The first day started with a river cruise from My Tho. It started on a larger boat with a motor but we soon transferred to a smaller boat with a skinny old man in the back who paddled us into a increasingly narrowing canal. We got out on an island and followed a small dirt path through fruit tree gardens. We stopped at a cafe where we ate locally grown fruit and drank green tea sweetened with honey and lime. Then it was back on the boat, which took us to lunch, but not before a quick look at the temple of the Coconut Sect, a religious order started by a man who ate only coconuts and drank only coconut milk. After lunch we met up with the van and then we finally hit the bikes for a 17 km bike ride along the river for my first real look at the countryside I had signed up to see. Another boat took our bikes, our overnight bags, and us to the home stay where I would spend the night. It was like camping!
The second day we set off on our bikes around the island past beautiful houses with large open verandas. Vietnamese pop music drifted out while the inhabitants lounged around in hammocks. A father crouched around a bike, fixing it, while his two young sons sat nearby and watched with the radio on in the background reminded me of similar Saturday afternoons with my dad in the garage. We ran into two other tourists who were delighting the local children by taking their pictures. They laughed and hit each other when they saw the results. I smiled and said hello to school-aged children as they waved and shouted at me. This happened everywhere I went.
Then we took a ferry over to the mainland where we continued on through rice fields and past brick kilns. Large white funereal monuments rose up from the fields, family ancestors laid to rest in the same fields they had worked themselves. Cows lounged in the sun along the path, undisturbed by us or the auto bikes that whizzed by. The sun beat down as the temperature soared and my energy leaked away. When we finally stopped for a drink after 35km, I was done for the day. We rode the rest of the way to our lunch stop and then onto Can Tho.
Cud-chewing cow who ignored us as we biked past.
My hotel that night was horrific with two gray mice snuggled up under my pillow in my first room. My second room was better but I stilled spied a gecko running around in the bathroom, but I was too tired at that point to care much. That night my tour guide, Le, didn't take me to the normal tourist venues but instead to a back alley stall for dinner. We sat on low plastic stools in an open air restaurant and ate Vietnamese hot pot - chicken in a beef broth mixed with Chinese herbs - with fried chicken feet to finish and several bottles of rice wine to wash it down.
We decided to go get coffee and when we got back to the main street, I suddenly found a helmet in my hand. I had avoided the auto bike taxis in Saigon, but Le was determined to show me the real Vietnam, and with my inhibition lowered, I climbed on and away we went. Where we ended up didn't actually have coffee so I ordered an Orangina and inexplicably ended up with a Bird's Nest drink instead. (And yes, it's really made from bird's nest. It was sweet and not so bad tasting if you can forget its origin, which I never really could.)
The next day we set off to see the floating market. There were almost as many tourist boats as vendors but it was still interesting. Then we hit the bikes, through tiny villages and over small bridges, some of which looked like they might fall apart and into the canals at the slightest provocation. Before lunch we visited a stork sanctuary. It was beautiful to see so many birds everywhere, but my guide said if they strayed too far the rice farmers would capture and fix them up for dinner.
The floating market
Lunch was another hot pot, this time my new favorite dish - sour soup. After lunch we left the small dirt tracks for the larger road towards Chau Doc. It was a little unnerving (okay a lot unnerving) to share the road with cars, auto bikes, and these humongous dump trucks but as the mountains slowly appeared in the background I learned to stay as close to the side as I could without falling in a ditch. I saw ox carts and young boys carrying bags of grain on the backs of their bikes. We stopped for a drink at a hammock cafe. Why don't we have these in Japan or America???
After another day of 35km or so on the bike we hiked another 1km up to the top of a mountain to see the view at sunset. Then Le dropped me off at my hotel (mouse-free this time!) with a promise to take me to another local restaurant for dinner. We had another hot pot, roasted beef, and more rice wine. The ride home was in a cyclo. About halfway back a pair of boys recognized our driver, and realizing that I was a foreigner, ran to catch us. They jumped in with us and rode the rest of the way. They asked my name in English but then grew frustrated that I couldn't speak Vietnamese. They asked Le why he hadn't taught me. I'm not sure what he told them, but I snapped their picture when we got back to the hotel.
My first cyclo ride.
The fourth and final day we set off on another boat cruise, stopping first to see a fishing village. It was crowded with tourists but it was interesting to see the houses up on their stilts with one pole marked to show how high the water got during rainy season. Back in the boat we cruised peacefully and snacked on fruit (they were always feeding me fruit wherever we went) before taking our bikes around another island. We biked through a small town where navigating the bike reminded me of a video game. I was constantly dodging people, bikes, animals, and veering right at the sound of horns so I didn't get run over by scooters from behind. It was crazy. It was awesome.
As we left the town the tracks became packed dirt and one point we had to detour because they were re-doing the road. Even after our small detour (down a ridiculously narrow path and over a small stone bridge that I actually fell off of) we had to ride through wet sand. An older woman on a scooter waited patiently while I hogged the one path that had been packed down some and when I passed she reached out and patted my shoulder and offered me a smile and an encouraging word. After 20km or so we caught another ferry back to the mainland and met up with our van driver who took me back to Saigon. And there the tour ended. I had a fabulous time and if I ever have the money for a private tour again like it, I will definitely jump at the opportunity.
Next up: A Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels.