Stepping out of our guest-house, the chill bite of an early morning wind blows in our faces, sending up an army of goosebumps. Our exhaled breath is white like cigarette smoke, and this means one thing: we've finally left early enough so to have some agreeably cool cycling weather ahead of us! The sky is bright and blue, welcoming us with a fleet of soft clouds to shield us from the sun.
Before and enjoy the crisp weather, we need to fill our water bottles with bottled water. We loathe the wastefulness of this, but we sent our water filter home in the great purge of 2010, as we had only used it once. The one time we did, filling all six water bottles was a laborious and time-consuming process. Next time, we'll skip the filter and avoid the plastic usage by bringing a Steripen.
Once our liquid supply is topped up, we strap the empty plastic bottles under our bungee nets, saving them until we meet one of the many locals who spend their days scouring the roadsides for trash and litter. They accept our plastic donations like precious gifts, carrying them away on their bicycles to who knows where. I wonder if they get money for recycling them?
Hitting the road, we don't make it far. Just a few meters from our guest-house is one of Vietnam's ubiquitous food stands. They usually serve two things: Phở and Cơm (noodle soup and rice). This morning, the choice is made for us: they only serve fuhhhh. We jazz up the piping hot broth with spices and then slurp the noodles down.
With food in our tummies, we set off, sinking into a comfortable cycling rhythm. Not only are we blessed with cool weather, but the Bane of Our Existence has miraculously been quelled. The road is refreshingly quiet—instead of sharing our route with a sea of noisy scooters, trucks and semis, the early morning lanes are reserved for slow moving bicycles and tractors.
It is with our newfound quiet that I'm able to let down my mental guard long enough to really appreciate our Vietnamese surroundings. Little kids biking to school, women washing vegetables, nearly everyone we see wearing iconic pointy rice hats. This is Vietnam as I've always imagined it.
Occasionally, we stop to play with and take photos of cute little puppies. Enjoy your youth little one, you may be on the menu soon!
After a morning of rolling hills, our climb to the mountain city of Da Lat begins in earnest. Just as we spot the first set of switchbacks in the distance, a headwind roars to life, buffeting us around like a pair of fall leaves. It doesn't faze us. Confident in our abilities thanks to dozens of similar experiences, we accept our fate and plod on slowly.
Onwards and upwards!
Our only major stop is for a man crouched by the side of the road, inspecting his scooter's flat rear wheel. He doesn't have any tools, and motions to Tyler, asking to use ours. Unfortunately, our puny tire levers are no match for his bike; there's not a whole lot we can do except wish him good luck, and then get back on our bicycles for more climbing.
Up and up we go, into the central highlands of Vietnam. The scenery is lush and green and picturesque. The roads bend and curve their way through views of terraced fields and tiny hamlets nestled in the folds of land. No longer are we in tropical palm-groves, but shady coniferous forests, diffusing their piney scent as we pass.
A mere five kilometers from the top, the switchbacks have exhausted my energy. I am ready to start pushing when we spot a little roadside cafe/scooter repair shop. I'm hoping for juice, but they have none, so I settle for an iced tea instead. Together, Tyler and I sit on miniature plastic chairs, watching as a young woman's deflated scooter tire is expertly patched by the same lady who served us.
While her scooter is being serviced, the girl comes over and introduces herself with a huge toothy smile, shaking our hands and telling us that her name is Keem, which means "gold." Eager to practice her English, Keem peppers us with questions as she rests her hands on her knees and leans forward, boring into our personal lives with wide eyes.
She asks if we're married ("wow you so youuuung") and if we intend on having children and if so, exactly how many we want. The answers to all of these questions are a bit more complicated than we let on, but she's satisfied with the simplified version.
Then, she tells us all about herself. She's a 24 year old medical student from Da Lat, studying in Ho Chi Minh City. She just bought strawberries (a Da Lat mountain specialty, thanks to a cooler climate) to bring back to her friends. She doesn't ever want to get married because then she'll have to cook and clean and look after her husband and have no time for herself.
I casually offer up the idea that maybe there's a guy out there who will want her to take care of herself, but it doesn't seem to fly. The idea is preposterous. There is no such thing. Instead, she keeps talking, and we keep listening.
While a husband is out of the question, a boypren is an entirely different matter. She smiles and leans closer as if we're all having a slumber party and it's her turn to divulge her major crushes. She launches into a monologue about her boypren. "He so tall!" she gasps, eyes wide as if she just saw him for the first time about two seconds ago. "He 1.75 meters!"
And then, with those same wide eyes she blurts out "He so fat!" before covering her hand with her mouth and dissolving into giggles. We can't help but laugh either, not at Keem's apparently rotund boyfriend, but at the girl herself and her sweet quirkiness. We'd love to listen to more of her stories, but her scooter is soon fixed, and she rides away, waving goodbye.
The last bit of our climb is finished in short order, and we're filled with the sense of relief and triumph that always comes from reaching the top of a mountain pass. The city of Da Lat is visible below, a mish mash of colors and shapes stacked up like legos. Famous for its temperate climate, an abundance of non-tropical fruits and flowers, and kitchy sightseeing opportunities, we have a feeling we're going to enjoy ourselves.