What did we get ourselves into?!

Or, how we got exactly what we were hoping for in a bike trip and are now utterly exhausted!

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We are just over halfway through our 6-day bike trip from Dalat to Hoi An, called the Dragon’s Tail Ride on the website of the tour provider.

It didn’t occur to us until the ride began that dragon’s tails are generally depicted as squiggles with an endless number of ups and downs. Perhaps we should have been warned.

This ride is the opposite of our last bike trip in basically every way. The distances are longer, the terrain is hillier, we bicycle faster, we take busy roads instead of small sidewalks, and our guide likes to bike really fast and never take a break. Almost all of this is excellent almost all the time. When you are tired from biking 60 miles, however, sometimes it would be nice to go back to our lackadaisical guide and sit in a hammock eating jackfruit.

The road we’re biking is itself nothing special, but very bikable. We’re basically on the main road between towns in the central highlands, but there’s always either a wide shoulder (which we share with tractors, motor bikes, parked cars, street vendors, and assorted children and cows) or not much traffic. We’ve only had one stretch where we were dodging potholes at every turn; for the most part the road is in really good shape. We had two long downhills of 6-10 miles on the first day and found ourselves zooming around perfectly banked bends – what a thrill! Since then, there’s been a lot more uphill, and a lot more exhaustion, but we’re having a good time and really enjoying getting off the beaten track. Just feeling a bit … beaten ourselves!

This part of Vietnam is less densely populated than the Mekong, but still full of small villages and towns that are actually quite big. We have passed literally a thousand restaurants advertising rice and noodles with chicken or beef in the small towns we’ve been bicycling through. Every town is full of smiling schoolchildren on bicycles who enthusiastically wave and giggle shyly when we return their hellos. On the first day we went through lots of small villages where the pigs roamed free; since then, there have been fewer pigs, but we have had to stop half a dozen times for cows to cross the road, both individually and in herds. Once this was halfway up an uphill and I was very sad to lose all my momentum!

The trip incorporates a number of destinations along the way; on the first day, we stopped at a coffee farm, a cricket farm, a rice wine factory, a silk factory, and a waterfall, all before lunch! Once we got beyond a day’s drive from Dalat, though, we stopped seeing any tourists and we also stopped having breaks in our biking to visit such attractions. We did boat across a lake to see a minority village (the alternative, it turns out, having been to ride an elephant across the lake! apparently it’s not very deep…) and stop into a few temples, churches, and war memorials. The area is full of coffee plantations and pepper trees, with hills and mountains in all directions.

The only main downside of the trip so far, beyond being utterly exhausted, is that both Michael and I got food poisoning on the first night, and had to sit out the second day of biking. We’re both still struggling a little from the after effects (and wishing we were at full strength for this biking odyssey!). But the nice thing about this deluxe version of biking is that we can just hop into the air conditioned jeep at any time when we don’t want to bike anymore, so I can bike the 100km per day while Michael stays cool in the van. We’re hoping tomorrow he’ll be feeling enough better to do the full ride …

Bicycling the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

You may have noticed that we tend not to plan things too far ahead. But my friend Lukas had mentioned an amazing bike trip with Vietnam Backroads well before we set out on our trip, and I’d had it in my mind that we should do a trip with them during our world adventure.

So what did we do with that information? Nothing. We didn’t email them for the first time until February 12, but luckily for us, two days later we had completed the booking process for a four-day, three-night bicycle trip in the Mekong Delta starting on February 16. Talk about last minute.

Now, Michael and I usually bike on our own – we did a self-guided trip on our honeymoon, another self-guided trip in Thailand a few years ago, and of course a lot of independent biking in Korea and Japan this fall. But in Vietnam all the bike trips are guided (and come not only with a guide but also with a driver and an AC support van).

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So we set off from Ho Chi Minh City (fka Saigon) on Thursday morning about thirteen hours after we first flew in from Singapore, drove two hours south to the Mekong Delta, and started bicycling.

The bicycling was extremely flat, along small roads often more like sidewalks through thousands of fruit trees and along small canals. On the first day, the scenery was dominated by dragonfruit and jackfruit trees.

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Dragonfruit trees turn out to be a lot like cactus!

We stopped at lunch to see a big temple with huge statues of the Buddha:

We only biked for three or four hours in all, then packed a small backpack of overnight gear and took an hour-long boat ride to our night’s accommodation, a “homestay” that was more like a hostel with shared bathrooms but also with a cooking class and quirky presentation of the dinner! Interesting scenes along the boat ride too – it’s an area that really lives on the river, both literally and figuratively.

On day two, the scenery shifted from dragonfruit and jackfruit to lots of coconut palms and banana trees, and we rode almost exclusively on small riverside paths. They were barely wide enough for the motorbikes to pass us – especially when the motorbikes were laden with their cargo! Over the course of the trip we saw bikes carrying everything:

  • Ten dozen eggs (this guy had to go really slowly over bumps!)
  • Twelve live geese
  • Two dozen live chickens
  • Five freshly killed pigs
  • Entire market carts’ inventory of brightly colored towels
  • Baskets of freshly picked fruit
  • And just about everything else you can think of possibly fitting onto a bike

Crowds of motorbikes would await the next ferry, and then cram on board. We took four or five ferries across various rivers both large and small throughout the trip!

We spent the second night in a government-run three-star hotel in Tra Vinh, at a place that seemed like it had gotten a list of all the amenities it needed to be considered a three-star hotel, but hadn’t gotten the idea of how to actually make it a nice place to be. The carpets were stained, the furniture worn, and the fancy (glitter-infused) bathtub wasn’t attached to the wall, so the water ran down the walls and onto the floor! It was perfectly adequate, but a funny illustration of how such things can go wrong.

Also going wrong was the amount of biking each day – we’d figured the slightly shorter bike ride on day 1 was understandable, but we’d biked only three hours on all of day 2, with a two-hour van ride and a lot of sitting around in between, waiting for the guide or the ferry or the lunch or the guide. We tried to explain that we wanted to have full days of cycling (and to do the maximum mileage outlined in the trip description), but our guide’s English just wasn’t really good enough to understand what we were saying.

Day 3 started out with a visit to a Khmer temple just south of town. It turns out that the region has a rich Cambodian heritage, and when, after a little over an hour of biking, we got into the van only to drive right past a really neat-looking temple, I asked if we could stop and take a look inside. I was glad we did – it was pretty cool!

After lunch, the guide said, “Now we go to cafe and rest for an hour.” But we just rested! And had lunch! We finally convinced him we would rather bike than sit and rest, and we actually had a lovely afternoon of a long (90km) bike ride. He also sped up considerably so that I could actually pedal the whole time instead of coasting and waiting for him!

That night, we stayed in Can Tho, which with a population of 1.2M is the biggest city in the area. Our hotel was fancy, and we had a suite on the 9th floor (and a dip in the pool on the 8th floor) with awesome views! At dusk the sky was full of kites flying, and we could look down at the market full of women selling vegetables.

The next morning we awoke early and took a boat to see the floating markets, where about fifty local vendors pack their boats with fruits and vegetables to sell – an entire boat of pineapples! – and float in a designated area where smaller boats come and buy a variety of fruits to sell locally. It’s quite a tourist attraction, but was also pretty neat.

And then we biked for an hour before heading back to Ho Chi Minh City in the van (which turned out to have wifi!). We had thought we’d be disconnected, but all the hotels and many of the tiny roadside cafes had wifi – and now our van as well?!

All in all, we didn’t get in as much biking as we had hoped, the food was pretty bland (despite all the good things we’d heard about Vietnamese food!), and the guide was a bit frustrating in his going slowly and not telling us anything much in advance (e.g. it was only after prodding him that we learned that we’d have to carry our overnight bags for 2 hours biking!), but it was a wonderful way to see the area, and we definitely explored it better than we could have planned ourselves, on lots of tiny paths through a variety of small communities.

We got to sample lots of local fruits (it turns out I really like jackfruit, while Michael prefers dragonfruit, and we both liked rambutan), visit random industries like a rice noodle factory, a coconut candy factory, a puffed rice factory (made in hot black sand!), even places where they made bricks or benches or woven mats. The area was colorful and the locals very friendly, with kids running out to say “Hello!” as we passed by many of the houses. The variety of different temples and towns was also pretty cool, as was getting to see so many of the various fruit trees!

We chatted some with the company’s owner about the biking, and made a few suggestions, but on the whole it was a good trip! It was amazing to see the local economy function on so many motorbikes, small ferries, and little farms with a few chickens and some fruit trees.

Until next time!

To Vietnam!

After another amazing food day in Singapore (rojak, roti, mango smoothie, laksa, and uttapam), Michael and I flew to Vietnam this afternoon, where we were disappointed to learn that our amazing T-Mobile plan does *not* include unlimited data and texting here! So we may be out of connectivity a bit over the next few weeks. But with good reason: we’ll be spending much of our time in the country on two different bike trips, one through the Mekong Delta (4 days) and another from Dalat to Hoi An (6 days).

In between we have a day or two in Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), and our plans are pretty open thereafter, so if you have advice on where to go in Vietnam, please let us know!

We’re also now planning to go to Myanmar in early March, so send any tips our way for Burma as well.

That’s all for now – off to the internet-free countryside!

Eating our way through Singapore

I hadn’t had much time to read or think about Singapore before we arrived here four days ago (bright and early at 6am after a four-hour redeye from the Maldives – apparently that’s what a $100 flight gets you!). After a quick nap at McDonald’s, we’ve spent the last four days walking around the city (amazing skyscrapers! vertical gardens! old colonial buildings!) but mostly eating tons of delicious food in various hawker centres and food courts.

Highlights include:

  • Freshly made roti prata for $1-1.50 a piece – I’ve probably had eight
  • Tempura banana with kaya (coconut jam) dipping sauce – $3.50
  • Fried “carrot cake” (a garlic omelet with white radish flour cakes) – $4.50
  • Fresh mango smoothie – $3
  • Mee siam noodles (spicy noodles with hard boiled egg and tofu) – $3
  • Fresh bhatura – $2
  • Barbecued pork and noodles from a Michelin-starred street stall – $2.50
  • Rojak (salad of pineapple, cucumber, jicama, tofu in tamarind sauce) – $3
  • You tiao (Chinese donuts) – $0.60 each – I’ve had three
  • BBQ pork bun – 3 for $2.20 – Michael’s favorite
  • Gado gado (Indonesian salad of tofu and potatoes in peanut sauce) – $3
  • Pad thai – $3
  • Mango milk shaved ice – $2.90
  • Banana fritter – $1.50
  • Skewers of beef liver – $0.70 each
  • Dosa – $1.60

It’s been fun getting the sense of different hawker centers, which range from multicultural to uniformly Chinese. The one nearest our hotel is in the Chinatown Complex and almost completely free of tourists – but just down the block the Chinatown Food Street is only full of tourists!

Beyond food, we had a nice walk on the Southern Ridges today (unexpectedly consisting of a bunch of elevated walkways over the forest rather than through it – pretty cool!), watched a Chingay parade and a lion dance for Chinese New Year with thousands of performers and floats, enjoyed dinner on the riverfront, and wandered through Gardens By The Bay, a huge garden with everything from conservatories to metal sculpture “supertrees” that emit clean air from their tops and have a canopy skyway. Singapore is “Hong Kong done right” according to Michael – pleasant, not too crowded, full of delicious food that doesn’t give us food poisoning, and even easy to navigate in English!

A day in Malé

When our sailing trip ended, we had to bid a sad farewell to Diane and Tom. It was really a pleasure to spend the week with them – as we’d anticipated, the real highlight of our week of sailing! Michael and I had booked an evening flight to Singapore, so we had a day to kill in the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives but only 2.2 sq mi in area. Needless to say, we walked around the whole city!

It was a lazy day of fried bread, reading on beaches in the shade, and eating in cafes to while away the day. From 6-cent chapati to $1 bhatura and $3 kottu roti, we ate well!

The only wrinkle was that today was Friday – and everything, I mean everything, closes down for prayer time from 11am to 2pm. The streets, normally buzzing with motorbikes and cars (where do they all go in 2 square miles??), were silent, and all the shops and cafes completely closed. Whereas the beach we passed in the morning was full of locals bathing in their headscarves and full clothing, the one where we read in the afternoon was all but abandoned. Very interesting to spend a day in such a devout Muslim country!

It was a short $1 ferry ride back to the airport for our flight, and I spent our last $2 on a Blizzard at Dairy Queen before our four-hour redeye to Singapore.

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Sailing the Maldives

Ah, luxury. The big splurge of our trip was taking a week in the Maldives to sail with friends who are real sailors and charter sailboats all over the world. I mean, who can say no to sailing in crystal clear turquoise waters surrounded by sea turtles on a 38-foot catamaran?

Description really isn’t necessary – the pictures do it justice. Long lazy days of snorkeling, reading, relaxing, and visits to small islands with villages of white sand streets and coconut palms. On our first night I even got to join in the women’s game of volleyball!*

Highlights of snorkeling included communing with a swimming sea turtle who meandered his way about just 6 feet away, and tons of brightly colored tropical fish in a variety of different coral structures. Clown fish popping out of anemones, a moray eel poking out of a big coral bommie, starfish and giant purple clams. Lowlights included spotting a shark, though he was only 3 feet long and we’d been informed that sharks weren’t dangerous because they had so many fish to eat. We hightailed it to the boat anyway, but I’m proud to say I jumped back in after lunch!

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*We were glad we came upon the volleyball court before walking by the tennis court, where the local women had invented a new game with their giant bucket of brand-new tennis balls: slamming the racket backward over their head to launch the balls at high velocity over the net, with the award going to whoever could catch the ball on the other side! Looked brutal, and yet they were amazingly good at hitting the balls backward over their shoulders.

So far behind!

Hi! I’m way behind on the blog after a week without internet and now a flurry of activity in trying to (a) catch up on work and (b) plan the next phase of our trip. You’ve totally missed me, right?

We had a great couple of days in Wellington staying with our old neighbor up in Kelburn – walking around the city, visiting Te Papa museum and the botanic garden, and eating paella and goat cheese ravioli. It was incredibly windy, but that didn’t deter us from doing a day of biking on the Rimutaka Cycle Trail (maybe it should have … but we survived). A highlight was going to Zealandia (formerly the Karori bird sanctuary) with Christine, our hostess, and spotting everything from a takahe to saddlebacks, cormorants, kaka, and small native parrots and pigeons. Oh, and a tuatara! In captivity, but still. It was a good culmination to Michael’s quest for birds.

Oh right, and we did a kind of crazy walk / hike that took us down through the Botanic Gardens to downtown, through all of downtown and then along the water to Oriental Bay, Lyall Bay, and finally to Island Bay before winding our way back up to Kelburn (and up a couple other hills in the process!) on the City to Sea walkway. We even had to climb a fence to escape from a closed plant nursery. I know, you don’t know where any of those places are, but trust me, we set out walking around 10am and didn’t get back until 9pm, and it was a long long way. On the bright side, we had delicious pastries for breakfast, visited my old school, and got to snack on roti at a random fish & chips takeaway. Mmmm, roti.

On our last day, we flew to Auckland bright and early, dropped off our stuff at our hotel, took the ferry to Waiheke island, and rented electric bikes for a day of zipping around the island visiting beaches and wineries. It was fun to finally complete the trip I’d started with a friend a few years ago but which had been curtailed by her serious bike accident (yikes!), and I got to see the north side of the island at last.

Then it was off to Bangkok in business class (fancy! and especially nice for such a long flight!) and then onto a discount carrier for the flight to the Maldives. My next post will catch you up on our tropical adventures …

But first, one last photo from Waiheke …

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Last night on dry land

I’m a bit behind in posting, but for all three of you avid followers of this blog, wanted to say quickly that this is our last night on dry land for a week, as we’ve bid farewell to New Zealand and are heading out in the morning for a week of sailing in the Maldives (!) with friends. We will probably be completely offline (but should have ample time to reflect on our voyages). We will post more about our adventures when we return to civilization on February 10!