Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Close Encounters of the Cow Kind

After taking a hiatus from writing it's time to get back into it, hopefully with fresh creative juices. A lot has changed in the month and a half since I last posted. I no longer work for AsiaLIFE magazine, as it was simply time to move on. I'm working full-time as a copyright editor for a company based in Hong Kong, which means a lot of time in front of the computer, but I can work from anywhere that has wifi. I'm going to Con Dao, one of the few places remaining on my 'must-see' list in Vietnam, for a few days next month, and Indonesia for three weeks in September. I'll also be moving at the end of the month, so more changes are ahead.

One constant is that you never know what you'll run into on any given day in Saigon. I went cycling Sunday morning, and while on the approach road to Phu My Bridge a family of cattle decided to cross the road in front of me. A cow and a calf hopped over the short barrier separating the bike lane from the car lane, but then the bull sauntered out and decided he didn't really feel like jumping the barrier. So he simply stopped and stood in the middle of the lane. I stopped about 10 feet away from him along with a couple of motorbikes. The drivers quickly decided to scoot past him, but when I started to move forward (in my red cycling jersey), he squared up to me and did not look pleased. I stopped again, wondering how long I would have to sit on the windswept road getting stared down by a bull. Eventually another group of motorbikes approached and passed without incident, so I sneaked past with a couple of them and carried on with the remaining (cow-free) ride.
Just another day in Saigon.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Many Bottled Water Brands of Northern Vietnam

I was going through pictures from H2H on my phone the other day and came across the collection of curiously-named bottled water I amassed in the northern part of the country. This was one of the more humorous things I remembered from previous rides - it seems as though every province up north has its own home-grown ripoff of Aquafina. The names are nonsensical and often hilarious. Down south nearly every shop has the real deal, but for whatever reason it's a different story up there. I imagine the company's legal department could have a field day if they came across this. I now present 'The Many Bottled Water Brands of Northern Vietnam.'

Little did we know that Deadmaus has a relative in the bottled water business.

When in doubt just add a glacier and a bald eagle.
This last picture is something I simply forgot to share: an incredible purse spotted at a shop in the tiny town of Quy Dat, nestled amidst the rice paddies and epic limestone karsts of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Rural Vietnam is chock-full of intriguing wonders, both natural and man-made.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Duck Tacos

My, it's been a while since I last posted. Since returning from H2H late last month I've spent far too much money enjoying the bountiful food and beverage choices of Saigon. A recent favorite discovery was duck tacos at a typical quan way out in District 2. Only served on Tuesdays, this delicious creation is the result of a serendipitous arrangement between the American owner of Saigon Tacos and the Vietnamese family which runs the duck restaurant at 554 Nguyen Thi Dinh. The taco company produces fresh corn-based tortillas every Tuesday, and a bunch are delivered to the ramshackle eatery to be served with their fantastically meaty duck. The tacos come with salsa, chili sauce and refried beans also made by Saigon Tacos, and the staff will even de-bone the duck, which is a huge help. This unexpected fusion is yet another example of the amazing things being done here.

 This is also my last week at AsiaLIFE magazine. On June 1st I'm starting a three-month full-time copyright editing job, which means I'll be working 9-5 for the first time in my life. I'm not exactly sure how interesting this job will be, but if it sucks at least it's only temporary. I'm in the early stages of planning a big trip afterwards, hopefully to Indonesia, Malaysian Borneo and the Philippines, so any recommendations on what to do/see/eat in those places are welcome. I'm going home for a wedding in December, and after that everything is up in the air, so we'll see what happens.

Finally, we're still fundraising for H2H 2015 until the 29th (Friday), so if you'd like to donate it's not too late! As a team we've raised nearly $50,000, which is a new record for H2H. We'd love to hit that number, so please help us get closer by donating here: https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/. 100% of donated funds go directly towards the charities we support, and every little bit makes a difference.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

H2H 2015 Day 27: We're Coming Home

I wrote the recap of the last day for the team blog and people liked it, so I'm going to repost it here.

This final day of H2H 2015 began earlier than the rest, and even the terrible morning people were up and ready because we all knew what was at the other end: our friends, our own beds and, most importantly, pizza and BBQ.

I had set a different route into the city from past years in order to completely avoid Highway 1, which is harrowing on a bike, but once I explained it to the DHL drivers they were having none of it. This new way would require a ferry crossing, which they said would take hours since holiday traffic was pouring out of Saigon. So much for that, Highway 1 it was - little did I know that a branch of AH17 has been added to the highway, allowing us to go around the worst stretch. Another benefit was that this significantly shortened the route - instead of nearly 100km as proposed by me, we were now facing a trifling 83. We had told everyone to meet us at Cargo Bar in District 4 at 4pm, so with ample time we enjoyed a long breakfast and could take our time on the road.

We rode differently today: the whole team together, with Kim and Damo out front and me at the back (which, I have to admit, was extremely boring), while the DHL van and Mr. Cuong the white van man acted as buffers at either end. The traffic, especially on the AH17 branch, was surprisingly light and completely manageable, much safer than in years past. After an extended water/Revive/Coke break at a roadside cafe we carried on - our first stop on the way into Saigon would be The Boathouse in Thao Dien, where Bekah, Bex and Thea, the injured riders, would meet us for the final leg into the city.

We rejoined Highway 1 in Thu Duc District and began following the metro construction past Suoi Tien. Coming over a rise you could see the unmistakable silhouette of the Bitexco Tower in the hazy distance and a cheer went up - we could see the end of this amazing journey, and it was an exciting moment.

We entered District 2 with time to spare and turned off the highway towards The Boathouse, located in the BP Compound. As went through the security gate at the entrance an extremely drunk Vietnamese man decided to crash his motorbike right in the middle of the group. Unfazed we carried on past the expensive villas and it was high-fives all around as we parked our bikes. Rider Damo is friends with Rod, the owner of The Boathouse, and he had arranged a 2 million VND tab for the team. We settled into the leafy riverside environs of the restaurant and enjoyed a few very well-deserved brews along with chips and salsa. We also reunited with the three girls who had returned to Saigon earlier in the ride, and it was great to see them in high spirits.

Anh Thuong, Anh Thang and Chu Cuong, the support drivers, received Hawaiian shirts as a token of our appreciation for their hard work and patience over the month.
After one final team picture, and the first full team shot in over three weeks, it was time to head to Cargo and the grand finale. Bekah and Thea, still unable to ride, went in the van, while Bex bravely mounted her Giant and rode along.

Across the river and through Binh Thanh, entering District 1 and riding along the river - it was strange cycling past skyscrapers and condo towers after several weeks of scruffy towns, herds of cattle and epic natural vistas. After one final regroup at a cafe around the corner from Cargo it was time to finish: Bekah and Thea walked along while we held up traffic to finish as a whole. Rounding onto Nguyen Tat Thanh we could see the crowd of friends and supporters gathered at the entrance to Cargo. It was an emotional moment for everyone and, if you'll allow me to indulge for a minute, an especially important one for me. This was my third H2H, and on the previous two I had experienced muscle strains with five days remaining, leaving me unable to finish either time. This year I had sorted the problem out and cruised through the final days with nary an ache or pain. As much as I love the charity, team-building and leadership aspects of H2H, actually finishing the ride was my top priority this time around, and I was doing just that. I'm not usually one for crying, but I couldn't help it as the crowd cheered for us, we chanted H2H and everyone started hugging each other. We had done it. I was so proud to have co-led such a great group of people to a successful finish. (And shout out to co-leader Chris Rolls, who was an absolute pleasure to ride with. To borrow his own favorite phrase, he's a top man.)

And what friends we have - within seconds of dismounting our bikes we were handed pizza, beer and a bottle of Scotch whiskey with a GoPro attached to it (thanks Matt and Alex!). I could see a whole range of emotions on each rider's face: joy and pride at completing such a daunting physical challenge, elation at seeing friends and loved ones, and perhaps a few twinges of sadness as we all realized something special was coming to an end.

No sadness here though.
It's difficult to sum up something as big and varied as H2H. What I've learned over three rides is that it's a huge undertaking made up of small moments: the smile of a child when you wave back at him; a panorama of utter beauty that flashes by as you rocket downhill at 60kph; the boy in Dong Le who said One Direction sucks; the whole team belting out 'Bohemian Rhapsody' at karaoke in Buon Me Thuot (Ok, I guess that's a 7-minute moment); stretching with the children at the orphanage in Pleiku; Team North America crushing Team England in kickball; talking to coffee farmers next to the hills they harvest; drinking with cops - the list goes on. As time progresses we'll forget parts of the ride; I'm guessing I'm the only person who can still name every town we stopped in. But I think we'll remember these moments, and we'll certainly remember each other and the causes we rode for.

Of course, the star of the show on H2H is always the incredible country of Vietnam. We've all adopted it as our home, some for longer than others, and what it gives back to you on the ride can never be repaid. The countless people who helped is out of pure generosity, the staggering scenery, the food and the roads. H2H wouldn't exist without this place, and I for one am thankful to have the opportunity to see it in such a way. I enjoy Saigon and all of its creature comforts, but the real Vietnam is out there, somewhere on the road, and I miss it already. Until next time.

P.S. We are still fundraising for our charities until the end of this month! We've broken the $45,000 record set by the 2012 team, but we'd love to raise more. I haven't reached my personal target of $2,500 yet, and that would be great if I could. If you'd like to donate please do so here: https://www.justgiving.com/Michael-Tatarski3/

Thursday, May 7, 2015

H2H 2015 Days 24-26: Nearing Saigon

With a long afternoon full of free time in Lien Son after the short ride we played kickball in a field and did some team-building via a human pyramid. The Brits had no idea what was going on when it came to kickball (attempting to use rules from rounders, whatever that is), and my team of almost entirely North Americans dominated. This was almost like another rest day, which was needed as Day 24 was to be one of the most difficult of the route - our third and final Evil Bitch Day.
The ride from Lien Son to Lam Ha, in Lam Dong Province, was 112km long with nearly 4,000 meters of climbing, but it was absolute beauty. This would be the last of the really scenic days, and I made sure to remind the team to savor it. The first stretch out of Lien Son continued through the valley the town sits in, as the early morning sun burned the night's dew from the trees and the golden light illuminated green hills and scruffy villages.

The first climb of the day greeted us a little ways in, but I found it rather easy after the monsters we had already conquered in central Vietnam. After an awesome downhill on the other side I caught up with several riders at a home/cafe where we drew the attention of several coffee farmers. They harvested the hills adjacent to the building, and Chris T. translated while we ogled a baby and played with a puppy. The men were impressed by our journey and claimed they were lazy in comparison, although their wiry frames said otherwise. We ordered coffee in the hope that it would come from the fields out back, but they explained that their crops are sold wholesale to major buyers.
The coffee fields
We carried on, eventually reaching a bridge over a reservoir which looked down on a community of floating houses.

Afterwards we hit two consecutive major climbs - the gradients weren't especially challenging and the views from the top were incredible, but the road through this area was in appalling condition. Crater-like potholes littered both narrow lanes - fortunately there was little traffic, so we could usually zig and zag at will to avoid the worst bumps. Still, it made for unpleasant riding, although if they ever get around to re-paving those climbs they will be fantastic. Another plus was the weather - we played hide and seek with some light rain and the sun only occasionally peeked through the clouds, making for much less punishing climbing than on the days of clear skies earlier in the ride. (Although we still sweat like pigs.)

The final 15-20km into Lam Ha were downhill, and they were not pleasant. Heavy rain had moved through right before Jack, Chris T. and I arrived, and the road was soaked. My racing slick tires had little traction and my rear wheel fishtailed a couple times on twisty turns going down into town. The other drives didn't help, as they plowed through potholes, throwing out showers of muddy water, and generally driving like idiots. After much nervous braking we rolled into our hotel covered in mud. Our reward for the day's work was an excellent BBQ restaurant which served draft light and dark beer and had a picture of Obama on the sign. The town also featured an oddly large population of youths dressed in tight jeans and leather jackets, making it look like a giant scene from the Vietnamese version of West Side Story.
The following day's ride was much less remarkable - 104km to Bao Loc, a very pleasant city at the southern edge of the Central Highlands. We met with up with QL20, the highway to Da Lat, and northbound traffic was heavy due to the triad of national holidays that week - Hung Kings, Liberation Day and Labor Day. That meant our southbound lane was relatively quiet, but since there is no divider on the road we constantly had to content with tour buses, trucks and other vehicles recklessly careening towards us as they attempted to overtake slower traffic. Several times I was run off the road by gleeful drivers, and the lack of concern some of these people show for human life can be disturbing. 

We did get one cultural experience that day - Tat, one of the riders, was born in Vietnam to ethnic Chinese parents, and one of his aunts lives in Di Linh, a town we were passing through on the day's route. We stopped at her house and she plied with a huge stock of beverages - water, Pepsi and Red Bull, the last of which we politely declined since it is horrible during physical exercise. (And just generally horrible anyway.) The remaining distance into Bao Loc was full of major road construction, making it one of the most unpleasant stretches of the entire ride. I got yet another flat (at this point I had run away with the title of most flats) and pulled into town grumpy and dirty. Luckily Bao Loc quickly alleviates a bad attitude since it has great food, including amazing bo kho at the brilliantly named Pho Ket restaurant.

The next morning we had a team photo shoot next to the lake behind the hotel before setting off on our penultimate ride: another 100km jaunt, this time to the town of Phu Cuong.

The most notable aspect of this day was the huge downhill just outside of Bao Loc - this drops you off the plateau of the Central Highlands and into deep southern Vietnam (along with its attendant blazing heat). The downhill was beautifully re-paved, but the dense holiday traffic moving uphill prevented us from fully enjoying it, as dickhead drivers passed each other repeatedly, forcing us to slow down hard to avoid a head-on collision. The rest of the ride was easy, albeit steamy, as the newly expanded highway had ample shoulder space, and those of us on road bikes were finally able to step on the gas after days of construction and rough roads. Our hotel for the evening had a nice courtyard and we filled all of the rooms, so we hung out in the shade while the owner's 11 year-old daughter went to the market to get more beer for us thirsty riders. It was time to enjoy one final evening on the road: tomorrow would bring Saigon.

Monday, May 4, 2015

H2H 2015 Day 23: My Own Private Waterloo

Coming out of the rest day in Buon Me Thuot I was nervous. Even though the leg from BMT to Lien Son was one of the easiest of the route - just 52km with practically no climbing - I had never made it past this point. In both 2012 and 2013 my quads seized up and ended up badly strained just a few kilometers out of BMT, forcing me to sit out the final five riding days in our rear support van. I had been baffled - I was in great shape and had felt fine right up until that point, and a visit to a sports doctor in the U.S. last year didn't give me any more insight into what had happened.

It was clear, however, that the rest days were causing some sort of problem. I had gone for a short ride during our second rest day in Kham Duc and was fine the next day, and I was hoping my warm-up ride on the BMT rest day would do the same trick. Before we set off in the morning I came up with some mental distractions to calm my nerves: I fired up 'Sam's Town' by The Killers, an album I know most of the words to, so that I could sing and keep my mind off the injury past. I also decided that I wouldn't look at any of the distance markers, since I knew that otherwise I'd be counting down the kilometers to the point where I had come up lame before.

We headed out of town and I maintained a steady pace, not too fast and not too slow. I was feeling fine, and eventually I noticed that I was riding farther than I had on the previous rides. We stopped for drinks about halfway, but I didn't want to stop moving for long so I carried on by myself. I began looking at the distance markers, and Lien Son was approaching fast. I still felt fine, and the riding was sublime, my legs dispatching the road with ease.
I entered the broad valley in which Lien Son sits, and the elation grew. Alt-J's 'This Is All Yours' was a perfect album for this stretch, the atmospheric modern rock soaring as I blasted along the silky smooth highway cut through fallow rice paddies stretching to the hills on either side.

I knew there was no stopping me know, and I cruised into Lien Son on a high, having finally accomplished something I had been waiting for since 2012. After such a short ride I felt like I could've easily done another 50km, but that was it for the day, and it wasn't even 11am. I waited at the hotel for the rest of the team to arrive, and I appreciated their words of encouragement and congratulations. This unfinished business had been gnawing at me for years, and I had finally taken care of it. With 400km to go to Saigon I knew I had this in the bag - full steam ahead with 100% confidence.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

H2H 2015 Days 20 to 22: Through the Blazing Heat

After arriving in Pleiku we arranged to be brought to the Thien An orphanage, which is just outside of the city. H2H has supported Live and Give, an organization which provides funding for the orphanage, since 2013. The facility is run by a group of Catholic nuns who care for about 90 children ranging in age from infants to early teens.

This was my third time visiting Thien An, and it has always blown me away. The kids who stay here are from the ethnic minority groups which live in the region, and the circumstances they are born into are often ugly. Vietnam's government has a contentious history when it comes to the country's non-majority population, and areas such as the Central Highlands and the northwest, home to large concentrations of minority groups, are often very politically sensitive. These groups are seen by the Kinh majority as backwards, and the government has worked to force them to integrate into Vietnamese society. Kinh migration into these parts of the country has also been encouraged, and these newcomers have reaped the rewards of economic growth while many members of the minority groups remain stuck in grinding poverty with little hope for a better future. Land disputes and violence, and even large protests, are common, although they receive no coverage in the press as this issue is completely censored. It's entirely possible to spend years in Vietnam without hearing a thing about the way minority groups are treated.

This is the reality the kids at Thien An face, and the nuns do an incredible job of providing them with skills and a bed to sleep on to strive towards something better. They receive English and Vietnamese lessons and are taught how to play musical instruments. There is a sports hall where they can play games and gather as a group. The grounds contain a bakery and a fish pond, allowing bread and fish to be sold for extra income. Some of the stories regarding how certain children ended up at Thien An are horrific: for example, one minority group follows a tradition in which if a mother dies during childbirth but the baby survives, it is buried alive with the mother's body. Several children here have been saved from that fate. Others were rescued from potentially deadly disputes revolving around childbirth out of wedlock, while some were simply abandoned by their parents. Not every child at Thien An is an orphan, but they would all face an unpleasant future if not for the efforts of the amazing nuns here.

Once the kids finished class in the afternoon we were able to start interacting with them, and several of us started up a rousing game of indoor soccer that left us drenched in sweat. Oftentimes on H2H you'll come across children in the countryside who are completely terrified of foreigners - they aren't used to seeing us, and they may run away just at the sight of you. These kids, on the other hand, were confident and outgoing, even though they spoke little to no English. They had no problem playing games with us and even roughhousing a bit, and all of the riders were inspired to see how positive and happy they were, especially given their upbringing.
The nuns also prepared an absolute feast for us - roast chicken and potatoes with bread baked fresh just next door. The food was incredible and we ate like cavemen, although part of me felt somewhat guilty to be eating so well when the children were dining on basic staples across the hall. This goes to show how generous and hospitable people here are.
After dinner Tat, one of the riders, broke out a blue body suit, which none of us knew he had, and led a few games, much to the excitement of the kids. A hilarious evening ensued, and by the time we left to return to our hotel the children were so riled up I wouldn't be surprised if they still haven't gone to bed.
The following morning we returned to Thien An on our way out of town for a sumptuous breakfast of cheese, bread and jam, which left all of us feeling sluggish on the bike afterwards. These visits were among the highlights of the ride for the entire team, and were a useful reminder of exactly what H2H is all about.

The following two days riding took us further into the Central Highlands: 100km from Pleiku to Ea Drang, and 76km from Ea Drang to Buon Me Thuot. The former was likely my least favorite day of the entire ride. The first stretch wasn't too bad since the road was newly paved, although a vicious crosswind kept us from reaching top speed. As the day progressed, though, we hit appalling stretches of construction: the road alternated between completely torn up, a dirt path, a gravel path, or sprayed with gooey asphalt that was a nightmare to ride over. More than once I had to get off the bike and walk, as my slick tires had zero grip on loose gravel. In terms of scenery we were beyond the lush forests of central Vietnam and in the midst of sun-baked, windswept plains of the Central Highlands plateau. The surroundings could've stood in for West Texas.

By the time we arrived in Ea Drang, a small town which straddles the Ho Chi Minh Highway, we were all absolutely filthy from the dirt and construction dust of the day. I was glad to have that one over with.
The next ride was another windy scorcher along ruined roads on the way to Buon Me Thuot (BMT), the largest city in the region as well as the coffee capital of the country, and the location of our third and final rest day. The first 50 of 75km were mostly hateful, full of shattered roads and braindead drivers, but the final stretch into town was a fantastic, well-paved slightly downhill blast that deposited at the front door of the KFC at the start of the city.

It was time for one last rest, and the team had a great time in BMT. We indulged in karaoke, phenomenal Vietnamese BBQ and pizza, and I also had one of the best massages ever. I also went for a little spin around town to keep my legs warm, as the following day was the one I got injured on when I did H2H in 2012 and 2013. I had no intention of repeating that, but only the next ride would tell if my efforts had paid off.