Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Buddha Smiles Over My Tho

After an exciting day sniffing the food and drink trail around the back roads of Ho Chi Minh City, and taking some time off to admire a few landmarks, including the Post Office, Churches well known and not so well known and the Reunification Palace, it was time to set off for our bike trip around the Delta. However, not before our customary trip to the local market and getting fortified with a large, hot bowl of freshly made Ha Noi soup. 

My ride with Nam of Vietnamriders was about to start. The plan was to start on Sunday end our trip at Chau Doc on Friday, taking in the warmth, sights, sounds, food, architecture and history of as many places as we could comfortably make it along the way. We would not be riding the main highways as far as possible, so our pace would be slow - and relaxed. Our first target was to get into My Tho by the afternoon. A distance of close to 100 km as the crow flies, starting from the northern end of HCMC near the airport, likely 125 to 150 km meandering around the countryside. 

Our first step was to find our way out of HCMC, a city that wakes up early, so the streets are filled with two-wheelers as early as 8 AM. There are 4.5 Million registered two-wheelers, I understand, however, incredibly enough, traffic is smooth. Riders understand each other, make little allowances for others, and make adjustments for pedestrians, as well. It seems to be a constant little game of give and take being cheerfully played out. No road rage, not trace of unpleasantness, either. No honking. The endless streams of bikes weave their way peacefully and silently around the city. 

The bikes carry an infinite variety of loads, ranging from boxes to baskets to large families to a small child perched nonchalantly on a metal high chair rigged up in the front of the scooter.  I wasn't in a position to photograph one of the baby seat contraptions, however, with full credit to the owner, here is a photograph I found on the net. We don't find these in India, where two-wheelers tend to carry a similar variety of goods, people and livestock. 

Whetever the bikes carry or wherever they go, one thing for sure, the riders are deftly able to find their way around the traffic. 

The one thing about HCMC that struck me was the extent of greenery and tree lined roads. Blame it on the French, maybe? The city is indeed well endowed with trees that line the main streets as well as little roads all around the town. Traffic thinned out as we headed south, towards the outskirts of HCMC.

Sellers at a street corner were dealing with a variety of earthenware pigs, in different colours and sizes. 

Two-wheelers were everywhere, and at every signal, in particular. However, we were slowly getting out of HCMC. 

The highway opened up, finally. Traffic was fairly lean, not being one of the main roads. Heavy vehicles were non-existent, only the occasional two-wheeler or light commercial vehicle passed us by.  It felt good to be riding along, the Mekong Delta beckoning.

We get further into the back roads, passing through villages, rice fields and an extremely relaxed environment. Old folks stay busy doing little home based manufacturing. Like this couple that had a few machines at home that helped them manufacture incense sticks. 

The incense sticks are then dried in the courtyard in front of their home. And just alongside, their family runs a little convenience store. 

Riding along the back roads through the rice fields, it was apparent that one of the traditions in the villages was to bury their dead in the midst of the fields near their homes.

A few kilometres ahead, we saw large stacks of rubber sheets piled high by the road. Curiosity gets the better of us. It's another small scale industry, quite mechanized, though. The little factory is in the business of making footwear from the masses of rubber sheets. 

Winding through rice fields and villages, we reach a point where there is a river ahead and need to wait for the ferry to take us over to the other side. This was the beginning of the massive river system that comprises the Mekong Delta. As we wait, a family running a little store smiles at me and attempts to ask me where I have come from. 

Ferries big and small chug peacefully across the river system in the area. Our ferry shows up shortly, and the two-wheelers, cars and a few pedestrians carrying agricultural produce make way for the next set of passengers, that is, us.  

While Nam rides on to the ferry finds a place to park, I walk into the ferry, taking in the sights around the area. 

The fee for using the ferry has to be paid to the 'ticket collector' lady.  

We cross two arms of the water system along the way to My Tho. Welcome to the Delta..!! 

We pass by kilometres of Dragon Fruit plantations, the same fruits with the pink exterior and white interior with tiny black spots. 

Meanwhile, as we head to My Tho, the clouds get darker. The back roads are a pleasure to ride on, we barely pass other vehicles, just the occasional one as we pass by tiny villages. Without fail, the villages are spotlessly clean. Not just that, the road infrastructure seems to be of very good quality. This points to the fact that funds meant for development actually reach the intended objective. At least a large proportion, for sure. Unlike in several countries in the developing world, where only a small proportion makes the cut, while most of it gets to line various pockets along the way. 

Large rain drops start to fall, and we quickly dive for shelter below the arch of a desolate, yet pretty temple. Nam pulls out the extra rain coat, and we attempt to huddle below the arch. It's not going to be enough to protect us from the rain that's increasing steadily. 

We sprinted in the heavy rain across the street to a home, without being invited, of course. Looking across the rain drenched street, the temple was a pretty sight. 

The rain got heavier, as we stood in the dryness of the large shelter that was in fact a vehicle workshop. The residents peeped out, smiled and went back inside. 

We had to wait about 20 minutes for the rain to stop. Finally, the rain does stop (well, almost!) and the sky starts to lighten up. Time to venture out again, on the road to My Tho. 

The Vinh Trang Temple near My Tho is one of the most well known in the region. Built during the 1850s, it was damaged during the wars between the French and the local chiefs, and needed to be repaired. 

Several statues of the Buddha in various forms are found along the main hall. It's interesting that one of the forms resembles the multi-hand dieties found in Hindu stories. 

A serene statue of the Buddha showered blessings in the gardens.

An unlikely hero showed up in the souvenir store.

Meanwhile, I took a few minutes to admire the Buddha smiling over My Tho. A giant statue, you probably can't find one with a more cheerful appearance. I got so busy clicking a few pictures that I missed photographing the picture of the very large standing Buddha nearby that is clearly visible from outside the gardens. 

It's afternoon by the time we reach the sleepy town of My Tho. Traffic is light, perhaps being siesta time. However, traffic during the evening was not too heavy, either. 

It's been an eventful morning, with the long ride from HCMC, a few stops along the way, including the rain shelter and the relaxed break to admire the laughing Buddha. Time for lunch at a local restaurant. 

Nam explains our order to the lady who soon gets busy putting all the ingredients together.  

The result is a fresh, hot bowl of noodle and pork soup, garnished with spicy chillies and tempered with cold lime juice. Just right for a warm, humid afternoon. 

Riding around, we visit the Snake Park, reputed to be a large research centre run by the Army. While there were several large, mean looking Cobras, Pythons and a few other large species locked up in cages, the sight of lean water and tree snakes being unable to climb vertical walls was interesting, and reassuring. 

Where did we stay? At Hotel Rang Dong right opposite the pier and the massive food court area, a bee hive of food stalls during the evenings. A family run hotel with three floors, the owners live on the ground level toward the back of the building behind the reception area. I asked the lady what is the meaning of Rang Dong? She struggled for words, then said... oh... sun set... sun set... opposite. Rang Dong reportedly means "day break" or "dawn" (according to online dictionaries).

My room was well maintained, with a TV and Air-con that worked well. I happened to watch the finals of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships late that night. 

The evening turned out to be a huge party along the food courts by the River. The number of youngsters and students, and families, was quite impressive. It looks like Vietnamese folks take their evening outings seriously, as I had observed in HCMC. 

My dinner consisted of the interesting Banh Xeo dish, a rice pancake made with a bunch of embedded seafood. Along with the customary soup, red chillies and variety of greens. 

After dinner, it was time for a long stroll along the river, an opportunity to burn a few calories. I was not wearing a watch anyway. I had left my wallet, mobile phone and camera back in the hotel. There's no feeling like strolling along in an unknown place, without accessories to worry about. That's what holidays are all about. 

Smiling, just like the giant Buddha smiling over My Tho.

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