HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

H2H Day 2: The Wrath of the Tire Gods

The second day of H2H began under another leaden sky with breakfast from a bakery and group stretching. We did some aerobics around the block, much to the amusement of the locals, checked out our bikes, and headed out around 8:45. My gears were not functioning properly, but I wasn’t too concerned.

Just a few kilometers into this cool, misty day we hit the hill we had been warned about. A 300 meter climb over 5km, this would be our most difficult challenge until over halfway through the ride, and we were all pretty nervous about it.

I was towards the back of the group, and it was certainly rough. I simply could not get into a low enough gear to make cycling efficient, and I was practically crawling up the road. My confidence was draining fast. I came around a bend about 2km into the hill and saw several others stopped up ahead. I actually had to get off and walk the bike up a bit, since it was basically faster than riding. Kirsty was having a pedal problem, so I stopped to try to help out. 

We got the issue sorted out, and as soon as we took off I realized I had another flat rear tire. Everyone was out of earshot, particularly thanks to a truck that came by spewing out black fumes, and I had absolutely no bike gear on me, so I simply stopped and threw my bike into the back of the trailing support van. There was spare equipment in the van, but neither I nor the driver wanted to change the flat in the middle of the hill.

I snagged a few photos of the riders nearest the van, and when we reached the crest Sandra pulled off to help me change my tire. Cuong, the driver of the van, ended up doing most of the work, and after a few minutes we were good to go. Or so I thought.

We pulled back into the road and blasted down the other side of the hill at 45kph, which practically froze me in the morning chill, and as soon as I reached the bottom I realized my rear tire was already flat again. Absolutely livid, I pulled over and ripped off my helmet. The van pulled up, but Cuong didn’t even get out, so I heaved the bike back into it and angrily got inside. I couldn’t believe my luck: just two days into the ride I had already had three flats, and most of my gears were gone. This was a bad way to begin a month-long trip.

Fortunately, the scenery as we rolled along became progressively more awesome. I was extremely bored in the van – the driver didn’t speak a word of English, and I’m still not conversational in Vietnamese, so I opened the window and starting snapping photos. We caught up to a few others who had stopped for pictures at a particularly scenic spot, and Chris had the great idea to take the rear wheel from the spare bike and switch it with mine. It was clear that something was wrong with the actual wheel on my bike, not just the inner tubes, and I did not have a spare wheel. So, we swapped the wheels out, and I set out, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t get another flat.

The rest of the group had stopped for lunch just ahead, but I decided to keep going since I had been in the van for over an hour and had plenty of energy left. I was happy simply to be riding problem-free.

The road was good, and I made good time as I quickly separated myself from anyone else; though I had no idea how much farther I had to go, since my bike computer obviously hadn’t been tracking distance while it was in the van. I passed a group of young teenage boys on bikes, and two of them decided to try to get ahead of me. One fell back quickly, but the other kept up a quick pace for a while, which he seemed to get a kick out of.

The road was small, so there were plenty of close passes with trucks and buses, but the scenery was nice: the area was completely agricultural and totally geared towards farming. Paddies crisscrossed by electrical wires stretched in all directions while farmers in conical hats worked the fields. Ox-pulled carts hauled basic harvesting machinery and sugar cane stalks down the narrow road.

After a while the paved road simply ended and became a muddy, but relatively smooth, gravel strip. Since people had stopped for lunch I didn’t know if anyone was ahead of me, and I wasn’t completely clear on how much farther away Vu Ban was.

I carried on, returning dozens of hellos and waves to people on bikes and on the side of the road and in shops. One guy shouted out “Chuch mung nam moi!”, which is the greeting for the Lunar New Year, and he was amazed when I said the same to him. The quality of the road was coming and going: some stretches were paved, others weren’t. I guess parts had been worn out by overuse and bad weather, but it was frustrating. When I entered the town of Lac Son, things turned for the worse.

The ‘road’ here couldn’t even be called a road: it was a horribly cratered mess of large stones and thick mud; absolutely terrible terrain to navigate on a bike with such thin tires. I stopped after a bit for a break from the awful road and to try to figure out where the hell everyone else was. Tom O. pulled up soon after, and we worked out from some locals staring at us that we were just 6km from Vu Ban.  So, we mounted up and carried on, hoping the execrable ‘road’ surface would improve. 
It didn’t. The short distance took way longer than it should have, and as we navigated our way through muddy Vu Ban we realized there weren’t any very noticeable hotels. We came to a fork in the road, and I headed down one way to see if there was anywhere to stay, and didn’t see anything so I came back. At that point the DHL van passed us from the opposite direction, followed by a few riders, so we headed back down the road we had just traversed. We finally stopped at a guesthouse, and were done for the day, around 2pm. The place was bizarre: a goat’s head and a stuffed bird hung from the lobby walls, while jars full of snakes and bear paws soaked in alcohol lined the counter. The stern woman in charge of the place was not happy at the sight of how much mud we were covered in, but we were business.

 After getting our bikes washed we had some beers and shared tales from the day. This town was extremely undeveloped, with no paved road, little in the way of restaurants, and absolutely nothing to do. It would be a rather boring night. Still, the second half of my day had been awesome. After the flats of the morning I had been furious, but things were going much more smoothly now, and I loved being able to finally ride without worrying too much about getting a flat. We killed time the best we could and got ready for the next day: 78km to Quan Lao.

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