Thursday, November 14, 2002

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

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