Pleiku, Vietnam. Thursday 6th September 2018.
A new country, new things to discover, new food to eat. I was still buzzing after my illegal entry and didn’t quite manage to suppress a frisson of concern when I passed two sets of policemen during the afternoon’s ride. I joined the main north/south road, busy with trucks and other traffic. I was tending to sweep past the lumbering trucks on the offside until a young lad on a bike caught me up and said something to me. I couldn’t understand him of course, but I got the impression my style of overtaking was not the thing to do. Observing other riders helped me realise that bikes tend to keep over to the nearside, making use of a special, narrower lane, and they also overtake slower vehicles in this lane too. Completely counter intuitive, but undertaking is clearly the done thing. As I approached some of the towns I saw boards with the speed limits for various classes of vehicle posted on them. 50KPH for all vehicles in towns, 70KPH for bikes and trucks on the open road. 80KPH for cars and buses. It was very handy to know that and I soon learned to spot the signs telling me when I was entering a restricted area. They use a large, rectangular board showing a silhouette of buildings but rarely have an actual speed limit sign. I rode carefully through these areas, keeping to the nearside and trying to behave like a small bike would. I did not want any unnecessary attention paid to my non-compliant bike. When leaving a town the same sign would be shown but with a red line through it. Easy enough. Every so often I’d come to some toll booths. Bikes, naturally, were free.
My original plan had been to enter Vietnam in the south, then travel north. So I stuck with the spirit of that. My entry point was a couple of days ride north of where I wanted to be so I just travelled down this quite nice road, which I later learned was called the Ho Chi Minh Highway. It was on the western side of the country, bordering the mountainous area between Vietnam and Laos/Cambodia, and I was to become very familiar with it later in my travels.
First impressions? Vietnam seemed to be a very well organised country, but also very busy. Towns were busy places and I was back to the ‘million motorcycle madness’ once again, but with knobs on. After the quietness of Laos it felt like I was back in Cambodia in that respect. Ha! If only. Riders in Vietnam are a whole level above the deranged riding of the Khmer. Not one millimetre of your road space was sacred. At every junction, traffic lights or no, bikes would be trying to force their way across your path, daring you to keep coming towards them but hoping you’d give in and let them cross. It was the norm to be sat at a set of lights which, upon turning green, would be the signal for those coming towards you, and who wanted to turn left, to just go for it. A couple of cars would be there in the mix too. What to do? Just dare back at them. “I dare you to ride across my path when I’m heading straight towards you”, seemed to be the battle cry. I happily joined in with that and because nobody wants to have a collision, they would invariably give way. Occasionally, I would too. (Bear in mind, when visualising this, that Vietnam drives on the right.) To this end I soon learned not to zip around slow moving or stationary vehicles. There would always be a bike or four sneaking across in front of it. Accustomed to it I did become, but Vietnam became the country where the phrase “These bloody people!” was used most often.
Added to this was that nobody, ever, would look to their left before turning right onto a road. It was up to me to move for them. To be fair to Vietnam this is a common SE Asian trait, as is pulling across from the offside and just blending in with the traffic going the same way. Larger vehicles always worked to avoid clashing with the bikes. Turning right for them was a drawn out affair as they had to leave plenty of room and time for the bikes coming up the inside of them while they drifted across the bike lane to make their turn.
Out on the open road Asian Overtaking was dominant. If you’re on a bike you ride in the narrow nearside lane. The rest of the road belongs to the big boys. I got used to having cars or trucks driving straight towards me as if I wasn’t there. Trucks would tend to just pull out of side turnings and leave you to deal with it as best you could. Yes, Vietnam roads were definitely exciting. But for the most part they were in very good condition too. In Laos the main roads were often strewn with torn up sections and potholes. That only happened in Vietnam if you were way up in the high hills or out among the back lanes of the delta. So I was able to move quickly a lot of the time but with caution when required.
Being in Central Vietnam I quickly realised how big an effect the Vietnam war (the American war to the Vietnamese, a reference I’ll use hereafter) had on the national psyche. I stopped to look at a big memorial, placed on the top of a hill. It was in the shape of a MiG 21 fighter plane, sitting on its tail, and had statues of soldiers, workers and women surrounding it. Very Soviet in style. The topography here was hilly, up as high as 800 metres. There were plenty of plantations of various types, growing crops I couldn’t identify. At one point I went looking for an alternative route, to take me off the main road and into the mountains. I rode down a concrete road, through rubber plantations, seeing the trees with the spiral cuts in their trunks and collecting bowls at the bottom of them. But that decent road turned to mud once it had left the plantation behind, so I had to back track.
During my two day ride I learned a bit about the food. Every country has it’s own way of doing things and within that country are regional variations. A dish called Pho is very common. You’re presented with a bowl of broth with some meat in it – beef, chicken or pork. You also get a plate of pre-cooked glass noodles (thin rice noodles) and a plate of what I can only describe as vegetation – herbs and lettuce. You put the noodles and vegetation into the broth and eat. You keep topping up with both of them as you work your way through it. Eventually the broth and meat is finished and the trick was to be organised enough to finish everything together. Another common dish is Goi Cuan. In this case you get a plate with slices of meat, some lettuce, cucumber, noodles and bean sprouts. Along with it comes a plate of rice paper wraps and you pile a bit of everything onto it, roll it up like a tortilla, and dip it into the satay sauce that accompanies it all. A little messy sometimes, but very nice. The unusual thing about both of the places selling these was that they only sold that one dish, and nothing else. This was common throughout Vietnam, and the food was cheap too. Including a beer, I often paid less than £2. For breakfast I would walk down the street from that night’s hotel and would quickly find a stall which sold a baguette roll filled with meat and salad, or quite often a fried egg. A great way to start the days ride and also very cheap.
A common sight in the towns and villages was school kids, often on electric bikes and riding, very annoyingly, three or four abreast while they chattered away. These bikes had small wheels with a battery mounted at the bottom of the vertical frame member. It was rare to see youngsters on scooters, as I’d done elsewhere. It was also the norm for scooter riders to wear crash helmets. As I said before, a much better organised country.
Eventually I found myself passing through the outer suburbs of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, as it’s now called). It had started to rain and I was somewhat puzzled when I saw a mob of scooters stopped at the side of a big junction. When I looked up I realised they were sheltering from the rain beneath an unfinished flyover. Puzzlement turned to amusement. I didn’t blame them, the rain was hammering down. I wished I could join them but I needed to push on.
After a couple of days I arrived in Can Tho, largest city in the Mekong Delta area. Looking at the map of the delta, all I could see was blue lines everywhere as the Mekong River divided, sub divided and sub, sub divided, looking like the veins on the back of an old man’s hand. The way of life down there is different to any other part of the country. Water dominates everything – vegetation, cultivation and habitation. The first thing I did was to find a hostel near the river front. The second was to book a river tour, through the hostel, for early the next morning. I’m not all that much of an early riser, but these things have to be done.
I was up at 04.30 and was joined by a young Spanish couple for an early breakfast. Then we were led down to the riverside, about ten minute’s walk away, where we were handed over to our ‘skipper’, a friendly woman who sat us down in her boat and issued us with life jackets. She spoke very little English, but it didn’t really make any difference to the overall experience. Anchors aweigh, and off we went up river. Our first port of call was the Cai Rang floating market. Our six seater, wooden boat was powered by a small petrol engine attached to a ‘long tail’ propeller shaft. As the name implies, it sits at the back of the boat with the propeller sitting in the water at a very shallow angle and quite a way back from the boat itself. Specifically designed for the shallow rivers of SE Asia, this system is used on all sorts of boats, with engine and propeller sizes matched to the size of boat. Our skipper had to stop and untangle the propeller a couple of times as we rode around the waterways.
Despite being only a branch off the Mighty Mekong, our river was still at least 200 metres wide, so when we reached the floating market there was plenty of room to wander between the bigger boats as they did business, along with the many other tourist boats. But this was not a tourist market, like the one I’d seen before in Thailand. This was a wholesalers’ market, a kind of floating Covent Garden. These bigger boats were generally stocked with only one type of produce, be it fruit or vegetable, which was purchased by people in smaller boats. They’d move from one to another, stocking up, before going off to carry out their daily business. My guess was that they owned a café, a market stall or something similar. Most of the traders were women, colourfully dressed and wearing conical hats, usually tied on with a colourful ribbon. There was accommodation on the wholesalers’ boats and it was possible to imagine that they never set foot on dry land. Proper Vietnamese boat people, in fact. To this end there were located, at intervals along the bank, floating fuel stations where the boats would pull up to replenish supplies. Our skipper did this twice, getting her supply of 1.5 litre water bottles filled up. She’d chuck the empty ones onto the platform, they’d be filled up then handed back to her, and off we’d go. That little engine had a hard job hauling us around. I suspect these wooden boats are quite heavy.
Another part of the market was aimed more at individual buyers and our skipper bought some mangos and a watermelon, which she cut up and fed to us. To keep us amused and, I suspect, to relieve her boredom as we chugged along the river, she made little figures woven out of reed and decorated with flowers. She made us each a crown to wear; an insect and a love heart for the Spanish couple. Clever and intricate work. I did note that the occupants of the other tourist boats wear wearing crowns too. A good bit of tourist puffery.
We turned off the main river and floated down some narrower canals. These were overhung with giant ferns, and other foliage giving, at times, a bit of a lost world effect. I half expected the African Queen to come steaming round the corner, belching smoke and gin fumes. We stopped at a rice noodle factory, just to see what went on. It ought to have been mundane but wasn’t. It was fascinating. They produce a pancake mix from rice flour, which is then poured and spread thinly onto a hot plate. The plate is heated by steam, giving a very even cooking temperature. After a few minutes the pancake is moved onto a rack made from woven rattan. When dry it’s fed through a machine which cuts it into fine strips. Voila! Rice noodles. The mix can be coloured with plant based dyes, all natural ingredients. I liked the fact that the fire heating the water uses the chaff from the threshed rice as a fuel. Nothing is wasted. It’s a small enough operation to be carried out locally, a proper cottage industry. I reckon those rice wraps, as used with the Goi Cuan, were made in the same way.
Our elevenses break was taken at a fruit garden and the three of us were ‘invited’ to pay for our skipper’s meal. No problem with that. It’s a long swim home. We walked around, admiring the pineapple plants, which do look very strange, and various others. Then we wandered around more backwaters, just enjoying the tranquillity. It was here that I began to get a sense of the way land and water blend together with regard to how people live. There was always a small road running alongside the canals, with bikes travelling along them. Small boats would be moored next to houses, very much a part of daily life. I imagine people would take whichever mode of transport best suited their destination and needs. The river was clearly an intrinsic part of everyday life.
Eventually we landed back at our start point after a very instructive ride through this particular aspect of Vietnamese culture. It’s probably similar to most other areas in SE Asia where the river dominates, but it was my first experience of it and it was fascinating. These big, wide, sluggish rivers have dictated the way of life in this region for centuries and when you’re out on them, away from the land, it’s not difficult to see the continuity of the past into the present.
In the city itself I visited some nice temples, one of which was a Chinese pagoda with four levels. It was unusual because the Buddha was of carved wood, the first one I’d seen. I got chatting to a local woman who told me she was a sales executive. She then told me she sold Amway products. Yes, pyramid selling has arrived in Vietnam! I enjoyed a walk along the riverbank and stopped to admire the large memorial statue of Ho Chi Minh, the former Vietnamese leader. He is, unsurprisingly, revered in Vietnam and the statue was in a very nice garden area. The city has a museum, which mostly covered how this region was affected by the war, although it did cover some early history too. Not much of the information was in English though, but I did pick on the fact that communism was beginning to take a hold in Vietnam as early as the 1920s.
And then a bike problem reared its ugly head. I wanted to go out to visit some places that were too far away for walking. But the bike wouldn’t start. It would try to, but never quite catch. It had been standing for a few days but that shouldn’t have made any difference. In the end I flattened the battery. The helpful young woman on the hostel’s reception let me use her scooter for jump starting, but the battery on the bike wouldn’t respond. It seemed to be so flat that it was refusing to take any charge. It’s the lithium ion type, which unfortunately need a special charger. At this point I was roundly cursing whoever it was that stole my jump starter pack when I was in Vientiane. I carried it just for this situation.
Some online research showed that these packs were sold in Vietnam so I downloaded a picture of it and spent the rest of the day walking around to various tool and electronics shops hoping to find one. By the end of the afternoon I’d been sent to so many different shops, by so many different helpful people that I felt like I was pinball being bounced around the locality. I ended up in a narrow street full of stalls and shops selling every type of tool, parts for tools and electrical equipment you could think of. No luck, so I gave up for the day but went to one last place the next morning where I’d been told I should definitely get one. I couldn’t even find the shop. In the end I went to a motorbike shop near the hostel and bought a new battery. Problem solved? No. The bike still wouldn’t start and I ended up getting the battery recharged twice before I managed to coax the engine into life. And that was only after I’d cleaned the spark plug.
I ran the engine to get it warm, which brought out the old folk from across the street in protest at the noise. He was pointing at his watch as if to say “Do you know what time it is?” Well I did know. It was actually midday. A short while later a policeman turned up to see what was happening. Yes, the old folk had called the cops on me! In fairness I can’t really blame them because the bike was making a terrible racket. Over the previous few days my silencer had been falling apart. The rivets that secure the cover over the end of it had vibrated out and the noise it now made was dreadful, especially in a quiet and narrow street. This became on ongoing problem, with each temporary repair I tried to make failing after a few days. The only solution I could use at that time was to wear my earplugs so at least I couldn’t hear the noise. But everybody else could and I got some very odd stares as I rode through some places. The earplug solution may sound like a bit of a joke but it’s actually very tiring to be riding a noisy bike for long periods.
My delayed ride out was to some fascinating places, as recommended on some websites. The first was the Phuoc Kien Pagoda. It’s famous for its giant lily pads. The photos show people sitting on them. There were two ponds by the pagoda, one with walkways across it so I was able to see them close up. They’re almost a metre across, which definitely counts as big. I didn’t try to walk on them though. They didn’t look strong enough for that. The second place was an area filled with plant nurseries, lying either side of a narrow road and next to a canal. Not spectacular really, but nice to see. The third place was a bit special though. The Bang Lok stork sanctuary. It was out in the countryside a bit and the recommended time to visit was late in the afternoon so as to be able to see the birds returning from their day of storking. They don’t deliver babies these days, do they? I climbed up onto the viewing platform and could see hundreds of them roosting in the tree tops, with others circling round looking for a place to call home for the night. Once settled they mostly seemed happy to stay there, although there would always be some taking off and flying around, like kids who keep getting out of bed for a glass of water. A fascinating sight and a nice way to finish off the day, despite having a nervous ride back in the dark. Mad scooter riders and no street lights are not a good combination. Add in the evening rain, just to make life really interesting. But it had been my first insight to life outside the towns, particularly riding among the canals, where I could add to the knowledge gleaned from my boat trip.
I was planning to go to Saigon, former capital of South Vietnam, but chose to go the long way round so I could have a look at the town of Chau Duc. It sits in the north of the delta area, very close to the border with Cambodia. The woman at the hostel had suggested I go via Rum Tram Tra Su, an ecological park. The pictures of it looked nice so I decided to do just that. My bike rattled and roared its way up there, the route taking me down ever narrower side roads and over small suspension bridges that spanned the canals, and were only wide enough for bikes to use. These roads were built on causeways and crossed the flooded fields. Sluice gates were placed at various intervals, designed to control the water. Sometimes there were houses and small businesses on one side, with water on the other. I saw buildings that were submerged up to their roofs, but would presumably be usable in the dry season. Eventually Google maps took me along a road that just dwindled down to a concrete pathway running between the trees. It ought to have kept going straight on, according to Google, but it came to a halt in front of a very wide river, with another path going off to the left. I think Google just wasn’t able to recognise the floods.
On the corner was a building and there I saw a group of people sitting under its eaves enjoying a picnic while sheltering from the rain. They called me over to join them. A couple of them spoke some English and invited me to share their food. They were barbecuing some snails and had sweet potato chips and cake, along with some plants and flowers they’d picked from the river bank. It all seemed very ‘back to nature’ in style except, that was, for the cool box they had in which they’d brought ice and then added the contents of a 24 pack of beer. They were drinking that with a very modern enthusiasm. I sat and socialised with them for a while, hoping the rain would ease, but it didn’t. They’d finished anyway so we all left. I retraced my wheel tracks part of the way then was taken under the wing of a guy riding a motorbike, with his wife and daughter on the back, who was going my way and offered to guide me. Very kind and helpful. In Chau Duc I found a hotel and parked my bike in the lobby, at their insistence. The town had a nice riverside area, clearly popular with the locals, and I found a café selling barbecued fish. I ate a whole one. It was big and delicious. I was very full.
Near to Chau Duc is Sam Mountain. This is a 230 metre high hill, looking surprisingly prominent in the otherwise flat delta landscape. It’s a pilgrimage site for Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists who visit the many temples and pagodas on and around the hill. I had a look at a couple of really nice ones in the touristy area at the bottom of it. Then I rode up to the top to enjoy the views out across the wet landscape. I chatted to a couple of young Swedish guys, touring around on rented bikes. A very common thing for backpackers to do. The view from the top looks out across the flooded plain, criss-crossed with arrow straight canals and roads, all lined with trees and surrounded by water filled fields. With the exception of some modernisation of the infrastructure, I suspect this landscape has remained the same for many centuries, as has the way of life.
Ba Chuc was next to visit. Hidden out among the fields, and reached by more of those narrow canalside roads and their motorcycle only bridges, this village houses a memorial to the victims of genocidal murder carried out by soldiers of the Pol Pot regime over a two week period in April 1978. Pol Pot hated the Vietnamese, who he believed had always been wanting to take over Cambodia. He made a speech about it on the third anniversary of his coming to power and immediately afterwards his soldiers came to this village, which isn’t far from the border, and murdered over 3,100 people, men, women and children. Only a handful survived. The specific reason for this attack, if there actually is one, isn’t known. The Khmer Rouge had made similar cross border incursions before but none as deadly as this one. It was this incident, more than anything else, which led the Vietnamese to invade Cambodia and drive out their one time allies. The memorial houses the bones of all the victims and also has a display of photographs taken after the events. This website gives full details.
Final port of call for the day was to Tuc Dup Hill, otherwise known as the Two Million Dollar Hill. This is a proper tourist place, with boating lakes and family orientated activities. There was nobody there on this wet, off season day. I’d come to look at the caves where the PAVN (Peoples’ Army of Viet Nam) held out for 128 days while the Americans and South Vietnamese threw everything they had at it. Its made up of a jumble of rocks, some huge, some small, which houses caves and hidden passageways between them. Thus the defending forces could hide in the daytime and come out at night both to raid their enemy and get supplies from the surrounding villages. It was a staging post for forces moving from the north to the battlefields of the south. The cost of the bombs, bullets and ordnance used in the attempt to capture it is reckoned to be about 2 million dollars, hence the name. I couldn’t find my way into the inner caves. I think the rain meant that they had closed off some sections. But I was certainly able to get a good idea of what it was like and there was a museum to look through as well. Another fascinating look into the war torn past. More info here.
When I arrived back in Chau Duc I made a complete fool of myself by getting my bearings wrong. I rode down the street to the corner where my hotel was, then rode up into the lobby to park my bike. Somebody asked me if I wanted a room and just as I was saying that I already had one I realised I’d ridden down the wrong street and into the wrong hotel. I made my very embarrassed apologies and left, leaving those poor people to mop my wet tyre tracks off their floor. Talk about feeling a fool!
It had been a good day out, despite the rain and, as with Can Tho, riding through these riverside communities, along the narrow tracks beside the flooded fields, had been a revelatory experience. It’s a way of life unique to this kind of topography and which is totally dominated by the seasons. Obviously people have taken advantage of modern technology to make their lives easier and their land more productive. All societies do. This area can produce three or four rice harvests a year, so is hugely important to Vietnam’s economy. Judging by the quality of buildings, and especially the nicely decorated temples I saw, people seem to be relatively well off. But I do wonder what the effects of hydro-electricity generation further up river will be, to say nothing of future climate change, on a way of life based on centuries of tradition.
A bit of history to end this blog post. Vietnam’s story goes way back into the pre-history era, as does that of this whole region. One notable event was the development of wet rice cultivation in the Red River Delta, in the north of the country around 3,500BC. Something that is now a staple food across all of Asia. Over the centuries they developed farming practices and, in particular, irrigation. Moving on to the first millennium, Vietnam was divided into many regions, with their own rulers, but slowly came under the influence of Chinese ruling dynasties. This gave Vietnam its legal and administrative system, based on the use of Confucian educated Mandarins to carry out the wishes of the king. But slowly this influence waned and powerful chiefs united provinces into ever bigger areas, eventually creating the borders of modern northern Vietnam. They had to fight off three Mongol invasions in the 13th century, unifying the country even more. The south was part of the Khmer empire for a long time but eventually gained its independence as that empire waned. But the north was under pressure to feed its growing population and looked to the south’s abundant rice harvests with jealous eyes. In 1802 the north successfully took over the south and modern Vietnam was born. Then the French arrived, a story I will save for later. A full time line of Vietnam’s known history is here.