Saturday. March 9th, 2013 Ho Chi Minh City to Vinh Long

Distance travelled : 176 km

So, our first real day of holiday started well and then gradually turned into a horror from which we are now recovering and waiting to see what will happen next.

I will start with the good. In the morning, according to the plan, we got up early, but quite relaxed, went for a good breakfast and packed everything onto Minh. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but everything fitted. We agreed with a “guide” (a local guy on a moped), to take us through the city to the southbound Ho Chi Minh Highway. It was simple enough and, from there, it was supposed to be theoretically simple. But, of course, it was not !

The level of moped traffic was simply horrendous and the weaving about of the other drivers was both disturbing and nerve-wracking. Finally, just when we seemed to be coming out of the worst congestion, we contrived to have the first of what turned out to be two accidents. A young mother with her baby on the seat in front of her and her mother on the back seat (this was a moped, remember) cut through the traffic just a metre or so in front of us. David touched the brake and, sadly, we were on loose stones. Over we went and ended up sprawled in the middle of all the traffic. I hoped that once I read this, it would amuse me, but at that moment I was certainly not laughing. The Vietnamese were wonderful, as always. Possibly because we were also foreigners, they crowded around and started treating us right away. The poor mother who had, at least theoretically, caused us to fall off, was simply beside herself and apologised to David at least one hundred and fifty times. She even produced some water and cloth to clean our wounds and some sticking plaster to cover them. I confess that I was wondering where she suddenly came from because, from the rear seat, I had not really seen anything. Because it had happened at a really low speed, the consequences did not initially appear severe. I had a nasty, but quite small, graze on my right arm, nothing that would not heal in a few weeks and a slightly worse one on my right hand, that would take longer. When he had realised what was happening, David had pushed his (far better padded) body between me and the ground in the instant before I hit the road. His flimsy cotton gloves had actually saved his hands, but he had a bad scrape on his right arm and his right knee was severely twisted. It did not look very tragic, but it was very painful. We took pictures of our visible injuries and spent a long while drinking iced-coffee before continuing on our way.

David was distraught. This was partly because he had hurt me, but mainly, I felt, because we had crashed. At that time, he had been riding motorcycles for over forty years and had travelled over 1,600,000 kilometres (a million miles) and had only ever previously fallen off twice. The first time was on his sixteenth birthday, in 1971, when on his first ever ride on a public road, he fell off of a moped belonging to his father within a few minutes of getting onto it. The second time was in the winter of 1974, when he found some black ice on a corner. He initially seemed more bemused than in pain.

Our map was so sketchy that I tried to get some directions from the local people, many of whom had rudimentary English. The Vietnamese are experts in explaining the journey. First they will assure you that what they are explaining is the best and easiest way and that, if everything is going well, you will find the first turn without any problems exactly according to their instructions. Sadly, they also omit things they do not think are important, like bridges. As soon as you start to think about how well they advised you, it will turn out that the traffic lights behind the bridge are not there. Instead, there is a roundabout and not one single signpost on it resembles any name on the map. I quickly discovered it was best to ask as often and as many times as possible, because in nine out of ten cases, the people, whilst claiming to understand, actually did not. If you add to this the fact that the Vietnamese letter combinations are pronounced completely differently to the way they are spelled, that does not help either.

So, the wonderful journey explained to us by a nice and almost English-speaking Vietnamese worked. Well, it worked until the first roundabout, which was not supposed to be there, nor was the next one. We just chugged slowly through the very lush, green countryside, following what appeared to be the main road. We rode over “non-existent” bridges and around “surprise” roundabouts and enjoyed the sights and smells of the approaching Mekong Delta. In the end, possibly by chance, we found the ferry to Vinh Long, which was the goal and in the plan.

However, this ended up putting a huge dent in the holiday plans and heavy improvisation began by necessity. As we drove off of the ferry, on a plank, David put his right leg down and it just folded up. For the second time that day we ended up laying on the ground, this time after a small fall from the plank onto the dock. David was very slow to get up and this time I was really scared that he had broken something. Luckily, if that is the right word, he had only wrenched his already painful knee. But he had also badly bruised his ribs from both hitting the dock and having me fall on him. My knee was bruised, but that was about it for me.

We rode very slowly into Vinh Long and stopped at the very first hotel we saw. It seemed a bit basic, but not unpleasant. To compound our woes, when he went to have a much needed shower, David’s bad knee caused him to slip in the bathtub, which was, for no discernible reason, not actually fixed into place. It shifted by about half a meter, he fell heavily because of his bad leg and I could tell it really must have hurt him terribly. I was tempted to try and call a doctor but he said he did not need one. Needless to say, nobody in the whole hotel spoke a word in any foreign language. I had read that Russian could often be used and I speak it. That was complete nonsense, I doubt if anyone in that hotel had even heard of Russia.

We were a bit distressed mentally, because it was more than clear that the plan we had, which was already a bit vague, would have to be adapted to the new conditions. It was also obvious that we would not be going anywhere anytime soon. David could not even walk, let alone ride a motorcycle. He just lay on the bed, staring a bit miserably at the patterned ceiling.

I left David on the bed and set out to buy something to eat. It was not worth trying to explain the concept of a taxi to the receptionist, he did not even understand the word wi-fi. Once outside, I was hailed by a grandfather type who was passing by on his moped. He had a basic knowledge of English and liked to use all seven of the words he seemed to know in various combinations. He drove me to a local store that resembled a CO-OP. The Vietnamese were so nice, I did not stop to consider the wisdom of this, I just got on the back of the moped. I was completely lost in the store. I could not find anything that looked like bread, so I bought something resembling yogurt, a pineapple, some small local bananas and some fruit of a type I had never seen before. I could not find pain killers or bandages. When I came out, I was again hailed by (what I hoped was) the same grandfather (luckily, it was !) but I risked it. Along the return journey, for some reason, the program diversified and he took me to visit the local market. It was very Vietnamese and full of shops selling things that I would not have taken even if they paid me to. But the grandfather said it was a very famous Vietnamese market. He would be amazed at Sapa, a huge Vietnamese market in Prague !

When I got back to the hotel, David was sound asleep in the room. There was supposed to be wi-fi, but I soon accepted that the internet always failed after only a few minutes. There were basic, but directly connected computers in the reception area so I sat there and wrote a brief report to my family in Prague. I also wrote up the events of the day for my journal, which is what you are now reading. I hoped that the next day’s account would be less worrying.