Entry #042: Thursday, November 21, 2013 (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Today marks a big page turn in my trip. Well, "today" meaning "the last couple days and the next couple days in addition to today." There's the turn in that I'm now done with the three-week cycling tour, the turn that my mom is making her way back to the States, and the turn that I will soon be leaving Asia for a new continent. So, lots of stuff! In fact, it makes me somewhat glad that, economic center of the country aside, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon is actually a fairly boring place, with few attractions, as it allows me plenty of decompression time. So let's use that time and take a look at what's been happenin'.

Since we're starting with the last couple days of the tour, let's keep looking at the official itinerary and comparing it with the actual itinerary, aka "Reality".

DAY 18: Takeo-Chau Doc (78km)
Early breakfast. Fill in water and check visa for Vietnam one more time as Vietnam visa has to be done in advance. Cycle 53km to Phnom Den border crossing point. Take a break in half way for water stop. After immigration, say goodbye to our Cambodian driver. Lunch at the local restaurant at the border. After lunch, cycle to discover along the Mekong Delta road into the beautiful green countryside. Along the way you will see rice fields and water buffalos nearby the road. Arrive in Chau Doc, those with energy to spare can climb Sam Mountain for sunset! Dinner and overnight in Chau Doc.

Yeah, I'm not sure why I am still posting the itinerary listings at this point, because aside from a big, big picture point of view (that is to say, "crossing the border from Cambodia to Vietnam"), this is a hot mess of a description. Anyway, we woke up, got everything together, and met up with Pheap to cycle to breakfast. It would be our final meal in Cambodia. It was just at some random, nondescript local place, which I had somewhat tepid hopes for because it had some baked goods in front. Pheap asked us (as the waitress didn't speak a dot of English) if we wanted the American breakfast. We asked to see a menu. We didn't want rice or anything, but we wanted to see our options. Well, of 15 items on the menu, 14 of them were based around or otherwise had rice. The 15th was the American breakfast. We ordered that, and my mom tried asking for over-easy eggs, using hand gestures to spell it out, but the concept seemed to be lost, and we just got some of the wettest scrambled eggs I've seen, some of the fattiest bacon I've seen, and lousy white bread that was wet on one side, stale on the other (not the lousiest I've seen, but not great). It was such a poor meal, and I had such a large amount left, that I was able to manipulate my eggs, bread, and bacon into a giant message for the staff: "BAD".

After my creative/mean critique, we got up to start going. My mom was still not in the best of conditions, so she was really of two minds to cycle all the way to the border. For my part, I was concerned about the dark clouds gathered above, which were starting to let fly a relatively light but consistent rain. I really didn't want to cycle in this kind of weather - not for my own personal safety, as should have probably been my main concern, but for the safety and dryness of my belongings, in particular of my camera. As such, I decided that we'd be fine just taking the van. After all, Pheap and Mr. Tree would be driving back to Siam Reap for the remainder of the day; they should have as much of a head start as possible.

We get in the van, and drive to the border. The consistent rain - which was punctuated by occasional heavy bursts - allowed me to internally validate my decision as more foresight than laziness. The skies cleared a tiny bit when we got to the border, so we were able to get out without issue. We said our goodbyes to Mr. Tree, and gave him a tip which, if he was speaking truthfully the night before, was equivalent to a month's paycheck for him. We then grabbed our bags and began taking them down the long haul of the border bridge. Seriously, land border crossings are the worst. (Also, that statement just makes me sound like some sort of travel elitist, doesn't it?) The Cambodian officer stamped our passports without even looking at the departure form I worked so hard to get accurate (including getting Mr. Tree's license plate number). He even took my mom's departure form without her signing it. It all made me think of the videogame Papers, Please, which is actually about being an immigration official - if real life worked like the game, that would be two citations right there. Anyway, after that, it was time to trade guides. We gave our tip and said our goodbyes to Pheap - my mom's eyes were watering up, which made me wonder if she'd have done the same if she's said goodbye to as many people as I have - and then walked a few steps before meeting our guide for the remaining part of the tour, Sen. (I actually think he said it was spelled "Sene", but I'm not positive, so I'll just spell it phonetically.) He was easy to spot with his full-on cycling getup. He asked us, in very good English, for our passports, which he then gave to the Vietnamese entry officials. Actually, just "official"; despite there being eight or nine guys in that room, only one of them was in uniform and looking at any passports. The rest...moral support, maybe? Anyway, because of this, we were waiting for quite a while. My mom even had the top to set down her backpack and get out a yogurt to eat.

When we finally did get our passports back, fresh and stamped, Sen asked us if we wanted to cycle or just take the van. We just elected to take the van, because eh, why not. So, we walked over to a van that was clearly meant for a larger group than ours. Seriously, there were 12 seats in the back. We then got in and drove the hotel, passing through extremely narrow roads along the way, roads with little room for error, roads that did not seem fun to cycle on. We ended up going into what initially seemed like a fairly small, backwoods town, but it turns out is big enough, with a population of 125,000. Once we got into the "rich" part of Chau Doc (that is to say, the part where the buildings were actually made from concrete and not corrugated sheet metal), we saw our hotel, which seemed to be pretty nice. (Incidentally, my mom had initially expressed concern about the quality of our remaining hotels, due to the poor guesthouse we had stayed in the night before. I told her that they would likely be of better quality, just like the ones in Thailand seemed to be, on the average, higher end. I was happy to be right.) We started getting our bags out and...and...and we came to the horrific realization that my mom's backpack was missing. It wasn't in the van anywhere. We reasoned that when she set down her backpack to eat yogurt, her less-than-great state-of-being made her a bit forgetful, and that she forgot it at the immigration window. This could be an okay place for it to be left, because a guard might have taken it, thinking it to be potentially dangerous, thus making it easy for retrieval. However, if it was taken, that would mean my mom would have lost quite a few items, not the least of which being her iPad. She was actually taking the loss rather well - much better than I would have in the same circumstances - which she attributed to the fact that this kind of thing isn't what bothers her; being in an uncomfortable place is. However, her mood became a bit more dour when she realized the backpack also contained my dad's camera that she borrowed - along with all the photos on it. Positive thinking aside, this was a vexing situation.

Sen tells us to wait, shower, and have lunch while he calls the immigration office. Afterward, we would drive all the way back to the border to check. So, after checking in, we did just that. We also took a walk down to get some local currency (which proved to be a more difficult proposition than anticipated, as the only ATM that would play nice with us was several long blocks away. For lunch, which we were told to have inside the hotel, I just got myself a beef sandwich, and my mom got some soup. It was a nice reprieve from local food. (An aside: I now have complete empathy for people who want to go to non-local places when traveling. The conventional wisdom is "You have to eat local, or you're missing out." And, in case you haven't noticed, I've ate plenty of local food on this trip. But, especially on this cycling gig, it has just gotten tiresome. You can judge once you've been traveling for 8 months.) We then went out to the lobby to meet up with Sen, but upon the realization that he wasn't there (which, admittedly, we realized pretty quickly), we decided to go back up to the room. I then decided to go out to look for a local SIM card, since if, Sen did arrive, it wouldn't be too terrible, because it didn't require both of us to be around. So, I went out, and everywhere I even saw the word "SIM", I asked for one. Unfortunately, either they didn't have anything, didn't have a MicroSIM, or simply had no idea what I was talking about. So, I went back to the hotel, where I saw my mom...and her backpack. Apparently, whilst we were eating lunch, Sen and the driver went back to the border, and found the backpack right where it was left, on the table outside the arrival immigration office. All of the contents were in there, whole and untouched.

Not too shabby of an ending for that littl aside, eh?

Whether or not prayers and positive thinking were what kept the bag safe, they sure didn't hurt. And with it back in our possession, we were of much better spirits, and were able to relax in the room for some time. Eventually, though, we thought to go out to the nearby market, both to check out other possibilities for getting a SIM card, and just to see what was around. However, we literally went down no more than one block before it started raining fairly vigorously. We still had about eight long blocks to walk (and when I say long, I mean loooong), and even if we took one of the local tuk-tuks, they were all uncovered. We waited for a brief break in the rain to walk back to the hotel, where we continued relaxing until dinner time. For dinner, we met with Sen and the driver (a humorless man who greatly resembled the creepy shirtless guy who had been lying in the bed in our guesthouse room) in the hotel restaurant. I got a sweet-and-sour pork dish, which was decent and came with a pile of rice decorated with a happy face, making me almost forget how much I disdain rice. My mom got a "steak" (in quotations because it was the thinnest slice of meat I've ever seen given that title), which somehow cost $14, six bucks above our meal allowance. So, she had to front the extra cash, and by all accounts, it wasn't that great. We then said our goodnights, went back to our room, and tried to figure out if we should just ask for transport from destination to destination and forgo the remainder of our cycling, as we've already done plenty, and we had nobody else to worry about (thank God! I was exceptionally grateful that there were no fresh-faced cyclists joining us in Vietnam). We eventually decided, though, to simply take it day by day.

Day 19: Chau Doc - Can Tho (50km+cycling)
After breakfast, we leave for the floating houses on upper Mekong river by boat where we can see plenty of catfishes, red snappers… breeding under right their houses. What is an amazing life! Then keep boating to visit the Cham village with about 12.000 people who those are weaving sarongs, hats…by hands as keeping their ancestral tradition. Walk to the mosques that Muslims pray and teach Cham kids in Arabic for a while. Then we start cycling along incredible country roads from Chau Doc to Bachuc along the border, or re-trace back to triton (depending on road conditions). The cycling starts to gently undulate and mountains begin to loom as you ride out off Chau Doc. The presence of Thnot trees indicates the growing proximity to Cambodia and the local people speak Vietnamese as their second lanaguge. This afternoon, you will cycle to the killing fields of Vietnam at Bachuc, where Polpot’s regime massacred over 3,000 Vietnamese in 1978. Dinner and overnight in Can Tho.

"What is an amazing life!" may be one of my new favorite pieces of broken English. Anyway, we woke up and had our last fairly satisfying breakfast on the cycling tour. Being a former French colony, they had some French baguettes available, as well as plenty of Laughing Cow cheese for spreading (in fact, I've found that there's lots of that brand in this country - not as much as in Morocco [another previous French colony], but still quite a bit). Unfortunately, my mom could only stand to eat a small amount of food, so she wasn't back to 100%. We later met up with Sen to start the day, and got in the van. It should be noted that our van driver, whose name we neither learned nor cared to learn, did absolutely nothing to assist us, and continued doing nothing for the trip. Mr. Tree would always insist on opening doors, bringing out a figurative cornucopia (and literal basket) of snacks at every break, always hand us a drink, and generally be a good guy. This guy did none of those, an in fact never smiled at us. As you can tell, I'm not a fan.

Anyway, one thing this guy did do was drive (thank God), and he drove us a short distance to the river, where we got out and walked to a water taxi. This wasn't a ferry, or even a large, long-distance water taxi like the one we took in Cambodia. This thing was a small boat to jump from one place to another, run by some guy with a cigarette in his mouth that was two-thirds ash (that's another thing - smoking seems to be much more prevalent, or at the very least much more visible, than in Cambodia). We took a quick ride over to the village of one of the ethnic groups, the Chams. It wasn't a particularly thrilling visit, to be perfectly honest; we just got onto a small pier, learned that buildings on stilts are built for flood conditions (and not just for kicks), were brought up to a small market, were given a brief history/geography lesson about some of the former kingdoms that existed in the Indochina area, and were then allowed to shop. I stood there idly, whereas my mom looked around and actually bought some stuff, almost immediately acquiring some buyer's remorse, knowing that she could have gotten the same thing cheaper almost anywhere else. I asked Sen if there was anything else of interest in this village, to which he flatly replied, "No." So, we headed back to the water taxi, drove back to dry land, and got back into the van.

We got out of the city - a wise idea, seeing the condition of the in-city roads - and made our way to a gas station, where we got out, and set up our new bikes. I was of two minds about these bikes. On the one hand, they had much larger, and much softer seats than the ones we ha had in Cambodia, which made sitting a more tolerable experience. However, none of the bikes had bells on them; this was a feature which probably wasn't totally necessary in Cambodia (though it was convenient), but in hindsight, seemed a glaring omission from bikes in Vietnam. I didn't know it when getting on the bike, but having some way to announce yourself would prove majorly important on these roads. As it was, I would have to settle for whistling and shouting and the like. My other two gripes were particular to my specific bike: first, it constantly sounded like it was going to fall apart, with mysterious screeches and clunks occurring occasionally and for no reason. Second, my gear indicator had a broken (and thus opaque) cover, making it impossible to know what gear I was in. But whatever, I felt, this should only be a few days, no big deal.

Well, as it turns out, it wasn't quite that smooth. Not for the inconveniences of the bikes - those were just that, inconveniences - but rather for the legitimately treacherous road we were going down. Now, while Cambodia featured a number of roads in disrepair, which could easily cause me to fall and hurt myself, I never felt like I could actually be killed by a fall there. Not so in Vietnam. For reference, Vietnam is 80% larger than Cambodia, but over 625% the population. In short, it's crowded. What's more, the streets are narrow, maybe about 1.8 lanes in total, and most disturbingly, there are no shoulders whatsoever. When you reach one side, you either run into a hedge or fall down a ditch. And the roads themselves are not in that great of shape, with cracks and potholes strewn about. Now, imagine trying to ride on this with hundreds of scooters, cars, and full on big rigs all around you. Imagine wanting to pass a slow-going scooter to catch up with your group, but as you start to nudge to the left, you hear a horn, and get out of the way just in time to see a car drive by you, it's side mirror missing you by half a foot. And then bracing yourself for a pothole.

Yeah, it's not the greatest.

My mom didn't think so either; in fact, it was a huge shock, coming from the relatively peaceful Cambodia into this. Now, at one point she had to go behind me, as she still wasn't at full strength. I didn't like this, because it meant that I wasn't in back, which bothered me for a couple reasons (chief among them being that I lost vision of her). But her being in back allowed her to see me cycling on this road, which brought to light her mother's instincts (her words, not mine), and she said that she wanted to stop cycling on this road, lest something bad happen to me. I had no issue stopping myself; I had nothing to prove, it was in fact an uncomfortable and dangerous road for a novice like myself to ride on, and while my divination skills aren't great, I will abide by people's potentially prescient feelings.

So, after we had some water, my mom told Sen that we wanted to stop, both noting the unnerving road conditions and her continued not-feeling-great-ness. To be perfectly honest, I felt this was actually quite courageous, as it's not easy to tell someone, particularly a new guide, that you're not comfortable continuing as-is. Bafflingly, Sen seemed incredibly resistant to stop. He tried convincing us that we should go on, showing us pictures of the upcoming road (which oddly enough, only hurt his case). I almost had to remind him that we were the ones paying for this, but finally he relented and let us get back into the van. As we continued driving, the situation on the road only worsened; it would have been borderline criminal to have someone who is still relatively new to cycling (like myself) ride on those roads. How anyone survives on them is a wonder.

We drive to the local Killing Field Museum, which was quite different from the one in Phnom Penh. This was just a small, one room museum a short distance away from a Buddhist temple (and in the middle of a litter-swamped parking lot hosting a bunch of hawkers). There was no tour, and none of the photos or signs had any English text - if Sen didn't take us through it, we wouldn't have gotten the full impact. Even if you couldn't read Vietnamese, though, it was another tribute to how horrible Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were. Outside, there was a skull-filled stupa, a smaller version of what was in the Cambodian Killing Field. There were some folks praying there, so we left them in peace, got back in the van, and left.

After a brief, terrible lunch - my mom asked for broth, and got this stuff which, I kid you not, tasted like automotive oil (our reactions seemed to offend the locals, but in my opinion, they deserved to be offended) - we continued driving for another three hours on roads that seemed to be getting worse with each passing mile. Finally, we got to Can Tho (the fourth largest city in Vietnam) and to our hotel, which seemed like a fine enough place, though on a large times-of-the-world wall map, I noticed that it posted Montreal (necessarily, as New York shares the same time zone) as being somewhere in Saskatchewan. ...Look on a map, I'll wait. Anyway, we did our normal hotel-arrival ritual, showering and relaxing. It wasn't terribly long, though, before it was dinner time. On the walk over, we tried looking for a place to buy a SIM card, but had little luck. Sen asked for me to give him my phone, which I outright refused, telling him I'd handle it after dinner. We sat down at this waterfront restaurant whose name I can't remember, but I can say the atmosphere was as crowded as the food was good. To make it clear, it was crowded, and the food was very good. It was probably the best meal we had had in the last five days of the trip. Then Sen comes back with a SIM card, which I felt was simultaneously thoughtful and brainless, because he had no idea what my priorities were (eg. getting a data plan instead of a phone plan). We tried going back to the store to get it all sorted out, but I was going to have to pay for a new card, which the store owner would have to call the company for in the morning to activate and then they'd have to...nevermind, I told them, I wasn't going to bother. It was a really sketchy setup, and I'd rather deal with it later than find out that this old shopkeep forgot to call the company, leaving me high and dry. So, in lieu of getting a 3G connection, my mom and I got some ice cream bars for the walk back to the hotel, where we relaxed and did our things for the remainder of the night.

Day 20: Cantho - Travinh (80km+cycling)
After breakfast, there will be time to explore side tracks and trails as the cycling distance today is not far. This gives a great first impression of the “heart of Mekong”. We take first short boat trip to Vinh Long, one of the famous fruits town in Mekong. Then you bike along narrow country lanes, easy dirt tracks and trails. This biking is at its most glorious-through tiny orchards, witness colorful life along the riverside, pedal pass picturesque delta homes, pause to chart with welcoming villagers, clack across innumerable wooden bridges. Cross narrow canals on a local sampan, before finishing at the main ferry for a refreshing boat trips across the expansive Co Chien River. Ride final few km to the very pretty Khmer town of Travinh. Overnight in Travinh.

Now, the description on this one always had me wondering, because it notes 80km, but then says the cycling distance is not far. Even now, I still don't know (mainly because the tour guides often do whatever they feel like) if it meant the planned itinerary was 80km+ (as in, "80k or more") of cycling, or 80km of transit in addition to cycling. Anyway, we got up a bit early, and used the time in the morning to check to see if my mom could get an early flight out of Vietnam and back to the States, so she'd have an extra day to recover in comfort. Unfortunately, she could only do this by purchasing a business-class ticket, which would cost upwards of $500 in addition to change fees. So, she decided it would be better just to remain in the country. We then went to breakfast, which was probably the most disappointing we'd had since...well, I suppose since two days earlier. The place seemed to cater to Southeast Asian tastes, so there was plenty of rice, plus the fattiest slices of duck you can imagine. There was hardly anything there that we wanted to eat, save for fruit and small "pizza slices" of omelette...except that the omelette was served chilled for some unknowable reason. The fruit was good, at least - you usually can't screw up fruit.

Anyway, after a short van ride, we got on another water taxi, and made our way out onto the local river to see the "Floating Market". However, I feel the name, while technically accurate, is a bit misleading. Unlike the floating cities of Cambodia and Thailand, which are legit structures that float in the water, this was just a collection of people on their boats. It was still pretty nifty, seeing them all trading and whatnot. Apparently, it was set up as the wholesale market, which made a bit more sense to me, as I could see the inconvenience of being in the middle of a river to be detrimental to the business of a traditional model market. We didn't stop at any of the boats - we had no need for sacks of turnips, but after getting back on solid ground, we did have an opportunity to look around a non-floating market. It was the kind of market where all the vendors would best be described as [BLANK]-mongers. It wasn't a market for the faint of heart - dead, bloody chickens piled up in one area, fishes' heads were being bashed with rocks, bull genitalia were hung up on a hook for some reason. In fact, the only thing I saw which actually seemed like something I'd want to buy was at a stand where a guy used a modified dremel to produce coconut shavings. Still, we had no real desire to stay in the area, so we eventually caught up with Sen and let him know we were ready to leave.

The roads we initially cycled on were blessedly free of traffic, but were cursedly full of bumps and holes, meaning you had to ride standing for pretty much the entire time. But this only lasted a couple of kilometers before we made our way to the ferry port (where a scooter almost drove directly into me - thanks again, guardian angel!). We waited a short while, and then the ferry - a unromantic boat that more resembled the D-Day landing ships than anything - arrived. We, along with a dozen or so other people and scooters, got on board, and we took a 20-minute ride to one of the Mekong islands. At least, I'll take them at their word that it was an island. Honestly, I couldn't tell one way or another; you could have said it was just two blocks down the same road we came from, and I'd believe it.

Our trip through the island was certainly not what I expected. I expected it to be somewhat akin to Cambodia's Rabbit Island, and we'd be cycling through more dirt roads. Nope. As mentioned before, I couldn't even tell it was an island, it just seemed like more poor villages in a semi-tropical environment. The road at first seemed to be ideal - a concrete walkway throughout - but it soon became clear that this three-foot-wide path was uncomfortably narrow. A scooter coming in your path meant you had to quickly get out of the way, because the scooter sure as hell wasn't going to move or slow down. Going across bridges was even worse. I literally almost got driven off the bridge and 10 feet down into the water below by a scooter who drove past me without even blinking an eye. I only salvaged the situation by jumping off the bike and balancing on a low, inch-wide rail. The ride was visually uninteresting, save for some Soviet style "bunch-of-proletariat-in-a-group" posters, and before we knew it, we already reached the other side.

On the ferry to our next destination on the mainland, I decided to boot up a new audiobook. I first started with The Humorous Short Stories of Mark Twain, but turned it off within a minute, as the narrator was going about it like she was a librarian reading to eight-year-olds. Maybe that was the idea, but the style really turned me off. So, I tried the other one I had purchased during a sale, called Soulless (not sure if you ever heard of it; I haven't), about a woman in Victorian London who didn't have a soul and lived among vampires and werewolves and the like (I'm not sure who the demographic was; Twilight crowd, maybe?). I was a bit grated by this one as well, as the narrator, who I believe was employing a fake British accent the whole time, had odd intonations, and liked to give each character their own voice (with accompanying accents), which falls flat, in my opinion. The story also seemed to be trying too hard to be quirky, as can be immediately discerned when funny-sounding, overly-long Lord and Lady names are used. This one I got through maybe 20 minutes of before shutting off.

When we got to the mainland, we had a short trip to a break place, which was basically a local hang-out place, where a bunch of shirtless local men were lounging about. (Unsurprisingly, all the local women that I could see were toiling.) After having some bitter papaya and warm coconut juice, we started cycling again. This new road was another of those ones that felt a bit uncomfortable (read: "frickin' scary"). After about 10km, we asked Sen if we could stop. He said we only had 1km left to go before we got to lunch. We then cycled what could not have been less than 4km, which makes me think none of these guys have learned the concept of "under-promise, over-deliver". We stopped at a pho place, where we acted as a Jack Sprat couple, I eating noodles with little broth, my mom eating broth and no noodles. Meanwhile, Sen and the driver sat in the far corner of the restaurant, eating and smoking. While I had no desire to be any closer to their cigarettes, it did seem to us that they barely wanted to sit and eat with us, unlike Pheap, who only left us by ourselves when he had something else to do. Anyway, considering the road conditions, my mom and I decided to stop for the day, which again dismayed Sen, though he caved a little easier this time.

We drove to Tra Vinh, and were dropped off at a hotel which we were told was owned by the state, used for dignitaries who wanted to visit the city for whatever reason. This meant that the place was almost assuredly bugged, so I made sure to keep all my comments re: the ruling party quite positive. The lobby of the hotel was a bit on the loud side, as there were some roudy men in suits, possibly dignitaries and probably drunk, sitting in a lounge area, watching what I could only assume was a sports game. We went up to our room, took our showers, and then realized that we didn't really have any snacks left. So, we decided to have a walk down the street, careful not to make too many turns in order to keep our bearings. It proved surprisingly difficult to find a place to just pick up some packaged snacks. We past by two welding shops and three stores where you could buy plastic buckets before finally finding a hole-in-the-wall shop, where we got some chips, popcorn, Mentos, and (out of left field) a large Christmas tin of Danish sugar cookies. All for about $6. We also stopped at an ice cream store (by which I mean a mostly-empty storefront with three freezers in it), where we each got a little package of coconut ice cream.

We got back to the hotel, enjoyed a little bit of our snacks (except for the popcorn, which wasn't very enjoyable), and then relaxed a bit. I, for the most part, amused myself by playing a newly-purchased game called Long Live the Queen, which, if you look it up on Google Images, seems like a game I shouldn't be interested in (or maybe should be arrested for), but is actually quite fun. My mom, meanwhile, watched what little English TV she could find. We then went down to dinner, which Sen had to order for us, since they did not have an English menu at this restaurant, nor did any of the staff speak English. We tried to get as basic of items as we could - some chicken, some veggies, etc. - but it was flat-out terrible. I'm pretty sure the chicken was more skin than meat by volume, and the veggies consisted of nothing but carrots, celery, and a token amount of taro root. We ended up leaving more than we ate, and just went back to our room, where we'd be able to let ice cream fill the void that their meal couldn't provide. As the night progressed, I kept my eye to the window, as Sen had said that there was some festival tonight, and they would be releasing lanterns - large lanterns, as big as a dining table - into the sky, which we'd be able to view from our room's balcony. I looked out at 8pm, then 8:30, then 9pm, and so on all night, but there was nothing, no inkling of a lantern being released anywhere. I did have one glimmer of hope when I saw a tiny red dot in the sky, but soon realized it was a plane in the distance. Feeling probably more disenchanted than we should have been, considering we only heard about the prospect of lanterns three hours earlier, we closed the shades and went to bed.

Day 21: Travinh - Mytho - Ho Chi Minh (50km+ cycling)
After breakfast, start with a section of biking cuts off road onto gravel and dirt lanes, and weaves around hamlets, across water channels, and through quiet dense vegetation. This makes for superb biking after a ferry across the graping expanse of Cochien river from Travinh, the pretty tree lined town with a large population of ethnic Khmer.  Then another section of crossing rivers and canals by numerous, ubiquitous, fascinating ferries, we bike through the route takes us through narrow roads and lanes, past banana plantations, fields of sugar cane, through the lush green landscape of the delta. The ride lead us right into the heart of the rural Mekong before arriving at Mytho – the gateway of the Mekong delta to end our cycling trip. From Mytho, we transfer a couple of hours to Ho Chi Minh City to avoid the busy traffic. TOUR ENDS.

So this was it, the last day of cycling. It didn't start too great, as I didn't have a terribly good sleep. The main culprit, I could only guess, was the Lariam tablet I had taken the night before getting caught in my esophagus (or possibly scratching my esophagus on the way down), which caused a pressured pain in my chest that could only be temporarily relieved by eating or drinking.
(As a quick aside, one question my mom asked which I had not given much thought to was, should I still bother taking malarial medications even though I've already contracted malaria? Interestingly enough, I have not found one instance of this question being asked online. I'll still keep taking the stuff so long as I'm in the areas, because why not, but still, it's interesting.)
Anyway, we went to breakfast, which again was more focused around the local clientele. At least I was able to get a French loaf (one advantage of colonial history) and some fried eggs, cooked by a most surly-looking woman. And I was damn thankful for those, as the hard boiled eggs that were served seemed to be only a decade away from being full-on century eggs. We ended up eating the remainder of our coconut ice cream (which, to our defense, was not very much) to yet again fill the void. Afterwards, we packed up all our stuff, got in the van, and drove out of the city. After some time, we stopped, got out our bikes, hopped on, and cycled......for about 100 feet, as we were pretty much already at the ferry dock. I hoped off my bike, slightly embarrassed.

We waited for a good 20 minutes for the ferry to arrive, all the while getting stared at. Everyone always writes about getting stared at when in a foreign country, and I find people become uncomfortable with it. Sometimes they turn away. I've gotten past that stage at this point on my trip, though. If I note somebody staring at me, I stare back - glare, even - at them. And if it's not clear enough, I even dip my sunglasses a bit to ensure they know that, yes, I'm staring at them too. Clearly not used to being challenged, they end up breaking the contest. Also while waiting, three motorcycles carrying a cargo of ducks rolled up. Seriously. Lying perpendicular to the body of the motorcycles were a few poles, from which were held bags, each of which held two hyperventilating ducks. Some were quacking, some were just opening shivering and opening their mouths, but they all looked like they were in a bad way. This again, made me think to my whole "Appreciate Home" mentality: as a meat-eating animal lover, I am quite grateful that animals - who are not voting citizens, it might be worthwhile to note - are given certain rights in our country, and that kind of treatment, while I'm sure it exists somewhere, would be at the very least frowned upon. In any case, it was a horrific sight, and I had half a mind to pull off a mini-Greenpeace stunt and free all the ducks, throwing them into the river. My smarter side prevailed, though, and so while riding on the ferry, I had to content myself to secretly hoping that the ducks would start biting drivers. 

When we got to the island, we began cycling. I have to admit, this island was rather nice for a good portion. We drove through farmlands with shady palm trees, wide roads, and birdsong. It was nice enough that I even stopped to take a picture and enjoy the ambiance. This ambiance was almost immediately shattered by the horrid, bloodcurdling sound of a squealing pig, which, as we continued cycling, we saw was being whipped for some reason I couldn't fathom. Anyway, we continued cycling for a few kilometers, stopping only to walk alongside a deeply trenched mud pile (we'd learned our lesson). Sen asked us if we wanted to stop for snacks, which we didn't, so we continued on. Then, without warning, he yells something at my mom and takes off like a bat out of hell. My mom relays the message onto me: we need to speed up, lest we miss the ferry back to shore. (How he thought we had time to snack I have no clue.) Thankfully, we only had "1km" to go. This, of course, turned into at least three kilometers, and my bike sounded like it was going to fall apart right under me as I pedaled as fast as I could, desperately trying to avoid running over mothers and their children. As it turned out, we almost missed the ferry regardless, and only managed to catch it by calling out as it drifted away.

We hopped on and took a fairly long ride back to the mainland. Afterward, we get onto the road and continue cycling for a short while before stopping at a small cafe, which seemed to only have hot soda on tap. We sat down, and decided that we were good. We let Sen know we were finished. He said okay, then went out into the street to call the driver, who from all impressions had gotten lost. It was a very anticlimactic ending, to be sure, sitting in some lousy cafe, surrounded by a pile of half-completed wicker baskets. But still, we were done, and we did so together. We congratulated each other with a small fist-pound, and then waited for the van to show up.

When it finally did, we first drove to lunch, which was at a place called the Mekong Rest Stop. And it was just that a place where people traveling along the delta can stop, with a bathroom, restaurant, convenience store, etc. It seemed to be a bit more upscale in design, but our lunch there was pretty sub-par, in large part due to the fact that we were served separately. Which brings me to a small aside: in both Cambodia and Vietnam, the restaurants are terrible - terrible - in their timing for meals. Too often, we'd get out plate of vegetables after we were finished with the main course. Here, it was even worse. My food came out, and after waiting for five minutes, I began eating. I finished my food, completely cleaned it up, and we had to wait another ten minutes after that before my mom was served. It was nearly a half-hour difference. Pro-tip to those who want to become a restaurateur: don't do that.

Anyway, after that, we drove for another hour to get to Ho Chi Minh City (which you will see me refer to alternatively as Ho Chi Minh City, HCMC, and Saigon, which apparently is still in common use by locals because it's much easier to say than "Ho Chi Minh City"). When we got there, we were taken straight to our hotel, the Pink Tulip hotel (which, I'll just note now, is great). We said our goodbyes to Sen (though I should note that the driver made no attempts to say bid us farewell; I was happy to return the indifference...sorry, I just didn't like the guy's attitude), and then went inside. There, we were met by the staff, who greeted us warmly. We also met Annie, the hotel's owner, who to our surprise was a man (a Dutch man, specifically - I guess Anne is a common male name where he's from). It wasn't the biggest or fanciest of hotels, but it was friendly and homey, and that's really what we needed. We got up to our room, and cleaned up. I took particular pleasure in removing my disgusting cycling clothes, knowing that I had no obligation to put them on the next day (or ever, for that matter). We showered, took an hour to let our..."freedom" is a strong word, but we'll go with...freedom from the tour, and then decided to go out to get something to eat, as my mom barely ate her lunch (again, it was chicken that was half skin). As we went down, Annie gave us a map and a description of all the sites in the area. Thankfully, pretty much all the main things I had been told to visit (though admittedly, there aren't many) were within walking distance.

But while we were extremely grateful for the information, we had no intention of going to any of those places at the time. No, we decided to go to, of all places, a KFC. What's funny is that, to my mom, KFC is like McDonald's to me - she hardly ever goes to one at home. Yet following day after day of local food, she (and I) just wanted something simple and good. More than anything, we wanted some chicken breast, some good ol' white meat. So we got a couple small meals, which did in fact hit the spot. We then continued walking around the area, with myself trying to show my mom the proper technique for crossing these menacingly trafficked roads. We ended up stopping at a small market, getting a a 5-liter water bottle, some yogurt, etc to last us our time here (or her time here, at least). We then walked back to the hotel (stopping on the way in a spot to top up my SIM card and finally activate the data plan [which, oddly enough, was just in a souvenir store directly across from the hotel]) and just relaxed for a few hours.

While I got some work done, simultaneously figuring out how good the download/upload speeds are at this hotel (and it seems to be pretty good, so I might be able to do some bulk photo uploading). Then, sometime after 8pm, my mom said she wanted to go out to a small dinner, because she was still a bit peckish. We knew exactly where we wanted to go - a restaurant at the corner of the street we were on, called "La Casa". As the name implies, it's primarily a Mexican restaurant, which is never a bad thing in my view. We shared a plate of nachos (the portions of which were much smaller than anticipated), and my mom got the most expensive beer on the menu - a Corona. While eating, she told me how much she loved the street we were on. I knew what she meant - this was the backpacker/expat part of town, so it had a lot of familiarity, and the street our hotel on in particular was slightly secluded, so it had all the life and excited buzz of a bustling city, without all the chaos. It really was the perfect spot to spend our few days here, and I'm glad she's able to leave on a more positive note than, say, the Takeo guesthouse would have been.

After that, we took a small walk around the block, in which we say that the rest of this area definitely did have the chaos that often comes in big cities (which made our little side-street seem even nicer). We stopped in a couple of stores, where my mom did some shopping (though I was holding onto all of our combined cash, as my vest was the best defense we had against the notorious pickpockets of the area). We then went back to the hotel. In celebration of not having obligations the next day, I declared that I'd be staying up late that night. Alas, my body only let me last until midnight before I had to give it up and go to bed.

(I feel a bit odd here, as I don't have any itinerary to add. The price of freedom, I suppose.)

We ended up waking at roughly the same time we had been, but the morning was a much slower, more relaxed one than we'd had in three weeks. My mom was able to have a cup of coffee (and a second), and I was just able to just sit around, not doing much (as I can get ready in mere minutes). We eventually went to breakfast somewhere around 8am or 8:30, basically after we would have already gone for the say. And the breakfast, while very simple, was one of the best ones we'd had in days. Fruit, yogurt, eggs, bread, and a cup of sweet iced coffee (which was actually pretty good, but needed to be watered down almost one-to-one). We ate contentedly, again talking about how much we were enjoying this place, and then went back to our room. My mom didn't want to leave for the day yet, and I didn't care one way or the other (figuring that, being here two extra days, I have more options).

Finally, after maybe an hour or so, we left to do some sightseeing. To be perfectly honest, Saigon is not really the most interesting of cities; there's some stuff there to be sure, but you can hit all the major points in a day if you plan it right. Which is good; I wanted my time here to be mostly for decompression. So, we start going, all the while getting used to the traffic in the area, which is no small task. We also had to deal with the heat of the day; while I think it was less humid - marginally less humid - the temperature reached upwards of 90 degrees at its peak. So it was still a little bit less than a stroll in the park (though we did in fact stroll in a park).

Our first site was the city hall, or at least the plaza in front of city hall. There stood a statue of Ho Chi Minh himself, with a young girl (some later research revealed that "Uncle Ho" here was apparently reading to the girl). We then walked a short distance to the Saigon Post Office, which may seem at first to be an odd choice for a place to go to, until you learn that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, the guy the Eiffel Tower is named after. And, being almost completely original, it looks very impressive. (Most of the phone booths, though, have been converted into ATM's; even in Vietnam, ol' payphones can't get a break.) We got some stamps for my mom's postcards, and then left. Literally across the street was the Notre Dame Cathedral (a different one, no hunchback), which despite being composed of mostly brick - I hate brick buildings - was pretty cool. Unfortunately, their visitation periods closed from 11am to 3pm, and we had arrived at 11:02. Having missed that, we walked a ways to the Reunification Palace, but that also was closed for two hours. While I can appreciate having some sort of lunch break, I really feel these tourist attractions should have collaborated to stagger when the breaks were.

So, we decide to go to the War Remnants Museum, which is another block away. Along the way, a guy with a pole across his shoulder (which in turn held containers of coconuts) passed by us, smiling and whatnot. I tried to ignore him, but my mom smiled back, and he asked where we were going. He gave us directions to get to the museum (which amounted to "go straight ahead"), and then he put his pole on my shoulder for a photo op. I wanted to tell him to go away, but my mom was enjoying it, so I tolerated it. Then, he takes two coconuts and cheerfully opens them for us. My mom takes them and gives me one, saying, "We should give him something for this." I asked how much he wanted, prepared to pony up 50,000 Dong or so. Oh, no, he wanted 150,000. That's $7.50. $7.50 for two of the smallest coconuts we could have gotten, and didn't even ask for. I was livid, and was ready to yell at him, if not grab him by his collar, but my mom was still smiling, so I didn't want to cause anything to make her uncomfortable. So, I gave him the money, but not before looking him straight in the eyes and giving him a glare that made clear that he should leave. He did so, and he probably didn't care about my displeasure, because he just made a killing. As it turns out, my mom was smiling the whole time because she hadn't really gotten a grasp of the money here, and thought we were paying a tenth of what we were. When she found out the truth, she shared in my indignity.

We got to the War Remnants Museum at about 11:30, and saw that it was indeed open...for another half hour. So, we went in, and while I won't go into too much detail, it was a very somber museum indeed. It definitely had a very anti-American slant to it, but when you learn about some of the activities that occurred in the Vietnam War, those kinds of viewpoints can be understood. In particular, an exhibit dedicated to the effects of Agent Orange and Dioxin made you really visualize, in horrific detail, the terrible aspects of war. Very stark place, indeed.

Before long, we had curators telling us we had to leave, and so we went out, and began walking back in the general direction of the hotel, as my mom was getting a bit sore, not having 100% recovered yet. We decided to stop for food along the way. We first looked at a Pizza Hut because, eh, why not? Well, the "Why not?" turned out to have an answer: the toppings on their advertised pizza looked disgusting and plastic. If that's what the ads looked like, we reasoned, imagine the real deal. (I really wish it was Papa John's that was the international fast food pizza place; at least that'd be some quality.) So, we continued walking, through a nice central park, until we ended up, of all places, in front of the same KFC as before. We decided to roll with fate, so we went in and got a couple meals, being sure to ask for as much white meat as possible. We then got back to the hotel, where we just messed around for a while. I watched some videos (and, when my Internet connection was particularly good, some Salty Bet streams), did some writing, tried to check up on some of my future plans, etc.

As night rolled in, we decided to go back to La Casa, this time for a full dinner. I got an enchilada plate, and my mom got what could be equated to a chicken burrito bowl (as well as a $4 margarita which, as she put it, tasted like a lime slushy with no alcohol). The food, while decent by not-made-by-a-Mexican standards, was served in entirely too small portion sizes, which made the fact that we paid something like $17 for the whole thing seem ridiculous to me. My mom reminded me that it's okay to pay for things that make you happy, which I totally get, but my months of being a cheapskate have taken their toll on me. (What am I saying, months; I've been a cheapskate for years, well before this trip.) Afterwards, we walked to some of the nearby shops, where my mom looked at some little trinkets and bracelets she was interested in buying. We then went back home, watched a Nova video on cuttlefish that she had asked me to download, and then did our nightly stuff, with me spending the remainder of the eve writing.

Oh, and somewhere in the day - I don't remember exactly when - some jerk almost drove straight into me on his scooter. Almost instinctively, I tried to grab his shirt, but missed. It was probably for the best that I didn't grab him, because no matter how that could have turned out, it wouldn't have been pretty.

Anyway, the next morning, we got up a little later than the day before (it begins.....). Unfortunately, my mom said she must have slept wrong, and so had a crick in her shoulder, which she at one point asked me to step on (an entirely nerve-wracking experience for me, as I weigh significantly more than some 5-foot Thai masseuse, and didn't want to be responsible for breaking my mother's back, sidewalk crack or no). We went down to breakfast, which was even better than the day before. You really don't need an extensive menu or a buffet, you just need simple, good food. We then went back up to the room to relax and digest for about an hour, and then went out for our late morning excursion. This time, we went to the Ban Than Market, one of the largest markets in Saigon. We had been told we could go there and find some pretty good deals for whatever. It should have been a pleasant, fun experience.

It wasn't.

Now, it wasn't horrible, but it was not conducive to a pleasant shopping experience. As soon as we stepped in the door, going through the clothing section, we were bombarded by shopkeeps. They were like vultures, rushing up, calling out, showing you a shirt or jacket, trying to grab your wrist. My mom mentioned again that she is actually turned off by this kind of behavior, and won't buy from someone they otherwise would have. It made us wonder, does that kind of behavior ever work? Has anyone ever walked through a market, been grabbed by someone, shown some piece of crap, and happily forked over the money for it? I do think these folks need lessons in marketing. But it seemed a lost cause from our standpoint, so I did what I do best - pretend to be a bodyguard. I hardened my face, broadened my shoulders, and walked with a deliberate pace in front of my mom, my hands opened into an open claw position. Had I worn my goggles and gloves (accidentally forgotten on my dresser), I would have probably seemed more legit, but as it was, my mom let me know that the shopkeeps seemed to "get" it, moving their gaze from me to her, and then shirking back a bit.

So there you go. You want shopkeeps to stay back from you, hire me.

Anyway, there were a few stands my mom wanted to stop at, mainly to look at some bracelets. It was at this point that we learned that these shopkeeps were not only not cheaper than the stores around town (something that really surprised me), but that they really had little business acumen. For example, one woman was selling a fairly cheap-looking bracelet for 120,000 dong ($6). This was way too much for what it was, even if you were in America. My mom offered her 40,000, and she said no, it was 120,000. No budging whatsoever. So, we walked on. The same thing happened in other spots - the kinds of haggling that should be standard in this kind of environment were conspicuously absent, meaning that not only was everything not cheap, but there was no sense of adventure or accomplishment in acquiring them. In short, it wasn't enjoyable. And so, after purchasing a shuttlecock/hacky-sack hybrid toy, we left the market.

It was too nice (read: cloudy) of a day to simply miss, so we decided to walk around and enjoy it while the weather lasted. Unfortunately, it being a few minutes past 11am, we had again missed out on the Cathedral and Reunification Palace for the moment. We passed by some construction where they were putting together a miniature Holland town to, I dunno, celebrate Holland? It's some odd think opening on the 22nd, so I'll get you more details then. We then walked down to the local Statbucks, got ourselves a couple Frappacinos (which my mom later realized she didn't want; she thought it was supposed to be an iced coffee), and sat down. It was a very pleasant state-of-being, chatting and watching the chaos of this busy intersection without being a part of it. We stayed there for quite a while, until we realized that the clouds had parted and the high-temperature predictions were going to come to pass after all. So, we walked back to our hotel. As our room was in the middle of being cleaned, we waited in the lobby for a spell, where I listened to some guy (who freely admitted he lived in either an RV or a trailer park in Arizona) complaining about how small all the hotel rooms were in the city, among other gripes (and I'm really sugarcoating it)...he really just reeked of entitlement, and it really wasn't an appropriate venue for that kind of behavior. I was hoping he'd hate his room at the Pink Tulip and leave, so that I wouldn't have to be in the same building as someone who represented my country so poorly.

Anyway, once we got back to our room, my mom began writing postcards, and I looked up some potential places to eat for lunch. There seemed to be a lot in our general vicinity, so that was a hopeful sign. Eventually, we went out for a very late lunch, so late that some of the restaurants we went at were closed (we missed their lunch time by minutes - it seems we're quite good at that). We walked around some of the restaurants in the area, dismissing them for whatever reason, either because the food just didn't seem good, or because the price was too high to justify for lunch. We eventually came upon this place that advertised itself with a neon sign stating, "Italian Food, Italian Chef." I'm not sure what prompted us to go there - my mom isn't a big Italian fan, partially because she can't eat two-thirds of it, but when we looked at the menu, a pleasant young man stepped out and said, "Best pizza in Saigon." Easy enough to say, but we were hungry enough to take him at his word. We got in and got a salad (the young man suggested a Greek salad, which seemed a little odd in an Italian joint, but was 100% the right decision), a bowl of minestrone, and a pizza. The portions were enough for the two of us to share, and more importantly, everything was great. Probably the biggest surprise we had in the city. Whilst eating, my mom and I talked about some of the lessons that each of us have learned on this trip, about ourselves, each other, and how what we've experienced will influence us in our future plans. I'll get into it in a bit, but the short version is: for all its ups and downs, the cycling adventure was well worth it.

We made our way back to the hotel, where we continued on our itinerary of relaxation. However, before it got too late, we decided to do some organizing and packing. My mom, obviously, because she was leaving, and myself because this was my last big opportunity to unload some stuff that was weighing me down (literally). So, I went through all my items and gave her the stuff I'd like to keep but didn't want on the rest of the trip. A great example is my South Africa plug adapter - it's easily the nicest, sturdiest plug adapter I've ever seen (and that's a recommendation you can take to the bank!), and I'd use it if I ever return to South Africa (and I'd have no qualms whatsoever doing so), but it serves no purpose on this trip other than taking space. Also, my binoculars - while they were great at Askari, I've never carried them around enough - they've usually just stayed in my bag when I was doing stuff. So those go home. And so on and so forth. In truth, it was good for me to go through this stuff; there were even things I hadn't thought about, like a huge bag filled with eye drop bottles given to me by my LASIK provider. I'd never needed to use them, so out they went. It was a badly needed streamlining, so I'm glad I was able to do it.

After we finished with that (which took longer than I think either of us expected), we went to dinner at a place called the Cafe Zoom, which had pretty good food (although I'm never a fan or burgers/sandwiches that are physically taller than a normal human mouth can handle) at very reasonable prices, but for the entirety of our meal, my eyes were transfixed on a spot across the street called "Yogurt Space." I made it quite clear to my mom that we were going there afterward. And we did so, and...it was unlike any other frozen yogurt joint (self-serve or otherwise) that I've ever been to before. For one thing, it was huge; the ceiling was at least 25 feet up, and it was as big as a number of big restaurants I'd seen in the city. There were a good 20 tables, with space-occupying lounge seats, and for the most part, the place was jumpin'. Almost all the tables were occupied. But the main thing was that there were a ton of employees. Normally, the beauty of a self-serve frozen yogurt place is that you need one, maybe two, employees at any time to run the joint. This place had somewhere between eight and a full dozen. One person opened the front door for us, one ushered us to the 14 different serving machines, two managed the registers, one swept the floor, one served us glasses of ice water when we sat down (whaaa?). It was really weird. Not sure I like it better, and I'm not talking about the flavors (which, while good, seemed a bit off). I always like the cozy feeling of a small shop; this seemed...too big. But, whatever, yogurt is never bad. And I've probably spent more time on it than you care to read (though admittedly, I'd be happy to change the entire topic of this website to frozen yogurt).

When we got back to the hotel, my mom did a little more packing and then lied down, tuckered out. I, meanwhile, decided to copy all the photos I had taken during the cycling trip, and provide her with all of them that she was in, in case she wanted any of them. Happily, one of the things I discovered - rediscovered, really - was an old, small flash drive in my backpack. I put all the photos on there, and realized that I could give her that NOVA video I had downloaded. Except...I had deleted that, and thanks to some wackiness that my laptop has been giving me (one of the core system drivers is malfunctioning, causing crashes), my recycle been was emptied. So, I began re-downloading the video, and seeing that it would finish within a couple hours, set my computer down for the night and went to bed.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke up the next morning and saw that the download said it had seven hours to go. This was pretty annoying to me, primarily because of how close it was to completion (95%). I quickly tried doing everything in my power to speed it up, hoping that it would be ready by the time my mom left. We had another good breakfast, during which my mom said that we could take our time, because she could get ready to go in five minutes. Fast forward to 8:45, when I mentioned the time to her as she was finishing her postcards, and she began to get all riled up, as she had only 15 minutes left. She finalized her packing. As I was helping to make sure nothing was missing, I stubbed my toe super hard on the corner of my bed. It took all my composure not to yell in pain. So that was no fun. What cheered me up quite a bit, though, was that my machinations had worked, and the video completed downloading with literally two minutes to spare. I manage to slip the flash drive into my mom's backpack, and we brought the stuff down to the lobby. We took a couple last pictures together, walked out to the waiting taxi, and said our goodbyes. They were briefer than I had expected, partially because there was traffic waiting behind the taxi, and partially because my mom had indirectly promised me that she would try not to cry as we parted, and wanted to leave sooner so as to keep that promise.

I watched her taxi leave, and then walked back into the hotel.

I asked the staff if I was going to have to change rooms, since I had made a different booking than my mom had. Annie told me that while I'd be fine for the day, if I really wanted to stay, I would eventually have to go into a new room (about 15 feet down the hall). I figured I'd just make the move today to get it over with. He told me they'd move my stuff when the room was ready if I were out, so when I was back in the room, I organized all of my belongings into neat, easily movable piles. I then went out for the day. My basic plan was simply to visit the insides of the places that I had previously missed, which is to say, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Reunification Palace. Unfortunately, by the time I walked over to that area, it was aleady 10:30, meaning that there was only a half-hour before lunch began for both.

Seeing as the cathedral would probably have less in it, and wouldn't reopen until later, I went in there first. The inside was...it was pretty plain, to be honest. It wasn't bad, by any means, but I think my time in Italy has spoiled me on cathedral expectations, as this had none of the imposing, ostentatious decorations that really inspire the imagination. It was really just a big church, and the majority of it was blocked (with signs that said passive-aggressively, "This area is for praying, not visiting"). After a short time there, I went to the post office. I had brought my mom's post cards with me, some of which still needed stamps. I purchased what was needed, dried out my tongue attaching them, and put the whole lot in their mail basket. I tried killing some time by walking around the post office's cramped gift shop, but that only occupied about three minutes, so I walked to a Starbucks a few blocks away. I got a cranberry Frappacino (if you've never tried their fruit-based ones, they are very refreshing), and then sat down, planning to fully utilize the one hour of free WiFi that had been provided to me. And somehow, I managed to make the drink last an hour, too. That's an artform.

During my time in the Starbucks, though, I realized that I could still feel my stubbed toe, even hours later. I looked down on it and saw a hefty blotch of purple covering it. I've never gotten a bruise from a stubbed toe before, and looking online, I saw that it meant the toe was potentially broken. I reasoned much later in the day that I should go to a local medical center to get an x-ray, but it probably would have been good to have this thought when I still had some day left in this day. As it is, I'm looking to get the x-ray tomorrow.

I then left the Starbucks and toward the Reunification Palace, passing by not one, but three of those coconut juice vendor guys. None of them were the same one that scammed my mom and I (I would remember that guy's face), but I saw them successfully pulling off the same scam on other tourists. In fact, one of them tried to pull it on me, with the exact same setup and all. Throughout this entire act, I kept my arms folded and gave a narrow-eyed glare at this guy (rude, I know, but I still have a grudge with these dudes). He held out a coconut for me, which I responded to by not responding...just staring. His overly playful expression faded, and he shrunk away. No clue what he made of the encounter.

I arrived at the Palace about 20 minutes early, so I sat on a bench in the nearby park and just watched the world go by. It was a nice little moment to not worry about anyone or anything. On that bench, there were no cars or scammers or hawkers, just me and the gentle breeze that blew through. I watched the kids playing the old people walking, some guy in a business suit urinating on a completely not-hidden tree (I wish I missed that one), and eventually some tourists going through the Palace gates. I took that as my cue, and went in myself. I was suddenly becoming aware of how much I was limping, being careful not to put pressure on my toe. As for the Reunification Palace, I found it to be a bit dull. The architecture, being from the 60s, was drab at best, and offensively ugly at worst. As for the historical context, there was some neat rooms in there (mainly the war rooms in the basement), but nothing really spoke to me. Speaking of speaking, an audio guide would have been most helpful, as all that was available was a brochure. I went through more-or-less the whole place, but wasn't much moved by it.

I decided that I'd done what I set out to do, so I headed back to the hotel, stopping to buy a couple more snacks for myself (completely forgetting that I still had some available in the room). I also made sure to stop by a pharmacy, where I managed, with some feverish gesticulation and help from Google Translate, to purchase some bandage tape for my toe. I made my way back to the hotel, where I got the room key to my new room. The new room was definitely a step down - there was only a single window which took in no light, the shower was not separate from the rest of the bathroom, and (most lamentably) there was no fridge. It was still fine enough for my purposes, though, so I sat down and got my tape. I braced my toe with a piece of cardboard that was holding the hotel's complimentary comb, and then wrapped it (along with the neighboring toe) with the tape. It was a clumsy job, but it would do.

The rest of the day was terribly unexciting from a narrative standpoint, as I imagine the next few days might be. I have pretty much been planning to use this time for reviewing stuff, uploading photos, etc, and my toe, whether actually broken or just sore, is going to keep me from doing as much walking as I'd normally be wont to do. So, for the most part, I was just messing around, doing some writing, watching videos, playing games. I briefly went out to a restaurant a little ways down the street, and got some fish and chips to bring back to my room - it wasn't great, mainly because the base fish didn't seem great. It made me miss Cape Town a bit. But yeah, that's basically all I was up to for the rest of the day.

Which brings me to a few topics I would like to briefly discuss, just to give some general thoughts on.

First, Vietnam as a whole. What are my takeaways thus far? Well, I'd put them as follows:

  • According to some online guides, Thailand has a tourist return rate of 50%. Vietnam has a return rate of 5%. I can understand this.
  • Now, I can admittedly only speak for South Vietnam (so apologies to Hanoi and Ha Long Bay), but Vietnam seems to be, visually, extremely uninteresting. For all the difficulties Cambodia would sometimes throw upon us, and even after all the temples became too much, I liked Cambodia. There was a real sense of beauty, both in the nature and the ancient architecture. I got none of that from Vietnam. I don't actually see any definable characteristics; it's just kinda blah. Like, when we were cycling, there was no point looking around to enjoy the scenery - it wasn't enjoyable to see.
  • Remember how much I complained about how I hate tonal languages? Well, Vietnamese is officially up there high on my list, near neck-and-neck with Mandarin. In particular - and I may go to Hell for writing this sentence - the women all sound like mewling cats. It drives me nuts to walk by female vendors and hear them calling out to their potential customers. That alone would make me never want to live here.
  • Not as much propaganda as China, but it's definitely there, mostly in old Soviet-style artwork. You do still get the sense that Big Brother is watching (and nobody is willing to give their opinion on the government).
  • On the whole, I don't see that much to recommend Vietnam if you wanted to visit a Southeast Asia country. Both Thailand and Cambodia were prettier and seemed like they have more to do.
Now, seeing as I finished up my cycling trip, I'll add a few thoughts on that. For me, personally, I am glad I did this, because I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would. Please refer back to entry 41 for my whole diatribe on the matter, but it's not that I didn't enjoy it, period; rather, it's that I found I just don't care for cycling much. It's not my transport, our touring, method, of choice. Hell, I had at one point considered cycling during my time in New Zealand. I thank God I didn't make that choice. And now I know that, for future plans, that shouldn't be the way I go. But as far as this trip went, it was definitely more taxing than I was anticipating. Not physically so much, but mentally. I did have a few moments where my body didn't like it (particularly my butt and my back), but it was just the thought of, "Ugh, more cycling?" every day that just got me. I think the tour would be better served by having a couple extra rest days in it. I will say that I was extremely glad we didn't have a larger group that was with us for the entire time, especially not if they were avid cyclists - I wouldn't want to deal with that. The most clear thing, though, is that having the right support is key - the difference in support van drivers was massive, for example, and it really changed how the whole trip felt. Same thing with hotels - I normally don't mind crappy hotels, but if you finish the day sweaty and smelly and muddy, you find you really do want to be in a nice, clean, and occasionally fancy place. Which didn't always happen on the trip.

Would I do it again? No. Would I recommend this exact trip to anyone else? Probably not. Am I happy I did it? Absolutely.

And one of the biggest parts of this was the fact that I got to spend it with my mom. In fact, if you count the time in Bangkok and the past couple days, we've spent a full four weeks together. And way back when we first started planning, I was wondering if we'd be able to manage remaining within 500 feet of each other (usually more like 15 feet) at all times. It wasn't always easy, I will freely admit - there were times when I lost patience with her, and times she lost patience with me. Having said that, I think we did pretty okay, all things considered. My mom said I have a strength through all this, though I personally think it's just the fact that I've been traveling for so long that it takes much more than usual to get me rustled. A certain sense of jadedness that actually worked to our mutual benefit. But I was also happy that she had a glimpse into my overall adventures, to see that this isn't all a walk in the park: everything takes effort. Even the very act of writing a blog entry is a thing, and she finally saw that firsthand. So now maybe, she can articulate to those I know about what the traveling life is like in a way that I've now lost the ability to.

But more than anything, I am proud of my mother. I won't say her age, but I'm the youngest of four children, and I'm 26. An when she wasn't feeling sick - something I experienced at the beginning of my Everest trek, and something that's completely outside your control - she was stronger on the cycle than I was. I would say she is more capable, probably, than anyone else I know of her age, and her managing to make it through this entire trip - through the good, through the bad, through the muddy, has clearly shown. While we may have cut a few days short for whatever reason, we did not quit the program, nor did she ever think to. She's an exceptionally strong person, and I couldn't be more proud, or happier, to spend that time with her.

And so that's it for now. I may or may not have one last entry from Vietnam (if so, I'll fill you in on my toe), but keep an eye out on my Facebook page for photos, as I'm still two months behind in that regard. And otherwise, it's off to the land down under!

No comments:

Post a Comment