Some Thoughts on Vietnam
I’ll talk about our feelings on Vietnam shortly but it’s been a busy 5 days. One thing that we had forgotten from last year is how much ‘management’ is required on a cycle tour. It all falls roughly into 4 categories:
We bring minimal clothing and we sweat, really sweat. Every day, every garment we wear is soaked and often saturated to the point that you can wring salty sweat out of everything. That’s not just the stuff that you think of like shirts, but stuff like bike gloves need rinsing out every day and the headbands we wear, to stop the perpetual stream of increasingly salty perspiration from blinding us, are just gross. The best way we have found to deal with these is to rinse them in clean water as we shower and use them as a sort of shower sponge. Then they get another rinse 🙂
Every day we review our progress, our pace, our comfort level and either confirm or change the upcoming route and distance. There’s always a degree of flexibility, plus or minus 20km, but bike computers need programming, hotels need booking where there’s a likely deficit of available accommodation. And then there’s all the tech of GoPros, cameras and navigation equipment that needs uploading and charging.
Then there’s the issue of bike maintenance. Rough roads and heavy loads take their toll on the bikes and we have swapped the availability of tools and spares for the necessity of increased preventative maintenance; that means that we try not to leave anything to fail but keep on top of minor niggles before they become major. That’s stuff like a slight rub of a brake disk on a pad, indexing of gears and a tyre just rubbing on a mudguard. In a 1000km any of those could easily become a failure of a component that we’re not carrying a spare for. Every 3-4 days the bikes get a ‘spanner check’ which means I go around them with a set of 4, 5 & 6mm hex keys and make sure that all the stuff that should be tight, remains tight. Stuff like racks, mudguards and bottle holders are particularly notorious for vibrating loose.
UNPACKING & PACKING
We carry 4 bags each on the bikes, a rack pack and a handlebar bag. From rolling to a stop to being unloading in a room and the bikes secured will normally take an hour and about the same when we reverse the operation each morning.
HOLIDAY APARTMENT MANAGEMENT
The main reason that we carry a full MacBook and 3 phones is so that we can manage the apartments in London and Salisbury. Most days it’s a light tough but some days, like today, it can be hours if there’s a guest with a problem.
All in all, we’re rarely bored and we wouldn’t change anything, except we’re learning how to become more streamlined in a lot of it. Slowly, we’re getting there but it is progress on being more efficient.
Anyway, it’s our last night in Saigon and our penultimate night in Vietnam. We will be sorry to cross the border to Cambodia on Saturday morning as our impressions of Vietnam have been almost wholly positive.
Firstly, it’s easy to forget how recent it is since Vietnam started opening up and, away from the big cities and pockets of tourism-led development areas such as Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Vung Tau, the old society is still very much there. What is most amazing is how open and welcoming the people are of strangers with all the post-1975 history – and that the peak of the Vietnamese refugee crisis was only 30 years ago.
As I mentioned before, the first response to us has been a mixture of amazement and amusement. Lots of pointing, laughter and shouting. Flying the Vietnamese flag on the back of the bikes removes some degree of alienation and, with it, a chunk of natural xenophobia. One-to-one interaction is a little more reticent at first but our acceptance of the responsibility to make it a comfortable interaction has really paid off big time.
It’s difficult to describe that for most of the Vietnam that we saw there’s no real concept of shops or cafes as we would recognise them. An open side of a building with a dark exterior is the norm and in there you might see some fruit, or some dried goods and drinks, or a few tables with a sign that says ‘Cà Phê’ – that’s a place to get a coffee.
Always the kindergarten chairs with tables and usually some sort of area or cart where the coffee is made. It’s also often the family living area and there might be a TV and a bed in there when the infrastructure is four wooden posts holding up a corrugated roof. That’s it. That’s everything.
But it’s clean enough, the schoolchildren are usually smartly dressed in a simple uniform and we are welcomed in once the initial shock of the alien landing has abated.
Vietnamese is a very difficult language, we find it much more difficult than the notoriously difficult Thai as there are sounds in Viet that we just don’t make in English. It’s a sort of cross between Thai and Innuit! But a few words have gone a very long way for us.
“Xin chào, vui lòng hai cà phê đá” has become our stock opener.
“Hello, two iced black Vietnamese coffees please” – simple enough and a wonderful disarmer.
The following 5 seconds will then set the tone for the next 30 minutes. It can go one of two ways, the easiest is a big beaming smile and an arm waved towards one of the tables to indicate that we should sit. The second is a sort of Mensa test where they now have the mistaken belief that we can speak Vietnamese and their relief is expressed in a stream of indecipherable noises delivered at Spanish speed and we’re left to interpret the body language and gestures. There’s only a few themes though; this is my family (with descriptions) as each individual member smiles and nods or giggles and runs away, and the same appreciative gestures and noises that we would make at home work just as well here. Or the other theme is the questioning of where home is, where we have come from and/or where we are going. Never sure which question is being asked so we answer all of them in the hope that we’ve covered the polite niceties somehow. If we didn’t answer the question asked, they seem to just assume that we’ve misunderstood and the etiquette seems to be to not correct us but to show some degree of appreciative noises. In giving an answer to a question where neither party understood the dialogue, a dance was done and a bond of civility was made. And this is the over-riding impression that we have of Vietnam. Alien and (mostly) undeveloped but civilised.
Another thing, the Vietnamese are tactile in some ways that we might find strange. A random (soft) punch on the shoulder from a woman to Siubhan with a laugh that was very much in the style of an American buddy movie. Or a playful slap to the back of my exposed thigh as I pass a table in a streetside diner followed by peels of laughter from al; at the table. From the open and non-confrontational body language it was quite clear that this was a friendly and inclusive gesture. And they love it when you reciprocate but always wary of crossing a line we don’t understand, our reciprocation is wholly replication of what we’ve experienced. Mainly a fraternal hand to the upper arm or a two-handed handshake, this is a sure-fire winner and has earned us many toothless smiles. But it’s the females to Siubhan that is the strongest; schoolgirls will stroke her on passing by and ladies serving us coffee will just hug her. Concepts of personal space are different here and once the barriers are broken, people will just come and sit at your table to look at you especially if we’re getting ready to leave; sometimes staff, sometimes other customers.
Then there’s the selfie. We are always being asked to have our photos taken, especially with the bikes, by passers by and always by anybody on the desk of a hotel. And while it’s a lovely memento to have of people we’ve met, there’s a general deference towards us and when we move to take selfies with our new friends then the normal response is to beam and buddy up even closer. Generosity of food, drink and helpfulness is commonplace here and we were advised last year not to try to reciprocate in a Western way as that can be perceived as some degree of oneupmanship. But the desire to pay back is strong in all of us, we have found that the selfie with our benefactor and an enthusiastic handshake has been an excellent way of showing our appreciation. The books are now balanced.
One thing that both amused and interested us was the Vietnamese distrust of the Thais. At no point does Vietnam border Thailand, there’s always Cambodia or Laos in-between but Thailand is the bogeyman. They describe Thais as mercenary and untrustworthy, a bit flash and certainly vulgar. they have enough in common to be identifiable as close-Asian cousins but are also very different in character with Vietnam being the more genteel. We laughed when we described them as Jersey and Guernsey.
I would guess that Vietnam is 15-20 years behind Thailand as a tourist destination and there’s a lot of development going on in some of the coastal areas that are accessible from Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City. (We continue to use Saigon rather than HCMC because that’s what we heard the most en route). Large resorts are being built around Ho Tram and Mūi Né and there’s a Goldrush feeling to some of it with breeze-block carcasses of partially built resorts now abandoned for whatever reason that the development cash dried up. There’s strong echoes of parts of southern Spain.
There’s a few centres of growing ex-pat communities, certainly in Saigon but also in Vūng Tàu which is a seaside isthmus about 90km away. Australians dominate the ex-pats but not exclusively. The pair of expats that we met last night in the wine bar were an interesting pair. Mike was a Brit who had lived in Vietnam for 18 years and Thailand / HK previous to that. 66 years old, with his white jacket, Panama hat and copy of the FT he was a timeless figure and obviously a fixture of the bar. His life of Asian commercial property developments had been a roller-coaster, but he was fairly reconciled to his lot, he had enough money to live the life he wanted in Vietnam that included life in one of the very few wine bars in town. His Aussie companion, Les, was a little older and an ex-FX trader, amongst other things. Friendly but uncharacteristically reserved for his nationality, it was a pleasure to spend time with both of them and have intelligent conversations that went nowhere.
So, today we spent washing, packing and doing the maintenance on the bikes before we pedal out of town tomorrow at 9am and head for a small town 51km away and about 20km short of the Cambodian border. The rationale is simple, we anticipate that exiting Sai Gon may be a challenge and we want to leave after the main rush hour when it’s just manic rather than suicidal. And we don’t want to cross the border at the end of the day when we are already tired. Make it a short day then deal with the border crossing when we are fresher.
Physically, we are both better than we were. Just a niggling pain in the ribs for me still along with a residual cough. For Siubhan though, her stomach issues have flared and it’s Imodium time again. I feel for her and dinner was a very simple bowl of rice and a small piece of my Vietnamese pancake. This makes hydration management just a little more difficult, but she has made the decision to push on tomorrow rather than wait out another day.
I’ll admit that we’re both apprehensive about Cambodia. Not about Phnom Penh, Siem Reap or Angkor Wat, but the sparseness of the country, between these places is a little intimidating when accommodation is not readily available and we are strongly warned against camping because of the extensive proliferation of UXBs. Food is also described as “variable”. It’s definitely about to get more “foreign” again.
We think it will take us 4 days to ride the 242km to Phnom Penh and we have planned the stages to give us contingency in each day and to a hotel where we can get a warm shower and a bed. On the journey, these things are not a given. By the time we reach Phnom Penh we hope to have achieved a basic level of understanding of the rhythm of the country and then we will take a day off to consider how to tackle the 3rd, longer, leg from PP to Siem Reap.
Adios Amigos. Until tomorrow.