Part 1: Stranded in Cambodia
I happened to be taking a little break from my Shanghai-based job to get a little R&R in sunny Cambodia when two weeks into my trip the Covid-19 virus hit the news. After a few scary days unsure if I would be going back, my employer said work was canceled for the next few weeks at least and I am looking a nice little extended vacation.
Problem is, the virus is going abroad too. So now I feel like I'm actually running from it. I just got off a boat from an island in southern Cambodia when things started to get wonky.
Stick it out in Asia or get far away?
I figure my options are: stay here and ride it out, go back home to the US or go to Europe, or travel around SE Asia till it's safe to return to my apartment in China. My paranoia gets the best of me when it comes to Asian airports and planes at the moment so flying sounds like a bad idea. I also get antsy staying in one place too long but at least that way I could make some money online perhaps. Traveling locally is probably the best option.
As of today I'm undecided but I have been making some interesting observations about everything from China's impact on Cambodia, first through Belt and Road development and now through viruses. I also made observations on getting my finger almost chomped off by an alligator gar and spending a few weeks visiting Cambodian hospitals for stitches, treatment and battling my own infection. Here's part one of the exile in video.
Be sure to check out my podcast about unusual expat lives at Rootabaga.org.
Part 2: Covid in Kampot, Cambodia 2020
After getting my finger nearly bitten off by an alligator gar in Sihanoukville, I made my way over to Kampot where I had some friends running a guesthouse and had wanted to visit anyway.
I could have stayed in Kampot forever it had such a chill vibe and lush, beautiful nature along the river. Not to mention a great music scene. But the corona virus was starting to make its way out of China and a bit of panic was striking neighboring countries in the form of mask and hand sanitizer hoarding.
Here's what being in Kampot Cambodia was like in the very early days of Covid-19.
Part 3: Crossing into Vietnam
On day 4 of being officially in exile from my job in China I decided to go to Vietnam from Cambodia. I ran into some cool Serb dudes on the bus to Ho Chi Minh City and found out they were in the same boat - can't go back to their jobs in Suzhou and are just traveling SE Asia until they can figure things out.
Also check out my podcast about unusual expat lives at Rootabaga.org
Part 4: a month in Saigon
aka early days of getting your temperature checked everywhere you go.
Part 5: (Literally) riding out Covid-19 - southern Vietnam by bicycle 2020
Gearing up in HCMC
I was in Cambodia on vacation from my job in China when Covid-19 broke out and my company told me not to come back any time soon. At first I saw this as more of a blessing than a curse. Who wouldn't want an extended vacation in SE Asia? After a couple of weeks more in Cambodia keeping an eye on the virus situation in China and Cambodia, I decided to go to Vietnam and try my luck at a bicycle ride from south to north.
I was unprepared and had never done a long bike trek but figured this was a good opportunity to try. I spent a couple weeks with a friend looking for a bike and gear and getting ready. I read about Bui Huu Nghia, a street full of bike shops, and ended up with a super cheap Vietnamese brand mountain bike. Nothing really was right about it for me, except the price. It was heavy, too small and had no front rack, which would have helped with my load. But whatever. It would do the trick.
If you are looking for a bike in HCMC, there are better options, including a cluster of bike shops on Vo Thi Sau Street in District 1 and a handful of high-end bike shops around the city.
Here's a little video about getting ready for the trip in Saigon.
Day 1: Saigon to Bihn Mihn
I didn't make it far but some interesting moments - like my teeth cleaning. I only made it about 60k from my room near the center of Saigon. Before I was out of the city I spotted a small dental clinic. I had been meaning to get my teeth cleaned in Saigon where I knew it was cheaper than Shanghai and I knew this would be my last chance for a while. The dental clinic was taking coronavirus precautions but the guy who cleaned my teeth seemed to have no idea what he was doing. Super painful and he seemed to have no method.
It took a while to get to some scenery heading east out of Saigon.
It was a fairly hot and boring ride on busy roads through industrial areas but using bikemaps app, I was able to ride some nice back streets and even some dirt roads. Met lots of friendly people who offered help and one lonely retired Brit expat in a small village who could barely contain his joy at having someone to talk with. Sweet guy and it was hard to pull away after I charged my phone a bit and rehydrated.
Payoff near the end of the ride
At one point after about 40k I thought I was going to have a heat stroke but pulled over at a little shaded cafe. Couldn't believe my luck when I found a row of hammocks by a little pond surrounded by flowers and the owner set me up with an extension chord to charge my phone, a fan, without me even asking.
Rush hour, factory town
At about 5 pm in some satellite town of Saigon, I started seeing hundreds of workers pouring out of factories and plants. Everything from micro-chips to steel pipes. And everyone got off at exactly the same time and for some reason, in one village, they all needed get through one tiny hole in a wall. We all had to wait our turn to squeeze through.
And later, near sunset there were dozens and dozens of kites flying in a very rural area and couldn't help but go off course to find them. Ran into some little gangstas playing elsewhere while their kites flew high tied to bikes and things.
Accommodations are not always ideal on the road
After doing only about 60k I ended up in the only in I could find, a disgusting fleabag hotel that I think was actually a brothel. (US$6) There was an attached massage parlor but I wasn't expecting to find used condoms in the waste basket, stains on the sheets and little flea-like bugs in the bed. I ended up sleeping on the floor on my sleeping pad in a a sleeping bag liner. Oh well, they had cold beer so I survived. Discretion advised.
Day one done, a nice sleep on the floor (next to a filthy bed) and it was time to ride again. Or so I thought. Day 2 next.
Day 2: Ride interrupted
After a rough night's sleep on the floor in a dirty brothel the road was sounding pretty good. My goal was to get to Phan Thiet on the coast but I knew that would be a good 2-day ride. First I grabbed a quick street banh mi and stopped at a roadside cafe for an iced coffee. After I finished my sandwich the sweet woman at the cafe gestured to one of the hammocks in case I needed a nap, which I thought was funny since it was about 8 am. I must have I looked like I had been riding all night. (Don't miss Day 1)
A busy Highway 1 meant plan B
I started out following my bikemap app route again. It was doing a good job so far keeping me off busy roads. But today it took me to a dead end into what looked like a company or government compound and the guard wasn't about to let me pass through. I spent a good couple of hours looking for an alternate route which would not put me too long on National Route 1A, which I was loosely following. 1A was scary as hell with massive trucks and buses changing lanes, passing dodging bikes and scooters.
Not the kind of hitchhiking I had planned
After a while reluctantly trying to ride 1A, I stopped for lunch at a trucker diner. Sitting there I decided to try to hitchhike to Phan Thiet, which would save me a day and keep me off an ugly, dangerous stretch of highway. At the truck stop I found some cardboard and borrowed a marker to make a sign. A friendly teen grabbed the marker from me and wrote out Phan Thiet for me.
I should have asked people there for a ride and most of them were aware of me and my plan but I was a little timid about it and hopped on my bike and road to the nearest gas station. I was standing there with my sign when gas station attendant walked over. Thought he was going to run me off but he grabbed my sign and stepped out to flag down a ride. Only he had a bus in mind, and in about 30 seconds he'd stopped a sleeper bus.
The driver's assistant hopped off, looked at me like he thought I was crazy and after a few minutes agreed to take on me and bike. I was tired and frustrated and not in the mood to bargain so I agreed to the first price he named - 400,000 VND ($16). It was a bit of a rip off but he knew I needed the ride. So off we were to Phan Thiet.
The bus driver was pretty insane and was chatting on his phone the whole time, often with both hands on the phone and steering with his elbows.
Coastal city, an abandoned theme park, spirits lifted
The driver pissed me when he dumped me well short of where I was trying to go and where the bus was supposed to go. I guess he didn't want to get caught by his company with a passenger he was pocketing the money for. But it was all cool since the minute I got off the bus I felt a different vibe. It no longer felt like an industrial suburb of Saigon and I could feel the fresh breeze off the sea. Before I even got a kilometre on the bike I saw an abandoned building with some weird stuff going on, not least of which was an acre of coconut husks drying in the parking lot. Snooping around a bit I realized this was the entrance to some sort of abandoned park surrounded by a moat.
I hid my bike and climbed to the top of the 5 or 6 story building, looking for a way into the park or somewhere to fly my Mavic Air without drawing too much attention. The park was wicked and full of weird sculptures but I could see a couple of people inside who looked like groundskeepers. The only bridge over the moat was gated off and had no entry signs. I did manage to do a little flying but the wind was hard and I almost couldn't control the Mav so it didn't last long.
After another 20k ride through the scenic little town of Phan Thiet I got a room at a guesthouse on the edge of town with a room looking over an inlet, had pho in someone's home/restaurant and got a good night's zzzs.
Day 3-5: Up the coast
Epic, grueling bike tour of Vietnam
I felt a little guilty for taking a bus the previous day and felt the need for a good long ride but the town of Mui Ne was only about 30 kilometers up the coast from Phan Thiet and I had read good things about the beaches there and that was my goal for the day. So this was not starting out to be a super physically challenging tour.
A late breakfast in an open-air cafe that would not have been out of place in a trendy Seoul neighborhood was not a good omen for progress. But it was my first time to have a DIY Vietnamese banh mi, all the ingredients on a plate and a super crispy, fresh baguette ready to stuff. And some insane coffee to wire me for a ride.
Famous dunes of Mui Ne
My spirits were much higher riding up the coast with sweeping views of the sea and fishing villages and fresh air. Something about the landscape here really reminded me of southern California. Dry and hot, cactus and bright flowers, and low, tile-roofed houses. One of the most striking things was the dunes of almost mars-red sand that was soft as baby powder. I don't think I'd ever seen or touched such soft and such red sand.
Actually I had checked it out on Google earth days earlier, trying to figure out if it was worth a swing through. I was seriously puzzled by the color from satellite images. I was even worried it was just a massive concrete swat, it looked so barren and dead. Was so relieved to find out it was natural. Turns out the dunes are a big tourist attraction and lots of money is made off one area where tourists pay to slide down the dunes on sleds.
About halfway to Mui Ne, a young dude with a giant backpack draped over the rear of his bike rode up beside me. He was heading to Mui Ne too so we rode the rest of the way chatting and comparing road stories. A few days later Max, from Amsterdam, and I would ride the same route together.
Mui Ne going to be home for a few days
After I found a cozy inn next to the beach I decided to stay for a a few days. What was the rush? No work in China until at least March. (How optimistic that sounds now). Mui Ne was a trip. Most of the tourists were Russian and menus and signs were mainly in Vietnamese and russian. English seemed to be a third language. The motel reminded me of a roadside motel in Florida when I was a kid - bright beach colors, ocean motifs painted on the walls.
Despite feeling a bit like an outsider I was enjoying the beach, some epic sunsets, and exploring the area, with one run-in withe local wildlife. Not sure what the hell got me but I was covered in a painful itchy rash I thought was sand fleas, but a pharmacist insisted it was jellyfish. And I did one pretty hard 25 kilometer ride up some hilly coastal roads to keep in shape, took a lot of photos and started planning the next part of the trip.
Corona virus was the talk
The corona virus was the dominant topic among the tourists but I don't think anyone had any idea the havoc it was about to wreak globally. Mainly people were talking about the source, which was rumored to be exotic animals and wet markets in Wuhan. Ironically, the most popular bar near me in Mui ne didn't seem to have gotten the memo according to its menu.
Amsterdam Max had suggested taking a bus up into the mountain town of Dalat so that he could enjoy the 25+ kilometer cruise down. I was hesitant to cheat again and thought it would be better to just stay on the relatively flat coast going north. But finally Max convinced me it would be fun so after about 3 days on the beach I put the bike on a bus and went to Dalat where he had already arrived.
Day 6-9: Dalat to Nha Trang - Central Highland Days
Dodging disease in Dalat
A few days in Mui Ne (previous post) and I was getting a little beach and fishing village overload. The coastal road north sounded flat and easier but I worried that the ride would become too repetitive. Plus I was suddenly in the mood for cooler temperatures and some mountain scenery. A Dutch cyclist I met, Max, had the idea of going to Dalat in the Central Highlands and riding the long downhill to the coastal plains and that was starting to sound like a good plan. Plus I had been to Dalat more than 10 years ago and I was curious to see how much it had changed. Dalat is known for being a cool, summer hill station retreat for the French during the colonial era and being a coffee growing area. So I took Max's advice and hopped on a bus up to Dalat to skip the hard ride up. It was a scenic ride and I was stoked to be getting into those hills. If you missed earlier posts go here.
Not sure if the town was feeling the effects of the corona virus yet but I was, on my psyche at least. I was getting pretty depressed at how the trip was turning out. Unsure if I should keep going north and wondering why I was even doing the trip when I could have joined friends who live in Hanoi instead of doing this crazy thing alone in uncertain times. The plan was to join Max and ride to Nha Trang, a ride that would include an amazing 26+ kilometer continuous downhill cruise from the highlands to the coastal plains. But I started remembering visions I had of cycling Vietnam years ago - riding through rural villages and encountering people with not much contact with foreigners, especially some of the many ethnic minorities that make Vietnam so unique. The coastal route was filled with tourist towns and the busy north-south highway, making that hard to get.
I started looking at options on a more inland route that would change the dynamic of the trip. I got in touch with Max and told him I might not join him for the ride to the coast and to my surprise he thought my idea might be better. We met for drinks and talked about the options but in the end he convinced me to join him on the downhill to Nha Trang. I could have kept going solo but was feeling a little depressed about the whole virus situation and how I was somehow managing to miss seeing my friends up North again. It felt like I needed to travel with someone.
Here's me pondering the decision and trying to make vlog content (and rejoicing when I found an ATM that would accept my Chinese card when I was almost out of cash)
Dalat looked like it would be a super fun town to chill in, but the mood was weird under the circumstances. The one time I felt at ease was drinking local infused rice wine with the guys at Cù Rú, a giant bar set up in a green house on the outskirts of town. The people who run it are artsy Saigon transplants and they have the hippest bar in town with great music, lounge-y vibe, interesting conversationalists, and connections to the local live music scene.
We agreed to meet the next morning with aim of getting near the pass where the long downhill ride started and stay one night. The first day did not do much to make me feel better. It wasn't a hard ride but it was pretty boring at first. Farm after farm, green house after green house and a little dead looking since it was winter. Everything looked the same for miles. Not ugly but not that great either.
Note to self: some wicked guesthouses in the middle of nowhere
After about 30km we started looking for a place to stay based on some pins we'd placed at what looked like promising villages or potential guesthouses. We stopped at one homestay guesthouse Max had found and it looked amazing but it was only early afternoon and we felt like we had not covered enough road. Plus the owners were away. They were super friendly on the phone and wanted to come help us but we decided to move on. I'd love to go back some day because it looked to cool.
Riding on we came to an area that felt like a decent stopping point and saw a billboard for rooms at a coffee coffee "resort". We decided to check it out and it turned out to be perfect. Chappi's is a coffee growing plantation run by a Swiss guy and his Vietnamese wife whose family has been coffee growers for several generations. Rustic hand-built cabins, stunning central highlands scenery, lots of pets, good coffee, good people and the promise of home-cooked food and we were sold.
Chappi Mountains Coffee Guesthouse
We didn't have much time to explore the coffee plants or learn much about the operation but they did show us several dead coffee and banana trees and said it was the first time they could remember temperatures dropping low enough in winter to kill the plants. Lovely place I'd like to visit again.
To the sea
The next morning after two cups of locally-grown rocket fuel we were ready for some uphill before the insane long downhill. The day before, Max and I had fallen into the groove. He's a younger, former cycle racer and was riding a better bike so he naturally would get ahead, and then stop and wait, a pattern he didn't seem to mind.
This day it kind of messed with us because when he got to the pass he pulled into a scenic view point pull-off that I somehow missed and he was chilling with a park ranger. So when I got to the top I rode right past him. That resulted in pretty much a half a day of riding without ever seeing each other. What sucks is that Max, being the loyal and attentive riding partner he proved often to be, went back downhill a couple of kilometers to check on me. Sorry bro.
On the grueling climb up to the pass a couple of interesting things happened. For one, ever since I had arrived in Cambodia, and then Vietnam, I had not heard any tropical birds or wildlife. But for the first time, on the ride up which was through a national forest and very dense jungle I started hearing some amazing sounds. Birds for sure, monkeys likely. I stopped to make a little recording.
Near the top of the climb to the pass, I saw an older gentleman cruising down the opposite direction. I was stopped taking a break so he pulled over. It was Jean Francois (if I remember correctly), a road-weathered but incredibly energetic 70-something French man with a gaping smile (after a brutal climb up the other side!). He told me he'd seen Max ahead and a little bit about how he'd cycled in pretty much every continent on the globe. Amazing dude and I am so sad I did not take his photo. Ride on my beautiful friend. (He brought up the lack of wild life and I told him about my bird recordings. He just laughed and told me about his rides in Borneo)
So anyway. I had a beautiful ride down the other side but without my buddy Max. Here's a little video recap of the day.
30k of downhill thrills in the Central Highlands
I made frequent stops to take photos and set up my Xiaomi Yi action cam but somehow Max never caught up with me. Bizarrely, at the very bottom, moments after I had decided that he had just gotten tired of riding with me, and I had started booking on towards the coast on the plains, I got a message saying he was at the bottom at a diner, and we managed to connect again.
Downhill in images
Max picked up a third cyclist along the way, the energetic Gabriella from Czech Republic, who was riding an insane triangle route mostly the same we had ridden, including the uphill to Dalat that we had bussed - with only a tiny backpack with barely a change of clothes. Made me feel like the biggest wuss.
To make matters worse, she was an expert at finding every swimming hole along the way and was constantly swimming, something I sorely wanted to do but kept missing the swimming holes she was so adept at spotting when she pedalled way ahead of us. We only heard about them later.
Finally the three of us cruised into rush hour in Nha Trang. Riding seemed at the time like an extreme sport. I'd ridden my bike for days in Saigon and I've spent a good bit of time in Hanoi scooters but this was insane and I was actually worried for the first time that one of us would get hurt. But after 70 kilometers I was in little mood to set up cameras. So to our respective guesthouses we rode.
Nha Trang was weird. My hotel was weird (I had to go through a foot massage shop to get the elevator and there no sign to the hotel), the vibe was weird with almost only Russian families to be seen, and my state was weird with continuing news of the virus and no end in sight.
I'd been to Nha Trang and Dalat both many years ago. Neither seemed anything like what I remembered but I wasn't in the mood to dwell on what the differences were. I do remember reading warnings about Nha Trang that one needed to be careful on the beach at night because ladyboy muggers would accost you on the beach or walking home, or just that crime in general was rampant. I'm pretty sure this was no longer an issue. Here's what the first day or two looked like in snapshots.
Po Nagar Champa Shrine
History and museums had been lacking on this trip so when I heard that Nha Trang had been a center of the ancient Champa culture I did squeeze in a visit an amazing old Champa shrine complex, Po Nagar Tower. The structures and views from the hilltop setting were pretty awe inspiring and the interior of the main shrine is an active place of worship of the goddess Yan Po Nagar. I've seen a few temple interiors in my 23 years in Asia but I can honestly say this one blew me away with its intensely smoky and mysterious vibe and vivid reds, yellows, sparkly stones and gilt details. No photos are allowed and I can't even find on online. We were required to wear robes over shorts and tee shirts to enter. I did at least get some exterior shots.
Beautiful town, dismal vibe
I don't know whether it was the virus vibe or just being a winter resort town that affected the mood among locals here but in my hotel and surrounding shops the mood was grim. I had two horrible massages here where the masseuses were more interested in their phones than giving a decent massage. But I soon realized massages are a terrible idea anyway during a pandemic so I gave up on my usual partaking.
Anyway, I got a little bike maintenance done, got some good rest, ate well, did some laundry and planned the next ride (kind of) with Max. That's up next.
Day 10-15: Back into the hills - Buon Ma Thuot
@sonyalpha #sonya7ii #sonyalpha @tamronusa #tamron #tamron1728 #solocycling #vietnam #kites #cyclevietnam #binhminh #biketour #diy #gear #cycle #bike @decathlon_vietnam #hochiminhcity #saigon @trekkingbyforclaz @_____btwin_cycles_____ @xiaomi.global #blackburnpannier #etc #cyclegram #vietnam @garmin @bikemap @fornixbicycles #dalat #cambodia #kampot #HCMC #Vietnam #covid19 #Serbians #expat #exile #coronavirus