Riding Vietnam Day 171: From the Heavens of the Hai Van Pass to the Hell of the A1 Highway

After checking out of my DaNang hostel while still leaving my luggage there since I had to come back through anyways, I rode off back south for the nth time I would not care to keep track of to reach my non-English speaking doctor at the hospital in Hoi An. Back through the cracked crumbling white walls I went to find my doctor and hear of the verdict. Good news: the big bad bandaged bambino boxer got to finally hang up his gloves for retirement. Bad news: my knee may or may not be showing continued signs of infection or just hasn’t yet healed properly and will need continued medication. Whether my doctor fully understood my intentions to continue on north by bike up to Hue, he gave me the green-light with a gleeful thumbs up. I nabbed some mangos (four juicy gems for a shade under a dollar) from the market for the road since you never know when one may come in handy. I went back to the mechanic quickly to fix an odd sound that had not found a way to silence itself (totally free and better be) before leaving Hoi An altogether. After another stop in DaNang to pick up my luggage (upon the many that had amounted through the course of the early part of today), I got to finally ride into the midday heat (free at last! – sounded in the most African-American gospel voice ever) for the Hai Van Pass. The Hai Van Pass has been well documented by the boys at BBC on the show Top Gear but I will gladly give my own take on the road and ride. The Hai Van Pass is a coastal road that helps to connect the cities of DaNang and Hue. Since a tunnel has now been built to cut through the mountainous land for commuting and passing traffic, this previously well trafficked road is now mostly deserted to the point that you can have those high scaling cliff drop views of the ocean and around all to yourself. The road is made up of many rising spurts of switchbacks that slither and ripple through so many turns a snake could get the spins. Especially on the hairpin turns, the panorama opens up to you guiding your eyes through the green studded slopes that make up these very mountains all the way to the  low lying beaches and the ocean expanding out. Framed to the right the size of DaNang even in the distance is still continually present while you drift away. I enjoyed taking my time with no rush or group to mush me along. I could have these picturesque views for as long as I chose. On the flip-side of the mountain I dropped down and lowered myself into the doldrums, muck and mire of the hell hole that is the A1 highway. The A1 highway is anything but A1. The beauty of the Hai Van Pass was too short to last when I quickly returned to the main highway that connects Hanoi and Saigon. For those shipping bags of rice and truckloads of pigs, this stretch of road offers all that you could ever imagine. On the other hand from a motorbiking backpacker’s perspective, it is a torture physically and mentally. This piece of ruggedly paved road was getting a makeover in the form of a widening reconstruction so what was already bundles of fun just got that much better! It was a total shit show in every sense of the word. The joy of riding on this road meant cautiously keeping pace in this mixed bag Congo line that never seem to end with semi trucks and buses at your side, wedged front and back, and bearing down on you at shocking speeds with a comical yet haunting circus horn (kind of like a clown: it should mean tons of fun but you are left with scarred memories). Already this road sounds like the place to be but it does in fact better. Along many of the roads in Vietnam, especially this highway (at least as far as my memory recalls it), the road is lined with speed bumps stretched across side to side leaving no part of the road untouched. These white colored speed bumps are not like the standard ones in America in your parking lots; they are subtle yet make all the difference in the world. Even at low speeds, these speed bumps got me so wobbly at times that I felt like my back wheel at no traction. I am sure having luggage strapped to the back that weighs the amount of an average Asian family probably doesn’t help matters but it is an imbalanced feeling that I will not soon forget. It has gotten so bad that I am now paranoid of the sight of white lines. Not all white lines are created equal since some have the bump while others do not. God forbid I ever run into a zebra out here; I may just very well have a seizure on the spot. Needing a break from the heat and the monotonous sight of chewed up highway and throngs of large sized vehicles riding up my behind or bunching me from every angle, I decided to take a break and snack on some mangos. As I was cleaning up the scraps, I encountered a mean son of a bitch of a dog (I hope you found the humor in that one) that growled and approached me furiously at this side of the road spot. I stomped my foot down repeatedly with a purpose and used my now empty water bottle as a shield/sword to hold the animal at bay. In my attempt to escape on motorbike (now willing to accept my break couldn’t end peacefully), I found out quickly my mode of escape was dead. The engine revved to no avail as it began to appear it was overheating. I found a woman nearby to point me in the direction of a mechanic, which she said with spotty English and hand gestures would be 2 km down the road. After pushing my bike for 20 meters, she ran me down and led me along a side street to a mechanic. We attempted to talk but not much could be done. Regardless, the give and take to try and get something across is half the fun. They laugh, you laugh even though you don’t know what you are laughing about. She got a kick out of my self-made phrase book. She repeated aloud certain phrases for her own practice alone, which I enjoyed bringing to her. After awhile I found out that some thingy that works with this contraption to make so and so happen was broke and needed to be fixed (if it weren’t obvious enough, I don’t know what the hell I am talking about; mechanics and I have mutually agreed to not be seen with each other). At times like these, I wonder whether all the expenses, time, and frustration that goes into a motorbike trip through Vietnam are worth it. The freedom and the scenic views past and upcoming will once it is all said done be worth it (God willing I complete  it with all my limbs intact). Once that was fixed, I could finally rejoin the trail of sorrows to Hue. Eventually, I was able to pull off that hellish highway after the short 100 km that separates DaNang and Hue. Once in Hue, I got myself a couple glasses of nuoc mia to rehydrate and reenergize myself. Nuoc Mia is not the fish sauce but actually a drink mostly made from sugarcane juice and a little bit of lime juice. It is a popular midday drink to cool off with. For roughly a USD quarter a glass, I will drink heavily my friend cause damn I am always thirsty. After checking into my hotel which came with a free beer on arrival (don’t mind if I do), I went in search for some food to satisfy the munchies. Through these many streets in front of hotels, restaurants, and homes, I saw tables set up as offerings with incense sticks providing an earthy waft of air to go along with the bananas, mangos, and packaged cakes sitting atop the table on display for the spirits or Buddha or whoever else they may be worshipping. In this backpacker and Western district, I struggled to find a spot that could be legitimately called local. Along the gardens that composed the river walk, I found a group of Vietnamese likely in their twenties huddled more or less around two women young and old preparing banh mi sandwiches from their low sitting chairs (kind of like a campfire setting and feel with two lone lanterns lit just enough for the two women to work). I spotted an empty seat and joined in on the event. The woman had a variety of mystery meats and chili sauces in separate containers that they pulled from with their chopsticks of all things to be placed into the baguettes. I raised my one index finger and said ‘mot’, for one, so that I could have a sandwich to call my own as well. All these young people continued munching away greedily at their sandwiches while still having conversations with the two women that couldn’t seem to find a breath or break amidst the many orders requested of them. She swearer chili sauce on the soft fluffy inside before adding the various herbs which were only accents to the meat lover’s selection that she placed into the baguette. With the sandwich now in my hands, I took the first bite and the heavens rejoiced! The sandwich played on so many notes of my place: the crunch of the bread, the saltiness of the meats, the Mike Tyson punch from the spicy chilies, and the odd revolving textures at play from the various meats. When the last crumb disappeared and my turn had been awaited, I wasted no time in ordering seconds. I loved the local feel of a spot like this beyond the joyous taste of the food itself. Most foreigners find themselves in kitschy restaurants on full sized chairs (unlike the tea-sized chair I rested upon) or in their electronic boombox bars while I search for the hole in the way locale. The two sandwiches cost me 15000 dong (67 cents) and sure tasted a lot better than Subway. After a Skype with the family, I went to get a bowl of bun bo hue since I was still hungry and the bowl of broth is usually quite light. Since many restaurants, pop up stands, and hole in the wall locales were closed by this time at night, I had lowered my expectations to street level. The famous dish was okay but I will have to wait for another day to experience the celebrated dish in its full glory. To cool off the palate from my usual use of chilies, I nabbed a kem che drink/dessert. Kem che is one of many che drinks that can be layered full of sweetened black beans and corn upon many other treats with a scoop of rice and a pour of sweetened coconut cream to make it a sort of sweet soup. No longer do you have to worry about melted ice cream; it is the way this dessert is to be eaten. I walked along the river on their river walk watching the lightning strike repeatedly over the Imperial Citadel just across the river in some kind of natural firework show. Along my walk the oncoming rainstorm had to poop on my parade and turn me around. Once I finally reached my hostel/homestay, I had gotten completely drenched in this all out torrential downpour. Thus ended another day in Southeast Asia. I have found that even when days don’t seem destined for it (like today) they still find a way to write themselves. I wish could say that I was able to conjure up magic and make some of this up but that is just how it all happened. 

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