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David Sovka: Eating, cycling and snorkelling our way to Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam's largest city, also known as Saigon, is the end of the road for our bike trip from Hanoi

Part Five – Evil food, Garbage and Coughing: In which the author tells the truth about food to power, learns what it is like to be Meghan and Harry, and wonders if it’s the garbage that makes Russians so dour

The greeting you most often hear in Vietnam is xin chao, pronounced “sin chow.” I believe it means “evil food” because that’s what happens each time it is wished upon us. Breakfast, lunch and dinner: all cursed. What I’m saying is that despite what you may have heard, the food in Southeast Asia is not so much “good” as it is “dodgy.”

Now, I know this may not be a universally popular position. Some people will say they LOVE the blend of unique flavours from diverse cultures with a hazy grasp of kitchen hygiene. But the thing you have to keep in mind is that those people are CRAZY.

You may have travelled to Southeast Asia yourself and want to argue because you are a bad person: “No way, Dave, the food is great!” What you’re forgetting is that you were high out of your mind the entire time. You’re probably high right now, and should go have a good lie down.

Sure, the Canadian version of Vietnamese food is delicious. This is because we have food safety laws that restrict the number of icky bug parts per dish; require staff to wash their hands and chopsticks; and generally frown on serving customers meals that cause the kind of tummy troubles requiring hospitalization and/or expensive visits from the good people at Roto-Rooter.

No, the food in Vietnam is at best disappointing, and at worst, is going to cost you a lot in terms of underwear and personal pride. I am speaking from personal experience. This is not to say that you shouldn’t go to Southeast Asia. By all means go, but maybe bring along a couple of sandwiches and a flask of coffee or something.

Hello! Hello!

Learning English is important in Vietnam, a country of hustlers. I mean that in a good way. Despite the Socialist Republic of Vietnam officially being a communist state, there is no pension scheme, no free education, no health care, and no insurance — apart from what its citizens pay for out of their own pockets.

“I have to put something away each month to take care of my parents, and my children,” explains our tour guide, Son. This non-Communist Party line is delivered with a perfect Gallic shrug, just before we pass around the hat to collect tips for our driver, our mechanic, and Son himself.

Son speaks English well, which gives him a leg up in the tour guide business. Since Vietnam relaxed its anti-western policies in the 1990s, English is taught in schools — but in the same way that French is taught in Alberta. Let’s call it rudimentary (rudimentaire, if you’re wondering where I went to school). Even so, it is always near schools and playgrounds where we hear the most English spoken.

Each day we are hailed by big smiles, joyful waves and loud shouts of “Hello!” by hundreds of school children. It happens in big cities and in tiny villages, everywhere we go in Vietnam, and it is as exhilarating as it is exhausting. For one thing, this is not the usual greeting cyclists receive in Canada. In Victoria people do not smile and say hello, they write letters to the editor complaining about bike lanes.

For another thing, it’s jolly dangerous. The kids are keen to practice their English and to high-five the sweaty farrangs on bicycles, and they reach out wee hands perilously close as we wobble along, dodging potholes, chickens, buffalo poo, and pairs of mangy dogs in flagrante delicto, if that’s the phrase I want. We smile and wave back, and wish them evil food. As I say, exhilarating and exhausting. We feel like royalty, and empathize a little with Harry and Meghan. Just a little.

Nha Trang

The southeast coast of Vietnam is very pretty, especially from a distance, say when viewed from the Sea of Tranquility on the Moon. It’s characterized by wide, sweeping bays with white and golden sand beaches. Up close there is a lot of garbage. More than you’re thinking.

Rubbish is everywhere in Vietnam, but for obvious reasons it doesn’t make it into postcard pictures. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to slow down the tourist trade. The southeast coast is Vietnam’s premier destination for beach holidays, no matter what is on the beach or in the water.

Nha Trang is a good example of how fast the tranquil fishing villages up and down the coast are turning into high-energy, high-rise beach resorts. It’s a lot like what happened to California in the twentieth century, here resulting in narrow glass and steel towers looming above a six km-long crescent of beach, an azure bay full of islands on one side, a ring of low hills on the other. One big difference from California is the tourists themselves: here the target market is a mix wealthy Asians, and a lot of Russians. Again, more than you’re thinking.

In fact, the busy streets below the towers are jammed cheek-to-jowl with dour-faced Russians. You can tell them at a distance by their ultra-white skin (it is winter in Moscow) and their professional frowns. Hanoi Vodka is on sale everywhere. Sandwich board menus outside restaurants are in Russian, as are hotel etiquette cards posted in elevators, which helpfully explain that we are not allowed to bring handguns or durian fruit into the hotel. I swear I’m not making this up.

We have a day off from cycling, and it is to be spent snorkelling in the azure – from a distance, remember – waters of the bay. After a dodgy breakfast we take a bus down Nha Trang’s impressive promenade, which is dotted with parks and sculpture gardens. Our destination is the tourist dock at Bến tàu Hòn Tằm. I don’t expect you to remember that, but offer it as an authentic Vietnamese treat after grousing about the food in the first few paragraphs.

We catch one of the many blue and red-painted boats that transport tourists between the mainland and the islands. It’s a short trip, maybe 10 minutes, and we are in Trí Nguyên, a village that covers about a fifth of Hòn Miễu island. The village is a tightly-packed cluster of homes and shops connected by a concrete-paved pathway with the requisite number of chickens, surprise fish markets, paired dogs, and, of course, garbage.

Four or five small, round bamboo boats, tricky to steer unless you have the knack of it, meet us on the far side of the island and take us out past a flotilla of fish farms housing every kind of soon-to-be-seafood you can imagine. The bamboo boats bring us to … the same blue and red boat that took us to the other side of the island. Maybe this is Soviet-style collective transportation? Eventually we are taken to a spot known for snorkelling, and it proves to be great, if you are not so much interested in seeing fish as you are in seeing more garbage. Still, more than you’re thinking.

While we eat a dodgy lunch on the boat, Son braves the waters by himself to collect rice bags and beer cans and the plastic leftovers of our selfish, convenient lives. We watch him struggle against the current, tugging an armload of detritus towards our boat.

The captain doesn’t seem to understand what’s going on. Neither does the local in the fishing boat behind Son, who casually pitches the morning’s rubbish into the water. He doesn’t care. It wouldn’t cross his mind that he should. Vietnam has so many problems to deal with, so many survival-level struggles, that littering is just not on the collective radar.

It’s clear that Son’s struggle to clean up this tiny part of the coast is completely pointless. Nevertheless. Nevertheless what?

One by one we put down lunch, and re-enter the water. We swim out and pick up a few scraps of rubbish. Drops of water in the proverbial ocean, we know. And yet, if not us, who? This beautiful land needs somebody to care, and we have been blessed with no cares in the world beyond those of our own making.

Son’s struggle proves to be not so pointless after all.

The End of the Road

The Lonely Planet’s guide to Vietnam index lists Saigon as “see Ho Chi Minh City,” even though everybody in the south of the country still calls it Saigon. It’s been called Saigon for a long time; the name change came in 1975 when it fell to advancing North Vietnamese forces. Until the late 17th century it was part of the Kingdom of Cambodia, a small port town called Prey Nokor, which means “prey nokor” in the Khmer language.

That small port town is unrecognizable today. Saigon – or, if you’re unromantic and/or sided with the north – Ho Chi Minh City, is massive. Officially the metropolitan area has 13 million people, but everybody smiles when they say that number. Saigon is a magnet for people and opportunity. It’s the business centre of the country, and is seen as a gateway to success in the modern Vietnam. Everybody is drawn there – including 8.6 million international tourists in 2019, 4.1 million of whom were just overnight visitors.

Saigon draws us, too. It looms in our minds, even 300 km away in Dalat, one of Vietnam’s most delightful cities, with an appealing Swiss-French feel given the architecture and the slightly cooler temperatures of the south-central highlands. We feel the pull of Saigon’s energy and hustle as we cycle ever further south, onto the plains near the coast, where green and black pepper vines grow alongside row upon row of dragon fruit. These wintertime plains remind me of early summer in Southern Alberta, only it is much hotter here, with more salt harvesting ponds, and more water buffalos.

Eventually we can cycle no further. The toll road into Saigon does not allow bicycles, unless you know who to pay, and how much. We don’t complain. In truth, after 1,700 kilometres of travel from Hanoi in the north, it’s nice to get off the bikes and sit in the bus for a bit. The bus, after all, has air conditioning. The bus has a driver who can negotiate with the corrupt toll booth operators. The bus has air filters, and the closer we get to the Big City, the closer we get to the Big City Smoke.

Over the last few days I have begun to cough, and it gets worse the farther south we cycle. At first, I blame it on the daily physical exertion in the extreme heat; then on an imaginary Canadian bug I might have brought with me; then on the crop stubble being burned off by farmers; and finally, as we get close enough to peer at the hazy murk above Saigon, I blame the serious lung-buggering air pollution of the city.

It makes me worry, naturally. Saigon is the end of the road for our bike trip from Hanoi, but not for our cycle adventures in Southeast Asia. Tomorrow evening we meet a new group of international cyclists for our next trip south to the Mekong Delta, and then northwest through Cambodia and into Thailand.

I look again at the pollution hanging in the air above the city and cough. As yet, no one is seriously talking about the reports of a mysterious virus in China.

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