Week 1 of my,
Bicycle Adventure Tour.
I landed in Saigon to find my bike box looking grumpy and disheveled. There was a big tear in the side and it was sitting with all the up arrows pointing down, however nothing appeared to be missing or broken so onwards to the hotel where the curious staff helped me upstairs with the bike box. An hour or so of assembly and we were ready to go.
Saigon is a sprawling city of 7 million people, most of them on mopeds at all times. Not wishing to cause a pile up on my first day i opted to take a taxi to the river, about 5 miles from the centre where i could start my cycle away from the chaos. The temperature sits at around 30 degrees and i’m already breaking a sweat cycling the 100 yards from the taxi to the ferry. My bike and I ( the bike’s not been named yet) are the centre of attention and we remain the object of sly glances and quickly averted eyes for the short hop across the river. We pass a barge carrying ballast that is way beyond the plimsol line with barley 12 inches of boat visible above water.
I disembark and it’s a straight shot for about 25 miles so no regular map checks necessary and i’m off. It felt very good to finally be going with the entirety of Vietnam ahead of me. There was very little on the road, i passed miles of mangrove forests to my right, there were 2 monkeys on the road, snake road kill, and some very odd fish that were skimming across wet mud flats as opposed to swimming.
The odd truck and bike pass me slowing down and occasionally bellowing their horns, notably an ambulance blaring blues and two’s coming from the opposite direction that found time to slow down and gawp. Two chaps passed me on their ‘ped and were very friendly. The rider asked where i was heading, “Hanoi” audible gasps, a wave, and off they go, but about 20 meters up the road they slowed down again and waited for me to catch up, where upon we had this charming exchange.
So that was encouraging, well it quickened my pace at least.
On arrival at Can Thanh, ( in tact and not robbed) I found that the boat i needed to take me over to Vung Tau only operated in the morning so i’d missed it, to get to Vung Tau by a different route would have required another 50 miles cycling so the only sensible thing was to stop for the day. A little dispiriting as i’d wanted to get in at least 50 miles but managed only 30.
I woke early to make sure i could catch the 8am ferry. It turned out not to be a ferry, just a boat that goes between Can Thahn and Vung Tao. My bike got loaded on the roof and very soon we were chugging along in the morning heat. Fishing boat after boat appear out of the haze in all directions, I don’t know how the bay can sustain this many. On approaching the harbour i came across a very novel way of rowing a boat, as most people here don’t use there arms but their legs. The Oars are just the same it’s just the use their feet for hands and power the oars using a cycling motion. As expected i’m the centre of attention at the dock, a plank was laid from the boat to the dock and i gingerly made my way over with bags and bike. I walked my bike through the productive hubbub slipping on ice whilst being enveloped by the fishy funk that emanates everything.
Finally i was on my way proper and was making good time, but alas this progress was not meant to be, as 30 miles in my crank started to feel funny and on closer inspection i found that the bottom bracket was loose. This was bad. The tool i needed to tighten it i’d opted not to bring due to the unlikely-hood (or so i thought) of needing it. Not only that, but to get to the bottom bracket to tighten it i also need to get the crank off and, well, er, i opted not to bring that tool either. Don’t i feel an idiot.
I pulled up to a mechanic and through a lot of sign language and frantic flapping of arms when a brick hammer was put into use on a crank arm i got the bottom bracket tightened. 5 miles later through it was loose again. I won’t bore you with the details but after another trip to another mechanic, it loosened again, a third mechanic and again loose after only a few miles. At this point i was stumped. Every mile takes me further from Saigon, the only place in 300 miles that would have the tools to fix it. And then it’s getting late too. Hmmm what to do. Well there was a place i wanted to stop at but had decided not to as it would only make a 50 mile day but due to loosing at least 2 hours to quick fixes i wouldn’t be able to do any more, so i limped the bike to a star on the map ‘ Natural hot springs. ‘
It’s a bit fancy for a grubby cyclist but all the staff are lovely and gracious and i secured a room. Immediately i as on the blower to a cycle shop in Saigon and Richard the man who made my bike. The consensus seemed to be that all i needed were these tools and after a lot of backing and forth, it ended that i was to have the needed tools sent from Saigon on a tour bus that will be visiting this hotel the day after tomorrow. A result, but it does mean that i have a rest day after a messy 80 miles all in. First world problems ay?!
Well i’m stranded waiting for the tools that will fix my bike that are now due to arrive tomorrow at 1pm on a tour bus from Saigon. The sky’s blue the pool’s waiting and i was woken bright and early by reception to see if i’d had breakfast yet, a quirk i’m not yet quite use to. This happens all over Asia they seem to want to emulate the west, ( who knows why) and get so close, so so close to getting everything perfect but always seem to fall at the last hurdle. Take my room for instance. Beautifully furnished, air-conditioning, blackout curtains, flat screen TV and a fridge filled with goodies, perfect, except for the oversight of having a child’s waste basket with Mickey Mouse on the side.
I end up lounging by the pools reading and swimming. Finally a few more guests show up, popular with the Russians, Vietnam. I met a Vietnamese guy who use to sell zippo lighters and whose wife, writes and shoots for lonely planet. He taught me, or tried, some vietnamese, ‘left’, ‘straight on’, oddly though he couldn’t remember the word for ‘right’, bazaar!
At Dinner i sat outside alone to read my book and get away from the Musak in the restaurant (they were playing an instrumental version of the theme music from Titanic again) and after finishing my meal a slightly portly gentleman with a kind face came out to smoke. He offered me a beer in exchange for the seat opposite me and we got to chatting. His name is Tuan and he organises tour groups for VIP’s. inside were two groups of older people, who apparently had had too much to drink (it’s 7:30pm) and were rubbish company due to age and inebriation. This lot were high up in the police force and were having a weekend off. Anyway he was telling me about how around here was where the VC had there stake out and where the sister hotel was to this one ( a beautiful beach 10 miles away) was where the Americans had theirs, and incidentally where they killed lots of people.
Apparently, according to my new friend here, there is a secret VC base over at Vung Tao ( the place i had disembarked at yesterday) that after the war, just went missing. It was a headquarters but the people in charge have misplaced it or so the story goes and no-one’s any the wiser, a story i of course believe for its incredulity. After all we lost the Magna Carta and that turned up in someone’s attic. Tuan smoked constantly, he wants to quit, actually did for 6 months but put on 10 kilos and decided it was bad for his health so started up again.
He’s here twice a week and keeps a bottle of whiskey behind the bar, he merely raised his head and running footsteps could be heard. Two glasses a bucket of ice and his bottle of whiskey were quickly produced and the conversation continued. What time was i leaving tomorrow?… 1pm… splendid i could see the beach tomorrow with him as he has to go down and inspect the rooms for his guests before they arrive. Wonderful.
I’m off for another dip in the pools before closing time. I don’t know how they close them. Maybe they put the temperature up or something.
True to his word Tuan was ready to take me to the beach at 8 the following morning. On arrival at the hotel a golf buggy is waiting and I’m provided with a guided tour of the complex by the hotel manageress. about half an hour later I make it to the beach, it’s HOT.
I go in for my first dip and notice a prickling all over, you get this in England occasionally, usually it’s due to Jellyfish stings being present in the water, it gets a bit uncomfortable and on looking down i see that i’m next to a jelly, so opt to go to the pool instead. Again this complex is empty and i have the pool to myself.
Back at the hotel and at half 12 my tools arrive and after 30 minutes i’m fixed up and back on the road.
En route i was passed by a white man on a motor bike who stopped on the bridge for a chat. Max is a Bevarian who’s taken time out to ride across Vietnam on his 100cc bike and then who knows where, until his 4000 Euro runs out. By the time we finish talking and drinking coconuts ( we progressed to a cafe) it’s getting late so i stop at the next town, find a hotel and search for food. I end up in a hotel’s restaurant by the sea and dine alone. A Vietnamese couple arrived and I gave them a friendly smile and a thumbs up when they had a huge platter of crabs come to their table, a minute later and he’d loaded up a plate and insisted on me having 6 whole crabs to try, delicious! I try and buy him a drink but that fails as he has several beers paid for and ends up getting me one. On settling back to my book a couple of families turned up with young children who ended up coming over and showing me their toys and chatting, well more me making funny noises and making hand gestures (i’m a hit at cocktail parties ). The boy’s dad came over to say hello. He’s a banker Saigon who was born in ’76 just after the war ended. He seemed very sharp, very decent, an attentive father etc. He wants to visit America soon as his brother is, or at least was, an illegal immigrant over in Virginia. His brother took a long voyage on a Thai boat to sneak in to the US back in ’89, a very dangerous journey apparently where a number of people died. I tried to order a beer for us but he trumped everything i said by talking Vietnamese to the waitress and he bought us both a beer, and another. And when i came to pay the bill for my dinner he’d taken care of that too! So generous!
I had an early start and was making some real progress, 30 miles by 11:30 which meant i should have been well on the way to making 65 miles and getting to Mu Nei where that have red sand dunes. My bottom bracket had become loose again at around 15 miles in but I tightened it good and proper it should have been fine from then on. It wasn’t It loosened again about 15 miles outside of Mu Nei, and again i was put in a quandary. Something clearly wasn’t right I didn’t know whether to push on or turn back to the big town i’d just passed through. I got in touch with Van, the man who had sent me the tools to see if he knew of a bike shop around these parts. I was a bit fed up to be honest, not despondent as such but weary and grubby after 50 miles on the road again, poor mileage for these conditions. After 90 minutes and following hand written maps to the best bike shop in town it became clear i wasn’t getting any help here. This was such a bad start to the trip 4 days and only 150 miles.
Blow it! I needed to be in Saigon if i was going to get anything done. A man smiled at me so i pulled up to his shop and he got me a taxi within 10 minutes. A tiny thing that somehow we managed to fit a bike into and we set off for a 5 hour car journey back to Saigon. In the meantime it was arranged that Van would come with parts to fix my bike the following morning. 5 days in and back to square 1.
Van turned up the following morning, he knows everything about bikes and said that this part was rubbish. Part of it is Aluminium and according to Van it doesn’t stand up to the visors of any real use. Too true all in it’s only covered 260 miles. He fixed it ( at the time of writing it’s still woking anyway) and told me that there needs to be a hole underneath it, as when it rains water can escape, it would make its way through to the bearings and cause severe damage. So we fixed that with a drill. He looked the rest of the bike over and only had good things to say which was reassuring.
I decided to take the day to wander around Saigon a little. It chucked it down at one point so i put on the waterproof camera case took off my flip flops and wandered the streets getting snaps.
I went out that night and found my way to a restaurant where i got talking to Ulrike a lovely, very engaging German Biologist who, when she’s not traveling SE Asia is working with stem cells and deciding whether to go for a Masters or start looking for a job. Herself and her boss are working on some quite groundbreaking studies, she’s one of two people in the world with this niche of knowledge so she was very interesting to talk to. She can remove the brain of a rat and get this, a fruit fly, without damaging it. A skill indeed. I started quizzing her about Neuroscience as it’s a subject i’m rather interested in and interestingly she’s working with Oxytosins which is something I’ve read about and find rather fascinating ( Oxytosin is a hormone released in a female after sex, during childbirth [assuming she has contractions] and when breast feeding. It’s a powerful hormone that, to put it simply, induces the feeling of love and attachment. It’s this hormone that allows for instance a ewe which has given birth in the last few hours to a lamb that dies or is a still born, to have another lamb presented to her, and for her to bond to it like it is her own.) Anyway she was doing tests with female rats who were pregnant and then gave birth, injecting them before labor with either a stress hormone or Oxytosin to see what difference it makes. Unfortunately to take measurements afterwards she needs to kill the female rat. I made a lighthearted comment about her being heartless leaving these poor orphans to fend for themselves and, deadpan and in all seriousness she replied, ”Oh it’s not heartless, i always kill the babies too.”
I went to get an early night but ran into Lauren who i met the night before, we went for one drink which somehow spiraled to us not getting back till nearly 4. This blew my chances of an early start, to get a taxi back to Mu Nei.
After a lazy start i decided that i really could use this time to plan a route and spent 5 hours in a coffee shop, maps strewn over tables working out where to go, where i could go (finding border crossings that issue visas on arrival is essential), and looking up interesting things to see en route.
Subsequently my entire plan has changed. Due to me having a wedding to shoot 3 days after i return, i don’t want to risk coming back through Cambodia just a few days before. Instead i plan to go through Cambodia to Laos immediately, and take in a lot more of Laos before meandering back to the north of Vietnam and taking in Ha Long Bay, at that point if i’m running later than planned, inevitable now that i’ve lost a week, i can catch a train back to Saigon when the time comes.