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16 Jan 2013

Did you know – Vietnam is a one-party Communist state with a population of 91,519,289 (July 2012 est.).    Vietnamese is the office language with English being the favoured second language.  There is also some French, Chinese, Khmer and various mountain languages.  Due to the Communist government Vietnam is non-religious however there are various traditions of different Asian and western faiths and the government recognise six religions.  80% of Vietnamese self-identify as belonging to no religion, yet many of them continue to visit religious temples or churches, and to offer prayers to their ancestors.  Those who are religious are as follows:  Buddhist - 9.3%, Catholic Christian - 6.7%, Hoa Hao - 1.5%, Cao Dai - 1.1%, and less than 1% Muslim or Protestant Christian.

Our first day riding in Vietnam was quiet different to Cambodia – lots of greenery around and we were cycling close to the coast for a bit – the weather also seemed to have changed – more humid with some rain.  It almost felt a bit like Northern Thailand for some reason, must be because of the jungle right next to the road.  Our first stop was a very local seaside village – there wasn’t much around and the beach was totally ruined by all the litter – there was even a pig rummaging around in it – quite disappointing.

One thing we have notice, as in the rest of Asia, it that the scooter is the king of transport.  The humble scooter will transport an entire family, kids to school, boys and girls on a night out, live pigs, chickens and ducks to market, move furniture from one house to the next and as we experienced even deliver food to a café for guests!  Most of the time the person driving uses one hand to steer and one hand to carry the food, talk on the phone or carrying a bag of shopping.  We even saw a lady on the back of a scooter breastfeeding her baby!  All of this happening with no helmet, or If they decide to wear a helmet, it’s nothing more than a type of hard hat we would normally use on a construction site.  The UK’s paranoia with health and safety (lack of it here) will give the authorities a heart attack if they had to see it here.

Most of our riding in Vietnam has been on busy roads – most of the time with a hard shoulder which helps but the roads are very noisy and busy with lots of scooters, bicycles, trucks, busses and cars.  They also hoot constantly, sometime it’s so loud it hurts your ears!  We find that listening to our ipods helps with this!  We also had to cross the mighty Mekong River – the bridge was massive and a bit of a climb but the view from the top was great. 

Our ride into Ho Chi Minh city (HCMC) wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be – J used the gps to take a few smaller roads which made a big difference.  We managed to cope with the hectic, mainly scooter, traffic and after a while of looking around, we found a great little guest house in a quiet side alley.  Ho Chi Minh is a great, bustling city with lots to see.  The area we were staying in has lots of tourist restaurants and shops, and along with that comes all the touts trying to get you to buy sunglasses or books.  One of the main ‘attractions’ in the city is the War Remembrants Museum which documents the atrocities of the Vietnam war (or American war as they call it here).  Again, it’s one of those things that you should see but it can be hard to do.  The museum was full of photos taken by war photographers documenting what took place. The most horrifying section was the one detailing the deadly effects of Agent Orange which the Americans (and also the Vietnamese) used during the war – this chemical poison got into the soil and water systems and caused terrible deformations in the people and is still very evident today.

While in HCMC we decided to send back a few things.  We hadn’t used our tent since south Thailand and were conscious of the fact that we were getting closer to Laos and all its hills.  We ended up sending our tent, thermorest mattresses, camping pillows and a few other things back – a total of 12kgs!

We were very lucky to be invited to an old school friend of J’s for dinner.  Karen and her family have lived in HCMC for almost 2 years and invited us round for a great homemade meal of lasagne and some nice salad and most importantly, some good wine.  Thanks guys for a great evening – hope to catch up with you all again someday.

As the new writer I am allowed to write about whatever I like and I like food!  The food here has certainly been better than Cambodia!  We have many plates of ‘pork and rice’ the main breakfast staple which consists of thin, marinated pork chops braaied/bbqed on a small fire and served with rice and normally a small bowl of soup and chilli sauce.  Our other favourite breakky option is a filled baguette: this is usually filled with egg, some carrot and fresh herbs plus some pate, pork strips or meat balls and off course chilli.  We have had varying success with noodle soups – most of the time they are noodles in a soupy broth with pork, chicken or beef but on one occasion we thought it was pork but when we tried it, it didn’t taste like any meat we had ever tried so we decided to leave the meat and just have the noodles and broth.  After chatting to some other cyclists we think it might have been cat!  The Vietnamese also like their rice paper wraps; we sampled the mini kebabs which you need to assemble yourself – get a piece of rice paper, add some leaves, fresh mint or basil, add the shredded carrot and cucumber, place the kebab on top, roll it up and dip it into the chilli sauce, mmm.

Craig had decided that he would be leaving us in HCMC as he felt 2 months was enough for him and he wanted to get back to his fiancée, Sarah.  The timing and cost of airfares also changes a lot if you don’t fly from major hubs.  It will take us about 8 weeks to get to the next major city he can fly from (Vientiane) and the flights will be rather pricey from there.  He booked his flight tickets for a few days after we planned to leave the city so we spent our last few days together exploring the city, shopping in the markets and enjoy some cold local beer.  It was nice to have Craig with us – definitely a big change for us.  Mandy and I obviously know what we do/don’t like and having to think of someone else in the touring party was quite an adjustment for us.  Hopefully we weren’t to set in our ways and didn’t make life too difficult for Craig.

 

17 February 2013

Did you know – The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a network of roads built from North Vietnam to South Vietnam through the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia, to provide logistical support to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. It was a combination of truck routes and paths for foot and bicycle traffic. The trail was actually a 16,000-kilometer web of tracks, roads and waterways.

The Vietnam People’s Army had decided to build a secret road system to carry war supplies to the south. The network, initially coded 559, eventually became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was on one of Ho's birthdays, May 9, 1959, that the trail's construction began with the establishment of Military Transport Division 559, comprising 440 young men and women. Over the next 16 years the trail carried more than one million North Vietnamese soldiers and vast quantities of supplies to battlefields in South Vietnam — despite ferocious American air strikes.

The name, taken from North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, is of American origin. Within Vietnam, it is called the Ðuong Truong Son, or Truong Son Road, after the mountain range in Central Vietnam. Another name given the trail is “The Blood Road." If relentless American bombing didn't get him, it would take a North Vietnamese soldier as many as six months to make the gruelling trek through jungle down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

First day on our own again and it felt weird!  We kept looking behind for Craig but he wasn’t there…

We left HCMC in rush hour which wasn’t too bad – as long as you go with the flow of traffic it seemed fine.  There were hundreds of scooters around us, but they all seem to be very considerate and the left hand lane is generally exclusively for 2 wheels.  We also noticed a difference in the bike weight now that we have sent the tent back and rearranged some of the bags.  Hope it will make a difference in the Laos mountains!

The next few days on the road were very tough because of the strong head winds along the coastal road.  At some point we were going slower than what we normally do up a hill and there were other times when we almost came to a standstill!  It really was very demotivating, but all we could do was keep on pedalling and hope that by some miracle the wind direction would change a bit!  By the time we rode into Na Trang on the coast the wind had eventually died down after about 4 days of riding and the ride was beautiful – it reminded us of Cape Town with the winding road along the coast.  Na Trang is a popular beach town and is flooded with Russians which we didn’t expect.  All the signs were either in Vietnamese or Russian, some of which we could read thanks to our Russian lessons in Sydney.  We left Na Trang after a couple of rest days and managed to do our biggest day yet – 129km!  We started out at 6am and by lunch time we had already done 80kms which meant we could take it a bit easier in the afternoon.

We had heard stories of the Vietnamese eating dogs, but hadn’t come across it (thank goodness) but today we saw a big truck with lots of cages on the back full of dogs – it was so sad to see.  The Thais are not allowed to put any dogs down (a ruling from the King) but some people gather up the stray dogs and send them off to Vietnam in big trucks and they are worth 3 times the price as soon as they cross the border into Vietnam .  We also saw our first major accident on the road.  It looked like a little scooter was taken out by a truck or a bus (it wasn’t too clear).  The scooter was absolutely destroyed. Not sure if the person survived or what happened to them.  It looked like someone took them to the hospital already by the time we passed the scene.  There is a distinct lack of emergency services here.  We do see the odd ambulance with the siren going, but like everything else, everything gets ignored on the road, so they stand no chance to get somewhere in a hurry.

A lot of our journey has been on the main road which hasn’t been great because it is exceptionally busy (especially so close to Tet – Lunar New Year and everyone is in a rush to get home for the holidays).  There have been times when we have managed to get onto some quieter roads which are much better and our stress levels drop tremendously!

Hoi An is meant to be a great place to spend some time so we decided we would get there for the Luna New Year.  On our way up we had met fellow cyclist, Katherine (from Aus), Rudi and Ruth (from Switzerland) and had planned to meet up with them when we got to Hoi An -  they were about a day behind us.  Hoi An is a great little town – lots of old style buildings with lots of colourful lanterns.  New Years was a busy time in the town and we met up with Katherine, Rudi and Ruth to bring in the New Year.  Just on 12 o’clock, when the fireworks started so did the rain, we ended up taking cover under some small plastic tables they use at some of the road side food stalls!  We all got soaked and made a hasty retreat to our hotels as soon as the fireworks ended!

It was time to head west towards the Lao boarder, we had a big day from Da Nang to Hue, 100km with a 500m climb which was hard but the views were magnificent.  On the long downhill we met two more cyclist – a girl from Serbia who has been on the road for 2 years (!) and a guy from China riding with a bag on his back and thongs (flip flops) on his feet, not sure how comfortable that would have been!

We woke up to rain on our last day in Vietnam and had to get our rain gear out – it was actually quite cool!  Something we hadn’t experienced in ages.  Most of the ride was very scenic up through the lush mountains before dropping down into the border town.  We stayed on the Vietnam side as it was meant to be better in terms of accommodation and food.  We found a hotel with no problems but food was a different story – lunch was rice, veg and two rock hard fried eggs – we could have played table tennis with them! Dinner was better but we had to go to all three of the ‘restaurants’ before settling on the last one.  One of them refused to make us food but made for the locals!  Not the best parting memory of Vietnam!

The next morning we were stamped out of Vietnam quickly and then had to apply for our visa at the Laos board – this was pretty straight forward – just filled in the forms, hand over a photo and US$35 per person and we were in, welcome to Laos, our 7th country on this trip!
 
Final thoughts - we've heard lots of horror stories about cycling in Vietnam.  Some of it was true with busy main roads, but overall it wasn't too bad at all.  Once you get to the smaller roads, things were really quiet.  The people aren't as friendly as the neighbouring countries - I suppose as can be expected from a communist country.  They want you in their country to take your money, but then they also seem to be fed up with you being there.  The food has been good in most places, although not a big variety, unless you go to fancy restaurants.  Looks like Vietnam was our cheapest country so far, the accommodation standards were certainly good value for money, and normally very good beds in the hotels.  We liked our time in Vietnam, especially Ho Chi Minh, but we were glad when we left it for the quieter roads of Laos.