We have arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam after two days of riding from Phnom Penh! All that whining I did in the last post must have paid off, because the day we left Phnom Penh we had our best weather yet in Cambodia. By “best”, I mean overcast with drizzling rains and a temperature below 90 degrees. Not suffering in the heat made the ride immensely better and we covered 128 kilometers – our longest day ever.
One thing we will remember about Cambodia is the crazy loads people carry on bicycles. Crops, crafts, animals, people, even massive amounts of kitchenware for sale. Their loads definitely make ours look tiny.
The scenery on the ride was again very rural with people tending their animals and working the fields.
The road surface was also the best we have experienced in Cambodia. The road was very wide and well-surfaced. It even had a bicycle/motorbike lane for us. One strange thing was that every couple of kilometers, the road had speed bumps on one side of the road in order to slow down traffic. This did not have the intended effect though. When drivers passed through these areas, they would switch to the oncoming traffic lane, speed up, and lay on their horn. Here is one of the offending drivers in action.
For some reason, on our last day of cycling in Cambodia we met more people on the road than all our other days combined. Maybe it was because it was cool enough that people were out and about instead of hiding from the heat. We met three students who wanted to practice their English with us and one extremely friendly teacher named Saman who rode with us for about 10k. Saman was a teacher of basic computer skills in Phnom Penh and was riding to his hometown near the border to visit his family. He was extremely excited to learn that we used to work for Microsoft and wanted to know our opinion on getting an MBA or a graduate degree in computers. He had decided he wanted to learn about computers several years ago and his father sold some of their farmland to purchase a new computer for him. He had studied for several months and gotten a job as a teacher in Phnom Penh with a salary of US$20 per month. After a while of more studying and teaching, he was able to increase his salary to $US400 per month – a very large amount by Cambodian standards. His family was very proud of him and he was now able to help support them. I think he and Sarah were discussing their favorite network routing algorithms in this shot.
Another observation we had about Cambodia is that the tuk-tuk drivers are a lot nicer than those in Thailand. They actually want to take you to your destination instead of a shopping trip. They are mostly very friendly too and when you say no once, they listen. In Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the driver will always quote a price of $2 for wherever you want to go in the city. At first, Sarah and I would bargain with the guys. We would start with $1 and we usually got our ride for $1.50 in the end. However, once we were actually riding around with the guy we would always feel bad. Did we actually just bargain this friendly hardworking guy out of fifty-cents? We felt so bad knowing that fifty-cents meant a lot more to him than us. So after bargaining, we would end up just giving the guys $2 anyway. In the end, we gave up on bargaining. We just asked how much it was, and said “fine” when they told us $2. Sometimes it seemed like they were laughing with the other drivers that they got us to pay $2. It makes you feel a little weird but not quite as bad as bargaining with some poor guy trying to make a buck.
One thing we are not really going to miss is Khmer food. One day in Siem Reap we ate at a busy Khmer restaurant on the corner. It was filled with only Cambodians, so we figured it must be good. We got some fresh kaffir lemon juice and noticed a lot of black things floating in the water. Some of it was dirt (or something) and some of it was bugs. We were examining our glasses and the waitress noticed so she came over and we showed her the bugs. She took the glasses, and returned with some new lemon juice. These ones still had some black things floating in them (but not as much) and no visible bugs so we said “what the hell” and drank them. We figured the ice in the drinks was probably dirty. We ordered our food and when we got it, it too had black things floating in it. I got a soup and after I had eaten most of it we counted over 18 bugs that looked like small winged ants floating in it. The soup had some sort of leafy green in it so we figured the veggies were dirty. We thought about complaining, but we weren’t sure what the reaction would be. Would the waitress understand that we didn’t like bugs in our food? Our is that normal here and would we look like crazy foreigners. We decided to just keep our mouths shut and we quickly paid the bill and left. Khmer food in general has not been that great. Cambodia has been greatly influenced by other cultures, and it shows in the food. Khmer cuisine is similar to Thai, but with much milder flavors and with some Vietnamese and Chinese influence too. Almost every time we ordered noodles in Cambodia, it was just packaged ramen noodles! We ended up eating mostly Chinese food during our stay in Phnom Penh.
Vietnamese food, on the other hand, has been excellent so far. As soon as we crossed the border we were starving so we decided to try some pho. We found a nice looking restaurant and attempted to say some Vietnamese words (pretty much impossible since the language has six different tones and a lot of sounds we can’t even make). We ended up with some amazing pork pho and iced coffee. The coffee is served in a tin cup with a filter at the bottom. The coffee brews at your table and then you pour it over a glass of ice. It is served very strong with a lot of sugar and tastes great on a hot day. I think we will be renewing our caffeine addiction here in Vietnam. Everything was so good I am planning to eat pho and coffee for every meal.
After crossing the border, we were only about 50 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City, so we started to look for a bus to the city center. We found one going as far as Cu Chi and the ticket-taker told us to hurry up and get on. We stood there a little confused until we realized she wanted us to bring our bicycles and gear right onto the bus.
When we arrived at Cu Chi, we looked for another bus to HCMC, but none of them would take bicycles. Our only option was to start ride the remaining 30 kilometers to the city. On the outskirts, there was a divided motorcycle lane, so we were cut off from most of the traffic.
As we got into the city itself though, all hell broke loose. The amount of motorbikes was staggering and we couldn’t hear each other over the sound of the blaring horns. The scariest part by far was the roundabouts. These are pure mayhem. There is no such thing as yielding here, two seas of motorbikes approach each other and then individual motorbikes weave in between the others. Cars can do whatever they want, including blindsiding you, so you have to look in all directions as you make the your way through. It was extremely nerve-wracking and required a lot of concentration, but we both agreed it was also kind of fun.
They also carry crazy things on bicycles here in Vietnam. Check out this mobile pet store!