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.
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.