Bicycle vacation Vietnam
Cycling from Bangkok to Saigon II
The Mekong delta is a green area with river arms, channels and canals. It's busy on the water. Most transportation takes place by boat and there are even floating markets. Saigon is a real metropolis with 7 million inhabitants and interesting museums (of course about the Vietnam war).
Travelogue & photos: Gerrie & Aart Dijkzeul
The transition from Cambodia to Vietnam reveals a strong contrast. It's as if we suddenly enter a rich country. And that is even while the annual pro capita income here ($300) is not much higher than in Cambodia.
Vietnam has, at least where we bicycle, a rather good infrastructure. The roads are great and there is, in contrast to Cambodia, a public electricity grid almost everywhere. There is regular public transportation by bus. The houses, markets, and cities look much better tended. There isn't garbage everywhere on the streets and in the yards. There are potted plants in front of houses, to mention only one sign of relative wealth.
It's also remarkable that - again in contrast to Cambodia - we hardly see any luxury cars. That is probably because of Vietnamese socialism. But there is an abundance of mopeds. This means that the traffic chaos is - if that is even possible - worse than in Cambodia. One needs six pairs of eyes, because many people here tend to take shortcuts by driving on the left side of the road.
The Mekong delta, where we are currently bicycling, is huge. It's one river arm after another channel or canal. They are all connected with each other and with the sea. That means that there is a slight in- and outgoing tide in the whole area.
The area is very green. Another difference with Cambodia is that rice cultivation takes place all year round. So there always is harvesting and planting going on. Every square inch of the area seems to be in use. Tens of kilometers of ribbon development, rice fields and vegetable, fruit and flower cultivation.
We spend our first four days in Vietnam in regions that don't see Western people very often. In any case, we hardly see any other tourists. It also shows in the menus. Only Vietnamese food. Which is exciting, but sometimes not a great success. For example, that one time when we got noodle soup, in which - or so we thought - were tasty pieces of beef. But they turned out to be a collection of inedible cow parts.
It seems that in Vietnam less English is taught at school than in Cambodia. But we manage to communicate with hands and feet. At one of the food stalls we succeed to have a real conversation in sign language with two women who work there.
We "talk" about age, about the - to Vietnamese incomprehensible - desire of Westerners to get a tan (they often wear gloves that reach up to their elbows and a cloth for their faces to stay white), number of children and of course if we are married. That is something many people ask. And they always laugh and giggle when we answer. We still don't know why.
The hustle and bustle on the channels and rivers is fun. Many goods are transported over water here. In ships that have been around since creation, or so it seems. The show never stops: rice harvest, activities around the houses and many small enterprises and workshops.
Hot Tocs (hair dressers) form the majority, together with moped workshops. We take a look in a few workshops. That's why we know now how incense sticks and rice wraps are made. The wharf where seaworthy fisher boats ar built, is also wonderful to see.
In Cantho we take a day to visit the floating markets. The helmswoman picks us up at 6 AM. It's still dark when we leave in a wooden boat for three.
We see the sun rise on the Mekong river. In a short while it gets light and warm. In less than an hour we arrive at the first floating market. Our boat wriggles between those of the merchants. It's a great spectacle.
Lunch is served from another boat: Vietnamese noodle soup. Via channels and canals we proceed and after eight hours we're back in Cantho. Our butts are sore. It's worse than 8 hours on a bike.
A real metropolis with 7 million inhabitants
Our kilometer counters indicate 2250 km when we arrive in Saigon. We have mixed emotions about the end of our tour. No more provincial towns. Instead, a real metropolis with 7 million inhabitants, large office buildings, many hotels and wide avenues with parks.
On the other hand, we feel pretty good: it was a wonderful trip during which we experienced a lot and everything without health problems or bike mishaps.
We splurge on a $40 per night hotel (three to five times more than we were used to spend) where everything is perfect and in working order. Taps are firmly attached, the toilet seat isn't broken, the toilet can be flushed and the air conditioning doesn't sound like a storm at open sea.
On our first day in Saigon we visit a museum which has exhibitions about Vietnam's wars over the last fifty years. Once more it becomes clear that whoever wins the war, writes the history books. The war between North and South Vietnam is consistently referred to as a war between Vietnam and the imperialist USA. The victory of the North over the South in 1975 is referred to as the liberation of South Vietnam.
All of this in stark contrast to the war cemetaries we saw on the way, where hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese soldiers who fought against North Vietnam are buried. The exhibition ignores the fact that it was not only a war of the USA against communism, but also - at least originally - a war between North and South Vietnam.
Which doesn't diminish the fact that the exhibition is very impressive. It's hard to keep dry eyes when seeing the photos of the suffering the wars caused. The majority of those photos were made by American war photographers.
We also visit the "Palace of Reunification" in Saigon. From 1960 to 1975 this building housed the South Vietnamese government. The guided tour and film are interesting. Also here, the opportunity is taken to praise the blessings of the socialist state.
And then there is art. The beautiful museum of art exhibits for the most part socialist modern art ("social realism") which glorifies the revolutionary struggle and the people. But there are also a few really good pieces of abstract art.
We read in parks and collect packing materials for our bikes. We find a workshop where boxes are made to order. So that's taken care of.
It's quiet in the daytime. This is because of the Tet festival (New Year on the moon calendar).
Many stores and businesses are closed. People are playing cards and other games. In the evening it gets much more crowded. Photographers are making photos of children and families in front of Uncle Ho's (Ho Chi Min) statue.
Many people are just driving around on their mopeds. In contrast with provincial towns, here one sees a lot of couples drive and walk together. Outside Saigon we hardly ever saw this.
There, boys walk together with their arms around each other. It's uncomplicated and endearing.
In our experience, Saigon is a rather laid-back city. Different from what we read and heard about it. Not many beggars. People who want to sell you something are not too insistent. We never feel unsafe during our stay.
And then it's over. After five and a half weeks we fly back to The Netherlands.
From 30 to -5 degrees centigrade. Back to the salt mines...