We were determined to get back into the hills on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so from My Son we turned inland on one of those “short cuts that’s really a long cut” roads that Matt always digs up on his various route finding apps. It may not have been such slow going if the dirt road had not turned to puddles and mud in a heavy rainstorm the night before. Matt really prefers that I ride ahead of him, so I was the one to discover a deceptively deep puddle with some loose rocks on the bottom, enough to send my top-heavy big-booty bike careening into the mud. Of course, I went down with it and Matt safely documented from afar. Ok, he did get one boot muddy too while helping to extract my bike and me from our predicament.
A few more days of hot, hilly riding (what’s new?), and meeting some real characters along the way, brought us to the likeable city of Kon Tum. We encountered genuinely friendly people and lots of good street food, the two most important aspects of our travel at this point. That evening the streets echoed with deep drum beats while groups of adolescent boys roamed the streets and took over intersections for lion dances and fire-blowing performances. While watching one troupe perform in the courtyard of a mansion in exchange for a generous donation from the occupants, we learned that this was only the lead up to the actual Mid-Autumn Festival the next day.
Not wanting to miss out on even better festivities, we decided to stay an extra day in Kon Tum. The following night was more of the same lion dances, but with the addition of teams of performers snaking long, flowing dragon puppets through the streets. That alone was quite a feat since so many people turned out to watch from the seat of their motorbike that the streets were packed and intersections were at a stand still, but this appeared to just be part of the tradition. The festival is largely a celebration of children, who are given gifts of lanterns and fun masks to wear. In Kon Tum, bands of teens had crafted their own large-scale lanterns, the ever-popular minions included, which they paraded above the crowds like a low-tech Macy’s day parade. We also bought some of the traditional moon cakes from temporary stalls that reminded us of fireworks stands for 4th of July. The dense moon cakes were filled with a sweet paste and a hardened egg yolk in each half when split in half.
We continued south, overnighting in another fun city called Buon Ma Thuot, and passing by scenic Lak Lake, then arriving late in the day at the junction for Hwy 722, an alternative route to Dalat. The first ten miles of our ride the next morning took us on a gentle climb through coffeeland and poor communities, but the road was in solid shape even with a fun rope-pulled boat ferry crossing on a small river. Then it abruptly turned to dirt as it steeply ascended a hill that formed one side of the broad valley. The road soon narrowed to a deeply rutted footpath, which in and of itself would have been rideable except that it was made of a treacherous layer of extremely slippery compacted clay. We barely maintained enough traction to push forward and even then the wheels slipped out from underneath our bikes a few times.
How could this be the correct road? Our route apps insisted that it was, so I googled “Road 722 in Vietnam” to see if we could get more information on what lay ahead, optimistic that this was just a temporary inconvenience. Sure enough, a blog entry popped up written by some motorbikers who had similar ambitions as us, but sought out this road from the Dalat end. It took them seven hours to go 15 kilometers, mostly pushing their bikes through really rough conditions. And they were going downhill.
We had provisions to camp, which would be a given if we continued on. But after only covering one and a half miles in two hours and not really having any fun, we realized the scope of the adventure. It would be a real feat of endurance with some moments of misery to make it the 40ish miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain to Dalat. Or we could turn around and take the regular road to Dalat, thus having more time to see more of Vietnam. As though it was sent to put an end to our indecision, it started to rain and the leeches came out. So... We reached the same town where we had started that morning in the pouring rain. We were muddy, soaked, and disheartened from not being hardcore, but still happy to be off that hellish trail marked as a highway on multiple maps.
Highway 725 proved to be a real road, even recently expanded and improved, so the 4,000-foot climb up to Dalat went quite smoothly. While the cool mountain climate requiring long-sleeves (or a winter jacket if you are Vietnamese) was indeed a nice relief from the heat, we were not particularly drawn to the city itself. The real charm of the area is in the outlying attractions, such as waterfalls, which we were not exactly motivated to ride to on the one rainy day we had for exploring. But since we had worked so hard to get up there, we had to at least see something exciting. This took the form of “The Crazy House”, a fanciful creation of a radical architect who seemingly sculpted buildings out of cement rather than constructed them. Dalat’s famed kitsch is popular with Chinese tourists, whom we followed on vine-shaped staircases that traversed steep rooftops while basking in the irony of a “natural theme to inspire people to be closer with nature” made entirely out of shoddily-painted concrete.
We actually much preferred the 100 Roofs Café, a lesser-known alternative with the same core concept as the Crazy House. We stumbled upon it by chance and almost passed it by since the tiny storefront did not reveal the vast multi-floor maze of dark rooms and narrow passageways inside. It would have been perfect for Halloween. We got an intimate tour from the daughter of the visionary architect, who is--not too surprisingly--friends with the creator of the Crazy House.
In the afternoon, we took shelter from the rain in Dalat’s extensive market, sampling strawberries and wine, local products that thrive in the otherwise pine-forested hilly terrain. A nice stop at Pongour Falls on the way out of town the next day rounded out our Dalat experience.
Next we were aiming for the one and only Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly called Saigon by the people who live there, albeit with a little bit of trepidation. We were able to take back roads for most of the way, rapidly descending into the heat once again. Our route protected us from the worst of the traffic, but gazing across hazy valleys indicated we had not escaped HCMC’s notorious air pollution blowing inland. Out came the pollution masks for the first time since… I don’t know when.
Having arrived to Saigon first through an industrial zone and shipping port, we were pleasantly surprised with the feel of the city once we got into the heart of it. Referred to by numbered districts a la Hunger Games, we headed straight for District One and found an alley-based neighborhood with quieter guesthouses than the nearby backpacker district of Pham Ngu Lao, lazily known as PNL. The volume of traffic was certainly intense, but having already been subjected to two months of Vietnamese-style driving, it was not nearly as intimidating as we had been led to believe it would be. The one issue we really had was motorbikes honking us, as pedestrians, when they opted for the sidewalk over the road. Really? Where would they prefer us to walk, in the middle of the road?
After a few days of taking in Saigon, we concluded that it was like a Vietnamese version of New York City: real, gritty, edgy, bustling, essential to find your niche, but also possible to find anything you desire, such as… craft beer! Hands down the best craft beer we have sampled on this journey, we could have visited Pasteur Street Brewing Company every night if the ol’ travel budget allowed. It came as no surprise once we learned the brewmaster was previously brewing at Upslope in Boulder, Colorado. I was smitten with a passionfruit wheat and Matt loved the perfectly hoppy IPA.
Besides the best beer, we also found the best bike mechanic of our journey thus far. Van claims that the well-stocked, fairly-priced Saigon Bike Shop is only his hobby; his bread and butter comes from customizable bike tours of the Mekong Delta and beyond. We spent a day pampering the bikes with everything they needed except a good cleaning, then turned our attention towards various errands that I will spare you the details of in the city where you can find anything you desire. Including fresh-baked cream puffs and McDonald’s soft serve. Not that we would know from firsthand experience or anything…
One important errand worth noting was meeting up with Tieme, an ex-pat who cycled his way to Saigon from the Netherlands and had some amazing stories to tell over dinner one night. He also happened to hold the key to our future of travel: a non-expired ATM card. We had contacted him through the Warm Showers network to see if he could receive it for us. Little did we know that would involve tracking it down at an obscure post office location to be picked up in person. Dinner was the least we owed him for this essential favor!
All of our errands left us little time for sightseeing in Saigon, but we did make it to the hard-hitting exhibits of the War Remnants Museum one afternoon. In addition to an explicit overview of the American-Vietnam War, it also had an important display of the ongoing effects of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnamese society, and a moving collection of photographs taken by photojournalists from all sides who perished in the conflict.
We took comfort from this gravity with some seriously amazing street food, perhaps the best we have encountered in Vietnam, if not this trip, and that is saying a lot considering the time we spent in Thailand. It took a while for me to come around to Vietnamese food, but when I did, it was wholeheartedly. Bun thit nuong was a personal favorite of ours, made up of grilled pork over cold vermicelli rice noodles, garnished with cucumber, a selection of herbs, and mildly spicy fish sauce. Yes, folks, my husband loves things covered in fish sauce these days. Proof that travel is life-changing!
We could have spent another week in Saigon, ideally not running errands, but our visas were rapidly approaching an expiration date and we still had the whole Mekong Delta to see.