#30 And that’s that

Monday: Vinh Long to Ben Tre, 54km
Tuesday: Ben Tre to Tan An, 37km
Wednesday: Tan An to HCMC, 60km

Three pretty easy days to finish, with each day taking me further away from the lazy Mekong Delta and closer to Vietnam’s biggest metropolis. Coming into Ben Tre I have my last river crossing by boat.

Ben Tre was lovely, and at a recommendation (from mum researching on Google!!) I trac down a coconut candy factory. According to wikitravel there are a few in town, but this one benefits from being the only one with the address provided on wikitravel. Free advertising right there for someone. One of them. Unlucky everyone else. It was quite amusing to hang around for half an hour or so, watching the transformation from lump of candy to boxed product. In particular, the speed at which the ladies (and gent) individually wrap and box each square of toffee.

And speaking of advertising, on the way out of town the next morning I saw just how much advertising these coconut candy empires really were. I passed shop after shop, each with their own (basically identical) billboard advertising one of two companies. About two-thirds were predominantly yellow, and for the company I visited yesterday, while the remaining third were mostly maroon, and from the competitor. A bit of Coles v Woolies if you will. Both included a photo apparently taken in the eighties, or at best nineties of their matriarchal lady owner in oversized glasses looking, unlike their deliciously sweet product, rather sour.

There wasn’t much to see in Tan An, although had I been there a few days earlier I could have gone to a Vietnamese national league soccer match. That might have been something. Tan An, Tan An, Tan An. Oi, Oi, Oi.

Pretty mixed emotions coming into HCM. This was the beginning of the end. It was over. I’d cycled from Bangkok. No sweat really. Actually, a fair bit of sweat. A bit of blood. And a few tears. I lost my shit on a couple of occasions in the cities. They were awful places in comparison to the countryside. What a place the countryside was. The people, the food. The roads. The bits in between the towns. That’s what I’ve enjoyed the most.

The run into HCMC wasn’t too bad. Lots of traffic of course, but there was a separate lane for motorbikes, which I used too. Not many bicycles here though, I counted 10 from the edge of the city until Jim’s place. Jim from 2002 Jim. When I was 22 Jim. When we were both at the University of Queensland.

I followed my map and I arrived at Jim’s gated community appartment building and I got off my bike for the last time.

My journey was complete. A small feeling of accomplishment, but larger was the general sense of loss that it was all over. It all went by so fast! Still greater though was the recognition that life can’t all be holidays and that I have plenty to look forward to in 2015 with Sam in Melbourne, including a new job teaching Mandarin. Exciting.

Great to see Jim again, his wife Hue, and meet his two boys for the first time, Hieu (7) and Ben (2).

I got organised, and did what I tend to do in developing countries, I had some medical checkups, heading to Jim’s optometrist for some new glasses, dentist for not just a clean and polish but a new porcelain cap, and barber for a straight razor shave removing 8 weeks of facial hair.

That’s it then. Thanks for reading and in particular, thanks for commenting on posts! I’ve never felt too far from support which has been really nice. I’ve enjoyed using this as a diary and in the future will appreciate the memories it brings back – and I’ll upload trip details from Garmin and do some general tidying of the site when I’m home and working on something other than an iPhone!

A total of 2412 kilometres recorded, which excludes trips after finding my hotel for the night for dinner/shopping/site-seeing that I didn’t record. So let’s call it 2500 kilometres from November 26, 2014 to 14 January, 2015 and every day really has been a nice day for a ride.

#29 Wedding crasher

Fri 9, Soc Trang to Tra Vinh, 66km
Sat 10, Tra Vinh to Vinh Long, 67km

I don’t have much choice but to cycle on major roads. Pleasant enough though with good surfaces, well-behaved road users and interesting things to see as I ride. It’s relaxed here on the Mekong Delta.

Religion seems to be doing ok. Both the Cambodian/Khmer Buddhist temple and the Catholic Church in the photos below had been newly built.

A couple of Mekong river crossings which involved waiting for and then piling on (then off) a flatbed barge. This would be the closest I get to the mouth of the river and the South China Sea.

Have some initial trouble finding a hotel in Tra Vinh but a friendly boy on a bike offers to show me and leads the way to the Gia Hoa 2.

Spend the first half of the ride on the major road between Tra Vinh and Vinh Long but then take a small detour to ride a minor road where I find a dragon fruit farm, and many brick kilns.

I’d been meaning to take a photo of a wedding reception for quite a while having passed many in Cambodia and Vietnam in the last month. The setup seemed to be the same in both countries. Put a big pink gazebo roadside, hire the loudest speaker system in the province for karaoke, and invite as many people as you can to eat and drink all day.

I found one about 10km to go and stopped to take a couple of photos from the far side of the road. Immediately spotted, I was welcomed across the road and into the tent. Within seconds I had a glass of ice and beer in one hand and a chicken drumstick in the other. A few ‘cheers’, more chicken, prawns and crab, and a session of sticker giving with the children followed. I had in my hand the most expensive gift I had with me, a handmade boomerang. I had been waiting for the perfect opportunity and this was it! I was trying to communicate that I’d like to give it to the bride and groom to wish them well on their future life together, but the language gap was too large. A couple of minutes later I was politely told by a stern looking gentleman that it might be best if I leave, ushering me in front of sheepish, almost embarrassed looking guests that clearly wanted to be amused by me a little longer. The day wasn’t for them, or me though, and so we waved goodbye and I was on my way again. A 30 minute break, tops.

I’m now in Vinh Long, and am spending today, Sunday, resting.

#28 More fabulous riverside paths

Thur 8, Can Tho to Soc Trang, 70km

Take it easy in the morning, grabbing a couple of pork rolls from outside the hotel to eat as I pack.

Spend the first part of the ride heading south-east on a busy highway before turning off at a bridge to ride along the river. It was a really nice path to ride but unfortunately it stopped at the next bridge and so all I ended up doing was a small loop.

I tried again a bit further on, turning right on to a smaller marked road running along another river. Before I had the chance to get to the river path the road became an almost unrideable beginning of a road with bloody great stones forming the foundation. That won’t do for a great amount of time but I pressed on hoping things would improve. Wouldn’t you know it, they got worse. The road turned to mud, which I sank into, resulting in dirty boots. Dear oh me. I needed to be on whatever path was on other side of the river.

I could see a bridge about a hundred metres away so pressed on until I could duck across to the corresponding river path.

For the most part it was great fun to ride, with rickety bridges crossing tributaries and lots to see, although the path was very rundown in places with big cracks and movement in the concrete slabs the most awkward obstacle.

Not many food options. I stop at one place and have what they can offer, instant noodles with bean sprouts (plus a coffee, plus a coconut juice- which was emptied into a plastic container, presumably so I could enjoy it with sugar and ice).

As I was leaving the young chap in the above photograph jumps up and more or less advises me to go back 100 metres to take a ferry to the other side. I’m not sure what lay ahead on this side of the river but I took his advice. My best guess is that one of the smaller tributary bridges was broken.

Similar path conditions, with just as many interesting things to see and shocked people to pass. I stop at one group with children to show photos and offer stickers.

Despite enjoying it tremendously, the ride was slow going and I was grateful to be able to link back with a nicely sealed major road for the final 20km or so into Soc Trang.

There, I meet another cyclist, 29 year old ‘Paul’ from China, the first I’ve seen in Vietnam. We share stories and emails.

Enjoy a beautiful chicken curry for dinner, and then have an early night.

#27 Can Tho

Wed 7. Vi Thanh to Can Tho, 55km

Up at the crack of dawn and munch on a couple of fresh, crusty bread pork rolls as I ride out of town. It was a very nice stretch of road with the river on one side and houses on the other.

I passed some industry, rice being bagged and loaded onto a barge and stopped for a look. One chap was very excited to see me and encouraged me to take lots of photos from various angles. A little patronising, perhaps but I went with it. At the end of the 2 minute ‘tour’ he held his hand, “money!” I explained that it taints the experience if he acts all friendly at first only to then demand cash compensation with a stern look. I knew he didn’t speak any English but was using the time to organise a koala sticker and a signature on a novelty $50 note for him. He looked disappointed and motioned he would tear it up. I said that it was up to him what he did with it but that perhaps he might like to keep it as a souvenir, or give it to a child and I smiled as I waved goodbye and carried on down the road.

My next stop was filled with far more laughter, a primary school at recess and a chance to pull funny faces and ask simple questions in English. I would have been mobbed if not for the wire fencing separating us. Excitable children curious about the stranger.

By this stage I had left the road and was riding along a path next to the river. They are found along the banks of stretches of river and canals and while the quality of the surface varies (greatly), it’s well worth exploring and is something not many foreigners experience if the number of gasps, oohs and ahs from the locals is anything to go by.

Can Tho is the biggest city of the Mekong Delta. I found a great hotel for under $10 a night and did some site-seeing in the afternoon, the Chinese temple a highlight. The spirals in the photos below are incense rings which, I thought to myself must burn for a very long time.

In the evening I joined a trip advisor recommend activity, a walking food tour. It was excellent, the guide was fun and knowledgeable and the food delicious. Even the fried field mouse.

#26 How Simon got his groove back

Another day bumming around Phu Quoc. Get up late. Leisurely food stop. Beach. Rest. Repeat. Leisurely cycle north past the port and over the bridge to a less touristy part of the main town for dinner, and then to a dessert bar for a fruit, jelly and glutinous rice milkshake, chocolate eclairs, and lamingtons. Sam is in the process of giving up lots of things, and sugar is one of them. I’ll get on board when I’m back in Melbourne but for the meantime….

Phu Quoc is very pleasant, but a couple of nights is enough for me. I returned to my hotel in the evening to plan the next week. Back onto the backroads. My week in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The swan-song of my trip.

So, here’s the schedule for Jan 6 to Jan 14, for those playing along at home. Mostly short rides and one night stays, with a couple of spare nights to use when desired.

Phu Quoc to Vi Thanh (80km)
VT to Can Tho (55km)
CT to Soc Trang (60km)
ST to Tra Vinh (50km)
TV to Vinh Long (65km)
VL to My Tho (90km)
MT to HCMC (70km)

Before I leave the island, a note on the dogs here. They are a special breed apparently, and have the noticeable feature of having a patch of hair on their back growing against the grain of the rest of the coat. Want to see one? The chappy in the photos below was fishing around for scraps at the cafe where I had lunch. Easy to see why they call them ridgebacks.

Right then. So today was the first leg of the last, and it was fantastic. I was back where I wanted to be. The roads were good, and the scenery interesting. For most of the journey I had a mixture of rice paddies and houses on one side, with waterways and boats on the other. There were lots of bridges to cross and lots of people saying hello.

I had a couple of stops for iced coffee along the way. The theme for caf├ęs in this part of the world is hammocks, which proved a perfect place to rest the pegs. There was a big group at one that enjoyed looking through my photo album and I was offered some sticky rice in banana leaf from a boy who refused to be refunded for. I gave him a note with stickers in return.

I got caught in a storm heading into Vi Thanh (which was actually quite pleasant) and had my first bowl of proper pho for dinner. My hotel is great (details to be provided) and I’m about to go to bed I’m preparation for an early start tomorrow and a cycle past some floating markets.

#25 …and into Vietnam

I had intended to take a small detour via the Kampot/Kep pepper plantations but after a short time on the bike realised what I needed to do was not extend the day but get to my next destination with minimal exertion. I was feeling below par, with another upset stomach draining energy and bodily fluids making things tough going.

The conditions were also tough going. In addition to growing pepper the region is known for producing salt, and while I deliberately bypassed the pepper region, I accidentally passed the salt farms and experienced a harsh, windy and arid microclimate.

The beeline ‘road ‘ I was taking too, tough going. Dirt tracks of varying conditions, then sandy paths leading to the ‘secret’ Angkol Beach. At one point I was peddling behind another ‘Cambodian tractor’, a common sight during my almost four weeks in the country. This one was packed with rice and was taking up the whole track, slowly maneuvering past potholes. I was following, with my mind wandering to the lush green English countryside and spending time on country lanes with thick roadside hedges, behind Somerset farmers and their tractors on the way to Granny and Grandpa’s.

I was able to prove useful actually, as he got bogged crossing a small waterway. I laid down my bike and summoned up all my strength to lift and push it on its way.

The border crossing into Vietnam took much longer than the Cambodian experience did. This, despite the fact that my visa was pre-purchased and fixed in my passport. All I needed was a stamp but it was over an hour before I was on my way again.

Vietnam! Country three of three. I found a guesthouse in the border town of Ha Tien and stayed there for two nights (another day of complete rest was required!)

Yesterday (Sunday) I took a ferry to the island of Phu Quoc and on the cycle to my guesthouse passed an unmarked pepper plantation. It was on a stretch of backroad and the locals at the front weren’t too inviting so I didn’t manage to buy any, but it was interesting to see it grown.

I spent the afternoon swimming, reading, drinking fruit shakes and sleeping, had an average and overpriced burger at Winston’s, a place I was expecting more from given the rave reviews on Trip Advisor and was back in my room for an early night.

#24 So long Cambodia, and thanks for all the fish

Thursday was my last full day in Cambodia. I spent it cycling the back streets of Kep, a city that suffered greatly during the Khmer Rouge and civil war period and hasn’t recovered. While the action in Kep these days is focused primarily along the coast, venturing inland into the city grid marked on maps reveals what once was with wide streets, big blocks of gated land and villas facing towards the ocean. The streets are now in a poor condition (actually, some were newly sealed indicating perhaps renewal is coming), the land left to grow wild, and the villas in various states of disrepair. I explored, and took photos of a minor cult attraction of Kep, the graffiti.

After a couple of rounds of Vietnamese style pork rolls I do some hiking in the Kep National Park. I don’t do the 8km circuit, instead clamber up and down the steep tracks carved into the hill. Tough going, but enjoyable with signage and seats to rest provided by Led Zep cafe and the Squirrel Association. Good job them.

Back to Kukuluku for a swim and rest, and then out for my last dinner in Cambodia, a barbecued fish with rice and sweet chili sauce.

#23 Kep smiling

It’s Wednesday and New Year’s Eve. 26 kilometers on the bike gets me around the corner from riverside Kampot to seaside Kep, and after trying three resorts with no vacancies have success at Kukuluku. No private rooms but $5 for a king size bed in a breezy top floor ‘dorm’ room will do just fine. It’s early, before 10:00am and the only occupier of the room the night before is still in bed. I find out later said occupier is Ilios, a Greek 65-year-old in tiptop shape, ex-marathon runner, regular swimmer who has lived in Amsterdam for thirty years and has just retired from doing backstage theatre production work.

I cool off in the pool, have a short rest and read in the daybed overlooking the ocean before getting back on the bike to explore the town.

I pick up some noodles from a roadside vendor and eat overlooking the ocean. It’s a popular combination of activities and the promenade and general pavement is choc-a-bloc with Khmer families sitting on mats eating big meals either purchased from vendors/cafes locally, or prepared themselves on the spot using camping stoves.

It’s noticeable that Kep is keen on statues. Here’s a (by no means exhaustive) selection. Yes, but what are they of? Ahm, well, you got your giant crab. The white ‘woman who waits for her man’, Apsara, the harp playing celestial dancer, and others.

A beautiful sunset on the beach and then to a seafood restaurant for, it almost had to be, crab and local pepper. Delicious.

Happy new year all. May 2015 take you closer to understanding yourself, others, and the world we all live in.