GUEST POST: While I am on the road this week and exploring Madrid, I’ve arranged for some of my favorite travel bloggers to share their travel stories and advice here. So enjoy, give our guest bloggers lots of love and be sure to check out the author’s site.
I met Matt and Kat at the door of our guesthouse in Northern Vietnam before they left for Hue. They were cycling across Southeast Asia. We were both heading south- them by bike and me by bus. Along the way down the coast, I decided to join them on their adventure. Never mind I hadn’t biked in over five years, let alone in heat like this. Never mind I didn’t even have a bike. It seemed like a good idea and they were happy to have me. The plan was to meet them in Ho Chi Minh City and spend three days cycling the Mekong Delta to the Cambodian border.
After spending a day searching for a bike in Ho Chi Minh City, I stored my stuff at my guesthouse (I was coming back) and we left early the next morning.
“It’s good to get out early before the sun gets too high.” Matt said. “Once it peaks, it’s very hot and we won’t get far between stops.”
Our first day was taking us to My Tho, a city about 80km away. Though, I was no expert, even that seemed like a long distance to me. However, I had hiked the Grand Canyon, how hard could this be? That was steep and hot; this was flat and hot. It would be easy I told myself.
We set out during morning rush hour, which can be described as a mass exodus to nowhere. The streets were filled with honking cars, billowing buses, bikes, motorbikes, and people all moving as if they were the only ones on the road. Cycling through the chaos, we were our own spectacle. Residents stared at the crazy foreigners riding their bikes trying to navigate this storm. In a city as big as Ho Chi Minh, it’s easy to get lost and we ended up in Chinatown with no idea where to go, or where we were.
“Any idea where we are?” Kat asked.
“Not me. I’m following you two.” I said.
“Hmmm.” Matt replied.
We all stared blankly at our map.
“Hmmm.” We said.
I decided to let the dynamic duo figure it out and snap some photos. This was Ho Chi Minh City unfiltered. All local, no tourist.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
“Hmmm.” I heard them say.
Snap. Snap. Snap.
A pause. Snap.
“We got it!” They shouted. We were off again.
As we made our way out of the city, my friends apologized profusely for the surroundings- it will get better they kept saying. It wasn’t a problem. I was happy. I was touring the Mekong on bike. This was easy I thought. 80km might be far but it wasn’t hard- we were making great time and I was feeling fine.
However, somewhere around 40km, it stopped being easy. My legs were sore, my pace slowed, and the sun was getting high in the sky. My friends looked at me with pity. Salt stained the back of my shirt.
“Maybe we should rest.” Matt said empathetically.
“I think the Grand Canyon was easier!” I gasped.
“Well, it is rest time anyways. Let’s stop for lunch.” Kat said.
We pulled in by the side of the road; the proprietors giving us a strange look. It’s probably not often three sunburn foreigners pull in with bikes. We sat down, rested, cooled, and ate Pho. Eventually, we headed out again. “Come on mate. We’re half way there.” Matt said.
Matt found a route off the highway and through the countryside. “It’ll be nicer.” he said, still worried I wasn’t enjoying myself. We got off the road and headed through a few little towns when it happened again: we were lost. Way off the highway, we were in deep trouble. No one spoke English. We made some gestures at the first group of locals we saw with no luck. Group two: still no luck. We were desperate. We tried to figure out a route but ended up back where we started. Finally, we came across a guy who spoke little English. He pointed us in a direction we could only hope was right.
We biked. We biked some more. No sign of the highway. Just empty roads and the occasional house. Locals came out as we passed to look at these lost nomads. They waved. They smiled. They had no idea what we said. We just followed the compass in a general direction. Eventually, we hit something. We found a store and, after some clever sign language on Kat’s part, made our way back to the highway.
We were on the main road with 25 km to go. I was dragging the pack at this point. Now, I was the one apologizing. Our brisk early morning pace had come to a crawl as a pedaled the lead that was my legs. I was immune to the heat now. Only feeling the knives in my legs. We stopped at the first place we saw, the locals waving as we came in. As we rode, I always noticed the locals sitting and waiting, looking for some excitement that might break up the monotony of the traffic. We rode, they smiled, we all waved, and life went on.
Around 5:30, we pulled into our destination. I was barely biking at this point, moving only through my inertia. I determined that after we had checked in and drank a very cold beer, I was off to bed. The guidebook only listed two places to stay in this small little backwater so we tried the first one.
“Passports please.” the clerk said.
We all got them out.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“A photocopy of my passport. The original is at the Thai embassy getting a visa put on it.” I said.
“No good. You have to have the original. You can’t stay here.”
“But it’s me. Look I even have back up.” I said pulling out all the papers that proved I was me, hoping I’d be granted a reprieve.
“Sorry, the police are very tough here. No passport, no stay.” She said.
“Well, my friends have theirs. I’ll stay with them.”
We went back and forth. It was hopeless. We weren’t going to change her mind. We moved on to the next hotel, hoping things would get better. Kat heard this was a strict town and none of us had ever thought about the passport issue. Throughout the rest of Asia people rarely asked one and photocopies were just as good.
The same thing played out at the next hotel. Photocopy. No. Begging. No. Pleading. No. No. No. We were at a loss.
“There is a bus to HCMC city at 6pm. You can take that back.” said the owner.
It was 5:45.
We went outside to discuss our options. It was too risky to sneak in and what if this happened in the next town. We decided it was best for me to take the bus back. Kat would come with me to the station.
We jumped on the bikes and flew with such speed you wouldn’t have guessed we just biked 80km. I got the bus as it screeched out of the gate. Barely. I plopped down on the bus and slept. Back at the hostel, the owner staring at me bewildered. He listened. Laughed. Gave me the key.
It was 10pm. I needed a drink. I walked out to the corner bar and found my friends. They looked at me as I sat down. They saw the tiredness. The defeat. The sweat. The dirt.
“What the hell are you doing here?!” They asked.
“We might need another beer.” I said as I began my tale.
About the Author:
Matthew Kepnes travels because life is short and cubicles are not fun to sit in. Visit his personal website, Nomadic Matt’s Travel Site.
Photo (top): Sridgway
Photo (mid): w a a