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

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