The day we cycled the 25km north from Phan Rang city to Phi Kite School was a windy one. We were excited about that in regards to kiting–it was a thorn in our flesh in regards to biking. The prevailing winter winds are from the northeast, which is why we planned to cycle south, to keep the winds at our backs and ensure positive cycling vibes. But our first time getting our tandem put together and loading the kites we found ourselves headed straight into the nostrils of the monster–25-30 mph headwinds that caused me to doubt both Kallie’s commitment to pedaling and my own life’s purpose and existence. Head down most of the way, we arrived with a faint thrill of accomplishment and jelly legs. Thankfully, kite boarding is perfect therapy for many things, and in no time our legs felt stronger and we’d forgotten our cycling trials.
Kallie did her research on kiting in Vietnam, and Phi Kite School in Phan Rang came up at the top of her list. We were eager to discover this place, but we had a ways to go. After the sleeper bus dropped us at the side of the road on the outskirts of Phan Rang (an unscheduled stop negotiated by our Vietnamese speaking friends), we found ourselves without transportation and without language. Well, mostly. Google translate does an amazing job, and so does some basic gesturing if you’re patient and persistent. After waiting about fifteen minutes to see if a taxi would pass, we decided we should seek some help. I went across the street to a small shop while Kallie stayed with all our luggage. The proprietors were an elderly man who seemed wary of me but kind, and a middle aged woman who promptly turned and walked away when I inquired, “taxi?” Patience.
Admittedly taking a bus when you’re on a bike tour doesn’t settle too well–like too many chilies in your chicken and rice dish. But, in both cases it’s a means to an end. And it made sense to us for a couple reasons. First, biking was only half of this tour, the other half being kiteboading. We wanted to spend time kiting, and it looked unlikely we would be dry at all for two weeks or several hundred km, whichever came first. With a little over a month to travel we wanted to maximize. Second, our bike was still packed in its travel cases, which made the opportunity a little sweeter. And on top of that we could travel with our new friends, two of whom could negotiate in Vietnamese and help us through the details. Done.
Since we had made arrangements to stay our first night on the road with a friend of a friend currently living in Hoi An, we decided to take an overnight trip to spend some time visiting and see this ancient coastal city. After buying a Vietnamese SIM card (Viettel: 1 month, 7 GB of data, 160,000 VND or roughly $8 USD), we hopped a bus (literally flagged it down and ran to jump on) and were on our way. The journey from Da Nang to Hoi An took about 50 minutes, and we found a recommended green taxi upon arriving to take us from the bus stop to Alex’s place. We were grateful for the SIM card as we could use Facebook messenger to communicate and we could check google maps as well, although wifi seemed to be at almost every guest house or small shop. Alex is a professional photographer living in Hoi An. He guided us to his place, which was a nice house he and a friend were renting for a couple months. He showed us where water from the typhoon had come to on the walls, and told us how coming home that day he had to wade through chest-deep water and move all furniture to the upstairs while they waited for the waters to recede. “It seemed like the Vietnamese weren’t even bothered,” he laughed. “I got a picture of a couple of guys in their shop sitting on a table drinking champagne while their feet dangled in the flood water.”
Our first night of sleep in a bed after travel lasted about 12 hours–enough to get us back on track and outsmart jet lag. We decided to get breakfast around the corner where we had the day before and discovered a larger set-up with a different woman cooking. The pop-up street restaurants are an interesting facet of Vietnamese culture; the same street corner can host several different vendors in the course of the day, depending on the mealtime, and also remain empty much of the day as well. Many of the food carts fold up on the back of a motorcycle.
We stopped in to see what they had today, and were served cold noodles with chicken and veggies, Bun Thit Nu’ong. We make a mental note: “Very delicious. Eat again.” On the way back we see our kiting buddies downstairs having coffee. We have discovered this is no ordinary coffee; this is thick, black robusta concentrate dripped onto sweetened condensed milk in about a two to one ratio, and served either hot or cold (with ice). It’s also typically served with a light glass of green tea, hot or cold to match the coffee. We joined them and had ours hot. For the coffee we skipped the mental note and went right to the maxim: “DRINK AT LEAST DAILY WHILE IN VIETNAM.”
Our first full day has proved to be just that. Straight from the airport, the owners of Gia Huy guesthouse welcomed us into a small lobby filled with motorbikes. The single room we had booked wasn’t ready at that early hour (7am), so they upgraded us to a double room for no extra charge. As we are wont to sprawl a bit with all our gear, this served us well.
Our adventure buddy Angela showed up just before 9am for our shared ride to O’Hare, by which time we’d managed an hour or so of sleep (Kallie proclaimed 46 minutes of snoozing). Prep and packing, especially taking the bike apart, takes time. We only started taking apart the bike at 11pm after meeting with Kallie’s parents for dinner in Lake Odessa the night before, and we saw the clock pass 5am by the time we’d cleaned and repacked enough to get each back under 23 kg (50 lbs). We have four checked items packed full: our two suitcases for the tandem (also stuffed with miscellany), our BOB yak single wheel trailer in a box (with our 13m, 9m, and 7m kites), and finally the kite board. We debated what to do about this last item because we knew the oversize baggage charge would be $150 each way. One option was to take Kallie’s older board, which she could then try to sell and leave behind, or we could take our newer Axis Vanguard, which is our favorite board. Sometime after 4am we settled on the Axis. An extra $150 would be worth it to ride on our favorite board for four weeks rather than risk any regrets. I remember a college french professor offering her advice for our study abroad saying, “Spend the money to have the experience.”
It’s hard to be a budget traveler AND travel with kite gear. Oversize baggage costs about $150 each way, and that’s if you don’t go over the weight limit! A lot of kiteboarders travel with kite bags disguised as “golf bags” in hopes of avoiding these fees (golf bags fly free with most airlines). But if you’re headed to a major kiteboarding destination, you’re unlikely to fool airline agents who know to check golf bags for kite gear. Not to mention, golf bags aren’t cheap- most are over $200. I thought about buying a golf bag- but if we lost the gamble we’d be out $500+.
In case you didn’t know, we booked our tickets to Vietnam for $350 round trip per person. That’s less than what it usually costs Andrew to fly from Michigan to Minnesota. While there are countless articles on travel hacks and how you can find cheap flights, here’s how I scored this deal. As a general rule, I really hate email newsletters, and try and unsubscribe from as many as possible. But, I do I subscribe to three daily flight deal newsletters, and one occasional alert. It’s worth it 😉
It’s been over five years since our last big bike tour. Prepping for this trip feels a little bit like going back to college after being in the workforce for a few years. Some things still seem familiar enough- like biking. We cycle on a daily basis at home, so that doesn’t seem foreign. But heavy loaded touring is a whole ‘nother ball game. You can try and go for training rides- but unless you’ve loaded down your bike with all of your luggage, you won’t get the full effect. Riding a heavily loaded bike kind of feels like running up a flight of stairs while giving your friend a piggy-back ride. Your steering feels a little drunk, stopping takes as long as a freight train, and let’s not even talk about pedaling uphill. It takes a considerable amount of energy just to even stand next to your bike and hold it upright.
We’ve biked to the beach twice for a kiteboarding session, but that’s only experience with this crazy brainchild of mine: a bicycle tour with kiteboarding equipment. I pitched this trip idea to Andrew a few years ago and he’s been pretty cynical- we’re not exactly in the greatest financial position to be taking off for six weeks. But I’ve been dying to get out of the country on another travel adventure, and when I got an email from Secret Flying saying there were tickets to Ho Chi Minh City for $350 round trip, how could I say no? But he’s right–this trip could be a total flop. It could be a lot more expensive since he was there in 2008. The people could be unfriendly, or we could get scammed or robbed. We might not catch any wind and just be biking over mountains with a trailer full of dead weight. We could come home frustrated and broke. But, “got to risk it to win the biscuit.” Right?