“Although other western countries had already normalized relations, it was not until 1993 that American political and economical policy did a 180-degree turnabout and the doors were opened in “friendship.” American tourists were however, required to stay in government hotels. In 1997, the communist regime finally permitted tourists to travel and lodge themselves independently. We were some of the first Americans traveling in Vietnam to have such freedom of movement. The fact that we traveled on our own by bicycle, not by bus or on a tour, guaranteed we would meet Vietnam at the grass roots level. We spent seven weeks cycling from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Hue, the revered ancient capital of South Vietnam, near the old, contested border with the north. Of our entire journey through South East Asia, this seven weeks was the most gratifying, for as Americans, we were still in need of healing from the wounds of a terrible war.”
“Saigon snapped, crackled and popped; it hustled and bustled; it was on the move. Energy, creative and free flowing, pulsated. “We are moving forward,” screamed its message from every pore. The drive to improve one’s future permeated the air, the streets, the eyes, the ears with determination. No regrets, no looking back. “Welcome to Saigon,” they waved. Our initial fear of being American was wiped away by smiles and hardy handshakes. We pushed aside our guilt and fears and prepared to meet Vietnam.”
“It’s hard to believe what travelers have said about Vietnam,” Mike said.
“How’s that?” I questioned.
“Well, I don’t understand how the Vietnamese could just forget about the past. I mean, we did abandon the South”
I felt the same unrequited guilt. Although I was joyous when our soldiers returned home, I could not reconcile our government’s course of action: arms support for the French colonialists, financial, military and moral backing of a dictatorial, hated Saigon regime, bombing of civilians, American youth sent to fight in an undeclared, secretive war. We had fulfilled our role as supreme world leader with might and power instead of winning the hearts of the people. How could they forget?
The loudspeaker announced our approach to Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. Soon we would meet our former allies’ and enemies’ true feelings face to face.”
Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Thai and Chinese. The major difference, however, is that the written language does not look like a pile of pick up sticks. The letters are Romanized, even if you can’t pronounce them properly. I spent a week in Saigon with a private tutor who came to our hotel for an hour each day. Although I brushed aside the mandatory 3 months of tonal instruction, he was successful in helping me to with essential phrases that would carry us through the countryside. Yes, many South Vietnamese do speak English, a remnant of the war years. But finding lodging, buying water, going to toilet, and getting something to eat we did not want to leave to chance. Distances were long, roads were in various stages of rough to difficult, lodging uncertain, tourism was still a fledgling enterprise. When we left Saigon, we left our Teddy Bear behind.
Our first long distance goal was Dalat, the honeymoon capital of Vietnam nestled in the mountains to the northwest.
“It was 175 miles from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to the old French mountain retreat of Dalat. Throngs of the rejected, the survivors, the Diaspora, the educated, the opinionated ~ fled to this corridor to start life over again. In the four days it took us to cycle the dilapidated road, we lived in a time warp and tasted the raw, coarse, bitter sweet, optimistic side of life through an area that has been intentionally forgotten by its country.
With hand shovels, rakes and hoes, instruments born from servitude, a crew of men and boys tossed and spread endless piles of gravel into the countless gaping potholes that beleaguered the road. We labored, pedaling like frogs through a grass choked swamp, always uphill, against this handmade road ~ all the way to Dalat. Twelve liters of water a day evaporated away as if my body was perforated with strainer holes. I never had to stop to pee.”
“Bicycles, bicycles, bicycles spilled into every nook and cranny of space not consumed by motorcycle cabs weaving in and out of a sea of jaywalkers. Bicycles outnumbered motorized transportation two hundred to one. Bicycles, bicycles carrying conical shaped wire cages on the rider’s knees: imprisoned within each ~ a full grown pig squealing in protest; snout, legs and fatty parts pushing out through the octagonal holes ~ reaching, begging for freedom.”
“Our hand built road carried a proud and determined flood of people and their trade goods from village to village. Short and stubby Citroen buses left by the French coughed and sputtered in protest. They should have died years ago, victims of worn out fuel pumps, choking carburetors, sheared pistons, frozen axles ~ but somehow, a transplant here, a splint job there and it would be back on the job ~ coughing, protesting, hauling bundles and people on the roof and stuffed inside like too many fish in a net.”
“Though my heart soared with the spirit of the people around me, my body deserted me. Throughout the second day the heat, the jarring sticky road, the endless uphill, and a constant head wind drained my stamina. I labored all day harder than I thought I should and it flustered me. A stubborn lethargy overtook my rapidly tiring quads as my determination floundered in the very company that replenished it.
Mike unveiled the reason. My rear wheel, though fixed as well as I could have hoped after the red Honda crashed into me, wobbled like a drunken sailor. It was so out of true, the brakes rubbed the tire on every revolution ~ testing, challenging, picking away like an ice pick at my resolve.
Within minutes of fading for good, I felt a grinding in my crank that frightened my heart out of despondency. It sounded like my pedal shaft was dining on the bearings. When the front rack sheared in two as I clobbered the wheel into a major pothole, my mental fortitude totally collapsed. We creaked and staggered into Dinh Quan, found a hotel and sank into blessed oblivion by 7:30.
“I can’t do another day like this,” I told Mike before passing out. “We’ve got to get the bike fixed first thing tomorrow morning.”
I knew the Vietnamese words for a bike shop. When I asked the hotel manager for one the next morning, his reply was easy to understand. He shook his head, pointed south and said, “Ho Chi Minh!”
“There are thousands of bicycles on these streets. Somebody here must repair them,” Mike cried out in disbelief.
We cruised the streets. Finally, I spotted the right sign: Tiem Su’a Xe Dap. One of the typical ten-by-ten wooden shacks displaying rusted fenders, worn out tubes, corroded frames ~ cans of nuts and bolts. With such parts and tools, the young owner fixed my wheel and rack. I never had a problem with either again. He charged us the equivalent of $1.50. We bought three stuffed French Baguettes and shared with our young entrepreneur.”
Le petit Paris became Dalat’s affectionate nickname. Founded by Frenchman Dr. Alexander Yersin in 1897, by 1912 it became the popular French retreat from the heat of Vietnam’s coastal and delta regions. Over 2,500 French colonial villas still graced the hillsides around Dalat. After the Vietnamese drove the French colonialists out of Vietnam at the battle of Dienbienphu, the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam (temporarily it was agreed) into two countries.
Both north and south Vietnamese claimed Dalat. Their mutual love for the city spared it from the ravages of the war to follow. Dalat became a retreat for Communist and southern military higher-ups. They declared Dalat off limits for the war. Small shops and cafes flooded onto the one-person wide sidewalks. French wine, French cheese, French mineral water crowded the shelves.
“Bon jour Madame” was the Vietnamese shopkeepers’ greeting of choice. Fresh baked French pastries ~ delicate layers of airy dough filled with custard, jam or ripened fruit ~ chocolate éclairs, vegetable quiche, and raspberry tarts held strollers bound to the display cart, imprisoned by their own indecisions.
Coastal Highway 1
Historical, and scenically rich coastal Highway 1 is the spinal chord that runs the south-north length of the country. After leaving Dalat, we joined this famous road in Nha Trang, a destination beach resort where Vietnamese and foreigners alike enjoy the natural treasures of Vietnam’s magnificent coast.
We bicycled Highway 1 all the way north to the sentimental capital of Hue. Along the way, we met the people of Vietnam. They welcomed us as long lost family; they told us their stories; we witnessed their fortitude and resolution to move forward, their optimism, and kindness.
“One old lady carried her traditional pole baskets laden with little pieces of firewood. She shuffled along with her burden with the same bounce and delight a full-blooded American male demonstrates when a gorgeous chick catches his eye. She came up to Mike and me, lowered her pole to the ground and took our hands in hers. The black stains of betel nut appeared behind her widening smile. She said nothing. Her face said it all.”
“And what do you think of our country?” Truong wanted to know.
“I think I have never seen a country in all my travels like Vietnam. There is energy in the Vietnamese people that I have not felt anywhere else in Asia. I see courage and determination. I see a happy spirit. I will not forget you Truong.”
“I am a lucky man,” Thanh said his smile revealing rotted teeth. “I inherited this house from my parents when they died. Many people do not have a house.”
“But with your English skills, couldn’t you get a really good job in a tourist city?” Mike asked.
“Good paying jobs go to North Vietnamese. I was a soldier for the Republic of Vietnam. They do not allow me to teach English. If I moved to another city, I would not have a house.”
“Excuse me, Madame. My name is Truong. I make very beautiful silk clothing. I would like to invite you to my shop.”
I still have the silk pants and vest they made for me. Of all the silks we found in Asia, this Vietnamese silk was the finest and most comfortable.
Scenes Along Highway 1
“Highway 1 climbed above Dia Lanh bay, turning the close-up experience of the crowded village into a Van Gogh canvas. The red and blue striped boats of the fishing fleet had returned from the lurching, dark green sea into the calm safety of its turquoise harbor. The little round bottomed bamboo boats bobbed from fleet to shore like individual lily pads in a pond. All the village women and children, brightly colored pajamas reflecting against the rising sun, clustered on the beach like a field of swaying wildflowers. After only five minutes of cycling, my camera snapped memories for 30 minutes: wide-angle scenes, telephoto close-ups. This was a photographer’s gallery waiting for exposure. There were many more to come. We would end up measuring our cycling progress for the day by the number of film rolls used.”
“On the downstream side of the bridge, an old grandfather worked his disobedient flock of two hundred ducks. His long stick with a white flag tied to one end tried to herd the quacking protesters into the river’s left channel. Half sped off to the right. Down came the stick with a loud slap on the ground behind the wrongdoers. They flapped and scurried back to the left like a single wave ~ dividing the waiting, gossiping ducks into two diverging subgroups. The farmer had seen this tactic before. He cut them off and with a big swoosh of his stick turned the rout into a single advance ~ into the left channel. Deed accomplished, he turned to wave at our applause. Another photographic gallery.”
After Hue, we took the train to Hanoi, then to Sa Pa on the northern border of Vietnam and China. After hiking for a week in Sa Pa, we continued cycling north into China. Not a moment in Vietnam will ever be forgotten.
“Hue seemed poised for a stunning future. As the sentimental ancient Imperial capital of Vietnam, survivor of occupations and liberations, it stood alone in the hearts of South Vietnamese as an expression of their very souls. When in March of 1975, South Vietnam’s president Thieu ordered his troops to retreat and leave Hue to the Communists, it broke the spirit and the morale of the South Vietnamese people. They were prepared to defend their beloved city. To walk away without a fight was akin to the sin of not paying worship to your ancestors. The loss of Pleiku and the highlands could have been reconciled, but the loss of Hue triggered a mass distrust and hatred of their Saigon-based government and stood as the single most important event that led to the entire downfall of South Vietnam. So how could its future seem so bright? That was what the Vietnamese were going to teach us about Hue.”
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