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Traveler's Journal: Cycling Vietnam
by Larry Fisher and Wendy Feltham
For the Sequim Gazette
Like many children of the 1960s we came of age during the Vietnam War. We saw the photographs in Life magazine and heard Walter Cronkite intone place names like Danang, Dien Bien Phu, and the Gulf of Tonkin.
We took part in protest marches and Larry pursued conscientious objector status until a high lottery number rendered the point moot. The war shaped our world views.
Flash forward to the early 1990s, when Vietnam’s communist government implemented free market reforms and opened the country to foreign travelers. We began reading accounts and hearing from friends that it was a beautiful country, with warm, welcoming people who were unaccountably friendly to Americans, and that the food, an amalgam of Asian and French cuisines, was fabulous. These all turned out to be true.
In February 2012, abundant frequent flier miles and the desire to spend part of the winter in warmer climes prompted our trip. With a three-week itinerary, we booked a flight to Hanoi and signed up for a 15-day bike tour. Normally, we would do a self-supported tour, but the prospect of cycling in a third-world country, where neither of us spoke the language, and with notoriously dangerous roads made us more cautious. Our Vietnamese guides turned out to be excellent.
We got our first Vietnam lesson on the 40-minute midnight drive from Hanoi airport to our hotel in the city’s old quarter: how to cross the street. Hanoi’s narrow streets have few signs or signals, and those it has are commonly ignored, while millions of motorbikes, cars and trucks flow constantly. They don’t stop, our guide explained, so the only way to cross is to step off the curb and proceed very deliberately, making no sudden moves, and the traffic will flow around you. It works, but it requires a great leap of faith.
We spent several days exploring Hanoi and marveled at the industriousness and energy of its people,and the uncanny juxtaposition of modern and ancient ways. We also took a side trip to Halong Bay, whose 1,600 islands and islets form a spectacular seascape of limestone pillars. We traveled on a modern junk, past floating villages of fishing families, who spend their entire lives on the water.
Our cycling trip began in Hue, an ancient capital city on the central coast, which was leveled by bombing during the war. As we bicycled south through Hoi Anh, Danang and Natrang to Saigon, we encountered the real Vietnam in the small villages our route passed through. Small children and older people alike would run out to shout “hello,” often their only word of English, and flash warm smiles.
Despite the considerable poverty, these villages pulse with vitality, and a palpable sense that life is getting better. Every bend in the road brought fresh surprises.
We won’t sugar coat Vietnam. The country has major environmental problems and it is still ruled by an authoritarian government rife with corruption and human rights abuses. But its many assets — the long beautiful coastline, cool mountain retreats and above all, its warm and gracious people — made our visit an unforgettable experience.
About the presenters:
Larry Fisher and Wendy Feltham have lived in Port Townsend for nearly three years, after living for 22 years in San Anselmo, Calif. We both grew up mostly on “the peninsula” south of San Francisco, actually within a couple of miles of each other, though we didn’t meet until we were 31. Wendy is a retired elementary school principal and Larry is a freelance journalist who writes about business and management.
We started traveling together by taking a bicycling honeymoon in France. We traveled a lot with our son, including to Hawaii, Tahiti, the U.K., Europe, New Zealand, Australia and Mexico. Last year at this time we spent three weeks in Ecuador, and we visited Denmark and Canada as well. We’ve also traveled separately: Wendy spent two years in Spain and a year in Mexico and traveled to Africa, Japan, and all over South America, and Larry’s been to Brazil, Japan, Thailand, Switzerland, Italy, and Chile for his work.
We most enjoy traveling to countries that feel very different from home, which has become increasingly challenging as globalization and technology have spread certain sameness everywhere.
Wendy likes to go where she can enjoy nature and be outdoors, especially seeing birds. Larry likes to go where he can sail.
We both love exploring by bicycle and enjoying food and wine in exciting cities. We remember the people we meet whose lives touch ours.
About the presentations:
Traveler’s Journal is a presentation of the Peninsula Trails Coalition. All money raised is used to buy project supplies and food for volunteers working on Olympic Discovery Trail projects.
Shows are each Thursday in February and March and start at 7 p.m. in the Sequim High School cafeteria, 601 N. Sequim Ave. Cafeteria benches are hard and people should bring their own cushions.
Suggested donation is $5 for adults. Youths 18 and younger are welcome for free.
One selected photo enlargement is given away each week as a door prize. Creative Framing is donating the matting and shrink-wrapping of the door prize.
Call Dave Shreffler at 360-683-1734 for more information.