Posted on July 30, 2018
My ‘Strokes to Spokes’ around-the-world bicycle trip continues in Vietnam. I leave the flat lands of the Mekong Delta and the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City behind as I head out to the ocean for some views of the coast. I made a decision to head inland to the mountain town of Dalat after some soul searching about my physical abilities. This part of the ride turned out to be the toughest so far almost leaving me stranded half way up the five-thousand foot climb. But in the darkness I found some angels waiting to help.
And as always I list the random acts of kindness at the end of the post showing how nice people I see along the ride are to me when they see me pedaling around Vietnam.
Leaving Saigon was as hectic as expected. I have to believe that my nerves were not shot after only five minutes of chaos and honking because of the three years I lived in Cambodia. Had I come on this ride fresh from the United States I don’t think I could have handled the Saigon traffic.
On the way to the Cat Lai ferry I had a challenge riding through a tunnel under the Saigon River. The tunnel wasn’t a problem – I just felt like I shouldn’t be there. Cars, trucks and busses were separated from the moto traffic with a short concrete divider. I opted for the moto lane of course but as a bicyclist I was on my own. The literal light at the end of the tunnel kept me sane after it came into view at the bottom of the dip the road took as it dug it’s way under the Saigon River.
Heading to the coast of the South China Sea took me through more flat terrain with some random karst mountains here and there. The further I rode from the big city the more rain I encountered. This has been the most rain in a single day I have encountered since I started the ride. Nothing too heavy but steady enough to keep me and everything around me wet.
I pulled into Phuoc Hai just as the sun set and found a guesthouse near the market. I think I was the only guest by the looks of the place. The owner asked me to join the family for dinner each time I made one of my three obligatory trips up the stairs with my gear. I really like the guesthouses that make me feel like I am stopping at a friend’s house for the night. There was no English spoken here by anyone other than me but everything that needed to be communicated was.
Phuoc Hai is a fishing town and in the morning I walked along the beach amongst the coracles, fishing nets and numerous shops and carts selling fresh seafood in one form or another. Far be it for me to avoid eating just because I have no idea what it is I am eating. If it looks good then there is little reason I need to walk by. The smells are intoxicating which leave me to wonder what it is like here later in the day when the cooking really gets going.
The next two days are spent riding along the coast making my way to Mui Ne, a popular beach area for Vietnamese. This is where I start seeing those pesky foreigners on their ‘buy here, sell there’ cheap motos outfitted with oversized back racks and more than a roll of duct tape holding everything together.
My Mui Ne accommodations are at a beachside campground where I can pitch my own tent or opt for one of theirs. On Friday their tents go for one dollar so I have little reason to unpack mine and set it up. Their tents are roomy, come with a great mattress and are situated right along the beach. I get lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and wake up to a spectacular sunrise. What more can I ask for?
I see a sign for laundry and decide to spend an extra night here and have them wash my clothes. I usually do my laundry in the sink at the guesthouses I stay in but every few loads I like to get a real washing done. The Friday night special for the tent isn’t available on Saturday so my rate quadruples to four dollars. Still nothing to complain about.
My plan has always been to ride up to Dalat – a beautiful city nestled in the central mountains of southern Vietnam. As I get closer to that ride I get more uneasy. Up until now all of my riding has been on mostly flat terrain. The past two days challenged me with some mini climbs that I successfully executed but I wonder if I am ready for a big climb.
The road from the ocean to Dalat is about one hundred miles. In that distance I will end up at five thousand feet elevation with two steep sections to conquer. I have a lot of gear with me and spring chicken aren’t words usually used to describe me.
I begin to think I should just hug the coast and keep the elevation changes to a minimum. But that would mean I wouldn’t see Dalat. Everyone I have spoken to that has been to Dalat raves about it. I don’t want to miss something so good just because of a little apprehension about my abilities.
The decision to give it a go is made with the knowledge that I can always turn around if it gets too bad. I bid the beaches adieu, turn towards the west and pretend that those big dark mountains looming in the hazy distance are not the ones I have to ride up.
I am going to go as far as I can to split the ride into two days. Optimally day one being longer than day two. I have my tent so I can stop anywhere along the way and sleep for the night. This sounds perfectly well thought out and logical. And it was. Until it wasn’t.
Edging closer to the steepest part the road takes me slowly closer to the heavens as I slowly climb even if it seems I am riding on level ground. None of the hills are difficult and they usually come with a downhill taking me almost to the same altitude where I started. Mile by mile I slowly creep higher.
I passed through a lot of great small villages as I head west. Going up one of the smaller hills I feel an unexpected and instantaneous decrease in the amount of effort it takes to move my bike up that hill. A family of four riding on their motorbike passed me going the other way and thinking I needed a little boost they turned around and started pushing me up the hill. Physically pushing me up the hilI.
I laughed as I turned around and saw the mom pushing my bike while holding one of the kids and dad riding slow enough as to not push me over. I thanked them but gestured that I was fine going up the hill. If I only knew how much I would be able to use them just a few miles up the road.
Just before the hard climb began I stopped at a small restaurant for a break and drinks. From there it is about eight miles to the top of the hardest part of the road from the coast to Dalat. I figured it would take me about two hours to reach the top of this part with breaks. I have no idea what lay between me and my unknown destination for the night.
It started easy enough but then it never ended. Climb, climb, climb. Luckily this isn’t a busy road otherwise I am sure I would have ended up thrown off the side of the road by passing trucks, cars and busses.
I am reminded of the extreme grade of this road by the constant stench of brakes and clutches that were pushed beyond their limits by people driving to and from Dalat. These metallic monstrosities clamoring for the top are being taxed just as I am but the odors we emit are clearly evident. For those heading to the ocean their attempts at keeping tons of steel from going straight when they want to turn left or right demands a level of friction that fills the air with the stench of disintegrating brake pads.
Left, right, left, right. Turn after turn around hairpin curves brings me closer to the end of my ride for the day. But it feels like an eternity. Is it possible that I actually went backwards in time from the last time I checked the mileage? It seems that I am in some sort of a time vacuum. This two hour trip is more than doubling. Maybe I actually died at mile three and this is the fucking purgatory that I have been blessed with.
For some reason I forgot about my idea of turning around when things got tough.
My breathing is becoming extremely labored and painful as I pedal in the easiest gear available. My feet spin like there is no tomorrow but it doesn’t seem there is a fair ratio of pedal rotations to forward momentum. I’m somehow getting screwed in this endeavor. FML!
On the positive side today I broke my record for the numbers of thumbs up I received. As busses rounded the hairpin curves on their way down their looks of astonishment quickly turned to a smile and a thumbs up. Cars that pass open their windows and passengers lean out to give me a little encouragement in the form of that single thumb pointed towards the sky.
It is apparent that a fully loaded bicyclist isn’t seen on this road very often if at all. Each of those smiles and thumbs up give me a small moment of distraction from the agony on this part of the ride. I look forward to each and every one of them
The amount of lactic acid my body is creating in response to this ungodly task is taxing my breathing. I can’t create a large enough breath or adequate rate to overcome this acidosis. Adolph Kussmaul would be proud of the effort but he may find some humor in the futility.
Last year I woke up with a body temperature over one hundred and seven degrees Fahrenheit. I believe the cause was an infection from a wound when I fell after my bicycle seat broke off and threw me on the dirt road. My minute volume was off the charts! As a respiratory therapist it was intriguing that I was Kussmaul breathing. But at that time I felt calm and at ease as my body attempted to regulate its acid base status. Not so now – this is a living hell. It hurts to breathe.
I stop many times to take a break, recover my breathing, eat some bananas and drink some water. Starting up again is an adventure in itself. I have to wait until traffic in both directions is clear. I could not go from a stop to a start by moving forward. The grades are too steep and I have to ride perpendicular to the road to get started then slowly zig zig until I had enough forward inertia to keep me moving in the proper direction. For those keeping track that direction is up.
I am moving slower than I thought I would and I think I finally found out how slow I can ride without tipping over. At this point there is no way I am going to make it to the top before dark. Up to this point I didn’t pass anywhere I could pitch a tent for the night. The road was a narrow ribbon of pavement snaking its way through dense jungle. Not a single clearing for a tent much less a hidden spot away from the road.
I have no choice but to keep going. I know there are some lookouts and coffee shops once the road flattens out. There has to be someplace I can set up camp for the night. Too bad the darkness was going to make that just one more challenge. Keep ‘me coming. I can take it. My oxygen starved brain doesn’t know any better at this point.
This is turning out to be one of those times I wondered about when contemplating the trip. One of those ‘what if’ moments. You can fill in the blank – ‘What would I do if …….’, ‘What would happen if……’.
My shorts and shirt are so drenched with sweat I think I could fill a water bottle if I wrung them out. The higher I go the colder it gets. The later it gets the colder it gets. The sun is gone. Yes. Less warm – that’s how it works.
I stop for another break and attach my front and rear lights to keep me safe. Traffic decreases as the hours wind down leaving me less worried about dangerous vehicle/bicycle interactions.
Each mile of this climb seems to last ten times longer than the mile before. The last mile was an eternity. All part of that purgatory thing.
In the distance I see what I think are signs indicating a curve in the road. It looks like they are reflecting either my light or the lights of a vehicle coming in the opposite direction. As I get closer I am getting more confused by what I am seeing. Brain meet hypoxia.
Salvation! It’s the coffee house and the lights are still on. I am sure they are going to turn off any second. I need to get there quickly. They were closing but I made it there in time. The husband, wife and daughter had a bewildered look on their faces when they spotted this ragtag foreigner at their doorstep dripping wet and looking somewhat weathered.
I ask for a couple of drinks with ice. I type out “Can I set up my tent outside for the night?” on Google Translate. The adults both pointed to the inside of the coffee shop and walked me over to where they wanted me to set up my tent. I pointed outside where there was plenty of room but the woman insistently pointed down to the spot inside indicating that I would spend the night inside.
As I set up my tent dinner was being prepared. They insisted that I sit and eat with them even though I mimed that I had food with me. Along with dinner the father had some homemade alcohol that he shared with me refilling my small cup whenever it was empty.
Their daughter looks about twelve years old. She seems excited to be sharing her meal with me. She tries her hand at Google Translate on her phone enabling us to create some level of conversation between us.
Bedtime came quickly as everyone went to their corners to take advantage of the wifi and interact with the outside world in one way or another. I have to fight to stay awake until ten. If I fall asleep any earlier I will wake at 1:00 am with no possibility of falling back to sleep.
Morning came quickly. I was at the top of this climb and I had my first glimpse of the world below me. Rain filled the sky and fog weaved its way through the rolling hills. It is an ever-changing landscape as the sun tries but does not succeed to break through.
The first customers arrived just after six and the owners were prepared to begin this day just hours after the last one ended.
I waited out the rain before leaving. An iced coffee with sweet milk helped occupy my time. A large Vietnamese family sat at my table leaving all other tables empty. A friendly gesture even though back and forth conversation was not possible. Smiles and laughter filled our time together.
I asked for a large bottle of water to take with me and asked how much I owed for everything.
Total cost for everything was sixty-thousand dong or two dollars and sixty cent. Food, coffee, drinks, accommodation. She wouldn’t take anything more. I thanked them and pedaled off for my second day of riding up to Dalat.
As I pedaled away I waved at the three of them smiling and waving in the window. I don’t know if I had more of an impact on them or if they had more of an impact on me. What I do know is the answer to one of those ‘what if’ questions and the calming knowledge that the other unanswered questions may be just as rewarding if and when I encounter them.
I am lucky that I usually wake up unaffected by a tough ride the day before. Today is no different but it leaves me wondering what would have happened if I didn’t meet my angels at the top.
Strokes to Spokes
Around the World Bicycle Ride
Help Keep Me On the Road
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