There is this long-simmering itch in me to bike-ride in Southeast Asia, so when my air miles and budget jive, I convince my friend and fellow Trustee Sohail Abdullah to join me on a 5-day ride from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam to Chau Doc, near the border of Cambodia. It is a 290 miles trip (370 km), nothing to take lightly. Add temperatures of between 90 – 104F in direct sunlight, with active humidity to factor, the ride will not be a piece of cake. But there is a higher cause to consider here. CAI has been active in providing humanitarian aid to the war victims in Yemen and this ride can be an excellent cause to raise extra funds CAI needs for the next 2 months of powder milk, food grains, and medicine required to keep the aid going. The deal is done and we are on our way. The Vietnam currency is the unsavory sounding Dong and they are hard to come by outside the country and I predictably get ripped off changing only about $50 at Dubai Airport.
HCMC airport is modern, clean, quick and efficient; it takes me about 20 minutes to have my passport stamped with a pre-approved visa, clear immigration and customs. A local SIM card, inexpensive, tethers me to the world and keeps me remarkably connected through my stay, even in the most remote villages we pass through. A Grab cab (same-to-same Uber) takes me to the Airbnb pad where Sohail has preceded me. The next 36 hours I spend in HCMC, indeed throughout Vietnam, are some of the best gastronomical delights I’ve experienced in my eventful life. Vietnam is quite inexpensive when it comes to food and accommodation. Our Airbnb room, situated in an ‘affluent’ part of the city, and is squeaky clean and very comfortable, cost us $25/night. There are halal restaurants within 15 minutes sweaty walk away and this is where we (over)nourish our bodies to ready for the tough few days ahead. An average delicious meal of fresh seafood and garden-grown organic vegetables cost us both no more than US$10. We could easily pay 4 times this amount in Dubai or any major city in the US.
HCMC is a city of motorbikes; millions of them abound. Everybody rides one; men, women, kids and the elderly – I do not encounter a single one without a helmet. Crossing the streets is at our peril since nobody stops. We have to barrel our way across oncoming traffic and miraculously, the riders slow down and let us by. Daladala motorbikes are a safe and cheap way to get around. They work in the same fashion as Grab cabs, we order it using an app and they are minutes away, helmets ready for the passenger. The streets between our room and halal restaurants are full of alien stuff for us to gawk at, including massages offerings of many persuasions. The air is hot and humid, perfumed by street-side bacon barbecues, a sight all too common across SE Asia.
And then there are the tropical fruits to devour – mangosteens, rose apples (matufaa), jackfruit (faneesi), huge super juicy, super-sweet grapefruit, larger than cricket size guavas (mapera), lychees, mangoes, pineapples, passion fruit, coconut (madaafu), newly discovered snake fruit and loads of others – we gobble them like starving savages. Vietnam is blessed with abundant organic edible natural resources, untainted by modern chemicals. So far. So, the food we stuff our faces with go through a rapid natural process of transiting and expulsion, and we find ourselves repeatedly ever so hungry; I wish Allah had granted me a spare stomach
Outside of the big cities, access to halal food is a huge challenge and the use of pork rampant. There are other dishes on offer as well – Fried Duck Tongue with Chili Garlic (not filling enough if you ask me), Deep Fried Frogs with Salty Egg (too salty, methinks), or Deep Fried Chicken Knees with Chili Garlic (hmmm, chicken have knees?). We pass on these, naturally. But seafood and vegetable meals (cooked in vegetable oil) as part of our tour package more than make-up for the lack of chicken and red meat. Our tour guides, Van and Phuc (I call him Happy just in case) go way beyond their call of duty to ensure our stringent requirements are complied with and are exceptionally accommodating to our many demands. They also order way more food than we can eat, especially Happy, since he is a foodie, like us. So, every meal has giant prawns, 2 types of fish, soup and green vegetables; the veggies are all fresh, cooked right on our table. The use of fresh garlic and ginger everywhere is rampant, so much so I smell it even in the sweat of humans and the aftermath of bathroom use. Vietnamese are perhaps the cleanest people I have encountered. We get to use rural homes for toilet needs a number of times in the five days of cycling and all of them are spotless. We can’t even enter their homes or toilets with footwear on. One restaurant owner sweeps clean a secluded spot, covers it with a large piece of cloth and we recite our zohr/asr there. We also get to recite salaat in a church lawn once and a Buddhist Pagoda veranda, and nobody says uff.
So, we have to ride 230 miles in 5 days at 46MPD. This is doable, certainly, but I have a clear handicap. I am a long-distance runner and can run you a 10k on demand, no problem. Sohail and the other 2 are long-term seasoned cyclists and can take naps on their seats while peddling if they chose to. The last time I am on a bicycle for more than a minute is over 3 years ago in Vancouver, Canada. I start wobbly on the very professional bike provided but take on the road like a swimmer to the ocean soon enough. The next 5 days are very eventful to state the obvious. We start early and peddle throughout the day and end the torture at about 5 PM. I highlight the more momentous episodes below; the rest are one continues rhythm of peddling to the dhikr of Allah and savoring His astonishing realm:
Day one – A painful start.
We start an hour away from HCMC, after a breakfast of baguettes with cream cheese and coffee. The street vendor wants me to try some lard-based local butter, but I insist on the prepackaged stuff from Malaysia. We are in the rural roads soon enough, riding through miles of dragon-fruit farms, rice paddies, and an occasional guava or a jackfruit tree. The farmers of Vietnam are rapidly abandoning rice paddies in favor of better-priced dragon-fruit that fetches much better prices from the Chinese who now have an insatiable appetite for fancy foods.
The first 20 or so miles pass quickly but then the chafing of my behind and thighs really start biting. Although I have heeded Sohail’s advise and purchased 2 sets of well-padded cycling shorts, the constant chafing takes a toll. We are supposed to do 46 miles today but I am bushed and end up 6 miles short, that we must cover tomorrow. Every muscle in my body is on fire and it’s a herculean task getting myself out of sajda without wanting to scream in agony. I take 2 Advils and go to bed. I sleep like better than a contented baby.
Day two – I take a tumble
I wake up feeling much better but my behind and thighs still ache plenty. The guys change my cycle seat to afford more cushion and this helps considerably. We are now into heavy banana groves and plenty of other green leafy flora. It is hot, yes, but thick clouds give us plenty of shade to peddle along easily. There is not a person in sight, not a sound except the tires of our bikes in gravel. Ah, there is no better feeling, I tell ya! I feel closer to Allah here than on a prayer mat. Life is so good, alhamd’Allah.
Vietnam relies on the Mekong River for life, they literally breathe it for existence. So, most of the farming is done along this river and the water crisscrosses all rural communities. Almost all of rural Vietnam is connected by with 3×4 concrete pavement, some new and very smooth but most raggedy and with potholes. There are also hundreds of thousands of streams with an open concrete bridge without side support that connects them. So, I am having a ball going up and down these bridges shaded by a canopy of trees and admiring the song of a koyal when an empty water bottle dislodges from my bike and I am distracted. I look down in stupidity without realizing I have to speed up to make it over another bridge around the corner – too late. I brake sharply, overcorrect and slowly but surely trip over into the mushy ravine by the side. I fall into the muck, with the bike over me, completely unscathed. But I am a mess, as you can imagine. At first to reach me is a peasant farmer whose house in nearby. He pulls me out and Happy takes over like a pro he is. They both escort me into the farmer’s modest home where his wife is lullabying a newborn infant.
There, in front of all, Happy bathes me over my clothes. When I protest, he actually shushes me to be quiet and scrubs all the muck off me and my clothes with a scrubber and some soap. I am transported back 50 years when my sister Bai did the same thing when I was too weak to bathe after an illness; I am profoundly touched. The farmer chops down 3 plump fresh madaafu growing in his front yard and serve them to us – they are sweet and astonishingly refreshing. When I urge Happy to pay the farmer, this is refused. The farmer looks hurt, furiously shaking his head no. I have used up a keg of his clean water, dirtied his home, disturbed his family and partaken his labor and the guy is offended when I want to reimburse him. This is what humanity is all about and I will never forget the act of kindness from a total stranger.
We complete 46 miles today, still short of the target from yesterday. We are lagging behind and I am concerned but can’t take any more torture.
Days 3 – 5 to be continued…
Note 2 – Alhamd’Allah, CAI has raised over US$45,000 at the time this Blog goes to print, more than double the original target. What bounties of Allah can I deny?