Zen and the Art of iPhone Navigation


As usual, I didn’t really think things through fully. I’d plotted a course from Mui Ne to Dalat on Google Maps and had been given two options. One was more direct, heading straight inland, while the longer option followed the coast for almost half of the journey. I, of course, chose the scenic route.

Emailing the link to my iPhone 3G (the model without GPS), I packed up my gear and paid my hotel bill in preparation for an early start the following morning. Once on the road, I discovered that while the route did follow the coast, it wasn’t on the coast — I was blessed with only two brief glimpses of the ocean, but had added at least 50km to my ride.


Zen and the Art of iPhone Navigation

To make matters worse, the coastal route involved several connections between small towns that never seemed to match up with my map. Losing time on several wrong turns and dead-ends, I began to worry about making it to Dalat before dark, despite starting at 6:30.

Stopping at another intersection in the middle of nowhere, I pulled out my phone to check the route. The link pulled up the Maps app and there was my route, highlighted in purple. To my surprise, after a few seconds a blue dot appeared, marking my position. I was floored — I couldn’t believe the positioning function worked out here in the boonies. This changes everything.

Town names on Google maps rarely matched the old map I carried and fewer still matched the occasional road signs, but being able to see my current location in relation to the road nearly brought tears to my eyes.

I could now tell that the turn to the right would take me to Phan Ri Cua, my next waypoint, but that it would be over 20k of dirt road. Normally, the response to this discovery would be “hell yeah!” but I’d had so many problems with parts falling off the bike that I decided to take the safer route.


Zen and the Art of iPhone Navigation

It proved to be a wise choice — twenty minutes later, the exhaust bolt vibrated out. Again. I coasted into a repair shop and three guys set to work on the bike while looking it over and kicking the tires. The bolt I’d tapped last time was still holding, but the other had decided to make a break for freedom. I’d checked both just before leaving.

They replaced the bolt easily enough, charged me a dollar for the trouble, and continued inspecting the bike while I packed up. As I leaned over to pick something up, my shirt rode up –exposing my stomach– and one of the mechanics exclaimed something like “Holy shit, look how white that guy is!” in Vietnamese. They all goggled at me and a we had a good laugh. He kept lifting my shirt to stare as I adjusted my backpack. Dude, take a photo already…

Soon, I was on Highway 1 and stopped for a quick drink at a roadside cafe, exchanging smiles with the three women who ran the place. Like most places, they had these half-sized red plastic chairs that sit about a foot off the ground and make you feel like you should be drinking imaginary tea with your six-year old niece. I squeezed into the chair, looked over the map, and did some simple math. It’d taken 3 hours to ride 50k — I had 190 more to go. Not good.

As I went to stand up, the chair caught on the pockets of my cargo pants and came with me. The ladies started laughing, so I hammed it up and turned in a circle a few times, making faces and looking over my shoulder at the toy chair stuck to my ass. This got them roaring with laughter — the oldest had tears in her eyes. I gave her a wink as I saddled up and rode off.

The highway had a lot of truck traffic but was in good shape and I could finally make some decent time, holding the bike steady at about 60kph. Oncoming trucks spent so much time in my lane that I finally just stayed on the shoulder, dodging the occasional slower scooter. I passed through small towns about every 5 kilometers, where I’d slow down to weave my way through pedestrians, carts, and trucks.

It was here that the iPhone really saved the day.

Within an hour, I was approaching my connection near Phan Rang Thap Cham, where I would turn west and start heading into the mountains. It was here that the iPhone really saved the day.

The turnoff turned out to be unsigned, hidden in the middle of a small town. By stopping and checking Maps, I found it easily — had I missed it, I would have ridden into the heart of a fair-sized city and lost at least an hour finding my way out again.

The road here was still in good shape and I continued to eat up the miles. Rice fields blanketed both sides of the road, so eye-poppingly green that they looked like God had tweaked the colors in Photoshop. I got in the habit of stopping every 20k to check the bolt and give it a quarter turn. This allowed me to finally quit worrying so much about it and I was able to relax and really enjoy the ride for the first time. I’d come over 100 kilometers now and it was 11am — I could make Dalat before dark.

I turned onto Highway 28 and saw a sign that said “Dalat, 94k”. It was only noon and I only had one more turn to make, about 70k up the road. Stopping for water, I spoke with a man who told me Dalat was only 2 hours ride from here. It sounded too good to be true. The map showed some serious twisties as I got into the mountains and I was excited to ride them.


Zen and the Art of iPhone Navigation

The ride from this point on was wonderfully scenic. There were fewer towns and more fields of rice and leafy, green vegetables. Old cemeteries rested outside of small villages, their crypts pointed west. The temperature and humidity dropped slowly and for the first time in three months, I wasn’t sweating. The road was under construction, covered in loose, crushed rock and filled with potholes, so my speed dropped considerably. I didn’t care — I was having the time of my life.

I reached the twisties and they weren’t nearly as fun as I’d hoped. The entire road was being repaired and was a dirty, bumpy mess. I’ve ridden bikes for over twenty years, but always street bikes — navigating the mud holes and dirt piles was a challenge. Huge dump trucks roared up and down the mountain, forcing me to pull over at narrow spots. The drivers would smile and salute as they rolled by.


Zen and the Art of iPhone Navigation

Occasionally, I’d find a spot where the trees thinned and would get a glimpse of the plain below — I’d climbed at least 2,000 feet. At the top of the pass, I found a wide spot filled with women selling snacks and stopped to rest my butt, have a drink, and check the bolts.

It was now 2pm and I asked a vendor how long it would take to reach Dalat. She held up four fingers. A construction worker walked by and was checking out the bike. I asked him and he held up three fingers. We’ll call it three and a half.

If the rest of the road was like this, it very well could take four hours and now I was nervous again. A half hour later, I pulled into an incredibly charming mountain town. It was so lovely and quaint, I considered stopping and finding a hotel for the night. I stopped for gas and it started to rain, but I continued on. The road went from bad to worse, with alternating patches of tortured asphalt, dusty crushed rock, and raw dirt. The rain stopped and I was soon coated in gray dust.

My last turn was coming up soon, according to google Maps, and I tried watching for it while dodging craters and spitting out mouthfuls of dust kicked up by passing trucks. It was like riding through an artillery field and at one point I’m pretty sure I passed through the spot where they faked the moon landing.


Zen and the Art of iPhone Navigation

Stopping at a church, I checked the iPhone and sure enough, I had missed my turn. So, I had to ride back 5k through the roughest section, stopping every few minutes to check my location. After twenty minutes of this, I finally came to the conclusion that –unless it was cleverly disguised as a driveway or a cow path– there was no road. Google Maps had failed me.

Three road surveyors confirmed this and pointed me back towards the church. My turn was a further 20k up the road, a right turn onto a straight shot into Dalat. Riding through this urban offroad extravaganza for the third time, my enthusiasm finally waned. Are we there yet?

After awhile, the road improved to just bumpy, pot-holed pavement and I was able to increase my speed. I had about three hours of light left, but no idea how far I had to go and what the conditions were like.

The turn led me onto a newly-paved road and produced a sign that said “Dalat 20km”. The road from that point on was flawless and fun — full of sweeping turns through thick forests of pine trees. Thirty minutes later, I was in Dalat.

I stopped at a very fancy restaurant to have a beer and figure out where the hotels were. I’d been on the road for 10 hours, was covered in dust, and my ass felt like I’d just finished pledge week at an S&M fraternity. I was a wreck.

The waiter’s eyes went wide as I staggered to the restaurant.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll sit outside.”

I paused a moment. “On second thought, maybe I’ll stand.”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Poi June 23, 2010 at 3:44 pm

This sounds like a lot of fun (other than checking the bolt all the time) I wanna play!
.-= Poi´s last blog ..To Derby Anyone? =-.


wes June 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Do it! You’ll have a blast. Just don’t get a lemon, like I did.


Casa De Dripping Springs June 24, 2010 at 1:53 am

Best post yet!

you would have thought those guys working on your bike would have seen a gut before.


Globetrooper Lauren June 24, 2010 at 3:24 am

I’m mesmerised by your stories! I so wish I could ride a bike properly – only just got my L plates, but I’ll get there!
.-= Globetrooper Lauren´s last blog ..Travel Partners Wanted: Weekly Update (21 Jun ’10) =-.


wes June 24, 2010 at 7:32 am

It’ll become second-nature really quickly. Be safe and have fun!