Nosh and Nostalgia — Last Days in India

Cycling Stats
Panjiim to Povorim 7 km
Panjiim to Vasco De Gama 25 km
Day trips around Goa beaches 25 km
Train Station to Hotel in Bangalore 5 km

As planned, we haven’t done much cycling since we put our bikes on the roof rack of the big white taxi. And that’s ok – we needed to spend some non-road time in India and did not want to do a lot more beach time.

We found the solution in Panjiim (capital of Goa) where we stayed for ten days at two separate guesthouses broken up by a week at Angel’s Resort, in Povarim (only 5 or so km from Panjiim). Panjiim was a great way to get a city fix, where we walked around in the old section (the latin quarter) looking at the old Portuguese architecture. We took in a city-wide street photography exhibit and rejoiced in finding a pedestrian friendly (relatively speaking) Indian city with lots of restaurants (Goan, Indian and western) and ate back any possible weight loss. With gusto — as we usually do (oh sigh).

We took the overnight train (15 hours) from Panjiim to Bangalore the night before last and we’re now getting bike boxes, packing up and arranging transport to Chennai.

The last few days of a trip are always marked with nostalgia for me, largely I think because we travel for so long our time away becomes large episodes in our lives. This morning Ian and I braved the Bangalore traffic to walk to a bike store for our bike boxes and as we negotiated our way home through the cows, goats and auto rickshaws I felt a huge affection for Ian as I recalled other similar walks, struggling to walk with the empty bike box, in many cities around the world. I feel grateful that we are both so happy to be going home to France and our friends there.

Today that nostalgic feeling is particularly poignant because last night I met up with Anu, the documentation manager that displaced me and the Vancouver-based technical writers I managed for Pivotal back in 2003. During that tumultuous time, Anu spent three month in Vancouver and then I spent three weeks in Bangalore, setting up the ‘remote office’ which eventually, unknown to Anu and I at the time, was to displace the Vancouver office entirely. (There was an astonishing lack of integrity happening at the executive/board level where Vancouver employees were given endless assurances so they would keep working while in reality the board’s only concern was ensuring that the company was well positioned for sale so that majority shareholders could maintain their places in the 1% — (people who earn over 300,000 a year) at the expense of the entire Vancouver team.)

I can’t say I am not bitter about the experience, but I never blamed the Indian team or Anu. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about seeing her again, but having worked that closely with her, I had gotten to know her very well and liked her. I’m happy to say that it was wonderful to meet up with her last night — she lived up to my memories of her. She was the same Anu I had remembered: smart, kind, highly ethical. Her integrity particularly struck me last night as it is in such contrast to the people who were pulling our puppet strings behind the scenes back in the day.

So last night she met Ian for the first time and then took us on a Bangalore romp to a favourite store of mine that specializes in Indian fabric (a favourite from my stay here so many years ago) and to a wonderful fast food Indian stall with terrific coffee and dosas, a favourite neighborhood market of hers, and then to a brew pub for some real beer. We talked about how crazy Bangalore had become in the last decade, her mixed feelings about it – on the one hand there is great opportunity for her daughter here – on the other – it has become expensive and is now a rat race for her and her husband as they work to pay off the mortgage. Now that India has become more expensive for outsourcing, the high tech sector here is no longer immune to the swings in the global economy and most middle managers can now add being laid off at some point to their career experience.

And we joked and reminisced and walked away vowing to keep in touch.

Yep, it is such a small world.

In Panjiim, we headed out of our guesthouse which was situated in the ‘latin quarter,’ a whole neighborhood of old Portuguese houses, many of which have been renovated, and ran into Ulrike, a woman Ian knew back in Vancouver. She was about to deliver a talk on cycling in Goa at a near-by venue and invited us to join her. We spent a fun-filled hour listening to Ulrike talk about her cycling experiences around the world, to an audience of Indian women who were intrigued by the cycling and I think especially, the freedom of her lifestyle (no marriage, no children, lots of travel). We then headed out for a night on the town, cycling to a couple of bars and restaurants. We had a great sharing of stories about cycling trips around the world as well as learning about Ulrike’s most recent project, editing the memoirs of her Goan uncle. Her uncle is from a Goan family that moved to Burma to work for the colonials before World War ll and this is where her father was born. Ulrike is housesitting for her uncle (who lives in Bombay) and having been in Goa for a number of months was a great bike tour guide, taking us a long a number of beach roads so we could get the flavor of Goan beaches.

And so it all comes to an end the day after tomorrow when we hunker down in the car for 8 hours to get to Chennai. Then its 12 hours on Saudi Airlines to Paris (with a stop in Jeddah) and then an 8 hour drive to Lauzun. A bit of a marathon….

In the end, I can’t say India is my favourite place although I think that may be the result of our having bitten off more than we could comfortably chew in terms of roughing it for as long as we did. Despite taking cars a few times, we did end up cycling 1000 kilometres and there is a great feeling of accomplishment around that. We also enjoyed cycling the back roads in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and I am grateful that we ran into Ulrike who gave us a chance to experience that again in Goa, giving us some nice cycling experience at the end of our trip. We also enjoyed Goa, the beaches and backwaters of Kerala and our short time here in Bangalore. We have seen huge slices of Indian life most tourists never see and when I see a map of India in the future I will feel intimately acquainted with the whole southern coast.

The trip has also given me a lot of time to think about globalization and how it has been a big force in my life in the last decade. I’m feeling inspired to take on a writing project with globalization as a central theme and have some ideas about how to redesign this blog and the French blog I have been writing – expansions and new directions. When I come home from a trip that has inspired any writing or other creative project I feel its been time well spent and so I’m happy to say this is the case with India despite the ups and downs along the way.

And so, I guess that would be a wrap (or a maybe a dosa ):-).

Big White Taxi

Cycling Stats

Kochi to Cherai Beach 26
Cherai Beach to Guruvayur 61.68
Guruvayur to Tirur 59
Tirur to Calicut 57
Calicut to Thottaya beach 89
Thottada beach to payyanur 51
Big white tax to Gokarnum Beach 353

We’ve been at Om Beach for eight days now, chilling out at the Nirvana Café. Yep, really, I’m not making up these names. The beach is lovely. Someone picks up the garbage everyday and aside from cigarette butts, cow and dog shit, it is pristine. Remember this is India…Our hippie hut is very reasonable for the price, the restaurant is good by hippie hut beach standards and the geography is outstanding. Plus we have seen dolphins everyday and have enjoyed making friends with the beach dogs, including the one that insists on stealing people’s towels. (He likes to play chase. Stealing towels works.)

It has been a great way to unwind from our cycling adventure that has now come to an end after 900 kilometres.

The honking horns and kamikaze buses are now a distant memory. There were many good bits though: the back roads through Tamil Nadu rice fields and the back roads in Kerala that took us along the beach and through small villages and coconut groves. And there was the lovely man who invited us to his home somewhere in northern Kerala where his wife made us a local drink – buttermilk and herbs — and we met their kids and their new baby goats. This would not have happened if we hadn’t been on our bikes.

But as we cycled further north we began to run out of back roads and the traffic seemed heavier. The ride to Calicut was a tough one, mostly on the national highway. As we got close to the city we were increasingly frustrated by terrible drivers (Indians are the worst drivers in the world – absolutely no question about it.) I gave into a kind of cycling psychotic road rage that had me yelling a running commentary on the drivers around me (‘brilliant move asshole’ as I watched an auto rickshaw pass a stopped school bus, narrowly avoiding hitting children and cutting me off in the process) and which sometimes just deteriorated into me yelling fuck off at the top of my lungs to a bus, two inches from my mirror and honking as though he was trying deafen me. Of course no one could hear me above the din and they couldn’t understand me if they did…when Ian started experiencing the same psychosis we realized we might be coming to the end of our time on the road.

We left Calicut and did our longest day, 90 kilometres. We ended up at a lovely beach (Thottada) and stayed at a homestay (really a guesthouse) for four days, recuperating from the road. We miscalculated the distance ahead of us, thinking we were closer to Goa than we actually were. When we realized we might have to ride another five days in crazy traffic staying in crappy Indian hotels in crappy Indian towns we re-evaluated.

Our tolerance for Indian towns had already begun to deteriorate before Calicut but it took a big dive there, perhaps because we had higher expectations of it than the countless number of smaller cities and towns we had stayed in and it disappointed us. We kept hoping that we might find an Indian town that had a few street cafes or restaurants that looked out onto a street, or a park with a few picnic tables and a guy selling pop. We have learned finally that this kind of street life only exists in towns or cities where there are foreigners. We’ve learned that Indians, regardless of what religion they practice, are quite conservative by western standards and there seems to be little social life that does not involve family. This is particularly true for women – we never see them out at night on their own and when we do see them out and about they are shopping.

This was driven home to us when we stayed at the Beach Hotel in Calicut. The hotel was built in 1890 as a British club and the Indian owners have kept up the Victorian buildings that make up the hotel and its three restaurants and bar. The first night, thrilled with our room (the best value so far on the trip and lovely) we anticipated a cold beer (I actually hoped for a gin and tonic) in the hotel bar as we got out of our street weary and dirty bike clothes and luxuriated in a cold shower (well apparently there is never hot water even when you pay 60 bucks a night). We imagined a bar with big ceiling fans and hardwood furniture and a view looking out onto the small garden and courtyard just outside the bar. We walked in and noticed that although the place was full there were no women. All the blinds were pulled down and the lighting dim. It brought back descriptions of Canadian taverns in the fifties when women could only enter some bars with escorts and drinking in public was a dirty sin.

So we walked into the city center, yelling over the honking horns so we could hear each other, sidestepping garbage, and carefully picking our way to avoid broken sidewalks and motorcycles parked in all the pedestrian areas. We looked for charm but any old buildings that might have had something architecturally pleasant were run down and covered in shop signs. We finally found a park and sat on a bench — there was no café or picnic table — and wondered how many more Indian towns we really wanted to see.

Payyanur was the last straw. Another dirty town with no street life, noisy traffic, bad drivers and another hotel restaurant with dirty walls where a guy delivers thali on a metal plate and then slops sambar (a kind of breakfast vegetable curry made with tamarind) out of a big metal pail with a soup ladle. Sigh. (Although we do like dosas and sambar and ate kilos of both at places just like this.) At dinner we tried to do better and walked about until we found a posh (ish) looking hotel. They advertised a ‘family restaurant’ aka no booze and women are welcomed. It turned out there wasn’t one. There was a bar with food…we peaked in…The room was clean and modern with imitation leather upholstered chairs in good shape. But all heads turned when we opened the door, and they were all male and they were all getting loaded. We found a less posh family restaurant and were happy to get an English menu. The friendly enthusiastic owner asked us how we liked India, and with some guilt we lied. Lovely we said. Wonderful people (well that’s true for the most part). Very beautiful (read it might be if you guys would quit throwing garbage everywhere and pay even the remotest attention to architecture and regulating building signs and possibly reserving a little green space and understanding that ultimately urban living means more than women staying at home with the kids while men go out and get pissed in dark caverns).

Ok that’s all probably very culturally biased and spoiled westerner but that’s how I feel after cycling 900 kilometres. However, I’m glad we have done it because it has given me a view of India I couldn’t possibly have seen if we had cherry picked each destination, only choosing the ones that cater to westerners. We think this is how most tourists survive India. It has been interesting in a lot of ways and really we are just burned out which is not that unusual. We’ve heard of many people who get tired of India and fly to Thailand for a break…

So, it has been interesting to see how most of the world’s population lives. I read a Forbes report while I was here that said that 90% of the world’s population has less than 10,000 dollars in assets. In India that means almost a billion people as the middle class is around 400 million (so I assume they are not part of the 90%) and then of course there is the 1% (people who make over 300,000 dollars a year). Why is this important? Because we always think we don’t have enough. I know people in the 1% who insist they could not live on less than 120,000 dollars a year – that’s their poverty standard. Once we have convinced ourselves that we can’t live on less, then we feel we are entitled to it and we become self-centered and start making political choices based on what we think we are entitled to. This is why the 1% keeps getting richer… and the gap keeps widening. So, yes, it is good to be reminded about what it really means to be wealthy and what it really means to be poor. Stable, safe and productive democratic societies ultimately depend on us making educated political choices that are not completely selfish.

It has also been interesting watching a society that is still very gender-segregated. I don’t expect India can realize its great potential until women have the same freedom as men. It seems to me that family values, in the west as well, always seems to mean that women get to work and look after the house while men are free to go out with their friends, drink too much and act like little boys. In my experience, in the west, where men and women can drink in the same bars, I see less drunkenness and less leering. This is at least partly because everyone has a better chance of meeting a potential romantic partner when they aren’t leering like lewd idiots and getting shit-faced – it’s just not an attractive look…

So, the cycling in India and visiting crap Indian towns is now a wrap. From now on we will be cherry picking our Indian destinations from the comfort of our big white taxi.

On to Goa!

If you smile at me…

If you smile at me I will understand…cause that’s something everybody everywhere does in the same language…. (Crosby, Stills and Nash – Wooden Ships)

This post is dedicated to the World Kindness Movement

Cycling Stats since Kumbakonan
Kumbakonan to Managurdi 40 km
Managurdi to Pattukkotai 34 km
Pattukkotai to Mimisal 68 km
Mimisal to Thondi (26 km in car)
Thondi to Ramanathapuram 49 km
Ramanathapurm to Kanyakamuri (270 km car)
Kanyakamuri to Colachel 38 km
Colachel to Kovalam 58 km
Kovalam to Verkala 61 km

One of the joys of cycling touring is the perfect speed of it. It is much faster than walking so you get the thrill of moving from town to town in the space of a day. Yet, unlike being in car, it is slow enough that you can interact with the people you meet along the way.

In India, that means kids waving at you from school buses and guys on motorcycles slowing down to chat with you as you both move along. It means passing women carrying water jugs on their heads and stopping for goat herders moving their goats across the road. At the end of a day of cycling here, I feel like I have been witness to a kaleidoscope of images in slow motion: villages with arches covered in bright colored paper celebrating a wedding, the hub bub of a market, a small lake with boys jumping gleefully into the water.

And flashing throughout this movie are a lot of smiling faces.

When we do get off our bikes and get to meet with people, our conversation is often limited because we don’t speak the local language and although English is the language of commerce here, there are a lot of people, especially poorer people, who don’t speak it. Yet, I am amazed at the richness of our communication.

After cycling in many developing countries where we know that the average wage of the people we are meeting is much lower than ours, we find that, despite the disparity between us, and especially in rural areas, we are met with nothing but smiles and kindness.

On our first evening at our guesthouse in Varkala (Kerala, India), we met Nawar another guest at our homestay. Nawar, has been in India for three weeks now, having fled Syria, his birthplace. He had asked what our experience was like cycling and we talked about how people who haven’t travelled to India had warned me about it being dangerous. I explained that this was not our experience and related this story: One afternoon we had been cycling through a small village when I braked too hard on a patch of gravel and took a tumble. I wasn’t moving very fast and the injuries were minor: a scraped knee, a bruised toe. I was immediately surrounded – two men picked up my bike and took it across the street to where my husband was standing. Three women escorted me to a seat in a nearby bus shelter. The first poured one of my water bottles over the wound. The other made me drink water. The third offered me food and all three of them fussed over the bandaging of my tiny scrape as though I were an injured child. There was little English spoken but we were made to understand that they were worried about me and offered us a place to stay if need be. When we convinced them I was ok, they gave us candy and waved us off.

I told Nawar that our experience — thanks to cycling in so many remote areas — was that most people in the world are good and kind. He smiled and said, I agree – in fact I run an organization that promotes kindness – the World Kindness Movement (UAE). And then Nawar related his story.

Although he was born in Syria, he grew up in Dubai and became a businessman, eventually forming a partnership and running 14 companies. He enjoyed running the business, but there came a point where he wanted something else and a change in lifestyle. He resigned and became the founder of the World Kindness Movement for the United Emirates in Dubai.

(according to Wikipedia): The World Kindness Movement is an organization with no religious or political affiliation. The WKM’s chief object shall be to foster goodwill among the broad community – local, national and international – by way of kindness and in so doing, create greater understanding and co-operation between all people and all nations throughout the world.

The World Kindness Movement of the UAE developed, political change began in Syria, ultimately developing into the war we are all familiar with. A few years ago Nawar returned to Syria to try and do what he could to help. Since then, the conflict has grown steadily worse and in the end Nawar was forced to leave and is now displaced. He is spending some time in India to think about the next phase of his life, and trying to keep the organization in Dubai running remotely.

Despite the seriousness of his situation, he is positive and committed to the values of the kindness movement. One of the core values is respect for other people’s beliefs and despite his experience in Syria – war obviously being the antithesis of that — this is a theme that filters up in many of our conversations.

It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming to listen to Nawar’s stories. I admire his ability to maintain his optimism after experiencing difficulty most of us in the west can only imagine and I’m inspired by his commitment to such positive values.

Check out the world kindness movement here…

Note on the photos – these are some of Ian’s Indian portraits.

Magical Thinking

Lakshmi Villas to Kumbakonam 61 km

We had a great ride into Kumbakonam (home to no less than 188 temples). We were happy to be on quiet roads (relatively speaking) and the rural landscape of rice fields and coconut palms was nicely broken up by some large villages where we bought oranges and other snacks (Indian peanut brittle and what I think were deep fried plantain chips with chilies).

As I rode along I couldn’t get Neil Young’s “When you Dance” out of my head. I think it was all the reading I’ve been doing about Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities and a favourite of mine back in the day when I spent a year learning about Vedanta philosophy, meditating and playing Neil Young. Shiva, like all Hindu deities, manifests in many forms. One of the common ones is Shiva as Nataraja, where he is depicted as a dancer performing the cosmic victory dance (our Lonely Planet guide says in this dance Shiva is pacing out the creation and destruction of the cosmos).

I always liked Shiva because of his message that out of every ending there is a beginning. This idea has given me courage when it was time to leave a situation, and consolation when grieving an ending.

In earlier days I was smitten with things Indian, the chanting I heard at sat sang at the ashram I attended in Ottawa when I was 18, the taste of chai with cardamom, purple silk saris with silver threads and the smell of sandalwood incense. Learning that there was more than one way to understand God (I was an atheist by the time I was 12 or 13) was also liberating and heady. There I was at 18, wandering around in Indian cotton skirts, wearing bangles and bells and as I finished my last year of high school (at night as I’d left home), I pulled off 100% in my final economics exam and to this day I know it was partly due to the focus I’d achieved meditating. I stomped around in my small studio apartment doing a victory dance, and there was Neil all raunchy guitar and revolution, exhilarating. “When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance…when you dance, I can really love.”

After that I became disillusioned and a little afraid of the ashram as I watched people getting drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that felt cult-like. I talked to a psychologist at the time who warned me that westerners often have a hard time putting eastern religion into context.

His sentiment still rings true decades later. There is something so compelling about India for some of us westerners – there’s such a big romance about it. This is especially true for anyone with a religious yearning who has been left flat by Christianity. The yoga I studied through the ashram was a kind of intellectual practice with the goal of transcending your ego through practicing non-attachment and ultimately becoming enlightened, living in a state free of anxiety. This was so attractive after years of Catholicism where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to believe in. Literal heaven or symbolic heaven? Literal resurrection or resurrection myth? But then the swami (head of the ashram) turned out to be sleeping with the devotees and on one hell of a big ego trip. So much for transcendence, sexy Sadie. And so I learned all power corrupts and there is a lot of confusion for westerners about how Vedanta philosophy is to be practiced and interpreted outside of Indian culture.

They mystery remains as I visit these wonderful temples. Today we walked through the Nageshwara Temple, the oldest temple in Kumbakonam, founded by the Cholas (an Indian dynasty) in 886. The priest followed us around discreetly blessing everything – I don’t know if we were auspicious or somehow polluting. I watched people making offerings and meditating in front of the statues of various deities. We were the only foreigners there (in fact I haven’t seen a foreigner since we left Lakshmi Villa three days ago). I wondered what people were praying for…enlightenment or perhaps a new pair of shoes.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong, the ex-Catholic nun who is a religious scholar, writer and winner of a TED award. In her “Case for God” she talks about how pre-modern people did not take their religious mythologies literally. The myths were understood in a manner similar to the way we (if we are lucky – my thought) understand art. Art is transformative – we learn important things about what it means to be human through metaphor that touches us emotionally, whether it be music, poetry, or visual art. Our religious myths are not meant to be taken literally.

To believe we are going to achieve a permanently altered state of consciousness – some blissed out trance-like devotional state of mind as we flit about in saris sniffing incense – is to engage in magical thinking. A more grown-up and romantic version of the magical thinking that allowed us to believe in Santa Claus, and certainly a lot more fun than the magical thinking that has us believing that we will be resurrected in physical form on Judgement Day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. There are magical moments, transformative experiences when we are struck dumb by a piece of music, or cry when we read a poem.

Or dance to Neil Young wearing bangles. Rock on :-0

(p.s. Paul – even if I have to learn bar chords I think I should learn how to play this song…)

Vietnam Road Warrior Stories – Map and Menu Mishaps

Hanoi to Pha Lai 87 km (we got lost)
Pha Lai to Hong Gai 93 km (we got lost again)
Hong Gai to Bai Chay) 12 km (where we meant to end up)

We are finally back on our bikes. Carefully researching our route out of Hanoi saved us some stress as we managed to get out of the worst of the traffic without getting lost — and by the time we did get lost the first time we were in a suburb where it was less stressful. After that, we enjoyed about a 25 to 30 km cycle to Bac Ninh, paralleling Highway 1 rather than riding it. We found the shoulders very wide, the drivers very used to negotiating around small vehicles, and traffic moving at slower speeds than it does on highways in North America. It is anarchy as people ignore most traffic rules — motorcycles ride the wrong way down the street sometimes and people turning from a side street onto a main street don’t look to see what’s coming – its up to drivers on the main road to keep an eye on side street intersections. However, anyone who can ride the Pacific Coast Route in California can ride in Vietnam, at least as far as dealing with the traffic is concerned. The downside is pollution and noise. I bought a mask to filter out the worst of the dirt – these are worn by many of the motorcycle drivers and are so common they are a fashion accessory (you can get matching helmets).

We got ourselves completely lost getting out of Bac Ninh where we were supposed to pick up highway 18. We ended up on highway 38 and quite a few kilometres on our way before we realized we were headed the wrong way. With a lot of trouble because we don’t speak Vietnamese and no one speaks English, we asked for directions and managed to get on a dyke road that parallels the river and which eventually took us to highway 18. Except for a little trepidation about being truly lost in what felt like the middle of nowhere, the ride was pleasant as it was a narrow concrete rural road with very little traffic. We saw more cows and pigs on the road than we did people (and very nice fat little pink pigs and healthy looking brown cows they were). There were small villages off the dyke road all the way to Pha Lai where we eventually got to highway 18. I wish I had stopped to take photos now as there was some interesting architecture in the villages — some take on French colonial in a very rough style. Some of the buildings had small turrets – strangely European. The one village we did stop in to buy water was very third world. Reminded me of some small villages in some of the remoter parts of Mexico I have visited – narrow lanes and crumbling brick buildings, very few commercial buildings if any.

The first night on the road we ended up in Pha Lai, a small town whose claim to fame is a coal-driven power plant. They don’t get many western tourists. We learned that Nha Nghi means hotel and paid 20.00 for a room that wasn’t worth that but after 93 km we weren’t going to argue. The room was big, had an Asian-style shower but western toilet, big windows that opened onto the street and air conditioner and a fan. The bed was like a rock (many of them are – a little too much for Ian’s liking) but I don’t mind that. I was more suspicious of linen though and was glad I had my sleeping sheet from our camping days. After Ian’s bad night sleep we were sorry we hadn’t thought to pull out his air mattress which we are also still hauling around. The only other issue with the room was that it had Asian plumbing (bad) and water leaked out under the bathroom wall into the bedroom and unfortunately onto our road Atlas of Vietnam. We salvaged some of it but this is a bit of a problem now as I am guessing it will be hard to come by another one outside of Hanoi.

Our first menu mishap happened in Pha Lai. We were proud of ourselves for using the Vietnamese phrasebook to find a restaurant. All good. We were the only people there – still ok . There was a menu with no English but it had dishes by meat category, and showed pictures of the meat categories by animal (including dog and cat.) We chose the chicken. Safe we thought. Then we flipped the menu page and saw a picture of what I thought was a plate of vegetables. We ordered. The owner looked at us quizzically on our second choice but we persisted, pointing again. She shrugged. We munched our way through some greens but also some relatively small bones with white meat and figured perhaps it was some kind of bird until we saw a piece of spine that could only belong to an animal. We hope it was rat and not dog. Probably the right size for rat….Argh. So I am now very motivated to learn the food words…as this will be what we get on the road for the most part. Vietnam is not very developed outside the tourist areas. However, we certainly know the word for pho and this is always the fallback. It is also what everyone here eats for breakfast everyday and what we also ate the next morning when we were leaving Pha Lai.

We cycled another long day to get to Ha Long Bay where we misread the map and took ourselves over a large span bridge that crosses the bay. The whole area is called Ha Long City but it is composed of two parts: Bau Cai and Hong Gai. We ended up spending the night in Hong Gai, which wasn’t a bad experience – very nice three star hotel for 30.00, completely westernized, which I think is used by higher-level bureaucrats. There was a nice looking night market out in front of our building but we opted for a more western choice for dinner as we were still getting over our rat experience.

We are now in Bau Cai (back over the bridge) in a tourist area. We’ve found decent (though somewhat Asian plumbing) digs for 15.00 a night and we are resting up for another day and then getting a boat tour and transport to Cat Ba Island that will take us through the limestone karst formations the bay is famous for.

Overall I like being on the road again on the bikes. It is kind of rough travel and it takes some getting used to. We both think we will feel about Thailand the way we did after cycling in Cambodia – after Cambodia Thailand felt like an oasis of western comforts. Vietnam is much more together than Cambodia but it is still very much a developing country. Wages are low for many people – the average school teacher makes 168 US a month here. There are just not the amenities here yet that there are in Thailand (like supermarkets, corner stores, department stores etc.) For the most part people are happy to see us on the road and give us the thumbs up. We certainly got some double takes and chuckles on the rural road when we were lost ☺

The claustrobphobia has diminished quite a bit with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories working to reduce the sinus issues. It wasn’t the small spaces making it difficult to breathe – I was struggling to breathe period. I should have looked after that a long time ago but it is hard to get antibiotics from my doctor unless there is some kind of positive on a throat swab…but given I am getting better there must have been some kind of infection for some time.

For anyone cycling out of Hanoi to HaLong Bay

North end of Hoan Kiem Lake take Hang Dao (the night market street). It is one way in the right direction. The street changes names part way (Hong Giay). You will pass the market building and go under the railway. You’ll come to an intersection with a grey concrete turret building (don’t know what it is). Turn right on Hong Dau. At the first T intersection (perhaps more of a three way intersection) head across the street and up onto the ramp onto the railroad bridge. There is a bicycle sign on the ramp. Cross the bridge and go under the railroad bridge (on Ngoc Thuy). Continue south until you get to the next main bridge (it is not far maybe 500 metres to one km) then turn left on Nguyen Van Cu. This is a main drag that takes you out of town to Bac Ninh. The road changes names a number of times and you will pass through a few towns including Tu Son. You pick up highway 18 to HaLong from Bac Ninh.