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Scenes From a Day on the Road

by Tara

In Which We Cycle a Bit

Here we are, cycling along the coast of Vietnam, and we can hear ourselves think! We can hear each other talk, and we can ride side by side, all thanks to an unusually quiet road. Thrilled about this change of circumstance, we chat happily to one another about the cob or strawbale house we want to build someday, and the tent we hope to live in while we're constructing it.

Eventually, the conversation strays to less pressing topics, such as whether or not Snape really is a bad guy, and if Dumbledore is only pretending to be dead. We haven't read the last Harry Potter book, so our minds are full of theories—maybe he'll come back like Gandalf did?

Time passes quickly, and soon we arrive in Đà Nẵng, stopping for a few minutes to take a walk along the beach. In the right season, this city is probably a lovely seaside resort, but compared to Hội An, it feels soulless, characterless and boring. Still, the ominously roiling water has its own allure.

Tyler in the Ocean Dangerous - No Swimming Stormy Beach

In Which We Encounter a Weirdo

As we cycle out the city, traffic picks up once more, and it feels sort of like we're waking up from a really nice dream. Gone is our quiet coastal road, and here we are, back in the loud traffic of Vietnam, and this time there is a brand new kind of annoyance to contend with—one I never would've expected.

When we pass a lone, seemingly innocuous elderly man, he leers at me and makes an O with his left hand, proceeding to jab his right pointer finger into it repeatedly. I haven't had the misfortune of witnessing such crude and inappropriate behavior in a very long time. Not really sure how to respond, I scowl at him and pedal a little harder, revulsed by the encounter.

In Which We Buy Snacks

With our blood sugar levels dropping, and the illustrious Hai Van Pass ahead, it's time to start thinking about food. We haven't found a place for lunch yet, but I do spot a minimarket at which to buy snacks. While Tyler waits with the bikes, I go up to the corner shop to buy provisions.

I grab a box of crackers, a can of barbecue flavored peanuts, and two rolls of oreos. As a treat, I decide to pick up some raisins, imported all the way from California. I want them partially because we haven't had raisins in ages, and partially because there is actually a price tag on them: 50,000 VND; at least I won't have to haggle for them.

When I give the lady my raisins, she disappears into the back and returns with a calculator. The price tag has mysteriously gone missing. She punches in a six and then a zero, and then shows me the screen. She's telling me the raisins cost 60,000. *sigh* Seriously?

I shake my head and raise and eyebrow, reaching down to grab one of the dozen raisin boxes a foot away from me, the ones that still have their labels proudly showing the price. She hesitates, then types fifty on the calculator as if we're bargaining. Dammit, isn't this what price tags are for!?

Lady, if you came into say, my coffee shop, barely speaking a word of English, bumbling around, trying to purchase something, I'd probably smile at you and give you a free cup of coffee, and then see if I could help you out. That's what I would do.

If you want to charge me more for the unlabeled items because you see me as a rich foreigner, fine. But when the price is clearly listed, you can't just lie to my face!

In Which We Eat Lunch

We're sitting at a roadside restaurant, hoping to eat a hearty lunch that will fuel our upcoming climb. Watching the girls next to us happily rolling bits of herbs into spring roll wrappers, I have high hopes I'll get another dish of my new favorite food!

When the cook proudly sets before us a bowl heaped high with floppy, beige pinky-sized pieces of something coated in a crumbly layer of damp, beige cornmeal, we're not sure what to make of it. What in the heck is this? It does not look appetizing. Honestly, it doesn't even look edible.

It's as if someone had the intention of frying the little things, whatever they are, but then quit before they got around to actually putting them in hot oil. We sniff at the dish cautiously, but the smell doesn't reveal the nature of its contents. So, we wait patiently, hoping the cook will return with more food, or instructions of some sort.

She is nowhere to be found, so I grab a piece and take a bite. My tiny, tentative exploratory nibble is less than illuminating, for the substance has very little flavor. What taste it does have is sort of musty, and well, cornmealy.

When the lady returns at last, she presents us with another bowl, this one full of what looks to be… oatmeal? Or hot, steaming gruel with… oatmeal chunks? No, it might be vomit. We are perplexed as to what to do with all of this, so we just stare at the floppy bits, grimacing a little, unwilling to plunge right in, especially now that there's steaming puke involved in the equation.

The girls at the next table clearly seem to be enjoying themselves, and I wonder if they're having what we're having. I'm craning my neck, trying to see what they've got on their plates, when one of the girls catches our eye and then tries really hard to communicate with us. But mostly she just stares, looking pained, as if she was extracting from her mind long-forgotten English words.

Much better at written communication, apparently, she gives up on speaking, instead whipping out a pad of paper and a pen. She scribbles something on it, then hands it over and giggles like we're passing notes. Which we are. The note reads:

You should drink this meal with wine, because this meal is very, very fresh fish.

This is raw fish. A huge, damp, cornmeal-covered bowl of it. We mask our distaste with forced smiles and thank the girl. I really like sashimi, but right now? I'm about to climb a mountain pass, the last thing I want in my belly is raw fish with a side of steaming hot cream of wheat.

What should we do? we hiss to each other, hoping no one understands us. Should we just get out of here, leaving our food untouched so someone else can eat it? Should we pay and leave? Should we… gulp… eat it? The cook is back, hovering over us expectantly, waiting for us to take the first bite and shower her with praise.

I look at Tyler hopefully, but he shakes his head; he is flat out refusing to eat any, practically gagging at the sight of the dish. Thanks a lot honey! I'm left to deal with the eager server, so I valiantly take one for the team, officially putting Tyler in my debt forever.

I make myself a messy raw cornmeal fish springroll, and dunk it into the hot gloop as the lady instructs. I take a bite. I chew it up a bit, and then I calm down a little. It looks foul, but it tastes okay, thanks to the gingery flavor of the bowl of gruel. It's not so bad really… though I wouldn't want to eat any more of it.

As I chew, I smile and nod, trying to make a "mmmm" sound, trying to placate the lady so she'll leave. Unfortunately this has the opposite effect, and the woman begins madly rolling new rolls for me to eat. Oh no!

Eventually I am saved when I accidentally inhale some of that damp cornmeal. While I am coughing my brains out, wheezing and smacking my sternum with a fist, Tyler speedily pays and ushers me to the bikes, where we smile, wave, and cycle off.

Vietnamese Rice Paddies