Thursday, March 25, 2010

Bikes in 'Nam

Ah Vietnam. The longest, spindliest country of all (after a few more earthquakes in Chile that is). It looks like an interplanetary spacecraft, divided into two halves and spun on a linking thread to provide artificial gravity. Alternatively, it resembles someone spooning Laos and Cambodia, which also conveniently resembles its cultural relationship with those two countries.

After finding my Melbournian buddies Dave, Nathan and Morley coming from the Ho Chi Minh City Airport with their bags and bikes we heading off on a Mekong Delta tour to Can Tho. Here we learned that the three letter acronym of our tour company which I forgot a moment before I heard it is supposedly easy to remember and that the reason Vietnamese families are so large is because couples struggle to invent activities under the mosquito net whose outcomes don't involve the manufacture of more Vietnamese.

Here we met a charming Australian couple named Kye and Emma who were to reapperate to me later on like cockroaches swatted with an inadequately wordy paperback novel, as do so many of my other traveling acquaintances (hi guys!).

It was in Can Tho that I finally lost my beloved sun hat to the pleading whimpers of a small drunken mob. But that was not to deter me from enjoying the lengthy explanations of which construction companies had been responsible for the numerous cable-stayed bridges of the region and how whilst coconut sweets are "Very good for ladies", banana wine (read: undrinkable rice-wine with a slight banana taste) is very good for men. That took some experimentation but proved false.

Once we were safely back in Ho Chi Minh City we were met by Phil, fresh from his move from Saigon to Singapore, who was keen to introduce us to the cultural wonders of southern Vietnam, such as his former workmates, wild nights on the town, supposedly non-dodgy massage parlours and the delights of eating turtle.

Once these important cultural introductions had taken place it was time to get into the serious business of acquiring and reconstructing our various bikes from airport luggage, a Saigon bike hire business and cold storage respectively. Possibly unwisely, Phil and I had decided to head to Phil's friend's house which had been harbouring my precious mode of transport (after Phil had graciously taken my bike to Vietnam from Australia months ago in preparation for this ride) having consumed several beers over our long reptilian lunch. The first result was a sever cross-threading of the crank where one of the pedals was attached, and the second was my pedal actually falling off into busy highway traffic on our ride back into town, forcing me to use my remaining usable cleat with abandon to one-leggedly power my bike home.

After a brief flurry of excitement in which Dave and I went to the post office to post our unnecessary luggage for our respective year-long trips to our future-selves in Hanoi (it's quite hard to translate that concept into Vietnamese), we were off to the only serious bike shop in Vietnam to collect Dave's bike and fix mine - as it turned out the proprietor was a practicing Melbournian construction engineer looking for recruits. But the next day we were on our way.

The first stage of our epic cycle sojourn across Vietnam involved the necessary four hours of faffing around revisiting the post-office and having an emergency bike shop stop but...

...Suddenly the five of us found ourselves hurtling irrevocably north towards the ambitious (too ambitious as it turned out) destination of Hanoi. The first few days went fairly well with no major incidents so I'll skip through them quickly: the first day was mainly about traffic getting out of Ho Chi Minh City; the second day was a lot nicer - following the shoulder of Highway One to the coastal town of Phan Thiet where we were embroiled in the trip's only real argument (concerning wake-up times - the party representing the least flexible sleeping schedule inevitably prevailed over that of the most); the third day was much more scenic with views of giant wind-turbines, rice paddies and coastal mountain ranges; and on the fourth day we rested.

The most exciting activity of that day, which chiefly involved sleeping, eating, train spotting and mucking around in the ocean behind our faded 60's beach motel, was spectating for a giant crab which had escaped from a restaurant and was making a desperate bid for freedom by crossing the highway to the sea: we were all half hoping it would make it and half excited by the prospects of it getting squished by a truck. It got squished.

The next day we pelted along the scenic coastal road to Phan Rhang, where we immediately set to work faffing it up to 90's classic tunes from the west, which the Vietnamese seem to always play whenever we turn up somewhere, and surfing the web for a few hours. We then headed inland for the beginning of our epic ride up to Da Lat, which was tempered only by us being rejected by the town right at the bottom of the climb, forcing us to backtrack 10 kms to a town with a guest house.

The 1500m climb up to the French-Alps inspired Da Lat was grueling but satisfying, apart from the 30 kms of dusty road works Phil reckons has been on the go for over three years. The town itself was very picturesque, but we spent most of the rest day sleeping off the ride up, visiting the market for snacks and, in my case, enduring the irritation of Phil's new discovery that my Vietnamese after two weeks in the country is of a slightly lower standard than his after two years (grr...).

However, the next day is when the real action began. It began with me throwing up in the basin after a combination of ill-timed malaria tablet consumption and a beery previous night. This was to be a foretaste of the future.

The ride down from Da Lat was a beautifully scenic sojourn around dams and through pine forests on a quiet newly sealed five star highway. This was to end abruptly at the bottom of the climb to 1812m where it became a rocky unsealed dirt track, during which the only surcease to our struggle was a spot of tea with the park rangers (all their other activities seemed to involve large amounts of whiskey). We celebrated our success at the maximum elevation with 'Rum on the Hill', but no cannon-fire.

The ride down though. That was something. We all hurtled along the dusty, rocky and occasionally muddy track towards our destination: a town aptly named Dam Rong. The views were spectacular: we were mostly riding through thick tropical rain-forest often broken by views of the surrounding mountains and mountain villages. Here I made a foolish mistake: I was using my camera to video the others on their descent by riding one-handed and overtaking them. After the easy success of the first video I upped the ante with a faster one. This inevitably led to me skidding into a turn and seriously grazing my elbow, snapping a tube on my pannier rack and breaking open my camera filling it with dirt.

Luckily Nathan did such a good job of patching me up that my wounds didn't get infected, and I managed to turn my camera on and off enough times that it started working again.

The rest of the day just got wilder. After clearly missing the 'correct' road we found ourselves being directed down a steep single-track (often meeting the criteria for a creek) through the forest that had us all silently contemplating a scenario of spending an untented night in the bush.

After many hours we suddenly found ourselves on a sealed road at Dam Rong, just as the sun set. Little realising that our troubles were only just beginning.

After three hours of hot discussion between our guest house and the police, which in Vietnam must okay all requests for anyone to sleep anywhere at all, we were politely informed that not only were we not welcome in the town, but we had to leave the entire ward those cops patrolled. Immediately. No reason was given (although they might as well have just said 'Communism').

This proved to be a difficult directive to follow because the only road out of town was blocked by a river crossing for which the ferry does not run during the night. Luckily my clearly visible Christian piety must have shone through like a beacon to the assembled masses who'd come to gawk at the white guys vs cops battle of wills as we were offered clandestine lodging at the local church. This turned out to be a real coup with the place being extremely comfortable and the priests all too generous.

Thinking that my troubles were over I and the others continued on our way the next day, but I was getting a head-ache (initially thought to be due to my massive stack) that got worse all day, and the sun was unrelenting throughout the undulating 70 km journey. When we got to a hotel in Lien Son I'd attained a new height of weakness and soon began throwing up. I'm going to skip the detail of how I vomited in the basin, which, like all Vietnamese plumbing, feeds directly onto the floor, causing my spew to clog the drain unnoticed while I had a shower - flooding the entire hotel room with spew water. That would sicken my gentle readers.

After a terrible fitful night sleep during which I continued to instantly regurgitate every mil of water or gram of food I took it became apparent that I'd be on the bus the next day. Thinking it was all over in the regional capital of Buon Ma Thuot I found that I still could not keep liquids (or solids) down and so the only recourse was to visit the local hospital. Here a lack of English skills was no impediment to getting on a saline drip for a few hours (extreme thanks going to Phil for his bedside patience and, *cough*, Vietnamese skills during this time) which seemed to completely cure me (not bad for $10!). This leads me to believe that I was suffering from dehydration.

The following day we kept the ride up, ending at a hostel watching 'Fool's Gold' on HBO with the rest of the rum. But the day after that we came to the conclusion that (partly due to my hospital day) we were one day behind schedule and needed to take the bus a few ks north to Kon Tum (but I'll gloss over that part in the hope no-one was paying attention). This riverside town proved a hit with the beering-it-up part of our brains, although the movie 'Marley and Me' was complete flop with the movie-appreciation part of our brains.

The next few days got steadily more scenic as we rode along ridge-lines, flood plains and river valleys on the Laos side of Vietnam. This culminated in the awesomest terrain ever during the day Phil retired to Danang to have a 'pussy infection', *snigger*, the size of a golf ball doctored up, clearly resulting from some impious remark to the Gods he must have made (or maybe they're just mean).

This day involved three climbs, each more awesome than the last, poking us well up into the clouds to soak in the rain we'd been missing for the last two weeks. Waterfalls, jungle, slippery roads - we had it all. We were so pumped from the ride - pretty much 10% grade all day - that at lunch, where we'd planned to spend the night, we made a go for the next town 50 kms down the road: a tangle of dam building construction activity and tiny village streets, crossing major rivers and negotiating small farms. Universally acclaimed as the best day of the trip (Phil abstaining).

After that it was an easy matter of spending the next two days hitting the tourist town of Hoi An where Phil rejoined us, destroying my camera at Da Nang whilst trying to photograph a ship beached along an uncanny Beaconsfield Parade imitation and negotiating tunnel tollers for safe passage for our bicycles before arriving at our updated destination of Hue. We'd cycled 1100 kms as a group in 18 days.

A morning of cyclo-sight-seeing presaged our somber separation, where my fellow cyclists took the train to Hanoi. From there Nathan and Morley headed home (they avoided the Tulla's outrageous airport shuttle fare by, brilliantly, riding their bikes), Phil flew back to Singapore to start his new life there and Dave, well, the last I've heard of him he'd crossed the border into China by the thinnest of visa margins (and has been popping on and off Google Chat's online list since then).

As for myself, I was to continue in my epic quest to get to Hanoi by one of the slowest methods possible (barring lip-crawling). But that's another story...

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Here I am, sicker than I've been for years, trying to ride my hired bicycle home from an epic day of temple-finding on my last joule of energy before the sun sets on the Cambodian jungle. But I'm getting ahead of myself - I'm still on the bus.

Skipping the crap, I'd taken this bus all the way from the jetty across from Don Det Island in Laos all the way down through Cambodia and back up to Siem Reap for those temples people seem to keep talking about and setting movies in.

This place, Ankor Wat, seemed to be the culmination of a gradual trend in architecture I'd noticed since the Kerinci Valley in Sumatra. Not knowing anything about South East Asian architecture I can be free to unleash my observations unfettered by expected trends... and to be unashamedly wrong.

In central Sumatra there is a particular, and super-awesome, style of vertically tapered building that as you head north gets flatter and blunter. In Malaysia they become thatched and exclusive to museums, and in Thailand they become temples and lose the taper altogether for a stick-on bit at the ends (also, they paint them yellow, like everything else) but retain their roof-layering. Around Chiang Mai this style develops a tall tumour-like growth that juts straight out of the roof, and through Laos this starts to dominate the whole structure, just like Ankor Wat. What am I talking about? Well I know of two major (Buddhist) empires in South East Asia - one with its capital in central Sumatra and the other at Ankor Wat. Looking at the temples at Ankor Wat it seems to me that the builders of the whole region got all their ideas from just these two places and today they all merge together. The only thing now is to check out Wikipedia to see if it all matches up.

Finally getting off the bus late at night in Siem Reap we found ourselves dumped inside a locked holding pen for half an hour while about a dozen tuk-tuk drivers, who had clearly paid to be there, hunted us down for our US dollars like fish in a barrel. The bus group was soon divided into those who liked paying $5 to travel 2 kms into town and the cool backpackers who held their ground at $2 and were willing to walk (although it turned out that tuk-tuks on the street outside were only $1). This group consisted of my Canadian buddies Matt and Troy, two female Canadians they'd met on the bus: Sherry and Christine, a Swiss mate of mine from the old boat trip called Sam and a new Dutch guy called Michael. We were to stay as a group for most of our time in Siem Reap.

A celebratory night of beering it up on saved tuk-tuk dough led to everyone else snoozing it for the next day. Not me though - I got up (sort of) early to hire a bike and buy a three day pass to the temple complex and proceeded to get my money's worth. Ankor Wat itself was the main temple to see, and it was pretty huge I guess, but it seemed basically the same as the millions of temples I'd already crawled through in southern India, including the familiar smell of bat turds. The best temple of the day was that famed temple being torn apart by tree roots. I reserved the 'Grand Circuit' for the next day.

Unfortunately, I woke up feeling completely shithouse. And it turned out I wasn't the only one: four out of our expanded group of nine had contracted similar symptoms over night. Now, I'd already bought a three day pass so I was damned if I wasn't going to use it, despite needing a toilet every hour and a half and feeling like my energy levels had jumped a trillion years into the future and had degraded into background radiation. The fact that I'd left all the tall temples for today certainly did not help, particularly when there'd be a sudden need for an emergency evacuation at the top, if you know what I mean.

In the morning I sporadically bumped into the others from my group, seeing the temples for their first and only day mostly also on bicycle, but the afternoon took me dozens of kilometres off to obscure ones, often swamped by vegetation, occasionally tempting me to ride right through the jungle for elusive shortcuts (these did not end well). By the end of the day I felt so dead I was willing to pay some annoying local kid to dig me a grave, but I knew he'd whack on an extra charge to fill it in again (the bastards know you can't do it yourself). At this stage I basically had to halt fingernail growth to maintain enough power for essential body functions and I was still over thirty kilometres from home.

During an evening in which I fluctuated violently from states of extreme cold to extreme fever, Sherry gave me a pill she could only describe as 'Indian medicine' (ultimately her native land). The next morning not only was I completely recovered, but I seemed to have been paid back all my lost energy from the previous day with interest (at loan-shark rates). So I used my final day's pass and rode way out east for a really early batch of temples which turned out to be some of the best yet (although I spent about three hours searching for about a dozen unmaintained temples only one of which I found - not even the locals know about them).

That night, to celebrate my triumphant return to full health... and Chinese New Year... I hit the town in one of my biggest nights yet. My Siem Reap group had all gone down to the beach by now, but who should I run into but my old Irish pals Morgan and Shane, both keen to repay me all the drinks I'd bought them when they were saving their dollars for Cambodian border bribes. Together with an English pair we drank and danced the night away to timeless classics such as the Black Eyed Peas' 'I've Gotta Feeling' and The Killers' 'Brightside'. I had just enough time to run home and stuff my possessions in my pack before hitting my 6 a.m. deadline to catch the boat to Phnom Penn.

I'd got this boat ticket, at eight times the cost of the equivalent bus ride, to compensate for my failure to float down the Mekong after Luang Prabang, but it ended up being not entirely worth it - not because the floating villages weren't surreal and incredible, nor because the vast lake connecting Siem Reap and the capital Phnom Penn wasn't a spectacular mockery of the ocean, but because I was so fatigued from the previous night that I could feel my brain consuming itself so as to allow my body to be fixed permanently to the boat's hull like a sea squirt preparing for its adult phase.

But Phnom Penn was an eye-opener. The first thing I did in my dazed state after alighting from the boat was to walk straight into a brothel named 'Candy' and ask for a room. I realised with a start where I was half-way through this request, but it was already too late to back out. The ground level of this establishment was some kind of 'swinger's bar' and everything a den of sin should be: dark and dingy, lewed posters, seedy music, scantily-clad dames of the night wrapping themselves around anything a penis might be attached to and, as always, a loud pair of Americans telling each other how they're not violent people but they keep finding people they've just beaten up.

I was taken to see the room at the top floor and I was amazed at how awesome it was. Extremely clean, well-designed and built, balcony with a view - I had to have it. And before you ask, it did take a fair effort to convince the hotel girl that I wanted the room without a happy ending, but I succeeded.

It being still quite early in the afternoon, and having regained some of my energies, and most importantly of all it being Valentine's Day, I decided to jump on the back of a motorbike and see Pol Pot's Killing Fields. Now, at least one person has suggested I use this blog to try to encapsure the exact horror and disgust I felt at being at the scene of thousands of indiscriminately murdered Cambodians. But this is a feeling I get when I think about this period of the country's history - actually being there didn't really enhance it for me, except as an anatomy lesson from the skulls. The simulated wolf-cries loud-speakered over the bones didn't help with the sombrerity either. I went back and watched 'Bee Movie' on HBO for Valentine's Day night.

In the morning I took another boat to Chau Doc in Vietnam, which I enjoyed a lot more than the previous day's. This one had contained an awesome bunch of backpackers like a mini version of the boat in Laos and we traveled the narrow waterways of the Mekong Delta across the border, drank a few beers and listened to one backpacker describe his adventures both traveling on a makeshift bamboo train in Cambodia and horse-touring in Mongolia while another one played Spanish classical guitar. What a trip.

As for my contribution, I've noticed something happen to me over the months when I talk about Australia, and in particular Victoria, to my fellow-travelers: I've become tediously patriotic.

"Have I mentioned that in VICTORIA there are beaches that are so remote you can walk along them for days without seeing ANYONE ELSE? Or that in VICTORIA we have a place called the Kiewa Valley that has the BEST MILK EVER MADE? Or that there's a band from MELBOURNE called Architecture in Helsinki that is Bruce Willis' THIRD FAVOURITE BAND IN THE WORLD?!!"

"Yes Felix. You've told all of us all of those things already many times." It must be part of some sort of creeping homesickness lurking back there.

After hitting the meagre night scene of Chau Doc and then cramming into a single hotel room to save money we all went our separate ways the next morning. Three of us took the bus to Ho Chi Min City which ended up taking all day and introduced me for the first time to drinking coffee. It must be the way the Vietnamese make it because I'm hooked. It only took 26 years (although I'm still yet to try it without ice).

In Ho Chi Minh City we quickly found the local backpacker area and settled into a hotel above a silk shop. Within minutes I'd managed to spot from a restaurant balcony my four Canadian friends from Cambodia and Laos, all now traveling together and up for a big night. I was up for one too, because tomorrow my old pals from home were about to join me for an epic three week cycle tour through southern Vietnam.