Wednesday, Phan Rang to Ca Na, 8:30am – 2:30pm, 57 km
We finally packed up all our gear on the bicycle and left Phan Rang, not without some hugs and pictures at Solarvina Hotel with the friendly family staff who has taken such good care of us.
It felt good to finally be on the road, and the 25 mph tail wind helped propel us southward. In our first kilometer we had to stop and check the phone map, since trying to stay too close to the coast had brought us into a bustling little neighborhood. We had veered too far south already and had to get back to cross the bridge and be on the main road. The main road turned out to be a divided highway, two lanes in either direction, that was mostly deserted. The wind sang softly through the street lamp poles as it carried us past the remains of the city, wading birds, and delta crop land and towards sand dunes and bouldery mountains. Halfway up one of our first moderate inclines we lost all torque, and looked down to see a broken chain. At 9am the sun was strong, so we pulled the tandem off into a little shade and got to work. In no time I had taken out the bent link and reattached the chain with enough to make it work in all gears. It’s messy work and I was frustrated with this setback, but I felt like in the end it wasn’t much, as long as it didn’t happen again. But it did.
We had only gone another five km, and this time we had turned off the road down a steep hill into the small fishing village of Son Hai. The chain fell into the sand, and I stopped a moment to breath. It was hot, we were only 20 km into our bicycle portion of the trip, and the chain had broken twice. I didn’t know how many more links I could afford before the chain would become too short for some of the higher gears. We were in front of a family owned business–very common here, with a small display case showcasing some bottled drinks, packaged snacks, cigarettes, shampoo packets and various other small drug store items. Kallie went to get me a drink while I tried to clean sand off the freshly oiled and freshly broken chain. One of the young proprietors there tried to help me by taking the chain from me–I must have looked at a loss, but he quickly got confused by the rear derailleur and he gave it back. Replacing the link went fairly smoothly this time as well, and the man offered me some dish soap and a place to wash the grease off my hands. As we sipped our cold drink we let the tension float, and finally begun to speak of what we could do to continue. I suspected something was maladjusted on our rear derailleur as sometimes the gears would slip at certain intervals, back and forth, as though it was just between settings, and perhaps that was the problem. But beyond trying to make some minor tweaks we would have to go more carefully and communicate more intentionally about shifting. On a single bike the person controlling the gears can automatically adjust his pedaling to accommodate for a change in gears; on a tandem the person in back does not have control of the gears, and especially when digging in to climb a hill might be putting too much pressure on the chain during a change, which could be enough to break it. We determined I would announce the intention to shift, and use the lower gears more liberally. We weren’t racing, and so we could afford to go slowly in order to get there at all. So far, this has worked.
We continued to explore the village to see if any of the roads might lead to a good kiting spot, but we soon came to the end of the road where there were only construction vehicles working. It seems a large development was being planned and excavated, and we saw a signs in Vietnamese that showed what looked like subdivisions along the seaside and another side later that announced “Hawaii” with an arrow. Later, from the top of the mountain, we looked back and saw rows of palm trees being planted along the waterfront. I wondered how this might change the small fishing village, and if it was someone local who owned the investment.
Before we left, we did check out a footpath that led toward the ocean. Kallie stayed with the the bike while I walked out to a surging and rolling sea, with a converging currents and a menacing shore break. The beach was fine, but kiting didn’t look so good there. The other feature of this area was a dozen water pumps running with pipes leading back inland to fill pools for what we supposed were shrimp farms and salt evaporators. It felt somewhat post apocalyptic with bits of leaves and trash and sand blowing past these old pumps chugging away, no one else in sight. I returned and we went on our way, and soon were climbing past the sand dunes and into the rocky mountains. The road was wide and quiet, with more goats and cows than other types of traffic. The occasional passing motorcyclist or truck driver would give us a thumbs up. One thing about bicycle travel is that you earn some respect.
We were grateful that all the switchbacks on the map did not amount to climbs and descents, as we’ve experienced in other places. Rather, the elevation stayed more or less constant, or at least gentle. Birdsong and wind were the noise we heard, and our bike creaking with its load as we pedaled. All along we had incredible vistas from the cliff down to the open ocean, and caught sight of secluded swimming beaches far below, and other places where waves crashed against rocks. The warning signs to “watch for falling rock” were quite serious, as we noticed plenty of marks where boulders had tumbled off the mountainside and struck the pavement, and we encountered one bigger than Kallie, that was still there. Thankfully we encountered no stones that weren’t gathering moss, so to speak, and soon found ourselves descending into the valley of Ca Na.
The first thing we noticed were huge smoke stacks at one end of the bay, a coal plant. When we got to the valley floor, we somehow turned into the wind that was blowing a fierce 30 mph, and had the toughest ten kilometers of the day to get to our hotel. The road was elevated ten feet and on either side were shallow pools, marked off in rectangles, some small and some the size a football field. Some of them had stakes and nets, and in a few folks looked like they were collecting something. We noted the prospects of off-shore winds for kiting, and kept our heads down grinding away into incessant wind. We were tired when we finally made it to our resort hotel, so we quickly agreed to two nights for 600,000 VND ($12 USD/night), gave up our passports, and found a beer. Two travel tour buses were parked in the lot when we arrived and what we assumed were Russian tourists milled about. We realized this must be a rest stop for the tourist’s journey, and we found the menu to be quadruple typical Vietnamese prices. The beer seemed to be the cheapest thing on the menu, so we determined to shower and head into city center of Ca Na a little later to see what we could find. This proved stressful, as we had to pedal back down the busy highway 1 right into the wind again. I lost my hat twice, and even had some trouble steering with the side on winds. Since it was only 4pm, many dinner places weren’t set up yet, and the narrow streets filled with motorcycles and kids out of school who shouted “Hello!” at us. We kept winding along the narrow, bumpy streets looking for something good to eat, but not finding anything. Finally we made our way out to the seaside, where a couple middle school girls were eating some street food in a small shack. The woman called us to “sit, sit!” and started cooking whatever it was we were about to get. It turned out to be a round rice cracker the size of a tortilla with egg and fried things in between, almost like a quesadilla, that one dipped into a spicy sauce. It was tasty, and we managed to say so through our Google translate app. We also were able to have a small conversation with the two girls, who were clearly mustering up the courage to try out their English. We were from America. I was 36 years old. Kallie was 29. No kids yet. By this time the long day was taking its toll, and we were eager to get away from public exposure. We washed up from a bucket of water, paid, and thanked them for the meal. Then we headed back to our hotel room and were asleep by 8:30pm.