Leaving Phan Rang this morning was slower than it should have been but we needed the rest.
The 2-star, £12 hotel was a model of cleanliness and hospitality. The staff had about the same number of English words as we have Vietnamese, but everybody got where they needed to be with enough willingness and gesticulating. We’re learning to be less English and reserved every day.
Leaving this morning the receptionist was keen to take selfies with us and to help as much as he could. We carry more water bottles on the bikes than we plan to use on most days, intending instead to buy en route rather than carry the extra weight. But by the time we looked at him he’d filled all four bottles each and 1.5L into the hydration packs on our back. We weren’t about to point out that we were only planning to depart with 3L each on board.
In the reception area last night we saw a well worn bike propped up against the wall next to ours and the Brooks saddle and Arkel bag mounts gave it away as belonging to a tourer. The completely bald rear tyre confirmed that it had travelled many miles.
All kitted up at about 10:15 we were just about to leave when the owner and his bike rolled out of reception. Kevin was from Miami and was doing some touring in Vietnam and planning to fly home next week from Ho Chi Minh Airport.
One thing we’ve noticed about a lot of the more interesting and articulate ex-pats in South East Asia is that they are coy about their lives and it takes two or three meetings to know anything about them. There’s a lot of BS in Thailand and I’ve met enough ex Special Forces here to make me believe that 22 Sqn was 2000 strong 🤥 It was a very pleasant 15 mins with Kevin talking about weather here and in Florida, cycling and the hotel; but we know nothing about him.
Our colds are abating and Siubhan’s has all but disappeared while mine has gone into the snotty stage. I don’t mind that, nothing a handful of tissues can’t handle but it means we can breathe now.
3km after leaving the hotel it was obvious that we were in our first Vietnamese town of any size, as we clipped through the edges of Phan Rang. The girls wore more make-up, there were shops and there were saloon cars. Something we hadn’t noticed was missing so far until we saw them again. Up to now all vehicles were two-wheeled or working vehicles.
I spied the coffee bar before Siubhan did and pulled up. It was more plush than anything we had seen to date, more like Thailand and we made ourselves at home out the front. Getting near 11am now we ordered eggs and baguette but they didn’t have any baguettes. Ok. Other options were limited so we ordered seafood noodle soup. In the U.K. we would be quite snitty about ordering something in a cafe and having it served with a pack of instant dried noodles. But not here in South East Asia. Here they even identify the brand of instant noodles that you will get. But they’re also not Pot Noodles, they’re a lot better than that.
With the noodle soup we were also given a large plate of greenery, Billabong as my sister-in-law would call it. The greenery was some lettuce, some big leafed stuff on twigs and a huge bunch of Thai Basil that would cost you a fortune in Islington. At the airport coming here, Siubhan was lucky enough to bump into a girl at the Pho counter who showed her how to get the greenery into the soup early so it cooks. That what we did and it was delicious.
Vietnamese coffee was also served but I’ll keep the description of that for another day.
Leaving Phan Rang we went though a large park area that reminded us of the Tuileries in Paris which then opened up to a Vietnamese Place de la Concorde. But then we were reminded that we were in a communist country. The huge monument glorifying the workers and an AK47 toting soldier was Orwellian in style and quite took my breath away. I then realised that I’ve never been in a communist country before.
At 11:30 we had only made it about 3km and now it was really starting to get warm. The next 18km was a real mixed bag of surfaces, some excellent tarmac some pot-holed to hell and some that was just farm cart tracks. Progress was relatively slow. Certainly a lot slower than the mopeds and scooters that dashed around us at various points.
Just before we joined the main North-South motorway again we spotted our first bunch of bananas in Vietnam. On first engagement the Vietnamese can be very standoffish and it’s harder work to engage and get a smile. On first contact both male and females seem quite apprehensive and possibly antagonistic; we’ve been struggling to read the body language. After the post WWII experience with the French and the Americans, it would be perfectly understandable that any caucasian foreigner would be viewed with suspicion and dislike but we’re 99.9% sure that this isn’t the case because of the unsolicited helpfulness and generosity elsewhere.
The Thais have a concept called Kreng Jai that is complex but includes a great deal of consideration for not making others feel uncomfortable. We’re starting to suspect that the Vietnamese have something similar in their culture and the arrival of a pair of aliens like us into a rural environment challenges their ability to deal with us and not make us uncomfortable. We are increasingly appreciative of the subtle elegance of the people here and it would fit that their body language is one of fear breaching this social etiquette rather than any form of unfriendliness.
Even more so than Thailand, we feel that the onus is on us to humanise ourselves and this is paying real dividends. Children are our first option, any nearby child is fair game and people respond very well when they see the pair of six-footers being playful over a cute child. Suddenly everyone relaxes and smiles start to show. If there’s no child then it’s a couple of bad Vietnamese words spoken will help, my favourite is a dramatic pensive pause with my finger in the air and then an overly deliberate formal greeting “Xin Chao Anh” for a male or “Xin Chao Chi” for a female. Laughter, clapped hands and appreciation has been the 100% response.
With the bananas secured on the back of the bike we knew we had a 45km slog now on the motorway and it was HOT as hell. No shelter to speak of and the thermometer on my bike was showing 43 degrees Celsius. The sun was relentless on us and we were challenging the Factor 50 to its limit. The backpacks keep the water relatively cool but these were empty in no time. All other water on the bikes was now as hot as that from a hot tap, we passed tepid hours ago.
The ground was level and the wind was generally behind us and that allowed us to keep a pace on the good tarmac well above 20km/h and usually above 25. We swapped positions occasionally but it’s definitely more efficient to ride one behind the other.
We stopped for a lunch of bananas and peanuts at a small shop that was shut but had shade and seating out the front. It was pleasant to be out of the sunlight and we used some of the water to wet our backs before turning away from the wind to get the cooling from the evaporation.
The scenery was glorious and we pedalled on until 50km where we reached the coastal resort of Cá Na. There’s some signs of tourism here but we turned right along the coast passing a huge power station complex.
We had already decided that it was going to be another night in a hotel. The guide we were using showed no camping options around here and looking for one when we’re this hot just wasn’t appealing. We checked both Agoda and Booking dot com at a brief stop behind a petrol station and identified a suitable hotel at the 68km point. It was pretty much on our route, so on we pushed. And we had to push now because sunset is at 17:15.
As we hit the outskirts of Tuy Phong at 5pm we heard various hooters going off and I said that I thought that this must be the knocking off signal at the factories. we were drenched in sweat and within 2 mins we were immediately swamped by a million scooters and mopeds. It was manic, both terrifying and exciting at the same time. The trick seemed to be to just ride towards your destination and don’t make any sudden moves, everyone else will work around you.
It was then a strange sight to see a Vietnamese guy in full Sky Team branded Lycra closing in on us from behind and he then rode alongside us for a while shouting various friendly, but indecipherable, comments. When I stopped to check the map, so did he and when we both understood which hotel we were staying at, he saw it as his job to lead us there through the maelstrom of mopeds.
The hotel is another small family run place and check-in was peppered with laughter, misunderstandings and gesticulating. It’s a family run place and the whole family came out to see the aliens. Once engaged the Vietnamese aren’t shy at getting right in your face and being very tactile. Lots of selfies with us and giggling from the teenage girls while the two-toothed father looked on and smiled.
One of the girls showed me to the room which is an immaculately clean room with a large double bed, a large wet-room shower and a fridge with beer! When I got back to reception they seemed very concerned about something but that all dissipated immediately when I told them that I was very pleased with the room. In UK standards, think Premier Inn level.
There’s a large inside room at the back of the hotel and we wheeled our bikes through reception to this area before taking all the panniers off. We did this whilst being watched intently by all members of the family. This level of scrutiny can make you very self-conscious but the more time we spend in Asia the more we’re getting used to it.
Once all the bags were off the bikes this Asian version of the Trapp family all picked up what they could and transported it to the lift for us before waving bye-bye to the closing lift doors.
A long hot shower each and Siubhan had the unenviable task of washing the day’s clothing in the sink whilst I sorted some tech. After a rest it was about 7:30 when we walked out of the door of the hotel to find food.
For a town of this size it was surprisingly difficult to find somewhere to eat. The signs of Com (rice) or Pho (soup) were now nowhere to be seen. It didn’t help that the streets were poorly lit and we were wondering around in the dark. But after about 20 mins of wandering about we found a small cluster of restaurants together and we picked the most inviting one and went in.
The seating and tables were comical. They were like kindergarten seats again and the tables were so low that neither of us could get our knees under them. We were, of course, the subject of much attention as we walked in.
In an unfamiliar dining environment our strategy has been to grab a table in the busiest part of the restaurant so we can watch everyone else and see what they do.
We sat down halfway next to a group of 4 guys and they were all looking at us when we nodded and said hello. They all beamed at us and lots of hellos were swapped.
A waiter arrived quickly with a menu and just stood there waiting to take our order. As we are understanding quickly there’s no period of perusal with a menu in these parts, you’re expected to order within 0.2 milliseconds of sitting down and any hesitation is viewed as uselessness.
Not far wrong really but it’s at the 0.3ms point that the waiter feels he needs to help us by point out various dishes and describing them in verbose Vietnamese. That’s really not helping much.
I spot one part of the menu where every dish starts “Com chien…”, I know that Com is rice and I know that the French has had a big influence over Vietnamese culture and language, so it’s understandable that, at first, I was afraid that this dish would have a canine component, but chien turns out to mean fried. Phew.
We ordered a double portion of one of the fried rice dishes and some BBQ chicken. Gà is chicken and I augmented my poor pronunciation with the chicken dance. “Barbecue?” was the waiter’s response and after a nod from me I was confident that we were getting somewhere.
A couple of bottles of warm Tiger beer arrived, along with a bucket of large ice cubes. Like Northern Thailand, ice in beer is very much the done thing.
Siubhan described the BBQ chicken with large slices of okra as the best she’s ever tasted and I can’t really fault that.
But now we were the subject of conversation of the 4 chaps from earlier. Another done thing around here is that beer cans are thrown on the floor when empty and I was guessing that a lot of the happiness from these guys was closely linked to the ankle-deep mound of beer cans under their table.
The ringleader walked towards us with his smartphone where he had already typed a message into a translator app. It said that he would be pleased if he could buy us a shrimp dish that was a Vietnamese speciality. We have learned quickly that our role in this sort of offer is not to be English and decline the fuss but to be gracious and appreciative.
Using a similar app, we started a convert where we accepted his gift of Tom Rang Me. Wow!! When they arrived it was a plate of prawns and lardons coated in a dark Tamarind paste with a side dish of salt & pepper mix and a couple of tiny, sharp as hell, limes. Now 3 out of the 4 of them were at our table and showing us how to squeeze the limes into the condiments and then dip the prawns before eating. They really were delicious and our role was to show how delicious we thought they were. This got much approval.
We laughed and swapped messages over the smartphones for another 45 mins; knackered as we were, there was no way that this was ever going to be a quiet intimate meal.
When the bill came it was about £6 and after much shaking of hands, good wishes and selfies we walked back to the hotel smiling at the friendliness.
Not a bad day really.