Leaving Hanoi was a bit rough. For starters, I had to head West, back the way I came. The first day went alright, although I got lost and ended up wandering through rice paddies into the late evening before resigning myself to a guesthouse- no camping to be had that was likely to be uninterrupted. The second day I got a little further away from the hubbub, but found myself frustrated once again by the sheer population of Vietnam and the steep terrain. If the land is gentle enough to be worked and lived on, it is. All else is steep cliff-faces, the trade-off for the dramatic scenery. Once again, I took a guesthouse. It hurts on principle to be spending so much money, but a guesthouse averages about 8 dollars, and I try to remember that my expectations have adjusted for the economy, but my budget has not- I’m still rich! Sort of…
I was really frustrated and fatigued. I needed to be alone, a quiet space was what my introverted self required, and without it I was beginning to unravel a little bit. Five kilometers in on the next day I broke into the mountains, and the population thinned out. Being in a locale where nature predominated did a lot, and I began to enjoy myself again. I set into so,e really rigorous climbing, including an incredibly steep, very short stretch of road that rose almost 400 meters in a few kilometers. I’d say the grade averaged somewhere around 16%! I climbed it all without stopping. This is one of my personal feats, the steepest stint of climbing since the alps into Slovenia I’d say. From there I descended to a large lake where I struggled to find camping, but I did so two hours after the sun set. It was not the best spot, but it sufficed!
This was the eve of my anniversary- whether you mark it from when I set off from New York or when I touched down in Lisbon, sometime in the night was the threshold. I got lucky, I was able to cook and get mostly setup before the storm set in. A cloudless sky had filled with ominous clouds and distant lightning, and my instinct preserved me, for I had just enough time to set up the tent before the deluge hit. I had been planning to bivouac, you see.
I woke up to a flat tire, finding two punctures and discovering that there was a nice scrape in the side of my old tire. I had intended to replace the used back tire I found in Dushanbe with a new Marathon somewhere in China, but having failed to do so, and without any further trouble, I forgot to look for one in Hanoi! A wise man would have asked his family to bring a new set…
Nevertheless, my spirits were high as I set off the next day. At this point I was in a hurry, having realized that my casual estimate of distance per day did not take into account the aggressive terrain! I would be cutting it close getting to the border before my visa ran out. Of all the freedom I have, visas still require a fair amount of consideration, and never have I had to deal with so many governments! The race was on.
First task of the day was a 1000+ meter climb in the swampy heat. I did it in a couple hours, but it was grueling, for the hills are not gentle, and the roads, consequently, are not graded gently. The descent from the top was not ideal, by which I mean, not very long. I am very skinny these days, it is all I can do to keep myself filled, with everything- salt, vitamins, water, food. I have taken to ordering two portions at a time. I was fortunate to hit good road after popping out of the mountains and cruised for a good while.
At some point in the day, my shifting began to malfunction. I couldn’t shift through half of my cassette and I observed that the cable was frayed badly, all of a sudden, right at the handlebar shifter. After a day rife with ascents, with hardly more than five gears at my disposal and a steadily worsening state, I resolved to replace it myself, but I was afraid.
I made due, and the bike still served my needs. I was so stressed about camping, I adjusted my expectations by riding into the dark, affording the populace a chance to vacate potential camp sites and eating up some kilometers, which was vital. I decided this night was going to be my big night, and I pushed past what I needed to make, but wound up, after another middling climb, in a vast expanse of rice paddies. Another guesthouse was called for.
Here I took advantage of the internet to study my imminent repair. The next day was another slog, and while I still had some light, I resolved to remedy my shifting. I was still nervous, as I am not a bike mechanic, although one might say I am mechanically inclined, but the matter was resolved in mere minutes; a simple affair. The cable was so shredded I had to cut the three remaining threads that were, to my horror and fascination, all that retained the link between my shifter and the gears.
My shifting still wants adjusting, a task which requires a contraption to elevate the back wheel in such a way as to allow me to shift freely through the gears by spinning the pedals, but I do in fact have a fully functioning drive train once more, and I am inordinately proud.
The next day began with a mild 550 meter climb. Near the middle I shared a pineapple with an old Frenchman who was riding the way I came- the first Western cycle tourist I had met on the road since I left Cody, and before that since Osh- and after exchanging some intel I decided I could make it to Dien Bien Phu, a town situated about 40 kilometers from the border of Laos. Pretty well destroyed from the previous days, it was all I could do to traverse another 550 meter climb as darkness descended. At the top I stopped for a cup of coffee and a rest. It was 30 kilometers downhill from there, as good as done. I was inconvenienced by yet another flat tire, however, though instead of repairing it I pumped it up twice and made it into town. All the while, I savored the seeming misfortunes of my border run and the death throes of the back tire I so foolishly neglected. I had some incredible dialogues in my head, outright arguments, as I wrestled with the notion of hiring yet another guesthouse. I made it to town, on pins and needles concerning my compromised tire, and stopped at an atm. I was determined not to cross the border with extra cash!
The moment of truth came at the atm. A guesthouse would require a good 200,000 dong, to be safe, with a little extra for groceries. On an impulse, I pulled out 100,000. Realizing one party in my head had made a bold decision, I thought to pull more money out, as it was getting on near 9:00 pm. I was a bit stuck, though. Was it possible that my bank would cancel my card if I used an atm twice? I had done it before, without consequence, but it was too risky. By the light of the atm I fixed my tube and pressed on. A short stop at a grocery store, where the kind clerks insisted I wash my blackened hands, and I continued on into the night.
15 kilometers of rice paddies yielded no safe harbor. I began to climb into the hills. I passed a refinery of some sort as the grade steepened, yet I was still in residential farmland. Nothing for it but to begin the 600 meter ascent to the border. Surely there would be some solitary nook for me in the hills. I labored quietly. I had the road all to myself, but unfortunately it was cut into a precipitous hillside- no camping. My strength faded. My lights faded. I dismounted and began to walk, immersed in a strange revery. I scanned the roadside with my headlamp, to no avail. Ah, what difficulty! My legs were destroyed. My will was enervated. I reflected that when life gives you lemons, usually it withholds sugar- no lemonade. In these situations one must smash one of these sharp fruits into the maw and gnash viciously, savoring the envigouring juices as they shock the system, embrace the intensity of life, accept the bitterness! I was much succorred by this reflection.
At last I discovered a narrow path leading down into a valley unmolested by unholy electric light. I slept right on the path. It was midnight when I stopped, only 15 kilometers from the border, I could sleep in. I had come 140 kilometers with about 1,400 meters of climbing- a good day. Tomorrow was the 3rd of March, the last day of my visa.
I awoke early to a valley full of clouds. I went back to sleep and rose at eleven. A cup of coffee and I was ready to hit the road… aside from the unsavory discovery that my tire was completely flat. A quick fix and I tackled the 500 meters up to the border. I saw a touring bike on the back of a black pick-up pass me on the way up, and I received a honk of recognition. From then on I looked forward to some company, thinking, fool that I am, that perhaps it was a woman.
On arriving at the checkpoint I saw a tall caucasian man riding off towards Laos. The son of a gun didn’t wait for me! What an antisocialite! I wondered, whether he was proud of hitching a ride up that hill…
I had heard some unpleasant rumors concerning the Vietnamese border and I learned too late that it was not allowed to exit at this point with an ev-visa, which is only another of those strange, senseless points of bureaucracy that confound anyone endowed with common sense, but I feigned ignorance and all went extremely well! I had to wait a moment, and we had to use the wifi at a little shop, which by some miracle had it up at this little mountainous point in the middle of nowhere, in order to print my visa. The head guard was summoned to deal with me, and as we walked to the little shop, he looked up at me. I smiled benevolently, innocently down at him, which for some reason incited him to jab me in the belly, with a straight face. Unsure of how to field this, I ended up emitting a soft, low, Winnie-the-Pooh giggle, which seemed to be the appropriate response, and I was pretty severely thrown off from that point on.
From there I road at least five kilometers through a no man’s land. I thought I may have missed it, but sure enough, a tiny little building full of lazy guards waited around the corner with a few half-assed gates. I had to guess where to park, and it took me awhile to get the attention of an officer to tell me where to go. With an effort, he pointed me around the far side of the building.
There was a kind looking woman there. I handed her my passport. She immediately listed off a number of strange fees I had never heard of: 1 dollar for overtime, as it was Sunday. About seven dollars in “police fees” that must be paid in Laotian Kip. I looked at her dubiously and informed her that I thought she was inventing fees. She became impatient and pulled out a booklet in which the fees were printed. I told her that just because she had printed out the fees didn’t make them real, that I hadn’t heard of these fees online, that many friends of mine had crossed here and had mentioned none of them. I asked her point blank if they were government approved, and she paused, before lying to me, informing me that I could call the embassy and ask. Of course, I would have to use her phone and acquire the number. Bad start.
In the meantime she gave me a form to fill out. I retreated and did so. Passport information, address, duration of stay, race- I paused at this one. My first thought was to put “human.” I mourned for the state of the world and put down “caucasian in order to avoid any complications.
I returned with this form and the haggling began. I informed her that I only had the amount of the visa fees. She said I would have to wait. I said that was fine. We both knew I wouldn’t have any money the next day. She became nasty. She swore at me in Laotian. She grumbled to the other guards, who were completely impassive. I ended up paying here dollar for overtime, which is in fact legitimate, though scandalous.
Then, to my surprise, she put a visa in my passport. What to do? I could wait a day, but my time is valuable to me. The crux of the issue were these “police fees,” which are not real, though I couldn’t prove it at the time, and that had to be paid in local currency.I did not, as yet, have any Kip. They offered to exchange some for me, at a rate of 7,000 to the dollar. The exchange rate it 8,500 to the dollar. We argued bitterly over this. I tried to move to another guard, but they were all in on it. I had passed from anger and frustration to dejection. The windows were low, and I wound up near tears ( without so much emotion behind them) as I knelt on the ground with my head hanging in the window. At last I acquiesced and paid. I just wanted to leave. I made sure to tell them what they were doing was wrong, and certainly exacted enough emotion out of this devil-woman to make here dollars hard-earned. Boy was I fuming on the way down!
Ah well. It is tragic, because you enter a new, unknown country with hate in your heart, but I soon accepted it. I could have waited them out, but I didn’t want to. Perhaps I could have tried to squirm out of them, as my passport already had a visa in it, but it was not worth the risk and I could not be sure of the crime. I may seem rich to them, and she may be poor (but how poor, really?) but the crime was heinous and cruel. I just had to pay a Troll toll to cross a bridge. Laos is a very poor country, one of the poorest I’ve been in, perhaps, although tourism is changing the face of the country, for better or worse. Fleecing those who come to spend money and nurture the nascent global economy of one’s people is just not class. It’s the principle! It is a prejudice, an extortion, and an injustice, but also totally human. Ultimately though, it was dehumanizing and I found it easy not to care that this woman in particular was poor, and at the time, I expressed the evil hope that the world would heap further hardship upon her. That, also, is a very human reaction.
I am so guileless. This was the only real disappointment, is that lying and theater can be a useful skill, one that I am thankful that I have been unable to affect. It is better to be an honest dupe, to a degree, then a cunning fiend. Hopefully the world at large will realize this one day. I also feel bad about my evil thought, of course, but a helpless fellow is desperate, and it was the act of casting an arm towards a life-raft after being ethically violated. I do not wish well for that woman and that is her fault. I am a good man, and I was wronged. The injustice was natural, and my reactionary prejudice was also, but I denounce the whole situation, I reject it. Perhaps this is the way the world is now, but some battles are worth fighting even if you lose.
Laos, with a tenth of the population, is incidentally wonderful. I haven’t enjoyed cycle touring this much in a long time. The roads are good, the camping is excellent, the people are extremely friendly, the weather is fine, though hot and humid.
I took a shortcut up a local road, which elicited comparisons to the Walkan valley in Tajikistan- dirt road, ungraded, rutted. I loved it. I pushed my bike a lot, but man you don’t get a more authentic experience! I was relieved to return to the pavement, of course.
Last night I was found out in a beautiful camping spot. The owner of the land saw me, came over, gave me permission to camp, lit a fire for me, and departed. Exquisite.
I am now in Luang Prabang. White people everywhere. Freaks me out a bit. More to come.