Ha Tien to Chau Doc
Our first day in Vietnam introduced us to bustling food markets, beautiful rivers and the challenges of recognising what’s on offer for dinner. During our street-food dining, we learned a valuable lesson: having been dished up bones in broth, rather than the ‘chicken noodle soup’ we asked for, we really should take a look inside the pots and pans before ordering. This is, however, something we failed to implement on several occasions. The eagerness of the Vietnamese people was also something we encountered straight away: the man at our guesthouse was charming and smiley and insisted we teach him how to pronounce and then spell the names of all the parts of his motorbike. In the morning, when we left Ha Tien towards Chau Doc, we experienced how enthusiastic the early morning exercise routine is carried out, with the hand-to-opposite-foot arm swing being a favourite with the older gent, along with the standing one-leg kick swing.
The road to Chau Doc ran along the border and parallel to the river; it was easy to like Vietnam. Two ladies hollered us down and put some fruit in my basket. Our first stop of the day was in search of coffee – usually a can of cold coffee, but there was none in the shop. Instead, the lady pointed and beckoned us across the road to some hammocks and red plastic children-sized chairs. She brought us a Vietnamese cà phê đá: strong, black, bitter, sweet, with some splinters of ice: this was proper coffee, and it was delicious.
Chau Doc to Cao Lanh
Strictly abiding by our GPS instructions, we cycled straight into a busy food market, with a narrow path between the stalls, and at times just wide enough for our loaded bikes to manoeuvre through. This didn’t upset anyone at all; it is pretty normal for motorcycles to rev their way through inappropriate gaps. We were glad to make it to the other side without dismantling pyramids of oranges, without knocking off any fish heads, and without any fresh, meaty entrails decorating our bags.
For the upcoming New Year (Tet) celebrations, pink Peach Flowers, orange Kumquat trees and green Bonsai trees brought colour to the streets. As we cycled out of the town, we weaved through the Mekong Delta and cycled aboard three rafts that took us across different rivers that engulf the region.
We stopped off for our ultimate refreshment, a fresh coconut, and with straw and spoon in hand, devoured it greedily. Being hydrated and content in the glorious sunshine made getting lost (for the first time cycle touring) much more bearable. We were on a road where all maps told us no road existed. Well, it was a dusty track. However, choosing to follow the road with most ‘traffic’ (school children on over-sized bicycles), we made it back on the atlas.
Cao Lanh to Trung An
What is this?! We’re feeling cold at 25°C?! A morning chill was in the air.
Today was our second day of getting lost. However, this time, the road on the map did not exist. This particular road was shown as a thick, orange line on the map, indicating a ‘big’ national road…you couldn’t miss it! We had missed it. We backtracked, and with a rice paddy to our right, and a river to our left, we stood perplexed…where was it? Going around this river added an extra 30km…thank goodness for the Café Vong stop earlier: a strong, cold coffee is best enjoyed in a hammock.
And strong it was. Following the ride, Will and I confessed to each other that, during the cycle, we both had to check our heart rates where the caffeine was making our hearts pound in our bodies.
Trung An to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City
Packed and loaded, we set off towards the largest city in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh, named after the former President of Vietnam and Communist leader. Before the heat of the sun dominated our sweat glands, we were engulfed in the cloud of traffic fumes and dizzied by the beeps from the swarms of motorcycles also making their way towards the city. This was enough to keep the heart racing, so today we steered clear of cà phê đá.
Although guesthouses were plenty, those that were cheap with rooms available were difficult to find. It ended up taking just as long to find somewhere suitable to stay as it took to cycle there! With enthusiasm draining, it was great to have a balcony with a view over the city.
Ho Chi Minh City to Long Thanh
After a couple of rest days exploring the city, Wilson’s immune system decided to take a rest too and he felt very poorly. Although hoping some fresh air would do the trick, the morning cycle out of the city was tough: we were heading towards a road when we were stopped by a policeman: no bikes. We eventually wiggled our way out of the city and over the Phú Mỹ Bridge. At the road towards our destination, a policeman stopped us: no bikes. Bugger. Will was feeling no better, so we cycled ‘in the general direction’ (a big circle), and cut the journey short. In search of dinner later than evening, we were befriended by a group of merry locals, who shook our hands (only not to let go) and offered us cups of alcohol (perhaps they realised they had drunk enough?). One man decided to introduce his wife and have her kiss my face. It felt sneaky when we planned a longer walk back to our guesthouse that would avoid a second encounter.
Long Thanh to Vung Tau
Still feeling unstable, Will assured me that he was ok to cycle today and we set off to the sea. Turning off the highway was always favourable to avoid the traffic and fumes; though we soon regretted it when the smell (reminiscent of kippers my mum used to cook) didn’t do Will any good at all. With only a short distance left to get to Vung Tau, today was our first taste of the strong winds we had been warned about. “There are very strong winds down the coast, and a direct head wind, should one be travelling from South Vietnam to the North”. Yes, that’ll be us.
Vung Tau to Binh Chau
The winds were strong, bitter and relentless. They did not want us to go north.
Binh Chau to Thuan Nam
The winds were stronger and even more relentless. They did not want us to go any further north. However, we had to make a quick getaway this morning when we realised we had left the key inside the room, and locked it from the inside. Whoops.
Despite the battle against the headwind, the scenic route beside the sea had stunning views of the rugged coastline and overlooked untouched bays. All anger against nature melted away.
Thuan Nam to Mui Ne
We were up early and on the road at sunrise. Our route took us through fields of dragon fruit trees and it was interesting to see them decorated with light bulbs. We later learned that the artificial light supplements their growth in the ‘off-season’, keeping up with the demand for dragon fruits all year round.
A short afternoon cycle to explore the Mui Ne fishing port reinforced our decision to get up early this morning to avoid the strong winds that had been brewing.
Mui Ne to Lien Huong
Cycling along the coastline and seeing the glorious sand dunes carved smooth and soft by the wind was brilliant. Cycling up the hills was slow, but brilliant. Getting to the top of the hill where we were exposed to the wind and cycling just as hard to get down 7% descents was brutal.
Lien Huong to Phan Rang
We compromised the scenery and took the highway for some relief from the wind. It was a good chance to reflect on how mental as well as physical fitness can affect performance. The wind has blasted a lot of energy away from both realms.
With an evening cycle for all things food, it was a delight to find a Vietnamese lady willing to practise her English and serve us some delicious street-food. I will remember that amazing sweetcorn-fuelled amazingness as my sweet savour.
Phan Rang to Cam Ranh
The early morning orange glow of sunlight was mirrored in the floodwater laying still and heavy in the salt fields.
With the wind whipping against the window throughout the night, we knew what we were in for. However, we were mentally fit for this. The last few days have prepared us for this wind. Instead of battling it, we decided to praise it for its sheer might, its cooling nature, its extra challenge against the legs. We were content with our slow and steady pace, and laughed at our granny-gear downhill cycling efforts, and our cycling became great fun again.
Overlooking some hairpin bends that we were about to follow, Will saw a photo opportunity and instructed me to continue on cycling while he took the shot. Tearing down the hill, I see he is shaking his head: I went down the hill on the side of the road that was masked by trees: we could only laugh. We weren’t cycling back up to try again!
We stumbled upon a little café pumping out Vietnamese rave music inappropriately loudly, filled with local teens with purple or orange hair: boy band? Here we had our first cà phê sữa đá (iced coffee with condensed milk) – it was our new favourite.
We then started along the road we remember as one of the best: the Vinh Hy-Binh Tien pass reminded us how lucky we are, having the opportunity to cycle our way around some amazing rugged coastline. And on the way down, I was handed a note by a mystery local lady – we had the note translated for us at the guesthouse; the mystery lady was asking if we knew a good English man for her!
Will later wrote in his diary that he didn’t tell me there was a shorter way to Cam Ranh; up the highway. Only when we had finished the ride did he tell me, for which I am grateful, we might have missed the amazing coastal pass! I agree that there are times when it’s better not to know, else it plays on your mind throughout the cycle.
Cam Ranh to Nha Trang
At Nha Trang, popular for kite-surfing, we checked Wind Guru out of interest and learned that we had battled a head wind of 30 knots with gusts of 38. Although shouting expletives into the ether felt somewhat cathartic while trying to pedal on, I feel proud of us for the ‘extra’ challenge we have endured.
Now to stop and celebrate Tet.
Posted by Lindsay