From April 16 2009:

...and the Horns Played On

Low expectations are easily met, however, high expectations can lead to
disappointment and frustration. Since the 1960s I have heard about
Vietnam...that after the war it was a great place to cycle and visit...that the
country had developed into a cultural mecca for foreigners. My expectations
were high and I was anxious to visit Vietnam. We had been in Asia since Jan.
16th and we thought we were in for a pleasant treat in Vietnam. Well, first
impressions deemed...not so!

March 7, 2009 we left the quietness of Laos. Our 42nd country, Vietnam, hit us
hard right off the bat. we were crossing into what used to be North Vietnam.
The border crossing we were at was remote and mountainous. It was a very damp
and drizzly 20km uphill ride from our overnight stay. At the border the road
turned to mud. Pushing our bikes through 2 inches of deep muck for over a km
was not fun. The ruts were the car eating type. Trucks were axle deep in this
mud. Welcome to Vietnam. We thought the roads could be horror, but they did
improve. However, the part that really got my ire was that the border guards
had set up a money exchange scam at the border. They claimed that the Laos kip
was worthless in Vietnam and that even the banks would not accept it. We were
being blatantly lied to and I was tired of it. (Now, please keep in mind that we
have been in Asia for 7 weeks and have dealt with this type of scamming over and
over again. After awhile it really gets your goat.) We had changed some Laos
kip into Vietnamese dong at a hotel from the night before. 2 dong per 1 kip was
the going rate. The border guard was offering 1.6 dong for 1 kip. Rip off.
Rip off. Rip off. We changed only enough to get down the road. We were warned
about this border crossing costing us extra money. We thought we were prepared.
We had cigarettes and sunglasses to give them if they tried to bribe us (tons of
people smoke, a pack of cigs is only about $1.50). Jacky and I said that if we
were going to get that poor of an exchange rate we would mail our remaining kip
to the Orphanage in Phonsavanh. Later, while we were in Hanoi we were able to
exchange the kip for dong at a much better rate.

Our money difficulties were nothing compared to 4 college students who had hired
a van to take them from Phonsavanh, Laos, across the border to Vinh, Vietnam.
Oops, the van driver forgot to tell them that he wasn't licensed to drive his
van in Vietnam. They were stranded at the border. No buses come to this border
and no taxis either. It was raining and standing outside waiting for a possible
truck to get a ride would be miserable. We were thankful to have our bikes with
us and at least be able to ride to the next town.

Our first impressions of the Vietnam people were a result of our encounters that
we had with them in our first overnight town in Vietnam, after we crossed the
border. Now, we didn't know a speck of Vietnamese and apparently our charades
have gotten worse because they didn't have a clue what we were trying to say or
what we wanted. They got frustrated with us and let us know that. Some got
down right rude. It can only get better, right??!! Yes, the following days
were much better. We found some locals that taught us some necessary Vietnamese
words and had others invite us into their homes. This friendliness was a warm

The mountains in the north provided a lot of beauty but also brought with them a
lot of dampness. There was so much humidity that sweat would actually drip off
of our handlebars and our clothes and gear would remain wet and damp for days.
As we traveled more southeast the weather got drier, the route flattened out and
the scenery became rice paddies. The traffic was heavy and the sound of the
horn was heard from trucks, scooters and buses. They would actually start
laying on their horns from 100m back and then give a special extra "toot" when
they got right up next to you. That extra toot usually drove you into the ditch
from being startled and fear. March 24, when we left Vietnam, the horns
subsided by 75%. What a relief.

Our language skills were called to task again. Vietnamese was our 24th
different language. Contrary to what other travelers were telling us, very few
Vietnamese spoke English. Maybe it was because we were not on the bus or train
and we were not going to tourist areas. The Vietnamese language uses our
alphabet which we thought would make it easier for us to learn. Wrong, because
it is a tonal language it is much more difficult. For example, the word "ma"
can mean four different things. It all depends on where you place the accent.
As each country presents its own challenges we soon found out that there was a 2
price structure for most goods. One price for locals and one price for
foreigners. Price checking became a constant activity for us. We always felt
that if we didn't we would be ripped off.

Our goal was to go to Hue. There is a school and an orphanage in this city that
Jacky's cousins, Phil and Huong Hirsch, help support and visit frequently. We
had learned many great things about the school and orphanage and wanted to see
it for ourselves. Our visit to the school was highlighted with Jacky receiving
a bouquet of roses from the staff. The next day 3 boys from the orphanage, that
are now enrolled at the University, took us on a special bicycling tour of the
historic pagodas and tombs in the Hue area. We had so much fun just being goofy
with these guys. The orphanage had prepared a wonderful dinner for our visit.
We felt like royalty. They also made it possible for us to do our "Pedaling for
Pencils" project. We handed out over 200 pencils and encouraged the children to
study hard and live their dreams as we are living ours.

A little fact about the orphanage. There are over 250 kids and 38 of these kids
are 3 years old or younger. The newest one is an 8 day old baby girl. She was
left at the gate by her parents because they were too poor to take care of her.
There are only 7 people on staff but many people come to volunteer. The older
children accept a huge role in helping with the care of the younger ones. The
orphanage was impecably clean and very organized. Anyone that has contributed
to this project can feel very confident that every dollar has gone to the care
of the children. we also learned that $25.00 per month allows a student to go
to the University.

Our travels to Hue were made special because we met up with another cylcist who
joined us from Vinh to Hue (360km). Alex was from Berlin, Germany and had 3
months to cycle Asia. He is a cycling guide in Italy. Coincidently, we had met
him 3 weeks earlier in Laos. As we were going north we passed him going south.
Little did we know we would meet up with him again in Vietnam. We did learn
that we travel a bit different than most. We tend to travel faster with less
breaks and cover more distance in a day. Alex was a great sport and adapted to
my driven, "got to get there" attitude even in the hot and humid weather.
Another special event included meeting up with Helmut Moser. Helmut is also
from Germany and we met him in March of 2008 in southern Chile. Now he is
traveling in Asia and had been following our website. He emailed us and we were
able to meet up with him in a different part of the world.

We spent a few days in Hanoi and enjoyed the street culture and the historic
sites at the Ho Chi Ming reign. Hanoi served as a good launching point to visit
Halong Bay. Numerous tourist companies have excursions to see the extraordinary
bay of islands. These islands are covered with trees and just stick right out
of the water. They are like nothing else I have ever seen. Our overnight
excursion involved being picked up at our hotel, a 3 hour bus ride to the bay, a
water taxi to our junk (boat), lunch of fish and seafood, a hike through some
spectacular hidden caves, an island hike to the summit, a gourmet seafood dinner
with a bottle of wine, night fishing for squid, a night slumber on the boat,
breakfast the next morning and a return trip to Hanoi. Spectacular! We were
told that Halong Bay is a must see and we agree. The excursion also served as
Jacky's birthday present. We have been celebrating Jacky's March 8th birthday
for the entire month of March. She says it makes getting older more fun.

Generally speaking, Vietnam is a morning culture. The markets and shops are
open by 6:00 or 6:30 am however, that usually meant that they would shut down a
little earlier in the evening. They typically sit on little stools on the
sidewalk when they eat, drink and/or visit and hence, refer to themselves as the
"sidewalk culture". The food is similar to what we had been eating in the other
Asian countries but it is a little blander. It was strange for us to eat dog
meat but even stranger to see a whole dog roasted, complete with its head and
snarling teeth, displayed on the table for sale.

At first we thought the Vietnamese people were loud and aggressive. We had some
situations while biking where people would shout "hello" at us and snicker and
sometimes even come out into the street and grab at us. It was uncomfortable.
Luckily this behaviour was outweighed by the numerous friendly "hellos" that we
received. On the flip side, this "more aggressive" personality trait made their
cities more alive and exhilirating. They are a vibrant culture and expressive
in their actions and their communication. They are also a westernized culture
which is evident in their clothing, music and vehicles. (Jacky says the style
of their clothes is from back in the 80s.)

I will finish with a feel good story. The date was March 8, 2009, Jacky's
birthday. We started very early, 6:30 am because we knew it would be a long
day. We had 140-150km to bike (90 miles). Our first stop was about 9:00 am.
The restaurant that we spotted had a friendly owner and she was very helpful.
She fed us noodles, tea and coffee for $1.50. Then she called one of her
English speaking friends to help us with a few words we were trying to learn.
The second rest stop included meeting a school teacher. He taught English at
the school so we learned more vocabulary. Learning a language (or at least
trying to learn it ) goes a long way to being accepted into a culture. Our
third stop was really cool. Three stores were in a row. We picked the store
that had a place for us to lean our bikes. We purchased our juice and sat on
the front steps of the store. The owner and daughter invited us to come into
their home and sit on chairs for more comfort. The owner brought out some
special Vietnamese candy and treats to enjoy with our juice. As we were eating
we noticed a bouquet of flowers and a beautifully decorated cake. As we
inquired what the occasion was the daughter stated it was her 25th birthday
today and they were celebrating. I took many photos of the "birthday girls".
What a coincidence to stop at a store that has someone celebrating their
birthday on the same day as Jacky's. Further down the road Jacky confided in me
that the only thing to make her birthday perfect would have been a slice of that
cake. No glass of wine, no sushi, she wanted a piece of that young lady's
birthday cake! (Note from Jacky: Do you know how long its been since I've had
a piece of cake with frosting??!)

All in all Vietnam was a very enjoyable and cultural experience. Our only
regret is that we weren't able to see the the very beautiful southern part of
the country, the Mekong time.

(Vietnam photos will be posted in the next couple of days.)

Enjoy the spring!
Ward and Jacky