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Vietnam (Caron)

(483km - 6days)

 

25/08 – 30/08/2018

 

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25 August Kampot, Cambodia – Ha Tien, Vietnam – 75 km

On a bumpy, dusty road, we weaved our way through rice paddies, palm trees and basic houses with corrugated iron roofs. We turned off to the small seaside village of Kep, which appeared to be a lovely place to hang around for a day or two. We were, however, keen to get to Vietnam and followed a side-road to the border. The main road smelled of cow dung, and typical homes kept cattle in the front yard. We savoured our last ride in Cambodia and watched ladies cutting rice and kids collecting snails in the rice fields.

 

It was the Hungry Ghost Festival, and all along the way, shrines were stacked with tins of beer and cigarettes. At the full moon of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar, it is believed that the gates of hell are opened, and the spirits of hungry ghosts are allowed to roam Earth. These ghosts need food and merit. People can help by offering food, paper money, candles, and flowers, making merit of their own in the process. We, therefore, witnessed villagers burning paper money in an attempt to keep the ghosts happy.

 

Soon, we arrived at the border, and it was a smooth crossing into Vietnam. Our first stop was at a cave temple, which we reached after climbing some stairs. The cave was surprisingly airy inside and offered great views of the surrounding countryside.

 

Our first town in Vietnam was one with a fascinating history. Way back, Ha Tien, was a Cambodian province. Being under attack of the Thai back in 1708, the then-governor, Mac Cuu, approached the Vietnamese for assistance, and after this, the area was governed by Mac Cuu as a fiefdom. However, this was not the end of their struggle, as, since then, they have been invaded by the Thais on several occasions. The area also came under attack during the American war as well as during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, who massacred thousands of civilians living in Ha Tien at the time. Today, though, Ha Tien is a busy and laid-back town with a lovely river setting, a busy market, and an exciting night market.

 

We first had to change money, something that was not as easy as it sounds, as no one spoke any English, the banks were closed, and one typically got a better rate at the gold shops. With a whopping 2,000,000 Vietnamese dong (approx. $85) in our pockets, we felt rich and got ourselves an excellent room that was right on the river.

 

26 August — Ha Tien — Chau Doc — 103 km

We woke to the sounds of the street and the general mayhem of the local market. I sipped my first cup of coffee while listening to the ferries blow their horns before leaving for the islands. It was, indeed, a pleasant way to greet the day. Before leaving, we had a breakfast of typical Vietnamese noodle soup at the market.

 

We followed a canal that ran close to the Cambodian/Vietnam border. The road was congested with motorbikes and minivans that were running to and from Cambodia. It was, however, still a pleasant ride, and the recent rains transformed the delta into what looked like an ocean. At times, the canal we cycled along completely disappeared, and we were amazed that the boats still managed to find their way. River transportation is alive and well in Vietnam, and so is the farming of birds’ nests. These edible birds’ nests are created by swiftlets that use saliva to build their nests. The nests are particularly prized in Chinese culture due to their rarity and supposedly high nutritional value and exquisite flavour. According to what I read, these edible birds’ nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans with nests recently sold at prices up to about US$3 000 per pound, depending on grading! We cycled past many a massive structure built specifically for these birds and their nests.

 

Roadside stalls sold woven baskets and mats, and peasant villagers collected plastic bottles and tins for recycling. In Vietnam, roadside stalls not only come with a table and chairs but also a large number of hammocks, and it appeared that it was unthinkable to sit when one could lay in a hammock, something that made complete sense to me. We followed suit and relaxed in a hammock while drinking coconut juice.

 

With the recent rain, we found that the farmers had no dry yards for drying their rice crops, so they used the road, forcing the vehicles over it for the thrashing.

 

We turned off the road to the Ba Chuc memorial, a grim reminder of the horrors perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. In April 1978, the Khmer Rouge killed 3 157 villagers here; only two survived. It was a rather depressing visit. Outside, a lady sold what I would call Vietnamese pizza (Banh Trang Nuong). It consisted of rice paper grilled on coals and topped with chili paste, quail eggs, spring onions, and minced pork. It was delicious.

 

Afterwards, we tried to follow a small road to Chau Doc, but unfortunately, it petered out altogether, and we had to return to our original route. Caron was a star and never complained once about the detours or bad roads. Once in Chau Doc, we found a comfortable room at the Thuan Loi Hotel right on the river, after which we went in search of food.

 

27 August - Chau Doc – Cao Lanh- 75 km

We sat on the balcony overlooking the river and marvelled at all that was happening on the river. Not only did large boats move up and down the river, but people who lived on the river rowed kids to school or themselves to work or the market. All this was happening while the river is in full flood, and we were amazed at the skilful way in which they did it. We left via a small road that ran next to the river, in the process passing ladies under straw hats pushing carts laden with fruit and vegetables from door to door.

 

The delta is a watery world, and no less than four times did we have to make use of a ferry to get across rivers, all making for a fascinating day. The roads were mostly tiny and the villages small and rural but, from time to time, we came upon larger towns, which were always congested with motorbikes and scooters.

 

While having a quick bite to eat at a roadside restaurant, we were surprised to see a local man and his chicken also having lunch. I’m not kidding you. There he was, with his chicken sitting next to him on a chair. On leaving, he tucked it under his shirt, got on his motorbike, and off they went!

 

We managed to find the smallest of roads running flush next to rivers and canals, all making for a good day on the bike.

 

28 August - Cao Lanh – Vinh Long – 70 km

“I think we have just doubled the tourist count for Cao Lanh,” Caron said as we sat down to an excellent bowl of pho. We ambled along a small road and were perplexed at the drying of water hyacinth along the way. As far as I was aware, there was hardly any use for this plant and we could not figure out what it could be used for.

 

We came upon Xeo Quyt forest. A magnificent 52-hectare forest and swamp. I understand that it's one of the last natural forests left in the Mekong Delta. During the Vietnam War (1955-1975), the area was used as a base, and today it hides the remains of Viet Cong bunkers. We rented a canoe and were paddled through a thick canopy of trees past the remains of war relics. It was a fascinating visit and gave us a tiny glimpse into the lives of the Vietnamese during that time.

 

We also discovered the use of the dried hyacinth! The resourceful Vietnamese are using it for weaving baskets and various other products! After ice cream, it was back on the bikes to Vinh Long where we arrived together with trucks, buses, and what felt like thousands of motorbikes. Instead of staying in the city, we took a ferry to an island where we located a homestay for the night. It turned out an interesting evening as we landed up at a brand-new homestay, still in the process of being built.

 

29 August – Mekong River Homestay – My Tho – 85 km

We had breakfast, which included a delicious cup of Vietnamese coffee, the best I have had so far. We wished the family good luck with their homestay and crossed the river by ferry back to the mainland. The boat was packed with farmers and traders taking produce to the market and, as always, I was amazed at the skilful way they manoeuvred their motorbikes onto and off the ferry.

 

We cycled along a small road that ran next to the river, passing villagers selling their humble home-made nibbles along the route. Others were winnowing their rice the old-fashioned way or drying home-made sausage in the sun. We popped into beautiful temples and interesting-looking brick-making structures. Each area in the delta seems to produce a different crop, and we cycled past many a dragon fruit plantation.

 

As can be expected in the delta, we crossed numerous rivers, some by ferry and some by bridge. The rivers were busy waterways, and each and every boat had eyes painted on the bow. Fishermen and seafarers of all countries are known for their superstitions, and the Vietnamese are no exception. Some say that the eyes are intended to help the boats at sea find their way back to land. Others say the eyes are meant to scare off sharks or water monsters or are intended to bring good luck and fortune. Some fishermen believe their boats are like fish – beings with souls that must also have eyes to steer clear of danger. Whatever their purpose, eyes adorn boats, both big and small. I understand that painting eyes on a ship is an important ritual often associated with a ceremony to “open the eyes” of the vessel and bring it to life.

 

On arrival in My Tho, a helpful man pointed us to a budget hotel right across from the night market. It suited us just perfectly and, after a shower, we headed out to the food court, where we sat overlooking the river. It was a pleasant day of cycling, and watching the Mekong flow past was a suitable end to the day and our ride through the delta.

 

30 August - My Tho – Saigon – 75 km

We enjoyed a pavement breakfast of bánh mì (Vietnamese baguette). There are banh mi stalls on almost every street in Vietnam. The baguette features a crispy bread, with a tasty filling of sliced pork, pate, chicken, egg, spicy chilli sauce and herbs. We ate our baguette, dripping sauce all over ourselves and the pavement (I don’t know how the Vietnamese do it) while watching the crazy morning traffic. With full bellies, we joined the masses of motorbikes and headed out of My Tho. It was, in fact, a more pleasant ride than expected as we managed to find rural roads just about all the way to Saigon.

 

Our route led us through farming communities where women with conical hats sat on their haunches cooking food. Chickens pecked in the road and men carted huge piles of hay on small motorbikes. The aroma of home-made food drifted across the road as school children headed home for lunch. We crossed rivers by ferry and meandered through dragon fruit plantations until we reached the city limits. It was time to focus as we joined the eight million motorbikes in Saigon. We followed suit, not looking left or right, only following the traffic, ignoring red lights and road signs, eventually reaching downtown and in one of the allies located Hai Guesthouse with a spacious room and large balcony.

 

We have sadly reached the end of our journey as from Saigon, Caron leaves for home and I will make a beeline for Thailand where I plan on meeting my friend, Linda, at around 12 September for a cycle tour of Myanmar.

 

It was a pleasure cycling with Caron and I hope she enjoyed her time here. Go well, my friend!

 

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