HCMC Dining Guide

Sunday, February 19, 2012

H2H Day 17: Heaven and Hell

This turned out to be a day of striking contrasts, and one that more than earned its nickname of  "Evil Bitch Day #2", with the first half of the ride making our lives utterly miserable and the second half making for an amazing finish as we rolled into Plei Can, also called Ngoc Hoi.

Getting out of bed at 6am was a struggle, since mine was very comfortable and I could already hear the rain outside. The weather obviously hadn't improved since the day before. However, after a good breakfast we were in good spirits, especially Tin and Phong, who roped me into handling their "Batman and Robin" (don't ask who is which) photo shoot on the marble statues outside of our hotel.

We stretched as a group in the strengthening rain, accepted that we would be getting soaked again, and set off. There was confusion almost immediately, thanks to the signs that indicate how far you are from a given town. We thought we had a 104km day ahead of us, but the first distance marker said 116km to Ngoc Hoi. The next marker was even more bewildering - 122km. I simply gave up on guessing how far we would have to ride.

The steady rain, combined with a steep climb up a large hill right off the bat, made for hateful cycling. At such an elevation it was also cold, and I was cursing life after just 10km. I kept pounding on, and halfway up one climb I inadvertently rode onto the concrete that sits between the road and the drainage ditch and instantly lost all traction. I went down on my hands and knees, opening up small cuts on my legs, only adding to the awful nature of the day.

After squirting dirt away from the cuts with my water bottle I got back on the bike, but this was a low point on the ride for me. I was soaked, tired of riding uphill, tired of the trucks bombing down the other way, and freezing. A little higher up a thick mist descended, reducing visibility to no more than 30 feet. On rain-soaked mountain roads with little preventing you from sliding off into a ditch or off a hillside, this was extremely dangerous. When tour buses started appearing out of nowhere coming from the other direction with no headlights on, I simply started walking. If a vehicle came down out of control I would have a better chance of running away than trying to cycle out of the way while slowly climbing. I found Jim, Sandra's dad, who works on an oil rig in the North Sea off of Scotland, in the dense fog and we walked together for a while.

The road finally started to look as if it was starting to curve downward, so I got back on the bike. After dropping in altitude a little bit the mist suddenly disappeared, much to my relief. I then hit a huge, curving downhill, which I attempted to tackle, but I stopped and started walking again after a few corners. My brakes were absolutely gone, and I simply didn't envision myself making it to the bottom without having a huge crash. At least the rain had stopped.

I got to the bottom, and while crossing a bridge I noticed there was a huge difference in weather on either side of the mountain. Where we had just come from was dark and foreboding, while where we were going was much lighter looking.

I then caught up to our lead support van, where a number of riders were huddled for warmth while snacking. We had about 65km to go, and we were freezing. It was completely dry now, but we were drenched, even though we had all worn rain jackets, and the wind was picking up. Plus, we had just finished our scariest, and arguably most difficult, riding of the entire journey. I changed into a dry long-sleeve UnderArmor shirt and immediately felt far better. After scarfing down some food we rolled onwards, and planned to stop at a town 15km away for lunch.
I was approaching a blind corner while going downhill when a tour bus started coming around the corner in the other lane. Another one suddenly appeared in my lane, trying to overtake the slower bus. There was absolutely no shoulder on the road, so I had nowhere to go. Luckily, the buses were far enough away that the one was able to pass before getting to me, but I still gave the driver a heartfelt one-finger salute, and I really felt like kicking him right in the face. We all saw similar things today, large vehicles roaring past other large vehicles with horns bellowing, and I simply don't understand what these dumbshit drivers are thinking. They drive with no logic, no signs of intelligence, and no regard for other human life. It isn't only bus drivers that do this, but they command the biggest things on the road, and I'm amazed they don't kill more people. It's as if every time they drive they have to set a new record for whatever route they are taking, and they are absolutely terrifying. Someone here needs to do something to educate drivers, and fast. It's no wonder Vietnam's roads are so deadly.

After an awesome lunch we had 50km to go, and the weather was suddenly amazing: bright sun, a refreshing breeze, no rain in sight, and the temperature was probably at least 15 degrees warmer. All of the moisture we had dealt with earlier was bottled up behind the mountains we had climbed and then descended. As a result, that last stretch was just fantastic. The road was good, and the rolling terrain allowed you to carry momentum from going down a hill into going up one. I distanced myself from the group, although Dana and Corey were ahead of me since they hadn't had lunch, and reveled in the dramatic change in attitude that the improved weather brought.

Since my brakes were so awful and my hands were in so much pain from pumping the handles to no avail that I decided to just stop using them, since I'm confident enough in my bike handling skills in the dry that I can take curves at a pretty high speed. I also weigh enough to keep me planted through the turns, so I just blasted down every hill, often reaching 45-50kph, passing surprised motorbike drivers. On the last downhill before reaching town I managed to hit 60kph, which was great fun. This may well have been my favorite two hours of riding of the entire trip so far.

I met up with Corey and Dana around 4:15 and we sat down at a food stall to wait for everyone else. As the rest of the riders showed up we all agreed on one thing: the day felt as it if had been two; the frightening, brutal deluge of the morning could not have been any different from the sunny romp through the hills of the afternoon. In the end we had cycled about 114km, and could not have been happier to be faced with a measly 60km the following day. We're also getting closer to things we recognize from Saigon, with coconuts and banh xeo available on the street here in Ngoc Hoi. Hopefully that will be the last of the severe weather...

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