Monthly Archives: January 2015

Morning at Le Van Tam Park – Saigon

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Near the white statue is the ballroom dancing group.

Brrrring! The 6:30 alarm went off waking us for our first morning jog in over six months.

You the Blog Reader: Are you crazy?! Why do you need to run with all your cycling?
Us: Bikes in the repair shop, an abundance of delicious fried street food, and a need to cross-train.
You: Ok, but why set an alarm? You’re retired. Take advantage of your natural circadian rhythms.
Us: That’s a good idea. But, if we don’t run before our free breakfast ends at 9:00 am, we’ll miss out on donuts and stir-fried rice and we’ll have to pay money to sit on little plastic stools next to the morning rush-hour traffic and eat a bowl of Pho. Not that we don’t like Pho, but Pho with honking horns, truck exhaust and smog is a hectic way to start the day.
You: Have you been carrying running shoes on your bikes for 5200 km?
Us: No. They are too heaving and bulky. But, we just bought some Nike and Adidas knock-offs at the Bin Thanh mall. Two pairs of shoes for $25 for 10 days of running which works out to $2.50 per day for fun and fitness.
You: How are the knock-off shoes working out?
Us: Let’s change the subject. What I really wanted to tell you about are the activities at the park at 6:30 am. Here’s what we saw this morning.

Le Van Tam Park is a smallish park taking up about one city block. It’s an old park with mature trees, beautiful flowers and a giant statue in the center. There are walking/jogging paths meandering throughout the park, several areas with painted lines for badminton games, a small playground area, electronic bumper cars, a small splash/wading pool with a tiny water slide, outdoor weight training equipment, lots of benches. and most importantly, clean toilets.

What’s amazing about this park is how well it is utilized. We arrived at 7:00 am and I’m sure most of the people there had already been exercising for 30 minutes or longer. The walking path around the park was so filled with walker/joggers that it was like negotiating slalom gates while while skiing.

Here are more uses of the park:

In the center plaza near the statue there were about 30 couples ballroom dancing to the Blue Danube Waltz. The women were wearing high-heels and flowy dresses.

At different areas around the perimeter, there were several different groups of men and women practicing Tai Chi. My personal favorite was the group of middle-aged women with their lone , buff (and probably available) male instructor monitoring the boom box and playing peaceful morning music.

There was a young couple batting the badminton shuttlecock back and forth and working up a real sweat.

There were the body builder types who had removed their shirts to display the big muscles they’d built from push-ups from large concrete cinder blocks.

The was the single older man wearing a tiny red bowler hat and shuffling across the uneven pavement stones counter-clockwise to all the other joggers.

There was a blind women sitting on a 4-inch concrete edge to the jogging path with her hand out. There was one woman who gave her a 5000 dong note. There was the official looking park police officer who pointed his billy club at the blind woman and told her to leave.

There were four university students sitting on notebook paper on one of the walking paths and practicing their English pronunciation and inflection. I’d heard them on every lap so I went and talked to them after I’d finished my run. They practice before school 3 days per week. I told them I was impressed. I helped them pronounce the words “vegetable” and “sun”. (No “w” or 4 syllables for “vegetable” and no “sh” for “sun.)

These university students are motivated and speak great English!
These university students are motivated and speak great English!

There was a group of older women holding bamboo fans and rehearsing a fan dance.

There was very chubby (obese) young boy being coaxed to “exercise” by his grandfather.

There were the two teenage boys trying to impress the crowd with their speed – one was wearing his soccer cleats, the other his flip-flops.

Most of the women were wearing hats, usually straw or fabric with large brims and adorned with large fabric or straw flowers.

There were the public sweepers using long-handled brooms sweeping leaves into tiny piles all day long over the same area because the leaves keep falling.

So, tomorrow when the alarm rings again, I’ll look forward to what new sights the busy park might bring.

Camping in a Bamboo Hut

Our bamboo hut.
Our bamboo hut at the Green Bamboo Lodge.

I’ve always thought it would be fun to sleep in a bamboo hut. By watching shows like Gillian’s Island or the musical South Pacific, a thatched roof hut located next to azure water with waves lapping at my door seemed both relaxing and romantic. So, when the opportunity to book two nights at the Bamboo Green Lodge next  the Dong Nai River bordering the Cat Tien National Park – one a Vietnams’s “must see” sights according to Lonely Planet – seemed like a dream come true.

After cycling yesterday for over 54 kilometers I was hot, tired and just not in the mood to go much further. Just then, we approached a small village with a large sign saying “Cat Tien National Park.” I knew we must be close.

Around the next bend was a beautiful green structure that looked like it could be the reception area for a hotel or guest houses. It looked promising: new and clean. We walked our bikes up the steep entrance (by this time we were too hot and tired to pedal) and asked a man if this was the Bamboo Green Lodge. He said “no” and pointed us across the street to a cart path. I thought I read “pity” in his eyes when he said, “500 meters.” He looked askance and mentioned that we were welcome to come have a drink and/or dinner at his hotel later that evening.

As we cycled down the path it got bumpier and my heart sunk further. We passed roosters caged up ready for cock fights and small huts with men sleeping  in hammocks and trash…lots of trash.

I was just about ready to throw an “on-line” booking to the wind and head back to the newer- looking hotel when we arrived at the end of the path.

“Bamboo Green Lodge,” we asked, mustering up a small amount of enthusiasm. “Yes,” a young man answered with a smile.

We were ushered to a bamboo hut that served as a reception area outfitted with a two steel chairs and a laptop on a table at the side near a man sleeping in a hammock. We were offered a glass of sweet lemon aid, which I downed in one gulp, and completed the usual check-in procedures. (mostly passport and visa information).

Our host led us down the flagstone (and mostly dirt) path, towards our lodging while my  bamboo hut dream was being shattered.

Here’s my MY vision of a bamboo hut: cute bamboo exterior with front porch and comfortable deck chairs for sipping wine and watching the sunset, modern, bright, cheery interior with plenty of outlets for charging an excess of electronics, a high quality latex or pillow-top mattress, with choice of soft or firm pillows, 800 thread count 100% cotton sheets, plush carpet, air-conditioning, granite or marble bathroom with enclosed shower and modern fixtures and sound-proof walls.

Here’s local Vietnamese version of a bamboo hut: the bamboo exterior is also the bamboo interior with gaping holes between the posts, a bamboo bed frame with a 4-inch mat on top, a bamboo shelf that tilts to one side because it falls between the bamboo floor slats, a bamboo window shutter that is propped open with a bamboo pole, and a ceramic tile bath area with a blanket that can be pulled across the opening to serve as a door, an attempt to put mosquito netting 3/4 of the way up the exterior walls except for the wall with the door and the window and mosquito netting covering the flooring minus a few places where the netting has gaping holes.

Obviously, our visions differ – mine is based upon fantasy and theirs is based upon years of experience.

On a more positive note, the owners are very nice. They brought us cold beer and quietly left us to pass the afternoon reading a little and snoring a lot in the conveniently located hammocks outside our hut.

After a good nap, I was able to accept the fact that $20 in Vietnam was not going to buy “glamping”. And, I was able to look around and appreciate what our money did buy.

Napping in a hammock on a hot day is not bad.
Napping in a hammock on a hot day is not bad.

Our bamboo hut is quiet. No trucks honking, no loud music playing, no Vietnamese men clearing their smoker’s throats and spitting big ones at 6:00 am. Our bamboo bed is comfortable and we both slept well. And, the setting along the river is peaceful. The evening was quiet with just enough soft noise to lull us to sleep. The morning was slow to begin and we woke to the gentle chirping and chattering of many  unknown-to-me species of birds. (Makes me almost want to read Audubon but not quite.)

Sunset in front of our hut.
Sunset in front of our hut.

The Bamboo Green Resort may not be Gilligan’s Island, but it is a kind of paradise.

Strength in Numbers

Our cycling friend for the long, uphill ride.
Our cycling friend for the long, uphill ride.

One of my favorite parts of cycle touring is meeting other cycle tourists. These encounters provide conversation about common experiences, information about future rides, and a bit of extra security when the opportunity arises to cycle together for a couple of hours.

We were lucky to have joined company with another cycle tourist during the recent “hardest ride of my life” day and I’m so glad we did.

The length and difficulty of the ride suggested a 5:00 am departure. (Really, a 3:00 am departure would have been better) But, packing up panniers, loading a bike, and checking out of a hotel with a husband who is “retired” and has a different sense of “on time” is difficult.

So, we were late. We missed our rendezvous by 30 minutes so we started riding in the pre-dawn darkness by ourselves.

About 30 kilometers into our ride, the sun had risen and a coffee shop appeared before our eyes. While making the left turn towards the shop, I noticed a familiar touring bicycle with white panniers. I looked up and “lo and behold” there was our cycling friend. I was so happy to see him and know that we would be traveling together on this difficult journey.

Sharing food.
Sharing food.

After a quick coffee, the three of us set off up the first of many very steep hills. As the day progressed and the mountain got steeper, it was nice to have a cycling friend to chat with and snap pictures of the two of us together.

One of the few pictures of Eric (because he carries the camera) snapped by our friend.
One of the few pictures of Eric (because he carries the camera) snapped by our friend.

When the daylight ended after 12 hours of riding and the night became pitch black and the frogs croaked and the crickets chirruped and the traffic died down, and the hills kept coming, and the stars came out and the night became blacker and the hills became steeper, and the shadows became spookier, and road became rougher, and our legs ached, and the sweat dried, and the cold crept in, and our patience wore thin, it was nice to have another cyclist to share the experience.

First of all, we were able to encourage and support each other at different times when one or the other of us felt too tired to go on.

Eric: I need to stop and rest.

Me: Ok, make it quick. We’ve stopped 3 times in the past kilometer. At our current 4 km/h pace we won’t get there until midnight. I don’t like riding in the dark.

Cycling Buddy: (quietly stays out of this conversation but takes a good picture capturing the emotion)

We're getting tired at this point.
We’re getting tired at this point.

Traveling in a group provided three sets of flashing back lights, head lights, helmut lights so that our wavering and wobbling up the last 200 meter hill made us much more visible. At least that’s what we were telling ourselves.

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Our first view of city lights after 15 hours on the road.

 

And most importantly, when we reached the first lights of Dalat we had more people to share in the glory of accomplished by snapping photos, giving virtual high-fives, and (in my case) thanking God that we were all safe and alive.

Views like these made the ride worthwhile.
Views like these made the ride worthwhile.

I Wore My Grumpy Pants Today

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A scene from the road between Tuy Hoa and Ninh Hoa.

Don’t believe all those pictures on Facebook where the scenery is amazing, the cyclists look peppy after their 1500 meter climb in the rain, the food is delicious and is “exactly” what the picture showed on the menu, and the day’s roads look just like they do on Google satellite. The truth is that you’re going to have bad days..

Today was one of mine. I put on my grumpy pants as soon as I got out of bed. And I pedaled around in them most of the morning even going so far as to make Eric change into his grumpy pants, too.

What made me grumpy?

It could have been the lack of hot water in the shower(solar tanks on the roof with 4 days of rainy weather do not produce hot water).
It could have been the false advertising on the internet saying this 3-star hotel was new in 2013. (Real 3-star hotels have hot water heaters and the only thing new about this place was the name)
It could have been the karaoke blaring until way past my bedtime.
It could have been the fact that I was trying to save about 50,000 dong ($2.00) and the desk clerk would not match the lower Agoda price when we cycled to the hotel, so I booked the room on Agoda.
It could have been the desk clerk who could not find my booking from Agoda this morning (he also couldn’t find paper for the fax machine) so he made me pay cash to get my passports back meaning I’d double paid. (And, I’m kicking myself all to save $2.00)
It could have been the heavy rain and the grey skies.

Whatever the reason, it was a good day for Eric to ride far ahead or behind me because my obnoxious mood was contagious.

Eric riding down today's pass.
Eric riding down today’s pass.

Snapping like a turtle, I had stopped to take a few pictures for “memories”. Just then, two delightful Dutch cyclists pulled up beside us. Their cheery “hellos” and firm handshakes were all the nudging I needed to change into the best of myself. Pleasantries were exchanged, destinations compared and stops for coffee, lunch, a hotel and dinner ensued. It was a great end to a bad beginning.

Our new Dutch cycling friends.
Our new Dutch cycling friends.

That’s the beauty of cycle touring. Even on the worst of days, there is usually a silver lining. And, just to prove it, I bet you can’t guess which of these pictures were taken when I was “Debbie Downer” and others when I pulled my smile out of my pocket.

Trying to capture the lush green of the rice fields.
Trying to capture the lush green of the rice fields.

A Lesson in Lunch – Vietnamese Style

 

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Try this place for bánh bão in Quy Nhon

 

khổ qua
mủổn dăng
sủổn non thit heo
cà tim
cà tim, nậm mèo, tộm
bánh bão
bánh xaò
sinh tớ
kim dình

These are the kinds of letters and symbols that have been floating by food stalls, bill boards, and menus for the past 3 weeks and I still can’t begin to make sense of them. (Well, actually that’s not entirely true. I just used Google to find a Vietnamese typing program so I could at least type the symbols so they now make more sense than they did 20 minutes ago). I can’t pronounce the words so I just ignore the accent marks and say them phonetically which really does not work so then I revert to clucking like a chicken.

So when a chance encounter at the cinema led to a date for lunch to eat some local foods, I did a little mental dance for joy at the potential to fill the void in my stomach. I slept well in anticipation of learning some more survival vocabulary AND getting to hang out with some friendly local Vietnamese.

Today’s delicious lunch and non-stop conversation far exceeded our expectations. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon and confirm that we made the right decision by staying here in Quy Nhon an extra day.

To help me remember what we ate and to practice the new words that I learned, I’ve prepared this handy picture dictionary for foodies:

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khổ qua

 

We started with khổ qua which is a shrimp and mushroom soup. The soup also has a fower-shaped green vegetable (we were unable to translate it) with a very distinct bitter, yet delicious flavor. If I understood correctly, our host told us that her family eats this soup on the first day of Tet (Vietnamese New Year).

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sủổn non thit heo

 

The next course was sủổn non thit heo or pork spare ribs with a delicious sauce and greens. These were melt-in-your-mouth tasty and I could have eaten an entire plate by myself.

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cà tim, nậm mèo, tộm

 

Another dish was cà tim, nậm mèo, tộm or eggplant(aubergine) with young shrimp. This dish also included a dark purple/black strip of vegetable that was also delicious but I have no idea what it might be called in English.

 

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bánh bão

We then left this restaurant and taxied to a kim dình (food stall) where we each ate a plate of bánh bão which is best described as little rice flour pancakes (like little Dutch pancakes) that has been steamed in a mold and covered with ground peanuts, crushed dried fish, and bread crumbs. Fish sauce and red chili are poured over the top to taste. These are delicious.

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sinh tớ

 

We finished off the progressive lunch with sinh tớ. This looks like a parfait or ice cream float but it’s made with mango, watermelon, kiwi, sapota (we couldn’t translate this but it might be a plum), green jello, milk, sugar and ice. This is something I never would have ordered on my own but, now that I’ve had it, will definitely add it to my “must eat/drink” list on a regular basis. The taste was delicious and the texture was satisfying.

Not only was this lunch a great culinary experience, it has also provided us with the tools to not order what we did last night. (chicken feet and gizzards).

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This is what we get ordering on our own. We were soooo glad to have help today.

 

N.B. Eric gets the medal for eating a chicken foot last night. I, on the other hand,  took my role as food photographer very seriously. Thank goodness for lunch today!!!