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

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