Northern Vietnam Trip Log.

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Day 1 Hanoi

Welcome to the chaos of Hanoi. The humidity and heat hang in the air like a wet blanket. 

Tube Houses on Hanoi Street

Welcome to the sidewalks: tube houses ten feet wide and six stories tall, scooter parking lots, pedestrian walkways, dining areas, shops, and places where people live out their days and work. I’m told the narrow tube houses arose because taxes were based on the storefront size. Post-trip research supports this, but the architecture lived on because the property is expensive and population density is high. It was and is cheaper to build up than buy more land. 

Traffic

Welcome to the streets: scooter traffic, pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, cart-pushers, car traffic, and places to sell things. The boundary between the road and the sidewalk has nothing to do with the curb. The streets are alive with the sounds of drivers honking at one another and the smells of food grilling on sidewalk barbecues. Intersections are mesmerizing, watching traffic weave its cross-hatched patterns without incident. The indoctrination to Hanoi is crossing a street without getting hit. It is an act of faith and strength, and the weak don’t survive. 

My indoctrination continued with a military jeep tour of the city. Our (Guy and myself) guides were Tring and Huyen, who both have excellent English language command. The famous Hanoi railway that runs within inches of houses was not operating because of an incident of nearly hitting tourists. We stopped by a bridge reported having been built by Eiffel, the same architect that built the Eiffel Tower. It looks like an Eiffel Tower laid on its side. We passed by the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. Before going on display in Hanoi, his body survived seven years in a freezer in Russia.

We visited with a Vietnam war survivor, Duc, living in a building complex fronted by a downed B-52 left as a historical marker in a pool. He was born in 1960, the same year I was born. His house was decorated with urns and multiple-framed folk art prints, and he served us astringent green tea and peanut butter brittle. The conversation turned very intense in the tearful retelling of his memories of the war. He has memories of John McCain’s capture. I’m not sure of the translation, but the emotion was unmistakable. My memories of the Vietnam war are through second-hand stories and television reports: “a guy next to me was turned off like a light bulb,” the images of the helicopter lifting off the embassy during the evacuation, the reports of the Mai Lai massacre (they knew that only one man was convicted), and Nixon’s illegal carpet bombings of Cambodia. Duc’s message is that war is a lose-lose proposition. I like the symbolism of the B52 sheet metal that he has incorporated into his garden, literally picking up the pieces, building with them, and moving on. 

On the rest of the long ride, I learned from Huyen that :

* The people’s religion is respect for ancestors and local shrines.

* Water, energy, and communications are state-operated.

* The state provides public health and education but is augmented by private versions, sometimes in the same building.

* The trash all goes to a giant landfill outside Hanoi.

* She studied German; her favorite series is “Never Have I Ever.” 

* She is young enough (22) to never have lived in an occupied Vietnam.

* The youth are angry at inflation, which, while understandable, is not as bad as being angry at someone dropping bombs on your head.

Later that night, Guy had us on a brew tour. Our guide was Lan, an effervescent young lady that smiled for the entire four-hour excursion. She is absolutely adorable. She is five feet nothing tall and led us, and two other big guys, fearlessly about the city. She says she has no fear of walking around by herself at night. What is it with American cities? The night was my introduction to the sidewalk cafe, with its red plastic kindergarten seats, short tables, piss holes in crumbling cement closets, and street food. I can’t say I care much for fizzy, 3.5% beer, craft, or otherwise, but maybe it’s what keeps the streets safe from tipsy drivers in the chaos.  

Day 2 Ninh Binh

The bus for Ninh Binh was leaving at 7 a.m., about two hours before I was planning on getting up. We spent over five hours on a bus for three hours of activity. 

Trang An in Ninh Binh province was our introduction to the fascinating karst landscape of Northern Vietnam. We took a river ride down the Sao Khe River on Vietnamese woman-powered row boats. Unlike other row boats, the rowers face forward. It helps with the steering and lets them watch their passengers. Once I learned I could paddle, I laid into it for most of the trip, mainly for exercise but also to help our rower. I had heard that the daily two-hour rows take their toll on women’s bodies. They chew on some type of intoxicating leaf to ease their pain. The penalty for drug use and trafficking in Vietnam is death. 

We powered our way through the imposing karst landscape shrouded in rain clouds, visiting temples along the way. High water prevented entrance to the caves and flooded the temple grounds. The platform of the water temple was completely underwater. 

After the ride, our tour group dined in the restaurant. In the spirit of trying new things, I sample goat blood sauce. I’m not sure if because I knew what it was or not, but I didn’t like the texture or the taste. Blood of any kind is off my menu.

Running out of time, we had an abbreviated tour of the Buddhist Bai Dinh Pagoda complex, offering incense to giant gold-colored Buddhas and admiring the view of the surrounding Ninh Binh flood plains from the top of the Bao Thap Tower. When I asked how old the place was, the guide told me it was built in the early 2000s. It surprised me, expecting the answer of centuries, if not millennia, old. Post-trip research suggests there is an old temple and a new one, so maybe the guide misinterpreted the question narrowly, thinking I was referring to just the temple at which we were standing.

After the long and tedious two-and-a-half-hour trip back to Hanoi, Guy took us to an expensive 20-course tasting menu at TUNG (Twisted, Unique, Natural, Gastronomic) restaurant. It’s not my style: overeating food makes me feel dirty, and being served too little makes me feel cheated, so it’s a no-win scenario. The portions were small, and I didn’t throw in the towel until dessert. It was a bit overwhelming, and I only remember the foie gras because that is something I had written about in a book. Duck liver is another thing I will never order again. The wine was pleasing, each course was interesting, and the presentation was thoughtful. But would you ski for a minute, jump on a surfboard at a wave machine, skydive in a wind machine, hike up a trail for a tenth of a mile and say you had the experience? 

Day 3 Ha Giang Loop Day 1 Hanoi

Red River

On what would have been the first day of our transit of the Ha Giang Loop, while waiting for the delayed arrival of Chris and Hetal, I rode with Hoan, our guide, the leader of our trip for the next eight days, to Ba Vi National Park to the west of Hanoi. On the fifteen-minute walk from the hotel to the motorcycle shop, it felt like I was wearing the humidity like a winter coat in a heated car, so I rode without my motorcycle jacket, violating my ATGATT (All the Gear, All the Time) training. On the way out of the city, I only briefly negotiated the insanity of Hanoi traffic before Hoan led to a lightly traveled road that followed the red river. 

Huon and Yours Truly

We stopped at a restaurant where an expressionless young lady named Emily served us. I figured Hoan probably had some regular stops where he knew people and maybe even raked in a little commission for the effort. I asked Hoan about tipping, and he told me if I left a tip, that person would remember me for life. So I left a small tip, and as we were suiting up, a beaming Emily came out of the restaurant to see us off and thank us, still holding the dong (Vietnamese currency) in her hand. Her face had brightened from blank to supernova so she might remember me for at least a few days. The tip was worth every dong, unlike most, which feel like a tax. At each of the following stops, we met another Emily. I figured maybe the name Emily was a job requirement, but what I learned is that it is just a way of addressing a person, usually younger and female, em being the word for sister. 

Ba Vi

We rode up the mountain on curving and usually wet roads to a saddle between the summits. I made Hoan hike up the 1200 stairs to the top of the taller twin peaks to admire the Buddhist temple and the view. 

On the way back, we stopped for a half hour to sit out a downpour. 

Hoan wanted to make it back before rush hour to avoid the traffic, but delayed by the rain and the hike, we hit rush hour traffic dead on. I can only describe that experience as a two-hour bike walk and balancing act, trying not to hit the person in front of me and not step on the toes of the people on either side of me. A scooter, bus, or car immediately filled the slightest gap in front of me. Traffic signals are mere suggestions and not rules. While Hoan explained that honking is their way of saying hello, clearly, there is a set of drivers that bully their way through traffic, laying on the horn and riding inches off the back tire of the vehicle in front of them. It took us about two hours to go that last ten kilometers.

Comparing the five-hour bus ride to and from Ninh Binh against the eight hours of riding on the motorcycle to and from Ba Vi was the difference between impatient boredom and exhausted exhilaration.

Day 4 Ha Giang Loop Day 2 Hanoi to Vinh Linh Family Homestay

On the following day, with the full complement of our motorcycle gang now assembled, we headed north out of Hanoi to Yen Binh. Because of the one-day delay, we had to make up time. The drive out of Hanoi followed the Red River. Hoan took us down side roads to the main highway. Farmers use the streets to dry rice on tarps, spreading and turning the seeds with wooden rakes. We had to drive through drying hay completely covering the road. The day’s lesson was that no road is too large for agriculture nor too small for a truck. 

It’s always interesting to see what people will carry on a scooter or how many people can fit. A typical configuration would be kid, dad, kid, and mom all squeezing together on one bike. The craziest carry-on of the day was the guy carrying torpedo-sized propane tanks. I couldn’t help but wonder what his hazard duty pay was. 

A typical “restaurant” stop was a sidewalk cafe with traditional red plastic foot-high chairs and a low table to match. We quickly fell into a routine of ordering a 333, Hanoi, or Saigon beer, drinking the 3.5% beers more like water than alcohol, along with our multi-course lunch of rice, wraps, tofu, soup, boiled chicken (not a fan), and the specialties of the house.

With daylight fading, we ended up at Vu Linh’s family homestay (Hoan’s family homestay), working our way around the workers, blocking the dirt road to the house with a hay shredder. Hoan invited us to dinner with family, including daughter, wife, mother, and father, serving us a multi-course buffet. Dad tried to drink us into the ground toasting each shot with Howmedo’s (Thank you in the local language) with the local homemade rice wine. Mom, daughter, and French lady dressed in traditional garb. Hoan shared his father’s writing of local customs, which is impenetrable in the local language. I love the homestay concept. It’s a beautiful venue for having an intimate and unpretentious encounter with a Vietnamese family.*

Day 5 Ha Giang Loop Day 3 Vinh Linh Family Homestay to Hi Giang City

In the morning, we headed north to the city of Ha Giang, following scooter trails around the eastern perimeter of Thác Bà Lake, crossing narrow bridges, viewing the placid lake with its mountainous backdrop, and driving through agricultural obstacles of drying rice and hay covered roads. The hay covered the entire road for short stretches, leaving no choice but to drive right through it. A man dragging thirty feet of rebar was the strangest cargo of the day.

Leaving the lake and the flat terrain, we rode the busier main highway to take us into Ha Giang. I had one flat tire obtained inbound to the city. I’m not exactly sure where it went flat, but I was riding on a nearly deflated tire when we pulled up to the hotel. My attention on the way in was distracted by another problem. A biting insect managed to land and sting me through my kevlar riding jeans, leaving a welt about four inches in diameter. 

We stayed at Khách sạn Yên Biên Luxury catching up to the non-motorbike contingent of our tour, giving me a nice view of the city from my eighteenth-floor room. As the name suggests, it is an actual hotel, not a homestay. Taking a respite from the Vietnamese cuisine, we convened for pizza and beer at a place called “Pizza Here.”

Day 6 Ha Giang Loop Day 4 Ha Giang City to Phố Cổ

Because the flat was a rim flat, Hoan couldn’t fix the tire. He traded out the spare bike on the back of the support truck. We crossed over the river in the town, then rode out into mountain country and karst formations. On the rural road, I stopped to photograph a woman harvesting rice with her baby on her back, protected from the sun by a purple umbrella, and her mom. Hoan engaged her, and I learned the proper technique for slicing and clumping rice stalks: cut low at an angle, putting three or four handfuls together. Of course, doing that a couple of times is a lot different than cutting down the whole field.

Hoan advised us not to pay or tip the lady, explaining that it is not good to make it an expectation. I agree. Once such an experience becomes transactional, then I think it becomes significantly less authentic. Is it genuine culture when you sell it? When does the product become what the consumer wants it to be rather than what it is? Commoditizing culture is an essay for another time.

While I am on the subject, kids would wave to us as we rode through tiny villages. Some would reach out their hands for a slap. During the trip, I received the finger six times. One little girl with a big grin gave me the finger. Her finger followed me as I passed her. Given the big smile, I don’t think she understood what she was doing, but someone told her to do it. Other faces had scowls and disdain written on them. It was a tiny minority. I can understand why someone would not be excited about foreigners racing through their town on noisy bikes, stirring up the dust, the dogs, and the roosters. 

From here, the ride headed into the picturesque karst mountains. We stopped for a bathroom break at a spot with an overlook of a Hmong village, people working their gardens and yards. We drove to an incredible overlook of a verdant u-shaped valley split by a ridge terminating into a karst cone. On this narrow, mountain-hugging road, a woman passed me on a scooter, keeping my ego in check. Hetal bypassed this section of the motorcycle ride to go straight to Dong Van. Unfortunately, the driver got lost. She ended up visiting the Nho Que river early but arrived at the homestay much later.

Phố Cổ is built right up the base of the karst mountains. They even use the wall of one as a billboard to advertise the town. I wondered how many advertisements would adorn the mountain if something like this existed in America. All the karsts would probably be named after companies. Our homestay was right across the street from a square with outdoor restaurants and a few storefronts from the karaoke bar. Vietnam will never be the same. As Chris says, you can never unhear that sound.

Day 7 Ha Giang Loop Day 5 Phố Cổ to Coa Bang

Rain. Slick conditions. And heading up the mountain passes on ribbon-thin roads. We stopped at a pass between two karst coneheads for a view. The brave climb the conehead. The courageous step out onto an unprotected black rock tongue. The crazy do it in white clogs and an evening dress.

We continued down this path, my back tires sliding on the hairpin turns onto a paved path, maybe two feet in width, until we reached my point of fear. I don’t have the skill to negotiate ninety-degree downhill turns on a slick path. So Huan, Chris, and I walked the bike down the thirty foot with me not on it. 

The scenery took a turn for the spectacular at the overlook of the Nho Que river. The river is aquamarine and does a near-horseshoe bend around a karst formation. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to get on one of the boats to see the spectacular gorge from the bottom up.

Hmong Outfits

Hmong women sold organics outside the Panorama bar at the overlook. Someone told me the Hmong refused to move to cities at the demands of the Chinese and Vietnamese governments. The story sounds inspirational, but I haven’t been able to verify it. There are Hmong in Wisconsin. A diaspora.  

We completed the day with a ride to the Pac Bo Homestay in Cao Bang. For dinner, we sampled fried bees and bamboo, an unusual combo. 

Day 8 Ha Giang Loop Day 6 – Cao Bang to Ban Gioc Waterfalls

In the morning, the woman proprietor tried to refund us money because we didn’t eat all the bee and bamboo, and the dinner roll was rock hard. We never complained, but actions speak louder than words. The place doesn’t receive many Western visitors, and she wanted us to have a reasonable opinion of the home. I’ve never heard of such an action before, so I have an excellent opinion of her business ethic. 

The weather took a turn for the worse with a promise of rain. I watched a touring Vietnamese girl in pumps and hip-flexor high shorts double up on her scooter with a transparent rain jacket. NTGNTT (None of the gear, none of the time).

To start the morning, we visited the Ho Chi Minh memorial park. With limited time, we bypassed the museum attractions and only took a short river walk to the cave where Ho Chi Minh reportedly hid and worked at a cave office and desk. While waiting on the stairs to the cave entrance, as about thirty Vietnamese men paraded by, I learned that the preferred shoe of men is the black leather penny loafer.

Young women come to this spot to enhance their beauty in the idyllic setting of the river, posing on the rocks with the river and thick trees as a backdrop. We watched a young artist parade all her friends, Ferris Buehler Chicago Art Institute style, down the river bank. Another posed La Grande Jatte style with an umbrella, a pointillist painting also found at the Art Institute.

Hetal made friends with two charming and well-educated English-speaking Vietnamese kids from Hanoi. Many people said “Ha-lo” as they passed, but that is about as far as they go with the English language. 

From the park, we rode in the rain for two solid hours, splashing through orange rivulets crossing the road and avoiding mud orange water buffalo. The rain and splashing soaked my socks and gloves, but otherwise, the rain gear did its job.  

We came to Ban Gioc the back way, down a dirt road paralleling the barbed-wire border. When we arrived, the authorities locked down the town for a fall festival. Only official cars were allowed in and out. So we had to backtrack to the front of the town. We found a very distraught Hetal, having sat with the driver and truck outside the barricade in a questionable spot with suspicious police wanting to know why they were there. Finally, we devised a plan to park the bikes and walk in. 

We checked into our hotel at Ban Gioc with enough time to walk down to the festival at the waterfall. We shared the view and celebration with five to ten thousand of our closest friends, still somehow managing to take a boat ride right up to the waterfalls, illuminated by a changing color palette of lights. After the boat ride, we ordered sausage and meat on a stick from a sidewalk vendor before retreating to the hotel for dinner and later drinks with our late-arriving companions.

Day 9 Ha Giang Loop Day 7 – Ban Gioc Waterfalls to Ba Be National Park

Rushed in the morning to meet a riverboat deadline, we took a no-nonsense ride to Ba Be NP. The conditions were sloppy and wet but without the previous day’s downpour. We saw one truck in a ditch, but the driver appeared to be squatting on the side of the road, talking into his cell phone, uninjured.

We made a brief stop at a knife shop. We watched the men work to make the knives while Hoan bought one for his wife. Talk about digging your own grave.

At Động Puông, we loaded the motorcycles on a river boat and cruised to Ba Be the back way. The river road traveled down a beautiful jungle-coated karst valley, passing through a karst cave on the way to the lake. From the south end of the lake, we road the short distance to the Minh Quang Homestay. The homestay overlooks fields on the south end of the lake. 

We dined with the proprietors on the upstairs patio, participating in the traditional Mot! Hai! Ba! Yo! ritual, drinking plenty of wine to close out the evening. 

Day 10 Ha Giang Loop Day 8 – Ba Be National Park to Hanoi. 

The trip back was fast and direct, attempting to beat the rush hour traffic. We achieved the goal, but Hanoi traffic is still Hanoi traffic, chaotic and close, yet somehow predictable. We said goodbye to Hoan with a few beers at an intersection-facing cafe, watching others negotiate the hazards of the street to their ends. The ride was everything I could have asked for and so much more. **

Day 11 Hanoi.

It’s the one too many. I didn’t have a plan. I went with Jake, his uncle, and his cousin to the Imperial Citadel at Thang Long. The Imperial Citadel has a history of a thousand years, serving many dynasties and kings in the past. Recently, it served as a command center and bunker for Ho Chi Minh during the wars.

After that, I wandered the streets of Hanoi for one last time. Interestingly, I found a Black Swan, a highly improbable event according to the literature. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Well, I proved to myself once and for all that black swan events, well, black swans, in any event, are real. I don’t know if I would call the trip a Black Swan Event, but it certainly was a very memorable one.

All trip pictures: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1QRPSLT2RHgrHL0EvuPIVSui34fCVH6Rn?usp=sharing

  • Review of VuLinh Family Homestay

Beautiful home and accommodations. Spending an evening with the Vu Linh family was one of the trip’s highlights. Hoan welcomed us into his family with an intimate dinner and evening with his family and the other guests. Fantastic food and bottomless shot glasses of rice wine served with pride and enthusiasm. They are sure to make your trip to Thác Bà Lake memorable.

** Review of Offroad Vietnam

If you are brave enough to take on the traffic and back roads, riding a motorcycle in Northern Vietnam is as good as it gets. An unforgettable adventure of spectacular riding from the mayhem of Hanoi traffic to the hidden lakeside byways to twisting ascents over mountain passes to mountain-hugging ledges. Offroad Vietnam tailored the trip to our requested itinerary and provided excellent motorcycles and support throughout the journey. Our Offroad Vietnam guide Hoan is a skilled rider with a decade of riding experience. He showed us roads and trails we would never have found, considered, or negotiated if we tried to ride by ourselves using Google maps. He bridged the language gap for us, making our encounters with the friendly people of Northern Vietnam more personal and rewarding. I wouldn’t hesitate to use Offroad Vietnam again if and when I make it back.

Mo Hi Ba Yo!

Reading Time: 7 minutes

One thousand kilometers, maybe more. Eight days of riding more than eight hours a day. We all survived. We made the trip without death or injury or seeing any death or injury!

Mo Hi Ba Yo! (Một – Hai – Ba – dô)

Mountain Trail (An Easy One)

I had one real moment of fear. We left Dong Van to a drizzle and wet roads. The roads turned into mountain-hugging sidewalks barely wide enough to pass two bikes. On one hairpin-dropping turn and going no more than 15 to 20 kph, my back tire took the turn by sliding a couple of feet. I’m sure the slide would have looked fantastic on a video. But the fact is I didn’t mean to do it. Chris says sliding the back tire is okay, but you have to worry when the front tire slides. I was worried anyway. This sidewalk narrowed to a ledge no more than two feet wide with hairpin turns. Sometimes the fall to the outside was protected by bamboo, sometimes not. I walked the dropping hairpin turns on the bike, not trusting my ability to do a 180-degree turn smoothly enough without going over the edge. Even walking the bike, I was sweating and anxious. Then we came to a dropping turn that went left 90 degrees, dropped, and then went right 90 degrees and dropped some more.

Hoan’s bike, Hoan was our guide, slid both front and back tires when he did it and when he reached a stopping point, he put up the X signal with his forearms meaning for us not to do it. Hoan walked back up the path to help. Chris walked his bike down with Hoan holding the back end. I said, “Fuck It,” jumped off the bike, and told Hoan to take it down. It was only about a twenty-foot section, but trying to help by holding on to the back end to keep it from slipping off the path, I slid on my slick motorcycle shoes down the twenty-foot stretch of slippery path. I had a lot of internal dialog, recalling a teacher’s advice to use fun as your guide to managing risk. It was the one time during the trip I was not having fun. That narrow ledge was way outside my comfort zone, and that dropping wet stretch with the turns was beyond my ability. But in the end, no injury and no dropped bike. Just a shake of my head and a massive sigh of relief.

Mo Hi Ba Yo!

We had other stretches outside my comfort zone but not my ability, about which I can’t say I was particularly thrilled. I would describe those stretches more as work than fun. We had to drive through several construction zones, basically off-roading stretches with operating machinery, dust, and big ass trucks. I’ve done a lot of scree riding on my KLR 650 in the outback of the California deserts. Scree isn’t particularly fun to ride in, as the steering starts feeling loose and sloppy. Usually, a little speed is your friend as rocks fire out from under your tires as long as you don’t overpower a turn. 

We had one sustained downpour for two hours which we powered through. I wiped the rain from my helmet visor with my gloved hands. Orange rivulets crisscrossed the road, and I venture to say that the orange-colored water buffalos marching down the road were much happier than I was. By the time the rain stopped, it had soaked through my socks and gloves, but all the rain gear kept me dry otherwise. The rain wasn’t cold, and the clothes dried quickly during the rest of the ride. Misty clouds moving through the trees and mountains make for incredible scenery, but I wouldn’t take my eye off the road for more than a second to appreciate it. 

We had one other rainy day. Conditions were sloppy from time to time, but the rain was light. We saw one truck on its side in the ditch at the side of the road on a wet turn. Seeing the driver squatting on the side of the road on his cell phone, I don’t think anyone was injured. I saw a guy with a girl on a scooter in front of me overpower a turn. He was right at the start of the turn crossing over the passing line to the left at the end. Fortunately, nothing was coming from the other direction. That’s the kind of driving that will get you killed.

I was astounded at the roads on which trucks would travel. There is no road too small for one. If I had waited long enough, I’m sure I would have seen one on the two-foot ledge. Big trucks and buses would honk a couple of times before rounding blind corners, where they swept out the pavement outside their lanes. Even the sleeping dogs would move out of the way for those oversized beasts. Often, we would pass these behemoths waiting for a stretch of road long enough to squeeze by them on what little room they offered. No one ended up as bug splat on the grill of one of these oversized road ogres.

Mo Hi Ba Yo! 

Hanoi Traffic (Before Rush Hour)

City driving was a whole different skill set if one can call wading through the chaos a skill. On my first day of adventure to Na Vinh, I returned to Hanoi during rush hour. It was an exercise in walking the bike or, at best, trying to ride it in the 0-5 kph range. The challenge was keeping sight of my guide while not bumping the scooter ahead or stepping on the toes planted to either side of me. Leaving any gap between you and the rider in front of you shows weakness. Five scooters, cars, and buses will all try to fill the vacuum. During rush hour, there are no rules, only guidelines. Scooters shoot through intersections against the light and cross over in front of traffic to get to the other side. Pedestrians walk across the streets, only sometimes signaling the traffic to stop. Huon told us people honk to say hello, meaning to let you know they are there. But a subset definitely uses the horn to bully their way through traffic. It all seems to work based on empirical observation, but I would be shocked if the statistics back those observations.

Mo Hi Ba Yo! 

I had one flat tire obtained inbound through a construction zone to Ha Giang. At least, that is the spot where I thought the bike handled a little slushy. I dismissed it as the silty conditions of the construction site we had to ride through. It turned out to be a rim flat and not a puncture, which suggested the tire might have been flawed from the beginning. I don’t know how long I rode with it because shortly after that, we drove through the outskirts of the town and I became distracted by another problem. I felt a sharp burning sensation in my upper right leg about two inches from my nut sack. I thought maybe the engine was overheating near my leg, but I didn’t see or feel anything on the bike. The shooting pain persisted. When we pulled over for a piss break, I checked under my kevlar pants to discover a four-inch welt with a circular pus spot at its center. It looked like a mini volcano with lava flows. I think somehow while riding at 30 mph, a hornet or wasp managed to land on my leg and stab me through my kevlar pants to deliver its sting. The only upside is that it didn’t impale me in the nuts. I can’t imagine trying to ride with welted nut sac three times its natural size. Thank god for that.

Mo Hi Ba Yo! 

Pedestrians, children on bicycles, roosters, dogs, water buffalos, horses, cows, drying rice, and drying grass, to name a few things, created the target-rich environment. One of the strangest phenomena is the sudden appearance of something that wasn’t in the scene just a second ago. Chris speculates that your mind identifies that brown patch in your peripheral vision as a dog, and suddenly, it pops into your awareness. 

Traffic Jam

Speaking of Chris, he came the closest to running over some chickens, and I am convinced he tapped the ass of a dog. The dog was trotting in the direction of traffic on a city’s busy, four-lane divided road. It veered in front of Chris’s bike. He slammed on the brakes, but I saw the dog’s back end drop suddenly, and then the dog cut over to the median. The rule of thumb is to run over any small, soft creature if it crosses your path and to keep on going. In the calculus of life, the rider trumps the rooster. You don’t risk your life by veering into oncoming traffic or obstacles to save a chicken. Fortunately, it was a decision I never had to make.

Mo Hi Ba Yo! 

Ha Giang Loop Pass

The Ha Giang loop features a beautiful and well-photographed twisting road up and over a pass. But we went up to another mountain pass that I didn’t get a picture of and don’t know its name. It featured nine or ten hairpin turns and ten to twelve percent grades. The road was so steep that I couldn’t take a picture from the top because trees obscured the view. 

I rounded one hairpin turn to a steeper grade, so I wanted to downshift from third to second. Instead, I ended up in neutral. It was the only time I missed a shift on the trip. Instead of speeding up on the steep grade, I was slowing down, frantically trying to get the bike in gear before I stalled. I’m sure the riders behind me were less than pleased. But aside from that misstep, the snaking ride up and the view from the top were fantastic.

Mo Hi Ba Yo! 

And finally, I have to admit to more humility. Riding along mountain-hugging sidewalks trails on my powerful 250cc bike, more than once, a lady passed me on a scooter. One even had a kid in the well. Another teacher once told me to ride my ride and not ride to pride. 

Mo Hi Ba Yo!

But after all that. No, because of all that. Not for a second would I trade my motorcycle for a bus ride.

“Mo Hi Ba Yo” means one, two, three, cheers! Usually, a drink follows. But I am toasting to the ride and all its misadventures and challenges. 

Mo Hi Ba Yo! 

Does It Get Any Better?

Living the K-drama

Reading Time: 8 minutes

While the missiles were flying from North Korea and the weather forecast for Seoul predicted temperatures somewhere between 25 and a thermonuclear 250 million degrees Celsius, my attentions were more focused on soaking up the K-drama culture in Gangnam and Jeju Island. I knew Kamala Harris had my back with her visit to the DMZ.

Gangnam-gu


My real intent was to spend time with my son Max. He has been living in Korea on and off for a couple of years to pursue his e-gaming career. Max was effectively more jet-lagged than I during my visit since I interrupted his stay-up until 5 in the morning and sleep until mid-afternoon gaming schedule. By the way, he told me Gangnam is pronounced pretty much as you would expect. To me, that was gang-nam, as in street gang and Viet-nam. Of course, it is pronounced nothing like that. Gahn-yum is the closest I can get.

According to the K-drama “Glitch,” food always comes first in Korea, even before alien abductions and end-of-the-world scenarios. Why get abducted or vaporized on an empty stomach? So in the most pleasing “My Mister” style, Max and I visited restaurants with wooden picnic benches, stoves, kimchi bars, and Soju in the restaurant row of the trendy Gangnam District in Seoul. Max did all the ordering, so not entirely sure the names of all the dishes we consumed. It was fantastic watching Max converse in Korean. On the first night, we had Korean beef with lettuce wraps, which I think are called Ssambap. There was a spicy crab side dish that we didn’t know how to eat, so I had our waitress coach us on the finer points of dining. Despite her above and beyond the call of duty effort, we didn’t leave a tip. Tipping is considered rude and frowned upon. Service is always expected to be exceptional. The custom seems so much more civilized to me.

On the next day, after wandering about the streets of Gangnam and pedaling along the Han riverfront, we stumbled across a Kyobo bookstore in the underground Sinnyeon subway shopping mall. I picked up “Crying in HMart,” a memoir by Japanese Breakfast. She takes her name from the orderly perfection of a Japanese breakfast, something that her young life was not. The book is a tribute to her mom, who died young of cancer, and recounts the author’s troubled formative years, often at odds with her mom and frequently through the memory of the Korean dishes her mom prepared. I couldn’t keep up with all the different recipes, but I’m getting smarter. Gimbap is seaweed (gim) rice (bap), the preferred dish of the Extraordinary Attorney Woo. It’s not much different from a California roll. Bibimbap is mixed (bibim) rice (bap). Ssambap is a rice (bap) ssam (wrap).

Underground Subway Mall

Later at night, we had Korean pork and potato soup with enoki mushrooms while watching K-drama customers enjoying each other’s company, sucking down their Soju from green bottles on a Tuesday evening.

After a few days in Gangnam, we headed to Gimpo airport to fly to Jeju Island on Korean Airlines. In my K-drama series and movie experiences, Jeju Island is an out-of-the-way Korean escape from the demands of big city life. In the “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” (EAW), Jeju is a Korean retreat for an office team-building exercise based on the pretext of taking on a case involving 3000 won (about two dollars). The team quests for the best Haengbok noodles in Jeju. In the extremely dark and twisted love story “A Night in Paradise,” Jeju serves as a rural hideaway for a double-crossing young hoodlum. If the movie is any indication, there is quite a gangster population on the island.

For Max and I, the side trip was a two-night gangster-free stay in Jeju City. I wanted to rent scooters since it seemed like an excellent way to tour the island, but it’s surprisingly hard to rent a scooter there. The scooter rental websites aren’t foreigner friendly. Google translated the pages from Korean into English, but that doesn’t work so well on the date picker widget. My forty-eight-hour rental somehow translated into something like four hundred thousand hours, and at 40000 won per day per scooter, that worked out to something thirty-two billion won, just a bit outside my budget. Max wasn’t too keen on learning how to ride anyway. He tapped into his Korean knowledge base, and his friend assured us that we would be able to rent a car without a reservation.

We did manage a car but had a little trouble catching the correct bus. The rental companies provide their private buses to their not colocated remote lots. The lady at the rental counter sent us to area 3, station 8, but everything was labeled as a zone. We stood at zone 8, station 3, for a few minutes until we realized we should be at zone 3, station 8.

Transported to the correct lot, and having acquired a car, I wanted to drive. We headed east along the island’s north side to Hamdeok Beach, a destination chosen because it looked like the first decent thing to see in that direction. Max figured out how to program the Korean Language GPS navigation. The navigation persona insisted on warning us of “Danger Ahead” and advised us to drive at a “Safe Speed.” We saw no accidents and no construction, but after an hour or so of driving, we realized that our Korean Map female voice was warning us of speed monitors. The island is booby-trapped with what Max called “Speed Bumps,” but I call them tourist snares because I’m sure only inexperienced visitors like myself who can’t read the signs or operate the GPS unit get tickets from these traps. The lady should have said is drive at “Legal Speed,” so we would have realized much quicker that the danger was financial rather than physical. As far as I know, I did not get caught, probably because the savvy traffic ahead of me forced me to slow down at the right spots.
Jeju turned out to be surprisingly built up and congested. The driving scene to the Buddhist temple in “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” is only shot in the scenic Hallasan Mountain area, probably the only road on the island without a stop light every half mile. The scene and others led me to believe the island was more isolated and remote than it actually is. It took a long time in Jeju City traffic to reach Hamdeok Beach.

Hamdeok Beach

Jeju Island is volcanic. Hamdeok Beach has nice contrasts and a spectrum of colors, ranging from the white sand beach to shallow turquoise waters, deeper blue waters, and black frozen lava flows. We also encountered our first grandfather statutes (Dol Hareubang) working as end posts on a small bridge out to a viewpoint of the ocean.

Bridge Guarded By Grandfather Statues

We stopped for a drink and snack before pushing on.

Incredible Pastry

Running out of daylight, we missed the lava tubes, so we headed back to Jeju City to check in to the hotel by an inland route. The eighteen-story hotel thoughtfully (sarcasm) changed its name from the Avia to the Asia hotel to make things confusing.

Jeju City from the 18th Floor

Later, we ate barbecued beef, mushroom, and cabbage at 숙성도 F&B 별관.

Beef and Pork Stock

The server grilled our beef and mushroom dish in front of us over a pot of hot coals.

At the same time, Max and I observed my favorite K-drama tradition, drinking the bottle of Soju, following the excellent practice of keeping the other person’s Soju glass from going empty.


We picked up the trip the next day at the Manjanggul lava tube cave. The lava tube is an impressive underground cave paved and lit for a kilometer in one direction but continues several kilometers in both directions. The public trail terminates at a lava chimney of twenty-five feet, billed as the largest in the world.

World’s Largest Lava Chimney

From there, we drove to the island’s east end to see Seongsan Ilchulbong,” a volcanic caldera with a five-hundred-stair climb. I contemplated the entrance sign warning hikers not to attempt the ascent if they have a heart condition or if they have drunk to excess the night before. On the previous night, we managed to drink a bottle of Soju, but I fell asleep before making much of a dent in the second. The climb rewarded us with views over the “Sea of Japan” and the town of Seowipo.

Sunrise Peak

On the way down the trail, we were treated to the ritual dance and drumming of the mermaid women. The women divers of Jeju Island are famous for their cold water surface dives for sea critters.

Mermaid Women

From there, we drove south for a hike and a view of Seongsan Ilchulbong from the other side.

We drove some sixty stoplight-riddled kilometers along the island’s south side to Cheonjiyeon Falls. The falls are nestled inside the city of Seopwipo. Empirical observation on the short hike to the falls suggests it is a popular tourist destination. In other words, it was crowded.

Cheonjiyeon Falls


We drove through the volcano national park to return to Jeju city, I believe on the same road as Attorney Woo on her field trip. I recognized the tree-canopied, traffic-light-free and danger-free highway from the episode.
For the EAW crew, they came up with a solution of the case to resolve the problem of the 3000 won charge for passage over a road that incidentally routed over monastery land. The team finds a revered chef working in obscurity in a local monastery, having been outmaneuvered and run out of business by a competitor that stole his business but serves a substandard recipe of Haengbok noodles endured by the team. The EAW team always gets their noodle and wins their case.

In the end of “A Night in Paradise,” the vengeful gangsters catch up to the double-crossing hoodlum in Jeju with dire consequences for everyone involved. Spoiler alert, things didn’t work out well for the guy, the gangsters, or the love affair. The ending was perfect for such a dark movie, but that is all I will reveal.

For my ending, I managed to read the entire book, “Crying in H-mart,” while Max slept off his jet lag. I enjoyed volcanic wonders in Jeju and biking along the Han river, people-watching in Gangnam, eating Korean, drinking Soju, and watching Max work magic with his adopted country. I managed to fly from Jeju to Gimpo and take a train from Gimpo to Incheon for the next leg of my trip without incident. It was easier getting out than getting in, but that is another story.

Hazards of International Travel in the Post-COVID Age

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Did I take the red pill or the blue pill? I can’t remember. Am I capable of dodging the bullets, or is my exhausted body about to be flushed into the sewer system of the Matrix with all the other discards?
I check in at the Asiana counter at 8 p.m for international check-in, three hours before a flight as recommended. I hand over my passport to the airline passenger service assistant. The job title has too many words, and assistant is a misleading label as if they work for me instead of the airlines. The yellow fluorescent safety vest guy behind the counter pulls my 43-pound luggage over to the baggage belt. He must be called the airline passenger service assistant assistant, but I will leave his label as “the guy in the yellow fluorescent safety vest” for this story.
The airline passenger service assistant says, “Sir, you need a Visa.”
“I show her my Visa to Vietnam.”
“Are you entering Korea when you arrive?”
“Yes, I have four days there.”
“Sir, you need a Visa.”
The agent has fired the first shot—the bullet whistles toward the head of my would-be trip in that matrixy vortex way. She writes down the address of the K-ETA website to apply for a visa and tells me the counter closes at ten. The guy in the yellow fluorescent safety vest retrieves my 43-pound luggage and returns it to me. I have two hours to figure it out.
I find the website and fill out the form. I get stuck because it won’t upload my selfie picture. I violated the 80kb file size restriction. I find an app to resize it, but when I get it to the correct size, the App wants to charge me to download a pdf. I don’t think K-ETA will take a pdf, and I don’t want to pay. I use the photo editor to shrink my picture to the correct size and upload it. Now it doesn’t like the dimensions. The dimensions have to be 700 x 700. Back to the photo editor to f**k around the dimensions. By the time I get that all squared away, it is 8:20, an hour and forty minutes left.
Next, K-ETA wants the zip code of the place I’m staying when I arrive in Korea. I find the address of the hotel on the reservation. A number at the end of the string looks like a zip code in a 3-3 format. K-ETA responds with “Enter 5 Digit Zipcode.”
I try googling for a zip code for the place. Nothing found. No clue. I try random five-digit numbers. “Enter 5 Digit Zipcode.” Apparently, the App is smart enough to identify legitimate Korean zip codes but not kind enough to give it to me. It’s 8:30 p.m, ninety minutes left.
It’s no time to encounter an enigma shrouded in mystery. A young Korean woman is standing nearby, waiting. I ask for her help. She takes my phone and figures out how to activate the search field. I paste in the address of the hotel. K-ETA says, “Search Results 0.” I screw around with the formatting removing punctuation that might not be necessary. “Search Results 0.”
The young lady’s boyfriend returns. I don’t know why I think boyfriend and girlfriend rather than husband and wife, maybe because they are young, not because of anything I’ve observed. The two work side-by-side, he on his Korean language phone and her on mine, while I peer over their shoulders. They finally get the search results field to populate with about 50 choices. The guy finds the hotel address on his Seoul map with the correct zip code, and K-ETA is satisfied. I thank them profusely.
The airline passenger service assistant walks over to assist the couple with their problem. She recognizes me and asks if I have applied for the VISA. I ask her how long it takes to process. She says about two hours. By the time I pay for the VISA, it is 8:50. Only seventy minutes left.
Now all I have to do is fume at K-ETA for being so problematic, plot out all the scenarios of finding a nearby hotel or going home, and pray for South Korean efficiency. At 9:10, I receive an email notification that the application is under review. Only fifty minutes left.
In the Matrix, my knees buckle, and my shoulder twists in agonizingly slow motion to avoid the bullet. Am I quick enough to evade the agent’s shot? It’s a Sunday night in Korea. Is that to my advantage because of a light workload or not because there isn’t any imagined bureaucrat processing my form some six-thousand miles away? Later, Max would tell me that the first time (of two) he moved his trip back was because he hadn’t applied for a Visa. On my last visit before the pandemic, I remember getting a Visa as I entered the country, not before. Experience has worked against me.
At 9:40, with just twenty minutes left, the application status changes to approved. The first bullet whizzes by my ear just out of range. I thank Korean efficiency and head to the now passenger-free check-in counter.

The flight is mostly an exercise in discomfort, even with the empty middle seat. I try to watch The Matrix Resurrections, the latest incarnation of the Matrix. The hum of engine noises so muffle the sound in the headset, I imagine them filming the movie on the wing of the flying jet. The only subtitles are in Korean and Chinese. So I half-watch a Korean film with English subtitles set in the Joseon period about an educated Korean man that gets exiled to an island where he has to deal with an uneducated fisherman.

The second bullet leaves the gun near the end of the flight, but I don’t know it yet. I have to fill out a yellow health form asking if I have Covid or have had it. I perjure myself under the penalty of the law by declaring no, but having just overcome Covid two weeks ago, the last thing I want is them singling me out for possible Covid. I have five days in Korea and didn’t give myself two extra days for a seven-day quarantine.
When we finally arrive and after face-shielded greeters in full-length medical gowns take my form, I discover that all visitors have to take a PCR test before leaving the airport. I had just read that PCR tests detect Covid for weeks and even months after you’ve had it. The second bullet ripples toward the center of my trip’s forehead. I f**ked up again, and I’m going to jail. I interpreted the “you don’t have to have a negative PCR test before departure to enter the country” to mean you don’t have to take the PCR test. I never read the fine print, maybe because it was in Korean.
I am standing at the testing station at 5 in the Inchon morning with, at best, two hours of disturbed in-flight sleep, contemplating the seven-day quarantine. I am mentally rearranging the trip, wondering if I can catch up to the rest on the second leg of my journey in Vietnam, and canceling my flight to Jeju. As a medical assistant jabs a white swap deep into my nose from behind an acrylic shield with rubber gloves like she is handling plutonium, I contemplate my impending prison sentence.
The test results won’t be available until eleven in the morning. So I take the train, get lost in the subway (as did Google maps), and argue with the hotel clerk, asking why she wants to charge me three hundred dollars a night when my booking says less than a hundred.
On the upside, I must thank a few people who helped me at the subway station. Lugging around a 43-pound suitcase, referred to as the beast, and probably looking every bit like a deranged homeless person with bloodshot eyes and wild hair, they still took the time to answer a question or look something up on their cell phones. In particular, I thank the guy that walked me to the number nine train at the Dongjak station.
At the Seoul station, google tells me to get on the 421, which I think is a bus but might refer to a stop on line four. A woman tells me to get on the number nine train, but the map shows the number four with a transfer to the number nine. I think she means that, but her two-word “number nine” explanation was missing a lot of information.
A train pulls up with the number nine printed on the door, so I get in. As we approach the Dongjak station, an electronic sign inside flashes its message that a transfer to the number nine is possible at the next station, so that is when I asked for help in the form of confirmation. The man, as mentioned above, confirms that this is the number four, and I have to transfer to the nine. I have no idea what the number 9 painted outside the car of the train was for. At Dongjak station, he walks me to the platform to catch the actual number 9 train. He tells me the express train would be too full to get on with the beast, but I try anyway. (I wish I had a picture of that, me standing at the open door with the beast contemplating how to squeeze in while the closing train doors nearly clip the noses of the people stuffed into the completely packed car.) The local stop train comes by shortly after. At the hotel, the clerk asks for my PCR test and makes me sign a form saying if I have Covid, I could not quarantine at this hotel. I tell her they would send me the results at eleven, which she accepts.
Korea hasn’t learned that President Biden ended the pandemic. Korea still requires PCR tests for travel and hotel stays. Everyone wears a mask, and I mean they wear a quality mask pulled over their noses, not a pulled-up shirt or a face mask only covering their chins.
At eleven, the email informs me that I tested negative—the bullet whizzes by, tickling my neck hairs. While this bullet was entirely in my head, in the Matrix, everything is entirely in your head. The fear is just as real. That is what the Matrix is.

Hellbound, A Review

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Spoiler Alert. Watch Hellbound before reading this. It’s a six-episode investment, somewhere between a long movie and a short series in length, currently on Netflix at the time of this post.

You came back! You made it through the hellbound incinerations, live cremation, and infanticide. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of the horror genre, and the movie has some genuinely appalling scenes. I chose to watch it because I was impressed with Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan, ostensibly a zombie movie with a clever ending, but ultimately a film about sacrifice for others (not of others). I’m not a fan of the zombie genre either, but the movie came highly recommended, and I was not disappointed. So I took a chance on Hellbound.

An unwritten rule of monster movies is to progressively reveal the monster, saving the full power and horror until the big confrontation at the movie’s climax. But in the opening scene of Hellbound, the agents of hell fully reveal themselves. They burn their victim to a smoking crisp after a chase scene down the city’s crowded streets in broad daylight with plenty of gratuitous collateral damage, necessary for sheer entertainment value and unambiguously revealing the hellbound threat to the populace at large. Throughout the movie, the modus operandi of the agents of hell remains consistent: An angel in the form of a large face appears and issues a decree of the time of death. The monsters show up at the appropriate time, wreak mayhem, and a bloody, burning demise to the decreed victim. The demons never change in form or capability. Only the venue and the victim change.

In the first three episodes, knowledge of the attacks circulates through social media and the news. Jeong Jin-Soo rises to power and orchestrates the rise of New Truth, the religious cult that imparts moral significance to the decrees. As the high priest of the New Truth, Jeong Jin-Soo puts his practitioners on a mission to expose the wrongdoings of the condemned, hoping to discover the misdeeds that led to his undisclosed decree to hell as an innocent child. Ultimately, he knows the attacks have no meaning but believes humanity is better off with the illusion of meaning rather than the anxiety of not understanding that afflicted his life. New Truth grows in power using the street justice of the fanatical Arrowheads, dedicated to exposing and shaming the decreed, watching the final judgment dispatched dispassionately behind faceless masks. Jin Kyeong-hoon, dressed like something out of a Mad Max movie, incites the fanaticism of the Arrowheads through his rant casts on the internet. The Arrowheads beat lawyer Min Hyejin to within an inch of her life for the crime of opposing the new order, and New Truth defeats detective Jin Kyeong-hoon, who chooses not to expose the truth of Jeong Jin-Soo’s unrevealed decree and hellbound death. Following the rules of progressive disclosure, Yeon Sang-ho’s monsters of sanctimonious self-righteousness and fanaticism start to reveal themselves.

In the last three episodes, we jump forward five years to the indoctrination of New Truth into society. Jeong Jin-Soo has left his legacy in the incompetent hands of the buffoonish mob leader who understands power but not purpose. The New Truth has little to do with factual truth. New Truth uses the police to enforce their moral authority, only employing the Arrowheads as a last resort. New Truth exposes or manufactures the sins of the condemned and wrecks the lives of all those associated with them. Yeon Sang-ho’s twin monsters are in plain sight with the names New Truth and Arrowheads.

Min Hyejin returns to lead an insurgency. She spent the last five years doing martial arts training so she could kick some monster ass and concealing decrees and hellbound executions to protect the families and friends of the condemned. In possibly the most hellish scene, New Truth live incinerates one of Min Hyejin’s co-conspirators in a crematorium oven.
When an angel delivers a hellbound decree to an infant, everything comes to a head. New Truth stops at nothing to protect their moral authority, attempting to conceal the hellbound execution of the undeniably innocent victim. Min Hyejin convinces the parents of the doomed baby to broadcast the performance on social media, using the reformed fanatic Jin Kyeong-hoon’s help and equipment. Jin Kyeong-hoon joined the insurgency when he received a decree of hellbound death, which coincidently will occur five minutes after the baby. But once a fanatic, always a fanatic. New Truth convinces him that the divine has given him the sacred task of ensuring the baby’s death before his own to make it look like the monsters were only after him, thereby preserving their moral authority. Using logic only available to fanatics, he believes that god has ordered him to hell to save heaven, and killing the baby before the monsters arrive is the only reasonable course of action.

In the final chaotic scene, the progressive disclosure comes to its peak. The full power of the monsters is on display. All the human and hellish nightmares combine for the final battle to kill the decreed infant. Min Hyejin and the parents combat Jin Kyeong-hoon and the hellbound monsters to save the infant while the residents and the world stand silently in judgment, neither fleeing nor helping.

Finally, Yeon Sang-ho slays the beasts as appropriate for any decent monster movie. Miraculously, the self-sacrificing parents prevail at the cost of their own lives, finally revealing the Real Truth to the world. The demons dispatch Jin Kyeong-hoon to the underworld. Sanctimonious self-righteousness, fanaticism, and indifference are the monsters. To paraphrase the dialog, “The Hellbound attacks are no different than the randomness of any natural disaster. The affairs of humans are the business of humans.” Moral judgment doesn’t come from the divine. Incineration by natural disasters is a tragedy. Incineration of humans by humans, infanticide, and just making people’s lives miserable are the horrific crimes.

The monsters are gone, at least for the moment, but I hope Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t make a sequel to Hellbound. He has taken on monsters, superheroes, and zombies. His sequel should turn another staid subgenre of fantasy on its head. How about vampires?

The Frozen Vegetable Test

Reading Time: 9 minutes

“Why go to sea under sail at all if you’re so concerned with security? Why not go as a tourist, as a kind of frozen vegetable buying your way across the world surrounded by hot running water, epicurean cuisine, swimming pools, … – designed for your delectation and designed to quarantine you from the contagion of elemental wonder and awe known only to simple living?” 

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse. … Voyaging belongs to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in.”

  • Sterling Hayden, Wanderer

Sterling,

How long a voyage? How unplanned a trip? Are pools, hot water, and decent meals forgivable? What does it take to pass the frozen vegetable test?

Siargao is remote, at least to this American. Not into the wild remote, but far removed from anything resembling the securities and amenities of a big city. The airport only supports small prop planes, and you won’t find anything resembling a chain store, not even a Jollibee, to my knowledge. My weather app, which I can connect to the server using the resort’s wifi, lists the General Luna area as 8419. On my scooter ride around the island, people on the beach at the Magpupungko Rock Pools near Pilar requested pictures with me for their phones. As was our experience in India, where the locals took pics of the tall, very white Americans, I was an oddity. My map for the scooter ride was a pic of villages on a pillar in the dining room. When I headed out, I passed men using oxen to plow flooded rice fields. I think you will agree that I was not on any docent-led, canned trip watching from behind the safety of the tinted tour bus glass. 

I consider this trip a voyage, long in distance but short in time. I was moved. I mean this in a literal sense but also in a figurative one, which I will come back to. My car moved me to the parking lot at an airport, and a shuttle carried me to the terminal. An escalator took me up its stairs to security, and a moving walkway ambulated me to the departure gate. A jet took me from one airport to another and then yet another. A taxi took me to my hotel, and an elevator elevated me to my room’s floor. The process was repeated on a domestic flight. Once at the destination, I rented a scooter to take me around the island and a canoe to take me up a quiet, rainforest creek. I joined a tour that started with a morning bus ride to the pier and boated to a remote island, only to get on a smaller boat. The whole trip uncoiled like an unwound tape measure to that point where I swam with the stingerless jellyfish and then recoiled back with a spring-loaded pop. 

Sometimes, it felt not like a voyage, so passive, like when sitting on a HEPA filtered, dimly lit jet in the same seat for ten straight hours staring at a TV screen. At least on the outbound flight, I sat next to a friendly, talkative lady who markets AI. Sometimes, when the sitting was sensory-rich, it felt like a voyage. Like when I rode shotgun on a wave-crashing bangka with the wind whipping in my face, the motor sounding like my head was on the inside of a lawn mower, holding on to rails for balance, warm salty water spraying into my face alternating with a burning sun.

Even the threats were generally passive, albeit real to me. Not physical threats so much as stress, like when trying to figure out what documentation you need in a sea of predatory providers, misinformation, changing rules, location-specific rules, and poorly designed apps. Failure to produce the right piece of paper at the right time could turn the trip very ugly. Missing a Covid test or failing it would be a disaster. Lose your phone, passport, or credit card, and then what? The immunization card is just a little piece of cardboard that looks like any other receipt or junk piece of paper. I have no idea what happens if you lose it. Would the phone pic suffice?

On the consideration of amenities, I generally had hot water even though the resort had a third-world combined shower and shitter. My meals hardly qualified as Epicurean though I had no complaints and, more importantly, no intestinal disorders. I drank San Miguel Pilsener for alcohol, more on the level of a poor man’s Bud Light if that is even possible. Most breakfasts consisted of black coffee, rice, a sausage, and an egg. Dinners consisted of random seafood orders. My food expenses for the whole trip were under sixty dollars. I enjoyed it all, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it lavish.

There is plenty of financial unrest, but not so much of my own. I met USAID workers still helping with the reconstruction after the super typhoon Odette struck in December of 2021. I missed a photo op of two men sitting in chairs drinking beers on the second floor of the concrete skeleton of a building exuding its rebar fibers. I can’t imagine how people rode out that typhoon in a shanty with a corrugated roof. The Cloud Nine pier that carried surfers a quarter-mile over the inner, waveless inner reef was reduced from a landmark tower to a few wooden palettes stuck on wooden posts. Cleanup and reconstruction were in the air. Many of the coconut trees were on the ground.

On my canoe ride up the creek, I was paired with two beautiful lovely young women, one of the treasures of the Philippines, to serve as my guides. The first question out of their mouths after they asked for my name, which apparently is Mr. Mike, is if I am single. As best I could make out, their names were Rose Bee and Honey Bee though I am sure I hopelessly botched the pronunciation into something familiar. Both are single moms looking for a unicorn: a loyal, handsome, compassionate, devoted, caring, loving, and financially solvent man who will sweep them off their feet and whisk them off to some exotic foreign land. The unicorn is my word; the rest are theirs. I ask them why they don’t have a Filipino boyfriend and they just shake their heads. I imagine it rather tough to raise a daughter on an income of two dollars a day in a world where nothing is free. They walked me from the canoe to my scooter and invited me later to the after-dark firefly attraction, but I didn’t want to drive at night on the scooter back to the river crossing in the middle of the island.

It’s hard to see how things will improve with the recent election. I won’t delve into politics here, but all I have to say is post-truth is alive and well in the Philippines, and that shit works.

On the consideration of being moved more figuratively, there were a few bright spots and one incredible tour. The scooter ride, for starters, included the Maasin River tour with Rose Bee and Honey Bee. The river ride up in the canoe wasn’t much, but I enjoyed the scenery of my company more than the scenery. At a sari-sari store with outdoor seating on the beach at the Magpupungko Rock Pools mentioned above, I asked a group of locals and workers if I could sit down and pointed to an empty chair at their table. They started to vacate, so I quickly clarified that I meant with them still sitting there. Re-mi, who introduced himself as “Re-Mi, as in Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do,” has relations in the States, including his mom. He asked me about the places I had been to. I butchered the pronunciation of Siargao and Boracay. The kids got a kick out of it and had fun imitating me mispronouncing the words. The island is one big palm tree forest broken up by a few shanty villages here and there. I enjoyed the adventure of circumnavigating the Siargao on the bike.

The island tour to Sohoton Cove was the highlight. I can’t imagine doing the things we did there in any park here. After passing by the cupcake-shaped islands coming into the cove, we had to switch to low clearance boats to duck under the stalactite-studed low clearance archway entrance, which might have inspired a hidden valley of dinosaurs scene in a movie. I don’t even know how the natives found this place. We stopped at a cave with an underwater access. Our guide shoved each of the three women I was with by the neck to propel them beneath the submerged wall through the cave entrance, but I snorkeled in under my own power. 

After the cave, we motored over to the jellyfish sanctuary. I’ve been stung before. It’s unnatural holding a live jellyfish in your hand, even knowing it is stingerless. It’s downright freaky to snorkel amid a large school of them. The pulsating brown bells move in Brownian motion bumping chaotically into you as you swim around the lagoon. Yes, Hayden, I bought my way onto the tour but didn’t feel like some kind of frozen vegetable doing it. Instead, I felt the contagion of elemental wonder and awe. The jellyfish swim was the highlight of the highlights. 

At the next attraction, led by a guide, the two customer service girls from Manilla and I swam into another cave with a water entrance. Inside, we came into a small chamber, climbed up the wall of the rocky interior about twenty-five feet to an exit over the lagoon, walked down onto a wooden platform ten feet above the water, and dove back into the lagoon to get to the boat.

Our group returned to where we transitioned from the larger boat to the smaller one. My traveling companions, all young, six from Manilla or nearby, and one from Cebu included: a lady doctor traveling by herself to escape the twenty-four-hour shifts of family practice at a clinic, a teacher mutually followed on Instagram, an exuberant and extraverted young lady, another young man that I never really talked to, and three customer service girls already mentioned that shared the small boat in the jellyfish sanctuary. We ate a Filipino barbecue of rice, pork, chicken, and steak with sides of mango and pineapple. The extrovert told everyone to talk in English, but they didn’t. I was definitely the odd, older, foreign man out. Sometime after the meal, they expressed interest in knowing about me. “Sir, where are you from? Sir, where have you been in the Philippines? Sir.” Who the hell is this “Sir” guy? I guess I was destined to be an outsider on this one. The getting to know me chat was cut short when ironically, the doctor fell off a water swing before swinging out into the water and started to bleed out through her cut foot. A bandage was cleverly improvised from a Covid mask, and she was okay once the bleeding was under control. 

The tour finished with an on-land, dry cave tour with some excellent features and bats flitting about our heads, trying to start a new wave of Covid. How unfrozen is all that?

So, Sterling, my voyage was only a week-long, and because I stayed in Manilla a night coming and going, sacrificing two days to the Covid gods of regulation, it was only five days. My only financial unrest was the cost of transportation and dog care. I was a tourist but at least an outlier lying out on a remote island in the times of Covid and post-Odette. It may have been a short, paid-for voyage, but I hope I at least passed the frozen vegetable test.

A Man’s Got To Know His Limitations

Reading Time: 9 minutes

We backpacked forty miles in four days, with an elevation gain of five-thousand-five-hundred feet, and in many ways, I consider it a failure, or at least more of an ordeal than an adventure. I suffered dehydration, hit the wall, and failed to complete the originally planned Rae lake loop trail.

We drove up the day before to Sheep Creek campground, listening to Kim Stanley Robinson’s (KSR) “The High Sierra: A Love Story” to pass the time and set the mood. One thing I know for sure, the title of this article will not include the words “A Love Story.”


The following day began discovering that a bear had violated my Prius. I heard something loud in the early night that woke me. I cowboy camped the whole trip, so I glanced over to look in the car’s direction, but a bear container obstructed my line of sight. I chalked it up to something at one of the other campsites in the distance. In the morning, the trunk was open. The doors were opened. The heavy battery charger was on the road, and the access to the spare tire was strewn about. But my expensive camera and my buddy’s cell phone and wallet were unmolested. I was lying in the open just twenty feet away. I’m curious what I would have done if I had seen a bear sniffing around in the trunk of my car. We reported the bear incident to Morgan, the Park Ranger that checked us in at Road’s End. She told us to act big and yell, “Bear Away!” They are trying to condition the bears to recognize the word bear as a warning. Although we heard reports of a bear on the trail on the last stretch just below Mist Falls, we never had a sighting of a bear.


The first-day hike began at 5000 feet altitude and ended nine hours and ten miles later at 7000 feet. Mist Falls put on a great show at the four-mile marker, with mist drifting down the river for hundreds of yards raining on everything in its path. During the last visit, another buddy reclined dry and comfortably on a stone in front of the falls. With significantly more volume in June than in late August, the rock was barely visible through the volume of water and spray.


KSR introduced us to psycho-geology as a way to explain the love of backpacking. KSR informed us that the Sierras are written in the language of glaciers. The whole valley is the remnants of glacial action. Aside from all the problems mentioned below, there is something special about looking down a glacier-carved canyon surrounded by spires three thousand feet over your head. One of the prominent features in the main valley is the horns left by a melted glacier.


The hike above Mist Falls is a stair-climbing and exposed grind. I stopped to talk with a girl and two guys sitting on a rock on the way up because that is what you do when you are getting your ass kicked by the hike. She complained about her short legs and climbing over the two-foot stone stairs. I told her I would trade my old body for her short legs. She asked about our backpacking experience. When my buddy mentioned this was his first one, she told us it was a hell of a hike on which to pop your backpacking cherry. Indeed.


By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley, my ass was officially kicked. The heat wave had something to do with my dehydration, but so did the thirty-five-pound backpack, the exposed trail, the 2000 feet of elevation gain, old age, and the simple failure to drink enough. By the time we reached Upper Paradise Valley camp at the end of the day, my red shirt was stained with white salt streaks, and I hadn’t pissed since I left the campground and experienced mild cramping in my feet while trying to sleep. I wasn’t the only victim. Later, one of the guys of the cherry-popping trio, an experienced backpacker we were told, was puking but still made it all the way to Woods Creek. A couple of women hikers told me they lost a buddy to the heat and wasted most of the day waiting to figure out if their friend would make the hike or not. On the flip side, we passed by an older lady with more wrinkles than the canyon itself, covered from head to toe in clothing, making her way up to Woods Creek. Either she was more dehydrated than a raisin, or one tough old cookie. I am humbled.


I had already dug a deep hole for the rest of my trip, not the kind you take a crap in. I didn’t expect eighty-degree heat in the June mountains, but dehydration was mainly on me. After that first day, I forced myself to drink more, even when drinking water became almost repulsive.


The second day started with a river crossing. I watched Amanda cross with her backpack, poles, and swimsuit. While my buddy explored for a dry crossing downstream, I stripped to my skivvies, donned my water shoes, and followed her lead. Even at the widest point, the current was strong and the water cold, but I prevailed. When he saw me on the other side, he flipped the bird at me but found his dry log bridge.


After, we hiked the fifteen-hundred-foot climb from the Upper Paradise campground to the dully named Woods Creek, most of the ascent occurring in the first three miles. We trekked through pure KSR psycho-geology swallowed in the immenseness of the canyon. Vertical rivers cascaded down the sheer sides of mountains. A spire towered over, reminiscent of the Matterhorn. The distant mountains had a hazy view as if from an airplane window.


At about the end of the three miles, I hit the wall for the first time. If I were hiking solo, I would have turned back at this point, but my buddy said he wouldn’t make the decision for me. So stubbornness trumped common sense, and I pushed on. I wasn’t eating enough. In retrospect, my meal planning was downright foolish. I figured on two packs of dehydrated food daily and some snack bars. My total (un)planned packed calorie count was about fifteen hundred calories. I didn’t really do the math until after the fact. In reality, I should have planned on something like four-thousand calories for each day of the ascent. I don’t offer a defense for my abysmal planning, but those packets of dehydrated food are essentially worthless. They pack five hundred or so calories per meal. The containers claim to contain two servings. That joke is on me.


Two packets a day is only a thousand and some calories. Using those numbers, I should have packed eight packets per day for the ascent and four packages per day for the descent. I stuffed my bear canister full with only six meals and eight energy bars. If I had packed appropriately, at ten dollars a pop, I would have paid two-hundred and forty dollars for a four-day outing. On previous one or two-night backpacking trips, a couple of meals per day worked out fine, considering that I started the one-day uphills on a big-bought breakfast, spent the next day at location, and the last day coming down. My novice was showing, and it was embarrassing. The lack of proper food planning was entirely on me.


I suspect another downside of the heat was a mosquito and gnat bloom. I choked down a handful of gnats that got caught on deep inhales. On the upside, I’ve never seen so many bugs. Butterflies alighted two, three, and four to a flowerhead. Bees, flies, and bee flies buzzed about. Lizards sunned themselves on rocks and the trail, narrowly avoiding the tips of poles. If there is a psycho-geology, there ought to be a psycho-biology brought about by immersion in the wildflowers, insects, pine-scented trees, and animals. I was fortunate to spot deer, marmots, grouse, and a pika.


Having made it to Woods Creek at 5.1 miles and eighty-five-hundred feet elevation and eating a meal, I decided to shoot for Dollar Lake, a mere (haha) four miles and two-thousand-foot climb. My buddy took on my bear canister to lighten my load. Embarrassing.

On a four-foot creek crossing, I managed to step on a log that gave way and I ended up soaking my right leg. About a mile and a half up, I hit the wall again. For the first mile and a half, I would take a hundred steps and then stop to check my heart rate and take a second to get my breathing back to a normal rhythm. For the last two-and-a-half miles, I would take about twenty-five steps before being forced to stop to catch my breath. The air became thinner. The pauses became longer and the sit-downs more frequent. We passed a sign that said no fires above ten thousand feet. Near the top, when my buddy disappeared out of sight, I took a full-on, sprawled-out lay down on the rocks, entirely spent. My buddy reappeared a few minutes later without his backpack, bearing the good news that I was only a few minutes from Dollar Lake. He carried my backpack the rest of the way. Double embarrassing. The four miles from Woods Creek to Dollar Lake took five hours.


We made camp at the trout-leaping and beautiful but mosquito-infested lake donning the netting and Deet to ward off the blood-sucking brutes that wanted to drain what little energy I had left. Strangely, I had to force myself to eat my chicken and rice packet, the tastiest meal in my grocery bag of dehydrated food.


This brings me to my original mistake. I should have planned on a five-day trip instead of four. I overestimated the value of my training. I was routinely hiking eight to ten miles a weekend in my peak-a-week training hikes but at sea level and with a light ten to fifteen-pound pack. Of course, I expected the backpacking trip at altitude would be more difficult, but I did not expect it to push me beyond my limits. Given that I corrected my other mistakes, a five-day trip with one major climb per day might have been manageable for me. A good trip would be from Road’s End to Middle Paradise Valley on day one, from Middle Paradise Valley to Woods Creek on day two, and finally from Wood Creek to Rae Lakes on day three. Each segment is about seven miles and includes one major climb per day, leaving two days of ten miles downhill each.


In the morning, my buddy wanted to go back the way we came. Thank god. Just squatting to take an outdoor crap left me breathless. I don’t see how I would have survived the one-thousand-plus feet ascent over Glen’s Pass. If I did manage it, it would have taken me four or five hours to make the two miles with another seventeen miles of travel. Extending the trip to five days was out of the question because I would be out of food and out of TP.


We packed up and headed down the way we came. We met the two healthy members of the cherry-popping trio headed up as we were headed down. They left their puking buddy down at Woods Creek while they made a long day hike with light packs to Rae Lakes. She told me the whole point was to see the beauty of the lakes. Thanks. Yes, I have a regret. It was a disappointment to not make the round trip and see the lakes, but it was the right decision.


As it was, we made the trek back to Woods Creek in just over three hours, down to Upper Paradise Valley in another four, and to Middle Paradise Valley in less than two for a total downhill distance of thirteen miles in yet another nine-hour day. On the last day, we hiked out the remaining 6.8 miles in less than four hours, stopping briefly again at Mist Falls, powered by the self-promise of a Diet Coke at Grant Grove Market and a burrito in Visalia.


Of course, downhill was much easier than up, but it was not without pain beyond mere fatigue for me. During my training hikes, I suffered from sprains and foot issues. On one hike, in particular, I experienced a knife-cutting pain in my right knee. I wore a double layer of socks, a knee brace, and ankle supports to combat these mechanical problems. I had no issues at all, possibly owing to my countermeasures. But on the ups and downs, I experienced burning pain in my hips. I tried to counter this with an Ibuprofen diet starting at two pills a day and increasing to six. Even though I had the energy and stamina to make it out, I still found myself frequently breaking to let the burning subside, to make the walking bearable, if only for a short distance.


We finally made it out. My buddy’s backpacking cherry was popped, and my backpacking naivete was exposed. Grant Grove Market didn’t have a Diet Coke, so I settled on a quart of Gatorade, which I made short work of. It turns out I hate plain water as a drink. Visalia came through with the best burrito. And I ended up at home, back to wearing my comfortable blue jeans, which KSR says are absolutely worthless. And loving it.

Less

Reading Time: < 1 minute
Less for you,
Is less for me,
Stuff in storage,
Wants to be free.
Stop the hoarding,
Enough is enough,
Help out others,
When things get tough.
When your god,
Comes to account,
The things you kept,
Will lock you out.
  • Less, from “More or Less” in Property of Nature

More

Reading Time: < 1 minute
More is more,
It’s never enough,
Even when storage,
Is filled with stuff.
The more you get,
The more you need,
The fear of lack,
Is the food of greed.
Fear of lack,
Is hard to swallow,
Fills you up,
But leaves you hollow.

  • More, from “More or Less” in Property of Nature