16th FEBRUARY 2019
My final breakfast at the Xanh Lá Homestay involves my new preferred food and drink options of Mi Quang and Iced Coffee. Normally I’m a tea drinker, but in Vietnam the double whammy of strong coffee hit, coupled with cold refreshing ice has me hooked. I always try to have condensed milk in my coffee, too – partly because fresh milk is so scarce, and partly because I need some form of sweetener to offset the bitterness of Vietnamese coffee. Before I leave the Homestay I get some pictures of the family posing with my bike. The grandfather comes outside in a white vest, smiles and asks ‘How are you ?’ like he always does. He then spends the next minute furiously patting down his hair so that he looks good for the photo. Like most of my Homestay families in Vietnam, they’ve been lovely.
I’m off on what should be a fairly easy 47km ride down the coast today. Hương tells me the route I’m taking is ‘not good’ as there are no shops or houses should I need any assistance. Nevertheless, I still take this quiet coastal road and find myself cycling through an arid and barren landscape soon after leaving town. The desolate feel of this area is compounded by a string of messy, home-made graveyards lining the roadside amongst scrubby trees and sand. Then a powerful, blustery headwind picks up. In a way this is good as it cools me down, but it also becomes a chore fighting against it as the day wears on. I plod on, realising that Hương was spot on with her assessment of this bleak and lonely road. The silver lining is that it’s quiet, with only a few scooters to keep me company.
I carry on down this empty road, being blasted by the headwind, until I reach the small fishing settlement of Tam Thanh. At the village centre I turn back towards the same direction I cycled from, before I find my Homestay accommodation along a narrow street that’s a mixture of homes and small farms. This place had received glowing reviews, scoring 9.8 out of 10 and being classified as ‘Exceptional’, so naturally my expectations are too high. It’s a nice two storey house, but it’s not amazing. The owner bloke just shows me upstairs and opens all the windows in my bedroom, allowing a strong sea breeze to rush through the room and cool it down.
I walk across the road and down to the village’s beach, weaving through a healthy population of fat, wooden fishing canoes. Getting into the sea seems pointless though, as the waves are so large and messy with the strong wind that I soon turn back inland in search of food. I’m walking past a Plastic Chair Cafe when an old lady beckons me in. There’s the usual language barrier, but I think I’ve managed to successfully put in an order for some more Mi Quang. I sit down, pour some of their home made tea into a glass over ice and await my new favourite dish. About ten minutes later the old lady is back and putting a huge bowl of cockles down in front of me. What the Fuck ? How have I ended up with cockles ? There has to be over fifty of them in there ! My pronunciation must be appalling if I’ve been given cockles while trying to order noodles. In my defence, Vietnamese is a language that uses six different speaking tones, so it’s very easy to get things wrong. Here a word can be spelt the same way but, when said in a rising, falling or neutral tone, can have three separate meanings. There’s a Vietnamese tongue-twister that goes ‘Bấy nay bây bày bảy bẫy bậy.’ It appears that the same word has just been repeated six times, but with the rising and falling pitches this actually translates as ‘All along you’ve set up the seven traps incorrectly!’ So, you can see why I make so many mistakes.
As I love shellfish anyway, I’m not too fazed by this turn of events. I’m more worried about how to tackle them with chopsticks, especially as I have an audience. Four old local blokes are sitting drinking beer at the table beside me and seem to have taken an interest in my predicament. One of them ambles over to show me how I should ladel some cockles from the large bowl into a smaller side bowl and eat them from there instead. Showing a grown man how to eat his food might be seen as piss-taking in some quarters, but on this occasion I know he’s just trying to help. My meal goes surprisingly smoothly, considering that I have to pick up each individual cockle and remove the meat from its shell with chopsticks. None of the old guys return to correct my eating habits, but they do ask me to have a beer with them so I must be doing something right.
Walking back to my Homestay through the tiny, one street village I’m amazed by how many people, especially kids, say Hello. They are disarmingly friendly and seem to love speaking to foreigners. I somehow can’t imagine kids in Britain showing quite the same interest in overseas visitors as I’ve received today. Back at the Homestay my bike is chained to the inside of the front yard perimeter fence. I’m not entirely comfortable with this so I lift it up to my room, in the process taking a small chunk out of the ceiling above the stairs with my pannier rack. Oops. Tomorrow’s weather forecast brings the uninspiring prediction of more gusty headwinds by early afternoon. Mornings always seem less breezy, so I might have to factor that into my cycling and haul myself out of bed a little bit earlier over the next few days.
The following morning I find that I needn’t have bothered setting an alarm because the local rooster starts cackling before sunrise. I grumpily open my window and look into the back garden below me to see if I can spot the noisy bird. All I can see are patches of fresh fruit and vegetables and skinny chickens running everywhere. My Homestay also produce and sell their own fish sauce, so opening the window does let in a rather distinctive aroma. The owner bloke isn’t around this morning, so I spend a good ten minutes trying to explain to his elderly mother that I need my passport back. Then it’s a further ten minutes waiting for her to locate it for me. Most of my waiting time involves playing high-fives with her grandchildren.
I roll down the settlement’s main street, getting more ‘Hellos’ from practically everyone I pass. It’s a great way to start the day, and really good for the soul to see so many friendly people. Within two hundred metres I’ve bought some bottled water from a little grocery shack, and then just across the street there’s a Plastic Chair Cafe for breakfast. I’m completely sorted for everything I’ll need today within five minutes of leaving my accommodation. The cafe is run by an amiable couple in their thirties, who serve me up a beef noodle soup and big jug of tea for the equivalent of 65p. The lady in particular speaks reasonable English, so it’s nice to have a proper chat before I leave.
To leave town I retrace my final few kilometres from yesterday, before taking a wrong turn and going straight through the city of Tam Ky instead of bypassing it. A young couple on a scooter slow down to my pace and chat with me as I make my way through the traffic. He tells me that he’s studying in Ho Chi Minh City, although they are both from Tam Ky originally. When I tell him about my trip he’s utterly astonished that I’m cycling such a distance through their country. Then, after negotiating the city, it’s back onto the busy old QL1A road yet again.
A couple of hours later I stop for lunch at a large Plastic Chair Cafe, where I have chicken and rice while inadvertently amusing the owner’s kids. Ironically, they are actually doing their English homework while I’m eating, and the parents encourage then to practice on me. I get a few decent attempts at ‘How are you?’ and ‘What is your name?’ questions, but they just go all shy and giggly when I reply. The youngest child, who looks about eight, is getting very animated and I hear him whispering ‘Slender Man !’ to his brother while looking at me with some degree of panic. Slender Man is a sinister fictional character with no facial features; a tall, thin bogey-man who terrorises children, so I’m happy to see my presence has left an impression on the poor kid.
As promised, a strong headwind blows in after lunch, which results in me trundling my way lethargically towards Quang Ngai. The last quarter of today’s cycle sees me trudging along in slow motion and making plenty of pit-stops for the most banal of reasons. It’s not exactly been a struggle, just a very, plodding and wind-hampered 70km. When I reach Quang Ngai, I make for the Thanh Lich Guesthouse, which has received rave reviews, primarily because of the hosts. The lady owner speaks almost no English, but greets me warmly with a plate of Oreo biscuits and a much-needed bottle of chilled water. She takes me upstairs and shows me the room that I had originally booked, before saying I can have the larger, riverview room instead. I notice that the owners have already turned on the shower switch prior to my arrival, which is a nice touch. With Vietnamese accommodation the shower switch is normally turned off as a money saving measure. This means that when you first arrive at your accommodation, you have to turn the shower switch on yourself, and then wait ten to fifteen minutes before the water heats up. It did take me a couple of cold showers at the start of the trip to work this out, mind you.
After my shower I head back downstairs and get to meet Ron, the husband. I’m just getting ready to shake his hand and introduce myself, when he beats me to it and greets me with a huge hug instead. He’s a stocky, muscly bloke in a white vest and seems like he is the happiest person on the planet, smiling almost continuously. Again, like his wife, he speaks virtually no English, but with Google translate and a willingness to be patient, we get along fine. He tells me my bike will be safe downstairs, standing unlocked between the motorbikes that the Guesthouse rents out. ‘No Problem’ he says, like every Vietnamese person does when I ask about the safety of my bike.
For dinner I take a short walk and find a Plastic Chair Cafe that serves up my second beef noodle soup of the day. I don’t mind the repetition as it’s probably one of the best I’ve had, with unusually tender meat in a rich, tasty broth. It’s hot though, both in terms of spiciness and temperature – sweat is beading up on my forehead and I can feel droplets trickling down my sides. The attentive lady owner keeps refilling my tea cup from a cute metal teapot that looks like it should be a family heirloom.
I return to the Guesthouse, where Ron greets me with a huge smile and a big hug once again, as if I were a long lost relative. His friendliness is infectious. He shows me how he will feed a thick metal chain through the rear wheels of his line of motorbikes later so they can’t be stolen. My bike will be part of this secure line up too, chained to motorbikes on either side, and I know that this reassurance will mean a much better sleep for me tonight.