7th MARCH 2019
There’s no breakfast option at my Tan Nghia accommodation, so today’s food consumption starts with my one remaining banana from yesterday. I’ve resumed cycling on the busy QL1A road again, and am destined to remain on this frenetic monstrosity for the whole day. Although I’m creeping ever closer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I’ve decided that I’m just going to bypass this massive metropolis and head straight for the border. I really have no desire to cycle into a sprawling city of eleven million inhabitants, only to fight my way back out again when I leave. I’ll still have to skirt round the city, but I’ll be keeping well away from the centre.
Because I’m now heading West, the morning sun is beating down on my back for a change. It’s good that my forearms will finally get some relief from the the sun, although I’ll now have to pay more attention to protecting the back of my neck and ears. I set off at a brisk pace this morning, covering half of today’s distance in no time. Then the road gets progressively busier, the day becomes hotter and I have to stop for an iced coffee just to cool down. I have the old Vietnamese drip-filter coffee which falls, drop by drop, into a glass containing condensed milk at the bottom to act as a sweetener. It takes a few minutes for all the coffee to filter through, before I give the mixture a stir and tip the whole lot into a bigger glass full of ice. My God it’s refreshing ! The good thing about cafes in Vietnam is that you nearly always receive a jug of cold tea along with your order as well. So now, through a heady combination of iced coffee and cold tea, I’m rejuvenated and ready to go again.
Fuelled by caffeine, I continue in the heat once more towards a lunch of curried chicken, rice and veggies, accompanied by a bowl of sinister looking clear soup with gherkins. By late afternoon it has become exhaustingly hot, with the sun having moved overhead to beat down relentlessly on my forearms once again. After such a speedy start this morning, the final 20km drags by in sweltering slow motion. I cut off the big road for the final half hour, plodding my way lethargically to a modern, family run motel that is spotlessly clean. The owner is a genuinely friendly and hospitable guy, even though communication between us is a bit of a struggle. He sees how hot and knackered I look at check-in and gives me two extra bottles of chilled water to take to my room. He also prints out two copies of my Cambodian e-visa, after I make my request through the wizardry of Google translate. When I shower I give my sweaty cycling top a rudimentary wash on the floor by trampling it under my feet and soaking it with shower gel as I clean.
There’s a number of dinner options on the same street as my motel, although I avoid the busy ones and the karaoke venues. For some reason I’m drawn to a tiny Plastic Chair Cafe, where a young guy is displaying his wares at a food stall that looks like it’s been set up on the driveway of his family home. I can see trays of chicken’s feet and various other body parts which look nauseatingly grim, before I settle for something that vaguely resembles curry. My seat in their driveway is right beside the lounge window, where a little girl of about five keeps popping her head up to have a look at me and giggle. When my food arrives I really haven’t a clue what’s on my plate ! At first I think it might be curried snails, but then I realise that it’s probably chicken parts, in keeping with the gruesome offerings in the trays out front. These morsels are soft and gibletty, with a disturbing squishiness as I bite down on them. It would be a stretch to say I’m enjoying this dish, but I persevere and slowly chew my way through the contents of my meal. Part of me is a little troubled that I don’t exactly know what I’ve eaten. Another part of me is strangely proud.
It’s 8.30am when I wake the following morning, my room still pitch black and me having slept like a log. Breakfast is taken at a roadside Banh Mi stall, before I rejoin the QL1A for a 50km cycle that will take me to Bien Hoa, right on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. This distance wouldn’t normally be a problem, although trying to negotiate my way through horribly busy roads and junctions might well be. Mercifully, there is a good deal of cloud cover this morning, which should make a hot urban cycle that much easier.
By lunchtime the road has become noticeably busier, with a constant throng of traffic heading towards Ho Chi Minh City. I stop for a break and some lunch at a Plastic Chair Cafe that’s advertising Mi Quang. A young body-builder type guy greets me before going to get his mother, who arrives with an abrupt ‘What do you want ?’ At first I think I might have found another cafe run by a Grumpy Mother, but she warms to me once I sit down and start eating. She keeps me topped up with cold Vietnamese tea, while I try to extract some meat from a fatty chunk of pork that’s sitting in my noodles.
After lunch I continue picking my way closer to the big city, the road becoming slowly busier with each passing kilometre. There’s one point where the road splits and traffic can join a motorway straight into Ho Chi Minh City, but even this doesn’t seem to ease the traffic on my road. The streets are getting rougher and more bumpy too, with litter and debris scattering the edges, so I’m getting paranoid about puncturing again. When I reach Bien Hoa I’m still on the QL1A, and take a huge sweeping left turn through a jumbled, confusing junction to get within a few hundred metres of my accommodation. As I carry on down the road I can see my hotel on the other side, but I can’t simply cut across the road as there’s concrete safety barriers running between the two sets of carriageways. I have to keep going, moving further away from my hotel, until I reach a roundabout where I swing round and transport myself all the way back on the opposite carriageway.
The hotel is a swish-looking three storey building, with a curved stairway at the entrance and a massage parlour out the front. My bike is stored in their underground car park, complete with a security guard who hands me a little paper receipt when I leave my bike there. It’s only 3.00pm by the time I’ve checked in and showered, so today’s cycle has gone fairly smoothly in spite of the mad traffic.
I take a wander in the late afternoon to visit a huge Lotte Mart complex just up the road. It’s basically a supermarket, although it has a rather odd layout and is set up over four different floors. The ground floor is restaurants, the first and second floors are clothes and non-food groceries, while the third floor is where all the foodstuffs are sold. To top it all off there’s a cinema on the fourth floor. The escalators to each floor are on different sides of the building too, so you have to walk through the temptations of every floor if you want to get to the top. However, all I’m after on this visit is some sunscreen and mosquito spray. I spend ages looking for sunscreen, but the only ones I find contain whitening make-up for women. A girl on the shop floor tells me they have no ‘Man Sunscreen’.
At night the hotel restaurant claim they closed at 7.00pm, so I walk down a side street where I find two Plastic Chair Cafes. One looks to be selling whole chickens only, while I have absolutely no idea what meat is being sold at the other one. I really don’t want a repeat of last night’s mystery chicken parts, so I play it safe and return to the Lotte Mart. On the way there I use the main road and pass what look like three prostitutes standing at different points on the busy roadside. Each one I pass is wearing a mouth mask to stop them from breathing in traffic fumes, which I guess is sensible, but is still a bit of a weird sight.
Instead of sitting down for food I just visit the supermarket. I’m blown away by the sheer number of unhealthy snack options, and walk around mesmerised like a fat kid in a sweet shop. I end up going completely overboard with cakes, cream filled croissant, Cup Noodles and yoghurt drink. My personal favourite though is a strange looking baked bun with sausage meat inside. In the queue for the checkouts I become aware that a couple of people are staring at me, and are being quite blatant about it too. A girl in front turns round to look at me, then whispers something to her boyfriend. I just smile and say Hello, which causes a lot of giggling on her part. This happens two or three times with different people – they stare, I smile and say Hello, and they start giggling. I find this quite endearing and I’m pretty sure the giggling is just a reaction because they’re not sure how else to respond. I also notice how much taller I am than everyone else in the queues around me. I’m aware that people in South-East Asia are generally smaller than Westerners, but I’ve never seen such an obvious difference until tonight. It’s only taken me the eight weeks to spot this.
On my way back to the hotel I notice the three prostitutes are still standing in the same positions as they were almost an hour ago. Business must be slow tonight, or perhaps the mouth masks are a passion killer and putting customers off. For dinner I pig out on Cup Noodles, croissant, sausage buns and cake. After weeks of soup, rice and noodles this food blow-out feels sickeningly brilliant.