"The Vietnamese don't think like us," Oliver said in German
accented English as he removed the panniers from his bike and
stacked them next to the door of his flea-bag room. "I cycled
over there a few years ago. They thought I was Russian because
I have blond hair. They hate Russians." As he looked toward the
mountains to the east he shook his head and said, "But they
love Americans. It makes no sense." Pointing to the rear fender
of his bicycle he said, "I had to stick an American flag on my
bike. Once I did that I had no more problems."
We were standing with our new German friend in front of a
guesthouse at the end of a Laotian village that consisted of little
more than a dusty crossroad and a few open-fronted shops
selling packaged goods. Amanda and I had taken the room two
doors down from Oliver. In preparation for the ride up over the
Annemite Mountains out of Laos we were looking for any
information we could get on cycling in Vietnam and we listened
closely to Oliver.
"The mentality," he continued, twisting his hand next to his head
as if he were unscrewing a jar. "We all know that two plus two
equals four, right? But in Vietnam it doesn't. You can show
them, look, two here and two there. Put them together. You get
four." He scratched his head and opened his eyed wide with
incredulity, "And they will say, 'No, two here, two there, five, see'.
And you will look and there will be five. It is just a different place.
They think differently."
The next morning we were up early and began the three-day
journey to the border with Vietnam. Borders always make me
nervous. It has something to do with subjecting oneself to the
whims of the government officials. And change. For two months
we had spent each and every day learning the specific
challenges of propelling ourselves through Laos: How to change
money with the jewelry sellers in the market: Where to find the
round tubular bamboo pieces stuffed with sweet sticky rice: How
to say the key phrases, yes, no, thank you, how much, hotel. All
that was about to change.
The last morning in Laos we woke with a start as the alarm
sounded just before five. With a long day of cycling ahead we
wanted to be up and out with the first light. Several branches of
the Ho Chi Minh trail crisscross the road and consequently the
region we were cycling through had been subjected to
carpet-bombing and defoliant spraying during the Vietnam War.
It has never really recovered. The few villages along the way
were little more than a collection of cement walled homes, many
with a small table in the front offering the most basic of supplies
About twenty kilometers before the border as we were pedaling
through one of these villages I swerved to avoid a woman with a
stick stretched across her shoulders carrying two massive
baskets of firewood, then plunged into a large pothole. As the
heavy packs on my rear rack bounced then slammed down, the
backside of my bike let out a loud zipping groan and came to a
Amanda nearly rode right over me, skidded to a stop and yelled,
"Hey! What happened? Why did you stop like that?"
"I don't know," I said. "Something's wrong."
Together we tried to move the bike off the road but the rear
wheel would not spin. "Okay," Amanda said, "lift up the back
while I steer it."
Grasping under the weight of the rear rack I hefted the bike
forward a few feet at a time until we had inch-wormed it off the
road. A crowd began to form around us as we removed the
panniers to see what was damaged. A half-dozen men squatted
down beside the bike and together we discovered that the frame
had broken at the connection point for the rack, sending one of
the arms of the overloaded rack directly into the spokes. Luckily
no spokes were damaged.
One of the squatters, a thin man in his sixties wearing an army
shirt that hung from his lanky frame, grabbed my arm and said,
"Go, fix, shop," as he pointed across the road.
I carried the bike while following the man to an open fronted
garage that was the motorcycle repair shop for the village.
Several teenaged boys lounged in the dark greasy interior and
hopped to their feet when they saw us coming. Amanda ferried
her bike and the other packs across the street while I explained
Pointing with my index finger to the broken piece I made the
noise, "zzzzzt, zzzzzt, zzzzzt," to indicate that I needed to have it
welded. The boys nodded and disappeared into the back of the
shop. Together they wheeled an ancient arc-welding machine
from within and plugged the bare wires into the electrical socket
next to the door.
After removing the rack and zip-tying the broken piece into place
I nodded for the young welder to do his job. He nodded back,
smiled, and passed me the handle of the welder. He expected
me to do the welding.
I had done some welding on our van once a long time ago. The
results were far from pretty. That was in California, with an
indulgent professional welder looking over my shoulder, while
wearing a space helmet, a leather bib and gloves that extended
up to my elbows. Here there was no protective helmet, no
gloves, no goggles, and no bib. As I took the welding tool into
my hands I imagined one-point-two-jillion gigawatts of electricity
coursing unimpeded though my body.
With the first few zaps the metal rod sparked, heating the tip so
that it quickly melted, then stuck to the bike. I had to pull it off
several times using my Leathermans tool while the crowd began
to chuckle at my ineptitude. Finally one of the teenaged boys
realized I was getting nowhere and took the wand in hand,
searing two tiny dabs of steel onto the edges of the metal ring
that held the rack in place.
After reconnecting the rack and loading up the bike I asked the
young guy the fee for the welding. He discussed the matter with
his friends then wrote out 5000 Kip on his hand with a pen. The
repair cost fifty U.S. cents.
With our debt paid Amanda looked at her watch and said, "We
better get going. After the border we still have another 18
kilometers and a big hill to get to Khe San."
The shiny new international border at Lao Bao is an example of
the recent shift among Southeast Asian nations from contention
to cooperation. It provides land-locked Laos a gateway to the
large port at Denang and gives the relentless Vietnamese
entrepreneur a link to the vast markets just across the Mekong in
A few hundred meters before the border we were swarmed by
dozens of young women wearing the dust masks that most
everyone wears, trying to block our way with their motorbikes.
They flapped wads of Vietnamese Dong and Lao Kip and yelled,
"Money. Change money." As we stopped at the border
entrance they surrounded us, getting right up in our faces and
grabbing our arms.
This was the first time in Southeast Asia where we had
experienced the crush of humanity that would become familiar in
Vietnam. The population density in Laos, where one square
kilometer is shared by about 25 people is sparse compared to
Vietnam with a density more than ten times greater. This
increase in population density meant that personal space had
become a luxury in which we would soon no longer be able to
Leaving the border town of Lao Bao the road climbed up into
misty mountains following what was once the DMZ or
demilitarized zone, the old border between North and South
Vietnam. After spending the night in a cramped guesthouse just
down the road from the old American Khe San military base we
woke early and descended through the dense fog and rolling
green landscape. On our left, looming over the road was a jutting
steep edged mountain know as the Rockpile, once an
unassailable lookout for the Marines. A few kilometers down the
road we came to Camp Carol where massive cannons once
rained Volkswagen sized shells on the surround countryside.
Speeding downhill toward the coast the rain increased and
deep-orange mud clung to our bikes as we entered the town of
Dong Ha. Arriving at the guesthouse Amanda began washing
our filthy laundry in the sink while I pedaled north toward the
massive Cho, or town market. The cycle parking was the size of
a football field and the attendant followed me as I weaved
through the thousands of bicycles and mopeds until I found a
good sturdy pole to lock my bike. He watched with bemusement
as I threaded the cable through my wheels then handed me a
claim ticket while writing the number in grease pencil on my rear
There was an obvious hierarchy among vendors at the Dong Ha
market. Those selling packaged dry goods, rice and meat were
inside the dark cavernous building. Out around the edges the
long life fruit vendors piled tangerines, Chinese apples, pears,
grapefruits, and mangos in weaved baskets. Outside, on the
ground in the rain where the perishable produce vendors
wearing their traditional round pointed hats and plastic panchos.
They made the journey each day from the fields and sold a
variety of unidentifiable greens, spinach, bok choy, cilantro, and
peppers as well as the short-lived fruits, papaya, pineapple and
A pretty young woman had ripe papayas spread out on the
ground around her. As I picked up one and asked the price, an
older female vendor from down the row came bounding toward
me, grabbed my arm in a friendly gesture and asked, "Hey,
where you from?"
"United States," I answered.
"Cool, man. I knew it!" She said excitedly, adjusting her straw
hat to get a good look at me. "Far out, you look American, too
much." She was in her late fifties, as thin as a rail, and her
English was littered with seventies slang. She referred to herself
as Mama San.
"This Mama Sans daughter, Lily," she said, indicating the pretty
young papaya seller who smiled at me without understanding.
"Wew, boy. If I young like Lily, you, me, we go have us some fun!
Man, we have a party, you American. I have many boyfriends
American when big base here. But nobody take me to America.
My friend, she go. She beaucoup rich. She live big house in
place call Charleston. You know it?" As she questioned me a
crowd of vendors formed around us to listen and she obviously
relished the attention.
"I do," I said. "It's not far from where I grew up."
"It mean nice place?" she asked.
"It is a nice place," I told her. Then I asked, "How was it after the
"Hard, man. We had hard days, whew," she shook her head
sadly. "No food, man. Ten babies. I had ten babies, man, and
no food. This one the youngest, it good for her, but in the
beginning, hard, man."
Then she grabbed my arm and led me around next to her
daughter who looked uncomfortable, "Why not you go with my
daughter, have beaucoup party tonight. Take her to nice
restaurant, over there," she said as she pointed off into the
I pointed to my wedding ring, shook my head and said, "Married."
Mama San smiled broadly and said, "No, she have a little baby
but she not married. No problem, she want to go with you. You
take her back to Charleston. It better there." Her laugh made her
I pointed to my ring them to myself and said, "No, I am married."
She waived her hand back and forth, "It okay. Beaucoup okay.
Everyone have Vietnamese wife. No problem."
To change the subject I said, "How about if I buy a papaya?"
Picking one up I asked, "Is this one good?"
Mama San was disappointed but answered, "No, that one not
good, man." She picked up a greener one, less ripe than the
others. "This one best", she said as she put it in a plastic bag
and told me the price. Earlier, another vendor had tried to
charge me more than double for a smaller papaya. As I paid,
Mana San stuffed a small bunch of bananas in the bag, "For my
American friend. You come back tomorrow, sit here and we talk
for a while. I like talk American."
Back at the guesthouse Amanda unpacked the fruit and asked,
"Hey, why'd you buy this green papaya?" As I told her the story
of Mama San she began to slice off the peel and said jokingly,
"Huh! Well, your girlfriend was telling the truth. Look. It is ripe. I
would have never guessed. In Mexico you have to wait until they
"Oh, yeah, I meant your Vietnamese wife. How convenient."
As she handed me a bowl of fruit, a truck passed outside the
window playing a loud, beeping, tune, like the ringing of a mobile
phone, over and over. I asked, "Is that...?"
Amanda finished, "...the forbidden dance. The Lambada."
Pulling aside the curtains she said, "It's the trash collectors.
Look, Rich, people come running out of their houses with their
trash. The Lambada is the trash truck song!"
As the trash truck got further away we could hear the television in
the next room tuned to a variety show, blasting out a Vietnamese
tune. The only word we could understand was repeated
continuously with machine-gun rapidity, "Tet, tet, tet, tet, tet." In a
frenzied way it reminded us that Tet had was coming.
Tet in Vietnam is Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, and
birthdays all wrapped into one massive celebration. Families
gather together from all over the country to celebrate their
ancestors and look forward to good luck in the coming year.
They gather around the New Years tree covered in peach or
apricot blossoms to ward off evil spirits where they overindulge
in food and drink.
During the Vietnam War the Tet Offensive was a
well-coordinated attack sprung by the Vietcong during the
holiday that surprised the American and South Vietnamese
forces, taking several key cities south of the DMZ.
Amanda and I were planning our own Tet Defensive. Being on a
bicycle on the roads during Tet would be foolish. Searching the
map we found the beach resort of Nha Trang, a few days cycling
to the south, where we could hunker down for the explosion of Tet
As we pedaled south we spent rest days in the imperial city of
Hue, the port of Denang and the colonial town of Hoi An before
following the coastal road toward the beaches of Nha Trang.
Tet haunted us. At the end of each day of riding we would
convince one another that it could not get worse. And the next
day it would be worse. Highway 1, the two-lane road connecting
Saigon to the south with Hanoi in the north, was an absolute mob
The buses were filled to overflowing with faces squashed against
windows, gulping for dusty air like half-dead goldfish. The center
isles were stacked with luggage, babies, and human beings all
piled like firewood, and the roofs were littered with dozens of
strapped-down scooters. At the petrol stations the passengers
rushed from the buses like dead-limbed zombies, scurrying to
the toilets in panicked fear that the driver would leave them
behind. Merging back onto the road the driver would use his
excessive girth to assert his right to the lane. Even a brief glance
in the mirror, it seemed, was a sign of weakness.
On each bus there was a young man whose job title might best
be described as Bus Monkey. While in motion this human
primate hung from the open front door, one hand and one foot
swinging wildly as he screamed at any potential passenger.
When passing another bus on the two-lane road the bus monkey,
as sport or part of his job description it is not known, ventured to
touch the vehicle being passed. During the frantic lead-up to Tet
it was not unusual for one bus to move into oncoming traffic,
initiating a pass while the first bus passed a motorcycle. As if
this was not enough, a third bus would attempt to pass the first
two, moving far across the road into the oncoming shoulder. The
three tandem Bus Monkeys would shriek with wild joy at the
Amanda and I would shriek with fear and scurry into the ditch at
the side of the road.
The last night before reaching Nha Trang we stopped in a small
town with one small guesthouse. The lively middle-aged woman
who owned the place was so excited to have foreigners visiting
her guesthouse that she hugged Amanda's arm all the way up
three flights of stairs as she showed her the room. Vietnamese
are the touchiest, huggiest Asians we have yet to meet. Or
perhaps they just like to hug Amanda. Anyhow, we spent the
evening silently staring at the blank white walls of the room in
meditative recovery from the sensory overload of the day on the
In the morning we packed up our panniers and carried them
down the stairs to load the bikes for the last day of riding before
the Tet Defensive. The owner, her husband and their entire
neighborhood waited eagerly around the bicycles in the lobby for
us to descend. Her husband was a doughy, happy man in his
late fifties, with a silly, mischievous gleam in his eye. Proudly he
narrated the family history, in Vietnamese, as he pointed to the
photos on the wall. One photo showed him many years earlier,
posing with a machine gun and a bandolier of bullets strapped
across his chest. Pointing to the photo, then to me, he
pretended to shoot a machine gun at me, "dat, dat, dat, dat, dat",
as he and the entire group laughed. Then he rushed over and
hugged me like a brother to show that there were no hard
Leaving the guesthouse on the outskirts of town I hit a pothole
and broke the frame in the same spot as before. Once again
removing the packs we searched for a welder
A man setting up an ancient carnival ride at the corner of a major
intersection was welding the center support that held the six
swinging cartoon animals by chains. When he paused in his
work I waived from outside the barrier and pointed to my bicycle.
He nodded and indicated a place in the shade. After I
unscrewed the rack he quickly zapped the frame leaving several
perfect beads of molten metal. With a careful eye he inspected
the weld, gave it a few extra zaps for good measure, then went
back to his work on the ride. When I offered him a few dollars in
payment, he smiled and refused.
On the outskirts of Nha Trang we stopped at a market to buy
some vegetables and tofu for lunch. While the fruit and
vegetable vendors can sometimes be tricky in their dealings, the
tofu vendors are always meticulous in charging us the correct
price, or at least they seem to be. As Amanda picked up four
blocks of tofu the vendor held up four fingers to indicate the price
of 4000 dong, or about 25 cents. After paying her with two 2000
dong bills, the kind-faced vendor patted Amanda hand as she
slipped extra piece of tofu in the bag for free.
Amanda looked in the bag then look at me and said, "See, two
plus two does equals five"
The Tet Defensive