Vietnam has been a relentless yet glorious onslaught to the senses. It is a rollicking ride as serene as it is pulsating with the grime of industrial development. It is a sea of conical hats and buffalo-driven technology, the thunder of traffic and airhorns, fishermen casting nets one-handed from bamboo boats while texting with the other. It has been a country of extremes but somehow the dichotomies create some sort of balance that keeps you on the edge of your seat – with a big, if slightly nervous, grin on your face.
Lost in Saigon
It seems we haven’t learnt from experience when it comes to cycling into big cities – perhaps the truth is we (or maybe just I) quite enjoy the drama of entering a sprawling metropolis without a proper map, just a compass. The cultural transition crossing the border from dusty Cambodia was at first subtle. We were pleasantly surprised by how quiet the roads were and I managed to change some money and get some lunch without getting ripped off. It was then, with an element of cool, that we whizzed off in the direction of the signs ‘Ho Chi Minh City 50km’.
The road caught us off guard and just swelled as we approached the outskirts of the city. Hooting traffic joining our route from every side like tributaries from the surrounding suburbs – scooters everywhere. Our little bike was like a canoe sucked into the rapids, right direction or not we were only going one way. No gentle eddy to paddle into here, as is popular in Vietnam, a thousand buzzing commuters fly the wrong side upstream hugging the curb pushing us out into the main torrent and destroying any safe haven for shaken cyclists. You can only laugh when in the midst of a tight pack of weaving scooters, many hundred strong. I can hear enthusiastic locals chatting away to Kat in broken English – ‘Where you go?’, ‘Do you like Vietnam?’, ‘Liverpool!’, ‘Manchester United!’ – whilst skimming our panniers and swerving hideously to take a picture on their i-phone.
As darkness fell and any vague directions we were given involved crossing six lanes of traffic, the tourist centre felt ever more elusive. But we were certainly in Saigon so time to cut our losses and bed down for the night. As luck would have it we came upon a friendly hotel in the maze of congested streets. Although the Xuan Hong Hotel didn’t offer ‘massage’, they were clearly used to a different sort of clientele. I explained I wanted a room for the night and after some initial confusion at this request they looked up the price for a whole night rather than the standard one or two hours. Visiting cycle tourers were certainly a novelty to them but once our innocent intentions were understood, we had a very warm welcome. A young guy at reception gave me a ride on the back of his scooter to do a few errands. It felt no safer on the crazy streets; my helmet a thin plastic baseball cap with some sponge in it, the neon, the tooting and swerving headlights like a cosmic discotheque.
As we sat in our windowless room, munching our takeaway dinner to escape the madness outside we felt that buzz – the start of our next adventure. And thanks to the unsavoury discovery of a sweaty bum print on the mirror that ran the length of our bed, I got to finish what was left of Kat’s dinner – result!
We escaped Ho Chi Minh City early next morning, leaving behind its scooters and the prints of dubious behaviour. Noise and chaos remained on the road but as we headed towards the coast we eased into the lifestyle. While a little hairy rubbing shoulders with the heavy traffic, we found refuge in the Vietnamese coffee shops that line the main routes. The people who live and work alongside the main road seem oblivious to the constant hooting and grinding of gears, sleeping in hammocks and sitting, watching, dare I say comforted by the constant flow of belching vehicles. We started to get used to it too (not really, I just wrote that because I think that is what’s supposed to happen….)
Tandem Turners say ‘Yes!’
I was kicking myself. It was only a small thing but it niggled me. One morning a few days out of Saigon a crazy looking white guy with a beard (come to think of it he probably looked just like me in 20 years time) had run out of his house and shouted ‘Coffee?’. We shouted ‘hello’ back but hadn’t stopped. We didn’t want to lose our rhythm, his appearance was suspicious and ironically we were focused on finding a coffee shop. We didn’t come across a coffee shop for ages and for the next hour all I could think about was how we should have taken up that guy’s offer. I mused over other adventures and experiences we might be missing out on because perhaps we had become a little too focused on our destinations rather than our journey. I shared this with Kat and she agreed (although she still thought the beardy guy was best left in our dust) that we would go out of our way to say YES to any other offers we had that day – what ever they may be.
It didn’t take long for this decision to take effect. About 40kms into our day a lady waved at us to have a baguette from her stall. We decided YES and pulled over. While enjoying our breakfast we got chatting to a local who spoke some English. He turned out to be a teacher at a nearby school. He said it was a shame we were shooting off and asked if he could show us around his school. Ignoring the tailwind that was just picking up, we said YES – we would love to see his school.
Our teacher friend lived near the school but it turned out that he wasn’t teaching until an hour or two later. Not to worry, we were offered a glass of wine in his home (to which we had to say YES of course) and met his wife and little baby.
A while later, with a healthy glow in our cheeks, we headed off to school. As so many kids ride bikes, the school has a parking attendant who gives the children tickets when they park up in the playground. We sat under a tree with the parking attendant and he offered us a cup tea. We said YES and chilled out while a few children came and went and teacher seemed in no panic to get to class or prepare. I could get in to this teaching lifestyle! Some time later, he looked at his watch and said it was time for class. As we walked through the cool of the pleasantly windowless corridors, he asked if I would like to teach the class. Sure, why not? I said YES. I don’t think the teacher even introduced us to the kids but we had lots of fun. Kat played the role of teaching assistant and wrote on the blackboard for me whilst I taught. There are now 76 Vietnamese children (we taught two classes back-to-back) who now know among other randomly selected topics, the words and actions to ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’.
The classes and corridors echoed with happy voices and laughter – school here seems to be a joyful and relaxed experience. The classrooms are very bare compared to back home, apart from a picture of Ho Chi Minh at the front of every classroom which watched over the children. I would want to do a bit of child-friendly decorating if I was here for a few more days.
Before we knew it, the afternoon was marching on and we needed to hit the road. Our friend said his headteacher would excuse him from class to go drinking with his ‘English Visitors’ to which we said, not wishing to jeopardise a child’s right to learn, a respectful NO. We said our goodbyes and headed off.
We cycled into the late afternoon, pleased with our chance to see a local secondary school, but unsure about where we would now stay. We saw grubby motels pop up at regular intervals along the road; one of those would have to do. We decided to have a coffee before we started looking for a room. Mia served us, a friendly woman with a young family, Grandad swinging in a hammock, Grandma pottering with a contented smile.
Mia: ‘Where are you staying tonight?’
Kat: ‘We will find a motel.’
Kat: ‘One of those rude ones….’ (Mia spoke limited English but knew exactly what Kat meant.)
Mia: ‘Would you like to stay with us?’
Pause, ‘YES, Please!’
We were treated to a wonderful evening of food and fun that, in a moment out of the spotlight, caused me to mouth the line ‘I Love Vietnam’. When we retired at the end of a long laughter-filled night we were a little unsure about how well we would sleep – our bed was in traditional Vietnamese style where you lie on solid wood. But what a good sleep we had. Generosity and kindness from strangers is a well-sprung mattress, good food and smiles a warm duvet. Thank you so much, Mia and your friends and family.
Not sure what to do? Just say YES!
The South China sea
And then we saw the sea – the first time since the south of Thailand months ago.
The sea breeze gave us some relief from the heat and the sea always feels to me like coming home. There were endless busy markets with bounties of weird sea-life for sale. Much of the seafood we found at markets and small eateries was kept alive and fresh in partly-filled, bubbling tanks. Turtles, strange toads and eels are often on the menu so we tend to see these places more as petting zoos. We loved the laid-back lifestyle of the fishing villages and towns so we followed roads that hugged the coast where we could. It was stunning.
While exploring these quieter roads, we realised that we hadn’t seen a rice field for quite sometime. Actually, there wasn’t much growing at all and sand dunes were creeping over sections of the road. It felt like we had returned to the Outback. I had just assumed that Vietnam would be like one giant green over-populated rice paddy field and here we were running out of water without a soul in sight.
Van Gia – a slice of Vietnamese paradise
Threatening bowel rumblings are rarely a thing to be celebrated on the bike. But on day 354 the decision to urgently look for lodgings with western toilet facilities turned out to be a gift. There was nothing to suggest that Van Gia was a place to stop at, let alone linger. The beauty of being on the bike is that first impressions are ignored, there is no choice. A chance search down a side road off the dull and administrative town highway led us to an oasis in a town not even marked on the map in our guide book. Perfect.
A large but unassuming and unpopulated hotel with views over the sea tentatively welcomed us. This was a sleepy modest town. We couldn’t believe we had a beach on our doorstep and not a tourist in sight. Sitting on deckchairs in the shade of palm trees, drinking sugarcane juice, watching the boats come in. We had been cycling ten days straight – time for a couple of days off.
5 Things to do in Van Gia
1. Watch fishermen fixing their nets
We found a great little coffee shop and wiled away the time watching fishermen fixing their nets.
2. Get your bike fixed.
After fixing what I could at the hotel I cycled around town looking for a bike shop. I was sent in the direction of Mr. Dang – his little crew of employees serviced Hooch and then told me it was free – ‘Good luck on your journey!’
3. Eat some seriously good BBQ.
4. Feast and Party!
The people of Van Gia like to have a good time. At this busy little restaurant the waitress was so attentive that she regularly replaced ‘old ice’ with ‘new ice’ in our drinks!
5. Just watch the world go by.
So this was our introduction to Vietnam. From Van Gia we then continued up the coast following Highway 1. It is varied, often noisy and chaotic, but never boring. This post finishes in Hue, so we are only about half way through our Vietnamese journey. Part two will follow shortly.
Sing along with Mr Turner….