Sunday, December 1, 2002

Nha Trang

Friends: Greetings from Nha Trang, the Acapulco of Vietnam, a city of 300,000 with a fabulous wide beach that goes on for miles and a bay dotted with a handful of mountainous islands. I don't know if there are cliff divers here, but there are dive shops aplenty and tourist agencies offering boat trips. There are also plenty of hotels and a few Westerners on the loose even though this is not the time of year to be in a beach town. We are overdue for a rest day, having come some 450 miles since getting off the train in Hue a week ago. The mileage isn't too impressive, but that much of it was done in the rain and on roads in various stages of repair and construction, made the mileage seem more like a thousand.

Laurie found us her dream hotel. We have a room with a bath and a balcony that overlooks the ocean. And right across the street is a vegetarian restaurant. We both immediately unpacked all our gear and laid them about to dry. Even my impenetrable Ortlieb panniers were penetrated by today's deluge, our worst yet as it was accompanied by a head wind that lashed the rain in to us. And to compound our misery, it came on the worst of the roads we have been on--a gravel road pocked with so many pot holes there was no clean, straight line through the maze. Passing trucks bouncing through the lunar landscape splashed mucky water on us from head to heels. Our drive trains (chains and freewheels) were grating horrendously from all the grit. Only if it had been a cold rain could it have been any worse.

Rather than counting from one to a hundred in various languages, as Laurie sometimes does on the more difficult climbs, she said she was imagining coming upon a couple of touring cyclists in the rain back in Chicago as she was driving in her pick-up truck and rescuing them. She said she put them in her truck and drove them to her apartment for the night. She imagined they were Swedish, so she could take them to her favorite Swedish bakery in Andersonville, and that they were movie buffs so she could also take them to Facets that night. And on and on she embellished the scenario trying to take her mind off our nightmare.

"At least its not as bad as the speed boat," I commented. Laurie wasn't prepared to make such a concession. She had more worries than I did, with her less than water-proof panniers and a bike that hadn't been cooperating--chain falling off, derailleur with limited range and flat tires. Still, she plugged on without a whimper. I couldn't feel miserable accompanied by such a courageous and uncomplaining traveling partner. If I'd been on my own, I might have been lamenting my lot, but since I wasn't alone in misery, I didn't feel so miserable. I could think of the cold rains I had endured in New Zealand and Alaska and Bolivia's Altiplano and Norway's Arctic and be happy I didn't have hypothermia to worry about here. Plus I knew I wouldn't have to camp in this rain or have to try to dry out my gear in a tent. Our only worry was covering the 76 miles we needed to ride before dark, which was becoming a concern as a head wind persisted. Eventually it relented and so did the rain, at least intermittently. For miles we had been plodding along at ten miles per hour. That computed to seven-and-a-half hours on the bike to go 76 miles. We had little more than nine hours of light, as we didn't start biking until eight a.m. After a late lunch our speed picked up, even though it was still raining and not lightly, and we did the final 30 miles, which included some climbing, in two-and-a-half hours, beating the dark by half an hour.

For 20 minutes we were accompanied by a quartet of teen-aged boys we could have done without. Even though we pass hundreds of cyclists every day, rarely do any try to ride along with us for more than a minute or two. As we approached these guys, I could sense they could be today's tormentors. They indeed sped up and began pelting us with the usual "What is your name?", then would snicker amongst themselves before we could reply. Even after we tried to disarm them by answering and asking their names, they continued the "What is your name?" barrage, much to their own amusement. They also took turns riding up along side Laurie and feasting their eyes on her bare legs and clinging bike shorts. And they, like others, pointed out the pair of tattoos on her right calf. Laurie paid no attention. Only once or twice has she cringed at someone who got a little too fresh. These guys, as 99.9% of the cyclists we have encountered, were riding one-speed clunkers. They had to pedal furiously to keep up with us. The Vietnamese aren't the best of bike handlers in such situations and always have us more than a little wary. Fortunately these aren't regular occurrences. Its just teen-aged boys being teen-aged boys feeding off one another. This occasional harassment is always a group activity, never that of a lone provocateur.

Once again we wish we were world travelers without any deadlines, as it would be nice to spend a week here or at least a couple of days. But we'll just have to content ourselves with one. We're 300 miles from Saigon and then its 400 miles across Cambodia to Thailand and another 120 miles to Bangkok. We have no time to tarry if we wish to make our Dec. 24 flight and see some of the sites along the way. Yesterday in Tuy Hoa we encountered a couple of 50-year old Vietnamese who were proud to tell us they had fought with the Americans. One had been a translator earning $1,000 a month. After the war his earnings fell to $20 a month. Dai Lanh had a most beautiful beach and bay itself. We could easily envision a Club Med sprouting up there one of these years.

The past couple of days the road has occasionally swung west towards the ocean and hugged or risen above a rugged coastline for a few miles. Rarely have we had a glimpse of the ocean, or South China Sea as it is called, as the road stays inland on firmer ground, passing through mile after mile of marshy rice paddies dotted with farmers and water buffalo. The terrain is green, greener and greenest and perfectly flat. Along this scenic stretch we passed two different groups of touring cyclists, about a dozen each, on supported rides, not having to carry their gear. One was a group of graying French men, who happened to be staying at our hotel one night. Unfortunately, none of them spoke English, or cared to admit to. Laurie was too flummoxed from a two-flat tire day to try her French out on them, so we weren't able to learn about their trip. As much as it is a truism that touring cyclists immediately bond, it is equally true that cyclists who are paying someone to carry their gear and look after their every need pointedly ignore the independent, unsupported rider. These French guys on their spiffy, light-weight, $2,000 racing bikes left the next morning by bus to pass up a rough stretch we had to muddle through, otherwise we might have been able to ride with them a bit and force them to talk to us. We both departed the hotel at the same time. Not even any of their wives ventured to have a word with us. We haven't had the opportunity to ride with another touring cyclist, legitimate or otherwise, since we left the Aussies back in Laos nearly a month ago.

We have spent three of our last four nights in rather nondescript cities of 80,000 to 180,000 people that have been virtually free of westerners. It has been a pleasure to wander their streets after dark and startle the locals by our presence. We do not tire of the suddenly blurted "hello" from a passing bicyclist, usually a young woman or small child who has spotted us ahead and are excited to use their English on us, almost as if it is a magic trick. And we are happy to respond and prove they do have the gift of magic. There is none of that here in Nha Trang though, as westerners are in ample supply and not a curiosity.

A very popular item in these parts this rainy time of the year are semi-disposable ponchos that sell for 33 cents. We first saw them being sold by strolling vendors in the tourist-infested town of Hoi An. I assumed they were one of those products meant for tourists. But ever since, we have noticed them dangling from road side stalls and sold by vendors even in areas unfrequented by westerners. The rains come and go all day. One can get caught out unprepared and the ponchos are a very handy item. We see many bicyclists and motorcyclists wearing these cheap and flimsy coverings. Some wear heavier and more authentic ponchos of various colors. People on motorbikes often drape these semi-translucent ponchos over their headlights. At night they give their headlights a green or blue or red or yellow hue. When they are in hoards, it is another of those surreal Vietnamese images.

Later, George

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