We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City just in time for one of two Independence Day celebrations, and there were Vietnamese flags absolutely everywhere. We were assured more than once that this was not an every day thing, and the flags would be gone soon. The view from the hotel room All over Vietnam there was graffiti, but Ho Chi Minh City had the most intricate, and the largest, and simply the most. More Independence decorations. Batman’s face. Rented a scooter and got to play in traffic some more. It’s surreal being on two wheels in this kind of crowd. We visited the Emperor Jade Pagoda, which was an oasis in the middle of a dense metropolis. Then back into traffic. Street lights are still new to most of Vietnam, but they are mostly obeyed in the city, and ignored elsewhere. There are repercussions for not obeying. And living on two wheels requires planning. By the time it rained, we had planned to park, and were inside a coffee shop watching those unfortunate folks caught in the deluge. The coffee was so strong I grew chest hair before I payed the bill. Interspersed in the scooter and bicycle traffic were one or two cars. What shocked me is how frequently they were Bentleys.Mostly, they were scooters. This is a sidewalk-turned-parking lot outside an office building.
Ho Chi Minh City at night. The LED flag on the center building was “waving” all night. On the right……is the Bitexco FInancial Tower. We’d be heading to floor 52, home of exactly two things: one bar, and one helipad.
But what a view! The single-story unlit rectangle right of center is the central market in Ho Chi Minh City, and is more intense than the traffic. You will be offered pants. It’s like a black hole of grassroots commerce.Back to daytime. Pretty much anything is legal on the roads, so there are some sweet hack jobs.Lots of hack jobs means lots of parts stores. Here’s a typical scooter parts shop.
I stared in amazement. I was only allowed in the right two lanes.I found out that Lambretta, much like Land Rover and Jaguar, is owned by an Indian conglomerate.
But really, those Bentleys are everywhere. I chickened out. Get it? Not as strong as the coffee. Also not as strong as the coffee. In the center of Ho Chi Minh City is a large park, which is constantly populated with people exercising, playing games, or just relaxing. There are sculptures everywhere, running the gamut of styles. We wandered between them, all the while our footsteps punctuated with 20-30 person exercise groups chanting and keeping time. Then back into traffic. One more night of pacing the shop-lined streets, and it was a 12-hour flight home.
So we landed in Da Nang, after flying down the coast from the North. This was the area where most of the fighting was, so many decades ago. You couldn’t tell, in town. We only stayed for a minute, before hopping on a bus to Hue. My face was glued to the bus window, only partially because I had forgotten my book in the baggage that now resided in the baggage compartment underneath me.
Hue was mostly a jumping off point for day trips to nearby temples, of which there were many. Emperors of dynasties past resided permanently behind and beneath giant stones within. We hopped on a scooter, and were guided to three of them in our first day there.
Three: Thien Mu Pagoda was the home of Tich Quang Duc, famed for self-immolating in protest of the treatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government in 1963. The blue Austin can be seen in the background of the photo of him on fire, and is the car he drove himself into Saigon with.
The next day we visited the Royal Palace in the center of Hue. A formidable sight from any angle, it was the location of a significant amount of fighting during the war. Bullet holes and blasted back steel still remain as stark reminders of what once occurred there. The palace is being restored to its original splendor by craftsmen who are doing all of the painstaking work by hand, as it was done the first time.
Street food was available everywhere, along with 24-hour massage parlors and special deals for guests of our hotel.
After getting our fill of Hue, we raced a storm back through Da Nang, to Hoi An.
From there, we took a day trip to My Son, a site in the woods that was a temple, then became a Viet Cong base, and was then bombed into the ground. Parts of it are being rebuilt with different color stone, to show the original shape while attempting to preserve its current state.
Hoi An itself is as much of a tourist trap as we could find in Vietnam, but still retained a charm not found in the many other such places I’ve been. It still felt like a sleepy little town on the water, but it never really slowed down, active late into the night and early in the morning.
We rented a scooter and tried to get lost, succeeding only in finding a construction site on the beach and a resort hotel with a view of the ocean that brought us back again the next day.
Night in Hoi An was my favorite, by far.
…and just like that, Hoi An was behind us, and Da Nang was hardly a blip on the radar before we left it, too, and headed further south to Ho Chi Minh City.
I turned left, away from San Francisco, and drove down the coast as far as Santa Barbara. Then, I turned around and drove back up. I spent a few nights lazily meandering up and down the 1, pulling to the shoulder to crash for the night, then doing it again. I wandered down to the water and napped on the rocks during the day. The days blurred together again, save the hundred miles I drove with a hitchhiking passenger, listening to his life story and plans for the future.
Then, one day I woke up and decided I was done looking at the ocean, and I wanted to see some mountains. I turned inland, and drove until the roads turned to dirt. There went another blur of days drinking beer near rushing streams, sleeping in windy valleys as the truck rocked back and forth, and resting the afternoons away in my hammock.
Somewhere in the mountains my motor started overheating, and I popped the hood only to be greeted with the spray of steam and boiling coolant from a busted radiator hose. I fixed the hose, and the radiator blew its top. From there out it was a healthy mix of coasting and driving to get out of the mountains. I arrived at a shop in the foothills at 4:50 on a Friday, and for a case of beer and $60 cash, 5 guys replaced my radiator in 10 minutes flat. Efficiency is easy when you want to get the hell out of Dodge.
I decided that the truck had had enough of the mountains, and spent a night in the desert before heading back for another go at the weirdness of Los Angeles.
One night was all it took, and it was East to Vegas for a night, then Hoover Dam and a straight shot back to my busted bike in Henrietta.
I finally got a look at the damage, loaded it up, and hauled it back to DC in a night.
It had been just over three weeks since the race at Laguna Seca, but it felt like a lifetime.