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Vietnam - Surviving the DMZ

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14/2 - Valentine's day! We exchanged gifts - I had a small jar of Nutella to spread on those baguettes which are now everywhere, and Gretchen had two dehydrated backpacker-meals as "comfort food" as well. They would come in handy in the near future. We biked uphill to Khe San; we are now right in the middle of the DMZ.

Differences from Lao are immediate - much more dramatic than leaving Thailand for Laos.

Everyone drives with the horn; the rear view mirror is obsolete, which is good since mine just gave up and broke for the final time.

The women really do wear those little cone-shaped hats!

There really are lots of hat-wearing-women, knee deep in bright-green rice paddies, just like there were 500 years ago!

Nowhere have I seen such a juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern. Note I didn't say clash; it seems perfectly acceptable to have a kid tilling the front yard with a water buffalo within sight of a big-modern bridge, while the women work the rice patties next to the railroad.

Coffee here is served very strong and dark with a little percolator, at a tiny table, with tiny stools, and with little thimbles of very bitter tea to wash it down.

actually the little tables and stools are in normal restaurants as well. All of which mostly serve Pho (noodle soup) which is a royal PIA to get vegetarian because they all use beef broth.


We had coffee in Khe San, and discovered that a Coffee Cafe doesn't serve food, so off to the market, which was big, and full of fish, ducks, vegetables, and eventually a few food stalls. The vendors here are pushy! Reach out and grab-you pushy! Eventually had some more omelet and eggs in a small shop, flies everywhere, and, against better judgment, some soup of unknown origin, but salty broth with some sort of vegetable (??) to wash things down. This was, I think, my big mistake.

Oh, and there are no banks here in Khe San either. The book says "change money with the women in the market". How is it that the government put a bunch of random women on the street in charge of the western border foreign currency exchange system??

Day was cool and grey, heavy mist, and all that dust on us turned to mud. Soon the roads were wet as well as we plunged downhill from Khe San toward Dong Ha. At least the roads were paved! But actually, the dust was better than the mud now caking our bikes and panniers (Ortlieb! Waterproof Panniers uber alles!!)

People wave and yell Hello! here - although no where near as much as Laos. I'm very relieved to hear them all saying "Hello" Because there are 6 phrases to do that in Vietnamese, depending on who you're talking to, and I would probably get the tones wrong and instead of saying "hello venerable older brother" would say something like "yes! please pinch my pig!". So we'll just stick with hello.


No one looks before crossing the street - you don't need to since anything which moves will let you know by use of the horn. Drivers don't make eye contact - they make ear contact. Really. I've had moped drivers look right at me, verify I'm NOT about to cut them off, and still blare the horn to make sure the point is made.

Incidentally, one of the horn-blaring mini-vans going by was called the "Hyundi Chorus"

Suddenly having road signs is a nice change; there were about 3 of these in the entire country of Laos. Although the mileage markers are wildly unpredictable; I think they measured from both ends and had to make up some differences in the middle.

Late morning we take a break. Soy milk has disappeared from the small road side stores. So, apparently, has the trust; they no longer have everything out in plain sight and reach, but rather behind a wire cage or glass counter to be pointed out. Money is kept closely in a wallet. Toto, we're not in Laos anymore - remember to lock the bikes when we stop. Gretchen got a flavored yogurt drink, I was adventurous and got a "White Fungus Bird's Nest Drink". The ingredients were "Water, Sugar, White Fungus, Bird's Nest". It was sweet liquid with little bits in it. This was mistake number two.

There are bikes everywhere. I expected to be overwhelmed by the mopeds, but it's the thousands of bikes which are even more impressive.

By early afternoon my stomach was letting me know that all was not right with the world. We stopped, I failed to puke and we biked another 10 (long) km to a small town, where all the restaurants were closed because it was past lunch. I sat around in the mud and mist and wailing air horns from passing trucks failing to puke for a while, and eventually used the finger-in-throat to get things started. The soup came right back up. I felt vaguely better, had half a sprite and pedaled the (really damn long, but at least flat) 12 km to Dong Ha, the city for the night. We stopped at the first hotel we saw, a big place, $15/night, damn noisy, but I wasn't going any further. Gretchen checked us in while I sat in the parking lot with the bikes and puked my guts out a second time. Even egg was coming back up. I assumed that breakfast from 6 hours earlier would be long digested, but in fact it came back up. Apparently someone in sphincter control had realized that I had taken poison and closed off the lower digestive tract and waited for things to leave the way they came in.


After checking in, Gretchen took over the long slow task of cleaning mud off of everything while I went upstairs, showered all the mud off (haven't been this messy since I was 4. or yesterday). lay down in bed, and puked my guts out one more time. Half digested rice out the nose is not something I'd recommend trying - just in case you were tempted.
Fever? check.
Aches? check.

puking? check
Chills? Check.
Not a fun time.
Everything wet, muddy, we are NOT liking Vietnam so far. Gretchen tries to find dinner, is assaulted by vendors, fails to find any food but soup or baguettes, is groped twice, and comes back to see how many more times I've thrown up. Spent a long night waking up every hour or two and drinking a few sips of water trying desperately to re-hydrate without puking one more time. anything but puking again...

In the morning I feel like I've been hit by most of the trucks we saw on the highway. gooooooood morning Vietnam!! (actually that movie was filmed near Bangkok, but who's to nitpick)

But anything is better than being stuck in this hole that is Dong Ha, so on to Hue.

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Coastal Rte 1 is what runs from Hanoi to Saigon. It's "The Highway". It's 2 lanes, sometimes one, sometimes shoulder, sometimes not, sometimes nice pavement, sometimes dirt, and it's filled with horn blaring busses. This is the route we'd take to bike to Saigon. No f*ing way. But it's flat, and I manage to put the 70km behind us. Hue is much MUCH nicer than Dong Ha. Among other reasons this is because

  • I'm no longer puking my guts out
  • there's a tourist quarter with English menus, western food and no g****mn soup.
  • the hotel has real hot water, and a TV with 6 channels, not that we need a TV, but it's $12/night, what a deal.
  • did I mention the western food?
  • Laundry for the first time in over a week - all that dust and mud, I pity the poor hotel staff.
  • western food on my poor abused stomach
  • random attractions, like ancient Chinese architecture, such as the forbidden city (really) from whence Vietnam was ruled until 1947.
After a day of kicking back in Hue I'm almost eating normally again and Vietnam isn't so bad after all. Still going to be hard to phace the pho though.

Anyway, time is running out, but mainly we're going to try to avoid biking the coastal route - improves chances of living to see Saigon. We'll see what combination of coastal roads and central highlands we can come up with, linked by bus rides on the other side of the air horn.

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