Biking Vietnamese Backroads--Spinning past troubled times 15 January 2012
And remember Chris and I are traveling with our new best cycling buddy, Graham, from Australia who you will see frequently in these pictures and videos.
And now the cycling starts:
The first bike day it smells like riding inside a jasmine blossom due to cashew trees in bloom. Every day subsequently has been a wonder. Since then we smell salt fields, fish farms, drying herbs and tea and kelp along the road, savory cooking, and sea breezes . Everyone calls out to us from fields and porches. Kids race us on foot and bike, trying to slap hands with us as we buzz by. People pass us on motos, slow down, and practice their English. They smile broadly and are proud to chat with us, saying, “hello, hello!” or “what's your name?"
When they smile it melts your heart. This is the reason I can keep pedaling. It takes my mind off of how out-of-shape and semi-miserable I am. The delightful Aussie who is with us, named Graham, bicycles two hours a day minimum, and recently did a ten-week trip across Canada. I cannot hope to keep up, but I must say Don is the star of the trip. Today he had pity on me and let me draft him all afternoon. It helps so much. We are cycling about 80 Kilometers per day (48 miles) but it is often on muddy or dirt roads or crazy bumpy quasi asphalt, so it takes a big toll on arms and derriere.
Our tour leader, Van, is a lovely, beautiful Vietnamese gentleman. He is young 40s and has two kids.
Our support driver, named Hong, is amazing, too.
We travel in a Mercedes van where the 4 bicycles are stowed in the back.
It is air conditioned. They take us outside the busy towns where there are literally millions of motos and trucks.
Then we begin our cycling through villages that seldom see tourists. When we need something to fortify us, we stop at local outdoor markets and point out fruits we would like to try, or drink coconut milk through a straw,
and villagers crowd around us and stare as though we are space aliens.
Old women punch me and try to ask me things, like how old I am. I tell our tour leader, Van, to say I am 63, and then the women adore me and want their pictures with me, especially the 75-year-old woman who looks 85.
It is a hard life. I don't know why they punch my arm, but that is how they get my attention. Most older people are missing many teeth. Van explains that some people in the countryside smear a black organic substance over their teeth to deter decay. It makes their gums look toothless. Others chew betel nut, revealing red teeth and gums when they smile widely to greet us along the road.
As we ride, our van driver Hong awaits us maybe 15 K up the road. We pull over, and he has cool towels that he has stored in an icy cooler. We use several on our faces or arms or legs. Ahhhh. Then he has cut watermelon or mangoes or papaya or dragon fruit for us to slurp. While we are eating he replenishes our water bottles which are mounted on our bicycles, and Van makes sure our brakes and gears are in order. Our bikes are cleaned and maintained every night, and the frames have been fitted to our measurements. Everything is fabulous. At noon, Van selects amazing family restaurants, and he insists they put all utensils into boiling water; he goes into the kitchen to make sure all the food is fresh and hot. Sometimes he sends back certain dishes. He does not want us to be ill on the trip.
As we whiz by on bicycle, there are a myriad of crops, all depending upon whether we are in mountains or close to the sea: tapioca, rubber trees, coffee, bananas, rice paddies, mango, papaya, cashew, bamboo, teak, morning glories, mint, cilantro, basil, lettuce, sugar cane, mystery fruits, tea, peanuts, and flowers of all kinds. Along the road, we see shrimp, tea, coffee, rice and herbs spread out to dry, sometimes on mats, or often on the roadside itself. A few times, if there is traffic, we are forced to ride on top of the drying products. (Note to self: always wash rice before cooking!!)
Squat Toilets , Wooden Ferries and S-nnaa-k-k-kes!
Sometimes when we stop at a roadside fruit stand or small store, I ask if there is a toilet. I am often escorted into the owner’s home, or through a back way to an outbuilding. The sink is usually outside the toilet facility. Toilets, while squat type, are very, very clean. Instead of flushing, one throws a bucket or dipper of water into the ‘Turkish-style’ toilet which has footprints on the ground and a place to squat.
Hong Kong airport; that is why many upscale restrooms have gel cleaner to use on the toilet seat. Somehow, I almost get their point. How can you really clean it?
A most frightening moment occurred after a sweaty break on a mountainous climb off the coast. We had snacked on sliced mango, orange, and banana under sweltering sun, indulged by Hong who hovered near the van to make sure we were fortified for a long climb through coastal hills. I needed to relieve myself, so climbed up the bank of a coffee field. For privacy, I pushed further back among the crops, wary that there could be snakes or something else I wouldn’t want to meet. After eventless relief, I hustled back to my bike, the last to depart. As I pedaled onto the road, a HUGE, long, writhing grey cobra flipped out of the coffee field at my side. I practically fainted, but rode on, with no one around to hear my stuttered warning. One other time on the bike trip I saw a thin, green rapidly whipping three-foot-long snake arching along the roadside; it made me happy to be above ground atop a bike. [ed. note: I think Christina needs a little more Buddhist meditation!]
Sometimes we must cross rivers either on slashed-together wooden bridges
or in small wooden ferries which carry at most our four bicycles, maybe one other moto, and a woman with woven baskets of market goods.
The ferries navigate via longtail motors, and we stand or sit in the boat, hardly able to absorb the river, the bank, the wait for the ferry, and how we managed to wheel our bikes onto the body of the boat.
There is so much to see, and suddenly we are at the bank of a river and loading up before we know what happens. It all happens fast, as if in a dream. And we smile.
Leaving Space and Calling Out, and Listening Hard
The traffic traveling beside us on moto is amazing. We see motos covered with chickens hanging by their feet, ducks, huge potted bonsai plants being transported, a moto with two pigs on the back each housed in rattan type tubular cages with a passenger woman nestled atop, families of four or five people wedged onto one moto,
tables, stacks of bananas, bamboo, sticks, tile, multiple bags of rice, herbs, double beds, pipes, wicker baskets of fish, and you just think of anything in your house, and it is hoisted onto a moto approaching you as you cycle down the road.
Always you leave space for these items as you pass. The rule here is that the biggest vehicle has the right-of-way. Many of our roads are banned to anything except pedestrians and motos and bicycles or agricultural small tractors (called Japanese water buffalo).
Road talk is a new game in Vietnam. If we want to pass a slow-moving pedestrian or another bicycle, we say, “wa wa!” Of course that is not the correct spelling…only the words Van gave to us hurriedly the first day when suddenly we were speechless. [Our high-tech mountain bikes failed to come with that little bell on the handlebars one jingles with their thumb.] It is Vietnamese for something that makes people know we are there in case they have not heard us. I still don’t know what it means, but it works. We have also learned how to say hello as we cruise by: Xin chao! While we are cycling, people call out to us from the rice paddies or fish farms, or from the doorways of their shops or homes.
Sometimes I begin to tear up. It is so beautiful and dear. The small villages have loud speakers near the rice fields so that workers can hear the news several times a day. Of course this is communist news, but when I inquire if Van thinks it is a problem with the communist news, Van tells us the only problem is that sometimes the speakers are broken or the winds carry the news away and it is hard to hear. I am now thinking that much of our news with the government spin in the US is about the same. In fact, the more I pedal, the more I see how similar our people are to the people in this country, or in any country for that matter. The basics of life and the routines of life are the same. We all want our families, love, food, water, and a life that is fulfilling. I can see that when a farming family raises their heads from the rice paddy, maybe from behind a mud-soaked water buffalo. The sun slants off their conical hats and they shout out to us, “Hello! Xin chao!”
Tet-The Lunar New Year
Van says that the war is in the past. Here they do not call it the Vietnam War. They call it the American War. Today we went to My Lai and wept.
We wrote in the visitors' book. It is a low point for the USA. But Van tells us that when the New Year (Tet) comes here, people look at their past conflicts, either with family members or other governments or friends, and they say, "Now is the new beginning. The past is over." The first day of the New Year is for doing nothing, reflecting. People stay at home. The second day is for family, visiting grave sites, honoring ancestors. People burn artificial money or old items in front of their homes or businesses to signify that the old is gone and the new has begun.
The third day, people visit their teachers. Then after that, there are some weeks of holiday. People have yellow chrysanthemums at their house to decorate it, or trees with kumquats, or branches of dyed pussy willows.
The Tet Lunar New Year here will be Jan 23. We have learned that the New Year here is behind USA, and that the lunar calendar here is 355 days so that when they celebrate New Year, it occurs in January. There are some months with 34 days, and the calendars here have both Gregorian calendar numbers and Vietnamese lunar calendar numbers, with leap years to catch up. In public, calendars have both the usual calendar that you and I see in the Western world, with the Vietnamese calender numbers underneath. It is a tradition. Van says he uses the Western calendar for business, but he knows also what month and day it is in Vietnam. Here, it is still December until our western Jan. 22.
The beauty of traveling with Van, our guide, is that we can ask him any question whatsoever. When we stop for lunch, he goes into a small rural restaurant and immediately orders for us and we have the most exquisite, amazing food I could ever imagine. There is four times the amount we can eat. We had, for instance, morning glory soup. Morning glories invade my garden at home and I constantly try to evict them. Now I know how awesome the soup is.
How to do a tour with Vietnam Backroads
If you would like to travel with Van, he can take you for one or two or 15 days in Vietnam. Laos or Cambodia. http://www.vietnambackroads.com/ He will kill you on the cycling if you request it, or he will do a low-paced trip where he allows you to stop anywhere for photos or food or whatever you want, even homestays. Don and I may be medium hardcore in his cycling realm, but he says he has all kinds of people, including some clients who do not wish to put in more than 20 or 30 k a day and like to mingle in the markets and villages. For sure Van stops us and pulls us into Buddhist weddings, households where rice paper is made, where rice is hulled, where round woven boats are made, into a Buddhist funeral where we meet the family and pay respects, into a cashew hulling factory where 200 Vietnamese girls are working, or quickly into a roadside room where people are hulling rice. He translates everything and interrupts to make sure we are comprehending whatever it is we are seeing along the road. At one point we cause a traffic jam of 75 people where we stop to refresh ourselves on oranges and observe a local fish market perched at the intersection of two obscure roadways. Everyone is gawking at us. Don and I realize that we have not seen a Westerner for three days. I cannot recommend this experience enough. We still have six more days in Vietnam and I am sure we are not finished with new adventures.
Today we rode right up to the door of our hotel in Hoi An, a picturesque historical city. We will be here for two days, and do a bike excursion tomorrow. Can't wait to get up for breakfast, which will be amazing with noodle soup and many other surprises.
The next pic is of all of us after cycling up to 5700 ft near Dalat [but not from sea level].
And since this Vlog is about the main emphasis of our trip, bicycling, here is a little sequence of our last big pass starting by the South China Sea and scaling Hai Van Pass towards Hue--and that was just in the morning:
But wait, there's more! Here is a video sequence that shows some of the different kind of terrain, roads and places we biked [once you have started it you can view it in a larger scale by clicking on YouTube:
Hey, great. Anyone still here? Okay, well it's not like I'm doing this for you anyway. I get it. But here are even more highlight pics of our bike trip on a Picasa Web Album. Remember to click on it and then the slideshow option near the upper left. Use your arrow keys to spin forward, or back. Then you can get back to our Vlog by using your browser's back button a couple of times:
Thanks for getting this far. Seriously, any of you who are reading this, I will watch all of your travel pics and videos and read your blogs. U R the best! Or one of the best.
In our next VolkVenture, we'll explore Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] or "Hannoy" you with something. Stay tuned. Vietnam Bike Tours
During February, Blake and I jetted off to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon or HCMC, for a few days. We were extremely excited about this trip, as we both had Vietnam on our lists of places to visit. With a lengthy itinerary in hand- we set off to explore!
Upon arriving, we checked into our first of two hotels during our stay, Hotel Continental Saigon.
War Remnants Museum
Opened on September 4, 1975, the museum boasts a wide array of historical artifacts from the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese viewpoint on the Vietnam War does not bode well for Americans (surprise, surprise) however, as we toured the museum many people from other countries were talking amongst themselves about how there are two sides to the story and this is clearly only one side. This makes you feel a bit better. Regardless, we are incredibly proud of our country and the soldiers that fought in this war.
My Dad served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
After touring the museum, we took a walk around downtown Ho Chi Minh. Along the way, we stopped and got massages, (Blake's idea... I love how relaxed he is on vacation!).
Crossing the street is an interesting adventure in Vietnam. Seriously, you are risking your life crossing the street, walking on the sidewalk, or even stepping out of the hotel! MOTORBIKES are everywhere!!! The law is on the side of the motorbikes with regards to pedestrians. Apparently, if you are walking and hit by a motorbike, you are held responsible. WHAT!?? This was crazy for us to believe. But, we quickly learned how to look left, right, behind us, in front of us, and pretty much say a prayer and run! lol... It definitely took some getting used to.
Selling fruit on the street.
Reunification Palace is one of the most fascinating sights in HCMC. The building was once the symbol of the South Vietnamese government.
The palace was originally built in 1868 for the French governor-general of Cochinchina. When the French departed, the palace became home for South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and later President Nguyen Van Thieu.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Built between 1877 and 1883.
Saigon Central Post Office
After a long day of exploring the War Remnants Museum, Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon Central Post Office, and the Opera House- we headed for dinner at the highly recommended Hoa Tuc.
Hidden away from the busy city streets, Hoa Tuc boasts great ambiance with amazing Vietnamese food. We were very delighted with the recommendation and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.
The next day, we explored parts of the city prior to our trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Yes, we like to have fun... lol.
Our drive to the Cu Chi Tunnels from HCMC was about 30 minutes. We enjoyed traveling through parts of the countryside and enjoyed getting to see more of "true Vietnam."
The tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels in the Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations in 1968. The 75-mile long complex of tunnels at Cu Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam and turned into a war memorial park.
The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon storage, and living areas for the fighters.
We learned that the tunnels were kept so secretive and so undetectable that a US military camp was actually built on top of the tunnels. It is hard to believe that the tunnels could be so easily disguised- until you see it.
So, then the guide asked if anyone wanted to give it a shot... Of course, I volunteered. :)
The tunnels are incredibly, incredibly narrow and very short in height. Which, for the Vietnamese is not such an inconvenience considering they are smaller in build.
Actual size of the tunnels,
the tunnels for tourists have been carved out more than the originals.
Air hole to allow ventilation to the tunnels
Bomb crater from a B52
Experiencing the Cu Chi Tunnels!
My Tunnel Runner!
During the tour, Blake and I were given the opportunity to go through the tunnels. At first, I was very nonchalant about it- I don't usually get claustrophobic... so, I thought I would be fine. After all, I was the only volunteer to go underground earlier! Little did I know, I was the first to get nervous in the dark, confined space. It was crazy to think that these tunnels were even more spacious and roomy than the original tunnels- to accommodate tourists. You could crawl through the tunnels about 50 feet or 75 feet. It was up to you- I opted for the 50ft. Our Vietnamese guide, who led the way, was incredibly fast and kept having to wait for us... He must get a lot of practice!
Here We GO!
Here I am pictured in a "real tunnel,"
so the space is MUCH smaller.
Right before I took this picture,
the guide warned me to look out for spiders... Awesome.
Following our day of exploring the tunnels, we returned to HCMC to head to dinner. Tonight we had plans to try a restaurant called The Refinery. We read about it in several travel books and were hoping for the best... Luckily, it was a WINNER!
Situated near Hoa Tuc, The Refinery also has wonderful ambiance with a great deal of French influence. You truly feel like you are sitting in New Orleans in a courtyard. The atmosphere was very relaxing and allowed us to enjoy some cocktails and reflect on our day exploring the city. Truly a wonderful evening!
Beers were about $3... compared to $12 in Singapore.
The next day, Blake and I had made plans to go cycling on the backroads and countryside of Vietnam. We were both very excited about this adventure and were looking forward to experiencing true Vietnam.
We booked our excursion through Vietnam Backroads- whom we would highly recommend. Here is the link if you are interested: Vietnam Backroads
We were lucky enough to be guided by Van- the owner of the company and an enthusiastic cycler. Our adventure began just outside of HCMC city center in Long An province- and so Van, Blake, and I were off!
We began our biking journey on single track trails through rice fields, vegetable farms, and sugar cane plantations.
Ladies farming the sugar cane.
They earn around $11 a day.
I asked Van, "why are only the women working in the fields and the men drinking tea?" He laughed aloud and then translated my question to the men and women on the farm... Needless to say, the men thought my question was quite humorous. I ended the conversation by telling Van to tell them, "the men must be too weak to handle the work!" It was all in good fun and I loved being able to converse with them.
Van eating sugar cane.
While we were trying the sugar cane, the farmers invited us to come in and have tea with them- I love that! They were just being polite and opening their doors to strangers... incredible. This is another reason I love traveling and experiencing different cultures.
Weaving baskets and mats.
We stopped in this town and snacked on fresh mangoes. They were by far the sweetest and most delicious I have ever had. Van kept purchasing mangoes and cutting them up for us- finally, we had to tell him to STOP! lol.
Banana & Rice wrapped in Banana Leaf - Incredibly STICKY, but tasty!
Waiting on the Ferry
These guys were very nice and so excited to see Americans,
they wanted to take pictures with us.
We took a ferry to the Ben Tre province. It was quite an experience taking this little ferry boat down river with motorbikes... But, this is what they do and how they live!
Boarding the ferry!
This little boy works on the ferry.
I asked him if he goes to school and he doesn't because he must earn money.
I love this picture.
We stopped at this farmer's house to enjoy fresh watermelon. They were so welcoming they pulled up chairs for us and wanted to visit with us. One young man in particular was trying to practice his English. He would ask us questions about our age or our names, and when we would respond he was delighted and everyone would get excited. Unfortunately, he could not understand when we then asked him the same questions. So, everyone had a good laugh! You have to give him credit though-- he was definitely trying! After we finished the watermelon, the farmers insisted we not pay because they had so enjoyed our company... we were more than flattered but insisted on paying. I continue to be impressed and amazed by the kindness of the Vietnamese people during our visit.
For lunch, we dined on fresh rolled spring rolls with fresh fish and Vietnamese vegetables- delicious! After lunch, we headed for the Mekong River!
Walking through the Mekong village.
Lychee Fruit- so delicious!
We had the opportunity to sample coconut candy at a local candy workshop. The pictures below show the process of creating the coconut candy. We ended up bringing some home with us- YUM!
Later, we tried more homemade candies- I think we enjoyed everything we tasted!
We also tasted fresh honey at a local bee farm and had an afternoon tea.
Finally, it was time for our boat ride on the Mekong River. This was a great ending to a perfect day!
After arriving back in Saigon, we took our tired bodies to dinner... at The Refinery again! We couldn't help it- it is so good!! Here are a few pictures of HCMC at night.
People's Committee Building
The next day, we took in some more sights and did a bit of shopping for souvenirs before catching our plane back to Singapore.
People's Committee Building
Built between 1901 and 1908
Ben Thanh Market
The Ben Thanh market is a massive shopping market filled with almost anything you can imagine. Row after row of vendors on each aisle are looking to sell you their merchandise. And, they are not shy... at one point I turned around and Blake was surrounded by little Vietnamese women holding up clothes to his body- it was hilarious! We had a nice time shopping and Blake loves to practice his bargaining skills.
Finally, it was time to bid farewell to HCMC and head home to Singapore. We were both very pleased with our trip and it was actually one of our favorite trips to date. We are looking very forward to visiting Hanoi, Vietnam later this year. Mekong Delta Bike Tours
Tread Brightly Cycling Mekong Delta Vietnam
Most visitors to this area head straight to the nearby Mekong Delta, known for its floating markets, islands, and boat-based transportation. The farmlands don’t see a lot of visitors and the only way to get around is to walk, take a scooter, or cycle along the web of single track paths that connect these farming communities.
Learning the lingo is important. When you’re passing someone from behind and you don’t have something to honk, you shout “Wah-wah, wah-wah!” so they can get out the way.
Up until now, Vietnam involved many bus rides, an overnight train and two days on a junk boat, so powering forward using our legs is both a relief and a treat. Behind the handlebars there isn’t any glass, wood or metal separating you from your surroundings. We are able to tread considerably lighter in discovering it.
The farms are devoid of noisy industrial or mechanised equipment. Life is quiet and slow. Clusters of farming families have grouped themselves together in communes, announced by archways over the road decorated with colourful flags. Each commune starts with a tight group of houses, a garage doubling as a general store, and open fields thereafter. Ornate Buddhist tombstones contrast the predominantly flat, green landscape.
The different communes farm different types of produce. We cycle through the fruit commune with its abundance of sweet watermelon before heading past rice paddies so bright we take off our sunglasses to make sure it really is this green. We wave at shy children and friendly women, standing behind hip-height gates.
We could smell the herb commune before we saw it. By now the sun is blazing, but interspersed with blots of shade and mediated by the steady, warm air on us as we cycle. The sky is thick with humidity and infused with the fragrant, spicy smell of coriander and chives. So simple, yet such an all encompassing delight found in a single foreign moment.
It seems idyllic, but these farmers don’t have it easy. Vice news reports that, although the Mekong River Basin supports Vietnam’s massive rice export business, prolonged dry seasons and sea-level rise brought about by climate change, is pushing saltwater from the South China Sea deeper inland, compromising farmers’ irrigation channels. Some farmers have already given up. I only saw the rose coloured version of the countryside, but I’m happy I was able to experience at least that.
When I think back to the Vietnam trip, I don’t think first of the sandstone islands of Halong Bay or the Japanese merchant houses of Hoi An. I think of us and Van on our bicycles, taking a peek at a rural farming community going about its day-to-day life. Cities around the world are starting to move back to a culture of conscious eating and traceability. We care about the origin of our food. Vietnam is so famed for its local food and all I had to do was hop on a bicycle to see the source of those endless buckets of rice, ginger, bok choy and water spinach.
I booked this day trip through Vietnam Backroads. This story only tells of the first half of the day. The second was spent exploring the Mekong Delta. 27 July, 2016
Bicycling the Mekong-off the beaten path
We finished our tour with a 4 hour boat trip up the Mekong from Chau Doc to Phnom Penh. Sitting in the back of the boat with the breeze in my face, gazing out at life along the muddy river gave me time to reflect on what a diverse and beautiful world this is. Next stop, Phnom Penh. I could go on, but you get the idea and the pictures speak for themselves. Honestly, if you have ever thought about doing a trip like this do it now. It is accessible to anyone remotely fit. Van has a support van that hovers nearby along the route so tired bicyclists can choose to be driven to the next rendezvous (Maddie took advantage of this option a few times). We rode as a family about 50 Km a day but you could do more or less, depending on your interest and stamina - Andy got in some extra miles with Van (next years iron man training never far from his mind).
Saturday, December 18, 2010 Bicycling the Mekong-off the beaten path - Hamilton family
Biking from Saigon to Hanoi with Vietnam backroads 2012
The beauty of traveling with Van, our guide, is that we can ask him any question whatsoever. When we stop for lunch, he goes into a small rural restaurant and immediately orders for us and we have the most exquisite, amazing food I could ever imagine. There is four times the amount we can eat. We had, for instance, morning glory soup. Morning glories invade my garden at home and I constantly try to evict them. Now I know how awesome the soup is. How to do a tour with Vietnam Backroads.
If you would like to travel with Van, he can take you for one or two or 15 days in Vietnam. Laos or Cambodia. He will kill you on the cycling if you request it, or he will do a low-paced trip where he allows you to stop anywhere for photos or food or whatever you want, even home-stays. Don and I may be medium hardcore in his cycling realm, but he says he has all kinds of people, including some clients who do not wish to put in more than 20 or 30 k a day and like to mingle in the markets and villages. For sure Van stops us and pulls us into Buddhist weddings, households where rice paper is made, where rice is hulled, where round woven boats are made, into a Buddhist funeral where we meet the family and pay respects, into a cashew hulling factory where 200 Vietnamese girls are working, or quickly into a roadside room where people are hulling rice. He translates everything and interrupts to make sure we are comprehending whatever it is we are seeing along the road. At one point we cause a traffic jam of 75 people where we stop to refresh ourselves on oranges and observe a local fish market perched at the intersection of two obscure roadways. Everyone is gawking at us. Don and I realize that we have not seen a Westerner for three days. I cannot recommend this experience.
Kris en Martine Meandering the Mekong Delta with Van the Man
Naast al het eten en drinken, hebben we ook nog de tijd gevonden om fietsen te huren aan 1$ per dag. We zijn er recht mee naar het strand gefietst, 7km van het centrum, waar we zalig een dagje onder een rieten parasol hebben gelegen op een prachtig wit strand met palmbomen. Om nog meer jaloers te worden, kijk vooral naar de foto's. :-)
Nu zijn we een vierdaagse fietstocht aan't doen in de Mekong Delta met Vietnam Cycling Tours. Maar dat komt, uiteraard, in een volgende blog.
Vietnam Backroads Lonely Planet
we did some wonderful bike trips with this travel agency and we loved it. Recommended operator that runs small-group, multi-day cycling tours of the delta backroads. http://mekongbiketours.com
Mekong Bike Tours in Vietnam
The 06:00 flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City was cheaper than the day-long train. Although train journeys in Vietnam are a wonderful way to see more of the countryside, we decided to pass up this particular one. We had to catch a bus to Cambodia the next day and I refused to compromise one particular outing in the south of Vietnam.
It wasn’t the Cu Chi Tunnels, the war history or the city life of the capital. It was a sentence I found, somewhere deep into a string of blog posts and travel articles about the region. It read: Cycle the backroads of the Mekong Delta.
The day started with a quick stop at a tiny baguette shop in Ho Chi Minh City for a cheap, on-the-go breakfast (apparently the French didn’t take their recipes with them when they departed). The van headed to Tan An town on the city’s outskirts. We parked along a nondescript dirt road. Three boys were happily playing marbles in the sand.
We mounted our bikes and peddled after Van, our guide, who grew up in these parts. The road ended and a narrow, cement pathway lead in between single storey houses flanked by farmland
This is the Mekong River Basin, an extensive region that crosses into both Cambodia and Thailand. According to the Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development, the agriculture here provides food security and livelihoods for approximately 60% of the Mekong River Basin’s population. Although there is a definite trend toward commercial agriculture, especially here in Vietnam, currently subsistence and small scale farms dominate. The people here are poor and live simple lives, close to the earth.
Biking Mekong Delta Vietnam - Cycling Saigon to PhnomPenh
We spent a few more days in Ho Chi Minh City than we had originally planned to observe the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as local still refer to it, is a bustling Asian city of over 7 million people. About 200 of them are Jewish. We didn’t meet all 200, but we did meet about 40 expats and travelers at Chabad of Ho Chi Minh. It was a much needed break from travel that we used to reflect and eat delicious Israeli food. On top of typical Yom Kippur activities, (fast, sleep, pray, eat) we spent most of our time in Ho Chi Minh walking around and experimenting with street food, with a museum visit thrown in here and there. Actually, our first attempt to visit a museum was unsuccessful. Our travel book, the Rough Guide to South East Asia on a Budget, said to keep an eye out around the museums for taxi drivers trying to tell you the museum is closed, then offering to take you somewhere else for an inflated rate. As we walked toward the War Remnants Museum a taxi driver yelled to us from across the street, ‘museum closed! museum closed!’ Armed with the awareness this might happen, we disregarded his warnings and confidently walked the remaining block to the museum. Turns out he was telling the truth! The gate was shut and no one was there. We could see retired US military aircrafts through the fence, but that was all of the museum exhibits we’d see that day. The War Remnants Museum didn’t have any power and thus was closed that day. We came back the next day to a powered building full of local school kids and tourists from all over the world. The museum is in Vietnam, so naturally, its perspective on the conflict is vastly different than one we are more familiar
with. Being there was an exercise in parsing apart truth and fiction. There were exhibits of US tanks, bombs, helicopters, airplanes, and guns that had been left behind. There were also exhibits of the works of war photographers who died covering the war, and the more gruesome effects of chemical warfare. It was heavy. The museum is there to promote peace and clearly illustrate that no matter who wins, war is horrible for all involved. South of Ho Chi Minh is the Mekong River Delta, a huge stretch of fertile land and water where the mighty Mekong flows out into the sea. We wanted to do a multi-day bike trip at some point in SE Asia, and the Mekong Delta seemed like the perfect place. We were looking to leave from Ho Chi Minh and ride across the river delta to the Cambodian border. After a little searching, we found a stock four-day tour with Vietnam Backroads that could be customized to suit our needs. Even though we signed up for a group tour, it ended up being just the two of us and Van, our guide and the owner of the company.
We rode through too many small villages to count, trending westward across the Mekong Delta. Most of the Delta is farm land. Boats are a way of life there. We crossed at least four huge rivers, each about a mile wide, and countless smaller
ones via ferry. Many of the farmers who live in the Delta (especially on the western side) are Khmer. They look a little more Indian than the typical Vietnamese person, and they’re incredibly friendly. We rode through village after village to the steady soundtrack of 'Hello!’ coming from the smiling mouths of most everyone who could see us coming. At first we found this amusing, then we began to love them for it. Their intention was surely different, but these people became our equivalent of the cheering volunteers stationed at strategic points along the route of a running race. They got us through the hard parts. And it made their day to receive a return 'Hello.’ Every now and then we’d get a 'Where you fro?’ or 'Wats yo name?’ Have you ever witnessed half a playground’s worth of children all saying hello to you simultaneously? We’ll never forget it. We joked that the local news would run a story with the title “Westerners ride through town, town says 'Hello!’ ’' Bicycles are still the primary mode of transportation in the Delta. A number of locals welcomed us onto their land to see the farming and trades of the Mekong Delta. We saw people doing a whole lot with rice and fish and frog farms. We ate fresh fruit every step of the way. The cycle of the rice crop is such that there are times when there is little to do but wait for the plant to mature. Many of the farmers are men, and when there’s nothing else to do they hang around, play a lot of what looks like volleyball, and gather to watch cock fights. (Cock fighting is illegal in Vietnam but not monitored in the countryside, as there is virtually no police presence there) We rode past both. Well, almost. The cockfight we rode up to had just ended. The winner had already been escorted away by the time we had arrived, leaving the loser in the middle of a circle of invigorated farmers.
There was high water expected to come down the river and flood some of the few dry areas in the Delta. While none of it was as severe as the flooding in other parts of SE Asia, we did witness some flooding in fields and people’s homes. Van told us that when it floods, the adults worry about their crops and belongings and the kids play. Some things are universal. Rain clouds approached the morning of our final day of riding. We were exiting a ferry as a light rain started. Within five minutes it was pouring. We took shelter in a carport owned by an older farmer. The man of the house greeted us and invited us into his home. His wife brought out a plate of freshly picked fruit from their farm. With Van as our translator, the farmer told us about his family and his work. He had six children, five of whom were adults. One of the five, his 27 year old daughter, was still single. (Cause for concern for a countryside parent) Hoping to hear more about the farmer’s feelings about his single daughter, Jordan mentioned that his brother was also single and 27. The farmer’s eyes lit up. He quickly suggested that his daughter and Jordan’s brother Doug should communicate by e-mail, 'just as friends’ of course. A few minutes later the following note was written by Van for the farmer’s daughter: Jordan Fischer spoke with insert farmers name on 13-10-11 and gave his e-mail so that insert farmers daughters name could contact him for his brothers information. As of now, we have not heard from her. We stayed at his place for about an hour before the rain subsided. We took it as a sign to leave before things got any more serious! The afternoon of the fourth day we arrived in the outskirts of Chau Doc, our destination. In total, we rode 140 miles on a mix of single lane paved roads, winding narrow sidewalk-like paths, dirt roads, and single track. From Chau Doc it was a short boat ride up the Mekong to the Vietnam-Cambodia border. We docked and stamped
out of Vietnam, then a few minutes further up the river docked again at the flooded Cambodian Immigration Control office to get our Cambodian Visas. The boat continued up the Mekong to Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, with one change. They took down the Vietnamese flag and replaced it with the flag of the Kingdom of Cambodia
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Pedaling the Mekong Delta with Van the Man - Written By Freddie Quick, 2009
The reports I had heard from friends about their adventures in the Mekong Delta were largely negative. They had all been dragged on similar whistlestop tours that included little fresh air, uninspiring boat rides and a tedious visit to a candy factory. So, when the chance to see The Delta in a more original and revealing fashion
arose, I was raring to go. The idea was to do the trip on a pushbike with cycling enthusiasts John and Van, the co-founders of Vietnam Countryside Explorer and now is Vietnam Backroads Bicycle Tours. They were to take me on a journey seen by few others. Forget the dodgy dust-bowl highways, tourists horded onto the next spot like ants or the visits to tired-looking rice processing mills. This, I was told, would be the real deal. “We offer an alternative trip to the Mekong,” explained John on the morning of departure. “The area is so perfect for riding that we feel there is a need to offer cyclists a unique route through The Delta.” “Most tours follow the same paths,” added Van. “With my knowledge of the region we can help travellers avoid the crowds and really appreciate the scenery.”
The Great Escape
Meeting on the steps of the Opera House for a 7am start, we take off for The Delta in a minivan. Sitting with Van and John, through a medley of jokes and grins it’s obvious how excited they are about the ride. Escaping Saigon fills me with relief, a feeling amplified by the sight of locals relieving themselves into the murky river that snakes along beside us. We stop off for a bowl of pho bo and I begin to get to know the duo better. John is an Australian, living and running a business in Ho Chi Minh City. His love of cycling and faith in the skills of close friend Van has led him to invest in this blossoming project. Van will be our human GPS/bike anorak for our dive into the Delta. With five years of tour experience and a collection of secret hand-drawn maps among his artillery, I feel assured that the trip will indeed be an eye opening alternative look at the area. An hour or so later down the road the rumbling gravel below shakes me from a daydream and I know it’s time to saddle up. Van sets to work oiling gears and checking brakes, while I slip into my complimentary Lycra top. As I don’t want to ruin morale by exhibiting the male equivalent of a camel toe, I foolishly reject some skimpy cycling
shorts. My knees creak in disapproval as we set off down the highway, but they stop whinging as we dip down onto a riverside path. Our path is ideal for cycling, a concrete vein weaving its way through the vibrant green scenery. Soggy paddy fields flank us on both sides while brightly coloured butterflies flap in and out of vision. Van, or ‘Van-the-Man’ as he is affectionately known, highlights the fruit that is flourishing all around us.
“There is lots of food growing here,” he explains. “The land is so fertile you get everything from mangoes to mushrooms.”
The Ultimate Ride
It becomes evident during this opening section that a bicycle is the ultimate vessel for a trip into the Mekong. Despite my garish garb I don’t feel in any way intrusive upon the calm rural scene around me. You’re still hurtling along, but without the harsh spluttering of an engine to interrupt the peace. Later we pedal our way to an ex-army base in the forest of Xeo Quyt, where we are led across a rickety bridge and then wobble into some small wooden rafts. The whole group is struck silent as we paddle down the thin passage that worms through the thick forest. A Mekong equivalent of the Cu Chi tunnels serves as a captivating respite from the ride. My slightly numb buttocks urge me to don the padded spandex previously spurned, so I nip off behind a hedge and re-emerge looking like (or thinking I do) the real deal. Soon we are soaring into Sa Dec, a charming little town littered with crumbling buildings. I pause on a bridge to soak up the seemingly time-locked scene and realise I haven’t seen another tourist all day. We stop for lunch in an old colonial villa that was the childhood home of French novelist Marguerite Duras, a writer who put Sa Dec on the big screen when her famed novel The Lover was made into a movie. With bellies full of noodles and spring rolls we charge on to the ferry port, warmly anticipating an overnight stop in the Delta’s biggest city Can Tho. We have a brief traipse around the town and then decide to hit the hay early in preparation for a sunrise trip downstream to Cai Rang floating market.
After what seems like a minute’s sleep my shrill alarm clock is forcing me back into the land of the living. I greet the others in the reception with a sleepy grunt and shuffle behind them down to the jetty. Van whistles and swiftly procures us a boat.
All along the waterside I can see locals going about their morning routine. A vested old man crouches and washes his hair, while next door two children are spitting toothpaste into the surf below. Brightly coloured plants and clothes hang from the rafters of every stilted house, all of them rickety to the verge of collapse. Ahead is the cluster of boats that make up the floating market. Cameras poised, we weave through the assortment of buoyant stalls, Van-the-Man hauls aboard some ca phe sua das while busily pointing out the different groceries on sale around us. “They advertise what they are selling, by strapping a sample to high bamboo sticks,” he explains. Many of the boats have colourful eyes painted on their bow, this crowned with flowers and wafting incense lends the scene an ancient, magical quality. The sun has shifted from a deep orange to golden as we make our way back towards a horizon silhouetted with black spiky palms.
Roads Less Pedaled
Back at the hotel we refuel and I wiggle my derrière back into black spandex. Soon we are on one of Van’s lush hidden tracks. The riverside is such a hive of rural activity I nearly crash several times due to the distraction. One moment is spent considering the woman drying water hyacinth to make furniture, the next fearing for the old gent fishing by electrical charge. The looks of surprise from the locals confirm my suspicions that we really are on roads less pedaled. We see a schoolyard ahead packed with kids relishing their free time and decide to roll in. At the sight of these luminous berks circling their playground they squeal excitedly. I do my usual silly clown routine in front of the children, blowing raspberries and dancing; during which I notice their school library is a tree. Books rolled up and crammed into half cut plastic bottles dangle from every branch.
We cycle on through the green maze that shoots off in every direction. John is up front and has turned up the pace, not wanting to lose face I pursue him with moronic vigour and predictably crash. I fly over the handle bars face first into a wicker basket housing a fighting cock. Luckily me and the cock are practically unscathed. I only have a cut knee and a dented ego to nurse back to normality.
Back to Reality
Our cycling sojourn through The Delta is rolling to a close and I know I’ll be sad to leave. The cycling bug has definitely chomped down on me and the stunning surroundings increase my resistance to boarding the bus. Van and I cap the trip with a slow cruise through seemingly endless paddies as he regales me with tales about the region and his infectious passion for biking through the countryside. Back in Saigon I realise how wrong I was to dismiss a tour to The Delta; it is simply about choosing the right one. The last couple of days my eyes have flickered restlessly over the whirlwind of sights The Mekong has to offer, all the while getting some good exercise and satisfying the universal tourist obsession with avoiding its own ilk. WordHCMC is the current leader in Saigon’s expat magazine. You’ll find interesting articles, promotions, events, listings covering from Arts to wellness and more. It’s been increasingly difficult to get a hold of their FREE copy due
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Mekong Delta Countryside - A Short Jaunt in Vietnam in March/April, 2014 Tamar Granovsky
One day in Hanoi (and an unexpected overnight stay in Kowloon):
Unfortunately, because of a missed flight and some other factors beyond my control, my hoped-for week in Hanoi turned into a one-day trip. My flight from Xiamen, China to Hanoi, via Hong Kong (HKG) was 5.5 hours behind schedule, due to poor weather conditions in HKG, and five of those hours were spent sitting in the airplane before it finally took off. I therefore missed my connecting flight and any opportunity to get to Hanoi that night. When we finally did arrive at the HKG airport my luggage was lost/misplaced – and found only 3 hours later. Dragon Air arranged an overnight stay for me in a five star hotel. I discovered, the following morning, that my room had one of the “stunning” views advertised on the website. I had the luxury of enjoying an all-you-can-eat breakfast (congee, dim sum, fresh fruit, and pain au chocolat) and then spent the rest of my time in my room, catching up with family and friends online before leaving at 11am for the airport and, finally, Hanoi. My long, tiring day of not getting where I was going did have a bit of a pay-off in the end!! Hanoi is as I remember it from 2009 except that there are billboards all along the road from the airport to the city centre, and in the distance you can now see a few high-rises. It seems as if the city has grown exponentially over these few years; even a new airport is being built. I was glad to see though, that the motor bike still rules the road, although there are now, more cars as well. I guess this is to be expected, in a “developing” country. It also seems that there are more karaoke bars than there used to be. I learned that in Vietnam, karaoke is a favourite, family,
after-dinner pastime. The old quarter is the compact centre of the city and is where I stayed. It is still the same crowded, disorderly place but now seems to have a more self-assured air about it. The wafting smell of meat cooking hasn’t changed, the streets abound with people and motorbikes, and it retains the vibrancy I remember. I love it! The old part of the city is still full of winding, narrow alleys, and the boulevards are tree-lined. The lake in the middle of town is still a place for locals to hang out and French colonial architecture makes its presence felt; both new and old buildings envelope you. All of these elements, combined with the proud and resilient spirit of the Vietnamese people, produce a lively city. After spending seven months in China, I had almost forgotten how amazingly friendly, open, spirited, and determined the people of Southeast Asia are. I was reminded of this both in Hanoi and in the Mekong Delta, on this trip. Hanoi is a fantastically frenetic city where people work hard but know how to relax. I quickly discovered that I had not lost the knack for crossing the busy streets – even Dinh Tien Hoang Boulevard. I was in Hanoi for a little over 39 hours, so this time I was just wandering through, but I sat on small plastic chairs, ate street food, and felt comfortable and at home. The first night, I wandered into a resto stall – Bun Bi Nam Bo (for bun bo) – and, as I was eating, I suddenly realised that it had been my daily go-to breakfast place when I was here with my friend LP, in
Talk about weird. I had no idea when I first entered but it looked strangely familiar. I later checked my photos from that trip and my hunch was proven right. Eating Pho in Hanoi was a must, as was drinking ca phe sua da, and a mango shake (made of pure mango juice and nothing else). This is a city with a passion for food; the sound of people cooking and getting ready for a day of selling food starts early in the morning – before 6 a.m. – and ends late at night. Anywhere you stroll you will pass vendors on the side of road, in storefronts, or on their bicycles, offering fruit and vegetables, soups, baguettes, and more. Hanoi is also a cafe culture, whether you sit in a coffee shop or enjoy a cup with others, sitting on low, plastic seats on the sidewalk. I will never be able to do Vietnamese/Hanoi food justice so I urge you to look at the websites below to get a sense of what and where to eat. Of course if you want to, you may also eat at one of the many KFC’s, or MacDonald’s. You may also buy shoes at well-known Western stores such as Aldo and Bata. There is probably more of America here now than when I last visited and that, to me, is a shame. Nonetheless, Hanoi, once again, left only a good taste in my mouth and I cannot wait to return. Hanoi Elegance. This little (but growing) chain of boutique hotels in Hanoi is very comfortable. The staff is marvellous, and I have no complaints. My stay was at the cheapest of the properties and was a real treat for me. A friend from Montreal told me it was a great stay and I’m glad he did!! I highly recommend it.
Places to Eat:
Pho Gia Truyen (49P Bat Dan)
Bun Bo Nam Bo (67P Hang Dieu)
Eating Asia Website: Hanoi
Less than 24 Hours in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC):
After another delayed flight, this time with 1.5 hours waiting on the plane at the gate, I finally arrived in HCMC (commonly known as Saigon by locals) at 4:30 p.m., in time to meet my friend Nuc, a fellow CouchSurfer, for supper. My hotel received good reviews on Trip Advisor but I stayed in a windowless room (not for the first time in Vietnam) and, though it was comparatively clean, it was also more expensive than other places. Nuc and I went for supper at Quan Dat – a restaurant that specializes in south central Vietnamese food. We ate Banh Can (rice cakes with eggs, pork, shrimp and squid, that you wrap in fresh greens, then add cucumbers and green papaya, and dip in a variety of sauces (fermented fish; peanut; or fish and chili).
Duc Vuong Hotel – District 1
Places to Eat:
Quan Dat – (106 Truong Dinh, P.9, Q3, District 10)
Vietnam Backroads Bicycle Tours
Why did the chicken cross the road? The real answer is – to get out of the way of motorbikes and bicycles. Apparently chickens do not care which side of the street they are on. They like to hang out wherever they feel like it – even on the narrow concrete or dirt pathways all along the Mekong Delta. This is what I discovered after a few days of cycling these back routes with Vietnam Backroads. This small company runs various cycling trips across the delta. Our group consisted of me, two brothers, originally from the UK, (who hadn’t seen each other for five years), and our tour leader. We cycled mostly back roads, passing coconut groves, fruit trees of all sorts (pomelo, banana, mango, guava, sapota, and more), palm trees, and rice
paddies. We rode up and then down, over many short, steep bridges that cross the myriad of waterways in this area, and rode on some small ferries as well, to travel across the water. The three of us had the opportunity to speak with a monk at a Buddhist Theravada temple, and went to the Cai Rang floating market outside of Ca Tho. We visited the Bang Lang stork sanctuary, where we saw what must have been thousands of both black and white storks, as well as the spectacular Tra Su Melaleuca Forest Nature Reserve. Each day, as we cycled, we were greeted, seemingly out of nowhere, with a chorus of loud, happy “hellos” from hundreds of people we passed. Our guide, Dat, was stupendous; he is originally from a farm in the Mekong Delta, but because he is the youngest in his family, he got to go to school rather than work on the farm. He had studied tourism and because of his education and connection to this area, he was able to provide us with an abundance of interesting and detailed information.
All along the way, we saw men drinking coffee or tea together under the corrugated rooves of little shops. I asked Dat about this and he said that men in Vietnam tend to drink together, to talk about business and exchange farming tips. After I prodded and joked with him a bit, he admitted that business probably accounts for only about 60% of the conversations. On one of the days, we passed by a home that was preparing for a funeral. We were invited to sit down for tea and pay our respects by burning incense at the alter. Typically, people are not invited to visit a house of mourning; they just drop by. In Vietnam, when someone dies, the surviving family stays at home for five or six days. The body is washed and dressed, a chopstick is laid between the teeth, and rice and three coins are placed in the mouth to show that the person did not die of hunger or want. The whole body is covered with white cloth. The Khmer, who predominantly occupy the Mekong Delta, practice the tradition of cremation, whereas the Vietnamese bury family members who have died. This trip did not afford me the time to take many photographs since I was too busy biking but I will end here by saying that the scenery was absolutely spectacular and I would both recommend and repeat this trip in a heartbeat.
See Mekong Delta Vietnam by bike. Rebecca O’Rourke
Vietnam has previously been a country known for its war torn past, defined by violence and sadness. The Vietnamese people have been gradually building a new Vietnam, where peace and wellbeing resides and welcomes the world as an exotic travel location. The tourism developments have brought with it an enthusiasm for health, wellbeing and spirituality.
Vietnamese food is regarded as one of the healthiest and ‘pho’, a delicious noodle broth with fresh herbs and optional meat or seafood, is representative of the cuisine. The locals often eat it for breakfast but it is available at any time of the day. The wonderful blend of aromatic, fresh flavours is finished with a squeeze of lime and is always a healthy option as it is low in fat and full of vitamins and minerals. A wonderful place to enjoy healthy food is Hoi An: a former major South-East Asian trading port that is now a UNESCO world heritage site and a unique place to see a meticulously conserved historic town. Hoi An has a great reputation for organic farming and dishes served there often include an extensive variety of veg and herbs from local villages, such as nearby Tra Que. In Hoi An you will find distinct local specialties and one example of a tasty and nutritious dish is ‘Cao Lau’, consisting of thick brown noodles and roasted pork, garnished with mint, basil, lettuce leaves and cilantro. The slow cooking methods for the broth and meat, alongside the fresh herbs and vegetables mean this dish is a very healthy choice. For vegetarians tofu is widely available as a tasty alternative.
There are opportunities to practice yoga across Vietnam at many inspiring locations, from inner city sanctuaries to sunset classes over looking the waves. In Hanoi I spent some time at Zenith Yoga where they offer a wide variety of yoga classes, Pilates and also meditation classes. The professionally led classes leave you feeling calm, positive and also deliver some peace in lively Hanoi! They have two handy locations, with one accommodating their
vegetarian café that serves delicious vegan and raw options. When in Ho Chi Minh City a visit to Tao Dan Park is very worthwhile. Enthusiastic locals partake in yoga, t’ai chi and jogging each morning, which you can observe from the tropical tree lined paths. I would recommend taking an early morning run where the locals will welcome you warmly, even running with you. It is inspiring to see such a healthy culture thriving in this city and a positive way to start a day in the city.
Cycling trip in the Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta, in the south of Vietnam, is an incredible network of rivers, brooks and canals alongside lush green farmland and fruit orchards. For a flexible and active way to see the stunning landscape off the beaten track it is best to get on a bike! The winding, single-track trails running between the farmland provide a truly unique experience and are much better than sitting on a tour bus. Also, since there are no hills in the delta, it makes this option suitable for all levels of experience. We decided to tour with Vietnam Backroads for a three day trip and they provided a fantastic guide, high quality bikes and were exceptionally helpful in organizing the best route for us.
Water sports are becoming more available in Vietnam and Cat Ba Island is a great opportunity to combine activities such as rock climbing and kayaking, with exploring the beautiful Halong Bay. The serine blue waters and hidden sandy coves are an ideal setting for such activities. In the south, it is also worth taking a trip to the beautiful island of Phu Quoc to enjoy the white sand beaches, lined with palm trees and idyllic blue sea. There are a few excellent dive schools here, which can take you scuba diving or snorkelling for the day. A trip off the coast of the island really is something special and as you travel back on the top deck of the boat at the end of the day, with the sun setting over the ocean, you wonder why you would ever want to leave…
Mekong Delta Bike Tour to Phu Quoc Island : The Echoes of Hello - FEBRUARY 13, 2012
Dear Lunch Table, How to get to Phu Quoc Island !
In an elegant looking hotel lobby you’ll find 7 people drinking coffee, 2 people talking on phones, 5 people working on computers, 3 people discussing politics in Vietnamese, and 11 people holding newspapers (eyes peeking through the holes cut out from the black and white print). And who might be the quirky, hilarious, witty bunch of 11 who, after traveling halfway across the world, found themselves laughing behind news articles? Ah, well, those are my mom’s friends who flew out to Vietnam to surprise my mom for her 50th birthday.
For some reason, in order to properly execute the surprise portion of the party, the group took on the idea of becoming agents. So, I would tell you how we planned the whole party, but then I might have to kill you . . . Of course, we, the agents, after surprising my mom in the hotel lobby weren’t over with our work, since we had to carry out a few more missions.
Mission Mekong Delta:
Just picture 15 weird, funny U.S. Americans riding bikes down the bumpy dirt roads of Vietnam. They’re laughing at one another. Trash talking, Celebrating the Giants’ Super Bowl win. That kind of thing. And then there is a “Hello.” A soft, smiling whisper of “Hello.” And the 15 friends turn their heads toward the little whisper. A tiny Vietnamese girl stares at them, smiling and jumping up and down at the sight of foreigners. Footsteps surround the travelers. Dirt is kicked up into the air as louder hellos spring into the sky. A crowd of school children now smile into the visitors’ eyes. There isn’t a dramatic pause or an epiphany about forgiveness. It’s more like a swarm of children smiling and yelling “hello” at the 15 vivacious, zestful travelers tumbling over bridges on their bikes, shouting “hello” back into the crowds. The kids are running through the rice paddies, holding little Elmo backpacks, smiles plastered on their faces. Sometimes the travelers pause, try out their faltering Vietnamese, give a kid a high five . . . Perhaps, it’s innocence that allows the kids to accept these 15 friends from the United States. Maybe, the children never forgave the Vietnam War, because they never hated it. There is a farmer working in a rice paddy. A pointed hat protects her face from the sun, a large knife-like tool in one hand. She offers the travelers a chance to cut a rice stalk, an opportunity the group gulps up eagerly. I take my camera out, sling it over my neck, and wander over to her. I ask her what she thinks of the U.S., what she thinks of the Vietnam War. I press the red record button. She lost her brother in the war. She lost him to the bloody air and to the stained red dirt. But she smiles at me. She tells me I’m lucky to have the chance to travel. She doesn’t hate me. She doesn’t hate the United States. This forgiveness is not innocence. It can’t be. She knew the war. She lost her brother. There are two little kids waving at the travelers. I run up and give them a high five. They giggle and race into their house. Their doorway lacks a door, and I can see them tugging on the clothes of their sister and parents. The family returns to where I’m chugging down cold water. They smile at me. I smile back. They hand me a piece of fruit. I thank them. They hand me another piece and then give me a bag full of peppers. I ask for their picture and they jump up and down. They fix one another’s hair. They stand up tall. We hook arms and smile for the camera. See, forgiveness doesn’t have to be dramatic. It just has to have a chance.
Mission Phu Quoc Island:
The last leg of the birthday week in Vietnam was Phu Qouc Island. Here, we swam, played, and partied in a wonderful resort. While many of the agents toasted with Tiger Beer, us underage spies celebrated with fruit juice and Coca Cola. I had a blast the entire time but visiting the jail in Phu Quoc really bothered me. Now a museum, the jail was where the U.S. troops directed the torture of North Vietnamese who were caught fighting for their independence. While I was walking through the prison all I could think about were the tiny squeals of hello echoed through the Mekong Delta. How can the Vietnamese forgive us, the United States? I’ve always been proud to be a citizen of the United States. I know we’ve done some terrifying acts, but we’ve been a part of some amazing deeds as well. After visiting the jail, my idea of my country is complicated. The acts the United States committed – the violence, the evilness, the torture – was so outrageous, horrific, barbaric that I can’t
imagine the torturers as mentally stable human beings. What are we doing right now in Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp? I still love my country, but I’m not proud of everything we’ve done. Having to admit to a past involved with torture is sad and ridiculous. And having to admit to a present involved with torture is just as ugly. I guess what I’m saying is: “Who do we want to be?” Alright. Great. We want to be a country who doesn’t torture others. Okay, let’s do something about it. Up next is a post on the top 10 things I learned from traveling with my parents’ friends. Oooh! This should be good. I miss you guys,
Interesting Fact: Around 5.4 million people were killed during the Vietnam War.
Things I Liked:
1) Jail Museum: As a proud citizen of the United States, I was in shock upon leaving this museum. The faux figures used to demonstrate the different torture techniques had an eerie feeling and definitely contributed to the harsh and sorrowful vibe of the museum. Walking through the jail was painful, but the perspective it provides is worth it.
2) Biking: This bike tour was a great experience. The guides were knowledgeable, funny, and engaging. This adventure allowed me to understand Vietnamese life in the countryside. If you do choose to bike through this country, I recommend Vietnam Backroads Bicycle Tours. Here’s the contact information:
Guide: Van the Man
3) La Veranda Resort: This is a perfect resort for swimming in the pool, munching on cheeseburgers, and reading a novel on the beach. The staff is very friendly and engaging. The band is absolutely brilliant and is great at adapting the music to the variety of audiences they gather each night. Just make sure you dance! Oh, and beware of little invisible critters that nip at you in the ocean. They don’t leave marks, and as soon as you get out of the water you’re fine, but while floating in the ocean you get a prickly sensation.
Things I Didn’t Care For:
1) Pearl Farm: I was under the impression that this Pearl Farm was going to offer us the opportunity to learn how to harvest pearls. So, I was a little disappointed when I arrived, and the farm was only a store. I’m not a pearl person, so I am unable to explain what pearls they offered. I do know, however, that they looked pretty . . . The pearls were a lot cheaper than those sold in the United States. A few friends bought some strands, and they put them in their mouths to see if the pearls were genuine. According to them (and the vendors) the pearls are real . . .
Mekong Delta Blues - June 1, 2014 by Warren & Sarah.
Last weekend I ditched the family and ventured down to the Mekong River Delta for a bike tour with a bunch of fellow teachers. We skipped town straight from school and enjoyed the sites (and bumps) of the Vietnamese road system.
The short boat ride at dusk made the long afternoon on the bus worth it.
After a night cooking our own bánh xèo and sleeping in a colonial palace, complete with an ancient graveyard out back, we found ourselves on the waterways, floating toward our two-wheeled transport.
The tour mostly meandered along narrow “roads” (Americans would call them sidewalks) which carried the occasional motorbike or pedestrian and skirted the canals and tributaries of the area. It was mellow and, needless to say, gorgeous. I wanted to pull over every two minutes to take a picture but tried to conserve my stops.
So we’re riding on one of these mini roads and we suddenly find ourselves inside a rice-hulling factory. Wackadoo!
One of the many ferries we called home for a few moments.
The locals were universally friendly and every single one of the 546,489 kids we passed yelled “Hello!” as we whizzed past. We quickly learned that answering in our poor Vietnamese didn’t go over nearly as well as replying in kind.
Lunch was at a Vietnamese version of a truck stop.
Ok, maybe not a truck stop.
A quick wander around the grounds revealed some treasures.
This fisherman taught us a physics lesson involving a simple lever.
Then, over a period of about three seconds, the tone of the trip abruptly changed, as did my velocity. I made the brilliant decision to brake hard in order to take my 373rd picture, and while my bike stopped quite nicely, my body kept going.
I did not stick the landing.
I am currently typing this with one functional hand, though I did pop right up to take the picture – which as you can see below, was not at all worth it.
The company which was running the tour was particularly awesome, both before and after my accident. They had a guide at the rear and a truck following everyone in case the silly gringos needed help. I was whisked away to a local cafe while three support staff, powered by Red Bull, poured various potions on my wounds to ward off noxious infections. I was talked into skipping the rest of the bicycling for that day.
Saturday ended with a beautiful dinner on the river and a fabulous night of sleep in a hotel too shmancy for me to ever have picked it out myself. The view from its breakfast terrace was impressive.
We had to hit the river early to check out the floating market.
Okay, this one wasn’t floating.
I joined the group for a bit more cycling that morning. My left hand had started to balloon, but who needs TWO hands, anyway?
Upon returning to Saigon that afternoon I popped over to our local medical establishment for a quick x-ray. I could wiggle my fingers so it couldn’t possibly be broken.
Blast that darn fifth metacarpal! (For those of you worried about my wrist, that’s actually what it’s supposed to look like. Look just to the right of the L, which stands for “take a good Look at that ring before the doctor saws it off so your finger doesn’t explode from the swelling.)
And I’ve now finally joined the broken bone club. It’s got some nice members, but initiation was a bit of a bummer.
Exploring rural farms from behind the handlebars in Vietnam Adel Strydom Jul 28, 2016
The 06:00 flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City was cheaper than the day-long train. Although train journeys in Vietnam are a wonderful way to see more of the countryside, we decided to pass up this particular one. We had to catch a bus to Cambodia the next day and I refused to compromise one particular outing in the south of Vietnam. It wasn’t the Cu Chi Tunnels, the war history or the city life of the capital. It was a sentence I found, somewhere deep into a string of blog posts and travel articles about the region. It read: Cycle the back roads of the Mekong Delta.
The day started with a quick stop at a tiny baguette shop in Ho Chi Minh City for a cheap, on-the-go breakfast (apparently the French didn’t take their recipes with them when they departed). The van headed to Tan An town on the city’s outskirts. We parked along a nondescript dirt road. Three boys were happily playing marbles in the sand. We mounted our bikes and peddled after Van, our guide, who grew up in these parts. The road ended and a narrow, cement pathway lead in between single storey houses flanked by farmland. This is the Mekong River Basin, an extensive region that crosses into both Cambodia and Thailand. According to the Mekong River Commission for Sustainable Development, the agriculture here provides food security and livelihoods for approximately 60% of the Mekong River Basin’s population. Although there is a definite trend toward commercial agriculture, especially here in Vietnam, currently subsistence and small scale farms dominate. The
people here are poor and live simple lives, close to the earth. Most visitors to this area head straight to the nearby Mekong Delta, known for its floating markets, islands, and boatbased transportation. The farmlands don’t see a lot of visitors and the only way to get around is to walk, take a scooter, or cycle along the web of single track paths that connect these farming communities. Learning the lingo is important. When you’re passing someone from behind and you don’t have something to honk, you shout “Wah-wah, wah-wah!” so they can get out the way. Up until now, Vietnam involved many bus rides, an overnight train and two days on a junk boat, so powering forward
using our legs is both a relief and a treat. Behind the handlebars there isn’t any glass, wood or metal separating you from your surroundings. We are able to tread considerably lighter in discovering it. The farms are devoid of noisy industrial or mechanised equipment. Life is quiet and slow. Clusters of farming families have grouped themselves together in communes, announced by archways over the road decorated with colourful flags. Each commune starts with a tight group of houses, a garage doubling as a general store, and open fields thereafter. Ornate Buddhist tombstones contrast the predominantly flat, green landscape. The different communes farm different types of produce. We cycle through the fruit commune with its abundance of sweet watermelon before heading past rice paddies so bright we take off our sunglasses to make sure it really is this green. We wave at shy children and friendly women, standing behind hip-height gates. We could smell the herb commune before we saw it. By now the sun is blazing, but interspersed with blots of shade and mediated by the steady, warm air on us as we cycle. The sky is thick with humidity and infused with the fragrant, spicy smell of coriander and chives. So simple, yet such an all encompassing delight found in a single foreign moment.
It seems idyllic, but these farmers don’t have it easy. Vice news reports that, although the Mekong River Basin supports Vietnam’s massive rice export business, prolonged dry seasons and sea-level rise brought about by climate change, is pushing saltwater from the South China Sea deeper inland, compromising farmers’ irrigation channels. Some farmers have already given up. I only saw the rose coloured version of the countryside, but I’m happy I was able to experience at least that. When I think back to the Vietnam trip, I don’t think first of the sandstone islands of Halong Bay or the Japanese merchant houses of Hoi An. I think of us and Van on our bicycles, taking a peek at a rural farming community going about its day-to-day life. Cities around the world are starting to move back to a culture of conscious eating and traceability. We care about the origin of our food. Vietnam is so famed for its local food and all I had to do was hop on a bicycle to see the source of those endless buckets of rice, ginger, bok choy and water spinach. I booked this day trip through Vietnam Backroads. This story only tells of the first half of the day. The second was spent exploring the Mekong Delta. Visit www.vietnambackroads.com for more.