Riding the Road to Dalat.

 

 

Vietnam is beautifully diverse country full of stunning natural wonders and adventures just waiting to happen and there is no better way to see this county than on a motorbike – or so I’ve heard. Since touching down in Saigon a little over 12 months ago, I have hardly left the city, and as much as I love her chaotic energy, recently I’ve been craving nature and fresh air and a little peace from the never-ending noise.  I decided to get away from the hustle on bustle for a week and hit the road on my first solo, motorbike trip, riding from Saigon to Dalat via Cat Tien National Park.

IMG_20190701_110901

Time to put my new bike to the test

Before this trip, my motorbike experience has been limited to puttering around Saigon on an ancient scooter with a cheap, plastic helmet on my head. Seeing as I was going such a long way, a friend lent me a proper helmet.

img_20190708_0637261944290610381464757.jpg

The morning I left I stood next to my bike, packed and ready to go, fiddling with the strap of the helmet unable to figure it out, before giving up and Googling –

“How to do up a motorcyle helmet”

Once I got that sorted, away I went. As I rode further from Saigon, the country-side opened up and I wound my way through bright green rice paddies, rolling hills and small towns. I found myself falling into a relaxed and easy rhythym of riding and taking it all in when suddenly, “SNAP”, “BANG”.

 

 

 

Shit! One of the straps holding my all stuff broke and both my bags went flying 50 metres down the road. I pulled over and ran back to get them, my helmet still on and my head wobbling around, making me look like one of those bobble-head dolls.

I packed things back on as best I could and drove carefully until I got to a garage. I tried to indicate to the man working there that I needed to buy another strap by pointing at the one I already had and rubbing my fingers together in way to indicate, ‘money’. The poor fella just looked really confused at the foreign lady pointing at her bags and making weird hand signals.

I tried my smattering of Vietnamese –

“I want”, “I need”… but we got nowhere. Then I tried-

“Mua”, the Vietnamese word for, “buy”.

“Mua!” he said.

“Yes, yes, mua, mua”, I said and I think we were both a little bit chuffed about finally having a communication breakthrough.

The petrol station man pointed to a small shop, then he walked to the edge of the road and started to shout towards it. I didn’t understand any of what he was saying, but I am guessing it was the Vietnamese version of –

“Sheryl. Sher-yl. I have a lady here that needs an occy-strap. I’m sending her over”.

I bought two, just in case another broke, re-strapped my bags, tried not to think about what state my laptop might now be in and continued on. I was headed for Cat Tien National Park and according to Googlemaps it’s a drive that should less than four hours. I seemed to fall into some motorbike time-space vortex though, where Googlemaps would say I was 95km away, I’d drive for an hour and then I’d still be 82km away.

I was starting to get a little tired and over it when I heard a, “thud”, and thought my bags had fallen down again. I quickly stopped and looked at the road around me but my bags weren’t there. I had no idea what the noise had been, but not only were my bags not on the ground, they weren’t on my bike either. I looked back at the long empty road stretching out behind me and, heart pounding, I turned the bike around.

img_20190709_1002311564813723659918227.jpg

      No bags to be seen!

I felt sick as I wondered just how far back had my bags fallen off the bike? Laptop, cash, all my clothes, my passport – everything was in those bags and now they were gone.

Fuckity, fuck, fuck, fucksticks fuck, I was in a bit of a panic.

giphy

As I started to drive I heard some scraping noise and thought,

“Oh my God, what now?! Is something wrong with the bike?”

A Vietnamese fella drove past and started pointing, and it was then I realised my bags had fallen off my bike but they were still held on by the strap and I was dragging them along the road.

I pulled over and this time I strapped those babies on like my life depended on it. Vietnamese people are absolute legends when it comes to transporting things by motorbike, so I guess I still have a lot to learn.

554bb4d96da811d154adfd51-750-562See, this guy knows how its done.

Exhausted, I finally arrived at Green Bamboo Lodge in Cat Tien National Park, where I made myself at home in my bamboo hut by the river.

 

 

After an evening here spent drinking rice wine with some Vietnamese guys, I was up early to head off again, hoping it wouldn’t take me quite as long to get to Dalat as it had taken me to get to Cat Tien. The scenery from Saigon to Cat Tien  had ranged from the dull to the pretty and pleasant, but once I was out of Cat Tien and on the road to Dalat, the landscape became increasingly jaw-dropping.

 

 

The smooth road wound and weaved through jungle covered mountains, vast coffee plantations and remote villages. Every turn seemed to offer another sweeping view of lush green valleys dotted with distant homes and farms and it was such a joyous feeling of freedom to be out alone on the road with barely any other cars or bikes around.

 

 

 

Stopped for a coffee on an isolated farm and met this happy boy. He showed me his picture book and we had a running race (he won!)

I wasn’t too far out of Dalat when I checked the fuel gauge. I still had a bit under half a tank and seeing as getting fuel is a bit of a pain in the arse – I have to unload my bags to open the seat to get to the tank, I decided to wait until I got to town so I could leave my bags at the hotel and it would be a bit easier.

I was only about 15km out of town on a windy narrow road, looking forward to giving my bum a break when I looked at my petrol gauge and saw it was now very much in the red zone. How could this be? It hadn’t been that long ago that I’d had over a quarter of a tank, had it?

“Oh God. Please, please, please can a petrol station appear!”

I was in big trouble if I ran out of fuel. The road was narrow and winding and if I had to pull over there really wasn’t a lot of space to avoid a truck or bus that might come flying around the corner. I had all my bags, so trying to hitch-hike into town to get petrol, and get back again, especially when I don’t speak Vietnamese, was going to be almost impossible. Pushing my bike 15km through a mountainous road wasn’t really going to happen either. I realised that if the bike wasn’t going to make it, I was up shit creek.

“It’s okay. It’s in the red zone but it’s not on empty”, I tried to reassure myself. “I’m not that far away. 12km, 10km, okay now 9km, I’m going to make it”.

I looked at the fuel gauge again and my heart rate went up as I saw it was now it was right on empty and I was still around 7km out of town. I incredibly anxious the entire time and I don’t think I have ever felt such joy and relief at the site of a petrol station when I finally came upon one. I could have kissed the bowser.

Travelling by motorbike is both exhausting and exhilarating and this trip already has me hooked. Day-dreaming of big adventures, I’ve checked if I can ride from Vietnam to India, (I can’t. Border crossings at some countries make it almost impossible), but this is definitely going to be the first of many.

Riding the Backroads

To Market, to Market.

I am not a shopper. 90% of my wardrobe is hand-me-downs from my friends and if it wasn’t for that I’d probably get around in a rotation of three outfits. It is only my intense love for food that gets me grocery shopping each week and going on a, “shopping holiday”, is probably what they’ll make me do on holidays in hell.

I don’t mind shopping at my local market though. We have outdoor markets in Australia, but it’s totally different to the markets in Saigon. Australian outdoor markets tend to have handcrafts and fancy cheeses made from organic milk from the highlands of Lithuania and expensive  dips from the Blue Mountains- most markets are not really a place for the weekly grocery shop. Living here though, I barely have to go to the supermarket at all. I’d much rather shop at the outdoor market than walk around Woolworths listening to an elevator version of Taylor Swift and getting hit in the leg with someone’s trolley. Here I’ll just get hit in the leg by someone’s motorbike.

 

 

In the markets here you’ll find almost everything you could ever need. Looking for a raw frog? We got it. Fruit and veg you have never seen and don’t know what do do with? Also here. Undies? I no longer buy my undies anywhere else.

The other morning I headed to the market, list in hand, wanting to buy some fresh fish for a curry, but the only fish I have ever bought looks like this-

5759489_001

and when I went to the market and saw this-

 

 

I had no idea what to do. So, I did what any independent woman in her late-30s, living abroad would do. I called my Mum.

“Mum, I want to buy a fish for a curry but I am at the market and there are just whole fish. What should I do? Do you think I can cut it up myself?”

“Just pick a fish and cut it up with the bones, it’ll give flavour. Don’t try and fillet it yourself it’s not something you can learn on Youtube. And watch out for small bones”.

“How do I know which fish to get?”

“Just get a fat looking fish. But watch the bones, don’t choke on a  small fish bone!’

I am 37 years old and my mumma is telling me to watch out for bones when I eat a piece of fish. No matter how old you are, your Mum is always your Mum!

I picked out a fish that looked nice enough, not that I really know how they are supposed to look. Then when I got home I decided NOT to take my mothers advice and that I would try to learn how to fillet a fish from Youtube.

So this happened.

IMG_20190625_151544.jpg

“Just cut around the spine”, said Youtube fella,  “and look, look how easy this lovely fillet just comes away”.

No sir, as you can see, a lovely fillet did not just, “come away”.

Anyway, this poor bastard ended up as a fish curry that I padded out with prawns and tofu due to a lack of actual fish, and it was bloody delicious.

Do you live somewhere with outdoor food markets? Have you ever tried to teach yourself something with Youtube only to have it turn to shit?

An early mid-life crisis – From Sydney to Saigon.

How I went from working as baby health nurse in Sydney to an English teacher in Vietnam.

 It began with a sort of early mid-life crisis.

At the beginning of 2018, I was 35 years old, living in Sydney and feeling like something just wasn’t right. Nothing was particularly awful about my life. I had my health, I had a pleasant enough job that paid alright and I am lucky to have wonderful friends and family. Sure, I was single, but I was out there dating, which was fun most of the time. And when it wasn’t fun, at least it was funny. But something wasn’t right.

giphy

I have a cousin in Vietnam and I kept seeing photos of his come up on my Facebook. It looked like he was having a good time, so I sent him a message to find out a bit more. The decision to pick up and move to Saigon followed an exchange over Facebook that went a bit like this-

“Hey cuz, how is Vietnam? I am getting bored with my life in Sydney and feel like a change”.

“It’s great. You should move here”.

“Righto then, see you in a month”.

I handed in my notice at work, booked a one-way ticket to Saigon, then embarked on the special kind of hell known as, “selling your things on Gumtree”.

Do you enjoy receiving messages from strangers who will bargain with you over the cost of an old chair only to disappear into the ether once you agree on a price with them? Do you like getting ridiculous requests from entitled twats who think because they are buying something second hand for $10 from you, you should drive across the city to deliver it to them personally? If this sounds like you, then you too should try selling your goods online.

Anyway.

Moving to Vietnam, I had absolutely no idea what to expect and even less of an idea of what I was going to do next if it didn’t work out. Back in 2012, I went for a two week holiday to Vietnam with some mates. My main memory of Saigon is of partying all night only to come back to the hostel and throw up in a bin.

halong bay

Here I am in Halong Bay in 2012, oblivious to the fact that I was going to be calling Vietnam home 6 years later.

From the moment I arrived, it didn’t take long for this city to draw me in with its chaotic energy.  Saigon might not be the prettiest city in the world, but it’s vibrant streets heave with life. Food stalls spill onto the pavements, traffic is bedlam, the nightlife can be wild and the heat is exhausting. This city is at once captivating and maddening but the warmth of the people and the food culture by far and away makes up for any faults.

commute

Off to work we go.

 

dinner with friends

Dinner and beers with friends.

 

In just decades Saigon has gone from being one of the poorest places in the world to a boomtown where sky-scrapers are going up at a rapid pace. Change is in the air and maybe in 5 or 10 or 15 years, increasing gentrification will take away some of the city’s untamed charms, but right now, it’s a place that feels like anything can happen, and there is no place I’d rather be.

 

50663722_10156753990215049_798668212576190464_o

eating outside

Food is basically my main hobby here.

38137290_677045705966780_4235064974805827584_o

Never in a million years did I think I’d wind up working as a teacher in Vietnam, but here I am.

Moving to another country isn’t without its challenges and for me the biggest one has been the language. When I first arrived, I was sure I was going to learn to speak Vietnamese no worries. After all, I’d previously learnt to speak Spanish. Sort of.

Learning Vietnamese though is a whole different kettle of pho. The smattering I have learnt is usually met with that Vietnamese hand wiggle gesture or a shake of the head.

Out to dinner one night,, I tried to order a beer. The Vietnamese word for beer is ‘bia’, so surely this one at least wasn’t going to be too difficult.

“Bia”, I said smiling at one of the staff.

He looked at me.

“Bia”. I tried again. “Beeee-a. Biiiiia. Bi-ah.” I tried some variations on pronunciation while making a ‘drink’ hand gesture, only to be met with a look something like this-

giphy-1

He walked off and came back and handed me a glass of some kind of green juice.

“No, no”, I said. “Bia”.

A Vietnamese person sitting close by me said something which I can only assume was along the lines of, “she’s asking for a bia”.

The man laughed, “Ha ha ha oh, bia!” he said.

Suffice to say I don’t think I will be having deep and meaningful conversations in Vietnamese any time soon, but I am taking classes and trying.

The last 10 months have been a wild ride and while it hasn’t always been perfect, it has been pretty wonderful, so I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere any time soon.