I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to getting out of Cambodia and into Vietnam, a country about which I’ve received so many mixed responses from fellow travellers. Some say the people are too pushy and abrupt while others say that the rich culture and diverse scenery make it their favourite south-east asian nation. Thus far, I’m finding both accounts to be true.
The mighty Mekong River begins at it’s source in the high plains of Tibet before snaking it’s way south sustaining the lives of 90 million people in 6 separate countries. It finally diverges and enters South China Sea in one of the biggest river deltas in the world in southern Vietnam.
Travelling through this expansive system of waterways was fascinating as I was once again able to experience a lifestyle based around the river that encompassed everything from washing, bathing and trading at the floating markets. The only downside was the debris such as polystyrene containers and plastic bags that littered the water. In Vietnam, as in much of SE Asia, littering is a way of life and is done unashamedly, but it still makes me wince whenever I see a local discard a piece of rubbish in such a way, particularly when it’s directly into the waterway that sustains them.
Although I knew the roads would be an improvement on Cambodia, I was hoping the driving would be likewise. However, with the absolutely ridiculous statistic of 37 road deaths per day, the equivalent of 30 fully-loaded jumbo jets crashing per year, I knew this to be wishful thinking as I found on the ride from the delta to Saigon. Like in Cambodia, it’s all impatient honking and a total disregard for the safety of smaller vehicles on the part of the bigger ones. It makes me wonder why the scooter riders put up with it since they outnumber the cars, trucks and buses by at least 20 to 1 and represent the death toll in much higher proportions. Conversely the larger vehicles are disproportionately represented as the cause of fatal accidents. However, everyone is apparently indifferent to this statistic that must destroy families, particularly if it is one of the bread-winners that happens to be struck down.
In my 2 ½ weeks in the country I have come across the aftermath of 3 accidents. Thankfully, I’ve been late enough on the scene to miss any human wreckage, but it sends chills down my spine to imagine the King Brown laid out in the middle of the road surrounded by a crowd of onlookers.
Once more, the worst thing about riding in these conditions is how unnerving and stressful it becomes. However, Vietnam’s café culture has created the perfect countermeasure for that. The roads are lined with hammock-adorned cafes that act as a perfect place to lay back and chill out with an iced-coffee. The only problem with this is that once I’m snug in my cocoon, it is extremely hard to drag myself out and back onto the saddle.
Entering the capital of the south, Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it is still known, took the city traffic I’ve experienced on this tour to a while new level of chaos. Sometimes I had to stop and check whether I was in a one-way street or on the right side of the road as I had scooters whizzing towards me on both sides. Off the bike, crossing the road is an artform that can require nerves of steel.
My week long stay in the city was fairly uneventful as I was confined to my bed/bathroom for much of it with my first bout of TD (travellers diarrhoea) for the tour. A pretty good effort after 3 months on the road in Asia I thought.
One sight that I made a concerted effort to get to was the war museum for an understandably bias view of the ‘American War.’ While nothing about war is pleasant, the thing that horrified me the most was the Americans’ use of the defoliant, Agent Orange. Not only was it intended to destroy an entire nation’s food supply (not that attacking civilians seemed to be a problem for the US since 2/3 of the 3 million Vietnamese killed were civilians), but it was attacking their gene pool. The effect this had and continues to have on Vietnamese families in the form of horrendous birth defects and shortened life expectancies is a crime against evolution and an entire race.
The most deplorable thing, that I’m unable to fathom, is that the same thing is allowed to continue today with the Americans’ illegal use of depleted uranium in Iraq, which has much the same longlasting effects as evidenced after its use in the 1991 Gulf War.
But then again, I’m unable to fathom that intelligent men and women who are considered leaders are unable to govern the globe without resorting to needless and endless violence and bloodshed in the first place.
Once my strength was sufficiently restored I began the journey to the central highlands in search of scenic beauty and lighter traffic conditions.
Some people chase tornadoes, others chase waves, I chase monsoons. I realised that it’s been raining consistently since I entered Thailand, 3 weeks into the tour, but never have I seen rain fall so heavily and so constantly as in these mountains. It simply does not let up morning, noon or night and I’d be lying if I said it isn’t becoming tiresome and frustrating.
On one particular evening, after a day in which I’d only managed a few kms thanks to heavy rainfall, I pulled up in a small town where I’d hoped to spend the night only to find that there were no accomodation options in the town and the nearest hotel was 25kms away with an almighty mountain separating me from it. With the light failing, I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go until I saw a beautiful modern church, one of many in these parts since Vietnam has the 2nd highest population of catholics in SE Asia behind the Phillipines.
‘Saved’ I thought, ‘Surely the Christians will help me out with a patch of grass at the very least, upon which I can pitch my tent.’
For those who have been read my previous entries, you’ll know that I’ve spent a couple of nights at Buddhist temples in my times of need and have been welcomed with open arms and treated like a veritable king.
On this occasion however, despite darkness starting to set in, rain falling steadily, a wealth of unused grass at the rear of the church and the knowledge that my only other option was at least two hours away, I was turned away without reason. I had trouble comprehending how anyone could turn another away under these circumstances let alone a religious organisation that prides itself on its charity for those in need. And it’s not like I was in need of much. So much for ‘Christian spirit,’ hey?
So with a bitter remark mirroring these thoughts that noone understood, I set off in the direction of the mountain.
Climbing at 8km/hr in my lowest granny gear I realised that I wasn’t going to make it and would soon find myself riding in the dark, in the rain, in the clouds, amongst Vietnamese trucks and buses on mountain roads, a most hazardous combination. So I found a discreet little spot off the road and managed to have the tent erected just as the last of the light faded and as it really started to bucket down. It bucketed all night and was still doing so in the morning when I had little choice but to pack up and continue onwards and upwards………particularly upwards.