Riding my bicycle across Vietnam
I am, admittedly, no purist. I need something to listen to - music, podcasts, something to occupy the mind (in addition to the constantly gorgeous surroundings) and stir the soul. The hardcore, by-the-book cycle tourist might disagree, saying that immersion should be just that. Fair, but my ass is chafed and my legs are sore, and while that is fun to think about after the ride, it is the present that needs some mental tonic. Importantly, I have to be able to hear surrounding traffic while I’m on the bike. Before my trip, I acquired this really awesome helmet (Coros) that has two little speakers on either ear strap, they play into the air immediately surrounding the ear, but the speakers are not in-ear.
This has produced a really fantastic result, starting with the fact that I can hear the traffic. But it’s more than that - the wind, the reciprocating motion of my legs, breathing, and the metal-on-metal whirring of the chain. And the birds, and the tarmac beneath my tires, and the infinite “hellooooos” from schoolchildren being let out for lunch. It’s this feeling of absolute connection with surroundings, made all the better by The English Beat, The Clash, Brian Eno, Buck Owens, Flaco Jimenez, or JJ Johnson, to name truly only a few. Climbing the steep gradients, it’s the punchy music that drives my legs into the pedals. On the flat stuff, it’s the melodic that carries the momentum.
Exploring the market near my hotel this morning and last night reminded me that I owe my readership an entry dedicated to foodstuffs! What have I noticed in Vietnam?
First, freshness. Vietnam is still a country with a lot of small farming, which lends itself to locally sourced food more than the U.S. factory farming model. On two separate occasions, I have seen pigs butchered in the back of restaurants, undoubtedly preparing for the next meals. Can you imagine this back in the states, a restaurant killing its own animals? Additionally, most restaurants here source food from the prevalent local markets, which are also worth spending some time on.
Stepping under the ramshackle roof of a street market near my hotel this morning was like stepping back in time. The briny smell of fish, freshness of vegetables,and cooking food fill the air. There is an eager hum about the place. Here, the norm is whole slabs of pork and beef sitting on plywood, fish in pans on the floor, some live, some dead, and a sprawl of vegetables. The markets here are not big on refrigeration, but it’s a non-issue because all of the meat has been killed that morning and it will all be sold by the day’s end. It’s fascinating the simplicity of the system, but it seems to work so well. In Kon Tum, I described the Western way to my new friend Kan (you might remember he is the hotel worker that took me all over the place for awesome food), explaining that we like styrofoam, Saran-wrap, and those absorbent meat juice pads when we buy our meat. I was quick to point out that small butcher shops and green grocers do exist, but it’s not the norm like it is in Vietnam.
There is an acceptance and respect here, too, of the animal that America seems to have all but sanitized away. Most dishes here do not shy away from bone in pieces. Butchers sell larger slabs of meat. Most importantly, the animal is honored by using all of it, especially in soup. Curdled blood is one example of this, as are intestines. The meat here is redder in general, and the eggs are orange, always.
Restaurant culture here is different, too. As is the case with most stores, it is the front owner of the owner’s private residence. Using the bathroom, in many cases, means walking through their house. Smoking is ok, too, in most establishments. I was taken aback the first time I saw locals throwing garbage on the floor - empty beer cans, dirty napkins, cigarette butts, and food scraps, but that is the norm here, and it works out fine.
Finally, the coffee culture here is absolutely huge. People love to relax, watching their coffee brew out of a phin (individual coffee filter) on top of a pad of sweetened condensed milk, watching cigarette smoke waft as time passes. Ice is served on the side. Drink the coffee hot or add ice. Your choice. At every meal or coffee shop tea is served, which I think is quite a nice gesture. Eating in Vietnam is a gritty, laid-back, exciting part of the travel that is honestly impossible to capture with words or pictures. It’s the whole experience: the cigarette smoke, the buzz of traffic and frequent horns, the small plastic stools, trash on the floor, laughter of other patrons having a good time (often assisted with copious amounts of beer), and the knowledge that this is just about the freshest food you could eat anywhere. It’s awesome.
Favorite dishes of Vietnam So Far
Duh. This one nearly goes without saying, it is the staple food of the Vietnamese diet, like hamburgers in America. At it’s best, it is a simple meat broth with a base of noodles, bean sprouts, sometimes onions, and beef or chicken. Typical tabletop additions include a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and a pile of greens - lettuce, basil, and some other foliage to tear and mix into the soup. There’s also usually a pitcher of fish sauce to further amplify the broth, and some chilis to add spice. Pho is the go-to morning dish when I needed something filling but not too heavy.
Part of my love for bun cha has to be attributed to the fact that I hadn’t a clue it existed before my trip this year. I first discovered the dish with Lyle the Canadian just a few days into the trip for breakfast. Like many Vietnamese dishes, it’s simple in construction but nuanced in flavor delivery. A sweetened fish sauce broth adds sugar and funk to the meal. Noodles are usually served on a side dish - you add them in later. The real star of the show is a couple of kinds of grilled pork. There are slices and ground pork patties that get plopped right into the soup. Carrots and onions add some other earthy flavor to the broth. Toss in the noodles and some lime juice and greens and dig in. I only had bun cha a few times,but each was memorable. It was actually my last meal of the trip, and for that I think it deserves some recognition on its own.
Albeit not purely Vietnamese, it is wildly popular here, and the large restaurants are often busy places. You grill your own meat - pork, beef, shrimp, squid, etc... usually to be then rolled up in rice paper and eaten with some veg and sauces. For me the Korean barbecue experience is not just about the food, but the company. My first time I was sharing food with Lyle the Canadian and Michael the Californian just a few days into the trip. There’s something about having a cooking hearth right in the middle of the table that brings us humans together. The second time, I was eating by myself but invited to share food and drink with the Ea Drang police narcotics department. Another fantastic night. Finally, I had Korean barbecue with Skip and his wife Thu.
Breakfast meat + egg skillet
I’ve got some mixed feelings about this one, simply because it is plausible that some of the hot pate spread on one of my skillets caused my travelers sickness, nevertheless, I plunge onwards. I don’t remember where I heard this, but allegedly in Vietnamese this dish translates into something like “duck”, as in duck out of the way of the sizzling grease. The cast iron comes right out of the oven with one or two runny eggs and a smorgasbord of meats (pork or beef, pate), and cucumbers served alongside French bread. It’s simple: tear off small chunks of bread and make mini sandwich pockets with a selection of egg, pate, cucumber. Wow.
Banh Mi + Buns
I’ve grouped these two together because they represent Vietnamese fast food - except unlike in America, it’s actually good. Starting with the banh mi, sometimes there are fresh fried eggs inside, sometimes not. That’s usually a breakfast thing. There’s usually a couple of variations of pork, something bacony and something more sausage-like. I would love to speak with more specificity, but it seemed that the meats selection varied by vendor. All I know is that it was exquisitely porky. There’s usually a drizzle of the sweet orange chili sauce, as well as cucumbers. Just one time I had fish floss on it as well.
The banh Bao is the perfect snack food. Steamed dough envelops pork, a hard boiled quail egg (usually), and a small clump of glass noodles. It’s really awesome, simple, filling snack food.
I did manage to take a little walk in the morning, stumbling my way through town to the local market. I was on the hunt for bananas. I felt feeble, mostly due to dehydration and hunger - I’m sure. I hadn’t eaten anything since the previous morning. Even in my sub-par state, I tried to enjoy the town and the market a little bit. It was the typical Vietnamese scene, vendors everywhere, wares spread out on the ground. Fish, meat, vegetables, clothing, everything. The channels between vendors were small, made even more so by the scooters moving through at a walking pace. It was the bustle that I had gotten used to.
It was a real shame walking back to the hotel, as I sized up several restaurants that looked really nice. I had everything packed up in my room, payed 200k for my room (~$8.50USD) and met my driver, a nice guy who helped me pack everything into the back of his Toyota SUV. The bike fit in the back like a dream. I climbed into the front seat, armed with bananas and water bottles. The trip passed quickly, I was sleeping on and off, sipping water or nibbling on a banana in the waking moments, watching the scenery go by from the front seat.
It was a bittersweet feeling watching the last 75 miles expire in air conditioned luxury. Doubtlessly, it was the right choice not to try to muddle through. Being sick, and especially dehydrated in the Vietnam heat could have turned an uncomfortable situation into a dangerous one. So I didn’t quite make it from Hanoi to Saigon, but I think that 1,880kms / 2,000 is a pretty good effort - I’m certainly proud of it.
I am really lucky to be spending the next week with my mom’s friend’s brother, Brad, in an apartment building in the Thao Dien neighborhood in District 2 of Saigon - I’ll write about that more in a different post.
The rest of the afternoon passed well enough, mostly consisting of me sleeping. I did make it out of the apartment for a Christmas dinner at Brad’s restaurant, a classic American diner just a few minutes walk from the apartment building. Admittedly, the milkshake and cheesecake was probably a bit too ambitious, but I didn’t hurl. The meat platter, mashed potatoes, and green beans all went down well enough - tasty too. It was good to be done with the biking, but I still have a bit of time left for a couple of other fun activities and some relaxation before I say goodbye to Vietnam.
The day started off auspiciously enough, with a breakfast of fried egg skillet, steak, pate, and French bread. I turned 18 today, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than a bike ride through Vietnam! With a respectable 9:30 start, I was on the road, but something felt off from a gastrointestinal perspective.
About 20 miles in I hit a wall. I think I will remember vividly the flat, winding road and steep embankments on either side. It was outrageous, I was spinning along in the smaller front chainring and quite far up the rear cassette. In laypersons terms: low speed, lots of spinning. Somehow I made it to a coffee shop in a nearby, small town, and plunked into a chair under a fan. At first I thought it was a heat-related malaise, which would be odd since it wasn’t particularly hot and I’d been in such good shape the rest of the trip. Soon that theory proved wrong as I rushed to the bathroom. It’s not right to give you all the details on this medium, just know it wasn’t pretty.
The funny thing is that I had anticipated some kind of travelers sickness to catch up with me at some point on the trip. But now, really? On balance, I think it was better to get sick right at the end of the trip instead of the beginning or the middle.
I made it to the local hotel which wasn’t brilliant, contacted a couple people to give a status update, and promptly crashed. I slept most of the afternoon away, took my antibiotics in the evening, and made the decision to talk to the hotel manager about arranging a ride into Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.
This experience sucked in the moment, there’s not much of a way to sugar-coat that. On reflection though, I think it served as a reminder, albeit a rude one, that not everything can be gravy all the time. This message was all the more timely on my 18th birthday. The journey (into and through adulthood) has its rough spots.