South East Asia part 10: Da Lat, VN – Saigon, VN
5 months in the humid climate of South-East Asia has made us really miss the English weather. Mild windy sideways rain is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but after long enough in borderline unlivable climates (at least for me) English weather is a dream. I can honestly say that the climate in the UK is my favourite in the world. It never gets too hot, or too cold. Yes, some might say the rain is a problem, but there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. We did not expect to find English weather in Vietnam, but we did.
We got off the bus to 18 degrees C and sideways rain. It was great, Josephine even put her trousers on for the first time since India! Da Lat sits at 1500 meters at the southern end of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. This altitude gives it a year-long mild climate enabling a variety of temperate crops to grow such as coffee, strawberries, cabbage and potatoes. We got ourselves a cheap hostel and planned our route for the next few days. We wanted to head up into the pine forests for a few days and finally enjoy camping again. The weather was perfect for it and the Central Highlands are drastically less populated than the coastal plains of Vietnam.
We packed several days of food including tomatoes, pasta and red wine, ready for a romantic few days alone in the forest (we were celebrating 5 years together don’t you know), but after leaving the hostel in torrential rain and cycling 5 km in the cold we decided to scrap our pine forest retreat and opted to descend a bit on the main road where it was a little bit warmer. This turned out to be a great idea as the rain stopped once we dropped 200 metes in altitude and we found ourselves a beautiful camp spot right next to a dam behind a coffee plantation. The weather was a balmy 22 degrees C with occasional showers, and we had a nice evening drinking wine and playing cards in the tent without the need for our USB powered fans, finally.
We took a small road the next day through further coffee, tea and rice fields and arrived at the edge of the Central Highlands. We were greeted with an incredible view of the lowlands all the way to the sea with the exciting prospect of a long downhill through the hills into the plains below. The temperature was in the mid 20’s and as soon as we started descending, we could feel the heat and the humidity rising. We stopped for a sugarcane juice and relaxed playing cards for a few hours to avoid the sun. A small tip from us, if you order a sugarcane juice in Vietnam, try and carry a lime or two with you to add to it, it takes the sweetness away and makes it even more delicious!
After a few more hours of cycling we arrived back at our least favourite road in the world, the QL1, the main highway in Vietnam running between Hanoi and Saigon. Luckily all we had to do was cross over it to get to the sea the following day. We got a guesthouse just off the highway and crossed over on foot it to get some food. Highways in Vietnam are not like they are in Europe. Shops, schools, markets and roads line the edge of the highway with kids playing on the hard shoulder and markets extending almost into the outer-most lane. All the while lorries and trucks are chugging past at over 80 kmph beeping and swerving around any obstacle. It’s abysmally loud and unpleasant and not a nice place to stop for food and relax, yet everyone does.
The next day we cycled into a landscape of sand dunes and dragon fruit plantations. Dragon fruit season is April to October in Vietnam and the fields were lined with crates and crates of harvested dragon fruit. They are roughly the size of a grapefruit bus cost as little as 5000 Dong each (£ 0.17). The roads went up and down over the sand dunes until reaching the sea near the town of Mui Ne. There was a strong onshore wind and the sea was choppy and turbid making the beaches look less tropical than the photos of Mui Ne on the internet show! We struck gold with a camping hostel where we could put up our tent under the palm trees for a very cheap price ($2 each).
We spent 3 nights at the beach hostel with a few trips into the town for some food at the market. The novelty of markets for us has completely worn off. After seeing markets all across Asia, visiting them becomes a chore now. Maybe if it is a huge city centre market might we get a bit of a kick out of it, but we tend to avoid them if we can. We found cheap coconuts though, for our morning rice pudding and made ourselves some noodles for dinner on our limping camp stove. The petrol we have been burning in Vietnam has completely clogged up the spindle in our Primus omni-fuel stove. So much so that I need to clean it every 2 days which is a real pain in the sphincter. It burns very inefficiently too, leading to all our pots being caked in a thick layer of carbon which is a nightmare to scrub-off.
Following our mini-beach break, we smashed the road again hugging the coast towards the Mekong Delta. The following 100 km’s after Mui Ne were packed with resorts both new and under construction. There were obviously quite a lot of Russian tourists coming to this area with signs lining the road in Cyrillic, bringing back nice memories of Central Asia. I want to briefly mention how many seaside resorts we have seen in Vietnam. We have passed hundreds on our trip down the coast with about 80 % of them being half finished or abandoned before completion. I am not sure where the large demand for holiday resorts is coming from, but it is mental. I have a hunch it is the growing middle class in Vietnam allowing people to afford domestic beach holiday-breaks from their jobs in the cities.
On the note of a growing Vietnamese middle class, we have been shocked by the number of overweight children we have seen. It is extremely rare to see a fat adult in Vietnam, but fat children are available in abundance, especially the lads. I would hazard a guess at about 30 % of under 12 boys being overweight. You can see why too, every one of them have smartphones and I can’t recall a time seeing any children doing sport. Although the adults aren’t visibly obese, they spend a lot of time on their phones in cafes playing games and gambling. It is a huge contrast to other parts of Asia seeing so many people on their phones all the time and might be the cause of our feelings of limited personal interactions with the Vietnamese. Vietnamese people in general (with some exceptions) have felt very distant from us on both a cultural and personal level. I am not sure if this is because of their attitude to foreigners, or the language barrier, but we have never felt so different and isolated from the people in a country like we have in Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong, some people have been unbelievably friendly and open, but they are exceptions to the rule.
We spent the next 3 days following a somewhat boring coastline with vicious headwinds slowing us down and constant rain showers particularly at night. As I may have said before, our tent is not as waterproof as it was and constant rain at night leads to a few drips making their way into the tent. Putting our tarp over the top of the tent normally helps with the leakage though. Some of the beaches we camped next to were also extremely filthy. They were isolated, but still covered in plastic rubbish, mostly originating from the sea and being dumped at the highwater mark. I am sorry Vietnam, but your beaches are riddled with trash and it is not a nice sight.
Our bums were starting to become quite sore from the long tough days in the headwind, but we had a solution. Yes, chamois cream helps somewhat but a better solution is distraction. During one of our coffee stops at a Ca Phe Vong (hammock café, these things are amazing) we stumbled across an array of new podcasts to download and listen to on the bike. This distracted us from the busy roads, headwinds and saddle sores and enabled us to get through to the start of the Mekong delta without being grinded down too much on the busy highways. We stayed at a Nha Nghi (guesthouse) at the edge of an industrial estate and were treated to a litter of brand new puppies less than half a week old. Unfortunately, the mum would not let us anywhere near them, but we could still look at them from a distance which was still nice. We got the room £2 cheaper than the price stated through some tough negotiation (we’re getting better at it) and had a tasty dinner of Banh Xeo (rice pancake, disgustingly delicious every time).
The next morning was a rainy one and we battled it out in our raincoats until the sun came out after 11 making it horrendously humid and moist. As we curved around the southern side of Ho Chi Minh City and got deeper south into the Delta the traffic slowly subsided and eventually reached a point where there wasn’t a single car anywhere. Vietnam has very few cars as it is anyway due to a huge import tax (200 %) on foreign vehicles to protect domestic automobile production. This means there are a lot of motorbikes in Vietnam, and I mean a lot. 45 million motorbikes in a country with a population of 96 million. The motorbike does everything. We have seen motorbikes transport animals, market produce, ice, construction materials, families, living room furniture and mattresses. We have seen motorbikes being used as candy floss stalls, knife sharpening workshops, bakeries, sandwich stalls, postal services and rubbish collection. We have even seen people napping on motorbikes (while parked, obviously). People drive into markets and buy a weeks’ worth of produce without even getting off their bikes. They drive up to food and drink stalls and get takeaway food without dismounting their bikes. The best thing is when it rains. All of a sudden, every single person has a rain mac which covers them and their bikes. And for the small percentage of people who left theirs at home, its not a problem, as street sellers magically (and seemingly out of nowhere) provide a bamboo stick with a selection of waterproof macs, coats and hats costing next to nothing. Even after 10 weeks in Vietnam, we are still surprised by what we see on the backs of motorbikes in Vietnam. It is NEVER boring.
We were getting right into the maze that is the Mekong Delta. The Eastern region of Tien Giang province is lined with rice paddies and roads which come to an abrupt end at a river crossable by a ferry reserved for 2 wheelers only and costing about £0.20 each. We used about 6 of these ferries and the traffic and roads got quieter and smaller as we got deeper into the delta. We really wanted to try and camp in the Mekong but it was just impossible, at least wild camping. It is the rainy season and the afternoon showers make the ground completely saturated with water, especially the low-lying Mekong delta. We had heard stories of cycle tourers staying in churches or temples, but to be honest, we never tried asking.
We reached a town called Go Cong in the pissing rain and found a guesthouse near the centre. After hanging all our stuff up to dry (as usual) we headed into town for some dinner. Now, when it comes to eating, I am the least picky person in the world and Josephine is, let’s say, more at the other end of the spectrum. To address our asymmetry in feeding preferences, I suggested that Josephine should always choose where and what we eat to avoid me picking something she doesn’t like. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for 2 main reasons; 1) I am extremely impatient, 2) Josephine finds it very very difficult to make decisions. Subsequently, this leads to me getting frustrated and Josephine sensing this and finding it even more difficult to decide. Recently it has gotten so bad that Josephine has been on the verge of tears as she is so anxious about making a decision on where to eat. Not necessarily because of my impatience, but due to a mixture of different circumstances. It’s an odd occurrence and we are not sure what is making her so anxious, but in the end, we always find delicious food and go to bed happy and satisfied. Our current plan is that I make the decisions on where and what to eat based on my understanding of what Josephine likes and doesn’t like. Writing this out, it sounds like a ridiculous first world problem, but for some reason it has become quite a serious issue in our day to day lives.
The following day we crossed yet another river by ferry into Ben Tre province. This province is famous for its coconuts, with an output of over 600 million coconuts a year. Additionally, Ben Tre province has an endemic species of coconut palm producing the unique Xiem coconut, a small and deliciously sweet coconut. Upon arrival in the province, you are immediately surrounded by coconut plantations. There are also fields of bananas, cassava and lemongrass making for some very beautiful cycling. We found plenty of small roads through tiny villages and markets and took a slow few days exploring the province. Some of these roads are rather unforgiving though. Remember I said it was rainy season? Yes, well some roads are made of concrete and some are not, and the ones that are not, do not drain rainwater very well, at all. We spent 2 hours pushing our bikes through 50 cm thick mud and clogging up our brakes and mud guards (not so good at guarding the bikes from mud when it’s everywhere). Luckily, a few local guys helped us the last stretch to the concrete path again and even assisted us in rinsing our bikes off in the canal (the wheels and chains would not even move due to all the mud). After this encounter, we decided to blow off another attempt at camping and stayed at another guesthouse where the owners kindly let us use their hose to clean the remaining crud off of our bikes.
We had slowly been waking up later and later these days as the heat has been less intense meaning we can cycle right through midday. We decided to get going at sunrise the next morning though and it was an awesome decision. Seeing the sunrise above the banana tree and coconut palms made for the most beautiful cycling of our time in Vietnam. Coupled with no traffic and tiny winding roads ensured we had smiles on our faces all morning. The abundance of coconuts also meant it was easy to pick them from the trees and chop them open with our coconut knife and slurp the sweet water with our home-made coconut straws from Laos. Man, we had a great time wheeling through the Mekong delta.
Our fortunes improved further upon our discovery of coconut candy. This stuff is only produced in Ben Tre town from Ben Tre coconuts and is absolutely delightful (try the cocoa flavoured one). We bought ourselves a box of it and it was gone by the end of the day. After leaving Ben Tre town the traffic started growing as did the size of the vehicles. We took a small tour around an island before crossing a huge bridge with a crazy headwind and a freewheel down the bridge into the town of My Tho where we got our final guesthouse before reaching Sai Gon. A lot of the guesthouses in Vietnam are also known colloquially as “love hotels”. Many of them rent out rooms for an hourly rate and the rooms have red lighting and mirrors next to the beds. We normally get cheaper rooms if we say that we are leaving before 6 am and it works most of the time.
We had 70 km to our Couchsurfing host in Sai Gon (I use Ho Chi Minh City and Sai Gon interchangeably. The official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but the Vietnamese still call it by its pre 1975 name, Sai Gon) and for the first time in what felt like an eternity we had a beautiful TAILWIND. That breeze blew us into Sai Gon in record time and we were having rice in the centre for second breakfast by 11 am. We got to our host by midday and were kindly treated to our own room to dump our ridiculous amount of stuff and finally do some washing in a washing machine for the first time in ages. Strangely, we find Vietnam to be the only country we have been to where we prefer the cities to the countryside. Maybe this is because we did not have the best experience cycling the Vietnamese coast. Several reasons including climate and bike problems meant we were unable to venture into the hills inland and had to stick to the flatter coastal route, and this may be responsible for our rough ride through Vietnam. Our spirits were completely uplifted in the Mekong delta though. The cycling there is beautiful, the food is cheap and plentiful, and the people seemed to be a bit more open and friendly.
Despite Vietnam feeling very culturally distant to us, the extensive pollution and the tough climate, we are glad we stuck it out all the way to Sai Gon. The incredibly diverse food, numerous places to stop for a tasty coffee and lie in a hammock and the hilarious business we have seen on the back of motorbikes has kept us smiling and pedalling. A tough but rewarding place to travel, particularly by bike. Bike touring always shows you the “real country” and not just the highlights, and this can be both good and bad sometimes. We are happy to be finished though and looking forward to mixing it up in Cambodia and Thailand.