I had been barreling through Da Nang as fast as morning traffic and red lights would allow when the north end suburban expanse ended with the suddenness of an equatorial sunset. To the right was the oily brine of the petroleum terminal. To the left, a wide swath of rice land with an ornate temple property at the rear. To the rear was Da Nang, and dead ahead was the imposing and beautiful coastal mountain route of Hai Van Pass.
About 90 minutes earlier I had taken a quick stop by the sea’s edge at My Khe Beach to bid farewell to the placid South China Sea, and to take a moment to reflect upon all the many thousand days and nights that it has been since I first dreamed of cycling in Vietnam and to marvel at the realization that the moment had finally arrived to undertake my first tour there. Truly the 8 day 600 kilometer jaunt through central Vietnam that I was about to begin was a far cry from the much longer journey that I some day hope to attempt, but I was ecstatic for the journey that time now allowed. So with an unbelieving shake of my head, a slight fist pump, an excited whoop, and a smile big enough to crack the dawn, I clipped my shoes into the pedals and made the first pushes into a world of dreams along what I soon began to call, the Hello Highway.
Within a few minutes of leaving My Khe I had crossed the Han River and was heading through the heart of Da Nang. The traffic was surprisingly sparse in the core of the city of 1 million souls. This unexpected quiet was a nice addition to an already pleasant morning, warmed as it was by the early morning sunlight. Before long I made the merge onto National Route 1A, the main highway in Vietnam. Even then the traffic wasn’t especially heavy. The ride was quiet enough that from the sides of the road I could hear the first calls of what would become a very familiar refrain over the next few days: hello!
The first greeting came from two small boys with back packs as they ambled lazily, presumably on their way to school. I powered through the north end of the city responding to a good many hellos as I went. They came from all manner of folks: kids at play or on their way to school, young couples eating breakfast together, women working their small family restaurants, and older men with cigarettes hanging from the corner of their mouths yelling at each other over a game of cards. All took a moment from their morning to shout a friendly “hello” and give a kindly wave to the bearded guy streaming through town on a bike. Some voices came from origins unknown and seemed like disembodied cries from the depths of time or another dimension.
My ride that first day was intended to be 110 kilometers and all of it flat but for the 30 to 35 kilometers of Hai Van Pass. I had been warned of the difficulty of Hoi Van Pass by several local folks that I had come to know in the time I had been in Da Nang. They actually seemed to revel in telling me how steep and tough it was going to be. My typical response was to shrug as if to say, “Oh well.” It isn’t like I had a choice. It was go Hai Van or not go. So, when I saw the first signs promising 10% grades ahead, I adjusted my gears accordingly and set my mind to conquer. I needn’t have been nearly so dramatic. There is no doubt that there are some tough stretches while climbing the Pass, but it wasn’t that tough. Its length was the most difficult part. It just seemed to keep going and going. But before long I was at the top. Once you are there, there are a small number of worn and weary war era buildings and a cluster of shacks selling cold drinks, cigarettes, and all manner of touristy trinkets. I stopped to refill my water supply and paid a heavily inflated price for what was essentially the Vietnamese version of Mr. Noodle. I scoffed my gourmet lunch of cheap noodles and second hand smoke and was soon back on the road.
The next 20 kilometers or so was a hang on and let ‘er go thrill ride averaging speeds well in excess of 40 kilometers an hour downhill on one of the most bendy and twisty roads I have ever traveled. My speed regularly topped 50 kilometers an hour and at least once pushed into the mid 60’s until I had to slow for a sharp breaking twist-around-and-kiss-your-own-ass kind of turn. After the descent was over it was back to flat lands and steady easy speeds of 25 to 30 kilometers an hour. And that’s when the hellos started coming fast and furious.
It began in the next small town that I passed through. It came from two girls of about 12 double riding on an old single speed bike with a rusted fender and rattling chain guard. The chain on the old bike looked so rusty that it was hard to imagine that there was much good metal left to it, but the smiles of those kids were as bright and warming as the first perfect rays of a new dawn. Before long the small towns that I was slipping through became an unbroken string of houses and shops bordering the highway, and the traffic increased to steady levels. It would stay this way right to Hue which was my destination for the day. But the amount of traffic couldn’t compare to the amount of greetings I was getting from the people. It seemed at times that every kid I passed shouted to me, and at least half the adults. Even people on their motorbikes would slow down as they came alongside and wave and say hello. Occasionally I would hear a hello from somewhere far behind, the sure sign of a kid who caught a glimpse of me at the last second but was determined to have their say.
The next day in Hue was a beautiful sunny day that I spent on a motorbike tour of the surrounding countryside. I thoroughly enjoyed my day in Hue but I was ecstatic to get back on the road the day after. I pulled away from my cheap hotel shortly after 7 a.m. under a cloudless sky with 90 kilometers to Dong Ha on the menu. My first move was to get as far away as I could from the busy National Route 1A that I had ridden two days earlier, so I headed for a small coastal road.
The road turned out to be little more than a series of concrete slabs barely wide enough for two small cars to pass each other. It was the perfect choice. It brought me through a myriad of small towns and villages just a stones throw from the sea. The route wasn’t the most scenic of places lined as it was by man made ponds trimmed with black plastic, but it was quiet and peaceful so that made it just about perfect. And then, that sound returned. Hello!
And hello, hello, hello it was the rest of the way to Dong Ha. One young man that spoke English pulled alongside on his motorbike for a chat. We only spoke for a few minutes but he began to laugh at the incredible number of people greeting me as I went by. “You are famous,” he laughed. I said hello and waved to so many people I almost believed it. As I passed through one small village so many people said hello at the same time that we all burst into laughter. It was surreal. And it was a joy.
Just past mid afternoon I wheeled into Dong Ha and found myself a room for the night. Even here in town the hellos kept coming. I found a great restaurant for dinner, grabbed a couple of cold ones and headed to my hotel. I sat on the balcony enjoying my beverages and the cool evening air and read my book for a while. Sleep soon beckoned and I heeded the call. After all, tomorrow was another day of riding, and this time, I will be heading toward the western and then? There be mountains.