During my two-week cycle trip, not only did I improve my cycling skills and stamina, but I also began to master the art of peeing outdoors (enjoy that image) and using the infamous Asian “squat toilets.” Some of these are in a stall just like at home except instead of a toilet bowl, there is just a hole and porcelain bowl shape in the floor. So like the name says you have to squat over it. Of course, I had to do this while balancing as to not touch anything around me plus keep my shorts out of the line of fire and avoid getting any splatter on my shoes or ankles. It actually wasn’t so bad as long as you brought toilet paper in with you and also tried to hold your breath because the rank, stale smell of urine was a bit unpleasant (that’s an understatement). The even more basic ‘latrines’ we’d come across consisted of a tile trough in the floor with raised blocks for your feet. There were literally pairs of blocks in a row where several bladder-full women could squat together and have a lovely little pee. Of course, when we came upon this we went one at a time. Not only is it unpleasant getting splattered with your own, you certainly don’t want someone else’s getting on you!
It’s very common in Vietnam and other parts of Asia for people to just pull alongside the road and have a little bathroom break. Men usually just turn their backs to the street, while the women do usually go behind a tree or bush. The Intrepid tour leaders called these “happy trees, happy bush, or happy rock.” Once we stopped on a coffee plantation—in which it was “happy coffee bush.” Coffee trees were good because they are a bit taller and good for a little private moment. I much preferred the ‘happy tree’ to the squat toilet—at least you could breathe in the fresh air and the bottoms of your shoes weren’t standing is urine. You can go take a bathroom break now if you need to.
Also during the tour we had some varied and interesting types of accommodations. Mostly along the way we stayed in nice two and three star hotels. A few had pools and lush gardens and were quite comfortable. One night we slept in what they call ‘soft sleepers’ on an overnight train. We had four bunks in one train car. This wasn’t too bad either—except for me being a light sleeper so I didn’t get much rest as we rocked back and forth down the tracks through the Vietnam countryside and over the former DMZ (demilitarized zone) that split North and South Vietnam during the war. As some of us walked the length of the train to find the bar car and get a drink we realized that much of the train carried Vietnamese folks traveling to and fro. Many didn’t upgrade to a sleeper and were just lounging about in the regular seat cars. Although one woman had brought her floor mat and was sprawled out on the floor by her seat.
For a nice bit of our bike journey we got ‘off the beaten path’ and went up into the Central Highlands to a few smaller towns up in the mountains. Just a few years ago there were some uprisings in these areas and tourists were actually forbidden to go there. It seems some foreigners were convincing some of the locals to be anti-communist—something the government obviously doesn’t like. But there have been no problems in recent years.
Vietnam’s economy is growing, but much of the country is still very poor. In fact, the average Vietnamese person only makes $300 US Dollars a year… yes, I said ‘a year.’ Here they are trying to create jobs any way they can. At many toll booths we drove through there was one man to purchase the ticket from, then our bus would drive to a few feet to another booth where a man would rip our ticket, and finally we would drive through the toll gate where a third guy would let us through.
In Kon Tum, we slept at the Dakbla Hotel, a government run establishment. Like a lot of Communist buildings, it looked like something out of the fifties. Even the room interiors looked as if they hadn’t been redone since 1962. I jokingly asked the other girls if they noticed all the spy cameras in our rooms.
In our second mountain town, Buon Ma Thuot, we did a ‘homestay.’ We all slept on mosquito net covered mattresses on the floor of a stilt house belonging to a family of hill tribe people.
The houses were originally built on stilts in some areas to avoid flooding. Here it was to avoid unwelcome animal guests. Of course, now, each family’s dinners (pigs, roosters, and dogs) milled about under most houses.
Up in these mountain towns, there are some ethnic minority villages where people speak a different dialect and dress in more traditional clothing. This night it felt like we were in a cabin for sleep away camp. We had dinner on the floor on mats and then partook in the local drink—straw wine.
Suffice it to say, we all had a lot of fun… and then it got a bit crazy. Loi, the bus driver, pulled out some crazy vibrating device that he literally strapped to the back of his hand, and proceeded to give all the sore and tired girls neck and shoulder massages!
It looked like something he’d made in his home garage out of spare parts. The whole scene of drunk girls sucking down wine with straws getting massages probably looked a bit crazy and naughty, but it sure felt good and was all innocent fun… although Loi may have been having his own fantasies. But we didn’t care—a girl loves a good massage!
We were all a bit tipsy and ended up laughing and having sing-alongs until the wee hours. Pretty fun, but probably not exactly the traditional hill tribe experience.
After a few nights ‘roughing’ it, we cycled back down from the mountains into the touristy beach town of Nha Trang. This is Vietnam’s top spot for sun and sand and I imagine ten years from now, much of the coast will be inching its way toward becoming another overrun tourist area.
We had a fun rest in Nha Trang which started with a visit to the local hot springs and mud baths. When we first arrived, a man with a pointer stood by a big board of photos of the different pools we could go into and demonstrated the order of ‘dipping.’ It seemed like a 1950s training video and was quite funny. We opted for the shared hot pools. First it was into the outdoor showers for a quick rinse, then about six of us sat down in small hot tubs that were then pumped full of smelly, oozy, chocolate milk looking mud. There were buckets that you could fill with the brown stuff and pour over your back… of course we took advantage of this to dump loads of mud onto each other’s heads.
It was quite fun actually. Next we rinsed off the mud—it got in places I didn’t even know existed, well, I guess I knew they existed, but have never had to rinse mud out of them—and went through a series of water sprays and waterfalls. Then it was into the hot pools for a bit of a soak. Good stuff.
The next day was, unfortunately, the coolest and rainiest we’d had in awhile. We went out into the water anyway, for a boat ride along the bay and an afternoon of relaxing and sun-worshipping. We enjoyed a tasty seafood spread on the boat and relaxed on lounge chairs under thatched roofs all afternoon. The best part? Little Vietnamese ladies were going around giving manicures, pedicures and massages right at your chair. I pampered myself with a lovely head, neck, and back massage and a pedicure—all for the cost of $5! I could get used to this.
Before biking down south towards Saigon, we made one more dash up to the mountains and the fabulous town of Dalat. This was one of my favorite cities on the journey. It felt almost like a ski resort town
We stayed in an old French Villa type hotel—which was really quaint and quiet and set back atop a hill. We cycled through town for a tour and then had some free time just to wander around. We played some badminton in the front yard and after nearly two weeks together really felt kind of like a family.
That night, after another great and cheap dinner, the whole gang (including the truck drivers) went out to Karaoke! It was one of the places where you get your own room. We piled into a smoky, stale room with big black leather couches and pored through the songbooks of half Vietnamese and half English tunes. The song selection wasn’t the greatest and was a bit dated, but we had the best time belting out songs like ABBA’s “Fernando,” the Bee Gees “How Deep is your Love,” and I even got up to do our other national anthem: “Hotel California.”
By the end we were all up dancing and one of the best parts was how much fun the drivers were having dancing with all the girls. This trip was such fun, but was winding down and about to come to an end.