The Blog Of AJ Clarke

Imperial Palace

Our last day in Hue was spent touring the Imperial Palace of the Nguyen Dynasty. It wasn;t what you’d typiclaly expect when someone mentions “palace.” Conservative, open-air, nothing glitzy – just a simple walled-in grounds with gardens, temples and moat.

We did not get to walk the entire grounds; the Vietnamese government is putting a lot of effort into restoring parts of teh palace to its former glory. It was easily one of teh hottest days on record of our trip.

Land Ho, Lang Co

Day 2 in Hue was all about the famous beaches. We rented a VW van, complete with driver for the whole day. The hour long drive was scenic; racing along country roads, past farming communities and lush green countryside.

Let’s talk about that country road for a moment; one lane in each direction, with buses, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, ox carts and pedestrians all sharing it. Our driver would have put any New York cabbie to shame. Weaving and passing on the left, the right and taking no prisoners. Our driver actually hit about 80km/h (50mph) for a few stretches!

Lang Co beach itself is a sleepy little resort area; crystal clear water. Nary a ripple and perfectly warm. An hour outside of Hue, this area once housed the vacation beach homes of the Nguyen dynasty families.

I’m on a Boat!

Our hotel in Hue is musty but charming, it reminds me of being in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Obviously, the French influence is large in Vietnam; remnants of colonial times. The Bike Taxi tour gave us a taste of what we’ll want to explore later today: open air markets, The Perfume River, ancient pagodas and maybe the Imperial Palace.

In the early evening, we opted for the Perfume River tour. We rented our own private boat for a three hour tour, a three hour tour. The winding river is not very long at all, but the trip is slow moving and picturesque.

We took one of the last boats out close to sunset which proved fortuitous. The whole family was there, six adults and Tam’s four nieces. We packed a picnic dinner of french bread and cold meats; pork and pate; our very own Banh Mi sandwiches. Take that, Nom Nom truck!

As daylight waned, our boatsman ventured off course up to the banks of the Thien Mu pagoda. As I stepped off the boat and ascended the ancient steps, I wondered if Colonel Kurtz was waiting for me. Built in 1601, this 69 foot tower is the official symbol of this majestic city. Eerily, within moments, the grounds became pitch black and we scurried back to our little boat. I think the monks within the temple were trying to tell us something.

Back in our vessel, we were treated to a beautiful sight. One of the other tour boats was quietly letting riders release lanterns into the river off the back of the boat. Some tour boats have entertainers on board, who sing and dance in the traditional style. In the middle of the show, guests are asked to light a lantern, make a wish and release their hopes onto the river. We floated for a while with our engine off, letting the lights bounce up against our boat.

On Our Hue

Strike 2 for the iPad as the alarm I set for 4:30a did not go off on Sunday morning. Then again, it might have been my fault as my body and brain have been quite confused about the hours and days. I’ve pretty much given up telling my body what time it is, i just roll with it now.

We took the 6a flight to the Imperial City of Hue (sort of pronounced “whey”), a popular tourist city known for its palaces, temples and sandy white beaches. We’ll be here for three days; Day 1 is exploring the city and Day 2 will be traveling out to the beach. We’ll wing it for Day 3.

We toured the teeming streets via Bike Taxi; over crowded bridges and rivers and down vibrant side streets. The “traffic” is definitely just as much a highlight as any scenery or food. Bikes, taxis, buses and cars all co-mingle on two lane streets. There are traffic lights just so tourist can cross the street, but lights are rarely attended. I’ll post some videos later, you’ll hear nothing but horns and my laughter.

Suddenly Saigon

The first thing you notice about the city is the traffic. The streets are teeming with it. Taxis, Cars, old Trucks straight out of a 60s movie, Bicycles and Motorbikes. Oh, the Motorbikes. They are everywhere. Like little worker bees, they drone and hum and buzz, crisscrossing every intersection. Even the most seasoned NYC cabbie would need a week to figure it out. The traffic here can only be described as “Agreed Upon Chaos.” it just works.

Pedestrians walk out into the street, not necessarily bothering to look; the motorbikes simply adjust around you. Rules of the road? There are none. One lane up, one lane down? Sure, whatever. Only suggestions.

We checked into The Sapphire Pill Hotel (don’t ask me, that’s what it’s called.) and then proceeded to Hieu’s mom’s house. (Hieu, pronounced “Huey’” is Tam’s brother in law.) We had lunch delivered from a local restaurant. Mmm, my first bowl of Pho in Vietnam. Ok, i had TWO bowls… Pho (pronounced like “fur” but without the r) is the traditional dish of Vietnam. A flavorful noodle soup announced by it’s unique star anise aroma. It is typically served with beef or chicken, fresh herbs and spring onions.

With a belly full of Pho, I was ready to explore a little. We wandered through the open markets looking for DVDs for Hieu’s little girls. Dora, Barbie, Avatar (the Airbender kid), and Pokemon titles can be had for 10,000 dong each; roughly $0.50 USD. Yes, you read that correctly.

Capitalism is flourishing here, from the bustling street markets to the newly built glitzy malls; one can easily get lost shopping.

Good Morning Vietnam!

The 90 minute layover in Taipei was just what i needed. Time to stretch my kegs after 13 hours of Hell. Iced tea… Check. Chocolate muffins… Check. Free WiFi? Check! Being connected was a welcome distraction. The final leg would be another 3 hours into Saigon.

The flight was not crowded, but as luck would have it, i was seated next to a smelly French tourist. I sat back with my Boggle and my Vietnamese Study Buddy app. “Hello, Thank You, Sorry, Excuse Me, Beef, Chicken, Pork, Noodles.” I practiced. I also threw in some “No, Shrimp, Allergic, Die.” There, that would be the most basic Viet i needed to know for now.

Tam and her family met me at the airport. I was sure that Customs would be painful. On board the plane, i had been handed some sort of little form card to fill out. All sorts of boxes about declaring items. I had no idea how to fill this out. How was i supposed to explain all the crazy stuff i was carrying? Tubes of Ben Gay, jars of Vaseline, Perfume from Sephora and soaps from The Body Shop?

As it turned out, no one cared about me; I was whisked through every line quickly and effortlessly. I had my luggage, a cold water bottle and was sitting in a Van with Tam’s family in less time than it took to eat the muffin in Taipei. Cake.

Typing in Taipei

About an hour into the flight, I found myself in that dozing off state. It was 3am or so, but it was that uncomfortable, can’t possibly fall asleep in this tiny seat sandwiched between two people sort of sleep.

Then the panic washed over me as it dawned on me that it would be another 12 hours to go in this position. Now, I’m not afraid of flying, but I’m stunningly claustrophobic on airplanes. It was too late, I started to shake and thought that death would be better. Honestly, it was sheer despair – I’ve never felt it before.

I mentally slapped myself and told myself that all I needed was to walk up and down the aisle to regain some sense. I got up, the middle aged Chinese gentleman next to me politely scrunched in his feet and TV. I stepped past him into the aisle and then…

I have no idea what happened next. Common sense says that I blacked out; passed out. You know what the only good part of passing out in the aisle, face up on flight C100007 of China Airlines is? The cute flight attendant who revived me. Otherwise, it was just plain surreal.

A few minutes later, I was up and about being checked out by the steward. He talked me out of my funk and started to whip up some concoction in the galley.

I drank it slowly. It was hot and apple-y, and when I got back to my seat, my eyelids lost power. As I fell into a deep and drooling sleep, I remember chuckling, “I think he drugged me!”

I woke up 4-5 hours later.


Preparation for the long flight saw me digitizing about 10 DVDs i haven’t watched yet; from Michael Jackson’s This is It to Yul Brenners Magnificent Seven.

I was ready to lose myself in movies. But Steve Jobs failed me. When i went looking for my movies, they were gone. My iPad correctly read that 10 of 16 gigs was filled with videos, but they simply weren’t there… And they WERE there just before i went through the xray machine, hmm…

All i can say is that iPad Boggle saved my life. I played non-stop for 3 hours. 52 words in 3 minutes is my personal best. I’m glad i bought UNO as well, although I’m not used to playing by the official rules!

Finale, Finally

Home is a “mere” 61 miles away, but today is our most dangerous route; Ventura to Westwood along PCH. Parked cars, no shoulder, angry LA motorists and slow tourists await us.

Roo looked ready to go; no squeaking and smooth gear transitions; the Cannondale guys had greased her up and even cleaned my chain! Secretly, I was sad – I wanted to roll into town dirty. Oh well.

At about Mile 5, my rear wheel locked up again. I wasn’t mad; the Cannondale mechanics couldn’t possibly know how gimmicky my rear dropouts are.

I gave the passing cyclists the thumbs up and set about to fix my own wheel.
As soon as I realized it was a 2 person job; along comes Natalie to save the day. She steadied the bike while I forced the wheel in. It wasn’t going to come out… ever.

We proceeded through Ventura’s miles of strawberry and avocado fields. Good smells and nice weather. I realized that this was the third time in 3 months that I had been through this very same stretch; once with the Ragnar crew as a runner and the second time in the opposite direction as a cyclist working on his first “century.” Ha! Centuries don’t seem so unattainable anymore.

I caught up to Scott at Rest Stop 1 and then told him I had no intention of stopping at RS2 or even Lunch. I was on a mission (more on this later).

The remaining climbs were easy but PCH leaves no room for mistakes. Just ahead of me, I witnessed a 7 or 8 bike collison rounding a curve at the top of a mild climb. A small group of speedsters thought they could pass some less experienced cyclists on the left. Not smart. Everyone was fine, just a bruised ego on the part of the speedy leader.

I hit 40 mph (!) on a short drop and then things got scary around Mile 45. Nothing but surfboards being pulled out of jeeps and ZERO space between parked cars and the two-lane southbound traffic.

I tried to take it easy, but upon glancing back, I realized I was the head of a small peloton.

I did not want to lead, but there was nowhere to pull over and no way for better cyclists to pass me. I sucked it up and led the group for several miles at a 20+ pace. We’re talking about a two to three foot clearance between parked car and traffic. Terrifying.

I yelled at people about to step out of cars, surfers with boards and even yelled, “thanks jackass!” at a Malibu Po-Po who cut me off from a right side street.

Respite came just south of Will Rogers Beach; where we were directed to a beach bike path. My heart and stomach fell back into place. Even the faces were friendlier. Joggers and walkers on the path clapped for us as we whisked by.

The last few miles took us along San Vicente Blvd through upper Santa Monica and Brentwood. I rolled into the Westwood VA Hospital campus (next to 405, under Wilshire Blvd) at about 12:30p; 61 miles in 5 hours? I’ll take that.

I was definitely frazzled and not thinking straight – I wanted my luggage, and a burger, any burger. I needed to cut out and get to Anaheim. I was in such a dazed rush, I forgot to take pictures. I’m a sad panda; no obligatory finish line photo!

Now, off to Angels Stadium!

Chicken or the Egg?

Roo was all fixed up and waiting for me at the Cannondale tent, with a little surprise stuck to my saddle; a plastic egg. It was from “Chicken Lady.”

Ok, you need an explanation.

Chicken Lady is a fixture on the ALC ride; a trangendered individual that wears a chicken headdress on her helmet and rides a basic comfort bike with a basket up front. What’s in the basket you ask? Come on… a little chicken doll of course!

Chicken Lady stayed up all night and fastened a plastic egg on every bike saddle; all 1900 of them!

I remember encountering Chicken Lady every single day on the road; Impressive cycling skills with such a basic bike.

One morning as a group of us rolled up next to CL at a stop sign, she informed us, “I used to be young and pretty.”

Before any of us could respond, she quipped, “Now I’m just pretty!”

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