Bolstered by a colorful market experience, and a steady succession of friendly smiles from local cyclists, we're having a spectacular morning. But, after less than twenty kilometers on the road, the excruciating off-key symphony of Vietnam's horn-happy traffic has begun to overwhelm our morale once again.
Stopping in a scrap of dwindling shade, the sun takes center stage above us. Looking around, while honk after *HONNNKKKKK* after honk rattles our eardrums, we can't help but think that there must be a better way to go about cycling in Vietnam. Surely *BEEeeeEEEEPPP* there are other, quieter *WoOOoWoOOoWoOOo* routes, that also lead to our destination?
Though our GPS lists no routes of any kind running parallel to the madhouse we're currently on, we feel the need to look for ourselves. At the first opportunity, we escape to a side street on the right, hoping to find any other ridable surface that will lead towards Saigon.
The instant we put the highway behind us, it feels as though a heavy weight has been lifted from our shoulders. Suddenly, there are trees to shade us, the air is no longer 90% exhaust, and the unbroken chain of merchants, shops and homes smashed in on themselves like a tin of sardines has relented.
For this bit of space, however brief, we are grateful.
Keeping our eyes peeled for any road on which we can travel, even if it's only for a few minutes, we turn on to a narrow paved road that seems to head our way. Success! Sort of. Before we can get anywhere, it begins winding and winding and winding, eventually curving right back to the highway where we left it.
Just before heading back to where we began, we are stopped in our tracks by the smell of garlic frying. Instantly hungry, we wheel our bikes into a secluded, shady restaurant and sit down for a quiet mid-day meal.
We're not really sure what we've ordered with our charades and pointing, but we end up with an enormous, crispy crepe, filled with chicken, squid, shrimp, mushrooms, and beansprouts:
With plenty of herbs to go along with it:
Sitting at our table, we slowly pick at our strange lunch, not because it isn't good, but because we really don't want to leave when it's over. Everything is so peaceful here! There are gawky, awkward chickens running underfoot, birds singing in cages hanging from the foliage above our heads, and several friendly-looking dogs dozing in patches of shade.
Eventually, we face facts and pack up; it's time to head back to the highway.
We're about to give up hope on a peaceful ride, when we spot a narrow dirt and gravel lane that seems to continue generally northeast. It is a towpath of sorts along a river. Though we have no idea where it goes, we're more than ready to give it a shot. As we cycle down the breezy shaded lane, a woman in a rice hat rides by!
Filled with curiosity and excitement, we pedal on. To our left, the occasional basic home is set back from the path, sheltered amongst the trees. To our right, a brown river meanders lazily through the countryside, providing ample viewing entertainment in the form of many wooden boats plying the waters.
This is so cool!
Cycling over tamped earth and fallen leaves, the raised ridges of tree roots, and the occasional bicycle-only bridge sending us across narrow streams and thin fingers of the Mekong, we couldn't be happier. At times, our GPS displays the highway as being just a few hundred meters away, but we can't hear it at all.
Elated by the fact that it seems our path will continue for quite some time, we spin our legs, breathing deep sighs of contentment, relishing the novelty of fresh air.
An hour later, we're still enthralled. This is amazing!, we shout to one another. Then, quickly realizing we no longer need to yell in order to be heard, we switch to quieter tones. This is freaking incredible! How have we not heard of these Vietnamese bike paths? If they are listed in guidebooks or on websites, we missed the mention.
Soon, our riverside ride leads us past verdant green rice paddies, and then through stretches of uncultivated land with jungly plants growing in every direction, shading us from the sun. It's just us and nature, and the occasional passersby. Interspersed throughout the wilderness are small homes, nestled in a world where the children who live there aren't used to strangers.
They come running gleefully to say hello as we pass, and suddenly it feels like we are in Cambodia again.
Even this brick-making factory, the only industry besides gardening and fishing we've seen back here, is quiet and manned by a lone guy snoozing away in a hammock.
We're such an oddity here, snapping photos in our black spandex, that one man on a motorbike runs off the path from the sight of us. With his head on a swivel, eyes locked on our bikes, he rides directly into the ditch! Thankfully, he isn't injured, and his scooter seems fine.
Before we can come to his aid, he is sheepishly rushing to haul his bike out of the ditch. Then, with a somewhat timid smile, he waves, kick-starts the bike, and tears off. Hopefully he is paying a little more attention to the road now!
It is time to wind our way out of the labyrinth of peaceful bike paths in favor of the hectic main road where hotels are sure to be found. We're reluctant to rejoin the fray, and the idea of staying in the green, shady haven for as long as possible sounds really appealing. So, as we finish up the last of our ride, we keep our eyes peeled for a good spot to string up our hammocks.
The path runs out before we find a suitable stealth camp, and we're deposited once more in the loud, crowded pinball game of civilization. But, the transition isn't so bad, really, because we're met with a clanging drum beat that fills our ears and leaves us looking left and right, curious as to the source of the music.
Eventually we spot them: a group of kids in a schoolyard, playing music and dancing around with a colorful dragon costume! From the looks of it, they are practicing for a new year's celebration?
What a great end to a great ride!