Saturday, March 23, 2013

Day 5 - Of hammocks, rice paddocks & Chau Doc

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Waking up in a new country is always very exciting! Ha Tien awakes early with all sorts of hustle and bustle in the streets, and so did we. It was to be our longest day - 105km to Chau Doc. Our route was to ride along the border of Highway 955A, a very quiet country road. We all felt a tingle of anticipation in our hearts and especially for me, as I have never ridden in Vietnam before (yesterday's 10km didn't count). Leading a huge group of 11 through unchartered territory is unusual for me but it adds to the fun and adventure.

Breakfast of noodles and chicken rice was enjoyed at one of the nearby street stalls. Compared to Cambodia, its very hard to communicate in English and we were fortunate to have a local man help us order. However like a bad habit, we got overcharged again, and wasted our time haggling with the vendor. This is such a pity as Vietnam has so much beautiful things to offer.

As we gathered in front of Du Hung Hotel all ready to set off, one bicycle developed a leaking tire and that needed to be sorted out. Our early 8am start was scuttled but I have learnt to handle these situations like the Thais - Mai Pen Rai (no worries mate). I used to get rather annoyed when things do not go on schedule, but I guess age has mellowed me somewhat. There is a reason for things to happen if we believe that someone up there loves us and has good plans for us.

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When we finally were ready to go, it was already 930am but this was our last day of riding, and we were determined to take our time and enjoy every pedal and make every kilometer count.

Riding out of Ha Tien in the morning allowed me to see how beautiful this small town by the river is, especially when we went over the bridge and got a bird's eye view. Quite a few people were fishing from the bridge too. Naturally, many of us stopped to take pics and this was the start of many such photo stops to come.

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The short ride down south along the coast was fascinating for me as I noticed how serious the Vietnamese take its defence. We rode passed a military camp with coastal guns facing seawards and they certainly looked menacing. We had to watch out for the left turn off to Giang Thanh at about 5km and just to make sure it was correct, I double checked with Ying Chang's GPS. From this point, we would be heading about 100km east all the way to Chau Doc. Can't get easier than this!

Because of a nearby cement factory, this short part of the road turned out to be rather Cambodian-ish, all dusty and dirty. Thankfully, this changed and we were soon riding out along the most beautiful countryside. This got even better as went further! There was hardly any traffic and it was almost the world's biggest bike path created especially just for us. The smell of fresh unpolluted air gave us the motivation to cycle at a good pace.

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Vietnam is a high yield agriculture economy and its easy to see why. It's people are illustrious and they have mastered the technology of irrigation. What impressed as we rode through the country was the amazing irrigation canal system that provided the much needed water to ensure many a great harvest. We rode alongside water all the way to Chau Doc!

I took this opportunity to let the newer ones lead so that I could hang back and have a good chat with everyone. As Papa Mike often expressed, the camaraderie among our touring team is often second to none, cemented by our common love of exploring new places on our foldies. Having Papa is always a bonus. As the Team Resident Doctor, we are ever so well taken care by him, and not just medically. His big heartedness and big appetite add so much flavour to our lives.

At about 25km mark, I signalled the ride leaders to look out for drink stops. This part of Vietnam is rather isolated and cafes are very sparse. It took us quite a while before something promising came by. Unfortunately, a rather sudden stop there caused a near collision as we were all riding quite tightly together. It was good that the only casualty was Uncle Teo who grazed his leg slightly when he came off the bike. Still, that did not affect his spirit one bit! Papa had a field day dressing him up with such a huge bandage that we all laughed at how serious it made his small injury out to be.

At the cafe with the sleepy owner, which we could see was a Karoke Bar at night for the farmers, it had limited cold drinks and were rather unprepared for 11 thirsty cyclists barging in. What endeared us were the many hammocks all strung out invitingly. Like bees to honey, everyone just plunged themselves and were swinging happily from side to side. Not all the drinks were cold but with comfortable hammocks like these, we didn't mind it one bit. The fresh coconuts were the most popular!

I had to nearly hold a gun to their heads to get our team back onto their tiny saddles, to hit the road again. It was a cruel thing to do but we still had a long way to go before Chau Doc. By this time, the sun was blazing and the going was getting tough. We had little reason to complain when we rode pass a group of Vietnamese soldiers walking merrily back from their shooting range, with their rifles in hand. Watching too many American movies about the Viet Cong, we were caught by surprise at how lax and friendly they were, offering warm smiles and generous waves, except their no nonsense officer.

While travelling in this most remote part of Vietnam offers much peace and quiet to savour in all its beauty, one serious downside is the lack of decent towns offering good food. As it was way passed noon, and our stomachs were rumbling loudly, it was rather frustrating to stop at little hamlets only to discover that drinks and packet chips were all that was on offer. The friendly shopkeeping told me in Vietnamese (that I magically somehow managed to understand) that a hot lunch could be had 10km down the road. I was somewhat taken back when she held onto my arm during a photo pic, but that just goes to show how warm country folks are.

It was to be the longest 10km for me as I was nearly spent but true enough, it was a decent town with 2 simple restaurants. Their food were just about running out as we waltz in a bit late. I just about got the last BBQ pork rice but what thrilled me to bits was making a new friend there. Lashes, as I call this totally adorable 2 yo boy, because he had the most beautiful eyes somehow got along so well with us. What helped break the ice was Solomon, my Lego ride buddy, which Lashes was fascinated with. I asked his father if I could take him back to Australia! I would definitely like to see him again.

We sat out the hot afternoon sun and had lots of drinks and chats after our lunch. But this couldn't last forever as we had still had another 40km to go and we forced ourselves onto our steeds. Fortunately, the scenery got even better with the Cambodian mountain range in sight. Somehow, the green rice fields were even greener thanks to the evening sun and we were busy taking pics like there was no tomorrow.

While I was cycling merrily minding my own business, a bicycle with 2 girls overtook me. Nothing wrong with that except I was amazed at how fast they were going. On closer inspection, they were both pedalling and I have never seen anything like this before. Who needs a tandem? What I saw truly put a big smile on my face as I saw partnership at its best.

At this stage, the group was spread thin as everyone was too busy photographing and stopping ever so often. And who can blame us with such awesome beauty appearing everywhere and at every km? We were like children in a visual candy store let loose. The smiles upon everyone's faces were truly priceless and I am sure a part of heaven must surely look like this.

As we approached Chau Doc, the traffic was visibly thicker but at no point did we feel unsafe. We had a lot of local cyclists ride alongside with us and even enjoyed friendly races. 2 cheeky schoolboys in particular were determined to keep up with me and we had great fun! It was a case of strangers with a kindred spirit just delighting in the joy of riding bicycles, with some male testosterone thrown in for good measure.

It is always important in touring to ensure the group sticks together. I spotted a petrol station, always a good place to pull over and waited for the gang. This turned out to be an unexpected blessing as it offered a glittering view of the mountains, rice fields and a priceless setting sun. We were all mesmerized by what we saw and the splendor paralyzed us. It was the work of the master artist at its best and none of us wanted to leave although it meant riding in the dark. Now I know the reason for the 930am delay! We would have missed this if not for a tire problem at the start.

The ride into Chau Doc was not fun as entering a new city in the dark can be daunting. By this time, we will all pretty worn out and one touring tip that I must share is never to end the ride after sunset if possible. Its hard to see street signs, visibility is also compromised despite our lights, our concentration is down and so much can go wrong. And something did in fact go wrong. Traffic in any Vietnamese city is thick and fast so trying to bring a group of 11 together through the chaotic streets of Chau Doc in darkness is a recipe for disaster. Our last rider made a dash to cross a road causing a local trishaw to jam his brake and overturn spectacularly in the middle of the road.

By this time, half of the team were already in the hotel lobby wondering what happen to the rest. In Vietnam, an accident often means a golden opportunity to demand some serious $ from the foreigners and the police is seldom sympathetic. Some of us gathered to pray at this time, and this is always the wisest thing to do. When we said our "Amen!",  the lost sheep appeared in the lobby intact but slightly shaken. Miraculously, no one was hurt and all was well! We couldn't believe the answer to our prayers came so suddenly and powerfully. Somehow, the hand of God always seem to be so active and vibrant on our trips and I am ever so grateful.

The Hang Chau Hotel proved to be pretty good. At US18 per night, it was much higher than Ha Tien's but then again, this is a major town just by the Mekong River and is heavily touristed. Our rooms were very comfortable and I had the privilege to have the gentle Joshua as my room mate. I try to swapped room mates among the team throughout the trip so that everyone gets to know each other better.

After a quick debrief about the day's ride, we wasted no time to eat and we discovered that Chau Doc truly has many great eateries. For tonight, we settled for a street vendor with a flaming wok selling all sort of noodles, rice and dishes. Usually, flaming wok = great food and we really hit the jackpot this time. Not only was the price incredibly cheap, the dishes were amazing.

After dinner, as if we did not have enough of cycling, we decided to go for a tour of Chau Doc by night. Only this time, we were on trishaws, being pedalled like towkays (boss) of old. The riders were very excited to take us around and an hour of riding costs only US$3, which is very little money for such hard but enjoyable work. Each trishaw took 2 of us, except Papa who rode solo for obvious reasons.

This was perhaps a very fitting end to our long adventure from Phnom Penh, all 430km. We retired feeling both happy that we enjoyed such an amazing ride but sad that it has come to an end. It was good that we had the whole day tomorrow to rest, recuperate and explore Chau Doc and with that, we slept with a deep sense of contentment. 


Unknown said...

Love it: another fantastic blog Alvin. Well done

Simon Toast said...

Hi Alvin, we would love to borrow one of your Rottnest images for an article we're doing on the future of cycling in Perth - particularly keen to feature the Rottnest bike paths as 'glow in the dark' based on solar powered bike lanes.

If you'd like to collaborate. could you get in touch with me at

Thanks, Simon