Venturing Into Vietnam – Pho, Lotus Fields and Rats

Fishing boats in front of a hill along the southern coast of VietnamI crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia on the seventh day of my bicycle ride around the world. It is time for some Vietnam bicycling. The border crossing at Ha Tien was uneventful and quick – it almost seemed too easy. I originally planned to go to Phu Quoc Island from Ha Tien but all of the ferries were cancelled on the day I booked my ride due to the weather. The outlook didn’t look much better for the next few days so I decided to continue on instead of playing the waiting game with the ferry. I have an overnight stay planned in some lotus fields in a few days leaving me wondering what surprises they have for me on the dinner menu when I get there!

Remember to read about the random acts of kindness I receive while on this bicycle ride at the end of the post. The people I meet along the way give me a sense of assurance that if I am ever in need on the ride there will always be someone there to help me. And remember to click on my Amazon links to do all of your shopping on Amazon. There is no cost to you but anything you buy (not just the advertised item) while shopping after clicking my link will send some cash my way to help support my ride.

I left Ha Tien with the unexpected last-minute change of plans and headed east to Rach Gia. The road was rough, narrow and crowded with honking busses and trucks all coming a little to close to me. Trucks and busses pass by my left shoulder with mere inches between us. There is no where for me to go if I needed to move right. The constant beeping of horns lets me know that someone of unknown size is about to overtake me but I think I would do better with the element of surprise if they laid of the horns. No horn – just a whoosh as tons of metal squeezes between me and the traffic going the other way.

A Vietnamese man adds ingredients to his pancakes in his food stall in Rach Gia, Vietnam.

Not sure what I ate but it was delicious!

Rach Gia is a bit of a rustic town. A bit dirty around the market and a lot of activity everywhere else. I don’t know how big it is as I am only here for the night and I don’t have time to explore too much. As with every other town I have visited in Vietnam good food is easy to find. I find a small shop that serves bun ca (noodles and fish) and it is so good I almost want to order another! When I walk up it is obvious they don’t serve to many westerners here and their look of confusion soon turns to smiles. No need to order here. I just it down and a steaming bowl of noodles and fish is placed in front of me. Easy eating. No choices. I like that.

In the morning I am greeted with a flat rear tire when I walk down from my room in the guesthouse. A small sharp metal object is the culprit to the first flat of my trip. Easy to find and easy to fix. It was raining pretty hard so I didn’t mind spending the time to fix the tire in hopes that the rain would slow. It also slowed me down and I decided to get breakfast before I left town which gave the rain even more time to slow to a sprinkle.

A roadside marker on a quiet country road in Vietnam.

Roadside Marker

I am lucky to ride through small country roads and lanes in this part of the world. The Mekong Delta is a myriad of waterways large and small. It is an area where you can wander to your hearts content or a place that can suck you in until you become hopelessly lost. Each day I am faced with bridges large and small. I have lost count of how many ferries I have been on.

Everywhere I look there are small bridges taking me over the water. In places where there are two or three waterways I go up and down, up and down, up and down over the bridges to make my way from one place to the place I want to be. Without the aid of good navigation tools on my bicycle it would take me forever to get through this area.

The late start this morning got me into Can Tho after dark but I am well equipped in the lighting department. This allowed me to fly through the evening traffic with ease. Knowing I was highly visible to other drivers is comforting – not that seeing me will make them avoid hitting me but it still makes me feel better to have lights. I couldn’t read my trip computer in the dark but luckily I have been here a couple times in the past so I was able to make it to my guest house on memory.

A young Vietnamese man eating Pho in a restaurant in Can Tho, Vietnam.

A friend from a past visit took me to a local Pho restaurant.

A friend from a previous visit took to me to a place he knew that has good Pho. Nothing beats having someone in the know deciding where to go when it comes to eating. I do pretty good wandering around but a little local knowledge goes a long way.

Can Tho is one of my favorite cities in Vietnam giving me no problems when I stayed for a second night. I would have stayed a third but I wanted to get to my next stop on Thursday to avoid the weekend and the crowds (?) that come with it.

My loaded bicycle on the Can Tho Bridge which crosses the Mekong River

Cầu Cần Thơ – Can Tho Bridge

Once I read about the home-stays in the lotus fields I knew this was someplace I wanted to check out. Luckily it is somewhat on my route so it doesn’t disrupt much to make an overnight stop in the Dong Thap Province in the Mekong Delta. My ride from Can Tho was uneventful and I grew increasingly curious as I crossed the last bridge and turned down a narrow shady lane with the trees lining both sides. Less than a mile down this lane was Hai Lua – my homestay. I had to walk my loaded bicycle down a steep wooden walkway to get to the makeshift raft that they had to pull along with their hands using a suspended rope to get me to the other side of the water.

Two minimal huts along a wooden walkway in the lotus fields of Vietnam

Hai Lua Homestay

It was there that I could see my accommodations for the night. There were a number of small bamboo and thatched huts set out along a wooden plank walkway that swayed to the left and right as you walked along it. Since I was the only customer for the night I could easily see which hut was mine – the mosquito net covered the thin pad on the wooden slat floor.

Surprisingly the huts came with electricity and the wifi was actually quite strong! Two comforts I wasn’t expecting here. The pad on the floor was almost nonexistent so I added my sleeping bag and air mattress to make the night a little more comfortable. The homestay is run by a man and his wife along with some help from their twelve year old son. They do not speak any English but communication was easy enough. When they brought out the menu (in Vietnamese only) I already had an idea what I was going to eat.

Searching the menu I looked for the Vietnamese word for ‘rat’. I had read that they served rat here and I wondered all day whether or not this was going to be the day that I scurried over that thin line into culinary darkness. Of course it couldn’t just be an easy choice – point my finger and say I will have that. There were eight options of rat dinners. All written in Vietnamese. And me with my expansive Vietnamese language skills consisting of ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. How many ways are there are to cook up a rat? I tried looking up some words on Google Translate but when I got to the word that meant ‘shredded’ thoughts of how one would go about shredding a rat had me opting for a different angle.

I opened Google Translate again and typed ‘Which one is best?’ and showed the man the Vietnamese translation. He smiled and pointed to one. I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head yes and said okay. He tried to mimic a rat out in the lotus fields to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into.

I waited anxiously for the rat de jour to be brought to my table. I still wasn’t convinced I had adequate sized balls to give this a try but I was here and my rats were cooking no more than ten feet from me. Showdown in three minutes…….

I quickly realized that if you are ever going to try a food that is somewhat outside what you consider normal a good time to do that would be after riding fifty or sixty miles on a bicycle. Hunger has a way of dulling common sense at times and dinner tonight might just be one of those times.

A plate of deep fried rat on lotus petals.

Deep Fried Rat of Vietnam

I didn’t know how the rats would look when they came but somehow I wasn’t expecting what I got. There are about five rats cut in half, deep fried (hallelujah!) and placed on a bed of lotus leaves and flowers. How sweet. Does presentation matter when dinner is a rat??

I picked up the back end of one of the rats by the tail and twirled it around in my finger like I was examining a Tootsie Roll Pop trying to decide the best angle to go at it. And then I started gnawing on the golden fried appendages that once propelled this little creature around the fields that surrounded me. It’s the kind of gnawing you have to do with onlymyour front teeth – there is’t a lot of meat you can rip from those little legs. The meat along the back was more plentiful but don’t be fooled – plentiful is a relative term in these circumstances.

Crispy rat.

I preferred the bottom halves compared to the top halves of the rats. Not for any change in flavor or texture but merely because I felt funny twirling a rat around by its deep fried head. I was more comfortable holding them buy their stiff, golden fried tails. Added to the meal was a large bowl of rice with lotus seeds. A delicious accompaniment to any meal of the rodent genre. Sommelier?!

I slept well that night even with thoughts of rat revenge running through my head. A couple hundred rats chewing on my toes while I sleep would be sweet payback.

After a night in the lotus fields I have to head towards Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon. It is over seventy miles but since I haven’t bicycled in a chaotic city like Saigon before I decide to call it a day at around fifty miles. This will give me lots of time tomorrow to get into the city and get accustomed to the traffic as well as time to get a little lost. I’m sure it’s going to happen.

But not so fast. I can’t leave yet. As I was going to pay for my night in the lotus fields I realized I should have exchanged my dollars for dong before I got here. Although I went through many towns and cities yesterday I wasn’t thinking about it at the time. I have a wad of cash but this is Vietnam – no matter how much dong you think you have in your pocket it is never enough. Now I needed to ride an additional fifteen miles to get to a place where I could exchange my money so I could pay for the hut and the rats.

 

 

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Random Acts of Kindness

I stopped at a small place for some coconut juice. It was the most juice I have ever seen come from one coconut. The lady added chunks of the coconut – a first for this trip. Then she brought over another glass of ice and a pot of tea as I was finishing the coconut juice. As I was out at my bike getting ready to leave she brought me out a pineapple and gave it to me for free.

I stopped at a pharmacy to see if they knew where I could exchange money in the town. The lady left the pharmacy and had me follow her as she drove her moto to a place where I could change my money.

I stopped for a bottle of water and juice in a small store. The guy there didn’t speak any English but he cracked open a coconut emptied the juice into a container, added some sugar and ice and gave it to me for free.

I stopped for a drink in a small town and an older Vietnamese lady took my long sleeve shirt that I just took off and threw on the bench and she folded it then put it down next to me. She cleared off a table on the other side of the shop so I could move to where there was a fan right over me. She kept trying to hand me her chopsticks and her bowl of food assuming I was hungry but what I wanted was just the fan and a drink.

When I pulled into Ha Tien an older guy on his motorbike rode up next to me and asked what I was looking for. He took me to a friend that spoke English and then he took me to my Guesthouse. It wasn’t where the map showed it should have been so I don’t think I would have ever found it without his help.

One Comment on “Venturing Into Vietnam – Pho, Lotus Fields and Rats

  1. Scott, I just loved the eating rat story. Keep enjoying and keep safe.

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