2017-12-04 Island Time

Ha Tien to Phu Quoc Island

Public transportation with a bike is always an adventure. This one went well.

For the 0800 sailing, I arrived at 0645, just allowing a bit of time for the unexpected. Aside from Google getting lost, no excitement, and even that was simple to correct following my French nose.

Boarding public transit with a touring bike usually mystifies me. This morning’s 0800 sailing did not disappoint. I knew I needed to buy a ticket for the bike in addition to my passenger ticket purchased last night. But who, where, when? This is a sleek passenger ferry that accommodates limited freight and a few two-wheelers. Finally after a number of freight items were stowed, an official with a pad of tickets showed up, directed me to open my luggage for “inspection” and indicated I should remove the bags from the bike. Porters rolled the bike onboard. I hope they handled it with care. Panniers stowed by the gangway, I found my assigned seat on the lower deck and settled into videos of heart-wrenching Vietnamese popular songs.

The fast ferry “SuperDong 9” (you can’t make this stuff up!) takes 70 minutes to cross the Gulf of Thailand from Ha Tien to Phu Quoc Island. Known for jungle beaches, the West side of the island is overrun with fancy resorts along the 12-mile long, creatively named, Long Beach. I avoid staying in such places. I prefer the tranquility of the East side, facing the mainland.

Rocks Beach Boutique Bungalows, has just four units, a private beach, gorgeous pool, excellent kitchen and the best staff I could imagine.


The only drawback is the last 6 km of the road getting there; rough, rutted red mud, broken only by short stretches where contractors have begun preparations for paving the road by next October. Those 6 km took me an hour, and I felt beat up by the end. Here’s a vid from the front seat of a taxi taken the next day.

As soon as I could change from sweaty bike clothes to swim shorts I headed for open water in the Gulf of Thailand. The host told me I would need to wade out quite a ways to get into water deep enough for swimming. A couple hundred meters later, just past the large rock in the picture, I was finally in belly-deep water. It was a slow walk because the water was so turbid I could not see my feet even in less than 1/2 meter deep water. So I moved cautiously. After a few strokes my hand scraped a submerged rock. I decided that was enough open water swimming for the conditions.A young German couple relaxing on the islet next to the pier, was astounded to see someone in the water, thus began our friendship. We enjoyed drinks and dinner together sharing tales of adventure and other lies. As we chatted, the wind came up and rain began. Wind and rain both grew, accompanied by a light and sound show; we finally had to retrench to as far back in the dining patio as possible to avoid getting a bath. The rain overwhelmed the area drains and flowed across the dining area. And then it stopped. A dramatic welcome to Phu Quoc Island and new friends Susann and Andre.


2017-12-03 Planning My Exit

I intended to visit a beach near Ha Tien today. Instead, I mapped out my return route and overnight stops back to HCMC. Then I reserved three nights, starting tomorrow, at Rocks Beach Boutique Bungalows on Phu Quoc Island, an early birthday present to myself.

To start my return, I will take the 0830 ferry from Phu Quoc to Rach Gia on the 7th and then ride 60 km to Vi Thanh, Hau Giang. It will be a long day, but sets me up to ride to HCMC in six days of about 60 km per day. The exception will be the last day; about 23 km to Lan and Loi’s house in HCMC. I’ll start super early so I can enter the city ahead of some traffic, rested and alert.

2017-12-02 A Long Haul

Chau Doc to Ha Tien

I started this long (60 miles) hot ride before dawn and finished more than eight hours later, exhausted. The high point of my ride, literally and emotionally was a Vietnamese veterans’ memorial cemetery at 250 feet above sea level. (See the post, “A Soldier’s Grief” regarding the cemetery.)

The landscape has relief now. In the midst of endless rice paddies only a few feet above sea level, massive granite mountains thrust up nearly 2,000 feet. I chose to bypass the climb to the top of the famous Sam Mountain due to the length of the ride. Had there been any commercial lodgings or homestays along the way, I would have gladly split the ride into two days.

Treats along the way:

A roadside restaurant run by a charming family. I ordered the house special, com chay (rice with vegetables and pork) and a bottle of water. Watching me hungrily tie into their food, they decided I needed more; bananas and extra stir fried veggies magically appeared. When I asked for the bill they charged me 5,000 VD (about 25 cents US). When I protested that it seemed wrong, the son explained, using his smart phone app to translate, that the water and vegetarian food were free! They would not accept any more. But when I pulled out the camera, excitement erupted. The Vietnamese I’ve met love having their pictures taken. After much ado, grandpa, grandma and the grandson stood for the picture; other family stood behind me to see what a real camera does.

A Thai Buddhist celebration caused massive traffic disruption. Water buffalo grazed and bathed. A small herd of white cattle frisking in their yard, suddenly took off full tilt down the road to something still more fun. A lovely shady, breezy perch beside the river offered a refuge to absorb and process the veterans’ cemetery experience while also giving my body a rest.

Most of the ride was on good regional highway with a cooling breeze which became a tailwind for the last 30 km, when I needed it most. I was shocked to arrive in Ha Tien before 1500, but troubled by the very rough pavement and heavy traffic the last few km into town. Google got lost, but eventually figured out how to get to the hotel.

The Oasis Bar, run by an expat Brit and full of foreigners, offered companionship, good food, and shelter from a monsoon-like thunder storm. We enjoyed an extra drink while the storm cooled and washed the world.

There’s is a pattern to my arrival at a new hotel. Inevitably, I’m sweaty and exhausted.

1. Give the clerk a copy of my passport and visa in exchange for my room key.

2. Figure out what to do with the bike. Ask about secure storage for the bike. First response – leave it with the motorbikes or in the lobby area. Then I try to get them to understand that I need to lock the bike TO something. Stair railings work well. Taking it to the room is an option if the elevator is big enough to stand the bike on end.

3. Lug the luggage, water bottles, etc. up to the room.

4. Strip off the sweaty riding clothes.

5. Stretch.

6. Take a shower.

7. Flop down on the bed, still wet, and nap for an hour or two.

8. Get up and find dinner.

9. If I still have any energy, write about the day’s experiences.

I eat mostly Vietnamese food from small street-side shops. I don’t always know what I’m eating, but it has all been good. My body likes the spicy Vietnamese cuisine; I fart less and have plenty of energy.

Muscles and joints seem to like the routine, except at the end of a long day, when my ergonomics sag; my shoulders and arms complain about fatigue. My only other complaint is that I’m a bit raw where my body encounters the saddle from pedaling so many hours in the heat and humidity. As callous builds I become even more of a hard-ass.

2017-12-02 A Soldier’s Grief

On my way from Chau Doc to Ha Tien I stopped for a rest break. I noticed on the other side of the road a Vietnamese veterans memorial cemetery. Row after row of soldiers’ graves. Hundreds. Not all of them from the American war, but most were. I found some that died while I was here from 1968 to 1970. War is so fucked up.

I lit incense and placed flowers on the tombs of two soldiers. One of them died shortly after I arrived. The other died just before I left. I cried for them, and for all the other millions who died needlessly because of the US invasion.

I am not a religious man, but the concept of penance reverberates on this trip. Perhaps I feel it even more because of the kindness and generosity of the Vietnamese people I’ve encountered. Maybe that is why I want to treat the Vietnamese with the respect they deserve, the respect they didn’t get during the war.

Penance: an act that shows you feel sorry for something you have done. (Cambridge English Dictionary)

I don’t think my intelligence work killed any of the soldiers in this cemetery. My area of responsibility was North of HCMC, far from the battles in which these people died.

I never had to pull the trigger while aiming at another human. But the bombing raids, artillery shellings, and ground troop movements surely led to the deaths of many. Yes, I enlisted voluntarily, but I had a choice to do otherwise. Yes, I was “just following orders.” But I did so with skill and pride of workmanship. I was complicit in the deaths of many, as a willing part of an invading army.

I am grateful for this encounter with these ghosts of my past. Some of you will understand this. To others, it may seem strange. To me, it is very real. Now I can begin to grieve and to heal.

2017-12-01 Exploring Chau Doc

Chau Doc snuggles between the Bassac River (one of the Mekong array) and the Cambodian border, where until recently it was a main border crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s location makes it a cultural melting pot: Cham, Khmer, Chinese, and the Johnny-come-latelies, the Vietnamese. So all varieties of Buddhist temples, Cham temples and mosques dot the area. Catfish farming dominates the waterfront, the fish pens suspended under floating homes. Stilt houses line the banks, standing on stilts above seasonal river fluctuations. The space among the stilts shelter livestock and provide shady places for hammocks.

Con Tien Island in the Bassac River hosts much of this cultural diversity, so that’s where I headed. I never saw any of the mosques, but I heard the call to prayer at one point and saw a few women wearing the hijab.

I watched two women sorting sticks for incense and smelled the sweet aroma of the finished product drying by the road.

I encountered surprise and delight by people seeing a westerner riding through the neighborhood. One of a group of women sitting around a small table in the street stood up and walked to the middle of the street, stretching her arms out to signal me to stop. I could sense the good humor of the situation, so I stopped. After a bit of sign-language chit-chat, she indicated she wanted a ride on the luggage rack of my bike! She was not a small woman, but I decided to see what would happen. Well, I quickly lost balance and ran into another table, ending the ride within a few feet of its start. But the group and I laughed ‘til it hurt. They invited me to sit and have tea with them. I sat but declined the tea due to its caffeine content. Google Translate came to the rescue to explain why I was being so antisocial. We only spent a few delightful minutes together, but they stand as highlights.

A 10 year old boy hollered “hello” and I responded in kind. We exchanged a couple other common questions and answers, the limit of his English that he felt comfortable using. I rode on but shortly found him at my side on a bike. The road dead-ended and we both turned around and rode back to his friends from whom he had borrowed the bike to chase me down. Giggles and pictures brought appreciative parents to the street.

A group of young men playing carom billiards on a converted pool table in which the pockets were covered by continuous rails, called out as I rode by. On my return from the dead-end, they invited me to come in and play and hammed it up for the camera. I declined the invite because it was getting late.

Under the bridge men transferred cargo from boats to trucks and pedicabs. Laundry baskets of catfish from the under-house farms on the river, weighed and carted to barrels of water in a truck. Hardwood rounds, beautifully finished, that took four men to lift, precariously perched on pedicabs. And the reverse trip for newly harvested (40-50 kg?) bags of rice; from truck to barge for the trip to market. Much banter and joking between the stevedores and the strange westerner on a bike.

The warmth and sometimes mischievous humor is so common, even among people whose lives are hard, endears the people of the Delta to me. These simple interactions bring me so much joy.

2017-11-30 Off Grid

Long Xuyen to Chau Doc

Surely the most fascinating ride so far. Google Maps led me down rural lanes and single track foot paths, through settlements of half dozen or fewer homes, and over more rickety, steep, narrow bridges than I could count; all of it perched on dikes in rices paddies. I feel so fortunate.

I’m sure the strange westerner on a bike occupied many conversations. I doubt that even organized bike tours go along these paths. The route cuts a nearly straight line to Chau Doc, but it posed bike skill challenges that demanded 200% of my attention for much of the way. My ability to ride single track has improved since my spill along the canal tow path in England, and fatter, softer tires also helped, so no spills this time. Banana tree leaves brushed my head while I navigated the narrow and sometimes steep-sided track walls. Because I could not take it all in while riding, I made lots of stops.

Approaching motorbikes and I negotiated on the fly how to pass each other: Did one of us need to pull off and stop? Which one? Could we squeeze by? Nothing new to them, but I felt my foreign-ness in not knowing the protocol. All resolved with a friendly nod or smile that I encounter so often here. Oh, if only we could handle things that way while driving in the US, rather than with privelege, anger, and rude hand gestures.

Some of the settlements seemed not to be Vietnamese, judging from the music playing in homes and the fabrics hanging out front. Khmer and Cham communities are common in this area. Perhaps one of you can identify the ethnicity of the brightly colored fabric in this picture?

Long-tail boats carry people and cargo throughout the Delta. The long tail is a propeller at the end of a motor shaft attached to various sizes of auto or truck engines. The engines swing on a gimbal that allows adjustable depth and turning thrust.

I’ve seen many long tail boats. But here I noticed a new use for the long tail. The long tail drives a pump to raise water from the canals to the fields. The arrangement typically fills about an 8” pipe with strong flow. The sound of the idling stationary engine gives them away as I pass; ka-chug ka-chug ka-chug. Do they use the long-tail shaft to drive other machinery? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Fields of yellow and gold chrysanthemum flowers, grown to decorate ancestral altars, pop up from time to time, jewels in the green velvet landscape. In the background, near Chau Doc and the Cambodian border, famous Sam Mountain rises abruptly from what has been very flat landscape.

Some rice harvesting is going on now, bringing strange-looking machinery to the fields, andmotorbikes and trucks full of the easily identifiable bright yellow bags. Small batches of rice dry on tarps laid out on the roads, frequently raked to expose all the grain to the drying sun.

Clever hemispherical wire domes house house proud cocks, perhaps fighting fowl. Their humans relocate the cages to keep the cocks in the shade and sometimes to offer them fresh ground to scratch. Looks like an adaptable tool for raising back yard chickens in the US.

2017-11-29 Scenic Ride, Ferry Madhouse & Market Chaos

Sa Dec to Long Xuyen

Lovely scenery following the river on major roads. A large pond of lotus blossoms stunned me. A new cable suspension bridge rises above quiet rural villages, a harbinger of changes to come. Men fish the edges of the Lilly pad clumps along the edge of the river from a row boat, using a small dip net to scoop the unsuspecting. Their net carries a charge from a car battery to stun their prey.

The last leg was a ferry crossing like none before. This was big-time. Six ferries made the 1/2 mile crossing to Long Xuyen, loading and unloading as quickly as possible, tag team style. I was among the last to board one ferry, but they asked me and a dozen or so motorbikes to back down off the loading ramp to take the next ferry. They then jostled the rest of the crowd until they could close the gates. These are big ferries; they hold large trucks and busses. No waiting. The next ferry was unloading on the adjacent slip as I backed down.

The ferry unloaded into a major market, one of the busiest and most chaotic I’ve seen. Correction, “chaotic” would be an improvement in orderliness. My hotel was a real sh*t hole – filthy. An uneasy night and anxious to leave for Chau Doc.