Biking under blue skies into Vietnam
Posted Date: 11/15/20134:20 AM

Tuesday, January 8th, 2008 at 8:55 pm

We began the new year under clear skies in a new country. We rolled across the Vietnamese border on the first of January and biked under blue sky, for the first time in several weeks, through the border and down a long hill.


I was eager to see if the change from China to Vietnam would be subtle or drastic. The car horns definitely changed. The architecture reflected more European influence. We biked through the small border town of Ding Dong, and down a huge hill. So long was the hill, I began to suspect the entire country was downhill. The children yelled “Hello!” with American accents. People along the side of the road waved and smiled. They seemed less surprised to see foreigners. And many more spoke English.
The sun sunk in the sky and the light softened. We still sped downhill, but needed to stop soon. We pulled into a village not having any idea how to say “hotel” or “guesthouse” in Vietnamese. In fact we knew little more than how to say “Hello”, which makes for short conversations.
In the middle of the village we stumbled upon one Mr. Quan, who spoke English well. He took us to the home of stern, serious man, who offered to let us sleep on the floor of his attic for 100,000 dong, or fifty yuan, or about six dollars, or the price we normally paid in China for a regular room with a bed. We accepted the offer, and Mr. Quan stayed around to help translate. He worked in a bigger city nearby, but grew up in the town of Dong Ma, where we were staying.
As we sat downstairs, drinking tea served by the inn owner, we quizzed Quan on useful Vietnamese phrases. He always replied rapidly in an indistinguishable series of impossible-to-replicate sounds. We had him write some phrases down. He took my pin in his thin, sinewy fingers, and wrote “Toi co the cin o day khang?” Great. It slowly became obvious Vietnamese would not be a quick study.
Mr. Quan was very soft spoken, but had a wide smile. He told us about his girlfriend in the bigger city, and his desire to get a better job. We talked about Vietnamese history. “For a long time,” said Quan, “it was under French control, and then American.” Here he paused and laughed nervously before continuing, “but it is no problem, now we are all friends, we don’t care so much about the past.”
I looked up at the wall above Quan. Dozens of pictures featured the inn-owner, here his chest crowded with medals, there he shook hands with a high-ranking officer, here he posed in the normal battle fatigues of the North Vietnamese Army. He was about sixty years old.
I don’t know what it is that causes a man to invite his former enemies into his home as guests. Maybe it is only because we’ve forgotten the past. Maybe it’s just to make a buck, or dong. However, I’d like to believe it has more to do with one’s will towards peace and forgiveness.
Later that evening, I found that my axle had broken. That’s one of the number one things you don’t want to break on a bike. The next morning, my host pointed me in the direction of the bike fixing place. I wandered around aimlessly, pointing at my wheel and asking bemused early-morningers, “Bike, where?” When I wound up back at the inn, the inn keeper came out and guided me to the bike mechanic, then stayed around to make sure he did everything correctly. I obtained the new axle and put it on my bike. It worked much better after that.

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