#16 from SE Asia, riding off into Tet…

I took this picture with my right hand as I was riding my bike. I love this photo

#16 from SE Asia. The ride down the Northern Vietnamese coast
location moving down the coast of northern Viet Nam.

15 February, 2010

I have been riding south now for 4 days straight. I have not seen another bicycle tourer. I guess they don’t want to ride into the cool rain AND the strong headwinds. Some days are better than others for me. I can feel myself getting in better condition. My hands are calloused and I do not need my riding gloves anymore. My rearend is not sore after 9 hours pedaling. I am picking up my speed a bit. That may be an illusion since the ‘Chinese Wind’ here blows so strongly from the north. Since I bucked headwinds riding north in Thailand, I will take any natural assistance I can get. 

I rolled out of Hanoi before sunrise 2 days before Tet, but the traffic was just insane. Everyone is doing their last minute shopping before Tet. People were frantic. Think December 23rd. I saw literally 1000’s of living fruit trees, mostly tangerines, being transported. Most of the scooters were loaded with living plants. Leaving and entering large cities is NOT a fun part of bicycle touring. The fact that the Vietnamese are obssessive, honkers just makes it that much worse. It’s sort of a ‘I honk, therefore I am’. Much like a rooster crowing.

But what is Tet? Well, it is the first day of the first lunar month of the new year, and it occurs at the same time as the Chinese new year. They share some similarities, but there are some critical differences.

It is a time for them to all get together as a family and remember and honor deceased ancestors. Family members will tell stories of those ancestors that they can remember. And they will repeat stories that they heard from their relatives of distant relatives who passed before their time. Debts are repaid, children receive money and new clothes. It is far more complicated than my comprehension of it. But the country basically shuts down for a week. Before I left Hanoi, there were many European tourists complaining that they could not get any bus or train for a week!. Oh pity. Now laugh at my bike.

I had a windblown 110 km. on my first day. I was relieved that all the repairs I had made on my bike were working. On day two I got off the a late start, mainly because of a fascinating conversation I was having with an Australian professor who was teaching here. Meeting interesting people is one of the pluses of travel. It happens all all the time.

The Lonely Planet Vietnam Guide says that the NE coastal section of Vietnam is not interesting, mainly because everything here was BOMBED FLAT. The replacement architecture is Soviet slab. Many areas have yet to recover. My eyes confirm this. I see the outlines of craters near the bridges that I rise to cross. The area is clearly poorer than the other parts of Vietnam I have visited.

At 6 pm I was getting desperate for a room in Thanh Hoa. I did not want to try to bivouac someplace in the light rain. In the distance I saw ‘HOTEL’ off the road. I have learned to read ‘KHACH SAN’ too. If the hotel is for the locals, they don’t have to say ‘hotel’. I really have difficulty in getting to it. It was by back alleys. As I entered, a young couple was exiting. When I made eye contact with the woman, she turned away from me. I got a room with a hot shower for $6. As I was carrying my things up the stairs, another couple was coming down. She turned away from me too. Oh I get it. I am in the ‘love hotel’, where people rendezvous when there is no privacy at home. I had to laugh at the idea of the women turning away from me, as if I, from 14,000 kms. away, and NEVER to pass this way again, would recognize them. I walked the streets of Thanh Hoa that night, but there was not one restaurant open. I go to bed HUNGRY.

Next morning was officially ‘Tet’. I was up at sunrise and out — into a cold rain. I have learned from previous trips, Don’t hesitate. Quickly put the rainsuit on, batten down my gear to keep it dry, and ride off into it. Once I was pedaling, I got warm within my rainsuit. I had the whole street, the WHOLE highway, to myself. Where yesterday there were literally 1000’s of vehicles, there were literally none. I could have laid in the highway. I had another strong tailwind and I took it. But I was hungry, and it looked like EVERYTHING was closed. I should have bought something to snack on. Hours later I see a restaurant that appears to be open. I ride up to it. I find out too late that this family is having their Tet gathering at the family restaurant. I apologize and quickly begin to leave. The son stops me. ‘But you must stay’. I apologize again and try to continue. He holds the bike. ‘No. You must now stay.’ It is like this for Tet. I am embarrassed. I feel like an accidental intruder. But they make a place for me at their large table. I give the children money, as is consistent with Tet. I bow before the family altar and leave a small money offering. Behind the burning incense I see ancient photos of two young men dressed in green Vietnamese military uniforms. The photos appear to have originally been black and white, but were later colorized. It appears that they are being honored today. Looks like I will be a Canadian today.

Two sons explain that they are studying at Hanoi Technology Institute. The meal is very traditional, I am told. These are foods the Vietnamese have eaten for 1000’s of years. Some of it is delicious, some of it is not, and some of it I have no idea what I am eating. I make a point to eat everything I am offered. I hope that was what I was supposed to do.

I think the son is telling me that my showing up at the doorstep is like an omen. And how the family acts is very important, for it can affect events for the rest of the year. Later I find that unique events around Tet can be seen as auspicious. And I thought I was just starving.

I ask if I can take pictures.  They love the idea.  The son explains that they do not own a camera, yet.  So I photograth the festivities.  The son hands me his email address, kindly requesting that I send him the photos.  And just before I wrote this post, I emailed him many of the photos that I took.  I think that will be ‘auspicious’ for them and bring them some joy.

I am stuffed and ready to leave them to family matters. I must offer something. So I insist to the son that his family give me the honor of buying this large tangerine tree still sitting in the pot near the altar. They say no, but I insist. Finally they accept. I ride off into the mist, deeply touched at what has just happened. I am not sure yet of all of it. I find no more food that day. But that large meal gets me thru.

Next morning I am on the road, and traffic is back to normal. Except that everyone passing me is shouting ‘HAPPY NEW YEAR!’ (in English of course). When I answer HAPPY NEW YEAR, it brings glee to them. So I start shouting it to everyone I see.  HAPPY NEW YEAR — HAPPY NEW YEAR — HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!  I realize that most drivers on the road today are REALLY drunk.  Vietnam does not have a ‘breathalizer’ program here either.  I move further to the right.  A swarm of kids on bicycles and motorcycles descend upon me and begin riding with me non-stop. For 15 kilometers I am giving English lessons to kids as we pedal. As some of them drop off, others join in. Cycling today is not boring. But I am quickly wearing out my ‘happy new year’ muscles in my throat.

Then I am physically stopped by a switchman for the train line in a formal uniform. He herds me into his control room. Then he offers me some delicious rice wine, AND a beer, at the same time. He is already REALLY lit up. We are laughing as we drink. We don’t understand a word each other is saying, but it doesn’t matter.  In the tradition of drunks from time immemorial, we have never listened to what the other one is saying anyhow.  It has always been like that.  I watch him switch the rail switches. I hear a train coming. I hope he gets it right. The train comes by. It does not jump off the tracks. I am happy about that. I hope it is also going in the right direction. I offer a toast. He accepts.

I am back on the street again with my permanent kid escorts, when three brothers stop me and INSIST I come into their home. I do. We drink wine and eat cashews together. Then we drink more wine. You don’t get much wine in Vietnam, and it is red wine. Mmmmm.  Yes, I will have another glass, if you do not mind.

Time to get going again. What is happening to this day? I come outside and there the children still are, waiting for their English lessons. I am hoping that they will not learn to speak English with a slurred accent. I start pedaling off, while the children all around me shouting YOU WELCOME!  GOODBYE HELLO THANK YOU GOODBYE MY NAME ANH SORRY WHERE FROM YOU HELLO HAPPY NEW YEAR.  A motorcyclist pulls up inches to my left and the girl in front of me decides to stop her bike.  I swerve to avoid hitting her and I hit a pothole and right in the middle of them I flip the bike over on the street as the kids swerve to miss me. I do a somersault on the road and my helmet hits the road hard.

Total silence. An adult who has seen everything from his home is shouting at the children. They look mortified. Blood from my hand, elbow and knee. The kids disappear. Someone wants to take me to a doctor. No. I have to insist. It looks worse than it is. I am only worried about the knee. If it swells up, it will really interfere with my riding. I get out my first aid kit. I treat the cuts and start taking aspirin. Don’t want that knee to swell. I am up and on my bike again, strangely alone. I pedal on.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

3 Responses to #16 from SE Asia, riding off into Tet…

  1. Dwight, I had not been following your blogs until you were mentioned by George Christensen in his blog today. Thanks to you both for your notes of the world. I sit here in my cubicle knowing I should have taken George’s advice when we met and stayed with the bike.

  2. what an adventure.its so amazing when the generosity of humans blesses your soul. you write so well and express your feelings which delights me.all i can say is,”keep on trucking my brother.”

  3. So much can happen in the course of a few days when you’re on the road. It’s like the memories you’re creating and the stories you’re generating accelerate to a dizzying pace.

    Glad to hear that you made it up from that fall with only some scrapes!

    Happy New Year! Haha.

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