Friday, November 29, 2013


I’m a firm believer that things always happen for a (good) reason.  In fact I’d say it’s one of my guiding principles on this trip! Consider my experience finding a hotel today.  I had a very easy day planned. I was looking forward to arriving at my destination early and doing a bit of route planning and a blog post.  I was going to ride to the base of the Tram Ton Pass, 75 kilometers from my point of origin in order to be prepared to ride the pass the following day and end up in Sa pa, northern Vietnam.

I had done some research on the pass, but it was really difficult to determine where exactly it was and what the road conditions were like.  I hate doing out and back routes, and therefore I planned the next few days so that I could make a loop from Lao Cai to Sapa as I went over the pass.

China is just on the other side of the river
I rolled into Lao Cai at about 2:30 pm.  China was a stone’s throw away, literally with the Song Hong river separating the two countries.   Lao Cai just seemed like a big city to me and so I kept riding up the road, even closer to the base of the pass, however, there were still no road signs to be seen for the pass.  I could see there was a small town about 10 kilometers ahead and I thought for sure they’d have a hotel.  Sure enough there were three, but none of the three had wifi.  I was really keen on getting some work done, so I thought rather than ride on further, I would head back to Lao Cai.  I was bummed I had to back track, but I had spotted a few stands with fresh pinapple and bananas, and it made for a good excuse to go back. Just as I left the city, there were a few hotels (Nha Nghis), and I could stay there and still avoid all the chaos. 

Promise imy hotel wasn't as tacky as the sign makes it look!
Wouldn’t you know to my bad luck, these Nha Nghis didn’t have wifi either?  So I pedaled back to the city and stopped at the first one I saw.  Rude as it was, the first question out of my mouth was not, do you have any rooms available (and this is all done with a few hand signals by the way…) it was simply the word….Wifi?!?!  They said yes and I was relieved, I was done pedaling!  I unpacked my things and gave them my passport.  For some odd reason, I also asked them about the Tram Ton Pass.  I drew a little map showing them the route I wanted to take to get to Sa Pa, thinking that they would be able to advise me.  They guy kept saying I had to go to Sa Pa first, and I kept insisting that I didn’t want to go up and down the same way.  Finally he called a friend, and passed over the phone to me.  The man on the other end spoke English and I told him about my planned route to climb the pass.  He told me that you could only go up and down the pass in one direction. 

Wow!!! How grateful was I, that he clued me in on this small detail.  I had looked at various websites and they did mention leaving Sa Pa to climb, but I assumed that what goes up on one side of the mountain must come down on another?  I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to have been given this crucial information. Imagine heading out and starting to climb 1,900m only to realize that the road didn’t go through and that I would have to go all the way around and start from Sa pa.  Yes, it meant that I would have to go up and down the same road to experience the Tram Ton Pass, but if that was my only option, I would do it! 

Usually the motor scooters are parked inside, not outside
When I finally got all my gear in my room, I checked the network connection.  My good luck streak hadn’t lasted long because there was no wireless network available from my room.  When I went down to the desk and had them help me connect, their router wasn’t working either and so once again, I was without wireless.  I know, I probably should have stayed, after all, they helped me figure out my route for the following day, but I didn’t…shame on me.  I carted my stuff down, loaded up my bike, and headed for another hotel.  At this point a big, noisy, and chaotic big city was the last place I wanted to be.  I could tell I wasn’t in the hotel part of town and it took me a good 2 kilometers or so to get my bearings.  I found the road to Sa Pa, stopped,  and asked a restaurant for a Nha Nghi.  They pointed me in the direction and I found one just down the road, although it looked a bit sketchy.  You see, these Nha Nghis have historically been hourly hotels, so depending on the city and the clientele, well,….you can imagine what you find.  I’ve really only had to wear ear plugs once in my 2 weeks here in Vietnam. At The Nha Hghi where I ended up, there were two very nice older women working.  When I asked them about wifi, they nodded and so I tested the connection.  Perfect.  At this point I didn’t care if it was indeed more of an hourly place, I was exhausted and wanted a rest.  My 75 kilometer route had turned out to be 95 and it was just about dark.

Simple room with clean sheets....don't you love the mosquito net canopy?
My drying system, works like a charm wherever I go.
They showed me to my room, which was clean, spacious, and actually quite nice. I even had a fan to help dry my clothes. I was thankful to be settled for the evening.  I took a shower and started to wash my clothes when one of the little old ladies came in, without knocking and was showing me a finger on her hand.  Here I am thinking…..yes, I’m just one person, I’m here for one night,….didn’t we already go over this?......We had agreed on 200 vnd, a mere 7 euro, but she wanted me to get out my calculator again on my phone and typed in 160.  Then she had me follow her to a different room, with just one bed, rather than two.  Now I understood.  Seeing that I was just one person, which I thought was quite obvious from the time I rolled up alone, she wanted me to switch rooms and save me a bit of money.  Wow!?!  Somebody was actually trying to help me out and not take advantage of the fact that I’m a tourist.  That, or she desperately needed the room she had originally given me.  Who knows, but, yes, I ended up switching rooms!

The all-in-one bathroom, with hot water, of course

I’m settled, ate my fresh pineapple, my clothes are clean, drying with the fan on full speed, my bike is in a locked garage, and I have a decent wireless connection.  Life is good!  Not to mention, my room is much more peaceful as it is in the back of the hotel and not above the street.  This is the first hotel where the owner has hugged me a hug after getting me all settled.  I like this place!  I tell you, it’s high class here in Lao Cai for 6 euro a night!   

She just got voted the nicest owner of any hotel I've been to so far (except for the one in Turkey where I was treated like royalty).
Sa pa is about 35 kilometers away, and from there I go directly up for about 15 or 20 kilometers to the Tram Ton Pass.  At 1,900 meters, it is the tallest mountain pass in Vietnam.  Do I dare mention that I’m currently at -10 meters?  After all the climbing I did earlier on in the week, I feel prepared.  I look forward to Sunday as it will be my day off to visit the Bac Ha H’mong market (by bus, from Sa Pa).  Funny how everything works out at the end of the day!  There was a reason why I wasn’t suppose to stay up the road in the other town at the “base of the climb” and there was also a reason why I needed to stop at the other hotel in Lao Cai that didn’t have internet,…and now there is definitely a reason why I need to go have a beer!  Cheers to Lao Cai and the Tram Ton Pass!!
My hard earned meal at hte end of the day plus Bia Ha Noi, no complaints here!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Road You Must Travel

If I die tomorrow, I’m completely satisfied, for I’ve just had the most amazing day of cycling in my entire life!  And if there is one thing you have to do before you die, I insist that you hop on two wheels, (motorized or not) and cycle from Meo Vac to Dang Van, Vietnam, or vice versa! 

I knew I was headed to a remote mountain area, traveled by few tourists.  Everyone said that the stretch of road from Dong Van to Meo Vac was spectacular.  It is only 22 kilometers long, but counting the vertical ascent, it feels like much more!  Last night the guys at my hotel were so shocked I was going to head up there on a bike.  They couldn’t fathom how it was actually possible.  I could have been scared off by their commentary, but if you don’t know exactly what you are in for,….well, it’s a lot easier to just dive head in to a situation, at least for me.  And that is exactly what I did.

Yummy! Soy milk and rice pockets, can't get enough of them!

I woke up early, 6am and not a single motor scooter was to be heard outside.  I quickly packed and went to the market to load up on my new favorite rice pockets filled with sweet red bean and sesame paste, a few banana leaf pouch surprises, and some fruit.  I took plenty with me, not knowing what to find along the route, nor how long I might be out on the road.  I had calculated about 70 kilometers for the day.

I headed out, following the road down into a valley.  I had mountains towering over me on both sides.  Local village people were already out working; women carrying heavy loaded baskets, kids playing by the road, a normal day for these people, completely desensitized to the gorgeous scenery around them.  The day started favorably for me since the road went downhill.  I knew I had 22 kilometers and anything that goes down, just makes them pass by even faster.

The deeper into the valley I cycled, the more remote my surroundings, and soon I was all alone on the road as it started to climb.  There was a river down below, which is normally what a road follows.  However, here in Northern Vietnam, the roads don’t surprise me anymore, they cut right into a mountain and go alongside a chain for kilometers on end.  I know they built a lot of tunnels during the Vietnam War, but there are none to be seen on the roads in this region.  As a result, the roads snake, twist, and turn, and the scenery is amazing! There is always something different to be seen around the corner and between the ups and downs, the temperature ranges between 10 and 26 degrees Celsius. There are green terraced cone shaped mountains with rounded tops all around in the distance, hovering.  There isn’t a single bit of land that isn’t used, regardless it’s steepness, every inch has been farmed.  A few motorcycles and cars passed me, but local village people who have gathered their crop and are heading back home mostly use the roads.  You can see trails in the far off distance going up the sides of mountains, and others headed down to the river.  Houses speckle the land in every direction.  It’s incredible that the local tribes have inhabited this terrain, they don’t seem to be bothered by the steepness, nor does it stop them from their daily lives.

I could get a pretty good feel for what was in store for me on the first section as it was easy to see the road in the far off distance.  Usually this can be pretty demoralizing, seeing where you are going and knowing that it only continues upward.  However, I had an early start, and my legs were fresh (well, sort of) but I was so entertained by the scenery, I hardly knew I was going up!  I also made frequent stops, for pictures of course, and finally started using the tripod on my camera so that I would appear from time to time!  Halfway up there was a viewpoint, guarded by police.  I thought they might ask for the special permit that I was forced to get in the previous town.  This road is so close to China, it is considered to be a special “Frontier Area”.  They didn’t ask for anything and seemed quite entertained to see me and were more than happy to take a few photos for me.  I continued on climbing and in a few kilometers, a mini bus passed me in the opposite direction and honked.  Western tourists inside were cheering me on with lots of thumbs up!  The first tourists I had seen o the road in awhile, although occasionally a motorcycle will pass with a guide and a tourist.

Around the last bend of the ascent, the road separated from the river and the scenery started to change again.  Now I was right in the middle of smaller lush green cones that popped up everywhere. Off to the side of the road, I saw another minibus, parked, and empty, and I suspected these tourists were on a hike.  I love hiking, but legs were plenty satisfied with the climbing I was doing on the bike.  However, 200 meters ahead, a Vietnamese-French tour guide saw me and started shouting out to his clients to look at the cyclist.  It’s like the guy paid me to show up at the very moment, what entertainment! He was guiding 4 French women, and all of a sudden my French came back to me and we were having a great conversation alongside the road.  Their guide was hilarious, as he immediately started patting my legs and arms, ohhing and awing and took pictures like the paparazzi!  He gave me some travel tips for a few road options and once again I was on my way. 

I had reached the top and was headed down to the small village of Dong Van, where I treated myself to a nice warm coffee.  I love my Vietnamese coffee!  The glass is filled with about two or three tablespoons of strong black coffee that drips from a minute filter on top. They put condensed milk in it and it becomes a thick sweetened syrup.  The lady at the café made the mistake of leaving the can of condensed milk with me at the table, and I downed spoonfuls when she wasn’t looking, what a treat!

After my short pit stop I was on my way. I knew I had another 45 kilometers to go before I hit a town with any hotels.  Since I had just been on the most beautiful road of my life, I was on such a high, I forgot that I had more climbing to do.  30 brutal kilometers awaited me, and this time the road didn’t follow a river, it dipped up and down into every little valley and town possible.  Being the optimist that I am, every time it would dip, I would be hopeful and think, “that’s it, done”….but of course then it would start to climb again! The scenery continued to be breathtaking and I took a ton of photos, which gave me some nice little breaks, but my legs weren’t as fresh now and I was starting to feel my arms!  People think I have legs of steel, and maybe I do, but hopefully some will start to transfer to my bum and arms, they are taking a beating!

Cone-shaped mountains with a rounded top, and terraced crops among them

I’ve pretty much figured out the Vietnamese schedule and it just so happened that the 30 kilometer climb was right at the time kids walk home from school for lunch.  They have a long break in the middle of the day it seems, and they are all out on the road come 11:30 to about 12:30 (some have a long walk home).  They were so excited to see me they shouted and cheered as I rode by and in fact, a couple of cluster of kids followed me for a good 2 kilometers uphill.  I was pedaling about 5 kilometers and hour and the kids were walking fast next to me. The sweat on their forehead had dampened their hair, but they were determined to follow along with me until the road started going down.  The kids I see in the villages along the side of the road amaze me.  Kids in western cultures are pampered compared to the kids I see alongside the road here in Northern Vietnam.  They are all helping out their parents or playing with the most ordinary objects: bamboo, leaves, wood, string.  You never hear them cry or throw tantrums, if anything they are giggling with their friends or siblings.  They entertain themselves while mom and dad are working.  They can be covered in dirt, running around with no pants, or helping their parents, and just as happy as can be!

After today, I’m reminded why climbing can be so addicting.  The scenery is such a reward, it makes it all worth it.  There is a lot of suffering along the way and you have to have the right mindset to do them, especially with an extra 30+ kilograms.  Usually I spend a lot of time looking down at the road, when I climb, a natural position for your head, but today, my eyes were set on my surroundings.  I was in total awe on what awaited me on every twist and turn in the road.  Tomorrow I think the road flattens out a bit, so I’m going to try to be my ambitious self again, but I have a feeling I’m going to be up here in the mountains another week or so just trying to make my way to Northern Laos, where similar terrain awaits!  By the time I get to the Mekong River, I’m gonna fly on the flat!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Melissa Has Met Her Match up North

What a sense of accomplishment to see where you've come from!

I love to climb, it’s what I do best on the bike.  In fact I feel so comfortable going uphill, I’m usually carrying on a conversation with one of the guys from the club.  Thomspon Bike Tour clients tell me they can hear me coming on the climbs as I chat with the clients I accompany.  I don’t go fast, but I can keep a steady pace going uphill, without too much suffering, especially if I’ve got good company!

When someone warns me that a road goes up, I usually don’t think much of it.  Before this trip, I didn’t own a Garmin and I had no idea how to quantify positive altitude change. Statistics s like 10%, 2,000m elevation gain, don’t really mean much to me.  In my mind, it all goes up, and you have to get to the top- so I just pedal.  I basically have one speed climbing and if I start to get tired, I get out of the saddle to change things up. I’ve climbed in the Pyrenees, Alps, Picos de Europa, and the Dolomites, and I thought I had experienced some of the most brutal climbs, but my last few days in Northern Vietnam give “altitude gain” a whole new meaning.  

Unbelievable views from up top

I’m day 4 into my adventure up north and I’m destroyed…..shattered, beat!  I don’t really know which adjective to use, but I’ve definitely met my match up here.  It takes a lot to tire me out pedaling, but now I surrender, these roads are killer.  And so you might ask, why I keep going?  It’s the scenery, it is stunning.  My pictures don’t to the landscapes justice.  I look around and I’m completely surrounded in a rain forest.  There are peaks so tall and lush, they never make it out of the clouds.  Plants are enormous, and trees shoot up tall, with roots that surface and look like rope wound in knots.  I’m an alpine mountain lover, which is why I’m in shock that I find this type of vegetation appealing.  I’ve gotten completely off the beaten path and I’m loving it!

I hit up Guim at The Hanoi Bike Collective for some route suggestions in Vietnam.  Most tour cyclist enter Laos and head for Laos as soon as possible, where the tarmac is new and the traffic next to null.  Everyone tells you to avoid Vietnam because the dense traffic.  Guim advised me to go up north, not to the toursity areas of Sapa, necessarily, but to the Ha Giang region, a place undiscovered by most tourists and cyclists.  He warned me that the climbs were killer and although the entire circuit might only be 1,200 kilometers, it would take a good 2 to 3 weeks.  I of course overlooked this comment, and wondered just how tough the climbing could really be, and foresaw myself doing the route in about 10 days.

I’ll tell you, as I sit here and write this post, my upper arms ache from all the pulling on my handle bars and the firm grip I have to have on the descents.  Biking has become a full body workout! I’ve run marathons, done half Ironmans and a full, gran fondos, and ultra-marathons, but the riding up here is some of the some of the most difficult I’ve done in my life! Today hit 1,000 meters of positive elevation gain and only done a mere 40 km.  I immediately had to rethink my destination for the day as a result.  The Vietnamese don’t believe in switch backs, the roads go straight up.  I don’t know why they even bother to put up signs showing a 10% grade, because basically every 200 meters, you have one!  A 6% grade starts feeling flat, I see 16% frequently on my Garmin and I’ve made it up to 18%.  I know these numbers probably don’t make any sense to those not in the sport, but have a look at this graph, it says it all! 

My speed says it all

It’s probably the element of surprise that makes it so challenging.  You don’t know how long a climb is going to last, the exact elevation gain or the gradient,… just pedal and pedal and try to keep going.  Luckily the scenery is completely new and always exciting.  The sounds of horns have almost completely dissipated and are replaced by the sounds of kids screaming “Hello” in every direction possible.

One of the three lakes in Ba Be National Park

Day one, leaving Hanoi, I was pretty much on the main thruways all 100 kilometers, nothing different than my others days on the road in Vietnam.  Day two continued on the main thruway with frequent honking, trucks passing, and motor scooters whizzing by.  However, after about 50 kilometers, I was on a road that headed towards the Ba Be National Park and it became very evident it was not a popular destination.  It brought me through towns where once again I had to time my lunch stop, or else the restaurants turned me away.  On the evening of day 2, I rolled into the Ba Be National Park right at dusk, found a small family run Nha Hghi, and got cleaned up for dinner, which they thankfully served right there are the hotel.  I was pleased with the day: I had finally arrived to a more remote area with gorgeous rain forests and the sounds of nature all around.

Flat terrain along the river in Ba Be National Park

On day three I started with a self-guided tour of the National Park, that was luckily flat, because the climbing that awaited me afterwards was unbelievable.  I left the park and headed up north on a road that was maybe about 3 meters wide with huge piles of gravel every 300 meters.  Road work was underway and I don’t know how or why this road even showed up on my GPS! I had no choice other than to climb and head north. Although I wasn’t officially in a National Park, I was in a rain forest for sure, and climbing to what felt like the canopy layer, above the clouds line. Everywhere I look out there are mountains, terraced lands, and jungle vegetation everywhere.  Every inch of land is used thanks to the terracing.  Humidity is so dense; I can’t distinguish it from the sweat dripping of my face.   The few motos that pass me are so surprised to see a cyclist, they always turned their head to look back, probably to see my priceless facial expressions as I was climbing.

I lucked out with this roadside market

Here, most of the roads don’t have restaurants or cafes.  I’m lucky if I find a little house that has a “store” attached with a counter full of snack items. In fact, there aren’t hotels, which make for another great story as to where I ended up the third night into my adventure up north. Let’s just say it was somewhat reminiscent of the hotel in Macedonia that was closed, but my friend, the old man in the blue pajamas, was replaced by an energetic young Vietnamese women who plopped herself down next to me, looking over my shoulder as I did my journaling for the evening.  I didn’t have the energy to try to keep up a conversation with gestures, I was too shattered and in bed by 8pm!

Making friends wherever I go

There are few people in the area, and the ones around make their life alongside the road.  The village people are busy farming, herding their animals, fixing motor bikes, cutting down trees…you name it, there is always something to be done! The only exception is when it rains.  Today, it started to pour and I took cover under a little shack.  A man in the house next door saw me and invited me in, so, of course, I entered.  To my surprise it was filled with about 10 guys who were all sitting around drinking strong liquor and tea, I opted for the tea or else I would have never left!  The first question out of their mouth or should I say with hand gestures, was if I had kids.  This questions makes me laugh because what in the world would I be doing cycling around the world if I had kids at home waiting for me!?!?!   So, yes, I laugh, and shake my finger “No Way!” which is when they ask if I’m married. For this question, I also say, no, and make a pedaling gesture: my faithful and only partner for the next year! I tried to ask them where all the women were, but that turned into a photo session with our mobiles.  I know they were hoping it would continue to rain so I had to stay, but luckily for me, it cleared and I continued to pedal on my way to Bao Lac, where I’m currently staying, my fourth night up north.  This town is so big there were 2 restaurants and an actual hotel, advertised in English.

It pays to climb

At this point, I’ve had to regroup mentally and change the way I plan my daily route.  All the other days, I could ride strong fairly easily and count on pedaling 100 kilometers.  After the last two days, I understood why it just might very well take me 3 weeks to go 1,200 kilometers!  The climbing is tough, the roads aren’t in the best of conditions, and there is the surprise element as well. I don’t really know what is in store for me in order to quantify and compare this terrain.  All I know is that the more I climb the more beautiful the scenery, so it pays off to keep going up!

Friday, November 22, 2013

SE Asia Route

It took me awhile to decide which route to take, there is so much to see here but it is all spread out.  At first I planned on making one big loop, but most recently decided to change that and head south eventually, down to Singapore, where I will fly to New Zealand.  Unfortunately, I won't be able to visit with a lot of international schools due to the winter holidays approaching, but I hope to see some of the locals ones instead who don't have such a long vacation.

I'm trying to stay off the beaten path to avoid busy roads, but of course that comes at a steep price, lots of mountains for the next month while I make my way across Northern Vietnam and Laos.  After that I follow the Mekong River for quite some time, and then head to The Mekong river delta in Southern Vietnam, completely flat terrain. Thailand and Malaysia shouldn't be too hilly, so it should be a quick ride to Singapore.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hanoi: A Much Needed Pit Stop

One of the many small streets in Hanoi,....this one isn't so crowded.

I rolled into Hanoi not knowing to expect.  I’m not a big city person, I would rather stick to the small towns, but Hanoi was in a strategically located “pit stop” for me along my route.  I had been on the road for about 2 weeks since I left Hong Kong, and hadn’t had a rest day.  I had a warm shower host waiting for me and a bike store run by Catalans to visit, as well as a couple of school visits.  I also needed to a break to plan my SE Asia route in more detail. 

Since I departed Hong Kong, it hadn’t dawned on me, but 2 weeks had passed since I’d had a real conversation with anyone.  As you know, I’m a social person….I enjoy good conversation.  I’m curious. I ask people a million questions.  I love to share experiences, especially with other cyclists or international teachers.  For two weeks straight, the extent of my conversations was basically a word or two, with some hand or body gestures, accompanied by a drawing, or a simple sentences in English.  Passing through the southern China coast and into Vietnam, I hadn’t come across a lot of English speakers. As a result, I talked to myself,….frequently.  As if I don’t already get enough stares from people, when I talk to myself, I’m sure my lips are moving a mile a minute with a few good chuckles every now and again, making for an even more ridiculous sight to see! 

I do Skype my family and friends occasionally, communicate by emails and Whats app messaging, but that doesn’t quite replace a good old conversation face-to-face, over a beer, coffee, or warm meal.  I rolled up to The Hanoi BicycleCollective in the Tay Ho neighborhood on West Lake, thrilled to meet Guim, the Catalan owner of the collective, George, his mechanic, and Julio, a Spanish ex-pat who frequents the locale.  I knew I was going to like Guim, ever since he had motivated me a few days back when I first contacted him, letting me know “un bocata amb pá tomaquet” (a typical Catalan tomato bread sandwich) was awaiting me in Hanoi. 

Guim and Melissa at THBC, Hanoi
Like always, he was blown away by the American girl with impeccable Catalan and I was delighted to be in good company!  What a joy to talk with another tour cyclist and a Catalan no less, who had ended up settling in Hanoi a few years back.  We shared our stories; I was fascinated by his.  Guim had been working and living in Beijing for 3 years when he decided to travel around the world on an electric bike.  He left Beijing and made his was west, towards Barcelona.  He rolled up to Hanoi and planned to stay for 2 days, but ended up visiting for about 3 weeks.  What kept him so long?  Well, besides falling in love with the city, he met a Vietnamese woman, Thuy Anh, a journalist who had interviewed him about his project, and they hit it off.  He continued on his journey after an extended visit, but had her in the back of his mind as he pedaled.  He ended up going back to visit her a year later, and well, instead of continuing to travel solo, he was now accompanied.  On their journey to Barcelona on bike, a new member of their family came along and they decided to go back to make Hanoi their home. 

Mirko and Katya.  They've been traveling the world for 12 years.

With Lola, the new baby, Guim and Thuy Anh, opened up The Hanoi Bike Collective (THBC).  THBC is more than a bike shop, it is a communal space for people who share one simple passion: to bike.  Yes, they have a workshop and store, but their space also has a small tapas bar with all the best tapas including tortilla, queso curado, jamon, you name it!  After being on the road for 2 weeks straight, it was the perfect place to take refuge.  People are constantly trickling in, for a beer, to chat, drop off a bike, or get travel advice.  Not to mention, Guim opens his arm to tour cyclists, who all seem to find THBC one way or the other. I just happened to luck out that my Warm Showers host lived next door!  Guim, a Vietnam cycle expert gave me some route advice, George the mechanic took good care of my bike, and I met a few other tour cyclists riding through Hanoi on their SE Asia trip. 

No podeís imaginar la alegría que sentí al ver un menu con tapas Españolas, ole!!!

When I wasn’t at THBC, I was out exploring Hanoi.  From the outside, it looks like total chaos and riding a bike might seem like suicide.  The motos travel in clusters, like flocks of sheep except for the occasional scooter that decides to go head-on into traffic. Interspersed are large American size cars, and a few cyclist appear every now and again piled high with goods to sell.  Thankfully the motor scooter drivers in the city are much better than the drivers in the rural areas.  I’m impressed with my riding skills-I’ve pretty much got the hang of the roads and the flow of traffic here.  There is no need to look to your right, only left.  Your eyes move back and forth between the 2 meters in front of you and the obstacles on your left,…..oh, and never stop, keep moving no matter what!  It feels like an intense video game, although you only have one life to live so the game can’t be over!
Tall skinny apartment buildings are typical here, and very colorful!

Rush hour has yet to come!

I did two full days of sight seeing and street wandering.  Between the main drags there is a maze of alleyways with a million fingerlike side streets branching out, each filled with markets, stores, food stands, and residences.  Unlike in the smaller towns, here the restaurants and shops are bustling all day long.  Hanoi is a cosmopolitan city, for the first hour, I gawked at all the ex-pats, after all, it had been two weeks since I had seen other westerners.  You can find any sort of cuisine you like along with the local restaurants and Vietnamese specialties.  Supermarkets are stocked with all sorts of western products and adverts are frequently in English.

Temple of Literature hidden within the city

Noise, pollution, and people are everywhere, which does get tiresome (hence making THBC the perfect respite) and the novelty of the city has started to wear off.  Most of the tour cyclists I met were here for about a week. I’ve gotten in the habit of being on the move and I’m itching to start pedaling after a few days rest.  What seems like work, heading up north to Vietnam’s mountains, seems like a break for me!  Ironic, because two days ago, coming to the city was just the break I needed from the road.  Tomorrow as I make my way out of Hanoi, hopefully the honks, concentrated masses, and constant stimulation will dissipate.  I’ve got some pretty difficult terrain ahead of me- but I’m ready for it, along with mountains and climbs comes spectacular scenery and solitude- I’m craving it after the big city.  It could be another 2 weeks before I have a real conversation again, but that just means I’ll appreciate it even more!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Welcome to Vietnam!

Leaving China, I had high hopes for Vietnam.  I was anxiously awaiting some peace and quiet and better air quality. The roads at first sight were deserted in comparison and painted kilometer markers were back in sight with the name of the approaching town and the distance, reminiscent of those in France.  Street signs and adverts were all of a sudden in an alphabet I could at least recognize (although lots are impossible to understand) and the word hotel magically appeared alongside the Vietnamese translation, “Nha Nghi”.

You'd almost think it were France!

At first it struck me as odd that all the motor scooters were wearing face masks, more than the drivers in China, yet the air quality seemed better.  It should have dawned on me then, what was coming, but I gave the Vietnamese the benefit of the doubt and assumed they took better care of themselves.  My first night I ate peacefully at a restaurant alone, without anyone coming over to take photos.  At my hotel, they didn’t ask for a room deposit, just my passport.  I woke up to roosters crowing in the distance and the natural light rather than motor scooters honking and wind blowing the glass on the 10th floor of a tower.  My wish for peace and quiet had been granted, I was in a much calmer country, or though it seemed….

But slowly, I’m discovering how this country works and my first impressions are very accurate, as usual.  However, after China, nothing surprises me!  The roads are busy, busier than China.  From the looks of a Vietnam map, you think there is a develop road system, but observing the traffic, everyone seems to be on the same roads.  60% of the cars that pass me are buses- that’s great, a country with good public transportation!  Every time a bus passes, they seem to have the same town names written on the windows as destinations and from the amount of busses that pass, there is frequently service.  Another 20% of traffic that passes me are trucks.  Between the trucks and the buses, I’m constantly serenaded as I pedal.  I think their horns work like automatic seat belts in the states.  Once you turn on the ignition, the horn goes on! I’m so tempted to wear ear plugs.  The last 20% of the traffic out here is divided between huge American size cars and motor scooters.  They use some round abouts here and other normal intersections.  Both are a complete disaster and traffic is literally coming in all directions. No rules like keep right to exit exist; it is one big free-for-all, which explains a third of the accidents I’ve seen! 

Motor scooters move like a school of fish!

Now day 4 in Vietnam, I’ve seen 6 traffic accidents, prior to entering Vietnam I hadn’t seen any!  Motor scooters are everywhere, riding together like a school of fish.  All of a sudden one will veer to the right and it is a trickle down affect with those around.  I try to keep my distance, but sometimes I could reach out and touch them next to me.  They have rearview mirrors,….Why?  Don’t ask.  They don’t use them.  When they wan to turn left, they pull over to the side of the road, stop, look back, and decide when to cross….actions which could all be done in motion if looking in your rearview mirror.  And when they pull out in oncoming traffic, they only look right, never left.  I wish I could paint the “Look Left” signs on the street like I saw in Hong Kong, they would be greatly appreciated here.  Going through the round abouts is an experience in itself.   Traffic should be moving in the same direction, but there are motor scooters coming at me, cars swearving, and no one uses the right lane as the exit.  I feel like closing my eyes and pedaling on through, because the sights of the crazy traffic are unbearable.

Why not?!?!?....makes sense!

Love the kickstand on this bike.  Hope those fish are for an aquarium!

Motor scooters and bikes alike are piled high with goods.  I’ve seen bikes so loaded the riders are walking them and some don’t even need a kick stand as they simply balance on their load, handle bars in the air.  Both motor scooters and bikes are common transportation, but also turn into booths selling anything imaginable from food, plants, and trees, to gold fish!  You name it and they can strap it to a bike.  If I really wanted to fit in here, I need to be hauling about 20 more panniers on my bike.  

Having explained the traffic, and looking at the state of some of the roads, it all makes sense as to why they are adamant on wearing face masks.  Air quality is better in Vietnam, than China, in terms of pollution, but the dust is horrendous!  When I reapply my sunscreen, I end up with a gray film on me from all the dust.  In 2 hours tops, I’m covered with a layer of black grime.  I could take my finger and write “clean me”, as you sometimes see on the back of a dirty car window.

People are less intense in Vietnam and keep to themselves, more so than in China.  I get a lot of “Hellos!” from kids with big smiles on their faces, and lots of finger pointing, but that’s about it.  It's a relief to have gained back some of my personal space.

I can’t quite figure out the restaurants yet, nor the eating times.  There are small establishments every where, some advertised as “cafés” other with photos of soups, rice, and all sorts of animals.  There are tables and chairs out for people, but hardly anyone seated, regardless of the time of day.  If the chairs are occupied, it is for a drink, not eating.  It’s happened to me on several occasions, that I’ve been turned away from such places because they didn’t have any food, just drinks, although I can see a kitchen in the back.  They sure don't have the same type of business mentality as the Chinese!

Like China, most families live in a building that has a small store, workshop, or restaurant on the ground floor.  They don’t really use curtains and since it is so hot, all the doors are open, which makes for a lot of great sight seeing as you walk by and peer into their lives.  Their whole life is in a 5-meter radius.  They never have to go very far for anything, thankfully with the roads as crowded as they are!  

I’ve been on the road for about 2 weeks straight without a day off since I left Hong Kong.  I feel good, strong, and rested and so far the terrain, so far isn’t that difficult (although I can see mountains looming in the north).  I’m in Hanoi for a good three days, to explore, visit schools, and plan my Asia route, which I still have yet to nail down.  If this were Europe or the States, it would be a lot easier to organize myself and get things planned.  But here in Asia, I’ve slowly learned to surrender and just go with the flow. It’s a totally new concept for me that I’m easing into!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Farewell China

I'm back connected to the websites that China's government controlled.  Thank you Vichenze for helping out with my blog posts and pictures.  Today I crossed the border into Vietnam from China, but not without looking back on some fond memories in that incredibly interesting country that has grown on me over the past week. I thought it would only be appropriate to compile a list of the things found in China that although they do wear on me over time, make it a unique place to cycle.

One picture taken and another camera is already out and ready for the next!

Paparazzi:  Every time I stop to eat, buy something, or stay at a hotel, I’m all of a sudden flooded by the paparazzi!  Everyone wants to take a picture with me! They really don’t even ask, rather they whip out their cell phone, hand it over to a friend and get those two fingers up to make the peace sign, and click away!  Oh how they love to show the peace sign!  I thought about charging per picture, but then again, I guess I do the same thing taking pictures, just not in such an intense manner!
He has to work on the smile part for the posing

Invasion of personal space: The locals always seem shocked to see me roll up, but are anxious to help me, especially when it comes to buying something or serving me food.  They oh and ah, snicker, and smile.  They get out their phone and before you know it, a few other locals appear to see the tourist.  They do the same, laugh, stare, converse, and call friends, and the next thing I know there are half a dozen people gathered around me examining my every movement, inspecting my bike and bags, and trying to talk with me in Chinese.  All I really wanted was some peace and quiet, a bit of down time from the road, but I guess that will have to wait until I get back to the saddle.

Anything and everything on the back of a bike!
Entertainment on the road: In Europe, I was alone on the roads a good amount of time, but in China, that was hardly the case.  There were bikes piled high with freshly picked vegetables or recycle cardboard, motor scooters with 4 or 5 passengers, and others with cages filled with chickens, ducks, or dogs.  Trucks drivers think they are in a sports car and drive way too fast honking continuously to let me know they are coming, and at any moment there can be head-on traffic in the shoulder that doesn’t want to obey the rules of the road. I invented the game, “Guess this vehicle and its load before it passes you…..” The smell (a truck full of pigs or a Chinese garbage truck take the cake for the most pungent smell), sound of the motor, or the type of honk, is key in determining which type of vehicle is about to whiz by.

This sign caught my attention after seeing so much garbage everywhere......
Road signs: I couldn’t read 99% of the road signs because the smaller the road the less English they used.  But the signs and adverts on the side of the road that were translated in English made for a good laugh, every now and again.  I saw my favorite advertisement for new condos in Dongxing, China today.  It said, “Pure land in the center of a busy city. Live like the wise”.  If you were wise, you’d be as far from that city as possible!

Pictionary and charades: I thought I was pretty creative with the pictures I drew, my gestures, pantomiming, and acting out in order to communicate.  I still don’t think the Chinese snore because they looked at me like I was crazy when I made the snoring sound and tilted my head trying to communicate that I wanted to find a hotel.  You don’t even want to know how I ended up gesturing for the toilet!

Unsolicited attention from men: I had my fair share of guys buying me drinks, food, and of course making other offers.  By my last day in China, my guard was up and I didn’t get myself into any sticky situations.  However, if my dating life after this trip is just as pathetic as it was before I left, I might have to come back to China where they seem to be crazy about me!

Imitation Everything:  No wonder there is no trust amongst the Chinese….you never know if you are getting the real deal or a fake.  You can find any name brand item here, anywhere!  I had to laugh every time I would see and authorized Apple retailer in the middle of a small Chinese village that didn’t even have a hotel!  

Entering Fangchenggang,....and I was worried about finding a hotel!

Small Towns: There is no such thing as a small town in this country.  In a town that isn’t even on Google maps, you can find apartment tower after apartment tower lining the main drag and new development on the horizon.  Scaffolding and construction is a common sight.  You ask a Chinese person how big a city is and they can’t tell you the exact population, but if it isn’t over a million people, it’s just a small “village”.  There are so many more cities and towns in China than those that appear on Google Maps.  I’d set off for my destination, not sure if the town would be big enough to have a hotel, and rolling in there would be skyscrapers and apartment towers.  I’ve learned never trust the size of the town on Google maps, at least not for China!

Hmm.....eeny, meenie, miny, moe....which will it be?

Ordering food:  I might as well have closed my eyes and just pointed to any random item on the menu because that is how I felt sometimes when I was asking for food.  On a good day, I could find someone eating what I wanted or they had a bunch of little dishes on display so I could make a pretty educated guess as to what I was getting.  For the less fortunate meals, well, it was just one big surprise placed before my eyes.  The most memorable meal was the other night when I decided to visit a supermarket for prepared food like I had done so often in Europe. I was craving cooked vegetables and saw big jars filled with them.  I got the attendant to fill a small container with the veggies and took them back to my room for dinner.  I was so excited I had managed to find what I was looking for,…..only to find out I had a bag full of strongly pickled vegetables, that were incredibly spicey!  I stuck to restaurants after that!

My exceptional Chinese hosts, fabulous cooks too!
What I will especially miss in China is the kind treatment I’ve received from random strangers.  A warm showers host who I didn’t even meet put me in touch with a few friends in Qinzhou, a city close to the Vietnam border.  I arrived at A lian’s house and she and her friends took such good care of me.  The group of girls gave me a good taste of what life is like in China, taking me shopping at the market, showing me how to make Chinese dumplings, going out to lunch, and teaching me about their culture.  The next day we even visited a primary school where her aunt had friends teaching and I was exposed to the local school system.  I had been on my own at that point for almost a week and I really appreciated the company and insight into this fascinating culture. I will miss these random acts of kindness, although I’m sure to continue to find thoughtful people enroute.  However, in China, where you struggle desperately to communicate, when someone offers you help in any way shape or form, it makes a world of a difference!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Petites coses que em motivan

For English speakers, jsut copy and paste it in Google Translator or use the translator on the blog!

És molt curiós les coses que passen pel meu cap mentre estic a la bici. És clar que intento estar molt present en el meu entorn i agafar-ho tot, però hi ha moltes hores al dia, i son moltes hores que tinc sobre la bici per a pensar i desconnectar. Penso en tot... la meva família, els meus nebots, i els meus amics a Barna. Intento imaginar que està fent la gent a la seva vida mentre jo estic a la carretera pedalejant. Penso en les alumnes que he tingut a BFIS, especialment quan m’arriba un e-mail d'elles.

A vegades penso on estaré d'aquí a un any, i en quina ciutat acabaré desprès del viatge I com serà la meva vida després d’acabar una gran experiència així. A vegades ric de mi mateixa quant penso en les coses que em passen a diari i les comparo amb les coses que estava fent fa un any a les mateixes dates. També penso en els llocs que encara m’agradaria veure sobre dues rodes. Tinc molt de temps per a pensar i a vegades passen els kilòmetres i ni et puc dir en què estava pensant! De tant en tant, faig un repàs del meu viatge. És divertit fer un petit test e intentar recordar dia per dia per on passava, amb qui quedava, llocs i gent destacada, i memòries que m’han impactat més durant el meu recorregut. Encara està tot molt present al meu cap i em fa somriure i em motiva per tirar endavant quan penso en totes les experiències que he tingut fins ara!

També em  motiven les petites coses que em fa arribar la gent a través d'e-mail, skype, i els comentaris a facebook. Per exemple, ara estic planificant la meva ruta cap a Vietnam i la meva visita a Hanoi. He vist que hi ha una cooperativa de bicicletes allà i desprès d'un cop d’ull a la seva pàgina  web, veig que són Catalans. Li escric un e-mail i em contesten això:

“Nena apreta que ja t'has guanyat un bon entrepà de pa amb tomàquet! T'esperem amb il·lusió, i cap problema per la bici. Dimarts perfecte (dilluns tanquem, però).”

És curiós com poques  paraules d'uns desconeguts em fan somriure i això em dóna ànims, just el que necessitava per començar el dia! No imaginava mai que un bon entrapà seria capaç de motivar-me! Jeje!

Altres dies quan m'aixeco veig els missatges de video que m'ha deixat la meva germana des de casa, a Oregon. Com tenim tanta diferència horària, escolto els missatges el dia següent.
Pel meu aniversari, els meus nebots em van cantar “Happy Birthday” i ho vaig veure el matí següent. Em va donar moltes forces aquell dia per a arribar a la meva destinació.
                                                    Cliqueu aquí per veure el vídeo

Sempre em sorprèn quan m’arriba un e-mail d'un desconegut i des de lluny com aquest nen d'Angola que em convida a la seva escola. M'inspira a seguir més enllà amb aquesta idea de ser una professora sobre dues rodes i encara seguir amb la idea després d'acabar la ruta planificada d’aquest any.

Subject: Can you come to Angola?

Hi Melissa - My name is Simon and I am 6 years old. My mom showed me your website and I like it. I like the pictures and I like the photos. I also like your bike and I like to ride my bike. Can you visit me in Luanda Angola? Simon

Hi ha classes que estan utilitzant molt la meva pàgina web, molt més del que pensava, com  per exemple els alumnes de Sa Graduada Maó, a Menorca, on treballa la germana del meu amic, el famós “Vichenze”. M’han fet arribar un petit vídeo informant-me del seu projecte amb la meva ruta, i em va sorprendre. Sense conèixer-me personalment, i amb l’anglès com a barrera en alguns casos, m'estan seguint i fent un reportatge.

                                                    Cliqueu aquí per veure el vídeo

Sí que estic sola a la bici les 5, 6, o 7 hores que estic a la carretera, però quan arribo i em connecto veig que sigui on sigui, sempre hi ha algú que està contactant, seguint el meu blog, mirant les fotos que penjo, i donant-me un cop de ma. I això s’agredeix MOLT. Quan portes tota la teva vida sobre la bici, i tot t'hi cap dins d'un parell d’alforges, son els petits actes d'agraïment el que em fa somriure i em dóna ànims per encara anar pedalejant més contenta sobre la bici.