Halfway point

Sunglasses' POV

Yesterday marked the exact halfway point of my trip. I would've blogged it last night, but in the midst of sorting photos and clearing email, I was hit by a wave of fatigue (no doubt somewhat Larue-induced) and decided to sleep instead.

My mind does not quite compute that I've been travelling for ages, it seems, and seen so much --- yet I'm only halfway to the finish line. Then again, last night I met someone who was travelling across Vietnam for 12 weeks with his partner and daughter, making him the first traveller I've encountered with a longer itinerary than mine.

In 25 days, I've eaten less than five bowls of pho (I'm "off" it for some reason, this time around), many plates of spinach fried with garlic, and I'm trying not to eat too many banana fritters. I went cycling for the first time today, but my plan to spend the entire day on a bike was thwarted by the relentless, raincoat-penetrating rain. I continue to be mistaken for being Vietnamese by locals and foreigners alike.

I don't know how many kilometres I've travelled, although Wahj gave me a crash course on using Google Earth via Skype last week, so maybe I'll plot my entire trip on a map when I have the time. Suffice to say that I'm halfway down the coast of Vietnam in Hoi An, and I hope to remain typhoon- and flood-free while I'm here. (Last week, the river rose to 1.5 metres at its banks. I'm not staying at a hotel near there, but still.)

Onward ho!

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Zen and the art of being a motorbike pillion rider

On the road to Ba Na Hill Station

James remarked over email that he couldn't imagine me scooting around in Vietnam on a motorcycle. I'm kinda surprised at it myself. Before this trip I had been on a motorbike exactly twice in my life, both times as a passenger: the first time a less-than-10-minute ride in central Hanoi from the hotel to a cafe; the second time when beeker took me out for lunch when I was jetlagged.

Since I got to Vietnam, I've been on a motorbike at least every other day, and then often for the better part of the day. And it's been great. As they say, there's no better way to see Vietnam than on a motorbike. How else would you appreciate all the little back-roads through villages that don't appear on the map, the speedy efficiency of stopping, parking or even making a U-turn against traffic, and most of all the feeling of going somewhere? The occasional sore butt or dirty feet and legs (from the driving rain and puddles) are well worth it.

It's even got me hankering to learn how to ride a bike when I get home.

But being the driver would take some of the fun out of it. What I enjoy now: the freedom to partially disengage from the world, and let the ride take you, well, wherever. It's easy enough to follow the rhythms of the motorcycle's motion, and since you can't simply doze off as a passenger in a car can, you have plenty of time to think, or just be.

Riding on the back of the bike has been the best time for me to think nothing more complicated than, "Ah ... Vietnam!" --- or, conversely, to come up with new ideas and possibilities for work, life and the future. It's easy to let the mind go, either way, and there's a reassuring "Feel the Force" aura to it.

Now I know why we have Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Long Way Down/The Long Way Round, and any number of motorcycle-inspired narratives. Maybe if Singapore was big enough to have more long and winding roads that we could ride down, we'd all be a more Zen population too.

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Lessons learned from backpacking after the age of 30

Rain, rain, run away

I thought I did good this trip on packing a bag that I can carry (although I can't lift it up to an overhead compartment without assistance). Compared to previous trips (see here and here), I have only three pairs of footwear. Plus I offloaded a couple of small items with Deanna, who was travelling with me but has now gone back to Singapore.

Still, there's always something new one can learn:

1. When kicking off a long trip in a developing country with a hot climate, don't fall for a new brand of shower gel (especially the moisturising kind) just because it smells great.

2. Bring more plasters (band-aids) because wearing the same pair of comfy broken-in footwear for two weeks in a row will still give you blisters.

3. The $3 army poncho (available at Beach Road market in Singapore) is a total bargain. It's lightweight, dries quickly and covers someone my size carrying two backpacks.

4. Listen to ampulets and bring a bandanna. Here in Vietnam, it would've been useful to shield my hair from the insides of all the motorcycle helmets I've had to wear. (More than once I've been tempted to buy my own helmet at a market.)

5. Steal soap from hotels that generously replenish toiletries --- the bars will be useful for emergency laundry later on the road.

6. Steal disposable chopsticks --- you never know when you want to eat something in a hotel room that doesn't have cutlery.

Tomorrow I hit a new town, where there are more lessons to come, I'm sure.

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Toi khong hieu

So apparently, I look Vietnamese.

Despite my short hair.

And sunglasses (when it isn't raining).

And camouflage-pattern daypack.

And Tevas.

I don't get it.

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Pictures, but no text

The flag tower at the citadel of Hue

Not sure when I'll write a proper blog entry again, but I'm trying to add images regularly to my Flickr photo set, so mosey over there for updates.

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Rolling down those Vietnam roads

Taking pictures

This picture is from my first day of official Lonely Planet work in Ninh Binh. Our pace has been considerably more go-go-go since then.

We have so far seen Ninh Binh (loveleh), Thanh Hoa, Vinh (meh) and now we're in Dong Ha drying out our shoes and socks after today's on-again, off-again rainbursts. I was wearing a green army poncho for most of today; now I have a better idea of how American GIs must have felt during the rainy season some forty years ago.

American GIs and Vietnamese war veterans are on my mind, because today we saw a replica Vietnamese wartime village and tomorrow we hit the DMZ. For details you'll have to read the guidebook, because after tramping around the countryside all day, I'm just too goddamn tired at night to write a proper blog post (even when I do have stable wifi).

However, my Flickr photo set for this trip has been updated, if you're interested.

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Getting things sorted

Minh's Jazz Club

When friends at home saw me online this afternoon, all they wanted to know was a) how was everything in Hanoi, and b) what was I doing online instead of checking out the place I'm supposed to be writing about?

To the latter, the answer is: I'm not writing about Hanoi, I was chillaxing for the day and I was online only to finish up some prep work for tomorrow, which is the first real "working" day of my trip.

Today we wandered around Hanoi some to run errands --- buy train tickets and Vietnam SIM cards --- and I got to eat a lot more street food than I did the last time. No pho yet, but plenty of time for that (seven weeks, to be precise). Today we had bun cha, baby pineapples, some dumplings with, er, mystery meat, a salad-y thing with something that resembled beef jerky, and cha ca la vong. I was too busy eating to take pictures of anything.

Hanoi is still a fun place to get lost in, just don't let the motorbikes run you over, but I think the air quality has declined distinctly. The quality of light at night is just off, somehow.

Tomorrow we're off to Ninh Binh, and I don't know if the hotel we're checking into has wifi. So don't mind if there's silence around here for a few days ...

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Welcome to Hanoi

System fail

Despite the portentous signs at Changi Airport's Budget Terminal, we did get to Hanoi, safe and sound and on schedule.

Before that, it was a mad day of rushing about. This was partly my fault because I procrastinated on various errands that I could've done weeks ago (changing money, photocopying, making extra keys). Exacerbating the situation was the fact that Ink chose the eve of my departure to develop a cornea ulcer.

A cornea ulcer. It sounds worse than it looks (it looks like he has the pink-eye), but it entailed additional last-minute running around and pet care arrangements (thank you, Suzie and PetBuddy extraordinaire). One hour before I was due to leave for the airport, I was still sitting at my computer and wondering how many other things I needed to do.

Somehow, I made it. I wasn't even late for my flight.

In Hanoi, we've checked into a decent hotel that has an excellent as-good-as-at-home-if-not-better wireless network, had a drink with a fellow Lonely Planet writer and done a little laundry to boot. Plus there's a cool old Chinese house opposite the hotel that I can't wait to see in daylight.

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