Asia | South East Asia | Vietnam – The Grass is Always Greener….
Leaving Phnom Pen took a bit of effort. Ben, my newly acquired cycling buddy was running at a different speed to myself. He had eight months more for his trip. I had just over six weeks. I realized if I didnt get back in gear I would find myself either missing out on the mountains of Laos or alternatively negotiating a leave of absence with myself, moving my self imposed timetable and ending up at the Ganges with Ben for Christmas! So with my early morning start turning into a mid morning cruise then to an eventual after lunch departure I sadly headed off into the mire of the crazy, still dusty Phnom Penn traffic.
The companionship of the world traveler is an odd one. When I first made contact with fellow tourists on my dive boat in Thailand I made good friends. As we said our ‘good byes’ from our 5 day voyage together I traded email addresses & agreed to pop in next time I happened to be Oregon, Switzerland, Singapore or Taiwan. Although these commitments were made with true and honest intentions I now realize how transient the travelling life is and as I progress through my personal odyssey of South East Asia I meet people every day, some with which you connect, many you dont. Of the ones you do the same natural instinct arises, trade contact information, keep in touch.
But after a while you understand that however well you got on with these people once back in our own real worlds (if such things exist anymore) the characters from the trip become good, but distant experiences. I have enough trouble keeping in touch with my own friends and family so to maintain contact with people you may have spent only a few hours with is not going to happen often. After a while; it was on Koa Phan Ngan that I realized it, people didnt bother exchanging addresses, we said our farewells and said Take Care rather than See you later as a parting comment.
Having said all of this the people who I offered a bed to in New York if you are ever in the neighborhood, I did mean it! There are always those special people you know you may well keep in touch with. Ben was one of those, maybe because he was a cyclist, maybe because we spent a solid amount of one to one time together, maybe because he was my age and maybe because he lived in London. I would think that at one time maybe we will manage a few spins around the trails of Epping forest or crawl round the bars of Dalston.
One Dust Bowl too many
My goal from Phnom Pen was to arrive in Vietnam via a boat down the Mekong River landing in the flat Delta region before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City a few days later. Unfortunately I couldnt find a boat when I arrived at the intersection of the mighty Mekong. Rather than risk trekking down one of the many dirt roads the locals said went to Vietnam and risk being turned back by the bureaucratic Vietnamese immigration department I made a snap decision and decided to stay on the main ‘highway’ that, up till this time, had been a good sealed road. The minute I committed myself to this Highway it reverted back into a dusty ribbon that will always be my most outstanding memory of Cambodian cycling.
The ride was hard and unforgiving. I had had enough of these roads and cycling solo took some of the camaraderie out of the experience. When you step off the asphalt into the dust it feels like you are descending into the gutter, a surreal nightmare, everything changes. A mad world of horse & cart, motorbike, white Toyota Camray (evidently the only car you can own in Cambodia) hurtling along at break neck speed and from another world scores of schools kids all dressed in white shirts, blue trousers all riding single file heading off to their distant place of learning. By the painful end all I could think about was the fresh clean air and the green Green Mountains of Vermont. Life in the provinces of Cambodia is a tough existence and despite the beauty of the people I was glad to moving on.
I optimistically imagine roads to national borders will be major arteries of international trade but always I am mistaken. There is no major trade between Vietnam and Cambodia. Cambodia has very little to export (legally) and any through-trade from Thailand goes by sea. The road got progressively worse, the villages more run down and the people more destitute. The children would still jump up and down, naked, screaming their welcome until they received a response, but to me these communities were quite literally living on the edges of a destitute and destructed land, seemingly forgotten about by the rest of the nation.
When the border finally arrived it was an unassuming goodbye to Cambodia and an imposing Soviet inspired monolithic arch to welcome me to the People’s Republic of Vietnam (no photos allowed). After arriving behind a bus load (air-conditioned express busload that is) of western tourists I finally finished the paper work and was into Vietnam.
The first thing that hit me was the road, they had one! Then the greenness. Despite being the same landmass as where I had just left I was travelling through paddy fields, I could hear running water and see irrigation channels everywhere. The Vietnamese are renowned for their ‘resilience’ and unlike the years of disaffected defeat in Cambodia, Vietnam had an immediate feel of a country that was moving forward.
Having already completed a hard 100km I was keen to find a place to rest for the night. But as I passed through relatively large towns no accommodation jumped out at me. I asked at one place and they pointed me up the road to the next town.
No Rooms, No Inn
Finally after 150km completed I stopped at a town 30km from Ho Chi Minh City. Completely exhausted I quizzed a teenager who had been cycling with me if there was any guesthouse or hotel. He said no so I asked an older gentleman who gave the same response. Not happy with either answer and physically unable to ride another mile I sat down, had some food at a road side stall and resumed my questioning of the local populous until somebody actually agreed with me and escorted me to a hotel. Although I say ‘asked’ I have to point asking actually meant pushing my phrasebook under any nose that would look and point profusely at the Vietnamese words for everything from luxury spa resort to campsite!
When I arrived at the hotel after an extremely unwelcome 10km ride I was told by a well dressed man that no, I couldn’t stay there and no I couldn’t pitch my tent on the grass and then a women poked her head out of a door and after a heated debate again also said no. I realize now I must have looked odd still covered head to toe in Cambodian dust, still dripping with sweat. After a 3-way discussion around me the women at the swanky hotel translated in Pidgin English that I could stay with the family of the motorbike driver. It did not seem that everybody agreed but either way I headed back to town exhausted, I left their grounds cursing everybody concerned under my breath. After about 5 minutes however the well-dressed man from the hotel drove up beside me and the final result was that I could now stay with them. Once again I turned around heading back, too tired to care about the motives or politics that had gone on behind my sunburnt back.
At the hotel, the gentleman showed me to a shower in the basement of the building, the women bought me some fruit and water and once a little refreshed I was shown to a make-shift bed in a windowless laundry room. Sitting around later watching TV with the women and trying to maintain a social air in spite of my tiredness it transpired this place was not a hotel at all but a rather up market Korean restaurant that catered for the tourist trade visiting the nearby Chao Chi tunnels.
Sick of the Whole Thing
I retired early, keen not to impose, declining any dinner and was asleep before my head hit the inflatable mattress. I woke a few hours later feeling sick and dizzy and not sure whether I wanted to vomit or not. Being in strange surroundings and hearing snoring outside my door I didn’t want to got to the bathroom but I after a few minutes I just had to throw up. Grabbing for the water jug I managed just in time to aim my earlier rice dinner and all the other contents of my stomach into the receptacle. Feeling a lot better I went back to sleep.
In the morning conscious of the rather odd noises that may have been heard coming from my room during the night and eager to consume some liquids from a 100% reliable source – a bottle of mineral water was my goal – I made a quick and polite departure. I offered money, which was declined, and off I went wobbling, feeling exceptionally weak. I needed to eat but the thought of food just turned my stomach more. Once back on the highway to Saigon I purchased my water and consumed a vast number of sugary yogurt drinks; the only thing that I could digest.
I then headed towards the big city in a daze. Only 30km but possibly the hardest 30km I have ever ridden. No energy, still feeling queasy and having to contend with the smoky, crazy traffic on all sides. Massive trucks, horns bleating, millions of motorbikes fighting for any piece of space; riding on sidewalks or through markets was no problem. I found it virtually impossible to keep my head above my shoulders, let alone turn my pedals. I wanted to stop but I also so wanted to get into a hotel and back to bed. As I approached the city proper I pulled over regularly to consult my map, keen not to take a wrong turn in the chaos and extend my time in this hell. By luck more than judgement I found my way into the heart of the maze of Saigon and checked into my target hotel. They only had one room, which at $20 was extreme but too tired to hunt for a better deal I accepted and lugged my bike and equipment up endless flights of stairs to my top floor room. Rudely refusing a complimentary brunch at this family run establishment I was up and in bed and asleep by 10am. It honestly felt like a lifetime since I left the other hotel although it had only been 3 hours.
I woke mid afternoon feeling more normal, hungry and in the center of infamous Saigon.
‘Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh’ I allegedly shouted at the age of 3 seated on my father’s shoulders while participating in anti war rallies in London. Now I was in the renamed town of the same name, was there a link? I think so!
My grasp of Vietnamese politics has not advanced much since those heady days of 1971, the odd Oliver Stone movie is not what you would call an ‘all round’ education. As I traveled around, the faceless soviet inspired architecture is always present; the super cool Vietnamese flag (yellow star on red background) is everywhere as are the police in their grass green uniforms. But next to this are Coke & Pepsi signs and modern motor bikes. Things are changing fast; Vietnam is, like China, opening up to the consumerism of the Western world, at a rapidly increasing pace.
I slept a lot of my time in Saigon. But I did visit the massive and modern Prudential insurance towers to pick up some mail (the real stuff written with a pen on paper rather than the electronic type) from the American Express office. It could have been Bangkok or London in this part of town, travel for the rich and wealthy of Vietnam. I went to the market and successfully avoided buying any fake designer label shirts I didn’t need and couldn’t carry from ever-eager sales women keen to take advantage of my post sickness haze. I then paid a visit to the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the Museum of American War Crimes and recently renamed to appeal to a wider audience.
After wandering around captured helicopters, pieces of B52 bombers and some huge unexploded bombs that rained down on this nation for 10 years. I saw some enlightening exhibitions jointly presented by the Vietnamese government and the State of Kentucky about the lost and forgotten photographers and journalists who covered this ugly war.
The New World Order
Outside I bought a couple of books from the street sellers about the history of the country, which I have just started reading. ‘The Sorrow of War’ by Bao Ninh looks at the war from the Viet Cong perspective and by all accounts won many awards in the West. My final night in the city, with my eating habits back to normal, I sat with a couple of young American students and watched Colin Powell on MTV repackaging a ‘new’ American foreign policy to a new ‘generation’ of international youth.