H ferry Mek

Joe took this on one of the first of ten or twenty tiny ferries that carried us back and forth among these islands. I was very proud to have been able to ride over 35 K that first day. The vegetation on the island behind me looks like jungle, but in fact it’s full of houses linked along a cement path about 4 feet wide that also serves as a dike. 

The Mekong Delta is huge, full of islands that rise at most 8 feet above the water, and both densely populated like a city and intensively gardened, all sharing the same space. It is not only the vegetation, orchards, chickens and fish that are form the ecosystem; human beings are part of it too, as in the catfish toilet system. Not far away, people bury their ancestors and raise tombs in the rice paddies. So it goes all the way up and down the food chain. Once you start thinking of humans as part of the plant-animal food circle, things look different.

I will tell the story of this trip in two ways, simultaneously. One accompanies the photos, the other is our response to the message from the bike travel company. This is to show how something can be both great and awful at the same time.

Dear Ms Helena,

We are very sorry to hear that the bike’s break didn’t work and the second one was too big for you, it made you feel not comfortable. And now, we decided to refund some money for you, are you happy with that?

I am so sorry again.

XXXX

Dear Bicycle Mekong Travel (not their real name):

Thanks for contacting us. We have some suggestions.

The 3 day Mekong Delta trip is wonderful, a great route through a unique landscape, with good food and good places to stay.

Homestay dining room

This is the dining space at the homestay (which is like a B&B) where we stayed the first night.

The numerous ferry rides were beautiful.

Little Ferry

The van and driver were good and the many visits were fascinating.  Our guide Hong was pleasant, energetic and knowledgable and did her very best to handle a group of 4 riders, two young active ones and two older, slower and more hesitant ones. That meant that she had to go at a slow speed to keep us all together, and because there were so many turns, the younger ones had to stick beside her instead of riding away full speed. Because of the hard tiny seat on my bike, my butt was in real pain and she loaned me her bike pants.

HOng and Mr Six

This is Hong, our guide, and Mr. Six (meaning 6th child) who, with his wife, operates a restaurant along the path on one of the islands. The group behind them is Polish. We ate in a gazebo over behind me. We were served what by now seems like the usual array of visually stunning dishes, including a crisp fish standing up on a fin as if it was still alive. 

All the bikes had tiny hard seats, by the way, not suitable for touring for most people.  I know that the website suggests that people bring their own bike seats, but that’s not realistic in many cases.

Our suggestions follow.

First, since both my husband and I had had the flu just before the trip, we emailed you four days before to confirm the availability of support. We did not hear anything back. We checked the website and saw that the ride would be fully sagged with the A/C van and that motorcycles would be available for pick up if we decided we had had enough. Based on this, we decided not to cancel. However, that information about constant sag support on your website is not actually true. You need to make sure that the information on your website is accurate, because people like us will check it and base our expectations on it. This is really false advertising and a safety issue as well.

Monk and garments

This is where we had lunch the second day. The woman in green is the monk’s sister. She cooked the best chicken curry I have ever eaten. The coconut milk had probably in up in a tree that very morning. The man with the shaved head owns the house; he is a monk, and he has built a little temple nearby which has statues and images in it, as well as a toilet. He gives people advice at the temple. He also carries garments from a small local factory to the market, on his motorbike. The woman and her child in the back are going through the clothes to find some new things for Tet. They are probably Khmer; there is a Khmer village nearby. The bike tour company has invested in the monk’s house on condition that he serve lunch to riders from their company only. He gave me the most amazing backrub I have ever had. It made it possible for me to get back on my bike and go another 20 K. 

Incidentally, in previous bike tours that we have gone on, the vendor sends out a health/experience questionnaire in advance asking the ages, experience and condition of the riders. You did not do that, so Hong could not know that she was going to have to balance two 24-year olds with a 67-year old and a 72-year old. This is just a basic precaution, protecting both participants and vendors.

The bikes we were provided with at first were a problem in several ways. My first bike had no front brake and the gears would not shift. Only one of the bikes had racks, so people had to carry their packs and water on their backs. Joe was told that you had bikes that would fit him, and explained how tall he is. You said you had such a bike. The bike he was provided with was standard size, the same as mine. The seat could not be raised high enough and the front stem/handlebar set could not be raised at all. When we were provided with different bikes on the second day (also identical sizes for both of us), they were huge, heavy bikes with shocks, suitable for carrying at 250-pounder down a mountain or on a beach, but lousy for navigating tiny bridges or high narrow dikes facing motorbike traffic. Because of their shock system, the steering has a lot of inertia which makes it hard to get around narrow corners.  Both of use were contorted over to reach the handlebars, causing great pain in the necks and shoulders. We stopped riding on Day 3 largely because of these bikes.

Sewing machine woman

This woman is one of a set of neighbors (a hamlet?) along the dike path through a durian orchard. A durian is a fruit that has such a strong smell that you can’t take it through the airport; there are signs that say “No Durian.” The smell is either paradisical or nauseating, depending on who you are. The fruits are huge like basketballs, ellipsoid and covered with thorns. It’s hard to imagine what animal could get into them unless it was a tiger, with claws. The meat of the fruit is yellow and the substance that encases the seeds is what people either love or hate. I will decline to describe it. This woman opened one of these fruits for us and gave us some ice tea. Using the sewing machine behind her, she sews shopping bags, the kind we think of as recyclable.

We were expecting to ride the Specialized bike shown on your website, by the way.

Another suggestion: at the beginning of the ride, every rider should be provided with a paper map, at least a general map.  I have never been on a ride where this was not part of the basic orientation at the beginning of the trip.  I know there are no maps of all the tiny village roads on those islands, but some kind of general indication would help, with names of villages, for example, so that people have a general idea of how long the sections are and what direction we are headed in. The paper should have the guide’s phone number and the name and phone number of the hotel, homestay or factories so that in the worst case, you can just dump the bike and call a taxi. Lacking any kind of information about where we were going, we had to keep in eye contact with our guide and the other riders at all times, since we cannot either speak nor read Vietnamese. This was I’m sure stressful for her as well as for us. It also means that as you’re riding, you’re mainly looking ahead at the guide’s back, not around you at the scenery. Because there are so many little bridges and corners, losing her for a few minutes can mean everyone had to backtrack.

The bikes did not have odometers, and I don’t think the guide’s bike did either. This would have helped because then she would have been able to say, “It’s 5 K before the ferry,” which would enable participants to pace ourselves.

I am aware that we brought some physical problems (age, flu, size) to the experience that are not your fault. However, you should have been sure to find out about them (at least by replying to Joe’s email). Most bike tours do this as a matter of course, along with asking you for your next of kin contact information and any medical problems.

Can Tho floating mktThe Can Tho Floating Market

In the mornings starting early boats begin to gather a few miles downstream from our hotel. A boat owner will hang what he is selling from a pole on his boat. Boats are piled with fruit and vegetables and greens. Restaurants and hotels shop here. We puttered among them in our small ferry. There are many more boats than show in the picture; they are spread out all across the river. 

Finally, there was one part of the ride that was actually dangerous. Partly because I took a long time to rest after lunch and was given a wonderful back rub by the host, we did not leave our lunch on the second day until later than I’m sure Hong expected. This meant that when we got off the ferry into Can Tho, it was already dark. The van, for some reason, was not there to pick us up. Instead, we had to wander through the city to find the hotel. Traffic was heavy and we had to go down big streets, sometimes crossing through roundabouts. I don’t know how far we went like this. The hotel was not near the ferry, that’s all I can tell you!  Neither Joe nor I had ever ridden a motorbike, much less a bicycle, in Vietnam urban traffic, though we are both experienced cyclists who do not even own a car back in CA, USA. What’s more, our bikes did not  have lights. This meant that five unlit cyclists, at the end of a long day, were trying to find our way and stay together in the midst of rush hour traffic.

I salute Hong for not trying to have us ride the Can Tho Bridge at sundown after a long day when we were tired. It is not only very long (2.75 K) it is high, very high, and has two humps. When we drove back over it in the van going north the next day I did not see any bicycles on it, only cars and motorbikes. I would have had to walk up the hump. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%E1%BA%A7n_Th%C6%A1_Bridge

I guess I can sum up here: all bikes need to be appropriate — hybrids, for example, not heavy beach bikes. They need racks and odometers, if possible. They need lights. If you can’t leave a light on a bike in the daytime, they let riders carry them in their packs. And do not tell someone that you have their size bike when you don’t.

Hong is a wonderful guide. She is competent and strong and knows how to relate to people, even they are old and cranky and a little scared. But she needs the full support of the company — good equipment, prompt and responsive sag arrangements, a truthful website, paper handouts to give to participants when the ride starts.

Don’t worry about refunding money. It was a wonderful experience. We were just lucky that no one got hurt. Spend the money on updating your website to accurately reflect what you can do.

Helena

Joe and Lt

The second day was over 40 K and so on the third day, I decided I didn’t want to ride and persuaded Joe not to either. The bikes were too uncomfortable. Instead, the van drove us ahead to a place we were told was a chocolate factory. Since I have posted my letter of complaint already, I will now exit the two-story mode and tell this part of the story in regular non-italicized text.

The man with Joe in the photo above is the chocolatier. His family has lived on this piece of land on this island for generations. He is 67, the same age as Joe. HIs father, who worked for the French as an agriculturalist, went to Malaysia in 1960 and came back with 300 cacao beans. At that time, no one was growing chocolate in the Mekong. He told his son to plant the seeds and make chocolate. So they planted the seeds. When he was 16 he was in high school and the war started. The islands were villagers by day, VC by night. His family would get in a boat and go onto the river and hide somewhere, up a canal, to get away from their house at night. You could hear the shooting all the time. When he was 18 and the CIA murdered Diem and installed Thieu, all the young Vietnamese had to join the South Viet Namese army, the ARVN. He was chosen for training and sent to the US, to Texas, to learn to fly helicopters. He was also trained to maintain jet engines. He learned his English there, over the course of 2 years. Then he came back and co-piloted helicopters, both armed and troop carriers. It was a very dangerous job. Many of his friends were killed. After two years, he was able to quit and go to Bien Hoa to train other pilots and maintain the engines. He was a Lieutenant when the war was over. The Communists put him in jail for 2 years to “change his mind” through re-education. He did not change  his mind. Afterwards, he came back to his home on this island. His cocoa trees had grown. He got a book about how to make chocolate and studied it. He figured out how to do it from that book: how to ferment the beans, dry them in the sun, grind them using different grinding stones, roast them, make the powder, etc. He showed us the implements he  used when he was first figuring out how to do it: grinding stones, a pressure pump to separate the cocao butter from the chocolate, a rusty globe spinning oven, heated by charcoal.

Each fruit is about as big as my foot.

Cocoa fruit

Today he sells to Cargill. He watches the price of chocolate in NY on the internet and calls them when the price is high; if it is low, he keeps the beans in a stack behind his house. One year he made $20,000, which he said was quite a lot for a Vietnamese farmer, which is how he describes himself.  He has seven grandchildren. None of the wants to be a chocolate farmer.

The Danish government gave him some material equipment to set up a homestay: beds, pillows, etc. When people come to do a homestay with him, he shows them how to make chocolate.

This may be the only time we have heard one single continuous story from someone who survived the war. Our opportunities to get coherent stories like this are very narrow: they have to be people who speak English enough to talk with us, preferably without a translator, but they also have to be willing to talk with us. That’s not a whole lot of people. So to be able to hear a whole story, from the planting of the seeds to the making of chocolate, was wonderful.

I spent about 2 hours lying in a hammock under this cocoa tree.

Cocoa tree.jpg

The Khmer Village

On the second afternoon, we went through a Khmer Village. Apparently a lot of Khmer people came over the border from Cambodia during the war and settled here. Our guide, Hong, says that people sometimes think she is Cambodian because of how she looks. To get to this village we turned off the path and rode down a narrower path. The village was much like the Vietnamese villages except poorer, with unfinished houses and no gardens in front. She asked “the local people” if we could have some water, and one woman showed us where to park our bikes and then gestured across the path to a house where a lot of people were sitting around. We went there and sat and were given ice tea. One older woman said that her daughter, unable to pay back a debt that she owed, had killed herself by throwing herself off the roof of the house. She broke her arms, neck and back. This happened last week. That’s why so many people were sitting around – they were family who had come from other places.

An older man told us that he had no home. His sister had a home – this one, and his father had a home – that one next door, which was given to him by the government because he had been a soldier and fought the Communists – but that he himself had no home and slept in a different place every night.

At this point one of the older women started asking for money. Hong explained and warned me not to give money because then every time they came by, someone would ask for money. But she paid for the ice tea. Then a young man stood up from the table where men were eating and gave Hong the money back, saying that the older woman was not from their family, she was just a visitor, and that they do not take money from tourists.

When we went to get our bikes, which were parked in front of a different house, a man was sitting out on the porch of the house. He had no legs.