The Cost Of Fame

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Asia » Vietnam » South Central Coast » Binh Thuan » Mui Ne
September 29th 2012
Published: September 30th 2012
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A few years ago, an aquaintence of ours slowly managed to convince himself that he had become a world-famous rock star. He would appear at our place in his dilapidating Audi wearing tight jeans and a leather jacket and tell us his story of the annoyances of becoming so "recognized". Rather than dispute his claims to fame or try to intercede, we listened in a way that seemed oddly pathological and tried to sympathize with his plight as it was clear that trying to derail his train to a psychotoc break was fruitless. Finally he showed up one night in a panic, the whole world was turning against him, his fans were always watching and it was driving him crazy. Other superstars were on his side, only they could understand, but he felt safe with us because we just treated him like a human being. That was the last we heard of "Rock Star Kevin". Where he ended up, be it in a ditch, a morgue, a nut house, or on the stage, we will probably never know and it is probably all the same.

The most striking thing about Kevin's testimony is how believable much of it was. Sure, there were the totally inane claims about his music causing a world war in outer space and the like. But some of his general points were very conceivable, especially his complaints about the pressure that comes down the line from fans and followers. "You can't even drink a Pepsi without somebody watching you do it" he would say frantically. "As if they had never seen a human being consume a Pepsi before!". Waylon Jennings once said that when you are not famous people like and dislike you for logical reasons. But when you are famous, complained Jennings, you look out at all of those fans and you can tell that some of them love you and many of them hate you, for reasons that you or they could never understand.

The last few weeks in Vietnam have often reminded us of these ideas. It is a densly packed population and every piece of land is used, has been used, or will be used in the near future. This has removed from us the luxuries of obscurity and camping that we have enjoyed, at least sometimes, in every other country we have traversed on two wheels. A unique brand of nationalism seems to have blinded many people to the fact that the rest of the world exists and its inhabitants are also human. Add to this the narrowness of the tourist track here and you have a lot of staring, yelling, swerving, and sometimes outright hysteria wherever we ride. When we do make our way onto the scant few hectares in the country where westerners are commonly found, we find the hecklers replaced by touts, desperately competing for slim demand to meet the overly abundant supply of goods and services. To say the least, the same silly cliche statements have made it a difficult environment to feel positively about as it is saddening to feel so generally misunderstood by nearly everyone we meet. Conversations with english speakers have revealed a very narrow perspective of the outside world; heavily burdened with antiquated stereotypes and hemmed in by a resistance to new ideas. These perspectives seem even narrower when compared with the world view of your average Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Tanzanian, Uygher, etc., who have had much less access to education but an unlimited supply of critical thinking.

It is clear that Vietnam has emerged quasi-triumphantly from the ashes of the ridiculous American incursion, but the overexpansion of businesses of all types leave one to question how long this road to the sky will last. When we see new, five-star hotels going up in beach towns where four star establishments can hardly fill a floor, where the pavement has grass growing up through it and the restaraunts are boarded up we wonder: "who is all of this for, who will stay here". The roads are lined with thousands of coffee shops, restaraunts, guesthouses, prostitutes, massage parlors (basically prostitutes), karaoke bars (also basically prostitutes) and few of them seem to be doing much business at all. In fact, we often get a nice dose of peace in restaraunts because we are the only customers. One cannot help but think that there are far too many businesses for the consumer potential and the prognosis does not exactly spell out an improvement.

Like many of its neighbors, Vietnam is at the mercy of the whims of global retail markets. Exports make up over 65% of the nations GDP. People here are concerned about the upcoming presidential election in the US because they can trace their current prosperity to the reforms of the Clinton era, namely the lifting of the trade embargo. But macroeconomics are a bit larger than an elected official and it is hard to see where the increasing demand for Vietnamese goods and services will come from as big western eonomies scale back and China continues to nervously inflate its bubble eonomy. To sour the pot further, many Vietnamese resent the Chinese and the current disputes over maritime claims in the South China Sea have the locals up in arms. Over glasses of draught the other night, a refreshingly cynical local man jested that "in the next few years, we will want the Americans and all of their big, scary bombs back here to help us fight our neighbors". The thought of such implications chill us to the bone. The last time that happened it divided our country and incinerated this one. But there is no doubt that a storm is on the horizon and, like so many other conflicts in modern history, it floats on oil and smells like markets. Additionally chilling is this thought: "if people despise and misunderstand their neighbors, how do they feel about us?"

Luckily for two cyclists, it is little of our concern. The overblown business model in Vietnam means that there is a coffee shop every kilometer and a cheap guesthouse (often renting by the hour as well) around every turn in the road. The children are often a nuisance but the curiosity of their elders is often tempered with a bit more respect and that, along with amazing food, has gone a long way in keeping our morale afloat. This leg of the ride has been accompanied by a minefield of mechanical problems in our bikes that can mostly be traced back to the axle-deep sea water that we rode through two weeks ago. One freewheel has been rebuilt, and another is on its last pins with a replacement waiting at the post office in San Francisco. A seemingly bombproof shifter locked up and had to be replaced. Brake pads have disintegrated, cable couplers exploded, and for the first time on this 9000 kilometer ride, we found a piece of metal at the bottom of a puddle offensive enough to destroy a tire. Locals have been kind and understanding in these moments and have even brought soap and water for our greasy hands. We created a spectacle the other day when we needed to repack a drive-side wheel bearing in the front of a small cafe. Those crowded around had probably never interacted with a foreigner and watched with greart curiosity as we rolled out our tools and went to work. It is a classic third-world mentality that a repair man is needed for even the simplest of tasks. By the time the bike mechanic they called arrived on the scene, he would only watch in amazement as a very hairy person attached a casette to a wheel with a tool that he had never seen before. He quickly fondled our small lockring tool with amazement and then moved on to fondling my arm hair.

To be fair, foreign visitors do not make such a positive impression here. They are mostly sun seekers and souvenir hunters who would never find themselves outside of the main tourist areas. As opposed to countries like China where tourists seem to delight themselves in searching out the crustiest, dustiest middle-of-nowhere places, tourists here are usually only found in exteremely small areas and on luxury transport in between. When you meet a truly independant traveller out on the roads, it is cause for a dinner together. This does not make it especially easy for us because we are the absolute center of attention everywhere we roam and we cannot relate to the bands of drunken gringos who roam the resort towns on the coast. Our inability to relate to anyone local or foreign has made this a lonely section for us and that is perhaps fitting for two people with a lot of kilometers behind them and a lot of new thoughts to digest. When we do find those perfect, uninhabited beaches (and we do find them every few days) we relish in tranquility, paired perfectly with the weightlessness that can only be found when one tosses themself into the sea. Vietnam is sensory overload and it has taken some searching for us to seperate the ugly and the annoying from the sublime and delicious. Somehow, we can still say it has been well worth the work.

Tomorrow we start our last leg to Saigon. This time the coming transition from cycling through life to other things seems a bit more sweet on the bitter-sweet scale but we are savoring every moment we can spend in the presense of the sea. This has been a tour of unexpected challenges that have threatened to turn it into an epic at every turn in the road. Now limping our poor bikes through the final leg, we are appropriately tired and battle-worn following an effort that has been as emotionally tiring as physical. It is only apropriate that the last kilometers of this long ride will end in the oblivion of industry on the outskirts of a nasty city. The beautiful, the delicious, and the sublime will cost you comfort. The comfortable, the familiar, and the quiet will cost you money. But the industrial, the noisy, and the repugnant, well..... Those things are free and it is those old, disgusting companions that form the perfect white noise; A fitting background for two barnsick ponies, running for the ranch.


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