Friday, January 31, 2014

Random Observations and Thoughts

  • Thresholds, they're everywhere. The thresholds I'm accustomed to relate to a level of tolerance above or below which some thing or some one can not function optimally. In Buddhist dominated cultures thresholds are a raised barrier anywhere from 1/2" to 9" between rooms. I believe they symbolically (or literally??) keep the evil spirits from entering. What I know to be true is that you better learn where the thresholds are in your hotel room or you'll stub your toe, or worse, when trying to find your way to the john in the middle of the night.
  • Toilet paper and paper towels for hand drying are not standard issue. Don't expect public restrooms in restaurants, or squat pots to provide toilet paper, and expect to dry your hands on your pants, hair, or in the ambient air.
  • Spray hoses ARE standard issue in public restrooms and squat pot rooms to wash your nether regions since TP is not to be put in toilets. Wipe and drop is a hard habit for me to break.
  • Restrooms are typically called toilets. That just sounds way to banal to me. Some kind of a euphemism might be in order.
  • Cow milk alternatives are non-existent, e.g. soy or other nut milks.
  • Don't expect your server to bring you your bill automatically. It's considered rude to rush the customer. When you're ready to go, you gotta ask for your bill.
  • Hotel rooms have door bells.
  • Electric outlets in your hotel room are powered by your room key inserted into a slot in your room. To assure you don't leave the lights on in your room upon exiting, you're issued only one room key despite the number of people in your room.
  • Hotels of new construction are outfitted with motion sensor lights upon entry and in the bathroom, a nice idea but there is no way to override the default. So, middle of the night trips to the john your circadian rhythms will be rudely awakened by the bathroom light brightly greeting you. The good news is you can easily see the threshold and not stub your toe.
  • Asiana Airline flight attendants are striking in that they look vintage 1950's: all Asian women, all the same height, all with only a weight variance of no more than 5 pounds, all with the same hair style: long, severely pulled back into a bun, all wearing the same uniform: a cafe au lait colored business suit, skirt knee length, a conservatively colored neck scarf, and a stupid looking hat.
  • Gender-based roles also appear to be vintage 1950's, at least on Asiana Airlines. We watched our Asiana flight crew stand at our gate waiting for the plane to be ready for their boarding. Male pilot crew on the left, female attendant crew on the right, no cross-gender/cross-function conversation.
  • In Hoi An we saw myriad shops selling silk sleeping bags. I simply couldn't imagine why anyone would want to buy such a thing. If I were to buy a sleeping bag it would be down rated for polar conditions, not a fine silk work of art. Took me a couple of hotel stays in Vietnam to catch on. They do not use a top sheet. Presumably they change the bottom sheet between customers, but you sleep directly under a New England weight comforter. Your choice is to cover up with the comforter, snugging it up around your face sharing skin with all the previous users, or sleep uncovered. Kind wish I'd bought a silk sleeping bag.
  • Hospitality in all restaurants, commercial venues, airports, everywhere we traveled far exceeded our expectations AND the standards set in US. US Americans have much we can learn for our global neighbors.

Floating Village

Kirk, Trevor, and I left our hotel this morning behind the wheel of our guide for about a 12-15k ride to the largest lake in SE Asia, Tonle Sap. Today marked my first-ever ride on a mountain bike, and glad for it. The quality of the road was about 1/4 paved, 1/2 hard or puddle packed mud, and 1/4 major rocks. Trevor was one of our riders who joined us in Nah Trang, rode with us to Saigon, and then joined Kirk and me for our 3 days in Cambodia.

We boarded a less than impressive, but hopefully water-worthy boat and took off for a 45 minute tour of a floating village, home to 1,000 families (3-4 people/family). Homes were built on top of boats; when the monsoons come and the water rises by 30', no problem. There are a couple of schools, also floating; used to be 4 Karaoke bars, now only one. The poverty was astounding to me, what I imagine some of the poorest Philippine Islands to look like, or maybe Haiti. The totally brown lake water serves as wash water for clothes, drinking water, bath water, and all forms of toilet. There are floating churches, a floating wedding/party boat, and a floating Korean restaurant. And yes, everyone has a cell phone, the cell phone tower anchored to the bottom of the lake.
Cell Phone Tower

Homes have no furniture, just a hammock, the floor, and sacks of rice that double as chairs, but most rural Asians are more than adept at squatting on their haunches or sitting cross legged on the floor. 

Little kids, maybe 7 years old, paddled themselves to school standing on the prow of their family boat/car. Babies crawled across the floor of the boat/home, apparently unattended, just feet from the edge of the platform above what I understood to be crocodile infested waters. 

Boat houses are but one room,  the next boat being no more than 12' away, walls are either board with see through spaces between the boards, or maybe tarpaulins. We Westerners would never survive in the less than sanitary conditions and supreme lack of privacy. They, in turn, would never survive in the sterility and isolation of our our living conditions. 
We rode a different way back to the hotel through a long village along the river, shacks on stilts for the regular flooding that comes with each monsoon. As we left the dock area where we boarded our little water-worthy boat, an uncountable number of tour busses brought hoards of tourists to ride the boats through the floating village. Others came by tuk-tuk. We were the only ones who came by bike;
 just sayin'.

Yep, a croc

The School

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ethnocentrism, sadly it's everywhere

Dressed Up For the New Year

Just An Ordinary Tuesday Night

Masks and Scooter Traffic--'ya gotta take a look. It will be a long time before any city in Viet Nam earns the status of being a bike friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists. Not sure that this video is a direct link to ethnocentrism, but it is signature Viet Nam.

Next on the agenda would be a metric century from Nah Trang to Buon Ma Thout, about half-way to Da Lat. Our two days to Da Lat would take us into Central Highlands, home to most all of the 53 other minority ethnic groups or hill tribes. There are 54 ethnic groups in Viet Nam altogether; the majority one being the Viet people. Some of the larger groups include: the Ede, H'mong, and Jari. All the tribes know the Viet language, but each has its own dialect that's not understood by the other. Relationships and politics are not always smooth or accepting between the Viets and the 53 others.

Seems that the obsession with skin complexion is linked to ethnic relationships, too. Hill tribes can be darker skinned, maybe genes, maybe working out in the rice fields. The Viets, especially the females, seek a lighter complexion by covering up with masks and head gear seemingly as confining to us as Muslim burkas but purely voluntary in order to less likely be confused as being one of the minority tribes and/or a field worker/farmer.

We left Nah Trang at 7:00 a.m. and by 7:30 we were in a market throng of ducks strung up by their legs hanging off either side of a scooter quacking all the way; along side the road, waiting for sale were the most unhealthy looking chickens and ducks you could imagine having lost most of their feathers, their feet tied together so as not to escape sale and an earlier death; and of course fruits and vegetables, and coffee, coffee, coffee.

Vietnam is one of, if not the largest exporters of coffee in the world. Vietnamese love their coffee as much as Americans love their beer on Super Bowl Sunday.

Beware, though, Vietnamese drink their coffee without cream/milk, without sugar and as thick as room temperature molasses. It almost has a chocolate flavor, naturally though, no additive. Kinda reminds you of Turkish coffee.

While on the subject of vices and comforts, 80% of the Vietnamese men smoke, only 5% of the Vietnamese women smoke. Wrapping up our stay now in Cambodia we asked our guide if they, the Cambodians, smoke similarly to the Vietnamese. Interestingly, au contraire. Only about 30% of the Cambodians smoke, and even fewer women smoke than in Vietnam where the female percentage is only at about 5%. Seems that smoking in Cambodia is associated with gang affiliation, not a desirable affiliation for those so committed to advancing themselves personally, professionally, economically, and in all other ways since Pol Pot summarily annihilated virtually 20% of the Cambodian population in the late 70's early 80's.

Laundry Vietnamese Style: It works!!!

We had a most satisfying laundry experience in Nah Trang. Funny how the basic (primitive?) needs can become such a dominant focus when you're out of your primary element. Behind our hotel, in an alley, is a whole world of local life. At night, when the electricity is on, you can see into the homes: the multiple scooters in the main room, satellite dishes for nearly everyone, and EVERYONE has a cell phone in the rural areas as well as the towns and cities.

Anyhow, while Kirk was out excursioning with the rest of our group, I was trying to recoup from my gut ailment and sought out how to do our laundry. Laundromats don't exist around here. You can pay the hotel $20-30 to do your laundry or have one of the families in the alley do it for $1.00 USD/kilo. I gave a delightfully happy 30-ish woman my 4kilo of wash and 8 hours later it was all washed and dried, some line dried, some machine dried, pressed when appropriate (like Kirk's T-shirts, he doesn't get that treatment at home), and returned to us with a hug and a smile. We gave her a $2.00 tip and she thought it was a mistake. Must have made her week, or maybe her month.

We didn't have a group meal our 2nd night in Nah Trang, so Kirk and I went in search of something less Vietnamese, something a little more like home. We chose Indian. Sounds funny, but lamb curry and papadum with chutney tasted like comfort food.

Had another laundry experience in Saigon. (District 1, of 24 districts, is called Saigon; the metro area is referred to as Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC, with half of the districts being named, the other half given numbers.) Anyhow, our hotel was in the heart of what would be Michigan Avenue or the Miracle Mile in Chicago or Park Ave. in NYC. No alleys anywhere in sight with  families competing to do your laundry.

We walked out the front door of the glitzy 4 Star Hotel heading for a walk with the goal of getting 4 more mug shots for our Cambodian Visa. Literally had not gotten 10 feet from the front door when a woman rushed us, thrust a business card into our hands with an offer to do our laundry. $5.00 USD/kilo, but we're not complaining. We wondered if we'd ever see it again, but she promised to have it ready for us at the same spot on the corner in 24 hours. Deal!!

24 hours later all of our laundry was more than perfectly present, folded, high tech fabrics line dried, heavy duty cottons dried another. The system works.

Again, pix will be dropped into the blog after I get home. For now, those of you on Facebook can catch some of the pix there.

Monday, January 20, 2014

An Adrenalin Rush

Yesterday's ride from Quy Nhon to Nah Trang was divided into 3 parts with a SAG in between each segment. At the beginning of  the third segment, Luc hoped we could make it to the hotel before night fall, a pretty important goal since none of the Pedal Tour's bikes had lights. I had one of those teeny tiny LED front blinkies and the bright Planet Bike rear blinkies. He thought if we kept a 12-14 mph pace we could do it. The lead pack, including me, booked it at between 18-20 mph and darkness still gobbled us up. It didn't help I still had on my dark glasses, but to stop and exchange for clear lenses would have meant losing my pack. We hit the Beach Boulevard in the middle of evening rush with a gazillion motor scooters, round abouts, and no clear knowledge of where our hotel was. It was just one of the BIG ones.

I tell you what, the best survival strategy is to ride at the pace of the scooters and just keep going; let them flow around you. It worked!! We all made it.

I felt really badly, though, because I thought Kirk was riding with Kathy and Linda; but they were behind him and he couldn't catch us because of traffic lights, which, surprisingly, they obey here in Nah Trang. So, the poor guy had to navigate his way without benefit of any compadres and benefit of any lights.

Altogether, probably not the wisest choice that any of us has made, but it is certainly a memorable arrival.

Cycle Touring As A Cultural Act

Bicycle Touring As A Cultural Act

I have really only cycle toured with two other companies: PAC Tour and Adventure Corps, the latter being their Spring Training Camp in Death Valley. I've ridden countless centuries hosted by various bicycle clubs and fewer double centuries, all of which have added up to an average of nearly 12,000 miles/year for the last 10-11 years.

But, I have never been to Asia.

I am accustomed to daily distances being easily between 90-125 miles, excellent SAG support, and safe, navigable roads.

For good reason Pedal Tours typically SAGS us out of and into the urban area: safety first. They will also SAG us through stretches of the road that are so poorly paved, so heavily trafficked with huge vehicles, or so serpentine that, once again, Westerners on non-motorized vehicles would be at risk, big risk. They, Pedal Tours, certainly provide excellent SAG support.

Given these road conditions here in Vietnam we have typically only ridden 40k (~25 miles) by lunch time. But, our van time is a rich time to learn about the heart and soul of the Vietnamese people through stories shared with us by Luc, our tour guide from HCMC, who was born a year before the Viet Nam-American War ended, whose father was a physician and encamped for "re-education" after the war ended because he had had worked for the Americans and was not trusted by the Communist government; whose father had 12 brothers, 6 fought in the NVA, 6 who fought with the Americans the South Vietnamese Army. After the war, all 12 were re-united as one family once again.

For miles we rode along rice paddies still planted, tended to, and harvested by hand and fields furrowed by water buffalo as it has been done for thousands of years. Automated farming has come, to some degree, to the Mekong Delta, but not further north, yet.

Bicycles are parked along the farmer's rice paddy for his/her entire field day, not padlocked, but then, again, there is nothing to padlock it to. Same is true of bicycles in the cities, including Hanoi (haven't been to Saigon yet). Bicycles are parked on the street unlocked. That is mostly the case, too, of scooters--unlocked. We saw some scooters with a medium heft U lock through the spokes of the front wheel, but certainly not all.

It is common for many people to bring their scooters into their front room at night. Several families will live in the same house so it is not uncommon to see as many as 5 scooters in the front room as you meander the streets at night.

We passed shrimp and lobster farms and fishing villages with huge nets hung up to dry. Theft or vandalism to another's property is un heard of.

The further South we've ridden the percent of people wearing a face mask while cycling/scooting on the road has increased, yet the air quality has improved as we've moved away from Hanoi and are still too far away from Saigon/HCMC. The explanation given is they (mostly women, but men, too) are concerned about their complexion pre-marriage. I guess after you're married it doesn't matter any more.  But, I'm thinking I might invest in one for when I ride in Tucson during the hot season as my lips get so sun/wind burned despite conscientious use of SPF lip balm.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Ablutions Thwarted

Ablutions Thwarted

Saturday January 18th
As a 1st world, middle class, Westerner the mechanics and resources for the daily ablution rituals are taken for granted. Not so for where we've been traveling in North Vietnam.

The differences became abundantly clear as we were readying to leave Hoi An for Quang Ngai. I spent over half of my already short night (still have not transitioned to full night sleeping because of the 14 hrs difference from home) in the bathroom with either a vicious case of food allergy/intolerance or tourista, so called Delhi Belly by the UK/Aussies.

Today would be a challenged day for me: a key undergarment was not to be found, the one lost yesterday at the local laundry across from the hotel; I lost track of my iPhone, but there was not time to go back to search the room in Hoi An or retrieve my suitcase from the packed luggage van. The best I could hope for was to use my iPad when I got to the next hotel to use the "Find My Phone" app; it was steadily raining Seattle style, temperature in the mid 50's, not bad by many peoples' standards, but when you're sick with something, it takes it's toll; and the predictably unpredictable roads which would quite regularly degrade into muddy slick-pack (not to be confused with hard-pack) allowing for a mud bath by passing scooters, trucks, and tour busses.

I had to call it quits to my ride for the day after lunch. 26 miles was all I could pedal tour today.

Our destination today was Quang Ngai after a visit to the museum at My Lai. More on both of those in a separate post.

Oh, the good news is I found my iPhone when I arrived at our Quang Ngai hotel. Amidst my semi delirium I had put it in a most atypical spot in my suitcase.

While my gut seemed to have quieted over night in Qanq Ngai, I was feverish and full of whole body shakes on the van as we all drove about 50 miles from our hotel in Quang Ngai to the ride start. Our guide thought we might need to be hospital bound, but some helpful pharma from fellow riders and a bottle of Revive, an all natural energy drink that might become my new best friend from Amazon, I began to bounce back. I was able to ride 36 miles from lunch on into Quy Nhon. This afternoon I was not in desperate search of the nearest squat hole, I mainly just felt like I had been run over by a tour bus while lying in a mud hole. That said, and despite the continuing rain, being on the bike was restorative.

I was highly motivated to ride the full day on Sunday the 19th, just because: because I wanted to, because there were several hills I was looking forward to, because I missed getting to ride the hills the day before because of my sickness; and because we would be riding into Nah Trang, a big city,
and we would have a day off the bike on Monday to explore. I already knew I would opt out of exploring and opt in to trying to recover some gut health and energy and catch up on blogging our journey.

I did, indeed, accomplish all of those things, except I had some more adventures of the ablution kind. After lunch I was in need, even a porcelain squat hole should have been most welcome, but how to find? Luc, our Vietnamese tour guide, was helping me zero in on a feasible place as we moved through the hamlets. The first home we stopped at the family was more than willing to offer me what they had, but they only had the resources for peeing, not what I needed. That resource was a large bowl that we might use to make enough fruit salad for a large wedding. Not going to work. The second house, wide open to the street. We entered, announced ourselves, but no one was home. The third house invited me in to their room with a modern toilet that can be flushed, not bucket flushed, and an actual wash bowl for hand washing.

Interesting, no place has any resources for drying your hands. Air dry only.

On a somewhat related note, there is virtually no use of disposable products in any place we've been so far: no to-go cups, no paper/plastic plates/eating utensils, most often no toilet paper. I've been carrying my own, double wrapped on my bike because of the rainy conditions. I definitely give the Vietnamese credit for their green stance on this one. Not sure if it is intentional or just that the option has not yet manifested itself. We've seen only a couple of US franchises (Subway and KFC) in Hanoi. I'm told there is a McDonald's in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and that there  is one Starbucks in HCMC, too. A plus or a minus? I'll let you decide.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hoi An

Today was our first riding day. Oh my, I was so ready to be back on the bike. I had been off the bike for a week! Huge amount of time for me.

I have found a new way to describe my riding: it is my primary spiritual discipline. Some people practice daily martial arts or Yoga, or journaling, or reading, or some other meditative practice. I ride my bike. I think describing my cycling as a spiritual discipline deserves its own post. So, back to our first riding day: Hue to Hoi An.

We were carried by van 15k south of Hue to get us out of the rush hour chaos of thousands of motor scooters (which,BTW, are all called Hondas, as are all cars called Honda, regardless of their true maker, much like tissues are universally called Kleenex, and soft drinks are called Coke).

Once on the bike, while the road was paved, it was often only 10' wide carrying bidirectional traffic, most of which was scooter and bike, but there were a few cars, trucks, and tour busses. Some games of chicken were at play, but most of the time it was us who would hit the unpaved shoulder before it was too late.

The homes we passed were pretty humble, no, they were very humble. Luc described it as a middle class suburb of Hue. We never saw an upper class suburb, but we did see rural hovels that became hovelier the further south we went. It seemed many were nothing more than tarpaulins strung up to bamboo poles.

After 20k (12.4 mi) we stopped for coffee, tea, a bio-break Vietnamese style. We had to scuttle around the scooters that cluttered the entrance, before we could scuttle up a staircase to the 2nd floor, to an open-air, warehousie kind of place operated by a late teenaged girl. Hard to judge young people's ages the older I get. This place hardly looked like a going concern, but it met our needs and off we went again giving the right of way to cows wandering across our road and farmers walking their water buffalo down the middle of the the same road. Just as I learned in Tucson that bikes yield the right of way to horses on the multi-use paths and that in Alaska everyone gives the right of way to a moose on or near the road or path you're on no matter if you're on a bike or car, so it is in Vietnam that right of way is given to the water buffalo.

I saw my first rice paddy worked by barefooted farmers wearing conical hats and barefooted farmers plowing their fields behind their one water buffalo. There were fields of arrowroot, taro, sweet potato, and pumpkin and, of course rice, rice, and rice.

And, everywhere there were children age 3-10, boys and girls leaving whatever they were doing to run to the side of the road shouting "Aloh", and, of course, we'd return the Aloh greeting. Quite a contrast to American kids who are a) taught "stranger danger" from birth, and b) who have lost the freedom to play outside unsupervised.

It took 20+ years before tourism even began to come to Vietnam, but when it did Westerners were called West Man by the locals. Then, the little children began to practice their English when one of "us" would come through their town by shouting out, "Hello" which soon became Aloh. Now Westerners are simply known as "Alohs".

When the kids grew more confident with their English, they would venture into bold new territory asking: "How are you?" or "What's your name?" or, "How old are you?" The latter is not a boundary breach, but rather in Vietnamese how you are addressed is determined by how old you are: so you could be younger brother, older brother, uncle, or senior uncle. I suppose the same applies to the female gender.

Before our lunch break we visited the most amazing cemetery imaginable. It measured 40k (24.8 mi) in length filled with Family Temples, home to cremains of many generations. Most temples ranged in cost from $100,000-200,000 USD! In time I'll be able to drop some representative pix of the temples. But for now, those of you on Facebook can check out some pix there.

After our little diversion to the cemetery Kirk and I were in search of a bathroom. The ubiquitous convenient stores are non-existent and neither of us was comfortable with public relief. We must have looked a bit like Alohs in search of something when a 30-something man, sitting on his porch asked what we were looking for: "A toilet." He invited us in to his house that had no electricity, handed us a weak flashlight and directed us through a series of rooms to a toilet bowl  on a wet cement floor. It worked well.

After lunch 6 of the 11 riders climbed Hai Van Pass which was about a 5% grade for 11k with many switchbacks at an 8% grade. I passed some bicycle tourists walking their bikes up some of the steeper pitches, their bikes loaded with heavy panniers. I asked one of them how much further to the top. His response was "China." There is not much English spoken over here. The descent down the Pass to China Beach was good fun.

It was by far the steepest and longest climb I've ever done on my upright/Bike Friday. Felt good about being the first person to the top of the grade only 5 minutes behind our guide who is 28 years my junior. Kirk did awesome! I think he's now ready for Gates Pass and Mt. Lemmon up to Molina Basin.

We passed through Danang riding in our van/bus. Darkness would have gobbled us up along with the rush hour scooter traffic.

Danang is a happening place now aglow with modernity 1 million strong. But during the American War, it was where all GI's landed for 2-weeks before being dropped off by choppers into jungle to fight for the cause, their lives, and hopefully to be airlifted out 1 year later still whole-bodied.

Danang was also where American GI's would come for r&r. When the war was over and all the American soldiers returned home, Danang was over run with prostitutes and war babies of mixed nationality. The Communist government invested 30 years of effort to re-educate, train and re-integrate the social casualties of the war into the new and proud fabric of Vietnamese life and culture. They have been effective.

Finally arrived in Hoi An about 6:00 p.m. a gracious town enjoying the benefits of global tourism including lots of Alohs. We were given a street map of the town proudly titled: "Hoi An: Vestiges of Interest". I think they would do well to invest in a native English speaker to check out their translations before sending their work to the print shop. Sometimes Google translations miss the essence of the message.

We spent the day, Thursday the 16th here in Hoi An, home to 132,000 people whose ancestors have called this place home for 2,200 years and where the average rainfall is about 6'. The outside of the houses are dark with mold. Owners expect their houses to be flooded with 6-8' of water each year.

Kirk visited a tailor shop and in 3 hours had two shirts hand-made of the loveliest material and with amazing quality. We did laundry today, too. I expected to do it American style in hotel self serve machines. But, that's not the Vietnamese way. For $7 USD we had 29 pieces of clothing hand laundered, folded, and returned to us 6 hours later. Those pieces that needed to be line dried were, those that could be machine dried were. The only downfall is that I ended up with someone else's T-shirt and underpants and someone else got one of my dearly beloved running tops. Oh well.

Hue, Vietnam

It's difficult to keep track of days, dates, and times since, by our body clock, it took 30 hours to get to Hanoi, and once in Vietnam, Tucson remains, by the clock, 14 hours behind us. Let's just say that Tuesday morning, January 13th at 11:00 a.m. we piled 7 riders, our guide, Luc (a 40 y.o.  Vietnamese from Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh), and headed for the Hanoi Airport.

A pause to introduce who's sharing our journey with us. All are retired, all are seasoned international travelers (I am the least well traveled of the bunch). We will meet 4 more riders, also about our age, but a bit younger, in Hue: twin sisters and their spouses. One of the twin couples lives in Sidney, the other couple in London. Thus, our group will be 11 plus our guide. We will be accompanied by a 15 passenger bus/van and a truck which will haul our bikes when need be, our dedicated truck driver/mechanic and another sous mechanic who doubles as sweep.

All but Kirk and David have enjoyed previous cycling trips and tours. David, from NZ, is the only one without a spouse or travel companion (his wife doesn't enjoy traveling), and only started cycling 3 weeks before the trip, an ambitious guy. I am the only one of the bunch who, you might say, has a cycling resume.

Kathy and Linda are from the DC area, worked for the federal government in the same department at the DOT, and have been travel companions for years.

Niki and Ron retired from CA to CO several years ago and also brought their own bikes with them, Bike Fridays. Interesting to have 3 sets of Little Wheels in the stable.

The airport rituals we have come to expect in the US were thorough, but relaxed in Hanoi,  so much so we completed the entire check-in process AND a delicious, fairly priced lunch in under 60
minutes. We arrived at the gate as they were boarding, facing no gate closures 15 minutes before
take-off and no blaring announcements, and left on time.

A 15 person bus met us and Phuc (pronounced fook), our driver for the duration met us at the airport and drove us immediately to the Citadel for a brief tour; the 3 of us with Bike Fridays still had to build our bikes before night fall and the others had to be fitted to their rental hybrids.

A bit about Hue. Her population is currently 358,000. Hers is a blend of the imperial old with the recent excesses infused by tourism. For better or for worse there is no night life; the locals go to bed by 10:00.

In 1802 the capital of Vietnam was moved from Hanoi to Hue in an effort to unite North and South Vietnam. The Citadel was completed in 1835. In 1885 the French responded to an attack by the Vietnamese by storming the Citadel burning the imperial library and stealing every object of value.

Hue became the focus of attention again in 1968 during the Tet Offensive when the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong stormed the Citadel and gained control of it. During their 3-1/2 weeks of control of the Citadel 2,500 merchants, priests, government workers, and just workers were shot, clubbed or buried alive. The US and the South Vietnamese armies responded by leveling whole neighborhoods, battering the Citadel, and napalming the imperial palace. 10,000 lives were lost in the Tet Offensive, most were civilians.

Despite the fact that many private American dollars are steadily flowing into all of Vietnam to help rebuild what was destroyed during the Vietnam-American war, I find my overarching feeling while traveling here is one of deep sadness and guilt, much like what I have felt when walking through Civil War battlefields, visiting Confederate Prisoner of War Camp and burial ground in Andersonville, GA, and Historic Williamsburg, feeling in my bones, my soul the depth of the capacity of human fear, hatred, and our nation's, my nation's, capacity to arrogantly or ignorantly abuse it's power to destroy, while clinging to the belief that it is doing so for the betterment of some,
if not all.

Looks like pictures will have to be integrated into my blog after I return home. For those of you on Facebook, you can catch some pictures on Facebook by liking my page, Bentwanderer, at

Monday, January 13, 2014

Good Morning, Vietnam!

Humans are amazing survivors and thrivers when it comes to adapting to their environment. Even if the new environment is not a favorite, we quickly adapt and blend, losing equally quickly our ability to take in the sensory wonder of the new place. So I feel an urgency to capture my impressions, sensations, and experiences as quickly as possible before they blend into what I come to know as Hanoi or Vietnam.

We noticed nothing particularly noteworthy upon arrival at our hotel at 1:00 a.m. local time after 28 hrs of travel, advancing 14 hours worth of time zones, and crossing the dateline. All that changed the morning of our first day.

Vietnam is the 13th most populated country in the world; its land mass is certainly not commensurate. In the cities, at least, property is at a premium dong. Our first awareness of that reality was the width of our hotel. The lobby is no more than 10' wide; the main corridor to the elevators to the guest rooms passes through the only dining room which is only 8' wide.

Unquestionably THE most dramatic bombardment to a Westerner's senses and sensibilities is the buzzing and honking of an uncountable number of motor scooters and a somewhat countable number of bicycles that consume the equivalent of a one lane, 12' road in US.

Scooters, bicycles, peds, and a few automobiles all share the same space at the same time, and somehow, miraculously, it all seems to work. Everyone enters the intersection at the same time turning left, right, and going straight, at the same time and, if it better serves scooter drivers' destination to ride against traffic, they will do just that. Most of the wheeled traffic is going no faster than walkers, so that helps.

There are few traffic lights and many of those are simply ignored. There are a few pedestrian cross walk designations on the road, but who knows why, as they are totally ignored by all wheeled things.

Everyone just goes, but always just forward. Never stop, and certainly don't go backwards. To do either will result in a certain collision. Traffic is grounded, literally, in mutual trust.

Motor scooters park on the sidewalks, thousands of scooters gobble up the sidewalk which means that peds most often have to join the gaggle of movers using the 12' wide street. Oh, and BTW, foreigners are not allowed to rent cars in Hanoi, and for good reason.

Navigating the streets of Hanoi, especially in the old quarter, is literally like living inside a Video game on steroids. That said, I have yet to see a collision of any kind; I have seen no traffic cops; I have seen no road rage; and no one makes eye contact with anyone else. There are simply too many moving parts to make eye contact with any one. To do so would mean losing the big picture and make impossible the survival tactic of keeping a steady, forward moving pace.

Also competing for sidewalk space are huddled clusters of people all sitting on little kindergarten-sized step stools drinking Jasmine tea or eating Pho. Why are the stools so little, we asked? Space conservation for one, but also having a food vending business on the street is against the law. So, the little stools make it possible for customers and vendors to disappear in the blink of an eye should an overseer suddenly appear.

Speaking of overseers, a tourist would not be likely to be aware that they were in a Communist governed country. To that end, my first, and only clue so far, was to see, hanging in a t-shirt store, shirts bearing Hello Kitty, Heineken, and the Soviet gold crescent and cycle on a blood red background.

Also sharing the single laned byway are diminutive Vietnamese women wearing the signature conical hat with a dowel across one shoulder with a large basket of wares hanging from both ends of the dowel. They could be toting chestnuts, doughnuts, citrus, ten-cent trinkets, or Gillette Vector razors.

The backs of many scooters are outfitted with hand-made racks made of sticks akin to paint stirrers which bear an amazing assortment of wild goods, e.g.: multiple Costco-sized bundles of who knows what, baskets full of up to 50 blocks of bean curd, unwrapped, of course. Even saw one scooter hauling a tree replete with a ball of dirt; it is common to see bicycles that serve as an entire flower shop. I've seen a Golden Retriever riding at the feet of its master on a scooter and parents carrying a baby in a front pack, one in a back pack, and one riding tandem on the main seat. All a common sight.

Our first two days in Hanoi were weekend days so we didn't know till today that one of the buildings across from our hotel was a school. But a school there is and when the lunch bell rang out poured a hundred plus 10-year olds who blended easily and confidently into the flow of traffic without a single parent or traffic guard anywhere in sight.

A seminal book on the New York Times best seller list right now is Dan Ariely, Predictably Unpredictable. Navigating Hanoi, at least for a Westerner, is Predictably Unpredictable. In addition to the traffic patterns which seem ever so predictably unpredictable, so does the organization of commerce. Your first couple of days in Hanoi you are so preoccupied with simply surviving the traffic you fail to notice there is, indeed, order, to the shop after shop, block after block. It may be, too, that the streets are helpfully named, but no knowing a lick of Vietnamese, I can't be sure about that. What you will find is a block that concentrates on buttons, thread, and zippers; another on tin products; another on bicycle/scooter locks; another on toys; another on scooter repair; another on medicinal herbs; another on sweaters; another on suitcases and backpacks, etc.

I have kept wondering, where do all these people live? If you dare look up, thereby taking your eyes off the road, you'll find grimy, disheveled, hovels stacked on top of each other where the shopkeepers live who own their street-level shops. Have no clue where all the others live.

Alleys running between shops are named according to the name of the shop at the corner of the alley. Between other shops  run tunnels going where? They give new meaning to: " I would hate to meet so-and-so in a dark alley."

Power lines are draped from tree to tree across streets and alleys. The maze of wires resembles the gaggled tangle of extension cords many of us were accustomed to in the '50's especially at Christmas time as our houses were decorated with Christmas lights. It's a wonder there are so few spontaneous fires given the over amping of resources. In many places an NBA player could bump his head on the power lines that power several blocks. We watched an electric worker repairing a jumble of wires my simply leaning a bamboo ladder up against the tree to which the wires were attached. No need here for a telescopic bucket to hoist a worker up 25-30 feet.

What I take away from my 3 days here in Hanoi is gracious hospitality freely given by not just those invested in the tourist industry, but also by those who call Hanoi home. What I hear from those who call Vietnam home is pride in their country and commitment to their political and personal freedom; after all, they celebrated their 1,000 year anniversary in 2010.

What I also take away is no desire to truly develop the skills necessary to navigate traffic as they do here and wear a mask in an effort to mitigate the severity of air pollution.

What I also take away is it is hard to find food in restaurants that meets my egg-free, dairy-free, grain-free (rice is a good guy), and corn-free needs. Part of that difficulty is the language barrier (not a lot of English spoken here and my inability to read Vietnamese ingredients, if they are even listed.), and in part because the array of allergen-sensitive alternatives are simply not available here as they are in medium-large cities in the US.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Getting To Vietnam

Neither of us has ever been to Asia, neither of us has ever flown across the date line. For one who is pretty much in perpetual motion it's bind-boggling to think about being tethered to an airplane seat for 20 hours and in transit for 28 hours.

The journey began Thursday, January 9th, leaving for the Tucson airport at 4:20 am Mountain Standard Time; arriving at our hotel, Maison D' Hanoi at 1:00 am Saturday Vietnam time by way of LA, Seoul, and finally Hanoi.

We were treated at the Tucson airport, by virtue of our wee-morning arrival time, to pre-screening (TSA) status which meant we could keep our shoes and belts on, etc. LA was not so forgiving. Not only did we need to discombobulate ourselves for TSA's approval, they rejected my suitcase because it had Allen wrenches and a 15 mm wrench in it, bike tools for reassembling my Bike Friday.  The only options were to surrender the tools (not an option) or return to the check-in counter and check my bag as checked luggage. Grateful for the 5 hour layover in LA so recombobulating, discombobulating, and recombobulating myself  again was not a time issue, just a significant irritation at the necessity for this whole security process.

Asiana Airlines was our carrier from LA to Hanoi. Don't know if it was about these being international flights or if Asiana just still believes in customer service. Whatever it was, it was more than pleasant and much appreciated.

We had only 20 minutes between our arrival time in Seoul and our departure for Hanoi. Seemed hopeless to expect that our luggage would make a timely transfer, but Asiana scored again. 

Our last hurdle of the day was immigration/Visa/baggage claiming. We didn't do so well here. Long lines, lots of waiting, wrong line, more waiting, and somewhere in the mess and mass of lines and waiting, Kirk lost track of his suitcase and it was just GONE! 

We're believers in the understanding that we don't always have a choice about what happens, but we do have a choice about how we respond to a situation. So, we came on to the hotel with only the shirt on his back and the pants on his legs with the expectation of spending our first day in Hanoi power shopping for replacements.

Much to our surprise we were awakened this morning by a phone call from the airport immigration office saying they had his suitcase and all he needed to do was come to the airport and pick it up. 

So ended our Getting To Vietnam.


Vietnam Now

Actually that is the title of a most excellent book with the same title by David Lamb, who was a reporter for the the LA Times during the Vietnam war and who returned to live in Hanoi in 1997 to cover the peace.

I highly recommend the book as one that provides an overarching perspective of Vietnam, of those countries who have tried for hundreds, if not thousands, of years to overtake her, all the while David Lamb creates a personal relationship for the reader with individuals and families who survived and thrived those who attempted to control and oppress her. Vietnam Now is the story of healing and reconciliation.

I came of age in the '60's, but never was a part of either the war or anti-war efforts. What I did know was that I would, at some point, need to come to Vietnam for my own healing and reconciliation. 

The time to come is now, and I will come with Kirk bringing my Bike Friday, folding bike, to tour Hanoi, ride with a tour company, Pedal Tours, from Hue to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, and visit for a couple of days in Ankgor Wat.

Friday, January 10, 2014

2013 in Review

Reflecting on 2013, it's satisfying to see that the year was most rich in opportunities for gratitude and the deepening of relationships, all made possible by the gift of years and time, which are not necessarily one and the same.

The gift of years comes from living long enough to have finished climbing the ladder of acquisition and reached the age when I am at peace with my readiness to divest the yoke of rank, title, and the clutter of possessions beyond what I need for living a simple life.

The gift of time is the blessing that comes from having an abundance of discretionary time to invest in cultivating my relationship with myself, those I deeply care about and who give meaning to my daily life, and with the God of my understanding. Nurturing all of those relationships is not always blessed with warm sun, a level grade, and a tailwind; but the gift of making it through the rain, up the grade, and to, once again, a quiet breeze is often better expressed in the deep chant of OMMMMM than a paragraph of words.

2013 gratitudes? I often find it hard to separate gratitude and joy so they might blend a bit here.

Let's see:

Despite the fact that Tucson, in January and February 2013, amassed 200 degrees below normal, I still averaged 1,000 miles of riding/month outdoors. By Chicago standards, it just wasn't cold! And, I completed 10 consecutive years of riding 10-13,000 miles per year.

I took a much needed week off the bike in February to spend time in Chicago with Katie, Mya, Jet, and Hattie while Aaron was in Africa. Late February/early March (still off the bike) Kirk and I  experienced deep snow and cold in NH helping my friend Barb Cleveland celebrate her retirement and her 34 years in recovery, and my brother's new marriage to Linda Harding.

March was a big month on the bike, touring Nogales, AZ, Patagonia, and Tombstone with Wayne Cullop, President of GABA, and hosting my "bent" friend, Michelle Williams, from Mississippi. While we did day-rides around Tucson, we finalized our plans preparing for our shared bike trip to Alaska in July, which was, in itself, a grand joy rich in gratitude and adventure. (Many previous blog posts on the Alaska adventure.)

And then there was a week of PAC Tour Desert Camp.

In my old Chicago days I simply had to get away to Southern AZ to break the back of winter and thaw my fingers and toes. Thawing is not so important now, living in Tucson, but PAC Tour is still about friendships built over the more than 10,000 miles ridden with them these last 8 years. Kirk and Michelle were there with me on Day 1 of Desert Camp 2013 when I received my PAC Tour Hall of Fame jersey for having ridden 10,000+ miles with them.

PAC will forever hold a special spot in my heart as the wise guide who helped me discover that there is a world behind 2 houses to the north and 3 houses to the south of my growing up home in Indianapolis, the extent of my world through high school, thanks to fear-based parents. Two transcons and 10,000+ miles with PAC, and 13,000+ miles again in 2013 has expanded my self-efficacy, joy of adventure, belief and knowledge that, with the help of others, I can problem solve just about anything that comes at me.

2013 did, indeed, provide me with a couple of challenges and disappointments, which were paired with their own gratitudes. The big one was the unexpected arrival of my first-ever seizure the end of August. (More on that is available in other posts.) Five months later I am still not able to drive (must be seizure free for 3 months in AZ before getting behind the wheel again). After a lot of dancing with medication dosage, we have reason to believe I may be at a therapeutic dose for the type of seizures I'm currently having. If that is true, I should be able to drive again the middle of March. Easy to be grateful here: a treatment team I respect, living in Tucson where I can bike commute and train 365, and being at a life stage where dependence on a car is not what it was when I was in my 30's-50's.

That I was unsuccessful riding 200 miles in 12 hrs at the 24 hr World Championships Time Trials in Coachella, CA in November falls more into the disappointment than the challenge category. All the conditions were perfectly set for a PR, but it was not to be that day. It didn't help that I was having seizure activity a good part of the day and finally just had to call it quits with 153 miles done.

While still in California after the Time Trial I was hit by a car traveling at 55 mph while I was riding in a 5' bike lane (not seizure related). Blessedly, the car hit me at such an angle with his side view mirror that I was able to stay upright, no injuries, and minimal post traumatic stress response.

On the heels of my epilepsy diagnosis and my sub-performance at the 12-hr Time Trial, I had wondering thoughts whether I was reaching/had reached the point of diminishing returns performance-wise on the bike. My performance on Mt. Lemmon gave me hope, indeed, that I was not completely used up. I turned in a 3:04 performance for a summit to Summerhaven, elapsed time, 2:59 ride time. Made me smile.

At about the same time I summitted Mt. Lemmon, I started riding with Team Soul, a Women's Cycling Development team. What a joy--a place to challenge and be challenge. Brings another smile to my face.

Two amazing gifts I was given shortly after moving to Tucson was the warm welcoming Wayne Cullop, President of GABA, a large Southern AZ bicycle Club, gave me along with the invitation to participate at the Board level. My involvement there has afforded many, many connections with riders, advocacy groups, city and county leaders who focus on bike/pedestrian issues, etc. At about the same time, Jim Harms, a fellow GABA Board member, offered me the opportunity to be trained by the League of American Bicyclists, which would allow me to teach bicycle safety and skills classes in the County. While those doors, connections, and opportunities have been there in 2013, I feel I have not delivered at the level I am capable of. In part, my travel schedule has been full, and will be fuller in 2014, in part because of my epilepsy and its management. I hope I can make a more significant impact in these areas in 2014.

One of the Bike Ambassador activities this year has been delivering library books to shut-ins by bike. Once a month I pick up books from the main, downtown library, deliver them to two elderly women shut-ins and spend an hour or so visiting with them. Pure delight.

The other has been the connections that I have made with individuals who have joined GABA's MeetUp group. We now have well over 400 members. Three of the lasting relationships have been with "winter visitors", cyclists who have come to Tucson to escape the winter chill. In three instances not only have I shared some great rides with them while they were in town, but in each case we have found ways to grow the relationship into the future: Spencer and Sheila are returning to Tucson this February and will be staying at our house; Barb and Jerry and I are planning a Czech Republic bike Tour in 2015 (we'll meet Kirk in Vienna after he completes his Rick Steves' Tour), and Laure will be joining me at Desert Camp this March.

To summarize it all, I thoroughly enjoyed 2013!