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Vietnam

November 27th/28th, 2008

Thanksgiving Day 2008 and on a 14 hour flight across the Pacific. I am on my way to an eight day trip to Vietnam for a little bit of cycling along with a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It is a relatively short trip, but one goal is to get an initial feel for Vietnam as a potential place to explore further. Rice paddy and one
of my pre-conceived images of Vietnam

The idea for the trip itself came in September. My company reduced limits on how much vacation time could be accumulated, in effect telling me to either use vacation by end of the year or lose it. At the same time, a statement from United Airlines gave a related message: either accumulate some more flights or use some frequent flyer miles or I would start losing some miles. With that encouragement, I sat down with the United Mileage Plus web site to see where I might be able to fly for Thanksgiving and come back ten days later. Several of the choices I tried weren't possible, but I was pleased to see that it would be possible to get to Vietnam, so I booked the trip. Overall, I planned a fairly easy adventure: four days of an organized bike ride and four days of relaxation and exploration of Ho Chi Minh City.

It is a long way to Vietnam from Colorado. My travels started Thanksgiving eve when I drove to my parents. Two of my three brothers, Rob and Bert, were there as well my sister-in-law, Natalie, and it was nice to see everyone. At 11pm, I slept for a few hours before starting off for the airport just past 3am. The airport was still quiet so it wasn't much difficulty getting a bicycle box and checking in my gear. I was pleasantly surprised to find no fee for the bike (United's web site suggested as much as $200 for oversized luggage on international flights). An uneventful flight to San Francisco brought me a short layover before boarding the next leg to Hong Kong.

The flight to Hong Kong was a completely packed 747 as was the last leg to Ho Chi Minh City. We kept following the sun, so despite flying over the date line, it felt like a really long day (29 hours of travel from my parents until the hotel). Arrival and entry into Vietnam went very smoothly and then was a fairly long wait for baggage, particularly the bike. The bike box looked better than expected. I got some Vietnemese currency (17,000 dong per dollar - big stack of 50,000 notes) and then exited to arrivals hall. I tried in vain to find a pre-paid taxi that might help me watch costs of a taxi ride.

A huge crowd waited just outside arrivals. Myself as westerner with large bike box was quick prey for some of the taxi drivers who approached. Having a three star hotel as destination also didn't help. They were asking sums of 5x what was listed in the guide book. I countered with half what they offered. The first driver accepted, but then bike wouldn't fit in the taxi. I ended up going with a larger van driver who still charged me too much but without too much hassle was on my way. I was a bit too tired to haggle too much. We went through a sequence of small streets that were still surprisingly crowded for the late hour. Lots of trademark Vietnam motorcycles and some cars. A fair amount of honking, particularly by my driver. Finally a little before midnight, I was happy to be at my hotel and residence for the next four nights.

November 29th, 30th and December 1st

Three easy days looking around Ho Chi Minh City. During this time, I mostly switched over to local time. On each day I also walked around the city. It is tropical and humid here and I notice it during the heat of the day. The hotel is a little over a kilometer from center of town, so not far to walk. The streets are busy most every hour with some cars/buses but also a horde of motorbikes zooming past. Many vehicles beep, though not quite as many as India. It is also a little cleaner than India but a little dirtier than Hong Kong or Beijing. At least there isn't much overt trash around. Walking across the street sometimes resembles a game of frogger. Need to keep advancing with cars and motorbikes zooming past but not too difficult once you get the hang of it. When walking down the street, I hear folks call out to offer rides and a few beggars along the street. Again, not as much as I saw in some parts of India, but more than Beijing.


Saturday is wedding day and I spotted my share of brides around town.


One morning I visited the War Remnants Museum. The Vietnam War killed some three million people including two million civilians. The courtyard of the museum has a few tanks and a helicopter and airplane or two. There is an area showing "tiger pits" used by the South Vietnamese government to detain and torture political prisoners. Much of the museum is a sequence of photographs showing various negative aspects of the war. The US and South Vietnamese horrors are documented and they showed many photographs of victims of agent orange, napalm and then photo essays on My Lai, bombings and various other aspects of war. Prominently missing are similar examples inflicted by North Vietnamese on the south or US troops. There were also some areas showing peace marches in the US and other countries.


I also visited the Ho Chi Minh City Museum. Some of the local history of the city and again the Vietnam war played a big role in several dioramas as well as some helicopters and tanks in the yard. It has now been 33 years so I was surprised how big a role the Vietnam war still played.

I walked past the US consulate, site of the former US embassy. It was surprisingly low key compared to some consulates and embassies I've seen overseas. There were fancy shopping streets and also some more open air markets. Several large parks through the downtown had many people out relaxing. I saw my share of western tourists, particularly in the "backpacker" area not far from the hotel. There were also some internet cafes. Prices in general were quite reasonable so didn't spend much of that wad of bills.


My bicycle box had been placed in the storage room. On Sunday night, I caused some excitement when I decided to assemble the bike. Three or four bell hops were all interested in observing me put my bike together. Once assembled, they determined that the bike couldn't go back in the storage room but instead needed to be out on the street along with other motor bikes. I protested since it really didn't seem that secure to leave my bike outside (and those same bell hops kept warning me to watch my camera when I left the hotel). After a bit of negotiation and my outright bringing the bike back to the storage room, eventually I was able to speak with a manager on the phone and keep the bicycle inside. I would also have been happy to bring it up to my room but figured that battle would be more difficult.

December 2nd, 2008

First day of the bicycle tour. I checked out of the hotel and met the van from Spice Roads tour company. On the trip with me were Grant and Emily, and Australian couple currently living in Laos. Otherwise we had our driver and also our guide, Chinh, who cycled with us. Traffic leaving Saigon was chaotic and even busier than what I had seen. However, in a bit we came to the National Highway 1. Overall this was a better road, though the culture does have every business along the road with their own stuff for sale. So it isn't a very fast highway with all the local traffic along the way.

On the way down, we stopped briefly at the Cao Dao temple. Apparently, a local religion that grew from ideas of unifying multiple religions. We also stopped briefly at a tea house that also had restrooms to use and change in. We seemed to be on a tourist circuit and in both places we saw several tour buses and many tourists. A little past 11am we finally made our way to Cai Lay and start of our bicycle trip. We unpacked bikes and adjusted them before setting off for the ride. It was nice to have my own bike rather than the mountain bikes I otherwise would have borrowed. Almost immediately we set off on a tiny path along through the middle of things away from the larger roads. After 5km this turned to dirt and we were on dirt paths from there. It was a big contrast with the bustle and hectic roads we had otherwise been on.


At 17km we found our way into Cai Be. Surprised to be there that quickly. Here were several tourist displays of how rice paper was made and how some of the sweets were made. Our guide did a good job of dilligently explaining it all. I was also impressed to see some "popped rice" being made. Not aware rice could be popped like popcorn. After this stop, we crossed the river on local ferry and then had a nice lunch at restaurant not far away. After lunch, we cycled south to the large part of the Mekong.

This river is huge and seems even larger when you realize this was only one of ~9 branches going to the sea. We hired a local boat and guide here to take us across the river to an island on the other side. We continued on the boat to follow a local canal and then reached a side dock. From here we cycled to a local temple before riding back to our homestay. A nice ride today of 34km total. It sure was nice to be cycling again.

The homestay is pleasant and we had a nice relaxed meal. It gets pretty dark here and we're close to a new moon. Lots of insects out and about so good to have some repellent. Otherwise a nice relaxed end to first day cycling through the Mekong delta region.

December 3rd, 2008

Today was a nice day of cycling to Tra Vinh. While we see some rice in the delta region, we see at least as much of different types of tropical fruits and other plants. This is a well populated region (the Vietnamese Mekong Delta provinces are about same size and population as the Netherlands) and there is a wide variety of different sizes and styles of houses along the way. Some more modest and some quite palatial. We stayed on slightly smaller roads but overall had some good cycling roads today. Periodically we'll cross some water on a narrow bridge where metal plates have been placed for the wheel ruts.


Our homestay was out in the countryside and it was nice to see plenty of stars out last night. There are lots of poultry and some pigs around the home stay. There was a cicadia or two and roosters don't sleep through the night, but overall it was fairly quiet overnight. At 5am however, loudspeakers from the neighboring village sprang to life with the daily government news updates. Apparently, many of these small villages have speakers set up with broadcasts at 5am and 5pm. Other than this, I saw lots of TV antennas in smaller towns as broadcast TV seems to be the norm here.


We had a nice breakfast at the homestay before applying sunscreen to prepare for the day. My sunscreen makes me smell like a coconut but at least it doesn't burn. We had a short distance to ride before reaching a more major road. This one perhaps 3m wide but fortunately fairly smooth. We had some nice cycling through the countryside and at 20km made a brief stop at a cafe to wait for our SAG vehicle. We filled on water and then set off towards Mo Cay. There were a few more small towns to cross through and those occasional metal planks to ride across the bridges. We passed some very ornately trimmed bonsai type trees in shapes such as dragons, elephants, a kangaroo and others. It got a little busier as we neared Mo Cay and without much trouble we stopped there for lunch at 45km. After lunch I took a short walk through the market town. Myself in lycra with camera and camelback must have been some sight...as I the locals found it rather amusing to see such a tall stranger walking down their street. It took a little getting used to, but also felt a little further from the typical tourist areas of Ho Chi Minh City. Also at our lunch stop was another cycling group. They spoke a romance language, I believe Portuguese but might have been French as well.


After lunch it was getting a bit warm, but we fortunately found a nice path that went through the forested areas. It wasn't paved but the gravel was reasonable quality. At the 66km mark, we found our way to a ferry and another broader river to cross. After a short wait, we boarded the ferry with other traffic and made our way across another delta river. From the other side, it was a short ride to a very nice hotel in Tra Vinh. I wandered down the street some but it wasn't easy walking. Instead relaxed some in a nice hotel room after a 73km ride today.


December 4th, 2008

A slightly longer day of riding today. While we traveled close to the same regions as yesterday, we saw slightly different views of the delta. In particular, many more open rice fields. We still went through some forested areas with fruits and other crops, but we also saw more of the stereotypical Vietnamese rice paddy. This crop seemed to be at different levels of harvesting. Some fields newly planted, some with grown rice ripening and some already being harvested.


We started our day cycling from the hotel and quickly came upon an impressive Khmer temple. Approximately 30% of the Tra Vinh population is Khmer, despite being a ways from Cambodia. The entire Mekong Delta has switched between Vietnamese and Cambodian rulers in the past and hence the mixtures of people. The temple had an ornate and fancy golden entrance way with a central temple and then areas for monks to live. Several outside dioramas told story of birth of buddha as well as several points in his life. we were invited in the central temple and monks here were surprisingly interested in talking with us. This temple had an altar with a huge golden buddha statue along with many small statues as well. Around the outside edge were drawings describing more of life of buddha.


After leaving our Khmer temple we set out on a mid-sized road and started cycling west. It was already getting somewhat warm and it was nice to stop at small cafe around 25km. After recharging, we turned north onto a smaller road. This route went via many rice fields. The road was narrow and when trucks came to pass, we had to carefully move to the side and everything slowed to a crawl. We saw rice being harvested here. At 43km, we came to Cae Ke, another smaller village. Here as elsewhere we heard many calls out of "hello" as the foreigners passed.

From Cae Ke, we found ourselves in slightly more forested areas. It was quite pleasant riding as we were on our way to a lunch stop. We briefly took a wrong turn which added some kilometers but the extra scenery was worth it. With help of a local, we were able to find our way back to a small ferry and then were on a small forest path again. Gradually the road became bigger before reaching a lunch stop at 68km. I was feeling the heat a bit, so it was nice to recharge with lunch.


After lunch, we cycled the last part of the day. Gradually the road became busier until point where last 4-5km was on the major highway #1 cycling. This reminded me of an advantage of a trip like this, if it had just been me, I would have likely been on highway #1 all along. Instead, our guide was able to take us on these small forest roads and paths and small ferry crossings. Traffic was backed up here waiting for a ferry across the major river. We were able to squeeze along the side and reached our hotel a little past 4:30pm after 91 kilometers of good cycling. It was nice to get into a somewhat larger town and then explore some. This is definitely a bit more of a tourist town than what we've seen before.


December 5th, 2008

Today a short ride and completion of our Mekong River Delta bicycle trip. We started the day with a boat trip, not a bike ride. We took a small tourist boat up the Can Tho River to site of the floating market. I wasn't quite certain what to expect, but the floating market is exactly what the name says. A sequence of boat pulled up in this stretch of river to trade and do commerce. Those interested in buying might raise an empty bag or other symbol and those boats with goods for sale might approach. In the same way, people might also take their boats past those with goods for sale.


I saw quite a few different types of agricultural produce. Jackfruit, melons, rice and other produce I couldn't always identify. Apparently this 1km stretch of waterway was site of this daily 5am to 10am floating market. Along the way were also many small tourist boats and hence also some boats selling things to the tourists. It was somewhat fitting in this area with many different waterways to also have commerce done on the water.

Our boat dropped us off at the shore and we met our shuttle van and got on the road. It was a somewhat short ride and once again it had a slightly different flavor to it. We paralleled a canal area and hence were going through a little more built up area with houses and an occasional village or two to cross. We stopped briefly at a find French tourist house. It was surprisingly ornate inside and had a few more tourists coming by as well. Our little road ended at the main highway one and our guide gave us an option to cycle along the main road. We were eager to continue. Except for Ho Chi Minh City, this was one of the busier stretches of road, so it took some good Vietnamese urban cycling skills to keep riding through the traffic. Fortunately, the traffic here is slightly less aggressive than Beijing so Vietnamese road skills are also slightly easier than Chinese road skills. We circled back and met our van for a 20km ride and end of cycling for this trip.


We got back in the van for a ride back to Ho Chi Minh City. However, the first step was crossing the Hau River again which was a slow ferry ride. A large bridge is being built nearby and when complete, will likely change things a bit more. There was lots of bustle along the road as we slowly drove back to Ho Chi Minh with a stop along the way for a nice lunch and then getting back into town a little before rush hour.

This time the hotel easily took my bicycle and placed it in the storage room. I wandered through town a bit for a bite to eat before relaxing back at the hotel. I'm glad I was able to do this Mekong River Delta bike tour since it showed a slightly different part of Vietnam than I would have seen if I were riding on my own...since then I would have more likely stayed on the largest roads.