Welcome to the trip tales of our 17 day bike trip in Vietnam

This is a backwards blog, so the first page is the first trip tale. Half way through the trip, you'll need to click on "older posts" for the last 7 tales. We're planning to take more trips to far away places, on bikes, so if you have any suggestions for our next adventure, please let me know.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Will I jinx the remainder of the trip if I say our journey here was smooth as silk?  We arrived on schedule, picked up our bags and were in bed staring at the ceiling by 11:30PM Saigon time, which was close to noon in NY…which explains why we were staring at the ceiling.

Traveled down to the Mekong Delta this morning. “Traffic” has a whole other meaning here; so does horn honking. Our favorite traffic sight so far has been the motorbike with a cart in front, sporting a 250lb pig. Yep, Porky out front. That’s SOME pig to be able to lead the way.

It took about 2 hours to get to My Tho, the “gateway” to the Delta. Our guide led us to our private tourist boat which puttered to Dragon Island for the tourista gig extraordinaire. Pony cart to authentic family restaurant for tea, fruit, photo with python and local musicians, to 10 minute canoe ride. Here we experience a smidge of the swamps and canals we heard about on the evening news all those decades ago.

It’s bizarre to think anyone would engage in a war here. The canals are crowded with canoes full of tourists, commandeered by incredibly hardworking locals, teenage boys to middle-aged women to older men. This work ages them quickly.

There are no crocs or birds left – all obliterated by humans. We did see 2 water buffalo. There are no stray dogs – they’re all either someone’s pet or a family’s dinner.

We braved crossing the streets tonight, risking our lives to meander around from corner to corner. It makes Times Square look like a stroll in the park. There is construction everywhere, and sidewalks and streets vary from rutted and muddy to smooth and sparkling. Motor bikes are the demi-gods and rule both. Electrical wiring hangs in crowded, clogged clumps from poles placed every 20 feet or so.

New highways being built are displacing thousands of people, supposedly to new apartments. We saw the miles of construction, but not many new apartments. Not sure where all those people went. Maybe they live on their motorbikes and that’s why the traffic is so atrocious!
Yesterday – Sunday - we spent the day trying to see all the sites that Lonely Planet suggested we cram into 1 day. And of course, we walked everywhere, our favorite way to go in a new city. The Reunification Palace is untouched since the 60’s, and much of the furniture looks like what’s being sold in Soho these days.

The market is the center of life and every shape and manner of thing is sold here. The meat market was quite a spectacle, displaying organs and other body parts that we’d never seen “in the flesh”. We observed one meat cleaver who worked so intimately with her wares that we feared she would mix in her own body parts (adding her own “toe-fu”, as Steven suggested.)

From there, I wanted to go to Chinatown, where there are some wonderful pagodas. Notwithstanding the heat and Lonely Planet’s advice to take a taxi, we set out walking in that direction. Every street crossing has been a life altering experience.

Steven got muffler burn from a motorbike that kissed by him, and a slight bruise from another that stopped barely in time. At one point, we were so afraid to cross that an 11 year old rescued us and led us to safety. I think we provided a fair amount of street entertainment for the locals, who chuckled with glee while we plotzed and darted about in sheer terror.

As we cruised one fairly busy street, a motorbike cowboy grabbed my fanny pack from the front of my waist, expecting it to snap right off. WRONG, Roy Rogers.  It finally gave way but so did I. Thankfully, he couldn’t hold on to the pack, and it flew to the sidewalk. (Steven’s glasses were in it.) I didn’t travel nearly so far, but hit the ground and got some fairly nasty scrapes.  A toothless senior with a dangling cigarette retrieved the pack and then insisted on being my own personal Florence Nightingale. He scrubbed my elbow and palm with disinfectant from the nearby pharmacy. He hovered over me, close enough for his ashes to mix with the disinfectant, until we found a cab and headed back to the hotel.  So, I’m bruised but OK, and I’ll be fine to bike. I’ve been in NYC for 30 years and never been mugged. Had to travel all the way to Saigon for the special event. Oy vey. Maybe getting mugged is on the universal bucket list.

Glad to say that we finally found a pagoda, and it was a wild sight. Lots of little rooms with altars to various gods. The worshippers have big stacks of burning incense sticks that they place at the altars of the gods of their choice. It was so smoky we could barely keep our eyes open; the incense brought me back to Hare Krishna recruiting ceremonies in Harvard Square in the 70’s. I couldn’t find the God of Graceful Aging, or you can bet I would have spent my allowance on incense for her. On the other hand, maybe it’s too late.
On Sunday night we met with our Spice Roads group – a couple from Australia that we have so much in common with it’s creepy, and a solo gentleman from Belgium who bikes a lot, works for a Son-of-Siemens company, travels 2 weeks of every month, and lives next door to his parents. Our guide is a young Vietnamese man named Phuic –ok, try pronouncing this using your best manners. No matter how you try, even being super careful, it still comes out the same way. Of course, this is causing us no end of giggles and glee.

On Monday, the van dropped us for our first ride, through villages and semi-rural areas on the outskirts of Saigon. The kids love yelling “Hello”.

The street economy is lively, with everything you can imagine being sold along the side of the roads. People buzz around on motor bikes and bicycles, carrying loads that defy our Western judgment of what can be schlepped in one trip; the guys in the tire business are always busy. Lots of interesting smells, some from cooking (good) some from trash and ?? (not so good). We also cycled by acres and acres of rubber plantations.

We stopped at the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an amazing and extensive network of multi-layered underground tunnels built by the Viet Cong.

The intro film was especially interesting, as we’re not used to the perspective that the North Vietnamese were the heroes. In fact, the film introduced several young women who had won the “Medal for killing Americans”. After touring the site, tourists are invited to shoot machine guns or rifles from the war. And it only cost $1 extra! Doesn’t get much better than that, huh?

Next, we visited The Museum of War Remnants. Not for the faint of heart. Lots of anti-American depictions of the war and blame for the impact of Agent Orange during and post-war. The Americans are blamed for every birth defect since the late ‘60’s. Steven and I were both struck by the similarities of what the US did then and some of what we’re doing now. We all knew it then and we all know it now. Yet it continues. Not sure how to explain this.

For all you foodies – yes, it’s wonderful. Lots of variety, interesting taste combinations and of course, pho, which is a clear broth soup with rice noodles and nearly anything else you want in it. Available for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We’ve been very careful to only drink and brush with bottled water and it’s been easy because bottled water is readily available. But they don’t use it to make ice, so we’ve backed off the hard stuff and I’ve made do with tepid diet coke. The local beer is pretty good and hits the spot. Course the prospect of many-mile bike rides, uphill both ways, has been quite effective in stifling my party urge.
Our plan for day 3 was to drive to Dalat in the central highlands. We knew we were in for a fairly long van ride, due partly to the traffic congestion in leaving Saigon. But we weren’t prepared for the impact of the post-season typhoon that swept through the area a few days ago. Although the van ride seemed endless, we were treated to an extended view of the consequences of poor road construction and mud slides. It felt like our van was in first gear for hours. Finally, at about 3:00 PM, we were rewarded with a 2 hour bike ride.

Most of the ride was through small towns where every single child was on the way home from school and needed to exchange “hello” with each of us. Sometimes they ignore me, since the master who is cycling behind me, is clearly more worthy.

Each town has a few formal dress shops with ball gowns in the windows that look like they are taken right from “King and I”. These dresses are rented to brides for their wedding days, when they change outfits numerous times.  They are in lavish contrast to the muddy streets and motorbike repair shops. Interestingly, I’ve only seen Caucasian mannequins in stores, some with brassy blond wigs and huge busts that are unlike anything I’ve seen on Vietnamese women.

Our ride took us by the beautiful Dambri waterfalls, and through many acres of farms and plantations. Passing cemeteries provides us with a burst of colorful tombs presided over by gilded gods and offerings of flowers and fruits. The elderly are revered, probably more in death than in life, and are often buried in prime real estate with wonderful scenic vistas. We arrived in Dalat at dusk.

Dalat is a beautiful mountain town known for its healthy air and French colonial influence. We left there early for Nha Trang, riding first around a man-made lake in the middle of the city and then through the market. Unlike the others we’ve visited, this market offered buckets of strawberries and displays of fresh flowers. Then we began a really big climb.

I thought I’d lose Steven when we passed the Dalat Palace golf course. The first 37k was uphill, generally a slow incline but sometimes demanding extra surges of energy. I fancy myself “the little engine that could”, but am also the self-appointed caboose for our posse. You get the picture – I’m huffing and puffing, relentlessly bringing up the rear.

The countryside is terraced, with well-manicured  coffee and vegetable farms.Agribusiness is evident in the rows of greenhouses that appear occasionally. Side of the road shanties provide shelter for so many families.

We stopped for lunch at a small town cafĂ© of sorts, but I guess our guide didn’t have confidence in the food since we broke open a picnic. Several tins of grey/beige putty were graciously served, but
all I could think of was Muffin’s Fancy Feast. Laughing Cow cheese on bread with cucumber and tomato hit the spot just fine, though I craved a swab of Grey Poupon.

The next 5k continued uphill and for the most part, it was about pain, sweat, exhaustion and dismay at my delusional self confidence. Reaching the top was sweet. We soon happened on a Buddhist Lunar Temple guarded by two massive Yin and Yang dragons. Very cool – but in the middle of nowhere, not near a village or any homes.

Dinner in Nha Trang was at a local bbq restaurant that was clearly a favorite of both Little Phoic and the guide books. The Vietnamese version of Hooters’ girls were efficient and no-nonsense, setting up little charcoal bbq’s at the table and delivering plate after plate of squid, giant prawns, beef, fish and veggies.

We’ve noticed that most restaurants don’t provide napkins – I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do when your hands get sticky or there’s schmutz on your face. Sometimes, there’s a small stack of 3"x4" note paper of sorts, that I guess is the napkin substitute. It doesn’t absorb much, and just makes me realize how much I want to wash my hands.  Maybe it’s supposed to be used to blot grease. At the end of this meal, we were rewarded with big wet naps. Must be the tourist influence -- not very authentic, but a welcome addition.

The following day was supposed to include a boat ride, snorkeling and swimming in the beautiful bay. Because of the typhoon 3 days earlier however, the water was very rough and cloudy. The plans were canceled and Steven and I took off on one of our famous walks. The market here seems slightly less frantic than some of the others we've visited, and the inside area was relatively neat and quiet. Until people started to roar through on motorbikes. I guess I forgot that motorbikes are demi gods and have free rein to go wherever they want.

We taxi’d to the Cham Towers, which provided us with wonderful views of the local fishing fleet on the Cai River. The towers, originally 10, were built between the 6th and 12th centuries. Four remain, the most impressive of which was built in 817. Each contains ornate shrines, and visitors must remove their shoes and cover their knees to enter. Worshippers burn incense and leave offerings of food and flowers for the gods.

We also visited the White Buddha and Long Sun Pagoda. The Buddha was built in 1963 to symbolize the Buddhist struggle against the Diem regime. Around the base, there are carved images of some of the most renowned nuns and monks who set fire to themselves in protest. A bunch of kids tried to provide valuable tid bits of info in “minimalist” English. Their intrusiveness was quite annoying, but when they referred to Steven as “Happy Buddha”, I forgave them completely.

We had booked massages for the late afternoon, and headed to the hotel’s salon. We were shown into adjacent rooms, and our masseuses chatted easily between themselves while they pinched, whacked and did gymnastics on our bodies. As a finale, Steven was urged to indulge in a “happy ending”; his masseuse promised to be very quiet, and that I would never know! Then our ladies proceeded to plead – no demand – generous tips. We were glad to escape….

In the morning, we left Nha Trang early and biked toward the beach. There is a beautiful boardwalk that runs north/south and would have made for a perfect ride if the typhoon hadn’t beaten us to it. There is debris everywhere, mostly vegetation. Large pieces of wood are being gathered by area residents for fire wood or construction materials, but there is still quite an obstacle course to negotiate. Little Phuic had a wonderful time bobbing and weaving through the ruins, while I gingerly (and slowly) tried to avoid skidding on the sand.

Many of the homes close to the beach have been badly damaged, which was completely predictable considering their reliance on Elmer’s, duct tape and scrap metal. Roofs are torn off, trees are down, and everything is wet and moldy. But there’s no evident panic, and folks seem pretty lackadaisical about putting the pieces back together.

The fishing industry may have taken the day off due to the rough waters, and blue boats of many sizes and conditions are strewn about the harbor and the river. To reach their boats, the locals have small perfectly round bamboo row boats that remind me of the tea cup ride at an amusement park.

We biked north, taking a 36k detour in order to rack up some saddle sores – I swear the wind was in our faces the whole way - and to see the beach. We rode past an aborted luxury resort and down a desolate road with scrub brush on both sides that reminded us of Amagansett. A big snake slithered out of our way but otherwise, we were threatened only by heat and exhaustion.

When we finally reached Tuy Hoa, we were treated to a 2-star hotel in the middle of no-where Vietnam. The food they served for dinner was…interesting (mysterious and kinda gross). Apparently, one of the dishes was chicken; I should have recognized it from the feet and feathers. Thankfully, white rice is ubiquitous and was abundant.