Hello at last from Saigon.
We are all here now except for Les who has been riding around on a rented motorcycle since the beginning of the week and who will join us at last this afternoon. Last night we finally met up with Doug and Gala who have been exploring the districts of Saigon on their tandem for the past few days.
The traffic has been interesting to participate in as a pedestrian and to observe from the safety of a bus. There are very few bicycles here; I would guess the ratio of motorcycles to bicycles is 500 to1 and for cars it might be 50 to 1. The traffic flows in its own way and we have to flow with it....no stopping or expecting anyone to stop for you!
Most of us went on the ½ day city tour on Saturday. Paul and Nancy from Ottawa arrived in time to participate. The War Remnants Museum brought home the tragedy of Vietnam's history, particularly during the last half of the 20th century. The surprise for me was that the US was so involved financially in supporting the French occupation of Vietnam during the forties and early fifties. Then the US got involved in supporting the South against the North until 1975. The tragedy was very apparent in the photographs. Heavy stuff.....perhaps one-sided but the suffering did happen on both sides. Then we walked out into the heaviest of downpours.....ponchos blossomed everywhere, on the motorcycles and on the tourists! Happily we were in a dry bus for the trip to Notre Dame Cathedral and then in the bus across the street to the Post Office.....our feet go soaked though as currents were flowing on the sidewalks and streets.
On Sunday we had an early start for the 1 ½ hour drive through the suburbs of Saigon to Cu Chi Tunnels with a stop at a rubber tree plantation. The process of securing the latex reminded us of the tapping of maple trees back home, except that the bark is stripped to make the liquid flow. It is collected from the bowls every two days. As we continued on our way we never seemed to get into countryside; the two lane road had virtually end to end shops/homes along the way.
The Cu Chi Tunnels were more interesting than many of us thought they would be. Among the many highlights were: Dawn, Eleanor and Nancy crawling the furthest through the tunnels; learning how “found” materials were used to make weapons, sandals, traps, etc; and realizing how ingenious this tunnel system was for its purpose. We also learned how rice paper wraps for spring rolls were made, and saw bottles of rice wine containing geckos, scorpions or snake parts. We saw a cashew fruit on the tree and were told that each fruit (about the size of a pear) grows one cashew nut!
On the way back to Saigon we stopped for lunch at a restaurant built on an island in the middle of a river containing many water hyacinths. We had persuaded our guide to stop at a lacquer ware factory and she chose to take us to one that was set up to provide work for handicapped people. We saw 6 or 7 at work on the art pieces. The process is very involved and painstaking; egg and duck shells are glued on and then carefully split into tiny pieces with the tip of sharp knife or sea shells are cut to shape, then attached to the wood. The images created with this process and sometimes some paint are quite beautiful. Many of us said how we now appreciate lacquer ware and in fact bought some. Eleanor and Sharon bought some beautiful pieces.
While most of us were on the tour Robin, Dan and Paddy further explored the city in a search for a dressmaking shop (Paddy ordered a silk suit made for her 100 year old mother....it sounds lovely), an art gallery, and the Ben Thanh Market. Brendan spent the day with Jadine before she left for her own non-cycling adventure in Vietnam.
Our guides for both tours were lovely young Vietnamese ladies who spoke quite fluent English. In fact, Van spoke with an Australian accent without ever having been in Australia! Both Van and Cat were accommodating and lots of fun for us.
The food in Vietnam is different, of course, but we have found it to be healthy and quite delicious and very inexpensive by North American standards. We have had pho (noodle soup), spring rolls two ways, banh xeo (giant crepe), bun (vermicelli), com (fried rice), banana flower salad, etc. Beer (333 or Tiger) is cheap, fruit drinks are readily available and the wine (Dang Dalat) is quite vinegary but grows on you.
We could spend more time here but this afternoon we will be assembling and/or fitting our bikes in preparation for our start tomorrow. We are expecting heavy rain at 3 pm each day, based on our experience in Saigon. But we are adventurers and will have fun!
Doug and Gala Sly, two other riders in the group, are also keeping a personal blog for the trip: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/pedaltour2010