The colonial hats disecting fish.
Looking back on Laissez Faire, Languid Laos from the WiFi , bustling centre of Ho Chi Minh, the word contrast seems a very weak comparison. As the Nepalese warned me about India the Laotians did the same about Vietnam. A commonly uttered saying goes “The Cambodians sow the rice, the Laotians harvest it and the Vietnamese sell it” Not sure how Thailand escaped this adage. Just as I ignored the advice of the Nepalese out of stubbornness I did the same regarding the well meant Laotian concern. The hospitality, humour and cheekiness of the Vietnamese was a hatrick combination I thoroughly enjoyed! One of the more advanced countries on my journey so far I was delighted to see women taking control for a change. When I saw a woman with a briefcase close to the Laos border I almost caused an accident as I hastily braked to marvel at her independence.
The weather took a turn for the worse however and on the 17th of March in true Irish style the heavens opened. It was as if someone set the clouds to sprinkler mode, 24hrs a day. As a German friend once told me “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing” so in a sombre mood I hit the market the next day and kitted myself out with a rain-mac, balaclava style hat, gloves with dishwashing gloves on top (you have to improvise when no waterproof gloves are available) and the sole pair of knee high socks to be had in the market. Seeing the locals go about their business as usual with only the addition of a pair of socks to their flip-flops and a rain mac as their armour against the weather. It was a token gesture in vain however, as I was soaked within 20 minutes of cycling but as regards fashion disasters I had it down to a T.
The missile hiding in the shade behind colourful bags of rice.
With a gaping spider wound to contend with and absolutely miserable weather conditions it was the first time on the trip I wondered “What the hell am I doing” and “why?”….I’m still working on a concrete rational answer for that! My saving grace was coffee. Every town boasted numerous coffee shops with the smoothest, thickest most sumptuous cà phê á, (to me and you coffee) I have ever tasted. A true Japanese restaurant won’t taint their gourmet sushi with soy sauce, an Italian will tell you an espresso is the only way to drink real coffee and although the Vietnamese as partial to lacing everything with sugar this coffee is best served in it’s raw natural state over a glass of ice. Grown in the central highlands on the Truong Mountain Range that borders Laos and Cambodia, its brew is strong enough to bring a bear out of hibernation or give a second wind to a weary cyclist. Bamboo thatch huts are common along the roads in Vietnam and it was with great pleasure that I joined the local workmen around noon for a cà phê á with a side order of a hammock and siesta! Pure bliss and after in-depth research the only way possible to enjoy Vietnamese traffic is from the low viewpoint of a hammock! Admittedly this is starting to become a pedal powered quest for the perfect cup/beaker of coffee! If I’m unsure of what to do after this trip, opening a Vietnamese coffee shop is a strong contender.
On reaching Hue it was time to turn onto the infamous highway 1. I had read on the internet a few days previous that the road made it into the “Top 10 world cycling routes” I can only assume the author suffered from poor navigational skills, as yes it is a road that runs the entire length of the country but he must also be deaf. As regards traffic I consider myself quite the veteran after India. (6 months on the road has gone to my head) but I had been too privileged in Laos regarding traffic and the contrast hampered with the extra poodle sloshing made for miserable cycling conditions. Sadly the weather didn’t change unlike my mood and continued to deteriorate. By the time I reached Hue, I don’t consider torrential to be an exaggeration. I was so filthy by the nights end that 2 hotels told me they were “full” which was code for you’re too filthy to enter our hotel. On the grubbier end of the accommodation scale I was accepted but not before I stood in the Christ position arms outstretched and was hosed down like an animal. Their giggles did lighten the mood but I have seen sheep been dipped with more TLC in reference to one Hotel in particular. I’m not one to name and shame especially when the Hotel is called “Pope Hocker Guesthouse”. Ooops.
Universal shower for kate and bike in the "pope Hocker".
In Hue I was anticipating a similar shameful hosing down but Hue was a city used to tourists and due to the weather they were scampering fast. I pedalled passed the Meridian Hotel without a glance as I assumed it was clearly outside of a long term travellers budget. Before I’d managed to pedal past the exuberant gates a staff member was shouting “Room for you Lady, 8 dollar” Within moments I was marvelling at the condiments in the bathroom, admiring the freshly grouted tiles in the bathroom and complimenting the full plumbing (shower and hand-basin).Most hand basins in Laos and rural Vietnam are purely ornamental awaiting the expertise of a plumber and more importantly funds. I opened the mini-bar fridge like a child opens a Christmas present. Fridges are deemed an expensive luxury and waste of electricity in Laos. I walked barefoot in the room with confidence, plugged in my electronics for charging with less caution than usual and no blue sparks gave off and FOR ONCE (pet hate of mine) the light switch was beside the bed and not only beside the door. That said I’ve stayed in some claustrophobic rooms where you could reach the door with your foot from the bed. My only problem lay in the fact that I had nothing dry, clean or appropriate to wear whilst making the journey to the hotel pool! I only hoped the other scarce guests got the same sweet deal as me or they viewed me as an inverse snob!
Docking in Ben Tre.
In Vientiane I had the good fortune to meet a fellow cycling tourer going in the opposite direction who kindly gave me his Vietnamese Phrasebook and what a godsend that turned out to be. Although a little effort was required it afforded me the chance to communicate with every eatery and hotelier I met along my way. Thankfully it comes with the Vietnamese translation as the phonetic translation is rarely understood when attempted by a brogue. They got so excited about the book I had to pull it off a few enthusiastic linguistic wannabes before departing!
In a village on the outskirts of Hoi An whilst perched over a minute stool reminiscent of a childs tea party I got “talking” to a local with some pigeon English. In response to his question about whether I liked his town I less than tactfully said to be honest I find the women quite reserved if not hostile and lack the tongue and cheek spark that I appreciated in the western parts of Vietnam. I said it’s almost like their mood had changed with the weather… I know mine had and also with the addition of pylons going up on Highway 1 my spirits were certainly dampening down, quite literally! The man asked matter of factly “Man, woman?” and repeated it 3 times while glancing at my bike. It then finally dawned on me. I was close to the touristic cities of Hue and Hoi An where the locals get the leftover male foreigners in search of the Asian dream, a woman barely old enough to be their daughter. I then took a moment of self examination. I was clad onion style wearing every item in my panniers to keep warm. Leggings as a scarf, 2 pairs of shorts and sport style trousers….it was far from a figure hugging outfit. To top off this ensemble I was wearing a money belt that resembled a gut in disguise and as the in season “snoopy” rain-mac was only available for the petite Vietnamese frame I was wearing a black masculine rain-mac (actually it was at least 90% muddy brown by then). To accentuate my facial features I was wearing a beany-come-balaclava hat which doubled as a pollution mask, covering my neck and mouth. I was sitting in a less than ladylike pose (sorry mum you reared me better) as my legs cannot fit under the low table and it finally hit home that the women thought I was a man and were not returning my smiles for fear I was a sleazy western man. Not to put too fine a point on it, being mistaken for a man has been a particular low point in my journey so far. The cross bar on my bike was being used as a reference point to my sex….but sadly they were not convinced by the slanted crossbar! Maybe I’ll buy nail varnish and a pink balaclava tomorrow….I believe this is what lonely planet refers to as “cultural readjustment”.
In my defence regarding my armour against the elements, the only part of body that was exposed were my eyes. Given the days events I’m leaning towards the “you have beautiful eyes” chat-up line as being generic rather than sincere.
mmmm spiders!Bitter sweet revenge...well actually just bitter.
Have I been in Asia too long ? I was perched at an early morning street market eatery when a rat brushed across my shoes. The Kate of 5 months ago would have freaked out at the sight and may have lost the desire to polish off her noodle soup breakfast. Instead like a knee jerk reaction I jumped enthusiastically to my feet and thought as a good deed I would alert the locals of this opportunistic moment. I expected a brawl to see who would have the good fortune to be dining with grilled rat that evening. However to my surprise they showed an air of snobbery over their Laos counterparts. They certainly didn’t flinch at the sight of a rat but it would appear rat is not on the menu here in Vietnam. As a side note I don’t view rat as a delicacy unlike my Laos counterparts however in hindsight with a combination of ignorance (on my part) and clever seasoning I can divulge that it is edible. Edible being a generous choice of word here.
On entering Ho Chi Minh I was in a touistic mood. I hadn’t seen internet, westerners or a hot shower for days and was going to indulge in the trappings that western tourists demand. After successfully winning at a game of dodgems, me against the scooter traffic, I felt like asking where to pay for the ride as I dismounted my bike at the hotel. Unlike India where the traffic comes in all shapes and sizes be it ox and cart, donkey, rickshaw, tuk-tuk the only contender in Ho Chi Minh is the scooter, which makes it a lot less daunting than it seems. With my clothes in the launderette, reports of my well being sent to family, I embarked on a getting a another glass of the black joy and food that did not have noodles in it. The air brimmed with the smell of fresh starch and coriander from street vendors, coffee and a melee of other delicacies. Behind the buzzing traffic you could almost here an equally consistent sound of beer bottles being popped! This city was alive and I was loving it!
The cyclists fuel....seeping slowly like a fine reserve wine...mmmmm.
Producing over half of Vietnam's total rice output, the Mekong delta has become one of the great rice bowls of the world, and I looked forward to exiting the metropolis of Ho Chi Minh (the luxuries lose their novelty after a while) and discover the backwaters of this great river. Unfrequented by tourists and not a fellow tourer in sight I had the roads to myself. I also had the pleasure of getting my bike tended to by the kind Mr. Tang. For the first time in Asia I found a bike shop that did more than tire kicking and gear flicking out of curiosity. My bike was tended to with the same compassion that a musician tunes his guitar and when he heard where I had cycled from he emitted that unmistakeable “You dotty old fool” laugh and refused payment.
No playstation here...entertainment is left to your own imagination.
Panniers fully laden, leaving a buzzing Ho Chi Minh at 6am I asked the hotel owner were there any tips regarding routes in the Mekong Delta. His response was less than inspiring and if I was to adhere to his dim advice a pine coffin was the best preparation. Yes the road to MyTho was a headache but you have to take the good with the bad and I expected nothing less from Highway 1.
Navigating my way through the backwaters over innumerable bridges and hub of activity that the Mekong provides was an absolute please for the senses. The beauty lies in not only the postcard image of the floating markets and colourful boats but in the logistics of how much energy this river emits through business, transport and food! This is becoming a mantra of mine but I became quite the “Boat Twitcher” from the viewpoint of a hammock watching the daily river life unfold.
Canal cruise in the backwaters, Can Tho.
One activity among the Vietnamese market sellers was guess the age of the “farang” and in My Tho it was no different. This is testimony to the fact that the Vietnamese will bet on anything. First they size me up, give a stern examination of my eyes, search for any rings in sight and lastly search for signs of wealth in the form of gadgets and brand name clothes. This is followed by the leader of the pack pointing to herself and signalling 43 with her fingers and then points to me. My answers vary from 19-55 just to see their response. They are a trusting bunch though and to their good fortune or detriment they accept my answer and money is exchanged in all directions.
Night eateries at the 24hr market.
The theft of a chicken in Vietnam must be one of the easiest crimes to undertake. Future meals constantly roam the streets and help sharpen the cyclists reflexes on the road. When bought you carry them home alive with their legs tied….akin to how they are sold.
A quick practical note if I have caught the audience of any cyclists. The “Reise know how” map usually get rave reviews from travellers as they are rip proof and show relief contours. With regards to Vietnam I can only say the cartographer became imaginative on many a point, with me cycling over 80km before reaching any village mentioned or know by the locals.
Near Ben Tre I again veered off the main drag as a I saw a potentially menacing cloud in the distance and hoped to seek shelter and at best a bed in a nearby village. Heartily welcomed on first glance this seemed like and ideal place to overnight. It was nearing dark but I could already see the bags of homemade rice-wine being opened. After some inquisitions I found out the chief of the village had recently become an eligible bachelor due to his wife leaving him. Sadly I would have liked to stay longer in this kind village but sensibility prevailed and I was not spending the night alone in a bamboo hut with a drunk male. Badges of honour are cheaply bought hear and don’t mean much. I signalled in sign language through a fake phonecall on my phone that my husband was inquiring of my whereabouts. Although worried glances were exchanged by the males, I could see a knowing understanding in the eyes of the women. The children were just sad to see their new climbing frame leaving!
Cao Dao, temple.
As luck would have it I found a local guesthouse only 12 km away which was a great relief even if the mattress didn’t offer any. Next morning I considered taking a backroad to my next town Cantho but after inquiring about its conditions the hotelier gave a less than encouraging response. I aired on the side of caution and took his advice, as should I continue I would have been shot dead or had my throat cut….both fates easily conveyed through sign language. Still think he was being melodramatic.
I have to say the people of Vietnam did touch my heart. I had people running after me offering me food, I brought hammock slumbering work men enthusiastically to their feet in rural cafes and throughout I received brimming smiles that made their eyes glow. I’m not sure if it was the pain in my head from the rice wine at the wedding I was invited or depending how you looked at it kidnapped into the night before or a genuine sign of sadness at leaving the country that left me shedding a tear close to the border…I think the latter to be more true.
As a warning to other cyclist who have become absolute lightweights when it comes to alcohol, Vietnamese weddings are not the place for you. To refuse alcohol is deemed as very poor form and the debauchery goes on all day and night requiring some tactful moves to make an escape…not easily done under the influence!
The missile traversing the mekong for 2.5cent.
When I crossed the border to get my exit stamp I was given one of those sealed damp clothes to cool your face as a gift….whoever said the Vietnamese aren’t hospitable didn’t encounter the people I met!