(Note: From time to time I’ll be posting these ‘Rear View Mirror’ pieces to recount a memorable travel experience where things didn’t quite go as planned.)
Some years back I joined a couple pals who were putting together a bike trip through Vietnam. The plan was to pedal from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City—formerly Saigon—in the south. It was roughly a thousand miles and we’d have about a month. Since inexpensive accommodations could be found everywhere in Vietnam, we vetoed the idea of camping. Less weight on the bikes meant we’d make better time. That was the idea, at least.
The catch was, each day we’d have to end up in a town of reasonable size in order to find lodging. This was still the ‘Dark Ages’ before smart phones and wireless networks, which meant arriving before dark to find our way around. Happily, this coincided with a desire to stay off Vietnamese roads after dark.
Vietnamese roads were challenging enough during the day: impossibly overloaded trucks belching black clouds of unburned diesel, rusting buses crammed with people, scooters and motorbikes, many with entire families ingeniously arranged on the seat and frame, or with furniture lashed to the handlebars, swerving and weaving in some kind of hive mind and hugging the road’s edge when buses and trucks filled the middle. Daylight offered favorable odds for surviving these motorized scrums. After dark it would surely be the Circus of the Damned for us.
Caodai Women, Vietnam
By the end of the first week we’d fallen behind in our itinerary. With return flights to the US already booked from Ho Chi Minh City, it was time to make time. We would combine two days riding into one long day’s ride.
And so, the following day we found ourselves pedaling on fumes and still miles from our destination as dusk began to fall. We’d gone through our second and third winds having pedaled over a hundred miles so far. Our odometers showed about ten miles to go–ten miles that we’d now pedal in the dark.
Night seems to fall faster at lower latitudes. By the time we arrived it felt like midnight. Our ‘town’ was little more than a collection of very basic cement block buildings, three-sided affairs with roll down gates in front. A cord dangling from the overhead power line held an incandescent bulb that cast a sorry pool of light in front of the buildings. The whole place was shut for the night.