Cycling in Mai Chau, Vietnam

Family Mekong Tour (By Daddy "W")

Your intrepid foursome seems to be packing more and more into shorter and shorter time frames. The latest excursion into Hong Kong, Vietnam and Cambodia was an amazing tour of wealth, poverty, modern architecture and minimal existence, hopes for glory on a playing field as compared to hopes for enough to eat on the following day. What a panorama and what a variation, all packed into 9 light-speed, days.

Sunday night found us winging our way to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon. Our original spring break itinerary had Borneo as the destination. However our tireless travel agent, Claudia, in a last internet surf session, laid out a trip through Vietnam and Cambodia that turned out perfectly. She got us hooked up with a company, Velo-Asia, ultimately located in San Francisco of all places. No matter as Patrick and Claudia put together a 3-day cycling tour of the Mekong Delta and a 2-day Cambodian binge that should again go on your list of things to do.

We were met at the airport by our guide Joe, or as I was so informed later, Chau and Duc, our van driver. Thinking it would be a relatively quick van ride to the hotel down town, we were quickly awash in a sea of scooters and cars that was truly amazing. We were so informed there are 8 million people in Ho Chi Ming City and 4 million scooters. I believe it. Nothing can be over a 250cc size with the vast majority tipping the scales at 125cc. Think of an Italian movie featuring Vespas, multiply it by 1,000, and you’re close. The most people we saw riding one scooter at any one time was 5. Two large adults and 3 kids variously stashed one in front of the driver, one between the adults and one precariously hanging off one hip. The family that rides together…

Next morning, we climbed on our steeds for 40-50 km of road and path touring through the delta. What an experience! You share the road with scooters, trucks, buses, scooters, geese, dogs, kids, scooters, chickens, cart vendors; all with varying thoughts of who has the right-of-way with the geese and chickens sometimes having the upper hand.

The skeleton and blood of the delta are the rivers. They provide irrigation for the fields, food and materials for the people, transportation for everyone, bathtubs and washing machines for most. Everything appears flat but most every river, creek and slough had enough brown muddy current to be visible and move boats, debris, hyacinths and what else along. Many of the houses, read that one room, bamboo thatched structures, are on stilts along the banks with pirogue-type boats pulled up on the banks like SUV’s in American driveways. Every couple of hundred yards will be a café/rest house, always open air with small plastic chairs and hammocks with hammocks generally equaling the number of chairs. I loved the theory but can’t quite see hammocks stretched at every rest stop along the interstates back home.

Joe-Chau would have us on the bikes the majority of the time, catching small, bike, scooter or pedestrian ferries from island to island. Occasionally we would jump in the van to travel to another area. It became a reflective experience cruising along in an air-conditioned Mercedes van watching the life of the delta people flash by. One particular snapshot memory was a late afternoon gathering of men in one of the roadside cafes and one guy was bent over staring and screaming at a tethered monkey who giving the man just as much verbal what-for right back at him.

Joe took us through some very small villages/compounds where members of a family would have something they were making either for sale at the local market or perhaps to send off to the big city. Pop rice was one; coconut candy and rice paper were a couple of others. The pop rice was cooked in a large wok, filled with black river sand. A fellow threw a handful of rice into the hot sand and within seconds it popped much like popcorn in a microwave. The popped rice was mixed with caramel and vanilla to make a Vietnamese version of Rice Krispie cookies.

For rice paper, an older woman would spread a watery rice paste over a bamboo frame, press it, let it steam for half a minute then using two wands, gently lift off an almost transparent sheet of rice paper. Her daughter would cool it and move it over to a drying table for the next stage.

In the small store, they had the finished candy and eats along with trinkets and the scariest thing we saw on the trip, cobra and scorpion liqueur. Each bottle of amber rocket fuel had an adolescent cobra with a couple of companion scorpions floating in it. And Jose thought he was cool with a little bitty worm. What a rookie!

Every day, kids from tiny to probably junior high would yell out “hullo” to us as we rode by. Giggles, laughing and hollering most always accompanied the “hullos.” But all were with big smiles and great vibes.

Day 2 started with a husband and wife boat crew on a slender, 20 ft craft with an old automobile engine for a motor. This type of flat-bottomed boat, the most common on the river, is maybe a meter wide, all wood and generally ancient. The motor is basically mounted on a sawhorse on the stern of the boat; the drive shaft to the propeller is maybe 15ft long and enters the water 10-12 ft behind the boat. Along with the flat-bottomed hull, it makes the boat much more versatile in shallow water with more power than a conventional outboard. Plus old auto engines are much easier to come by.

We headed out to the big floating market on the river by Cho Doc; midway across South Vietnam toward the Cambodian border. The floating market in Thailand is primarily small canoes paddled by one person selling their individual foodstuffs and wares. This one in Vietnam was very different in that it was both a retail and wholesale marketplace. The anchored boats were large, ark looking type boats, maybe 35-40 ft. long. Each had at least one bamboo pole erected over the deck on which the owners had hoisted a sample of the particular vegetable, fruit or whatever they were interested in buying. Then all the local farmers, in the smaller flat-bottomed ones, silently slip out of all the inland waterways and sloughs with whatever they have to sell. They check out the bamboo displays and head for the big guys who are buying their goods. The big boats keep buying from all the farmers until they’re loaded, hoist anchor and head for Saigon, 8-10 hours away via the river. By noon the market stretch of river, maybe ¼ mile wide, a mile long and full of boats, is relatively empty. And then it starts all over again the next morning at dawn.

Just at dusk we climbed Samh Mountain, 3 miles from the Cambodian border. From the top you look almost straight down into Cambodia on one side and a big vista of the delta on the other side. As with much of where we were in So. Vietnam, the roads and public areas had tons of trash and litter everywhere. There’s no concern about anything other than making ends meet and having enough for tomorrow. Even so, all of the Vietnamese we came in contact with were happy, smiling gregarious people. Every smile we let fly with was instantly met with a bigger one from the locals along with a warm, personable feeling.

Early morning Day 3 we visited the big, floating catfish farms just downriver from the Cambodian border. Our boat-lady was by far one of the most memorable people on the trip. Instantly warm, totally worried about us seeing everything, not falling the in water (probably a wise worry in my case) and generally a person who exudes good cheer and happiness, she was a definite trip highlight. She has five kids ranging from 6-15 and works as a water taxi every day. The catfish farms are big houseboats with submerged cages under the entire structure filled with catfish of various age. The Vietnamese equivalent of our US feedlots and even with all the fish smelled much better than our local efforts. A stop at a local Islamic mosque was very interesting especially trying on local dress and millinery. Many of you probably don’t realize just how good Jake and I look in a long skirt.

During the three days, we had ridden and floated our way across the country and to the Western border. We had a 7-hour van ride back to Saigon, as we needed to catch a midday flight to Siem Reap in Cambodia. Duc did a masterful job weaving in and out of the traffic, traffic and congestion definitely in the top 3 of anything I’ve ever seen. As we motored along he would hold his hand up above the dashboard, fingers toward the roof and rotate it furiously at passing vehicles. Occasionally he would change the gesture to a horizontal patting gesture interspersed with a thumb pointing to the road’s shoulder or thumb down vigorously. Turns out fingers up and rotating hand means no police, go for it. The patting gesture is slow it down, police behind me and the thumb out or down means police on this side of the road or directly behind me. And all the drivers were working the system. Life’s tough for a federale in Vietnam when none of the civilians are on your side.

Early on our departure day, we took a tour of the big tunnel system, the Viet Cong used against the US during the last days of the war. 250 km dug through hard, clay-like ground. Generally three levels; all dark and ugly. It brought reality to the stories Claudia and I have heard from veteran friends who spent time battling in and around this area. Plain bad news on both sides of that one.

Siem Reap is the main city, about 200,000 people, closest to Angkor Wat, the 1,000-year-old temple complex in Cambodia. Angkor Wat is the biggest of maybe 50 temples in the greater Siem Reap area. Angkor Thom, a couple of kilometers down the road isn’t quite as large but is equally impressive with its dozens of large, carved faces of Buddha in all the towers and walls. As we arrived late, we had time to walk through Angkor Thom just as evening settled on the jungle. Rith, our guide, mentioned a couple from Sweden he had a week or so prior to our arrival who visited a couple of not-so-well known temples further out of Siem Reap. Beng Melay, only 1,200 years old was 2 hours out in a rather fast van ride across the Cambodian landscape.

Mekong Diary II
Read another Mekong diary

Late March is the end of the dry season and dry was certainly the appropriate word. It looked like cholla-choked areas outside of Farmington interspersed with water holes/swamps. Many of the water holes had some big ole water buffalo residents who really discouraged any close-up and personal contact. As dry as it was while we were there, the rainy season, in full swing as this is written, will transform the land into steamy, hot jungle. The effects of the jungle were very evident at Beng Melay, where the jungle was definitely in command and literally strangling the temple day by day. Crumbled walls, disjointed walkways and inch thick roots wrapped around statues and kiosks were very visible evidence of the relentless take-back by Mother Nature. She’s one tough and relentless old lady as those roots were tight against the rock and offered no leeway whatsoever. Several times we all thought we saw Indiana Jones darting through a window or up a stairwell. Occasionally you would round a corner or top out on a wall and there would be a monk, shaved head and all in his bright orange/saffron robe. Combined with screeching birds and monkeys, hot sweaty Werlins clamoring over the piles of rubble was movie stuff. Walking out the roadway back to our cars, we noticed small, red-topped, concrete pylons maybe 14-15 inches high. Good news, I guess, is that they signified the area was clear of land mines although Rith said that had been completed just last year. (So just what is wrong with going to Disneyland?) Jessie had second thoughts about a necessary visit to the bushes. Didn’t blame her a bit.

A nice jolting ride back to Siem Reap, and a visit to Angkor Wat to finish the day. Climbing the steep steps in the rain and surveying the jungle from a majestic stone temple, we could really admire the work of those who put the temple back together. After seeing the jungle swallow Beng Melay, we could understand the effort put into the temples. Flashes of saffron monks’ robes and intricate carvings bid us farewell as we caught a late flight to Saigon, 6:00 AM flight to Hong Kong and then the anchor leg to Tokyo brought us back just in time for Monday school, work and English classes. All of our trips have been unique and different in their own right. But this one, where we had a chance to learn about the local people, really ride and walk through non-tourist areas was especially eye opening and memorable.