Getting out of ‘Nam

9th MARCH 2019

After last night’s abominable feast, my hotel breakfast this morning is a more subdued egg on toast with tomato and cucumber. An old Vietnamese lady with curlers in her hair, looking like she’s just woken up, shuffles into the room and sits at the next table. She strikes up a conversation and invites me to sit opposite her for breakfast. I discover she’s from Ho Chi Minh City originally, emigrated to California in 1992 and has returned to Vietnam to visit family. Today is the final day of her holiday, having spent a whole two months living in this hotel. She has beef noodle soup while I’m munching my eggs on toast. I tell her this breakfast is unusual for me and that I’ve been eating mostly Asian food on this trip, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe me.

To begin today’s cycle I act like a local, creeping along beside the pavement on the wrong side of the road and into oncoming traffic. I’ve resorted to this tactic as I’m not able to cross the road due to a solid line of concrete safety barriers between the carriageways. I slink back to the big roundabout I used yesterday and take an exit that will lead me West towards the Cambodian border. This is significant as I can now leave the big, busy QL1A road behind, having been cycling on it regularly since leaving Hanoi eight weeks ago. Even though it’s helped me ride the length of Vietnam, I can’t say I’ll miss it.

What could have been a potentially awkward day negotiating the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City turns out to be a lot easier than expected. I take a bridge over the Dong Nai river, leave the main road and pootle along a quiet-ish route beside the river. I’m also managing to stay out of the sun today, enjoying the welcome shade from roadside trees and buildings as well as some protective cloud cover.

Just after Thủ Dầu Một, one of Saigon’s satellite cities, I’m back onto the main road to the border and stopping for lunch at yet another Plastic Chair Cafe. I choose rice as my carbs, while the lady at the counter asks what I’d like to go with it. As usual I don’t recognise the contents of half the trays, so I opt to play it safe by abstaining from meat and point to what looks like a tofu dish. When the food arrives, what looked like a vegetarian meal in the display tray ends up containing chicken and beef as well as tofu. I’m fine with this, but it does get me thinking how difficult my trip might have been as a vegetarian. With my meal I receive a small bowl of clear soup containing potato, and also one other dish that’s not quite as easy to identify. It looks like another soup, but this time there appears to be a giant gherkin resting in the middle. I cut the huge vegetable in half to find that, bizarrely, the insides have been stuffed with sausage meat. The soup and sausage meat taste fine, however the gherkin thing tastes way too bitter and pickled for me. A quick Google search later reveals that this dish is called Kho Qua, which is in fact bitter melon stuffed with minced pork ! Second helpings of iced tea help cool me down as it’s becoming a sticky old afternoon, despite the cloud cover.

Back on the road I’m almost at the town of Cu Chi, famous for the Cu Chi tunnels used by North Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. These connecting tunnels once formed part of a vast underground network of supply routes, hiding spots and storage dumps. Soldiers sometimes lived in these dark, cramped tunnels for several days at a time alongside rats, stinging ants and mosquitos, only emerging at night to forage for food or to shoot Americans. As an aside, I learn that during the Vietnam War malaria was the second largest killer of Vietnamese soldiers. Today the tunnels are a tourist attraction, but now Western adults have trouble fitting into the pits that were once barely wide enough to house Vietnamese kids.

My accommodation is almost a kilometre from the main road, giving it a countryside feel of being out in the sticks. I’d also noticed on Google maps that it was advertised as a ‘Love Hotel’. Sure enough, as I check in, a young couple are checking out. Evidently you can pay by the hour here, as well as per night. I don’t think it’s really for prostitutes though, more for young couples who still live at home with their parents and need to come here for some ‘private’ time. One of the first things I notice in my room is a bright orange, curvy recliner that looks like an art gallery sculpture, but is more likely to be an imaginative Love Hotel prop. The young guy who runs the place puts the TV on to an English speaking channel because I’m a Westerner, then tells me all about the accommodation while Baywatch The Movie is running in the background. He’s a good kid, even offering to go into town on his scooter and bring back some food for me, which he says he will get at ‘Vietnamese prices’. I shower and watch the second half of Baywatch whilst reclining on the Love Hotel sculpture chair. Surprisingly, it’s really rather comfortable.

Later, the manager bloke tells me where I can get food in town and seems genuinely shocked that I’m going to walk a kilometre to get there. I end up in a small supermarket stocking up on Cup Noodles, cakes and yoghurt drinks, making sure I have enough for dinner tonight and also for my final Vietnamese breakfast tomorrow. I’m just about to drift off to sleep when I become aware of some ‘Love Hotel’ squeaking from the room next door. Thankfully they’re quick about it.

I’m up a bit earlier than normal the following morning as I’ve got a long, hot 90km day ahead of me. I’ve also got a border crossing to negotiate, and there’s no telling how long that process may take. Still, in a few hours time I should be in Cambodia. I’m excited and a little nervous about the prospect of a new country, having spent almost two months in Vietnam. I’ve got used to how things work here with regards to food, accommodation, currency, roads and even tiny snippets of the language. I’m going to have to start my learning from scratch again once I get over the border. But then, these new experiences and different perspectives are half the point of travelling.

When I go to pay for my room the young manager bloke gives me too much change back by mistake. His blunder happens as the 20,000 Dong and the 500,000 Dong notes are both blue in colour. The poor chap absent-mindedly hands me back 500,000 Dong instead of 20,000. I should say something, but I don’t. I justify my behaviour by thinking of all the times I’ve paid ‘foreigner’ prices or simply been overcharged on this trip. This way I figure I’m getting all my rip-off money back in one lump sum on my last day in the country. Essentially, the unfortunate guy has just given me a free night’s accommodation and will also be paying for my final food stops in Vietnam.

I stop for my last Banh Mi breakfast, which is pretty standard fare, and take a selfie to commemorate the occasion. There will be a few ‘lasts’ today. Through the town of Cu Chi itself, I reach a massive junction and take a road that will transport me through my final 40km in Vietnam to the border. My Plastic Chair Cafe lunch is a chicken, rice and green beans offering, washed down with a cooling jug of iced tea. The kilometres are passing quickly today and, before I know it, I’m only 5km from the border. At this point I decide I’d like to have one last Vietnamese drip-filter coffee, and shoot across the road to a cafe on the opposite side. I still have to ask for my drink via mimes, even though I know that coffee with milk is ‘Ca Phe Sua’. I’ll have to learn the Cambodian equivalent for that pretty quickly. Disappointingly, they have no drip-filter coffee so I have to settle for ready mixed poured on top of condensed milk. I mix it all together then pour the whole lot into a glass with ice, which still has the desired effect.

Then I’m at the border. My visa runs out tomorrow, so I’ve definitely made the most of my time here. I never know what to expect at border posts; this one is somewhat chaotic and antiquated with no clear instructions on what to do or where you’re supposed to go. I chain my bike outside the building and wander in a side door where a dodgy looking guy latches on to me, saying he can help get my passport stamped for a fee of 100,000 VND (about £3.50). It turns out his entire task would be to point me to the correct queue and stand beside me while I do everything else. I tell him ‘No Thanks’. Instead I join a queue full of Asian tourists and within ten minutes I have my exit stamp from Vietnam safely in my passport. Back outside I reclaim my bike and have about two hundred metres of what looks like ‘No Man’s Land’ before the entry point for Cambodia. I’ll be in between countries for a short while.

My time in Vietnam, though, is over. Two months and over one thousand miles of cycling has taken me South from a cool Hanoi winter to a swelteringly hot day on the Cambodian border. I can honestly say this has been one of my favourite ever countries to cycle through. The roads can be a bit challenging at times with crazy traffic, constant horns and roadside litter, but I’ve still loved it. The people have been generally polite, helpful and friendly, even with the inevitable language barriers. The flip-side is that many will happily chat to you so they can show off to their friends or practice their English. Food has been cheap and healthy, even though there’s been some interesting times when I’ve not been entirely sure what I’m eating. Parts of the country are very built up and heavily populated, yet I still witnessed some stunningly gorgeous scenery almost every day. And finally, this has to be one of the safest countries I’ve ever travelled in. I’d feel much safer with the prospect of walking through the eight million population of Hanoi at night than I would through any UK city. Vietnam was a bit of an unknown for me eight weeks ago, but now I’m a huge fan. If this country is not on your bucket list, then it definitely should be !

 

 

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