Guest blogger Ruth Parke cycle touring in Vietnam, South East AsiaHere is the Garmin route for the last of the 3 countries. Do you notice the big gap in the middle? That was the unexpected detour.
Day1 - Good morning Vietnam! (65km)Cycling out from Phnom Penh wasn’t an option, except for the reckless, so we took the bus to Takeo in Cambodia and from there cycled to Chau Doc in Vietnam. The bus was repeatedly beeping its horn to get through the traffic suggesting that the decision not to ride was a good one.
It was good to get back on the bike after a couple of non-cycling days in Phnom Penh. As we approached the Cambodia/Vietnam border huge purple clouds began to gather on the horizon. At the border we said goodbye to the Cambodian bikes which had carried us sturdily if somewhat scruffily through parts of the country. As we crossed the border, on foot, the heavens opened for an hour or so and we collected our Vietnamese bikes in torrential rain. They were classic, graceful and reliable ( who does that remind you of?) In a cool 30C we cycled through villages where everything suddenly seemed cleaner, brighter and greener. Maybe because the rain had cleared the air, but more likely reflecting the differences in levels of poverty between Cambodia and Vietnam. Through small villages, children and adults came out to greet us with smiles and waves. I’m not sure if they were amused or bemused. We probably appeared like some kind of carnival; a group of people wearing strange hats and clothes and choosing to cycle in very hot weather for FUN?? The ride into Chau Doc was fast, furious and exciting as we dodged children, chickens and water buffalo on the road towards the town and then played Russian roulette with the moped drivers. Eek!
Day 2 – Kissing the tarmac (50 km ....actually 6km)The day started well with a ferry trip with the bike across the Mekong before criss-crossing canals and cycling through fruit orchards along the Mekong Delta. As we were riding in a small group our cycle leader had emphasised the need to keep a good stopping distance between each bike. “ No kissing” he had warned. You’ve probably guessed what’s coming. There are some people for whom instructions, especially when putting together flat pack furniture, are merely optional extras best filed in the recycling bin. About 6 km into the ride, on a bridge across a canal, there was a small pile-up of bikes when my partner not only kissed the bike in front but also kissed the tarmac - literally. 3 injured people (nothing serious luckily) dripping blood and fast developing bruises created quite a circus for the passing traffic and pedestrians. We visited the local village hospital to have iodine dabbed on my partner’s cut lip by a young woman whose jeans, excess of bling and suitcase-sized handbag suggested she was the school work experience student.
It was soon apparent that my partner’s lip needed a bit more care than a dab of iodine. “I think it might need a stitch” advised a fellow cyclist. It was finally decided that we should go to the city hospital in Vinh Long.
A local village ‘taxi' , consisting of a moped and almost flat bed trailer, took us and our cycle
leader/translator to the nearest town. The driver appeared to want to demonstrate his prowess by driving as fast as his machine would let him. Or maybe he just wanted to get home to eat. The upshot was that every time we went over a small bridge (of which there are many in the Mekong delta) at speed I was almost flipped off the back. In my adrenaline-fuelled state and fully expecting to end up on the road with a cracked skull, all I could do was giggle slightly uncontrollably for the whole ride. It was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. Once we had picked up a car in the town we settled down for a 2 hour drive to Vinh Long. This allowed me to observe the traffic and get to know a little more about how to ride safely in Vietnam’s larger towns. I learned that there is some consensus about behaviour on the roads but it doesn’t extend to driving on the right, stopping at traffic lights or driving in the same direction as the rest of the traffic.
It’s difficult not to judge a book by its cover; it’s even more difficult not to judge a hospital by its grubby floors, especially when there might be needles involved. As soon as we arrived my partner was pointed towards a metal trolley in a room with 2 other casualties. A white-coated man walked in, looked at the injury and then left. We had no clue what was going on. Within minutes another white coat arrived with a trolley of ‘stitching’ equipment and plunged in a syringe full of anaesthetic with no pretence of any bedside manner. He was clearly there to do a job and no explanations were necessary. 8 stitches (3 outside, 5 inside) later he left, again without a word. Our cycle leader, who had meanwhile been sorting out all the necessary paperwork, returned to say that the doctor wanted my partner to have a CT scan. He felt absolutely fine, if not slightly humiliated by the enormous dressing he had stuck to his upper (he looked a bit like a Simpson) and so flatly refused. I think the endorphin-fuelled euphoria was beginning to wear off. The message then was a polite ‘no CT scan, no antibiotics’, so he reluctantly agreed. The CT scanner was in what looked like a lean-to on the side of the hospital with the light switch hanging off the wall.
Eventually we left the hospital after 8 stitches, a CT scan and 3 lots of medication, all for about £20. Even better, what would have taken a minimum of 4 hours in our local hospital in the UK took 50 minutes!!! The care was fantastic, if a bit impersonal and there was no evidence that we were being bumped ahead of the local patients. So, don’t judge a hospital by its floors..... or its light switches!
The best medicine was the Mekong whiskey we had that evening on an island in the delta.
Day 3 - Exotic pets market (35km)
On the final stretch along a straight road with only light traffic I was travelling at 18mph on the flat – evidence that I had become a lot fitter over 2 weeks and that I usually ride very slowly! I couldn't quite believe the ride had finished at the next stop. We finally arrived in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh, after a bus ride into the city , having cycled 500 km through Indochina along rural tracks, paths and minor roads. I will miss the combination of beautiful countryside, pumping legs and empty brain.
The last day in HCM city was spent dodging some of the 5 million (really) motorbikes – but this time on foot.