip. Sometimes they pull out the number of bills from their own stash to indicate what something costs. Those with calculators simply punch the number in and show us. Some write it on a piece of paper. We manage to eventually figure things out, though there can be some confusion. When I tried to buy a couple of unknown fritters, I held up two fingers, expecting to receive two of them. The seller proceeded to give me eight of them. When I handed her a 1,000 kip note, she removed four of them from the bag. They turned out to be apple and were quite tasty. I knew after one bite, I wanted more than four of them and immediately handed her another 1,000 kip.

Later, George

Vang Vieng, Laos

Friends: Laos is the Promised Land. It is presently a traveler's paradise, largely thanks to the communists, who after overthrowing the government in 1975, shortly after the fall of Vietnam, closed the borders to all outsiders until just recently. The locals are so thrilled to be no longer isolated from the world, they welcome the few travelers now trickling into the country with genuine and unrestrained friendliness. It is as if they have gained their freedom. Our reception has been the most fervent in the out-of-the-way areas few travelers frequent, and that our bikes take us to.

Laurie and I were overwhelmed and awed by the great friendliness of the Thais. The Laotians almost make the Thais seem restrained. In our first 150 miles of biking through the mountains to Vang Vieng hundreds and hundreds of people have exclaimed "sabadi" (hello), as we pedaled by. Small children especially took delight at the site of us, waving so vigorously and excitedly I feared their hands might fly off. The country is still in the early stages of the excitement of no longer being closed off and isolated. The likes of us haven't been seen here in years. I doubt the Pope has received a warmer reception any where he has ventured. Some of the kids even rush to the side of the road and want to slap hands as we go by.

This is as Nepal was thirty years ago before it became inundated by travelers and tourists who gave out treats to the "adorable" kids, corrupting them into expecting handouts from every Western they saw. It became "gimme, gimme, gimme," rather than "hello, hello, hello," a most appalling desecration. The same thing will no doubt happen here. Already the kids want hand slaps. Soon it will be candy and pens and balloons and coins and the other trinkets well-meaning, but ignorant, tourists disperse. We feel very, very fortunate to experience Laos in its early stages of opening up. All the travelers we meet, especially those who have been at it for years, all marvel at how uncontaminated the country is.

Vang Vieng is another traveler's gathering spot. It is even more tranquil, and far less developed, than Luang Prabang. But the town is growing fast. Three years ago it had two guest houses. There are now 32, though mostly small, modest mom-and-pop operations. There are even more restaurants catering to the backpacker set, but at least none of the semi-pretentious, higher-priced French restaurants we saw in Laung Prabang. Vang Vieng has been a delightful surprise. We'd be happy to settle in here for a couple of weeks and luxuriate in the spectacular limestone mountain scenery, do some kayaking and tubing on the gentle river that passes through the town and explore the area's many caves. It's doubtful we'll find a Shangri-La such as this in the months ahead. But we know plenty of other surprises await us down the road. We'll only allow ourselves a day here, more than we had initially planned.

I will try and send these paragraphs before this computer steals them, as it has already done twice. Here goes, and hopefully more will follow.

Later, George