Gulf of Tonkin sure looks calm



What's wrong with this picture?

Absolutely nothing! The photo is fine, the weather was fine, and the calm, clear waters of the Gulf of Tonkin are fine, also. A great day for sailing among the pinnacles of Halong Bay or Cat Ba Island. In my case, a great day for riding along the northern coastline of Vietnam...the Chinese border was only a few days away. There is a fantastic road from Hanoi to Haiphong..yes, traffic, but an excellent shoulder. North of Haiphong along the coast the road is much smaller with only local traffic. You often take ferries across the small bays and inlets in this region.


When i was in my teens the Vietnam war was just coming onto the US political radar screen. For years Vietnam was a far off place where we had some kind of interests, soldiers even, PEOPLE even; but there were more important things to pay attention to on the evning news...and besides, we were winning the war, so who cares? Never mind that it was a war on the Asian mainland, a place where two decades before the Joint Chiefs of Staff had pleaded with us not to get bogged down into. (Didn't listen then...didn't listen in the 60s...Bosnia/Kosovo anyone?) Never mind that the war was never declared, so that the spineless US congress had the moral authority and credibility of a amoeba. Never mind that the deferment system was nothing more than a cute way to make sure America's suburban white trash never got sent off to war.

We could never mind all that. We were winning! Or at least, so we were told, until that fateful Tet offensive in 1968. Pretty strange victory, when the 'enemy' seemed to be able to walk up to the very doors of the South's political and military establishment. And since truth is a traditional casualty of war, some people could even live, for a time, with the the fact that our 'victory' was a lie, also. Maybe the tide would turn. But like roaches--where ya see one, there are a thousand others that you have not seen yet-- the victory lie was only one, the tip of an iceberg of moral rot that went all the way back to, well, this picture...the Gulf of Tonkin. We now know the 'incident' off North Vietnamese waters that lead congress to pass the "Tonkin Gulf Resolution" was entirely fabricated.


Heck! THATS WHATS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE!! There is nothing wrong with it, thats it! It's a roughie internet trick..a little joke for my readers, a cute conundrum before you double click somewhere else. Thats right..what's wrong with this picture is that everything is fine and dandy and nothing is going on---just like that day in the early 1960s. Too bad 56,000 young americans aren't around to get the punch line.

While politics was not far below the surface on my cycling thru Vietnam, I certainly had a fine time riding in the country. I got ther just at the cusp of rainy season, and so had a somewhat soggy but enjoyable ride up route 1 after coming across from Laos on road to Khe Sanh. Now I had heard horror stories about route 1 but it was not that bad. This is due in large part to improvements in the roadway...it is being widened, straightened and repaved in many areas. So the road does have some really morose sections of dust, or muck, depending upon the weather. I had plenty of both! But scattered along this coastal route are many small towns with just spectacular seafood; and even the larger cities along the way are not bad cycling. You'll have plenty of company on the road, as the Vietnamese use the bicycle as a major source of local transportation. They can carry anything from farm animals to a massive pile of flowerpots. (clay!) Of course motorbikes are common also. Don't be surprised if they honk and wave as they go by, often with as many passengers as can hang on! The Vietnamese are a happy, confident people and you can expect many of them to pull up along side and talk to you, in English if they know it and in Vietnamese if they don't. So what if ya don't understand, they must tell themselves..surely you can understand from my tone and my smile that I am happy to be riding beside you? It doesn't matter what the weather is like, either. On one soggy and dreary day a young lady pulled next to me.
"Hello" she said, in a voice that seemed to come from vocal cords as delicate as finest china. "My name is Nyong. I am teacher!" She was smartly dressed in riding slacks and a cotton blouse, nonetheless getting thoroughly soaked in the rain. I told her I was a teacher also, and she smiled broadly. She taught English and her pupils are lucky for her English was very good. After a while she pulled off the road to her school, and no doubt taught all day while her clothes slowly dired off. It was all so innocent and meaningful, and brightened the otherwise dreary day. The rain in Vietnam can get very heavy at times, so make sure you have adequate raingear and suitable protection for your clothing and camping equipment.

The coast road was neither all rain nor all flat. A small spur reaches the coast halfway between Dong Hoi and Vinh. On your brief climb the ocean becomes visible and one can see sand dunes and forested regions. Further north, beyond Ninh Binh, the limestone pinnacles begin to jut out of rice paddies. This remarkable countryside continues off shore to the natural wonders of Halong and Cam Pha bays, and even on into China's Guangxi province, where they achieve their greatest beauty and fame near Guilin and Yangshuo. This whole region is gradually sinking into the seas..too soon by geologic time, these marvellous hills and cliff walls will disappear beneath the waves, and terrorize sailors as seamounts and shoals.
A rider in search of the rugged country for which Vietnam is famous must head inland, on the smaller roads into the highlands of north and south. Here one is better off with a mountain bike, for many of the surfaces are unpaved and in poor condition. Furthermore, some cyclists have told me, there is spectacular off-road trails in some parts of the Central Highlands near Da Lat. 1