I Biked 2,200 Miles Through Southeast Asia
Adhering strictly to my vegetarian ethics proved impossible, but the generosity I encountered along the way transformed my life
This past winter I spent thirty days cycling just over 2,200 miles through Southeast Asia. Unsurprisingly, the experience was incredible and transformative in many ways. Less expectedly, at times the levels of physical, mental and emotional exertion were nearly overwhelming, as well as the oft-daunting searches for vegetarian nourishment. I weighed adhering to strict vegetarianism with causing offense or not eating at all. Ultimately, the nourishment was brought back to me tenfold, as pockets of kindness, hospitality and generosity opened along a trail through mountains, bucolic villages and hot, dusty provincial towns. Sprinkled like hidden jewels, these moments left me humbled, gratified and more in love with Southeast Asia than ever before.
The first time I ran into an impasse between my vegetarian ethics and my respect for local people and culture while traveling was in Laos in 2008. I was twenty-four and on my first trip to the unforgettable region of Southeast Asia. I was traveling with two friends and we took a shared joy in some of the most flavorful and diverse cuisine we had ever experienced. We shared spicy pumpkin curries in Chiang Mai, found actual vegetarian restaurants in hippied-out little mountain town Pai, and ate som tum (papaya salad) to our hearts’ content.
When we arrived in Luang Prabang in Laos, after disembarking from the two-day slow boat from the sleepy Thai border town of Pakbeng, it was like entering a different world. The smells of Laotian specialties like Olam (a thick, spicy stew of buffalo meat and eggplant with lemongrass and chiles) mingled with the scent of fresh baked baguettes wafting up through a thousand colored paper lanterns and fairy lights. In this enchanting but heavily touristed area we found vegetarian food galore, even a buffet where for about $1 USD one could feast to one’s heart’s content on delicious vegan offerings.
When we began to travel south through Laos however, easily-acquired vegetarian fare became harder to come by. One morning in a little roadside establishment, my two friends ordered a Western breakfast with eggs and baguette, but I decided fresh summer rolls sounded good. I pointed at the menu and happily awaited the rice paper-wrapped mint, veggies and rice noodles I had come to expect.
When the summer rolls arrived, they were stuffed with pork. Not just with a little bit of pork, but where the meat was the main component of the dish. Squirming with discomfort and disinclination to offend, I showed the server what I had ordered and tried to politely request the veggie rolls instead. With a little confusion and some hand signals, the rolls were returned to the kitchen.
Shortly thereafter, the plate reappeared. Sure, the pork was mostly removed, but little pinkish brown bits of it still clung to the sticky rice paper and the freshly chopped carrots. There wasn’t even a tiny section of the plate that the bits of pork hadn’t permeated. Defeated, I split the bill with my friends and left hungry, worrying about the impression I had made but still unable to stomach the meaty summer rolls.
Almost exactly ten years after that first uncomfortable incident with vegetarianism and language barriers, I decided to ride a bicycle 2,200 miles from Hanoi, Vietnam to Singapore. I wanted to raise money specifically for women in the region that would go toward furthering education, so I organized a campaign around my bike ride to raise funds for the Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Fund. I talked my dubious then-partner, Dave, into joining me and bought a couple of one-way tickets to Vietnam.
On this, my third visit to Vietnam’s capital, I wasn’t just wandering the museums and lakes and sipping coconut coffee in third floor cafes or $0.30 draft beer in sidewalk bars. I had an agenda. I chose a centrally located hotel, had our used bikes delivered there (they had been generously donated by Grasshopper Tours, a local bike touring company) and researched where to get supplies. And then, I wanted to eat.
I knew it was one of the last places we’d be for weeks that we could be guaranteed a delicious vegetarian meal. Hanoi, one knows the second one steps off a bus, out of a taxi, or off a scooter upon arrival, is alive. Every one of its streets pulses with life, with smells both alluring and repugnant, with blazing colors and whizzing scooters and old men on bikes and babies on bikes and furniture on bikes. And everywhere, in all this gorgeous chaotic mayhem, people are eating.
Sure, there’s plenty to satisfy the most rapacious carnivore, but modern Hanoi has nearly limitless possibilities for the plant-based wanderer. Market stalls and bicycle baskets brim over with golden mangoes, succulent lychees and longans, the intimidating spiked flesh of a dragon fruit sliced open to reveal the sweetness of the snowy-white speckled flesh inside.
The ingredients behind the complex broths and sauces form seemingly endless and enticingly fragrant mountains of ginger, scallions, lemongrass and chiles throughout the stalls of the buzzing markets. In the popular tourist neighborhoods like Hoan Kiem and Ba Dinh, vegetarians can find anything from vegan phở and vegan bánh mì to falafel and Indian curry. It would be easy to become distracted by the numerous beckoning restaurant doors, but I have two particular favorites in Hanoi, and it was for these that I made an earnest beeline those first few days of our trip.
A big bowl of lightly crunchy and subtly bitter ribbons of dandelion greens is presented twirled like pasta and perfectly coated in a spicy, sweet, sour dressing of lime juice, sugar, chilies and vinegar. Deep-golden cubes of fried tofu sit atop the greens, crowned with charred peanuts, deep-fried shallots, and paper-thin slices of bright green and red bird’s eye chilies.
Aubergine Café on Hàng Bè is one of my favorite restaurants in Hanoi. The vegetable curries are generously portioned and delicious, the sesame and garlic crusted (what else?) aubergine is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, and the papaya salad is one of the best I’ve had anywhere, loaded with roasted peanuts and just the right amount of fiery chile to make you sweat.
My second (and often third and fourth) stop is the unassuming two story Noodle and Roll, on the corner of Lý Quởc Sự and Ngỡ Huyệ very close to Hoan Kiem Lake. This humble establishment dishes up one of the single most enjoyable plates of food I’ve yet had the pleasure of consuming. A big bowl of lightly crunchy and subtly bitter ribbons of dandelion greens is presented twirled like pasta and perfectly coated in a spicy, sweet, sour dressing of lime juice, sugar, chilies and vinegar. Deep-golden cubes of fried tofu sit atop the greens, crowned with charred peanuts, deep-fried shallots, and paper-thin slices of bright green and red bird’s eye chilies. Man, oh man — it’s glorious.
As sufficiently fueled and supplied as two people can be about to navigate south through Hanoi’s tidal wave of traffic and into the rural beyond, Dave and I set out on our bikes for our first stop, the village of Tam Coc in Ninh Binh. Despite being a small village in the Red River Delta some 100km south of Hanoi, Tam Coc’s spectacular setting in the midst of waterways winding through dramatic ochre-streaked karst formations and gleaming emerald fields keeps it firmly on the backpacker trail and thusly equipped with several veg-friendly eateries. Moving on from Ninh Binh, however, is where complications began to arise, both geographically and from a dietary standpoint.
We slept on a concrete floor with only a thin bamboo mat beneath our bodies, mosquitoes whining in our ears. We’d never felt so grateful.
The mountains crossing from Vietnam into Laos seem interminable. One night just short of the Laotian border we nearly collapsed well after dark at a gas station after eight hours of steep, continuous climbing. We didn’t eat dinner that night; in fact, I knocked on a random door in order to secure accommodation. We slept on a concrete floor with only a thin bamboo mat beneath our bodies, mosquitoes whining in our ears. We’d never felt so grateful.
Another night, still on the Vietnamese side, we navigated hill after never-ending hill on Route 512, which connects the hot, flat, dull and heavily trafficked Rt 1 in Vietnam to the beautiful and challenging Ho Chi Minh Highway. On our first hill we gained 775 feet in elevation in less than half a mile, and if you’re wondering what this means in non-cyclist terms — it’s sweaty as hell. As we’d fortunately memorized the Vietnamese phrase “nhà nghỉ” means “rooms for rent”, we were able to secure a room at an unnamed guesthouse by the shores of pretty Hô Yên Mỹ Lake.
It was here at this unassuming guesthouse that we had one of our best meals away from “civilization” (simply meaning far from any major city). We were successful with our Google Translate statements, displayed on a Samsung Galaxy, that proclaimed our reluctance to consume meat products as clearly and concisely as possible. That evening, food and more food appeared before us. Fresh bitter greens we have no name for in English, salty and savory like some crossbreed of seaweed and the wild horta that grows in Greece. Watercress, cucumbers and bean sprouts so fresh and crunchy they hardly need adornment. A heaping mountain of fried tofu we don’t manage to finish, despite our protein-craving, revved-up metabolisms. In short, it’s delicious, and we all but crouched at the feet of our hosts in appreciative reverence. Including dinner and the room, we paid approximately $6 USD.
Other times Google Translate wasn’t as successful. Shortly after crossing into Laos, we ordered what we thought was vegetarian fried rice from a corner stall. There were plenty of vegetables and a big fried egg on top of the plate, so we thought we were okay until we dug a little deeper and found some unidentifiable gristle sprinkled throughout. There was only the one sweet old woman cooking, watching us intently and expectantly to see how we liked what she had prepared. There was nowhere to hide. Dave gamely persevered, leaving nothing but a little pile of meat chunks on his plate, glistening in the midday heat. I delicately ate only the egg and the carrot garnish, hastily piling napkins to hide the uneaten portion.
Eggs were essentially unavoidable if one wanted even to survive, and multiple times bánh mì vendors walked up the road to the market in order to make us egg bánh mì when they had only pâté on hand. An egg bánh mì costs approximately $0.50 from a street vendor in rural Vietnam, and these fueled us up many a grueling climb. “Sandwich” seems far too utilitarian a term for these grilled-to-order fresh baguettes, smeared with spicy sauce and brimming over with pickled carrots and daikon, cucumber, and fresh cilantro.
We each chose a meaningful song to play through our headphones as we completed the last leg of our journey. I’m not sure what Dave’s was, but mine was Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, by the Flaming Lips. Dave looked back at me as we crossed into town and gave me a knowing but gentle smile. “I knew you’d be crying.”
Coincidentally, the day we crossed the bridge from southern Malaysia into Singapore was also the thirtieth day of our bike ride and Dave’s 42nd birthday. A week prior we’d had nearly all our belongings and one bicycle stolen — -we’d grieved, replaced my bike with a $100 single speed, and kept pedaling the next day. Just before we crossed the bridge into Singapore we stopped, and with wordless communication we each chose a meaningful song to play through our headphones as we completed the last leg of our journey. I’m not sure what Dave’s was, but mine was Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, by the Flaming Lips. Dave looked back at me as we crossed into town and gave me a knowing but gentle smile. “I knew you’d be crying.”
That night we treated ourselves to all the vegetarian delicacies we could find, from South Indian curry and dahl to roti prata, a crispy, fluffy fried flatbread. We snacked on creamy fresh beancurd and steamed buns filled with red bean paste and coconut. We drank wildly overpriced cocktails at fancy bars and let the budget be damned.
The next day, we gave away the bikes and all accoutrements to some local girls at our accommodation. We bought pants and $20 down jackets at the mall, and headed out of Asia on a long journey to winter in Boston broken up with a week on the Spanish island of Mallorca. A month later we moved back to Hawaii (our home for many years prior), and five months after that our ten-year relationship sadly ended.
This week, back on the beautiful island of Kaua’i, I completed my first lengthy solo bike ride. Beginning in the North Shore town of Hanalei, I pedalled east, then south, then west to circumnavigate as much of the island as possible without a helicopter, ending after 67 miles at the stunning and remote Polihale Beach with my hammock and a sleep sack I bought in Nepal. Over the seven hours I spent alone with my bike, I had a sense of trailing tiny fragments of my broken heart in my wake.
As I pedalled along hot roads fringed with palm trees, mangoes littered by the roadside and with some of the same music playing in my headphones as on my trip through Southeast Asia, I couldn’t help but reminisce. The food part was easy; this is America, after all. There aren’t many vegetarian problems not easily solved with peanut butter and jelly. The cycling was manageable as well, with traffic feeling minor in comparison to cities in Vietnam and Thailand, and elevation changes feeling mostly gentle compared with mountainous Laos. And I found, after the first few miles had disappeared behind me, there was a certain joyous freedom in solitude. Like the perfect vegetarian feast at the no-name guesthouse in northern Vietnam, that part came as a beautiful and welcome surprise.