Up and out of Hue before 8am. I heard the morning rush hour can be intimidating so I wanted to avoid as much of it as possible. My plan today was to follow the coast on remote roads until reaching Dong Hoi, then head NW until reaching the Phong Nha National Park where I would stay for 3 nights to explore the area by bike and on foot.
I kept passing elaborate cemeteries along the coast. I also did not see any “Wats” or temples that are traditionally see in Thailand. Much more Chinese influence in their markings. I figure this is a good time to talk about their religious practices.
Vietnam, based on their proximity to China and their intertwined relationship (settlement and wars), shares much more traditions than other SE Asian countries. Vietnam primary practices Buddhism, but in the form of Mahayana Buddhism, where a country like Thailand focuses more on the Theravada version. That being said, just like Thailand morphs Hinduism and Buddhism together to create their unique belief system, Vietnam has created its own form of religion that merges Mahayana Buddhism with Confucianism and Taoism. When it comes to burial, Unlike most Buddhists, the Vietnamese choose to bury their dead as opposed to having them cremated. Traveling around the country you see quite distinct differences in graves depending on the regional tribe affiliation. In addition to their unique amalgamated religion, Vietnam, due to influence of French Missionaries and subsequent occupation, has a higher concentration of Christians than some of their neighbors resulting in many churches scattered throughout the rural communities.
You might also notice that while other SE Asian countries have a writing system that more closely resembles Sanskrit, Vietnam has adopted a more Roman style. Vietnam also has this Sanskrit-based language, but during the occupation by the French, they chose to transition in order to become more of a global player. Now, when you go to your neighborhood Thai restaurant you may think it is normal to just see “Pad Thai” written on the menu, but that is just the phonetic translation of the Thai version which looks more like this:
Whereas When you order a “Banh Mi” sandwich at a Vietnam Deli, you are seeing it in the same language one might see in Vietnam. Hopefully that makes sense.
Anyway, back to the cemeteries; Just as with the Thai, even though a majority of Vietnamese people are poor (by Western standards) they still spend a large proportion of their money on shrines, cemeteries and offerings. It amazes me to see a very humble home with no running water or heat, yet an elaborate gravesite in the backyard. I know people in the West spend money on churches and headstones, but mostly this comes only after they have all of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sufficiently crammed with meaningless junk.
I really enjoyed this rural road up the coast. I could tell it was not frequented by tourists, based on the reaction my presence got from the locals. As I have mentioned, and will mentioned again no doubt, the reaction I got passing by a local school told me everything I needed to know about the infestation of Westerners in the area. I know, I am one of those Westerners, but I like to think I am a much more humble traveler. I do not haggle for goods, paying at least double what is asked. I hear you saying, “Haggling is normal, and you lose respect if you accept the first offer!” I am ok with losing respect if it doubles their monthly income and I don’t feel like some overlord. I am also not ok with treating these people like marionettes for my entertainment. When I ride through a village, if people wave to me, I am happy to reciprocate, but I do not bestow waves upon them as they toil in the fields, like I am Santa Clause rolling down 34th street on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I am also happy to enjoy the same food and conditions they are accustomed without having to climb back into the air conditioned van and return to my 4 seasons hotel after taking 20 unsolicited selfies.
Ok, back to the story. At a few points along the coastal road, I dipped East to see the beach and the local fisherman
I desperately wanted to rip my bike across the beach, but not only would I look like an ass, I would most likely crash, break the bike and a leg, spending 2 weeks laid up in the middle of nowhere. I let some locals climb on the bike before heading back onto the main road to make up some time on my way to Dong Hoi.
Video of a typical road I was traveling
I stopped in a fishing village for a coffee
There was an informal English lesson going on. They got to practice on me, and it gave me an idea of what phrases the kids were learning so I could try on the children in each village in an attempt to bring them out of their shell.
“Hello” “What is Your Name” “My Name is Darren” “Nice to Meet you”
When I got back on the road, some guy on a dirtbike similar to mine blew by me. This is rare to see a motorcycle in Vietnam. It is the reason I had to bring extra tubes for my bike. Although it was easy to find a bike repair shop in Vietnam, it would be almost impossible to find the equipment to match my ride, as 99% of the people were riding scooters. I caught up to him and we followed each other through traffic at unsafe speeds for 30 minutes before I signaled to stop off for coffee.
This was Carlos. He was from Barcelona. He was riding from Saigon to Hanoi by bike. His phone had a broken screen but somehow with his headphones in he could still hear the directions when it told him to turn. I instantly appreciated the work I put in to find alternative roads throughout the country and my triple redundancy of backup phones and navigation aids. This guy was just barreling from South to North, seeing some beautiful sights no doubt, but really missing a lot of local flavor. I invited him to follow me into some off-road sections on into Dong Hoi to see if we could find a place to fix his phone.
We immediately found a road under construction and began following it north. He was tearing through it like it was the 2024 Dakar in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Eventually he stopped for me and I said, “You are much better than me.” He then told me that he was a bike mechanic and rode enduro off-road back in Spain. Grrrrreat, this guy is going to get me killed. We continued on and I did my best to go half as fast as he was. I should have crashed at least 4 times, but somehow kept it upright.
When we got into Dong Hoi it was pouring. We drove around looking for phone repair. Eventually he found one, but it might take hours to get fixed.
I offered to stay, but he urged me to continue and he would try and catch up. Really, I think he just wanted to be done with me so he could continue blasting North. This was probably better for me. If I stayed with him I would end up in a wreck on the side of the road.
I was now moving inland towards the national Park of Phong Nha. It was a short 1 hour ride, but it was pouring rain. I could barely see anything through my goggles. At one point I stopped at a Rubber tree farm for some coverage.
A guy came after me on a scooter honking to complain of trespassing I can only assume, but it was easy to outrun a 100cc scooter on my bike so I left him behind quite quickly.
The road was unsafe, but it was getting late and the only thing that could make this run more treacherous was nightfall. As in Thailand, you have to check your anger/frustration at the door when getting behind the wheel and dealing with people’s lack of adherence to traffic laws. This was difficult as no one was using headlights and kept swerving into my lane incessantly. I would be riding down the road, wiping my googles to see and there would be a truck coming towards me in the distance, threatening to pass a slower moving car. I would be saying to myself, “Don’t do it. Don’t you try and pass him.” And then without fail he would; “Dammit, you did it, you bastard.” I would continue on the shoulder as he passed me..in my lane! honking his horn. “I am sorry to get in your way there sir, my apologies” I would say to no one in particular, while unclenching my hands from the handlebars. I can’t remember how many times a dump truck backed into the road right in front of me. A full stop power slide with the bike became a regular occurrence. I felt like I was playing the 80’s arcade game of Paperboy, trying to dodge kids on bigwheels, barking dogs, and cars, just to get the Sunday Edition delivered.
I finally arrived in Phong Nha at Tam’s Homestay. Shower, beer, dinner and a couple sedatives later I was quickly asleep and happy to be in one piece.
I was to stay in the Phong Nha for 3 more night. The next 2 days I would explore the UNESCO Heritage Site by bike. The following day would be spent trekking on foot into a cave.
I do not have a track of the route I took by bike today, but a rough outline can be seen here under “Bridges and Back Roads Loop”
Although I dropped a member of my wolfpack when losing Carlos yesterday, I picked up another Spaniard today in Martha. Martha was riding from Hanoi to Saigon by motorcycle and I came upon her in Phong Nha. As mentioned, people on motorcycles are rare here, so when we see another rider we tend to congregate. Since I was taking it easy today, we agreed to share the trail. Martha was new to motorcycles, reminding me of my earlier trip to Vietnam when any downhill section caused a great deal of consternation and stress. She was all the more impressive when you factored in that she was alone, female, and a bit older than most backpackers. She had amassed quite a following online, but that also meant that her audience craved new content and she felt compelled to provide.
Our route was very short, just bouncing back and forth across the river. The day got started with a ferry crossing.
Here is a shot of our boatman for the river Styx.
I knew there was a ferry somewhere around the area and saw a rudimentary ramp, but could not see the boatman. I sat on the bike and gave a couple hits on the horn. Magically he appeared from the mist like Charon. I rode down and onto the craft. I then helped guide Martha onto the same craft. She needed to be reminded to hold onto the bike and stop taking selfies, but otherwise it was a tremendous achievement for her.
She also made disembarking from the boat and up the ramp look quite easy for a new rider.
We proceeded to cross over a suspension bridge, another first for Martha, unfortunately the dismount almost ended in a complete disaster.
As I recall much too well, in the first few years of riding a bike, when faced with a panic situation the natural response is to pull every lever available in hopes it will stop the bike. I call this the, “Mad Scientist” tactic. Coming to the end of the bridge, Martha attempted to slow down but instead sped up and lost control of the bike. I winced in anticipation, but somehow she kept the bike and herself upright. Is was amazing, but left me a bit concerned for the future. She handled it with grace and vowed to carry on through the next obstacle. The next bridge was even more suspect as you can see by the Frankenstein patchwork. We were able to keep it on the centerline and avoid disaster.
Continuing on along the river we found a place to go swimming. A refreshing break from the humid day buried under all that protective riding gear. Fortunately I always keep a swimsuit as my base layer.
It was raining and we stopped at a local shack for soup. They even cooked up some goat for us to eat. They told us it was goat (they actually said it was wild deer, whatever that meant), but I had major concerns we were eating a local stray dog. I say this because I know it is a normal occurrence here and even saw one rotating on a spit over a fire in cartoonish fashion a few miles back. I am not passing judgement as I am no saint; I am just not inclined to eat dogs at this juncture.
One of the young family members was in a wheelchair. I cannot even begin to imagine what life is like for a handicapped person in this area of the world. The one positive thing about the ability to bring lawsuits in the US is it creates change and access for the disabled, but here there is no such thing as “wheelchair-friendly” There are no ramps, hell they may not even have bathrooms on the first floor of restaurants.
I also noticed this gentleman squatting.
It is a common pose of SE Asians. One you do not see in the West. It has actually been studied and besides the natural position to use the bathroom here, it may also bring freedom from some of the chronic pain we experience. Although it would be hard to filter out diet and lifestyle from that determination.
Once the rain let up, we continued on along the river. One final bridge
I take that back. There was one more bridge that was not on the menu. This homemade pontoon bridge complete with toll collector
I went over first to ensure that Martha did not get overwhelmed with the money exchange portion while trying to stay upright. I paid for both of us, then anyone else crossing at that time. I think it was $1 for 10 people. Quite the entrepreneurship setup going here. It’s one thing to create a store on Amazon or Etsy, but building your own bridge and charging a toll, that takes work! Of course we have a similar situation in Detroit these days with the bridge to Canada and that entrepreneur is not looked on quite as favorably.
The ride was over, which was ok for me as it was going a bit slow with all the stops for photos. Nothing wrong with it, just not my speed of tour. I don’t mind stopping for pictures when appropriate, but it can become a bit distracting and take away from the actual appreciation for the event, which in my mind should be the focus. Rich coming from me right?
I accepted an invitation to eat with Martha and a bunch of young people at a backpacker hostel in the town of Phong Nha. I realized how much I had changed from the me of 20 years ago when these trips began. In those days I was happy to stay in hostels, meeting fellow travelers, and sharing stories of the road and views of the world. I don’t mean to come across as self-righteous, but I am just in a different place in my journey. I no longer want to spend the night trading world destinations like baseball cards or platinum airline status. One-upping each other where we have been and how we got to see it before it turned into the tourist trap it inevitably devolved into. I am not put-off by the behavior of locals and how they might be perceived to disrespect the planet, or others, in relation to what you are accustomed or expect. I was right there with you at a certain point in time, just no longer.
Most in this group got to Phong Nha by motorbike. I love listening to stories of how people crashed their motorbike. This applies to Vietnam and back in the Thailand or even the US. More of a comment on confirmation bias then on any age group or population. Each crash re-enactment is proceeded by a 10 minute story about the list of excuses that led to the crash. "The gravel on the turn". "The worn rear brakes". "The wet conditions". "The other driver on the road". I just want to say, “Can we just get to the part where you crashed and move on." You crash. I crash. People crash. It is just painful listening to someone attempt to rationalize away any inkling of a mistake or self-blame.
I know, you may read this and think I am such a jerk. Fortunately the reason I can say these things are that this is a journal/diary of my travels, so I may look back at them when I am relegated to a sedentary lifestyle. it is not a travel blog looking to attract “followers” and "likes" by providing fresh content and stripping away all the joy of experience by making sure it videotaped. A fine line to some, but I walk that edge in a manner that allows me to sleep at night.