Stephen

Seizure, Vietnam, Thieves, Welding, Head Gear, Coffee…

No video camera...

No video camera…

The seizure occurred on a day after I had not taken Zonegran, one of the two medications that I take to control my seizures.  I had missed Zonegran for two days because my bottle ran out, and I had forgotten to replace it one night from my panniers – I keep one bottle easily accessible, and several more buried deep in my panniers.   When I went to sleep one night, I had forgotten that the Zonegran bottle was empty, and when the time came to take pills, my bike was locked in a shed, the innkeeper already asleep.  A similar situation kept me from taking medicine the following day.  The next morning: seizure.  I felt strong warning signs: light headed, dizzy, tired, thirsty (it was hot and sunny that day).  I remember making an effort to hydrate, and taking several rest stops to try to control things.  It was not enough – that day should have been a rest day!  I was reaching into my panniers for snacks and iced tea, and then the next thing I remember was looking up into the faces of a dozen people and feeling exhausted and feeling pain in my left shoulder – I knew that I’d had a seizure.  After 30 minutes of recovering energy and asking about a place where I might be able to stay – understanding was impossible – I found myself on the bicycle once again.  Before I left, I gave a Telluride post card to the people (I believe that it was a teacher with students) who had stayed with me throughout the 30 minute process of my waking up.  I was lucky to have people there to make sort of a protective bubble around me to ward off traffic, move my bicycle off the road, to make sure I was okay, and just to be friendly faces when I woke up – totally confused as I always am.  They even brought me an orange fizzy drink which helped me to re-energize.  I wish that I still had photos of this group!

I felt pretty good after about 30 minutes of being back on the bike.  This was interesting, because my seizures are, as I have more of them, becoming less exhausting it seems.  There was nowhere to camp, there was not a house available at the moment, and so I did the easiest thing, which was to ride my bike.  2 or 3 hours later, I had arrived in a small town just E of Namgna, Laos, not too far from the border with Vietnam.  I still do not know the name of the town – was not able to figure it out when I was there, and it does not appear on my map…  I stayed in a guest house there and recovered for a day.  The next day I was back on the bicycle, continuing the climb toward the Vietnamese border – a climb which took 3 days.  I might not recommend using the Tay Trang crossing if you are traveling by bicycle.  It is very mountainous and bumpy.  A fatiguing process, although it is very beautiful and remote.  So, perhaps I would recommend it.  But I would never do it again and I would not have done it to begin with had I known what I was in for!  The story of the past two weeks of touring through Laos and Vietnam has been a story of hills, rough roads, beautiful scenery, nice people, and surreal landscapes.  I will probably remember it in a few years and not really be sure if it ever happened – especially because there was a seizure thrown in there to jar my brain.
Vietnam is a beautiful place geographically, with great mountains and forests.  I have enjoyed the best climbs – and descents – of the tour here.  I have met more people saying “hello” here than anywhere else in the world – even India.  Well…maybe not India.  And in Vietnam, it is somehow really uplifting when people say hello: school children waving and smiling, mothers pointing at you and helping their sons and daughters practice how to say “hello.”  I passed one group of people that said hello to me, and when I was a little slow to respond, they had a quick conference among themselves in which I was able to hear them as they decided upon, “Bonjour” before I then heard them shout out, “Bonjour!!” in unison.  Amazing.  For my part, I feel a sense that, because Vietnam and the United States fought a war not too long ago, I am compelled to be that much more cheerful now that things are peaceful.  It makes you appreciate it that much more I suppose.  I get the feeling that people on both sides are very eager to have nothing to do with war.  That is my impression after four days here.  I can only speak from impression because I have not talked to anyone about it – and I am in no hurry to raise the subject.  But I can speak from experience when I say that visitors in Vietnam will feel a very warm welcome when they visit, whether it is in the cities or in the countryside.  And that welcome will be felt regardless of whether or not they speak the language.
So, Vietnam has been good.  Coming from Laos, I immediately noticed that it is a country with a bit more money: more pavement, more concrete, more stores, more refrigerators, more helmets on the motorcyclists.  These are all things that contribute to the touring experience…sometimes they make it more interesting, sometimes more colorful, more boring, more noisy, etc.  Bamboo houses and buildings contributed to an amazing – although at times difficult – atmosphere in Laos.  In Vietnam, things are made a bit easier by pavement, cold drinks, and lots of hotels.  They are a bit more difficult, however, because there is more traffic, more noise and more population.  There is always give and take.  I am glad to be moving along through a new country with new scenery.  To sum things up, I guess I would have to say that Vietnam, more so than any place I have ever visited, has the best head gear in the world.  Even more so than any of the Muslim countries where it would not be uncommon to see women whose heads were totally covered in black veils.
In Vietnam, motorcyclists wear light plastic helmets in dazzling colors that look essentially like snowboard helmets.  All women and lots of the men here wear anti pollution/anti sun/anti SARS/Swine Flu masks.  Women wear big plastic sunglasses.  Combine these elements, and add a motorcycle…what do you get?  Scout Trooper!  Vietnamese who go on foot often wear triangular bamboo hats that first became familiar to me when I played Mortal Combat and saw the character Raydin.  Women seem to wear these hats more often than men, although men wear them too.  People in the broad conical bamboo hats frequently cover their faces with cotton scarves, and women also wrap similar pieces of cloth around their hair, typically worn in buns.  Sometimes they do not wear the conical hats, but opt solely for the scarves covering the hair.  In this case they do not wear a face mask.  The conical hat+hair covering+face mask seems to be the best of all options.  Another option, with sort of a more cheerful personality is to wear a short-brimmed sun hat (usually in a light color, with decorations, patterns, etc.) and combine it with a SARS mask+umbrella.  This is a popular alternative to the Raydin hat/cotton scarf combination.
Men in Vietnam have similar options in terms of head gear, but they do not have quite the range of options as women.  They can also wear the SARS masks, which are sold more as fashion items than safety devices here.  They come in various colors and with various designs such as skull&cross bones, jaws, teeth, etc.  The masks serve as practical everyday anti-pollution devices for motorcyclists who commute for long distances on a daily basis.  They help to keep dust, pollution, etc. off the face and out of the lungs during regular motorcycle commutes I would think.  In terms of head coverings for men, it seems that helmets, Raydin hats, sun hats and baseball hats are the options.  I have not seen men with colored scarves wrapped around their hair.  Men in Vietnam have the option of wearing motorcycle helmets of all colors and designs.  It is common to see couples wearing matched pink motorcycle helmets with the woman controlling the motorcycle, for example.  All of these things contribute to my conclusion that Vietnam, of all of the places I have seen in the world, has the most reasonable, safe, and beautiful head gear in all the world.  As a head gear enthusiast myself, Vietnam is an exciting place because I have never seen such a wide variety of colors, shapes, and materials used for the various helmets, hats, etc.  For a population that spends much of its time outdoors, the people here seem to understand well the importance of protecting themselves from sun, dirt, traumatic injury, and pollution… what’s more, they have also figured out the importance of avoiding boring costumes for their daily attire.  Vietnam has a major head start on its rivals as I see them (the Italians) who also get around entirely by motorcycle, but whose concern for their head gear is – as far as I can tell – based only on laws from their government.  I do not, at this point, see any way for the Italians to catch up.  But anything is possible.
You see lots of people riding doubles on bicycles here – 99% of bicyclists carry umbrellas to ward off the sun. 50% of cyclists in Vietnam are riding double – i.e. 2 people on one bicycle.  Male/female combinations are often configured so that the woman is pedaling the bike.  I don’t know if this is progressive from a womens’ rights point of view or if womens’ rights simply do not factor into the equation – sort of in the same way that you might look at a horse-drawn cart and know that horses’ rights had not been factored into the equation.  Or maybe it is neither progressive nor oppressive but simply incidental.  In Vietnam, I believe that the reasoning is purely practical: people need to get around, and women are no exception.  Motorcycles are one of the cheapest ways to do it.  Bicycles are even cheaper.  So women ride bikes and motorcycles.  When male/female combinations ride around on bikes or motorcycles, it just falls to chance who will drive…I notice it more when a woman is driving because I am not used to seeing women drive men around in the rest of the world.  It is commonplace in Vietnam.
On my second night here, I found myself in the city of Tuan Giao, about 80Km E of Dien Bien Phu.  I had ridden all day to get there from Dien Bien, and I stopped at what looked like it might be a hotel to ask if it were, in fact, a hotel.  After some uncertain initial communication, it was established that this was not, in fact, a hotel, but that it was a house, and that furthermore, I could stay at the house if I wished to do so.  The family that lived there was the Tiep family, and I gratefully accepted their spontaneous offer.  During the next 12 hours I enjoyed great hospitality from the Tiep family.  We watched TV (“TiVi”), had great conversation, and ate a huge dinner – a chicken was brought in from outside, bled out, feathered, cooked, and eaten.  The Tiep family is a large family, of 12 people if I understood correctly – living in two adjoining houses.  One of these people was a 90 year-old man who spoke fluent French.  I was able to communicate with him fairly well.  I was also able to speak with his grand son who spoke English quite well.  I speak not one word of Vietnamese – this is a situation which has happened on a few occasions – e.g. Eastern Europe! – and is always a bit embarrassing: to arrive in a country and to not know a word of the language in order to be polite.  In Vietnam, I feel as though I get away with it in the sense that people are eager to welcome a visitor, but it is still a bit of an odd feeling!
After I left the Tieps in the morning, I stopped by one of the myriad motorcycle repair shops that are scattered all along the side of the road.  You can find them throughout Europe and Asia.  The chain of shops begins in Italy and runs, as far as I can tell, all the way through Japan, with breaks in Israel and Egypt (there is only desert there).  Once you reach Greece, Turkey and beyond, there is the added bonus that people at these shops are outside working on various welding projects at any given time.  This is particularly the case in India and Vietnam.  It is nice to see motorcycle repair shops, coffee shops, welders, bike shops, etc. when you are touring, because any one of these shops could save you in case of an emergency.
I had not, up to this point in the tour, required a welder.  On this particular morning, however, I needed a welder.  One of the braze ons that holds the cargo rack to the frame of my bicycle had broken off two days ago.  The rack was now being held on by only 3 of its 4 points of contact.  One of the braze ons was dangling loosely, smacking occasionally against the frame when I went over bumps.  I knew that if the other one were to come off, that the rack might fall back catastrophically and kill me.  Catastrophically.  So I stopped at a motorcycle repair shop and started to play charades, pointing to the problem, and pretending to weld.  I could tell immediately that the mechanic was excited (I believe that the reason you see all of these guys out there along the side of the road welding is not so much that things need to be welded, but rather that people need to find things to weld…I can respect that.  Welding seems pretty awesome).
Within five seconds of my pointing to the problem and pretending to weld, the mechanic had the torch out.  After another five seconds, the torch was lit.  Ten seconds later, the braze on was brazed on once again.  I think we were both disappointed that the process had been completed so quickly, though both of us played it cool.  The charge was 10,000 Vietnamese Dong – about 60cents.  I tipped the welder 5,000 dong, bringing the price up to nearly 1 dollar.  I could not quite accept the idea that a welding job could cost only 60 cents, even if it had taken less than 30 seconds.  He accepted the tip, only after my going to great lengths to put money in his hands.  I hopped back on my bike, rack now firmly welded in place.  It was 9:30a.m.  About time for a cup of coffee…
There is a well-established coffee culture in Vietnam.  The coffee scene in Vietnam seems to have developed in a somewhat strange and unfortunate manner, but I have learned to appreciate it even as I try to figure it out.  Whereas American coffee culture has developed based on a need to get a lot of coffee into the system really fast, (and if people are in no hurry, and they want to hang out and chat for a few hours, well, then, just buy LOTS MORE COFFEE!), Vietnam’s culture has developed in the way that coffee cultures developed everywhere else in the world outside the U.S.  which is to spend a very long amount of time in the process of consuming a very small amount of coffee.  In Vietnam they have taken this pursuit to new extremes.  The process is difficult, because things begin with a barista giving you a metal coffee filter that must first drain out before anything can be consumed.  After 5 or 10 minutes – depending on the filter – it becomes possible to drink 4oz. of coffee.  And those 4oz. are amazing.  But I would sooner take 20oz. of watery coffee from a Conoco station right now than wait 5 minutes for 4oz. of Vietnamese amazingness.  That is something that I am learning about myself out here…perhaps not one of my best qualities, but there it is.  (I am impatient in some senses). What they do have, on rare occasion in Vietnam, are coffee shops where you can find about 8-10 oz. of coffee ready within 90 seconds.  Hot espresso with a bit of foamed milk mixed in, and a couple of big ice cubes.  And it tastes really good.  There is WiFi too.  I have also discovered that if you show up to a café after it is halfway closed (the roadside cafes in Vietnam never really close…and they never really open…they are people’s houses.  If you show up at 9p.m. somebody will get up off the couch and sell you something.  I have discovered that showing up at 9p.m. in a sleepy town is a great time, because this is either the time that they will convince you to buy a can of coffee (fast!)- sort of like a bottle of Starbucks Frapuccino (I don’t know if we have cans of coffee yet in the U.S., but they are popular in the middle east and in Asia).  Or, if they don’t sell you a can of coffee, they will sell you powdered coffee + hot water (also fast!).  Any other time, a coffee shop owner in Vietnam will go out of his or her way to give you the best cup of coffee you have ever had…which takes 5 minutes.  Not so fast.  In any given business/residence in Vietnam there are several giant thermoses that are full of hot water at all times.  These thermoses are all the same size, and are all topped with an ancient cork.  They are all standing by, in case somebody decides that they would like a cup of hot tea.  Or, in rare circumstances such as when a tourist walks in at 9p.m. asking for coffee, they can be pressed into service to make instant coffee.  When one such thermos was used for this purpose to make a cup of coffee in Moc Chau, a shop keeper used a Nescafe instant coffee packet that was designed to make 10-12oz. of coffee, and poured in the standard 4oz.  I smiled and drank my coffee.  I read a few pages of my science fiction book as I sat in the dark.  Then I walked back to the hotel.
During the past month, I have discovered that my iTouch (thanks go out to my Dad for donating the iTouch…and, for that matter to my sister for the iPod Shuffle…hand me down iPods seem to really help out a lot out here).  I have discovered that my iPod Touch can double as a book.  This has been huge.  I installed a program called Stanza and have downloaded about 15 books that I am working my way through: several Isaac Asimov books, Moby Dick, and some other books that I probably won’t read.  But I like to know that they are there just in case.  It is a lot easier to read using the iTouch than it is to read using an actual book, at least for somebody who is on a bike ride.  This is not the case everywhere, but it is certainly easier to carry around the iPod, to read it at night, to take it out of my bags, turn the pages, etc (you just touch the screen, and the “page” turns).  I only write about this here in such detail because I believe that other bicyclists, backpackers, travelers owe it to themselves to start using their iPods/Blackberries/Kindles/etc. for reading/watching movies/etc. instead of carrying actual books.  It was a happy discovery.  I had a conversation with my mom in Thailand where I was like, “wow…I feel behind the times Mom!” because I was just discovering what the iPhone craze was all about…now I start to get the idea…enough on iPhones here.  But it was cool.  So now I am reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov once again.  It is a nice distraction when stopped to drink a cup of coffee.
 I had all of these things working out well, I was enjoying my tour through Vietnam, thinking, “yes…all is on track….I have my iTouch sorted, my bike is fixed, I have been drinking a lot of coffee, and life is good.”  So I decided it must be the perfect time to stop for an apple.  I considered taking a photograph of this valley, but decided that stopping to take a photo might change the nature of the experience…yes, very right I was!  So I left my cameras and went to sit on a flat rock with a view of a nice valley.  When I walked back to my bicycle, my video camera, still camera, wallet, cash, credit cards, notebook, and spare credit cards were all gone.  It somehow felt natural when I looked down at my handlebar bag, open, with nothing in it: “yep…that stuff’s all gone.”  As though it were a scheduled part of the day’s events.  I spent a few seconds looking at the bag, then a few seconds looking up the road, and then I got on my bike and rode away.  I was just glad to have not been there when I got robbed.  Later that day, the event became more of a big concern as I realized that I had no money, no way to get food, etc. until I could get money.  But it was only for a few hours – I was without money for a few hours.  I have been traveling through countries where much of the population spends much of its life without much money.  I could manage for a few hours.  For now, the worst is over (I hope!) and the experience is behind me.  The lesson here: don’t eat apples.
I took a rest day today in Hoa Binh, and today I get back on the bike, on my way toward Hanoi.  I will get a new still camera soon and resume posting photos on the website.  In Japan, at the latest, I will get another video camera – probably something a lot less expensive than what I had – to shoot footage of Japan and of the wintery ride across the U.S.A. to get to Colorado.  I plan to meet with my friend George the Cyclist part way through my ride through China – we hope to spend a couple of weeks riding together – and then I will meet my friend Ian in Japan for a tour of Japan.  I fly back to Seattle on December 9th after that to begin preparations for a wintery tour back to Colorado.  My rough plan is to make my way to San Francisco and ride to CO from there, passing through the desert in Nevada.  That is all very subject to change, but it is my basic idea.
Stay tuned for more updates from northern Vietnam and from southern China.  Thanks for reading!
      Stephen
Also – if you have not checked it out already, be sure to watch THESE SLIDE SHOWS!  A video/photo/music celebration of the past year on the road!  I was informed that the ASIA slideshow was not working – that has now been fixed.
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