2017-11-28 Nurseryland

West of Sa Dec, industry yields to miles of plant nurseries. Most seem to focus on decorative varieties. The homestay I’m at tonight, Maison en Bambou Phong-Le Vent, is one of those nurseries. They branched out, so to speak, to include homestays. They built several thatched bamboo huts in the midst of the growing fields. Think bamboo yurt; simple, comfortable, and in this case, elegantly realized.

If I sit quietly on the porch, I think I can see the plants raising their leaves and hear them rejoicing to welcome a gentle rain that began a few minutes after I arrived. Peace and quiet this intense is a treasure, when a stereo is not blasting somewhere in the distance, that is.

I think Vietnam is a good investment opportunity for hearing aids and audiologists. Music at karaoke bars and weddings, which seem frequent, is loud enough to be uncomfortable as I pass in the street! I cannot imagine what its like for attendees. Surely it damages their hearing. Maybe they play the music loud to preclude family feuds – it is certainly too loud for conversation.

Google Maps threw me an interesting curve. They don’t have bike routings for Vietnam, so I use pedestrian routing, which usually works fine. Usually. Today it directed me to cross a canal on a bridge. Hmm, that’s not happening. This narrow, rickety wooden bridge sported a single log where the center section used to be. A local directed me to the next bridge, which was still intact concrete.

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2017-11-27 Une Petite Batou

I appreciate better why there are few big roads here in the Delta; the river and channels ARE the highways. From huge motored barges to narrow boats propelled by clever pivot-mounted engines with propellers at the ends of long drive shafts commerce thrives, carrying produce, construction materials, manufactured goods, and people.

Access to the Ba Linh Homestay where I’m staying is by paved footpath or by boat. Only two-wheeled vehicles and pedestrians fit the path. Granted, motorcycles are versatile beasts of burden, even transporting guests to and from the nearest ferry landing, but more substantial loads would arrive by boat.

Looking at An Binh Island on a map, it is not immediately obvious that it is really a warren of waterways serving every neighborhood. Apparently a Vietnamese engineer designed the labyrinth of cross-ties between the main river channels.

This morning we (Belgians Max, Emilie and the two boys and I) boarded a narrow motorboat that carried us part way across the island from one river channel to the other. We then transferred to a pair of rowed boats to navigate a still narrower channel the rest of the way to the other river channel, where our motorboat awaited. Being rowed was quiet and intimate, harkening back to times before roaring engines drowned out the sounds of the jungle.

We made several stops, including the market at Cai Be where they had to drag me out of a hardware store, a honey shop, a plant nursery that made me want to take one of everything home to my garden, a shop that made a variety of rice products from puffed rice to rice wine (45% alcohol) to rice candy and rice paper. Rice wine “ruou” varieties include snake, yes, with real snakes soaking in it before bottling. They call it the Vietnamese Viagra and warn that it is for men only. Yes, I bought a bottle for $3US.

The evening brought new friends to the homestay; 1 Dutch woman and 5 Germans, including a couple and their 14-month-old baby. We dined together, told magnificent lies, and solved the world’s problems until late in the evening.

They liked my suggestion to go look at the fireflies in some trees by the entrance to the homestay. We brought one back to the dining area for a closer look. I had never held one before; this one fascinated me. About 3/8″ (8-10 mm) long, it seemed content to crawl around on your hands and would be slow to right itself when on its back. And it glowed! On the underside of the abdomen, toward the rear, two bright yellow chevrons glowed and blinked, quite bright even under the harsh fluorescent lights of the dining area. Sorry, I was too taken with observing to grab my camera.

2017-11-26 The Kindness of Strangers

A hard day of riding from My Tho to the Ba Linh Homestay on An Binh Island, about 50 km,including 2 km of mud puddles that spanned the trail and were deep enough to bury my feet under water. The good news is the homestay is a jungle hideaway with large, spotless rooms and a welcoming host family that speaks fluent English.

Google Maps led me on a short cut from a ferry to the highway – the muddy lane. I wasn’t too worried by the first few puddles, but then began to realize the whole shortcut was a mud puddle lane. The thing about riding through muddy puddles is you can’t see what the wheel will encounter, so it’s a bit nerve-wracking, and it’s a lot more work than pavement. I’m so glad this is the dry season here in the Delta (grin)!

After the slog, riding along a rural lane with little prospect of finding a place to sate the hunger I had worked up, I stopped in the shade to eat a few over-ripe bananas and a granola bar to fuel me a little further. A lovely woman with only two teeth left hanging precariously in her aged mouth said hello. She spoke no English and couldn’t understand most of my few words of Vietnamese. (Did I mention that my pronunciation really sucks?) We established that I was hungry and she seemed quite concerned that all I had to eat were these sad bananas. I finally understood that she was telling me that there were places to eat just ahead. How far? The answer went right past me. After about 10 minutes of hand waving and failed Vietnamese, as I prepared to leave, she asked where I was going, and was not to be placated until I assured her I was going to eat. What a dear, kind woman.

Being Sunday, lots of things were closed or only looked like coffee shops, so I pedaled on, took another ferry, and finally saw a shop with some snack foods. Asked what I was looking for, I replied that I was hungry. The clerk showed me some wonderful looking local coconut candy, but I wanted more substance. I saw a package of rice crackers and decided they would do for now. I sat down to eat my feast, but decided I better get out to defend my bike from two bus loads of tourists that pulled in. Standing, eating my dry crackers, one of the bus crew stopped to say hello. He really seemed to take a liking to me and so we gestured away. When several young women came back to the bus, they stopped to join the conversation. One spoke English well. She seemed concerned for my well being, asking if I was sick (I guess the heat was taking a toll). No, just hungry.

Suddenly one of the others returned from somewhere with a bag of bread rolls used for making bahn mi sandwiches and thrust them into my hand. Then a bottle of water appeared. Then a bottle of sauce for the bread. One of the rolls disappeared and came back with meat and vegies inside, along with a bottle of sauce. Two more bottles of water. Then more bread rolls and a fancy apple. Do you have money? Yes, I have plenty of money, but I just didn’t see much to eat in the shop. I guess I looked like death warmed over, so the poverty disclaimer didn’t seem to sell. The busman returned with a 20,000 VD (a bit less than a US dollar) note and thrust it into my hand! So hard to say no, but there was no way I could accept this hard-working man’s money (he might only earn $200 US per month), but I had to ask the English-speaking woman to explain that I was not hungry for lack of money, but simply for ignorance of where to spend it to sate my hunger. Along the way, we chatted about where they had been and were going, of which I understood that they lived just down the road in Vinh Long City, only a short distance away. An hour later I saw the English-speaking woman riding her motorbike the opposite direction and we exchanged hearty hello’s and big waves. Beautiful souls.

When the buses left, I continued chomping my sandwiches standing by the bike. The shop clerk asked me to please come in and sit down at a table to eat. I did so, grateful not to sit on a bike seat or stand. Moments later her associate showed up with a pot of tea. I suppose I looked pretty pathetic, covered in mud, sweating, the crazed look of a hungry wild animal, but still, all these people just offered their loving kindness without any prompting. Very moving.

It’s getting late, and I have a 7 am boat tour to a floating market, so tomorrow I’ll tell you about the wonderful homestay and the young Belgian family with whom I shared dinner, and who will be on the boat tour with me. I will spend a second night here at the homestay. Pictures will also have to wait until my phone decides to import them from the camera card. Bonne nuit.

2017-11-25 WaterWorld

Saigon to My Tho (Long An province) 47 miles

Wooohooooo! I’m finally bicycling in Vietnam. I left HCMC at 0430 and headed South to the Mekong Delta. The early departure successfully beat the traffic. Google Maps did its job admirably. By sunrise I had already crossed the first of many bridges (like Florida, bridges are scenic viewpoints in this flat geography). Traffic picked up by 0600, but then thinned out as I moved further into the Delta.

The Mekong Delta must be one of the largest in the world. From HCMC south, as close as I can tell, the entire country is river delta. Rich alluvial soil in a tropical climate means everything grows abundantly, luxuriantly. They call this the brad basket of Vietnam because of the rice, but I think Dragon Fruit dominated the areas I saw today.

People react to this Martian invader in several ways. School kids wave and say, “Hello. What’s your name?” It must be a script they all have to memorize. Others just light up with its smiles. Some look like they are trying to make sense of what they see; a Westerner on a loaded touring bike wearing black support stockings, a bright orange construction vest and a helmet-mounted mirror, sporting a full beard. Conversations stop when I join the ranks of motorcycles hauling people, baskets full of noisy ducks or frightful freight several feet wide and piled far higher then the drivers, pig carts, construction carts waiting for the ferry. The conversations quickly start up again, but with a new topic; the strange man on a bike. Some venture to try a bit of English in spite of their obvious embarrassment.

Ferry crossings will be common on this trip. I took two today, each costing the unholy sum of 3,000 VD (about 15 cents US). Passengers wait higgledy-piggeldy above a concrete ramp into the river. The single-ended ferry operates with a steel ramp lowered at all times to meet the shore ramp. As arriving vehicles disembark, our group surges forward along the right side of the ramp. Most are motorcycles, and they make a u-turn to face the ramp. I follow suit.

By the time I encounter ferries, the world has changed dramatically, I’ve chosen back roads and am so entranced that I have a permanent ear-to-ear grin. The roads are barely wide enough for two cars or trucks to pass, so there just aren’t many of them except those serving the businesses along the way. No lane markings and the pavement edges are irregular, but overall they are in good condition. I’m sure glad I put wider, softer tires on for this trip; I rode 10-15 miles on packed gravel.

Water, water, everywhere, and things grow like crazy. The only places that are not under water are either built-up above the water level or diked and pumped out. Acreage of Dragon Fruit I saw today probably exceeded rice acreage, and they are so much more interesting (and yummy). I see people gigging for frogs, lots of duck and pig farming.

It is hot and humid; thermometer hovering around 90F during the day, dropping to mid-70sF at night. So I glow, drip, and love it. But definitely good motivation to get an early start on my riding. By the end of the day I was a muddy mess, not from splashing, but form sweat turning dust to mud. Think of it as free a mud bath. Threatened afternoon thundershowers also induce early completion of the day’s ride.

2017-11016 Chasing the Sun

Left Vancouver at 0940 on Japan Airlines flight #17 on a 787-8 and have followed the sun West for nearly 14 hours. What looked like low broken clouds I think were actually sea ice flows off the coast of Alaska, visible for a couple of hours. Otherwise lots of clouds.

Food service in business class is truly outstanding. Yes, it was as yummy as it sounds on the menu.

The business cabin occupies what seems like half the plane. The right hand engine hangs directly outside my window and it is humongous. The windows use electronic shading that adjust from clear to a dim opaque glow in 5 settings – very cool. I want to use this technology for the living room skylight at home. As I write this, we turn to where the sun shines on this side of the aircraft; a few presses of the button reduces blinding glare to comfortable glow!

I change airports in Tokyo from Narita to Haneda. So I must claim and haul a 50-pound bike case and a 65-pound rolling duffle. The bike case arrives encased in a plastic bag, held closed only by the TSA-approved cable lock. It is open about 1”. Egad, one of my fears come true; a security agent opens it and can’t reclose it. I repack, lock, and hope no small parts (like wheel skewers or steerer tube spacing rings) fell out. I’ll find out when I get to Saigon.

I purchase a luggage strap at Haneda Airport to make sure it doesn’t just pop open in handling. While installing it, the case caught and ripped the knee of my slacks – crap! Nice slacks that have been great for travel are trash. Ah well, time to go shopping in Saigon.

The bus ride from Narita to Haneda is smooth and comfortable. About 2 hours in rush-hour traffic for $30.

After checking in at Haneda, I make my way to the lounge (a perk of flying business class). A drink and good food helps to pass what remains of my 9-hour layover.