Schizophrenic Vietnam

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April 7, 2014 by melcogger

Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam… Good highs and deep lows in a country that has taken us on an emotional and sometimes volatile rollacoaster. With some hard people, mean people, kind people, welcoming people, good roads, crap roads, gravel, trucks, buses, honking, bad drivers, mud, sweat and tears, we have often found ourselves questioning what on earth are we doing here and why the hell did we decide to cycle Vietnam? Which many F bombs and zap signs exchanged between ourselves and bus drivers and locals, it took a lot for us not to decide to hightail it to the first border crossing into Loas. But like a beaten wife suffering from battered woman syndrome, we’ve decided to keep ploughing (or peddling) through our volatile relationship with Vietnam and give it another chance. Here’s our first 454kms so far.

We arrived at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) at an odd hour. Being midnight we were faced with a few possibilities: 1) pay an exorbitant amount for a taxi (which may or may not be able carry our two huge bicycle boxes) to an area where all the cheap accommodation is located and attempt our search in the dark, in the wee hours of the morning or 2) wait it out and figure out new options in the morning. Noting how it may be rather difficult to lug around our boxes in area we knew nothing about and placing ourselves in a vulnerable situation had we done so, we opted for the latter. It was simple enough finding a place to lay our pillow at the airport since no one wanted to hang around in the arrivals area at that hour. This we did on a row of seats just before the alluring Vietnam doors waited beyond. We must have been tired because despite Melissa rampaging through my bags for our sleeping packs, I did not wake. At about 3am, however, we were suddenly evicted from our cosy seats and forced to face what lay beyond the doors in Vietnam. Apparently the security guard wanted to close the arrivals area and therefore we had to depart. This didn’t seem to bother us that much as we briskfully found alternative accommodation in the departures area on a windowsill.

Notwithstanding the rough sleep, we awoke to a pleasant sight. Within the airport precinct, a flurry of exercise was underplay. Cyclists, joggers, thai chi and other funny Asian exercises. It was now time to decide what to do. Should we build our bicycles in the airport and brave the notorious Saigon traffic we have heard so much about or take a taxi. Again being the cheap stakes we are, we chose the cheaper route. By now I had become an expert of disassembling and assembling our bicycles so it wasn’t a problem. Once all was achieved, we set on the road. It dawned on us the moment we set out that we didn’t even know what side of the road to ride on, surely the most fundamental of all laws of the road. We defaulted to the right until we saw oncoming traffic and then to the left. We were obviously very confused as traffic seemed to shift back to the right so we shifted too. Melissa did a sterling job finding our way to Pham Ngu Loa street where all the ‘nha nghi’ (guesthouses) are located. It was a big decision to cycle in HCMC because it is notorious for traffic, supposedly worse than Manila, but despite the clear mayhem it was structured enough. We were very happy to see that motorbikes and bicycles had their own lane on the far right.
We spent a day and a half in HCMC and instantly fell in love with It. It is clean, modern and has plenty of parks with outside gyms. The Vietnamese are obsessed with health. We took great delight in observing the group thai chi sessions in the park. The food is incredible: a superb combination of hot meals with fresh ingredients on the side. Very cheap too. Because of the French colonial influence, there is also a wonderful coffee and bread culture. Baguettes are sold everywhere although the ingredients are distinctly Asian. I love them but strangely being Asian herself, Melissa hasn’t taken as much of a liking and in a desperate attempt to find something normal like porridge for breakfast, she has opted for baby food most mornings, often causing a lot of interest in the locals. We strolled around the streets and did other touristy things. We ended up walking for 10 hours straight. While walking home from dinner one night we saw the strangest thing: a pavement packed to the brim of young white tourist sitting on the floor. We asked the adjacent shop owner what was going on and he informed us that the police don’t allow the restaurants to have chairs and tables outside their shops. Very well but why were the tourist sitting on the dirty floor when there were plenty of chairs inside? See the pictures and judge for yourself. The beer is cheap as chocolate, being only 10 000 dong (R5), cheaper than buying water.

We had a difficult choice to make with regards to our route in Vietnam in a way that the mountain vs beach scenario came into play again. You see, far from just being a factual determination, the choice unearths a deep understanding on ones preferences of travel. We love both but couldn’t have our cake and eat it and thus we had to choose. Highway 1 runs along the coast all the way to Hanoi. It has beautiful beaches, tourist attractions and a shoulder on the road. It presented the easier option. Being a main highway and the main tourist route, however, apparently traffic is insane. The HCMC highway is the inland, mountainous route. It’s the road less traveled. No tourists, less traffic and breathtaking scenery (or so we were told). We chose the latter route not only because it has less traffic (a must for great tour cycling) but because of a growing critique of travelling. In almost every conversation we have with other tourists, talk inevitably turns to what attractions each has seen. Granted this can be extremely helpful and we do appreciate advice but we noticed a trend of ‘tick-box tourism’. For example: ‘OMG, you have to see Halong Bay (Vietnam)’ or wherever, implying that if not seen, Vietnam is not fully experience. What we have seen is other travelers trying their damnedest to squeeze in as many tourist attractions the Lonely Planet describes in the time allotted to them by their visas. As a consequence, their itineraries are tight. They jump from attraction to attraction mostly by overnight bus (or plane) so nothing in between is seen at all. This is not to say that attractions aren’t worth seeing. We certainly would love to see Halong Bay. But I am taking issue with a certain type of traveling that connotes ‘been there, got the t-shirt’, now let’s move on. What about the journey in-between? On a lighter note, we have seen loads of travelers whizzing passed us on motorbikes. Now that’s cool.

Day one en route (HCMC to Tuc Trung 90km):

We’re always nervous cycling in congested areas, especially cities, so HCMC was no exception. Our fears were dismayed, however, by a large lane for motorbikes, which we took full advantage of, acting like one of the guys. The route we decided on was fairly complicated with loads of turns requiring constant vigilance. We only got lost once though. We thought we had struck gold until the road narrowed and traffic increased. Without a shoulder, monstrous trucks and buses sped by honking their hooters to their hearts content. The hooting is not ‘beep, beep I’m combining’. It’s ‘BEEP, BEEEEEEEP, BEEP, get the F#%k out of my way you MOTHER F#%KER!!’ The propensity of the noise makes you believe that death is imminent and it almost always forces you off the road for fear of being killed. If that’s not bad, seeing one of these monstrosities charging towards you in the opposite direction, hooting with equal venom and flashing its lights is absolutely frightening. There was also road construction with deep excavation for 30km. Rightly, we were both totally freaked out by these terrors that we found the nearest ‘nha ngi’ and settled for the evening.

Day two (Tuc Trung to Boa Loc 94km):

We woke at 4h30 and were on the road at the first break of dawn. Despite the shock of the previous day, we were resolved to win this battle. The traffic and road conditions improved for day two or perhaps we just knew what to expect. The day was going relatively well until we hit a 20km mountain pass. Eish! It was tough. We thought it would never end. Just the type of thing you need at the end of a grueling 94km ride. All the way up, the only reassuring thought was the revenge of the downhill. Just as we could taste the sweet scent of the wind breezing passed our faces, we saw the welcome sign to Boa Loc, so no downhill for that trip, very unfulfilling. That night we had Vietnamese style spring rolls – an experience we shared with the entire market looking on (not sure how many tourist stop in the small town).

Day three (Boa Loc to Lien Khuong 80km):

Most of the day was spent on ridges between the hills beckoning the long awaited downhill. Scenery was splendid and it seemed that our decision to take the scenic route was paying off..for now. We peddled and peddled for the downhill but it never happened. Lunch was interesting. We stopped at a small road side restaurant and motioned the ritualistic hand to mouth gesture exclaiming our hunger and pointed to our note pad where we had written ‘bao nhieu?’ (how much?). The communication barrier is so evident that we can’t even pronounce basic Vietnamese words. We’ve written a number of vital phrases that get us by but it’s sad that further interaction with locals is basically fruitless. Conversations – if you can call them that – are reduced to sign language and a host of illegible words in Vietnamese that, I think, they think we understand. Even when it’s clear that we don’t and try to communicate to them that they should similarly use sign language, they simply shrug their shoulders and continue to talk to us in VIETNAMESE. Sometimes they just walk away! No effort is made to come to our level, even by simply using fingers to indicate the price of food. Trying to do anything is frustration to say the least. Anyways, back to lunch. The lady at the restaurant clearly didn’t have food to sell us but went into her kitchen and fed us their lunch. When we pointed at our notebook, weary that we may be ripped off by not knowing the price before we ate, she shook her head and ushered us to some chairs. By this time, we were so hungry we didn’t care. The meal was either free or astronomically exorbitant. They seemed nice so we assumed the former. At the end of a delicious meal, we paid what we thought it deserved and left. They received the money awkwardly, signifying they they intended to feed us for free. The rest of the day was exceptionally hot (40 degrees Celsius) as we rode through the hottest part of the day. We wanted to get to a ‘ nha nghi’ early because we were excited to rest.

Three days of long cycling meant that we needed a day off. Not sure many of the locals ever see foreigners wandering through their market and streets but unfortunately one took too much interest. As we strolled around we noticed ducks being grilled and stopped to observe. Thinking that we presented an opportunity to cheat, a man approached us and grabbed Melissa’s arm. I immediately reacted and pushed him away, simultaneously yelling at the top of my voice to give him a fright. As I did so, he grabbed my arm and tried to steal my watch. Melissa joined in on the screaming and our combined yelling attack forced him backwards. Idiot! This was our first incident in Vietnam. Not nice but I guess it happens. Another communication barrier struck the next morning at breakfast when we asked how much a baguette was, and the baguette lady kept explaining on and on in Vietnamese what the price was, until we used our fingers, indicating 7 fingers meaning 7000 dong (the usual price) and she proceeded to make us 7 sandwiches.

Day four en route (Lien Khuong to Dam Rong 75km):

A little detour which took us through rows and rows of herb gardens was an excellent way to commence our day’s trip. Everything about the day was perfect until three young boys (perhaps 16 / 17) came up behind me on a motorbike and belted me with a rock that hit my shoulder. After the initial shock and a scurry of verbal abuse, I took chase. Rationally, I knew that I could never catch them but I didn’t want to just accept that anyone could do such a thing. The adrenaline and anger must have been pumping because I noticed that I peaked at 35km/h on a flat. To my surprise I caught a glimpse of the boys on a dirt path leading from the road, and I made a sharp left turn and pursued them with wild fury. They just sped off, laughing gaily as I dwindled far behind. In hindsight, I thank God that I didn’t catch up to them. Who knows what could of happened.

Despite being a glorious day of cycling (perhaps our best so far), our minds were toiled with the injustice of the episode before. Cycling is hard enough as it is without being treated like a dog. Also the fact that it was the second incident in two days played with our thoughts. We began to wonder whether this route was all that it had been cropped up to be. More than ever, all we needed was a good meal, accommodation and rest. We reached Dam Rong by 12h00 and began the usual search. There was only one ‘nha ngi’ which was filthy and overpriced. It was the only town within a 20km radius so we had to stay there. We thought about continuing but couldn’t gather the mental strength to do so. Much to better judgement, we stayed. If things couldn’t get worse, although teaming with small restaurants, not a single one would feed us, as it seemed that if you miss lunch hour that’s just tough luck. All this was too much for Melissa who broke down, swore and shouted at a restaurant owner happily enjoying his own meal and pushing us out this door. This was rock bottom. While I marched the entire length of the small town (which didn’t take long) Melissa went back to the room to rest. When I returned empty handed, with much relief Melissa had forced our ‘nha ngi’ owner to feed us. Bad day number 2 in Vietnam.

Day five (Dam Rong to Lien Son 65km):

It was a short and scenic cycle to Lien Son, a Lake District which serves as a holiday destination for locals. We couldn’t have asked for more in terms of cycling. Long down hills, beautiful mountains, rice fields, friendly locals and a short ride. It’s amazing how your mind can wonder endlessly while pedaling away. Countless hours sorting, filing and managing thoughts is a remarkable way to clear your head. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much time to think and don’t think it would be possible in normal life. If you are ‘troubled’ in some way, try tour cycling as a type of therapy. Thought patterns are only ever interrupted by the sporadic hellos from everyone from small children, grannies, teenagers, moms, dads and groups of men playing chess. They range from shotgun ‘HELLOS!’ to long, protracted ‘hello, hello, hello, hello, hellos’. Others are secret (mostly children in the distance far from the road) or high pitched ‘HOOOOS!’ I must confess that I only respond on occasion and mostly to the children. Sometimes I pull funny faces to spice up my responses simply because it’s exhausting constantly saying hello.
The day was short so we found a nice guesthouse near the lake, negotiated a room with a/c and rested. We took another rest day despite the short day. Are we getting lazy?

Day six en route (Lien Son to Buon Ma Thout 50km):

Another short day. Yippee! Mind was still racing with thoughts about Vietnam. Melissa did some research and shockingly, there’s a lot of bad things to be said of this country. Scams, tourists getting drugged and robbed, other tourist getting locked inside shops until they bought something, and a general hostile attitude towards foreigners. By this time we had already passed two separate groups of school children all yelling ‘f#%k you, f#%k you, f#%k you’. Very disturbing. The trick then becomes how we go forward from here. Obviously, not all people in Vietnam are bad. As much as we tried to tell ourselves that not everyone was bad, the niggling thought kept creeping in that maybe the whole country has schizophrenia. This impression was exacerbated by the sudden increase of traffic as we reached Buon Ma Thout (BMT), a major city in central Vietnam. We made it to our destination by 11h00 which proved to be a nice city. We spent the rest of the day resting.

We enjoyed the look of BMT so we spent another day looking about or maybe we are in fact getting lazy. Melissa had a craving for frog so we ‘splurged’ a little and enjoyed one and a half frogs for 120 000 Dong (R60). While we picked the small flesh from the thin frog legs, a young Vietnamese woman approached us and invited us to her English club. We had nothing better to do that night so we agreed. We met at an Italian restaurant and the English meeting commenced. All it really entailed was an adherence to speaking only English. Equipped with more than just pigeon English, naturally we were asked a host of questions. It turns out that it was there first meeting so we were honoured to be a part of it. Dinner was also covered by our friend which was a very pleasant surprise. After dinner, we headed for a karaoke bar down the street. We got a private booth with snacks, beer and great company. We all sang full heartedly. All in all, we very glad to meet the English club. It also threw a spanner in the works for the Vietnamese schizophrenia diagnosis or does it just confirm it? This country confuses us. So many good people yet, so many bad apples too!

We apologize for the amount of language in this post. It’s been tough.


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