The turning stopped and we clearly saw: the flaw’s in that which finds the flaws.

– Mewithoutyou, “Bullet to Binary, part 2”


China is the land where everything feels huge, and where a sense of mystery lurks heavy at every turn. Thailand is the Land of Smiles, where everything is easy and the clouds (and curries) blow your mind.  Laos is the land of calm and purity; upon entering, one feels transported back decades, if not centuries, and upon leaving one looks back wistfully.

Vietnam is a little more confusing, a little harder to put into words, and a little harder to love.  It’s noisier, chaotic, coarser, coated in grime and grit.  No price is fixed and every purchase is a fight.   Chicken is served cold, hacked up along the horizontal axis rather than separated into body parts.  Greens are steamed and served plain, tofu is fried hours (days?) in advance and served lukewarm.  Cycling there tries your patience daily in a hundred ways.  I’ve heard it said that only 5% of travelers return a second time.

And yet…and yet!  There are a million gems to be found inside the haystack of frustrations.  The kindness of strangers, the joy of children, the hilarity of animals, an incredible meal when least expected, trees, skies, hard times weathered with friends, and perhaps the biggest gift of all, confirmation that it’s possible to be happy despite all the crap.  Just got to get your head on right.


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An auspicious start on our way out of Hanoi: Minseong’s gorgeous not-quite-sweetheart treats us to a bag full of sweet potatoes from a sweet auntie.


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We arrived on a drizzly night to the only hotel in a tiny town.  We opted for the “two guys on the bed, one on the floor, gear everywhere else” room for $7.50 rather than the triple suite for 15 (mostly at my insistence – I’m the cheapskate of the bunch), but once the family saw us unpack, they took pity upon us and let us move into the suite anyway.  When we started to head out for dinner, they told us that there were no restaurants nearby and that they’d cook for us instead.  Three cheers for room service!  Could’ve done without the plate of liver, though.


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Lots of places in northern Vietnam had a distinctly medieval feel to them – narrow, twisting alleys, rock walls coated in cracks and moss, no colors but grey.  Perfect for a slow walk in the drizzle.


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Not sure if the communists are to blame, but the Buddhist influence was conspicuously absent in the North.  Churches seemed pretty common, but most of them were in a state of apparent disuse.


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Huh, you’re gonna charge us a dollar a piece to cross this mess?


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Oh, I guess I should have warned you that there would be de-bodified dog faces in that picture.  You’ve gotta be either twisted or grizzled to get by in these parts.


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After taking the picture of the lady with the dog heads, Chris turned his attention elsewhere.  When he wandered off, the lady grabbed a dog head, ran over, and plopped it down on the front rack of his bicycle!  Too gross to enjoy, too bizarre to be angry…usually Chris puts on a super-cheesy smile or does something kind of gross for his photos.  This may be the only candid one in existence – not that there’s a name for the emotion he’s undergoing at the moment.


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This is how I prefer my dogs – friendly and fuzzy. This little dude slept outside my tent at Cuc Phong National Park.



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No doubt he was protecting me from dirty tree-huggers.

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And photobombers.




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A perfect little clearing with several concrete patches just big enough to put the tents on.  Spaced far enough away that we couldn’t hear one another’s snores, midnight urinations, or the squeaking when we shift around on our rubbery sleeping mats.


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Get off the bike and hit the trail!  After all that time in the city, it was nice to be immersed in nature again.  “One could do worse than be a swinger of [not exactly birches].”



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I guess now’s as good a time as any to come clean and admit it: During the first six weeks or so of the trip, Chris and I watched all five seasons of Breaking Bad.  We watched it mostly on rainy days or when one of us (I won’t say who) was laid up with diaorrhea.  The show was particularly poignant for me since my own stepfather is a chemist!  Luckily he’s not also a megalomaniacal meth producer.

Min’gyu and ‘sung both got into the show and started talking like its most lovable character, Jesse Pinkman.  Yo!  Magnets! Unnnhhh!

This is how wannabe-macho, insecure cyclist dudes say “I miss you” to former companions (i.e. Mingyu) who have gone their own way.


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Not much to say about the tents, except that they’re still awesome.



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Vietnam isn’t entirely a tropical country – up here in the mountains (700m) in November, it gets downright chilly at night.  Particularly if, like me and MS, you don’t own a sleeping bag and get by instead with layers upon layers of jackets and then a sarong on top.  The temperature must have gotten down to about 8C that night, cold enough to transform Chris into a gnome and MS into John Lennon.


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These little beauties were probably attracted to the mold growing on my swimming/sleeping shorts.  Or was this before the mold had set in?


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Cuc Phuong National Park also hosted a primate rehabilitation center with about 150 gibbons and Macacques (maybe) inside, as well as a turtle info center. Apparently most of Vietnam’s turtle population has been ravaged by the Chinese appetite for traditional medicine ingredients.


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Speaking of ravaging…I know I harp on industrial agriculture every now and again (though not half as much as I’d like to), but older slash-and-burn techniques can also be pretty terrible.  Particularly when the world is full and there’s no new land to use while your burned stuff regenerates.


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Hopefully there’ll still be something left for you, kiddos.

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You know the end of a post is nigh when I start breaking out the sunset shots.  Am I over-relying on this trope?


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Maybe I’ll switch things up and end with a sunrise instead!  This one is from Ben En National Park, just a few hundred km south.


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Sorry, I couldn’t pick my favorite.

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9 Responses to Vietnamazing

  1. myra says:

    so – dog heads ans strangnesses and more travel – glad to see my dogs heads are still attached. We just watched breaking Bad all together this past fall too – and yes we agree about the most likable character and it is a good thing you were raised by a sensible scientist – we decided it was a comedy strange but no other description worked for us. You might like my favorite movie Kung Fu Hustle. Hope you got my email with good wishes for you during this time – thinking of you. myra

    • Michael Roy says:

      Myra, maybe you could show those pictures to your dogs just so they know how lucky they are to live with you in Pennsylvania. It should stop them from complaining about the cold!

      I did get your email, but I’m so behind on my blogging that I haven’t been able to devote much time to replying to emails lately. Still, thanks for your kind words and for thinking of me. I’ll give you more details soon….nnnnnish.

      • myra says:

        It is good to know you received my message I know you are busy traveling so do not worry about reply – thanks for replying here.
        Yes my dogs are lucky that their ancestors were not eaten – i have pictures of my older dog’s grandparents in Japan – someone must have loved their dogs so that this line stayed alive because I know many were eaten during and after WWII . Her dad was born here and went on to become a champion and sired 499 puppies so that would have been a lot of needed food in Japan and knowing this breed they probably would have been ready to give their lives for their owners – at 6 months and 12 pounds after having her leg mangled by a pit bull she put herself in between me and the dog a second time so i would not get hurt and got her leg mangled again – so she has one natural brother and one natural sister – so 497 are step brothers and sisters – one named Pizzazz lives (lived) in Canada – mine is 17 years old now so I would need to check with her breeder – saw a Shiba Inu online that was 26 1/2 years old. They eat horse in Italy and I guess it is dog brains they eat in Viet Nam? Rather be vegetarian than eat her but i a sure she would be tasty but tough if one had no other food to eat since we feed her good food since her kidneys are failing . Sorry for the long dog talk but she has been walking in circles for almost 12 weeks now and I am kind of consumed with taking care of her – vestibular old dog disease – she is dizzy but not nauseous yet so still eating like a horse (what a funny expression wonder what it will translate into in Korean?) Always good to see how similar and how different things are around the world.

  2. chris says:

    hey mate, still loving reading through your adventures. i’ve been in saigon for about 4 weeks now and have one more week before i head back to the ‘gu. will be moving to saigon in a more permanent manner come late february. you obviously have more cycling experience within se asia than i, but for me…the past three weeks of cycling around saigon and the surrounding countryside has been astounding. the road conditions here are awfully more worse than korea, but the fellow road users are so much more friendly and welcoming than in korea. i feel as though the road conditions are like the alley-way-description you laid down–smaller, rougher, makes you go slower, but it also gives you more opportunity to take in your surroundings. as for the animal conditions, i couldn’t agree more. i believe it was ghandi that said, ‘you can judge a people by their treatment of animals.’ while i don’t want to take on such a simplistic, mono-categorical hermeneutics to judging a whole nationality, there is truth within the aphorism nonetheless. maybe i need more exposure to other se asian peoples, but the vietnamese in the south have done nothing but left me hopeful (in all my misanthropy) that people can be human still. i met a guy who’s cycled from hanoi to saigon–2000km in about a month’s time. gave me a goal for this year. anyhow, keep on with the adventures mate. hopefully we can meet up sometime before you head further west. pedalphiles for life, eh? 😉

    • Michael Roy says:

      Hey Chris! Glad to still be counting you among my readers, and glad to hear/read every so often about your growing enthusiasm for cycling. Actually, I met a couple groups of Vietnamese cyclists, all headed North from Saigon. I’m connected to them on FB, I’ll try to find them for you and get you set up. Make that cycle tour happen! If you do do it, definitely cycle on the Ho Chi Minh highway, and definitely do the loop I did last spring from Hanoi over to Dien Bien Phu and then up to Sapa and back. Stellar stuff.

      Another near miss – first in BKK, now in HCMC. Let me know if it looks like we’re going to cross paths again. I’m currently on the last legs of my SEA trip, I think. Another week in Cambodia, another month in Thailand, and then hopefully into Burma and over to India. I’m sure we’ll run into each other somewhere.

      “Pedalphiles.” Wow. What a gross term. Funny, at the community I lived in in India (Sadhana Forest, pronounced “SAHD-a-na”, some people took to calling themselves “Sadhanites.” I guess I’m both.

  3. mingyulee says:

    I am still watching ‘BB season 5’!!!
    And I’ve just arrived here, Bangkok!!
    Come and drink~ Biatch

    • Michael Roy says:

      Hurry up and finish that shite, yo! I’ll set you up with some other stuff to work. Maybe the Godfather? I’ll get you talking like an Italian mobster next. That should hold you over until you get a chance to learn some real Indian English.

      Enjoy BKK, 항의 많이 해라! 좆같은 정부!

  4. Random Stranger says:

    Hi there! Interesting post 🙂 Just a random comment from a random stranger living in Ha Noi … The churches in the north are mostly very well used (and multiplying – in my other half’s home town there have been 3 huge ones built in the last year or so, and she lives in a small, small town!) and there are Buddhist pagodas and temples everywhere, all extremely busy on their special days … you just gotta know where to look. All those alleyways do hide things from passers by 😀

    And it’s true, unlike Thailand, people here don’t treat animals well, but they are certainly friendly and relaxed! Perhaps all those years of occupation, famine, war and general hunger have left most people with a rather utilitarian attitude towards animals. Dunno. People can be pretty mean to each other, too, once you get past the surface friendliness (like anywhere), but, to big pale strangers like me they are incredibly welcoming and friendly – even the teenagers!

    • Michael Roy says:

      Hey Stranger, thanks for the comment. I wouldn’t say that Vietnam is any worse than anywhere else as far as the treatment of animals is concerned; lots of countries eat dogs, and of course my own homeland (America) has a pretty extensive, horrible (if hidden) system set up for the torture and execution of animals for food. So, in some ways, the way that the Vietnamese and others nearby are so up-front about their meat consumption is a bit refreshing, in a paradoxical way.

      The people I met were also for the most part pretty awesome, especially some of the college-aged kids in Hanoi.

      Hope you’ll keep reading!