The details were falling into place. I pulled out a notebook and started jotting down the tasks I'd need to accomplish in order to make the trip a reality.

  • Get shots and recommended prescriptions.
  • Buy ticket.

  • Select gear for the trip.

  • Get in shape -- start bicycling.

  • Prepay bills that will come due while I'm gone.

The bike was basically ready. I planned to put on new tires and tubes, but that could wait. I still owned just about everything I bought for that trip eleven years earlier, so that would save some time and money. I went through my old things, found the panniers, bike tools, and spare parts, and piled everything in a corner of my bedroom. It wasn't pretty, but every day I would see the stack and ideas would pop up as to what I should add and delete.

My boss made it official. She was pleased to offer me five weeks time off without pay. I had asked for three months, but I was still happy-- I was going to be able to travel, and have a job when I came back.

With the authorization official, I phoned a few of the discount ticket agencies listed in the back of the travel section of the Sunday newspaper. I wanted to be in Vietnam for the Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebration, and that was two months away. Lonely Planet had warned that travel could be difficult at this time of the year, and that was the case. I was able to get into Vietnam right around the Tet; I just couldn't get out five weeks later. The agent suggested that I wait-list the flight I wanted; he was pretty optimistic something would come through. I was less than thrilled -- I needed a ticket with specific dates in order to get a Vietnamese visa, and the visa would take about a month. I waited a few days, and phoned back the ticket broker. Still no openings, and I asked what options I had. After some time, the agent came back with a solution. Pay more, by flying on Singapore Airlines. What's more, connect through Singapore, a bit of a side track. The plus -- I could have a confirmed spot, today. The additional cost was about $200 more. I grabbed the spot.

With the ticket secured, I needed the visa. My travel agent had the phone and fax number for the Vietnamese Mission to the United Nations, and a call there resulted in a one-page application being faxed the next day. Two passport photos and a check for $90 were off in the mail to New York the next day.

It was vaccination time. Lonely Planet had a list, but it wasn't clear what was required, and what Lonely Planet simply thought was nice. I called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta, and utilized their great auto-fax service to get the latest on diseases in southeast Asia. Per the C.D.C., I was going to need protection against polio, meningitis, typhoid, tetanus, cholera, hepatitis A, and malaria. I started getting my shots the next weekend, electing to spread them out over two or three visits, so that I didn't perish before making it to Vietnam.

My HMO was willing to absorb the cost of the recommended antibiotic and Lomotil, a diarrhea medication, but not the malaria pills nor any of the vaccinations. I guess my HMO saved about $200, but it did seem risky for them to assume that I'd get all the recommended shots -- after all, if I came back sick, they'd be footing the bill then...

The C.D.C. had really been concerned about mosquitoes. Besides the malaria pills, it recommended insect repellents with diethyl-toluamide ("deet"), and a clothing treatment called permethrin. I made plans to pick up some of each.

The success of the bike trip now seemed to boil down to proper preparation. I had probably a hundred to-do's still to work on. I had exactly a month left to get ready. I carried a notepad with me every day, adding new "to-do's" as I thought of them, and crossing off items as they were completed.

I continued my search for information. Two coworkers mentioned that friends of theirs had traveled in Vietnam within the last year. First I got on the phone and introduced myself to "Robert", who had visited Vietnam a year and a half a year earlier, with his wife. I was impressed by Robert immediately. A Stanford MBA, Robert had apparently also spent a few years in the Sahara, as a Peace Corps volunteer. As he and his wife had rented motorbikes in both Hanoi and Saigon, they also had opinions specific to the biking idea. I listened carefully, and wrote copious notes:

  • You'd be nuts to ride a bike in Saigon. At least get out of the city first.
  • The people are so charming.

  • Medications - you can get a lot there.

  • We drank bottled water only, but ate everything, anywhere -- uncooked veggies, etc.

  • Dollars were accepted everywhere. I did bring $100 in singles.

  • You don't need to stock up on film -- it's available, and cheap.
  • Bring sunscreen. We motorbiked only in long trousers and long sleeves, due to the sun.
  • Ask cyclo drivers where the cheaper hotels are -- the situation's constantly changing.
  • Don't be too underdressed in the big cities. You won't fit in if you're a grime-covered bicyclist.

  • Take heed - You cannot predict the idiocy of Vietnamese drivers. We had innumerable close calls on the motorbikes.

  • We had no problems with the police.

  • Personal safety didn't seem to be an issue. Only problem we had -- I made the mistake of changing currency in the street. Got ripped off.

  • To stay healthy, you can't wash your hands enough. You can't keep your hands away from your face enough. We brought lots of Handiwipes, and used them all the time.
  • Bring a mini-flashlight. Lots of power failures once outside of the big cities.
  • Be prepared for everything to be quoted as "One Dollar!"
  • Bring good sunglasses.
  • Wasn't dirt cheap -- it cost $50 a day for the two of us.
Wow. Lots of good info.

I phoned the other name, a friend of another coworker. We missed each other the first few times, but finally we connected. She had traveled with six other friends just half a year ago. She too had impressive credentials -- she had been to a lot of places in the Third World, and she seemed to be a tough traveler. This caused part of her tale to really stick in my mind. Apparently she got sick as a dog in Vietnam. She said that her friends had considered trying to medevac her out. She guessed that it had been dysentery. She did recover, but she said that she didn't bounce back fully for months.

Hmmm.... Stomach / intestinal problems don't really go hand in hand with bicycling. I was getting nervous again.

It was a wet December and January in San Francisco, and the rain, combined with my endless list of to-dos, was causing my workout regimen to suffer. I was using the bike to go get shots, and pick up some supplies, but I wasn't getting in the long rides. With only two weeks to go, I had only done two 40-mile rides, and a 15-mile ride with the panniers on. I had also squeezed in two 8-mile runs. I wasn't happy that the getting-in-shape part had fallen through the cracks like this, but the other preparation seemed far more important.



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