Ride day 34: Can Tho to Phu Quoc
23 July 2016
We’re both awake at the crack of dawn…. Well, actually it’s 30 minutes until dawn, but we are awake. In a haze, we manage to get dressed and head downstairs to grab a bike to go see the floating market. It’s the first time on our travels we’ve been up before the hotel staff (although not the first time before dawn – the gibbon trek in Cat Tien holds that honour), and we need to quietly move the bike out of the hotel whilst the previously sleeping girl from front desk opens the gate for us.
The streets are already relatively busy, and the light is absolutely amazing as we ride the 4km to the floating markets. We stop on the bridge to get some pictures of the sunrise and the markets from above. Unfortunately it takes about 5 minutes for the fogged up lense on the big camera to clear after bringing it from the air conditioned room in to 30 degree high humidity. In these 5 minutes we notice the number of tourist boats rapidly increasing. As we head off the bridge and turn right in towards the market, we are bombarded by bikes from all sides.
Under the bridge there is a lot of activity, and a few locals try to call us to park there. The urgency with which they are calling us over is quite confronting at this time of the morning. We decide to ride along the river side to get a better view of the markets, and are followed by two of the locals on scooters. They won’t give up, even when we say we don’t want a boat. We manage to find a small opening between the many wooden houses and shops perched on the river bank, and get some pictures and watch the market. Both of us slightly sad that the tourist boats with their patrons in bright orange life jackets outnumber the true market boats nearly 3 to 1. There are however some locals with heavily laden boats trading fruit and vegetables.
Our entourage is still surrounding us, albeit we are ignoring them. As we move to head off again they increase their gesturing and chatting. So a quick ride off in one direction and a swift U turn shakes them off. We enjoy taking in the sights of the early morning activities of shops opening, before heading back along the road. Sure enough, as we pass under the bridge once more on our way back, our same two pesterers try once again to sell us parking and a boat ride. We wave and ride up the hill and back on to the bridge back to the hotel.
Safely back to the hotel, we immediately sit down for a breakfast. Whilst the prior day we were given an English menu, today is Vietnamese only. We both opt for Pho, which turns out to be mediocre at best. Both of us suspecting that this is due to it being the young guy making it and not the usual cook. Nevertheless it is filling, and gives us the energy to get back to the room, packed up and ready to hit the road by 7:45am (earliest yet).
The ride out through town is exceptionally busy with market traffic at road sides and people on their way to work. The road itself is pretty decent, but with a few roadworks on the QL91 just before the left hand turn on to the TL941. The roadworks were laying a new road with lots of freshly laid hardcore being rollered flat. To get up on to this new section meant a tricky ride up an unstable gravel slope. A bunch of locals were struggling with the ride, and right in front of us a lady on a motorbike fully laden with produce started to topple over, so I had to get off and help push her up the slope.
The road is a good mixture of classic Mekong countryside and small towns, and very few potholes making for a really nice ride. At around the 70km mark as we are coming out of a small town I decide it’s time for a refreshment brake. Right at this moment I see Traceys front light go on (the sign she wants to stop). As we pull over, she points out she’s got a puncture (first of the trip). A local is waving at us to show us where to go and get it fixed. So a very quick bike swap ensues and we follow in the local to a small roadside puncture repair guy. An elderly man sets about fixing up the puncture using a heated clamp to seal the vulcanising solution, whilst we take a seat and drink a coffee with the locals. We were set to get back on our way in under 15 minutes, having had a nice coffee and chat with a lady at the coffee stall.
The roads from here on in get considerably quieter and much more rural. We can see some small mountains in the distance, the first for nearly a week. The road takes us past amazing narrow canals and waterways, all of which are bustling with small boats and people working. Some of the barges on the very small canals are actually remarkably large.
As the road begins to skirt the small foothills, there are a few kilometres of local farmers drying corn at the side of the road, and in some cases on the road. A few small temples scatter the mainly flat horizon, and the fields are now mainly floating rice paddy’s, with small rickety bridges crossing the canals to get in to the fields. We are now a fair way off the beaten track on much smaller roads. We take a short stop by a rickety bridge to take a ride over and check it out. A local rides past and smiles at us whilst we take pictures.
Then just a few kilometres down the road we find a small roadside cafe in middle of nowhere. The staff are super friendly and invite us to take a table. We exchange a series of hand gestures, smiles and pointing, and manage to secure an amazing lunch and some home made iced tea. The owner keeps bringing us extra meat and vegetables to go with our rice. An awesome filling lunch and all for 80,000VND / $4. As we finish our lunch the owner offers us the hammocks to rest in, but unfortunately we need to say our goodbyes and press on to Ha Tien.
The road from our lunch stop continues alongside a wide canal and has some of the best views across the paddy fields to the hills behind. It’s mainly a decent road, but with a few very precarious gravel sections. This great little road eventually brings us out to a left turn on to the N1 which runs along parallel to the Cambodian border all the way to Ha Tien. The road offers great views of the working waterway, but with building cloud cover it looks likely we are going to get wet.
Sure enough, less than 20km down the N1 and the rain starts. The locals are however. Not putting their ponchos on, so gambling that they know best, we also continue without wet weather gear. After 5 km of riding on wet roads in light rain, the roads dry up and the rain passes. Top marks to the locals for reading the weather right.
The last few kilometres of the N1 before the right hand turn to Ha Tien are quite bumpy with some large potholes at the edges, but still decent enough road to ride.
In to the Ha Tien outskirts, and we check the map to find the ferry terminal. It’s located just 2 km away down a bizarrely dusty and potholed road, that doesn’t lead you to believe there will be a ferry port at the end. However, as we got to the end of the track, there it was. We managed to get tickets for the 4pm ferry for us and the bikes, so have a couple of hours wait at the terminal. We have opted for the slow ferry rather than the sightly oddly named “Superdong”. The total price including bikes was 250,000VND each.
Parked up under the shade of the terminal building, we grab a couple of beers and snacks from the cafe. Whilst relaxing at our table we end up chatting to a Taiwanese businessman (Bob) who was taking his family over to Phu Quoc for a few days holiday. He owned a furniture business in Vietnam, meaning he was there frequently. Later on Bob came back over with his wife and two daughters, one of whom had been playing violin earlier to entertain her family.
When we see the boat pull in and start to unload, we arm ourselves with a few drinks and snacks and return to the bikes. The boat is late, and after boarding it eventually sets off at 4:40. There were people in our seats, but given the boat was pretty much empty, we just moved to spare seats at the back by the window.
As we sail out of Ha Tien, the Cambodian coastline starts to open up on the right hand side of the boat. A woman comes round handing out waters. I take one sip and nearly spit it out. It tastes of petrol. Not a great start. Shortly after the nasty water incident, a young man moves in to the seats behind us. He then spends the next 15 minutes taking selfies and videos, deliberately trying to get us in the shots. His lack of understanding of personal space sets a whole new record! Before leaving the seat to go back to his own seat, he makes sure to lean right over our seats and fully check out our luggage before leaving.
As ferries go, it’s not bad. There are a few irritating little flies, and a very loud movie that appears to have no dialogue just shooting. We opt mainly to chat and take in the views as the sun starts to dip. Then the annoyingness begins… A Vietnamese song starts to play at full volume over the speaker system. Not too bad in itself, but the song is skipping and flitting in and out. Then, 30 seconds later, it repeats. And repeats. And repeats. None of the locals seem to bat an eyelid, but it is truly the most irritating soundtrack we have ever heard. The sun sets, whilst the soundtrack continues. Then, as quickly as it started, it ends. It’s only then that we notice that most of the locals have disappeared. They have all returned to the car deck in preparation for arrival, despite us still being 20 minutes out.
As the boat begins to slow we head to the front and down stairs. Literally all other passengers are already in their cars or on their bikes. The ferry is still moving as the first passengers race to disembark. We wait until it’s stopped, and are amongst the first motorbikes off. It’s completely dark now, and we have been briefed by Jamie and Bec that the first 10 km or so are dirt track round to the north.
As we set off up the road, it’s dusty but still Tarmac. Then 300 metres up the road as we turn right, the dirt track begins. It’s as wide as a 2 lane road, but with potholes and mud / dust everywhere. With no streetlights, and dust clouds from all the bikes and cars ahead, it is impossible to see more than 20 metres with our headlights. We are passed by a steady stream of speedy locals and cars over the first 500 metres or so. Then Tracey pulls up alongside me and points out that her headlight is pointing too high up so can’t see the ground. This makes the next 10km exceptionally slow. Riding alongside one another and picking lines between the potholes in the pitch-black with only one working headlight. About half way along a car pulls alongside. It’s Bob. He tells us the road to the south is even worse, and wishes us all the best before heading off in to the dust. The 10 km of dirt track in the dark ended up taking the best part of 90 minutes before it suddenly ends and we are on to perfectly smooth twin lane highway (all to ourselves).
It’s been a long days ride, but the final 30 km on empty roads at night with the trees illuminated by Traceys light (pointing the wrong way), is a nice way to end the day. We get down to where our hotel for the next week is meant to be, but can find no sign. After a few loops around, we eventually call the hotel, and a young girl comes to collect us. We follow her down a narrow very rough dirt track for about 500 metres to arrive at Ninila. As we check in, I order us a couple of ice cold beers from the bar, and we sit on our poolside cabin balcony chilling out at our home for the next week.
Full days route here: