A scooter loaded with about 30 live chickens, attached with little straps to their feet flies past my bike. Then, on the other side of the road, I spot another scooter carrying a fridge(!). I don’t get the chance to analyse all this, as more scooters pass by so close to me that I sometimes feel their shirts whipping against my arm.
There is only one word to describe bicycle touring in Vietnam: hectic. Riding your bicycle through this madness requires your full attention at every moment. Vietnam has a population of 92 million people and a shocking number of 45 million registered motorcycles. To give you a comparison; there are around 1 million registered motorcycles in Australia and 700,000 in Switzerland. When I told Matt about these numbers he wasn’t too surprised (see photos). To cycle alongside thousands of motorbikes in HCMC (Saigon) is an experience I will never forget, and will probably never do again!
At some points on the busy National Highway Nr. 1 we were simply too concerned for our safety and decided to jump on a bus. One morning we took a bus from a sleepy little beach town to the next bigger city. Our hotel receptionist, accompanied us to the highway to help us catch a bus. After the normal chaos involved in tying our bicycle to the roof of the bus, everything worked out perfectly.
On the bus, Matt and I were chatting about how lucky we got with this bus ride. The ticket guy came up to our seats and drew little square signs in the air in front of us, whilst saying something very clearly and slowly in Vietnamese. We did not understand what he was up to. All the people around us started drawing square signs in the air now. One lady grabbed what we thought was a driver license out of her purse and pointed up to the roof of the bus, where our bicycles were stored. “Ahhh”, I went to Matt, “they want to know if riding a bicycle requires a license, maybe”. So, we shook our head and smiled. It was only seconds later when we both realized what they really meant: we had left our passports at the hotel.
We got someone to call our hotel. The hotel manager had already realized that we forgot our passports and had sent them with a Vietnamese girl in the next bus. First, we thought that was a pretty good idea. It wasn’t. Our bus dropped us off, a little way from our destination. They told us in hand signs to wait at the bus stop for 15 minutes. We understood that the Vietnamese girl with our passports will arrive on the next bus. You probably guessed it: We waited for over two hours in the burning sun and our passports never arrived. We didn’t have any contact details of the girl with our passports nor a SIM card to call our hotel. I am not going into details, it took 7 nerve wrecking hours to get our bloody passports back. We celebrated this night with some of Vietnam’s famous 30-cent beers and a typical “Banh Mi” spicy, egg baguette sandwich (we love the French influence here!).
One thing we have learnt in the last year of travelling is to stay calm and work as a team even in these difficult situations. I am endlessly thankful, that Matt never loses his patience and that we found a way to get through these rough days on the road together.
We both find travelling through South East Asia lovely, what we miss though is the close contact to the locals. We have never been invited to stay at someone’s home so far, and only very few times we really got to know the locals. I think this is a result of so many tourists travelling around South East Asia. Sometimes we feel as though locals label us as tourists at first sight. We are of course tourists, but it is hard to build genuine a interaction knowing they are giving you their best sales pitch. Don’t get us wrong, they are mostly lovely people in Vietnam, but we found it harder to get in touch with locals here than anywhere else so far.
Probably that’s why we got so excited the other night, when we got our first invite off the street in South East Asia. We were walking home to our guesthouse after our every-night-noodle-soup-dinner. We walked by a family having dinner on their terrace. One of the guys shouted something in Vietnamese towards us and made a gesture that we should come over and join them. We didn’t hesitate for a moment and climbed over the fence to join the bubbly group. They offered us beer and food and asked countless questions in Vietnamese. Sadly, we still don’t understand a word of their language. Luckily the questions of name, age and babies can be asked without a common language. As we all raised our glasses in cheers, to our surprise, the oldest man of the family went “cheers mate” and everyone broke out into laughter. Probably Matt wasn’t the first Australian he has ever met.
Since India, Matt and I stopped eating meat. Many times, we cycle pass butchers and we don’t like what we see. Food hygiene here is definitely better than it was in India, but we still don’t feel like eating meat. We quickly found, that being vegetarian in Vietnam is a demanding daily chore. This country loves meat (ANY kind of meat: dog, cat, mouse, snake to name a few) and does not understand, how it is possible that some people prefer a dish without meat. I remember one little street side restaurant where the owner was worried that we won’t be able to fall asleep. She was worried that we will be too hungry if we don’t eat any meat for dinner. With a cheeky grin, she gave us two bowls of vegetarian noodles to make sure that we will be okay.
My birthday was coming up in early July and Matt treated me to a week off the bicycles in Hoi An. We stayed at beautiful hotels, had fancy barista cappuccinos every day and did a lot of shopping at the countless tailors and leather shops of Hoi An. Matt treated me like an absolute princess and had little surprises planned for me throughout the week, it was the best birthday I’ve ever had.
We loved the charming old town of Hoi An with its colorful walls and cute shops. We enjoyed it so much that we ended up staying for more than ten days. Normally we are changing location every day, we are always on the go with the bicycles. So, to wake up in the same bed for a few mornings and to get the chance of finding our favourite café in town is pure bliss for us. I guess we just miss the routine of a normal non-travelling life sometimes.
Soon, we will get to live a more ordered life in one place again: I will fly home to Switzerland for four weeks to visit my family and friends and Matt will fly to Kuala Lumpur to do a bicycle repair/refurbish course. We are both flying out of Bangkok on the 7th of August. After that month we will continue our cycling adventure to the South of Thailand. We are excited for some time off the bicycles, but naturally also sad to say goodbye for an entire month. We are now in Cambodia, cycling the very last leg our our South East Asian loop. We have just arrived in Ankor Wat, an ancient wonder of the world!
Talk to you soon,
Matt and Jasi