Living with cancer: Change of battle plans in Southeast Asia

Some version of “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” has been attributed to many combat strategists over the years, including Colin Powell, Dwight D. Eisenhower and even boxer Mike Tyson.

On Day 1, just south of Hanoi, Vietnam, I met my enemy in the form of Laotian eVisas, inhospitable hotel managers, lack of reasonable accommodations and some type of illness. My overly ambitious plan of biking 1,200 miles through the mountains of western Vietnam and Laos for seven hours a day was based more on ego than reality.

After the 35-mile journey that began in the exhilarating, chaotic traffic of Hanoi and continued through breathtaking rice paddies and villages southwest of capital, reality slapped some sense into me. I spent the final hours on a miserable ride along the noisy and dangerous Ho Chi Minh Highway. After being rejected at three hotels, I checked into a dreadful $10-per-night motel in the tiny town of Lac Thuy.

As I sat at a dusty open-air travelers’ restaurant, rattled by ear-splitting traffic, I ordered the only item on the menu: Pho Bo, the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup. After the soup, I walked up and down the dusty highway looking for mini-marts where I could buy a diet soft drink or juice or nuts, but I was sorely discouraged: None were to be found. Back at the depressingly bare motel room with no TV or toilet paper, I realized this experience was no fun. I was miserable.

All of the decent hotels, restaurants and mini-marts were in the bigger cities along the coast where commerce and tourism thrived. My initial plan involved riding through just a sliver of northern Vietnam along trucking routes through small towns for seven hours a day.

My bikepacking journeys in the U.S. taught me that seven hours perched on a bike seat was agonizing. Three to four hours of peddling was ideal. Shorter trips also allowed adequate time to write my blog, download photos, edit videos, read, stream TV series, see a few sights and relax. This vacation was supposed to be a fun, not drudgery.

The next morning, I was physically ill. I was so dizzy, in fact, that the room was spinning. This motel afforded no coffee, no restaurant and no breakfast. Sick or not, I couldn’t bear another night here. As I lay on the bed, trying to ward off the dizziness and nauseousness and hoping to go back to sleep, I changed my battle plan. From this point forward, I would stay in nicer hotels, scrap the Laos segment, hug the Vietnamese coast, go shorter distances and above all, have fun.

Once the decision was made, the pressure of artificial schedules melted away and I began to relax. This new plan also permitted me to see much more of Vietnam. Instead of a few days, I would spend three weeks in Vietnam. I rode along the Gulf of Tonkin, crossed the famous 17th Parallel that once divided North and South Vietnam, peddled through the Mekong Delta and visited celebrated cities of Tinh, Hue and Hoi An.

I rode Linh, my bike, through thousands of visitors at a street fair in the mountain city of Da Lat. I spent the Vietnamese Tet lunar new year holiday in Vietnam, witnessed the holiday custom of burning fake U.S. dollars to generate good luck and photographed Bau Cua, the street dice gambling game.

I learned about 50 Vietnamese words and spoke simple sentences, like I am going to Vinh, that produced goodhearted laughter at my expense. The more history I read, the more I appreciated the sacrifices American military men and women made during the Vietnam War.

Instead of staying on blacktop highways the entire way, I traversed hamlets and villages, rode dirt paths across dykes between rice paddy fields, slogged a sandy route beside a chain of fisheries alongside the South China Sea and peddled grassy trails through tea and dragon fruit fields. I pushed Linh up hills and through networks of cemeteries with elaborate tombs, crossed a motorbike pontoon bridge over the Dinh River, rode ferries across the Ham Luong River in the Mekong Delta and navigated rush hour traffic in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Most importantly, I learned firsthand the hospitality and generosity of the Vietnamese people. They love to laugh and make fun of themselves. They are fascinated with Westerners. I received gifts of Phu Wedding Cake, cookies, Red Bull and more bottles of water than I can count. Mechanics offered simple repair work and aired up Linh’s tires for free. Once, two women stopped and helped me pump up a tire by hand in the scorching tropical heat. Many, many locals invited me to their homes, accompanied me for short rides or offered me a toke on their điếu cày water pipes. (Not for me, I am afraid.)

All in all, I had a blast. I visited Trúc Bạch Lake, where John McCain crash landed in 1967 and the Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, where McCain was tortured and held prisoner until 1973. I watched women plant rice stalks in fields of mud and helped old women attach bulky loads to their bicycles.

I visited elaborate Buddhist shrines and pagodas, coasted through monasteries in Cambodia and watched giggling, preteen monks ride in the back of a tuk-tuk, or motorized rickshaw. I saw rubber tree plantations, tobacco fields and colorful scarecrows guarding the crops. I witnessed village festivals and wedding parties and got lost in an industrial park with hundreds of amazing sculptures. I cruised through dozens of bustling cities, villages and seaside markets. I saw the curious, round bamboo fishing baskets and countless trawling vessels and houseboats on canals, rivers and the South China Sea.

I met the most welcoming Vietnamese and Cambodian kids that Southeast Asia has to offer. I spotted an iguana perched on a bicycle seat, monkeys grooming one another and a duckling that wandered onto a busy highway before rushing back to its mother. I saw two-wheel tractors plowing underwater fields, witnessed pallbearers brandish flaming torches out the back of a funeral van and crawled through the infamous tunnels of Cu Chi. I explored the ancient temples and imperial compounds of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

I refused to let the cancer or my age slow me down. At 63, I peddled 750 miles in 33 days across two countries. If anything, the diagnosis last year actually accelerated my trip, and I succeeded at checking off two boxes on my bucket list: Bikepacking in Vietnam and visiting Angkor Wat.

You can find more details and photos at my travelblog at or write me at [email protected].

Craig Davis, who was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School, currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. You can visit the Living with Cancer weekly blog at and write him at [email protected]. You also can follow his travel blog, “Cross-Country Bike-Packing at 63: SE East Asia,” at Send comments to [email protected].

Craig Davis was born in Seymour and graduated from Brownstown Central High School. He currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and works for a U.S. government contractor on school-based violence prevention. He is the author of “The Middle East for Dummies” and is conducting research for a genealogy and social history book in Kurtz and Freetown. Send comments to [email protected] .