Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Day 1, Vietnam (con't)

Having stopped, unloaded and set up bikes, we were off. Traffic was light, bicycles much more prevalent, motorbikes would beep their intent to pass. It was already quite hot but the humidity level was not as oppressive as we had anticipated. THe daytime high was generally around 99 Fahrenheit with a mid-50 humidity level. As long as you kept moving on the bike it wasn't bad. I rode behind Vu, Kirk behind me; Vu stopped to show us our fist sight: roosters in individual wire cone-shaped pens, while other roosters and hens were caged together. It turns out the individual roosters have been designated as cock fighting roosters.

We did not stay on the two-way road for long. We turned onto a roughly 5 foot wide path in a jungle of banana trees and coconut palms. IN the US this would be described as a nice, wide bike path... And it is, but it is their roadway and connection between the various villages and bigger roads. Often reinforced poured concrete, they range from 5 feet wide down to 2 feet. On the widest ones sometimes a vehicle will appear, driving in supplies. Mostly they are lined with homes and tend to be narrow. They are built and maintained by the government, but are not named. The village's names range from  small hand painted sign to a grand overhead sign painted usually in turquoise with white or school but yellow lettering. The last two words, Vu said, would be the actual name of the town. I should have asked him to translate the many other words that appeared on every village sign (except the simple small ones).

I quickly learned how to hug the edge so a motorbike could pass in either direction, as they constantly did. We passed plenty of bikes, too, sometimes ridden by little old ladies in their traditional conical straw hats, sometimes by school kids in uniform with a backpack in the front basket. The bikes were generally all simple upright step-through bikes that seemed all in all to work quite well. Sometimes the rider was a tiny kid who had to tuck their toes under the front of the pedals to reach. Sometimes a older kid or adult rode by on a bike much to small; often the pedaling was done with the heels, toes and knees way out to the sides. My favorite though was seeing two girls -- probably sisters -- on a bike, one on the saddle, the second sitting on the rear rack.  One girl pedaled with one foot, the other pedaled the other side. We were riding on a real road so I was unable to snap a photo as they went by.

The vegetation was lush, green and dense. comprised mostly of banana trees and coconut palms (Vu told us we were in Vietnam's coconut capital), water coconuts and other low growing plants filled it out. Flowering plants would suddenly appear, including lots of native bougainvillea in fuchsia, white and apricot. A stunning yellow blooming tree was common along the side of larger roads (but not in the more jungle vegetation areas) with long fronds of bright yellow flowers cascading down. There were red-flowered trees I had never seen, and some that looked similar in leaf to a magnolia, but the leaves were smaller as were the flowers, which grew in small bunches of three or four blooms.

To be continued....

Scents ranged from the anticipated smell of rotting vegetation to whiffs of sweet floral. THere were waterWays everywhere, some man made, some natural. We crossed bridges of every size, dependent on the distance and size of the path. Most were concrete, but there were several wood bridges where I was happy to have Vu cross first -- while not a big guy, I figured he still weighed more than I. If the broken boards held his weight they would hold mine.

Suddenly the small path we were on would dump out onto a two-lane road, and often a hard turn would immediately led us over a big bridge. Or the path would turn from a small narrow 2 foot wide path, onto a large 4 foot wide path, then led you to an actual village. Sometimes the concrete would end and we would ride on packed dirt. All in all the condition of the path, be it concrete or dirt, was surprisingly good. I asked later who maintains the paths, and Vu says the government does. They do not have "street" names though many were lined with houses. Large pockets of houses would lead to areas of pure vegetation. banana, coconut and what they call warer coconut palms would crowd the path, creating a canopy under which we road shading the path. Although low hanging leaves he generally been torn away, sometimes you did have to duck to avoid a palm leaf in the face. The bananas and coconut palms all produce edible fruit, and the leaves are dried for creating roofing, sides of buildings, sun screens, or for burning. THe water coconuts' fruit is not edible, but their 20 ft long branches of long leaves are dried and used for housing materials as well.

Nothing goes to waste; every conceivable part of everything, plant or animal, is used somehow for something.

I was surprised by the houses; while I expected mostly simple homes built from the dried palms as we have always seen in pictures, modern houses were far more common, at least in the areas we rode through. Usually two stories, the lower floor would be a large, open room, and the upper rooms were the sleeping quarters. Most of the day is spent below where it is cooler. As the entire front of the House opens to the street, and fans are always running, the lower level stays cooler. Most seemed to be made on brick, then plastered and painted, often with a row of decorative shiny ceramic tile. The color choice was consistently a light blue, ranging from aqua to sea foam, but always a light, cool color. All are built on large concrete slabs, usually with a few wide stairs leading to the front door. The space outside was neat and sparse of decoration, particularly in the jungle where the vegetation grew so thick there was little sunlight reaching the ground. Sometimes the houses had the fancy modern facade, but the side walls were still panels of palm. They had to be cooler! All of these houses have electricity; power lines are strung through the canopy, and sometimes run through soft plastic tubes that cross the road (sometimes at he'd height -- Vu cued us to watch our heads just in the nick of time once or twice).

There are still the occasional expected houses of Palm leaf panels on a wooden frame, tin roofing on top. When a family can afford -- and once the appropriate permissions have been secured -- they will replace the traditional house with a modern one. It was interesting to see modern house after modern house, then see a palm bungalow next door.

We saw little garbage on the ground, and most of the yards were neat and tidy, but you occasionally would see the one messy neighbor, trash strewn around their house.

The paths would wind on and on, intersecting, turning, crossing water. I often wondered how Vu knew where the hell we were; I had no sense of our proximity to larger villages or roads. It felt very isolated and rural, although kirk said he felt we were not as far out in rural areas as it felt

Monday, May 9, 2016

Monday, May 8; Saigon to Tra Vinh

In Vietnam; Sunday, May 8

We arrived in Saigon on the evening of May 7, and spent the day walking and exploring this wild and wooly feeling, huge city of 11 million. 5 million of them ride motorbikes; unlike China, they generally follow the direction of the flow of traffic. They don't however always follow the stop lights and traffic signs.

We met our tour guide in our hotel lobby at 6:00 PM. Vu Ton, our guide, was a 28 year old Vietnamese who has been leading tours for about 5 years. After describing our tour and what to expect -- we would be riding on sometimes narrow paths with a lip, passing other bikes and motorbikes (so try not to ride off the edge as the lip makes it hard to get back on), crossing narrow bridges, meeting back up with the van at certain times such as lunch, etc. He gave us a 

bag with two water bottles, our two jerseys, and nice mini back packs which we stowed upstairs. Business done, he took us to dinner. 

A short walk away was a lovely Vietnamese restaurant. Vu ordered a variety of foods for us to try, from fish, to a beef dish, rice (served at pretty much every meal, unless you opt for a noodle dish). The food was fabulous; the guys drank beer while I enjoyed a screwdriver. Vu told us that not even the Vietnamese drink their tap water, so all water is bottled water. Even the ice is made from bottled water. (That made me less concerned about having had lettuce wraps for lunch; I was halfway through them when I realized what I had ordered....produce is one of the top things to avoid).

Back at the hotel we organized our cycling stuff for an early departure and called it a night.


Day 1,  Monday, May 9; Saigon to Tra Vihn, Vietnam; 50k (30 mi)

We had met with the guide Sunday night only to learn that the minimum registrations required was two, and -- since there are two of us, we were heading off on a private tour.  I was thankful to have had Sunday to wander through Saigon not only to see some of the town, but to get a reality check about how very hot it is here. At this time of year mid-90s and humidity 50% and over re the norm. Sunday's high was 98; today it was 99 with humidity of 55%.

We met Vu in the lobby at 7:30, and were driven two hours by our van to the starting point. I was relieved to have learned we would not be riding directly from Saigon. I cannot imagine navigating the roads there with the millions (literally) of small motorbikes that more than half of the population uses as their sole transportation.

Vu had told us (to my relief) that we would not be riding directly out of Saigon. I would have been a wreck at the thought of being in the mix with the motorbikes, cars and occasional bike on those narrow streets. Instead, we drove about an hour and a half outside of town while he told us more history and culture.

Almost immediately on the other side of the street -- I did not actually see it -- was a hearse of some form on it's "dragon ride." They are permitted to drive Above the speed limit to get the body to the burial site because it is of the utmost importance that the deceased be buried at the "golden moment." Cops won't even stop them. I don't know how the golden moment is determined, or by whom; I never got the chance or remembered to ask.

In a nutshell, saigon's population numbers approx 11 million; 5 million of those are on motorbikes. 4 million are Saigonese, the rest are immigrants to the City. After three generations, children are registered as Saigonese. Your registration in the "red book" is very Important as the dictates much of what you can do. You must be registered in order to attend school, buy a house, rent an apartment, etc. if you buy a house, you are considered permanent resident' if you rent an apartment -- even for 30 years -- you are considered temporary. Vu's son's registration follows the maternal line, and she was born in Saigon (she is second generation), so he is Saigonese due to his third generation status. 

Before long, we were out in the country. I noticed sarcophagi in the fields, most at a 45% angle to the road, painted a solid color such as Aqua or white. The deceased is not actually buried inside. In the olden days, the bodies were buried outside the villages, but it was quickly discovered that Animals would dig them up to eat. Now they are buried in the field or near the house, and the sarcophagus is place on top (sometimes on a concrete platform) filled with sand.  With the body beneath it cannot be dug up, and the family can keep an eye on their ancestors. Vietnamese have an ancestor holiday similar to Mexico's "Day of the Dead" when the tombs are cleaned and repaired. Some bear simple hand-painted name signs' others have fancy commercially produced plaques.

To be continued... And photos added later.