Sunday, July 27, 2014

Cycling to Can Tho

The inspiration for this trip comes from a few places - that Top Gear episode, wanting to experience another culture (wishing I was better travelled), wanting to change career, wanting to be fitter etc. So far the experience has been better than I could imagine! I did a bit of research before we hit the road so, if like me, you stumbled on to this page looking through blogs for others who have cycled Vietnam, then let me tell you what I have learnt so far:
- John and I are not cyclists (I am not fit although John's fitness is quite good) but the terrain in the Mekong Delta is really flat and there are heaps of places to stop for a drink or a relax if the going gets tough. The first couple of days we only made 20-30km, which I guess is pretty shitty by cycling standards but good enough for us and gives plenty of time to slow down and take in the scenery, meet cool people etc. We have done one 50km ride out of Tra Vinh, stopping at a road house before Can Tho and today is shaping up to be 60-70km. I have found that my fitness is increasing every day on the bike.
- Get up early for the big rides. We are here during the wet season and by 9am it is hot! I am not a morning person so its a bit tough getting out of bed but it is so worth it. We left at 6am this morning and are so ahead of time that we can relax in one of the many road houses with hammocks to hide from the hottest part of the day (midday until 2pm).
- You will get rained on if you come to the Delta in the wet season so buy one of the 5000 vnd raincoats from the side of the road. Its not fun to wear but it will waterproof your pack just fine and the rain comes as a welcome relief from the hot weather. Don't try to cycle in the really heavy rain because the trucks don't slow down and you might get sprayed if they find a pothole near you.
- Even when you are exhausted from the heat, cycling, communicating and everything else that comes from travelling, always say hello to people being friendly. We realised that we were not going to make it to Can Tho so we pulled off the road into a small guest house (they are not always on Google but there are heaps of guest houses, especially on main roads). It was so weird and I guess the power had gone out but one of the guests came out of his room when he heard us trying so speak Vietnamese to the landlord and helped translate for us. I was exhausted and my first instinct was to thank him for his help and then retreat to our room never to speak to him again. Instead, when it was time for dinner, we knocked on his door and invited him to come to dinner with us. We discovered that his name is Hieu, he is Vietnamese, went to uni in Sydney and that he works for an organisation that supports rural communities to become sustainable and to deal with climate change. He showed us his favorite place to eat and taught us about customs we should know about. Basically he made what was going to be a fairly tame night, amazingly memorable AND he called us when we got to Can Tho and took us out with his work colleagues that night. Awesome!
- Wear cotton under garments - imagine what it feels like wearing a plastic  bag in a steam room and you are pretty close to how nylon knickers feel.
- Vietnamese made bikes (at least the 3 million vnd ones) need a bit of work as you go and even if you don't skimp and get a decent bike (which I would do if I had my time again) bring a set of Allen keys, two adjustable wrenches (one should be small for tight spots), a Phillips head screw driver, tube repair kit and bike pump. Remember: if it moves and it shouldn't you need duct tape, if it doesn't move and it should you need WD40. This will help for small repairs until you can get to a Rau Xe (motor cycle repair guy) and comfort adjustments. Check that the handlebars, seats etc. are the right height.
- Buy a gel seat cover. They are like $20 from Kmart - maybe cheaper here but I haven't seen any and I wouldn't risk it because these things are worth their weight in gold. Your butt is gonna hurt regardless but it is a whole lot better with the gel than without. You can get all sorts of other devices in this vein, like the shorts with inbuilt padding but we aren't that hardcore - you might like to be though - go for a long cycle before you get here and you will see what I am talking about (or type "sore butt from cycling" into Google and see what comes up.
- Your definition of a 'road' and Google Maps' definition of a road may be slightly different in Vietnam but try not to worry if it looks like a dirt track because you can normally get through. We only had to walk through a swamp once.
- The traffic isn't as nuts as it first appears, in fact the method to the madness becomes clear after a bit. Stay as far to the Right as possible unless there is someone coming the wrong way, someone is pulling their restaurant on the road or you are worried that the pothole will swallow you and your bike (go around those). Don't panic about the beeping, they are just letting you know that they are there - the louder the horn, the less likely they are going to slow down for you. Give way to anything bigger than you (so basically everything)

Lastly, have fun, this place is incredibly beautiful and you will meet some incredibly friendly people. They may not see many foreigners but they are generally very warm towards us when we are warm towards them. I would also recommend finding, wherever possible, hotel owners who speak English - local knowledge is invaluable and takes some of the stress out of finding your way around.

Xox Jane

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tra Vinh and the beautiful lake

Our guest house in Tra Vinh is owned by an American man Ben and his wife Quin. Quinn told us the story about a lake about 5km from the city centre called the Beautiful Lake - Ao Ba Om on the map. The story goes that a man and woman are speaking about strength and the man says that men are able to build great and beautiful things which demonstrates the strength of man. The woman organised all of the women in her village and they create a great lake with a pagoda in the centre and she tells the man "You see? Women can build great and beautiful things better than men". We are sitting by the lake now and it is beautiful. This proves my earlier point that women in this country are industrious and strong just like their men. From our observations, their relationships are strong too and seem equitable in most ways. It is such a lovely way to live!

The pagodas here in Tra Vinh are surrounded by very tall trees. Because the area is sacred, there is no clearing for farming. People still have coffee shops, food vans etc. outside but not in the grounds of the pagodas. The buildings are surrounded by man made canals and are painted in gold with blue and green glass inlay. It is very pretty and when we were there, the children from the Buddhist school were playing hide and seek around the statues. There is a sense of joy and calm about the place.

Ben is an English teacher and said he would help me to find work wherever we decide to settle. He and Quinn have been so hospitable and took us out for dinner and showed us the places to go. We have decided to stay for a while longer to see some of the sights but are planning to leave early tomorrow morning to try to reach Can Tho by evening (about 62km). If you are in Tra Vinh, I cannot recommend the XO Hotel strongly enough.

The trip from Mo Cay to Tra Vinh was about 26km including two ferries and some back roads so we will need to cover double that for the next leg. The roads have been incredibly flat so it doesn't feel like much work (which is good because neither of us are cyclists). It is good having bikes to tour around town when we aren't trying to get to somewhere else. We could easily follow Quin and Ben on their motorcycle and when my pedal fell off, there was a man on the side of the road to tighten the bolt back up (we gave him a little money for his efforts but he did not want to charge us) so we could be back on our way in no time. The Mekong Delta so far is very bicycle friendly.

I will write more when I have more to say :)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lovely Interactions on the way to Mo Cay

We have been delayed a day because our clothes are being washed (we have a situation of needing more clothes but not wanting to carry any more!) And we are hiding from the sun in our room until after lunch when the heat of the day isn't so crazy. I have been a bit productive though. I bought a recharge card and put the code into the phone and it seems to be working (thank you to the Expat blog and Google translate for helping me work all of that out!). Also, I successfully ordered 2 hot coffees in Vietnamese for breakfast this morning. That was pretty exciting.

So we left Ben Tre in the morning and cycled along the river and out of town. We took a wrong turn and on the way back along the highway to our turnoff, a guy on a motorcycle slowed down to speak to us (without, it seemed, any regard for the trucks and other motorists). He was interested in where we were from and how we were enjoying Vietnam. He liked the opportunity to practice his English and was excited to tell us that he sells baby dogs. This was one of the first super friendly interactions for the day and he talked to us, slowly driving his motorbike next to us, the whole way to our turn off.

We meandered through some back streets because we both wanted to avoid the highways and were treated to some beautiful scenery, chickens running all around us and waves and smiles as we passed through. Somewhere near Tan Thanh Binh, my chain broke so we had to walk. We asked a young man if he could direct us to somewhere we could buy a new chain, he couldn't speak much English so he went away and came back with a girl who was a lot more confident and who directed us to a mechanic. There are many motorbike repair shops along the roads (not just highways) and it seems that most are happy to service bicycles as well. The mechanic fixed my chain and asked for a very small fee (10,000) and the two friends stayed with us to make sure that we were OK.

I bought some small koala souvenirs with me from Australia and gave one to the boy and one to the girl to say thank you for helping us. They thought they were cute and in her best English, the girl asked if we would like to have tea with her. We said that we would and went back to her friends shop for a drink. We discovered that their names were Anh and Lien and they introduced us to their friend whose name I could not catch (she is Catherine on Facebook). The three teenagers were lovely and they bought us some sweet popcorn and a kilo of rambutan for the road. They wanted to take photos with us because I think western travellers are a bit of a novelty and we have some of them too. We had a little trouble communicating but they were very helpful when we asked to practice the few Vietnamese words that we are learning. When I asked if they had Facebook, they were very excited to add me to their friends list and I promised that they could practice their English on me any time. They all waved us goodbye as we hopped back on our bikes.

We reached Mo Cay a bit after 3pm and checked into one of the motels on the map. We have been really lucky with internet since we got here. When we arrived at the airport in Ho Chi Minn City, I bought a Mobifone sim card and the internet seems to be unlimited (although it slowed down to basically nothing after some heavy use for the first 2 weeks) and works almost everywhere. I don't know if I have the best deal or whatever but considering how useful it has been, I think the price is more than reasonable (I think about 90,000 in the airport and I recharged it with 100,000 two weeks later so $10 I think). The words Nha Nghi seem to be guest house or motel and all of them so far have been air conditioned and have ensuites. The owner of the one in Mo Cay was awesome. His name is Tuan and he helped us a bit with our Vietnamese. It has been well received when we ask people to help us with our pronunciation! People seem surprised but pleased that we are trying to learn the language and my phrase book is getting really full as I add more during every interaction.

On the first night we had a beer with some men on the street. Their names were Binh and Xay and we talked about where we were going, our names and Vietnamese words for things around us. We used pointing and drawing things to communicate mostly and it was really fun. The following night, we got into an accidental drinking competition with another group of local men. Because we were again using little words, pictures and pointing, as soon as there was a drop in the conversation, the guys would yell 'yo' and we would have to drain the glasses. One of the guys worked at the bike repair shop on the corner and oh man did he look sore the next morning!

There were just so many lovely interactions that I can't tell you about all of them but we met a woman and her son, Loan and Dan, at their grocery store and they both lived in Melbourne so had very good English. They asked us to stay and chat with them, explained more words to us and showed us how to find the Buddhist noodle shops (vegetarian food!!) - hu tau chay.

Awesome place!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

First biking leg to Ben Tre

Our first day of cycling was a little shaky. We got up a bit late, loaded up our bikes and arrived at the ferry terminal to find that the ferry didn't go to Ben Tre. Oops. So we re-calculated our journey (which included a huge bridge with very fast moving trucks) and cycled about 6 and a half kilometers before getting caught in torrential rain. It serves us right for travelling in the wet season and actually it was no big deal because we found raincoats (5000vnd) to protect our backpacks and just before it started to really come down, we found a road stop with cold drinks and hammocks to wait it out. When the rain died down, we saddled up again and cycled the rest of the way. 11km for the first day on the road!

We picked Ben Tre because we read somewhere that it is a Vietnamese city that isn't super focussed on tourists. When we arrived, John wasn't feeling so well (first bout of travellers gastro) so I left him in the guest house (160,000 vnd with our own ensuite) and went to the market to buy some food for dinner. The next morning, John was feeling better and we decided to stay another night so that John could see the city too. The markets are so relaxed and it is a lot quieter than Ho Chi Minn City but there is still heaps going on. Overall Ben Tre feels more functional than Ho Chi Minh, even more so than My Tho because (to us at least) it isn't geared towards tourists. We stand out a lot, I guess because there are not many foreigners in these parts? People frequently call out "hello" and wave at us. There is also very little English spoken and people are nervous to speak in English but sometimes can understand when we speak even if they cannot respond in English.

That night we went wandering along the waterfront, past markets and further down past the ritzy hotels. We crossed the river and walked along the other river bank looking for a place we had found on one of the Expat forums under the title "places to drink in Ben Tre" called "The Oasis". It is owned by a man named Ken from the top of the North Island in New Zealand. The Oasis had a swimming pool which I must admit made me wish that we had stayed there as well as bike touring maps! Over a few beers, Ken explained that his hotel is one of the expensive ones (not sure of the exact price but I got the impression it was 3 times our hotel price which is still pretty cheap), he said that he lowered the price for a while but found it attracted the wrong sort of people (I asked if he meant us and with a laugh he agreed that he did). We so greatly enjoyed the hours spent chatting with Ken that we bought his life story (literally... in paperback and autographed "To Jane and John, the 2 js trying to bike to Hanoi 18.7.2014. Paid in cash - Ken"). Just awesome! And the beer was cold, and he recommended a place around the corner for dinner which was incredible so if you find yourself in Ben Tre, I would look this guy up.

Next stop Mo Cay which is half way to Tra Vinh (20Km)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Tho (your pronunciation is wrong - trust me)

On the way out of Ho Chi Minh City, we pass all sorts of stuff including rice fields and industrial estates. A guy outside a statue factory carves a chunck of sandstone with a chainsaw... bad ass. We arrive about 3km out of My Tho (pronounced 'me tur' but with more emphasis on the 't') and the moto-taxi drivers are waiting. We went to grab a coffee first to get the lay of the land. Have I mentioned the coffee yet? Well! It is incredible and then they pour sweetened condensed milk all over it. It tastes like candy and you cannot taste the coffee which is good if you don't like coffee. It's like diabetes in a cup. So, while we are drinking our coffee, a man comes up to us asking if we would like a ride into town, we say that it sounds OK (30,000 vnd for both of us) and hop on two motorbikes with our backpacks etc. The traffic chaos is a little less than Ho Chi Minn but still chaotic. The motorbike ride was so awesome. I thought it would be scarier but it was fine, they didn't go faster than necessary and people are pretty polite so there was no drama (it was really fun).

We got dropped off at the docks and a tour operator wanted to know if we wanted to go for a boat trip. Having just arrived, we explained that we were just after a hotel for now (most people visit for day tours so there was a bit of confusion). He suggested a hotel down the road, on the river front which we found charged 220,000 vnd a night so we checked in happily and have been here ever since. The tour operator kept popping up and after beating us back to the hotel, we finally agreed to hear about his tours. We decided to take a boat tour, mostly because we don't know the Mekong Delta and thought it would give us an intro and an opportunity to practice our Vietnamese. 800,000 vnd later, we shook hands and promised to be in the lobby at 9am the following morning.

The tour guide was lovely and picked us up from the front desk. He spoke English and was very understanding about our bad Vietnamese. We hopped on a boat (there were no other tourists) with our guide and went to Unicorn Island for honey tea and tropical fruits. It is a bit hard to know when we should buy stuff/tip people. We were taken to a market where there were lots of coconut shell goods which were beautiful but we didn't want to carry anything so couldn't buy any. Then onto another smaller boat paddled by two laddies in conical hats. We tipped them for their efforts because the short trip was so lovely.

We stopped on another island to visit the coconut monk whose super power was to bring peace ... although his only way to demonstrate this power was to be elected president which never eventuated so... The temple is a bit hard to describe but I would start by saying it is colourful and intricate. It reminded me of a Buddhist temple if it were an exhibit in a theme park. The next stop was a coconut candy factory where we bought more candy than we can eat in a life time.

After the tour we wandered around town taking in the sights. We saw kiosks on the river front, multi-coloured fishing boats and floating plants on the mud brown water (even some locals swimming in the river!). The goal was to find two bicycles that will take us the rest of our journey. Its a bit hard to explain that we wanted to buy not rent but we had a couple of options. One tour operator had some second hand bikes for 1.5 million vnd each and another store had brand new bikes for 2.3 million vnd each. We decided that we would like the least hassle option so chose the new ones (although only time will tell if they are actually hassle free). We bought bike locks, occy-straps and helmets - mine is hello kitty and says "try to live a colorful life". This is basically my mantra for this trip. Tomorrow we leave for Ben Tre (16Km and a ferry ride) by bike.


Monday, July 14, 2014

More in Ho Chi Minh

I can easily compare European cities with Australia but with Ho Chi Minh City, it seems like we only have a handful of things in common... like humans and roads. Everything else is just so different I don't know where to start. You get hit from all directions and through all senses. Visually, there is so much going on and you are trying to focus on where you are walking, what the other people are doing and what the stores are trying to sell you but getting bombarded with colour, movement and flashing lights. The car horns are incessant, people yell across the street and people are asking if you want to buy all manner of things so your ears are assaulted almost as much as your nose but not quite. The smells from the street are waves of amazing food, cured fish, rotting fish (or other) and fumes from the many motorcycles. And it feels as if the air is thicker, like a warm, steamy humidity that surrounds you. Within seconds of leaving the air conditioned hotel (which only cost 300,000vnd per night) I am as sweaty as if I have just finished a decent workout. The traffic is insane and yet pedestrians often decide that the footpath is way to cluttered and brave oncoming traffic to dodge parked motorbikes, food carts and broken pavement.

I think the roadside food carts are amazing with little chairs and tables that make you feel like a giant. You sit at a free table and the owner or her helpers (not always but in our experience so far, these stalls are run by women) come to you and ask what you would like to order. At first there is a look of terror as they rightly assume that our Vietnamese is totally incomprehensible but after a bit of pointing, broken translations written in my notebook and much laughing (I am sure some of which isat our expense) we get our food and have not been disappointed yet. I am a vegetarian and I have to say that it is damn near impossible to be sure that I am still a vegetarian. I have stopped using the word for vegetarian because the owners just look so distressed and I don't want to offend them but I do use the word for vegetable (rau) because they like to give you lots of greens to put in your soup which are yummy. The soup bases could be just about anything from chicken (ga), beef (bo), pork (cat heo) or seafood (hai san) and I am almost positive that they won't be vege-stock, so I am sorry to all my vege friends but I just don't have enough local language or knowledge to stay solid with my lifestyle choice for now.

We visited the modern arts museum close to our hostel and I was immediately struck by the depiction of women. The women from the artwork are shown in positions of power, working, fighting and still incredibly feminine and maternal. We were totally transfixed also by the Bien Hoa ceramics which are so beautiful. The patterns and gradients of colour are just supurb. We liked the unicorns because they are kind of a cross between a dog and a dragon with a small horn on their heads and for some reason, they are prone to an expression which suggests that they are surprised and excited that they exist.

After getting kicked out of the war remnants museum (during the Agent Orange display) the day before - for lunch break, which is either 12 noon or 1pm (sorry, I forget exactly which) but either way, we were briskly escorted from the premises so didn't get a chance to see everything. We went back (at like 25c per ticket, it didn't seem like a big deal) and saw the tiger cages and images (plus details of torture techniques) of the French prison on Phu Quoc island (relinquished 1953?). The imagery is really graphic and very confronting. At 5pm on the dot, the alarm sounded closing time and the lights were immediately switched off so we all wandered out in the semi darkness.

We had decided to stay longer than first planned as we had hoped that John's luggage would turn up. We decided that this was a false hope and that there would be a penguin in Antarctica very pleased with its new backpack due to the disorganised nature of AirAsia's luggage department and so we bought a new backpack ($10) and got some more supplies before hopping on a bus near the hostel to Ben xe Mien Tay bus station. On the way we saw all kinds of things, the weirdest of which was someone selling wheels for shoes, some kind of bird of prey and a tiny white bunny in a budgie cage (not sure if the bunny is for loving or eating). At the bus interchange, we caught the 53N 2714 to My Tho for 35000 each ($1 something). At this point (as with the rest of this trip) we are winging it and will organise accommodation when we get to where we are going.
Speak soon!


Friday, July 11, 2014

Ho Chi Minh City

I am going to need to download a keyboard for Vietnamese words because it will be hard to spell out the accents without it! Normally, by now I would at least be able to say hello, goodbye, yes, no and thank you in the local language but the pronunciation is really tricky! We are still practicing.

We left the Gold Coast and landed in Ho Chi Ming City yesterday morning. I don't know how long the flight was, I guess 10ish hours (enough time to read half a novel if that helps). The airline lost John's bag and considering how much the tickets were and how disorganized the airline was, I have to say I wasn't super surprised. What is surprising is that they seem to have found it and will return it to us! I have $10 on the wrong bag arriving at our hostel but again, the tickets were really cheap. We are staying in the backpacker district at the Vinh Motel (there is a dot accent beneath the 'i' ... which is why I should get a Vietnamese keyboard) and we have our own room. This place is really cheap (although we have heard that there are cheaper places), clean and the staff are really friendly.

Yesterday we didn't do anything seriously touristy except for walking around the city, looking at all the shops and motorcycle rentals (there are so many motor cycles!!), drinking beer (bia hoi) and coffee (ca phe). We had noodle soup (pho) and got harassed by dudes selling sunglasses (real Ray Ban's apparently) and children with miscellaneous junk to sell. The city is overwhelming and noisy but has so much going on! The difference between day and night is amazing too. The noise is different but does not decrease in volume. Some of the stores use loud music to get your attention while others use colour or flashing lights.

he traffic was scary at first but we are getting used to it. My favorite sight was a guy holding plate glass windows doubling on the back of a scooter. These guys have a very different idea of safety than your average aussie. I can see myself living in a place like this.
The photos I have attached are not in chronological order, not the right way up and aligned wrong, sorry (this blogging app is new so I am still learning about it) but there is one of me eating breakfast. It was delicious and only 20.000 per bowl (that's like $1 AUD). I like salty breakfast and really don't understand pastries in the morning so this suited me perfectly. I might not miss Vegemite after all. There is a photo of John carrying the coconut mans baggage. After the photo, he handed us coconuts and charged us 150.000... we got ripped off of course and it happened so fast and we didn't realise that our new friend was a con man until after we handed over almost $10 for something we didn't even know we wanted. If this is the worst we get ripped off on this trip, I will be happy. The coconuts were pretty good although a bit tainted by the experience. The drinks in the other shot are coffee... the first coffee straight off the plane actually and even though we know that drinking local ice is taking a substantial risk with our formally un-exposed digestive system, we decided to risk it and get our first bout of travellers gastro out of the way. I am pleased to say that as yet, this has not occurred although I know there is still time.
Xox love to all




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