26.03.2011 - 26.03.2011
Our last day of cycling in Vietnam was going to be quite a punishing one as it was a 146km cycle through to Phnom Pehn in Cambodia with nowhere to stay in between. Our nerves were not calmed by the fact that the road to the border was not marked on our map and everyone one we asked looked a bit bemused and said 'why don't you take the ferry?' (there is a fast boat that goes directly from Chau Doc to Phnom Pehn and takes about 3-5 hours). Luckily the hotel receptionist where we were staying spoke excellent english and with her help and instructions that we would need to cross on two small ferries to cross the Mekong to get to the border we were on our way.
Cycling along the river was really spectacular, encapsulating so many of our favourite aspects of Vietnam cycle touring; the colours, smells and hustle and bustle of riverside life well populated with food stalls and markets. Rob managed to get a bit of footage along the 45 km to the border. Crossing into Cambodia was not quite the stressful and chaotic experience as getting from China into Vietnam, but never the less we did manage to get lost between leaving Vietnam and entering Cambodia. As this is a rarely used border crossing as most tourists take the boat, the Cambodian immigration office is nestled in a village on a dirt road which we sailed about 3 km past the border control before we realised we had missed it but the border officials seemed quite laid back as we bumped back along the dusty road to get our passports stamped.
Thirty minutes later we cycled out through the border village with tamarind drying on the roadside and into Cambodia after 7 weeks of cycling in Vietnam. Prior to our spontaneous sprint into Lang Son seeking refuge from the cold in China, Vietnam was barely on our radar let alone a potential cycle touring venue for our trip. I can't remember who it was who said that adventure is one detour after another but after almost 2 months and about 1,500km this is one we are really glad that we embarked upon. It is difficult to sum up our impressions of Vietnam in one blog post, particularly as brevity and succinctness are not my strengths. Rob describes is as a country of two halves; the ''no, no, nos'' and the ''yes, yes, yeses". Our experiences of the people of Vietnam have been quite polarised. The vast majority of our interactions with the Vietnamese depict a warm and hospitable people. The french influence seems to go beyond good pastries and coffees; there is something a bit asian parisien about many of the people we have met - they have a real joie de vivre. They are trendy prolific smokers and coffee drinkers racing around on their mopeds. Across the length of the country the Vietnamese have sought to make us feel welcome in their country, whether it is through feeding us, inviting us into their homes or cycling alongside us through the villages we have passed through. They have great pride in their country and when we recount how we are travelling through Vietnam by bicycle and what a good time we are having they seem to burst with pride.
On a less positive note, we have also experienced the ''nos'' and being ripped off for as much as humanly possible. This has only happened to us in areas that have been oversaturated by tourism such as Hoi an and Mui Ne. I think we have been most vulnerable to being ripped off when we were trying to take the bikes on public transport, particularly buses and ferries where the touts decide on a whim how much they think they will be able to extort just by looking at you. Although we have had relatively few experiences of this and the good has overwhelmingly outweighed the bad, the feeling of frustration and helplessness when you are treated as a cash cow can linger unpleasantly tainting the overall experience. It is through these more challenging experiences that we have found that the Vietnamese don't like to barter. Even when they know that we know we are being ripped off (once we were charged an amount for two iced teas that was indivisible by two) they seem to prefer to lose the sale rather than reduce the price. This has made us holding our ground difficult, particularly when we have needed to get bikes on public transport (particularly on ferries as there is no alternative option so they kind of have us over a barrel!) so the majority of the time we (Rob) only manages to get a very small concession if at all.
The highlights of Vietnam have been many. Stand out favourites are obviously the food and drink. I am a complete convert to condensed milk which is a vietnamese staple. They have it in everything - milkshakes, pancakes, creme caramel, dunked in bread the list goes on.... Vietnamese coffee with milk is our favourite, a shot of exquisitely sweet liquid velvet. I'll be seeking these out on the Kingsland road when we get back to the UK. Although as I write this I am a bit 'noodled' out having had them every day pretty much for two months we have had the most amazing phos I have ever tasted fragrant with lemon grass with silky chicken stock.
In terms of the cycling, it has all been so good it is difficult to choose any bits above the others. Top of the pile would have to be the Mekong Delta, parts of the central highlands particularly south of Pleiku and the section of coast along Phan Thiet. Vietnam really is an undiscovered gem of cycle touring (at least we think it is fairly undiscovered as we only met 3 cyclist the whole time we were here compared to meeting about 3 a day in New Zealand). It is a mystery to me why there seem to be so few cyclists here when everything about Vietnam lends itself so perfectly to be discovered and explored by bike: the roads are generally good, the food is great and almost all little villages have 'khach sans' (hotels) or ''nga nghis'' (guesthouses) so we have been able to get off the beaten track.
But it is definitely time for us to move on - not least because we are now on a countdown to get to Dean and Michelle's wedding in Langkawi in less than three weeks. As we cycled from the border town of Vinh Long and calls of ''xin chao'' were replaced with ''suasaday!'' Cambodia is another detour that we hadn't planned so we'll see what this adventure has in store as our tired legs pedal us into Phnom Pehn just before sunset.