Sometimes you are so relieved of something that you simply don’t notice when you start to breathe again.
Ours, however, was an audibly collective sigh as the Tour de Sadists cycled from Cambodia’s potholed roads, strewn with gold harvested rice, into the border town of Tinh Bien, Vietnam.
Despite a very strange border poster of what looked to be a heroin addict being hung from his wrists and tortured, Vietnam was orderly, relaxed, boisterous and playful. Border guards x-rayed our luggage while Cambodian after Cambodian motorbike, laden with foodstuffs to take back into the povery-stricken country, snailed past, the weight of their cargo an impressive shell on their minute engines.
The unknown terror that seemed to grip us like a sweaty summer glove in Cambodia had suddenly – miraculously – melted away. Vietnam’s roads gave way to sunlight-speckled river lanes and loud metal bridges that we criscrossed on our way to Chau Doc, a small border town with an Art Deco night market.
As the afternoon settled into dusk, the roads curved past conical-hatted farmers picking chillies, men walking their water buffalo, tiny shack houses on bamboo stilts with chartreuse/turquoise/magenta/yellow clothes airdrying outside on bamboo laundry poles, huge haystacks, and women selling ice cream, peanuts and sticky rice.
After stopping for some isotonic water and more Beng-Bengs (nut/chocolate bars that kept us going for 1.5 weeks and were beginning to worryingly dwindle) — and spotting some needles on the ground near a catfish farm (could people really be shooting up whilst admiring the sunset over the catfish lake?) — we cycled over part of a highway and to our hotel at Chau Doc.
We exchanged some money and headed out to the Night Market, where dried fish, pigs heads and pickled papaya all vie for attention next to iced coffee stalls and booths selling fur-and-bejeweled watches. I hadn’t quite caught on to how cool Vietnam just was until I saw the man/dog driving combo as we approached the Art Deco market.
The next day, we woke early to cycle towards Long Xuyen, where we discovered purple coconut pancakes before taking a public ferry across the Mekong River. People washing clothes and fishing from their riverside shacks could be seen from the boat, which was filled with people crossing over — including lots of motorbikes, bicyclists, female high school students (who wear all white satin tunics) and tour buses, one of which got stuck on the corrugated iron ramp onto the boat and tore off its fiberglass front bumper.
Our arrival on the mainland was a jumping off point to fly past cars, bikes, and cargo-laden trucks as we cycled over small roads and bridge after bridge joining small 60′s, colourful concrete-block towns with small villages making floor mats from long grasses dyed on the side of the road.
Once we’d hit Vinh Long, we left our bikes with our kind supply truck driver and took another ‘bum’ boat across the river delta to the tiny island of Binh Hoa Phuoc, where we’d be spending the night. Huge rice barges, many of them with painted faces on the front (resembling, somehow, the colours and expressions of Keralan Kathakali), grumbled past us as smaller fish, fruit and vegetable sellers sped past in narrowboats.
Brick factories created plumes of smoke in the distance and a polluted haze diffused the sun’s rays, but the Mekong still had a magic about it, its clumps of lilypads and freckles of islands dotting its brown waters. My initial reaction to its industrial beauty reminded me of the first time I saw the superhighway which is the Mississippi, and had to recalibrate my brain at the romance of creative image painting versus the photography of eyeball realism that life really throws at you.
The rivers and canals of the Mekong delta form a gorgeous artery of criscrossed waterways, its islands resplendent with papaya, banana and durian trees, the skies exploding into a formidable purple at sunset. According to our guide Al, the area is famous for its abundant rice production, but many farmers are now moving towards more profitable fish-farming, and fruit and vegetable growing.
At our homestay for the evening — an amazing teak building with an ancient kitchen that wouldn’t have been out of place in Victorian times — we rolled our own springrolls and tucked into a deliciously juicy and sweet meat that had been braised in garlic and chillies and then baked in banana leaves. I later found out it was rat. It. Was. Good.
The romance of the homestay, however, was lost on a few of the Tour de Sadists, who grumbled at the symphony of frogs providing a lullaby that night to our tired ears. Yet it may have been me and Barbarella, screaming at the sight of the Biggest Moth in the World, right on top of my mosquito net, which disturbed everyone more. (This was like Guatemalan Jungle Rhinoceros Beetle Adventure Part II, for those of you who know what I’m talking about).
The next day, we woke early to head towards the Cai Be floating market, where huge rice barges moor up to sell fruit and veg for a few weeks at a time. This is a wholesale thing — with advertisements for what the boat is selling placed on a rod at the top of the boat. As we meandered in our own boat in between the barges, rods with pumpkins, bananas, green beans and rice bags could be seen here and there, floating amidst the giant lily pads.
We then ventured on to Cai Lay and started what was to be our most beautiful ride yet, through endless fruit orchards over tiny island footpaths shaded by banana trees. We stopped to see sugarcane candies, rice paper, and ginger sweets being made by small community groups…
And then…we cycled our last 15km to My Tho, our legs shaking and shoulders pinched from 500km on the road in two weeks. Only Barbarella and I gave each other high-fives (the Tour de Sadists were already sitting in the a/c bus, a look of glum resolution on their faces) for completing such a formidable task, and we were off to Ho Chi Minh City — the capital of the motorbike.
It was glorious to be in a city so vibrant, so loud and so chaotic. The architecture — a mingle of Art Nouveau, Art Deco and colourful Communist blocks — is a beautiful addition to the huge, tropical trees that line nearly every street in the city, one of the most verdant I’ve ever come across.
Over the next few days, I’d wander around the Art Deco Ben Thanh Market, 1960′s Reunification Palace (where the then-president Diem was forced out by Communist tanks in 1975), Notre Dame Cathedral, and the War Remnants Museum — which has an incredible (but gruesome) photographic representation of the after-effects of the Vietnam War.
One day, we drove two hours to Cu Chi, a once-tiny Communist-stronghold of a village that was the source 240km tunnels used by the Viet Cong to carry supplies and soldiers. At just 60x80cm, the tunnels were designed to keep the ‘fat Americans’ out; the holes are so small, I worried that if I got more than my shoulders in (which I did), I wouldn’t be able to get out. But the government has opened up some of them to allow for a more ‘touristy’ experience of travelling 2km within them underground, which is a fascinating (if claustrophobic) way to understand more about Vietnam’s history.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were home to kitchens, schools, surgeries and dormitories, a sort of human ant-farm that tunnelled people, supplies and food to men making shoes out of tyres and women having babies in the dark.
They’re now also home to a shooting range, where, for $20 USD for 8 bullets, you can shoot an M-16 or AK-47. We opted for an M-16 and missed every target, the number of bullets whizzing past us making us feel like we were actually at war ourselves.
While everyone left the next day to head back home, I stayed a couple of extra days in Saigon, eating pho, heading out to the prostitute-heavy bars and clubs like Apocalypse Now, and making friends with my hotel manager, Hai. I also took a ton of motorbikes and learned to cross the road like Helena Bonham Carter in Fight Club.
When I finally boarded the plane to head back to Thailand for Thai New Year (Songkran), I was surprised to fly. Seeing the world on two wheels had become so natural that it seemed beautifully wrong to be seeing it from the sky once again.