Day 28: Journey’s End

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The H2H 2017 Team at our hotel in Gia Kiệm just before heading off for the final day’s ride.   MIA: Ben and Hến.  Photo by Eli Gaultney: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Eli-Gaultney 

Some of the team are getting emotional about the ride coming to an end.  For my part, as much as I’ve enjoyed the ride and its challenges, I’m looking forward to getting back to Saigon and resuming normal life.  Despite being a shambolic city with increasingly charmless architecture and psycho motorists it was my first home and returning to it always feels like a home-coming.  And besides, who wouldn’t want to come back to giant rats, 99% humidity and sewer-water floods?  I don’t know what the others are complaining about.

The route today takes us first from Gia Kiệm to The Boat House, a riverside restaurant in District 2, in Saigon.  From there we’re all meeting for lunch, and taking our luggage back to our homes, then reconvening at 3.30pm to set off for the finish line, the Saigon Central Post Office.

It starts off badly for Andrew who, in the last 24 hours, has been assailed by an awful stomach bug and after a valiant 20km he joins Mr Cường for some Van Time.  (I’m immensely grateful that my body has managed to hold itself together for the last four weeks after a bout of violent food poisoning on the eve of departure. )

There’s some confusion about which route we should take and at an intersection outside Bien Hoa some of the Team take Võ Nguyên Giáp Street (apt I suppose, as we’re heading into the Reunification Day weekend), while others continue on the QL1A.  At a hammock stop, a lady charges us 20K VND for a coke!  They’re usually half the price, even in Saigon.  (I won’t be going there again *shakes fist*.)

We look to be making good time until we rejoin the QL1A just before the Dong Nai River, and the section of road between Bien Hoa and D2 is basically Hell on a stick.   Maps have it down as the QL1A-QL52, but let’s just call it by its real name:  THE VOLDEMORT ROAD.  It is about 13km of road packed with trucks, lined up bumper to bumper. There is a designated lane on the far right for two-wheeled vehicles only but because the rest of the highway is so rammed, the smaller trucks have decided to use it too.  So we ride a 13km, single lane gauntlet with motorbikes, buses, trucks, and cars; it’s like the Crazy Asian Traffic Edition of Tetris but absolutely no fun to play and the only thing you’re likely to win is a nervous breakdown.  I’d rather ride ten consecutive lengths down the Bao Loc Pass than deal with this.  Thankfully, Storm and her infallible sense of direction get us to the Boat House in one piece, where frayed nerves are settled with food and drink.

[1] I never thought I’d be thankful to see the sterile, expat streets  of  Thao Dien – but I was.
[2] A blurry photo of Tan as we rode into expat land.

We set off on the final 8km of our ride just before 4pm having packed off young Tun in a taxi with his bike.  Tun had an unlucky fall on the Great Gravel Descent of Day 7, which took him out of the ride.  But he rejoined us in the final week in BMT, riding with Mr Cường and Hoa in the van and was determined to finish what he’d started.  We met him again outside the Saigon Zoo at the top of Lê Duẩn Bvld so that we could all ride together to the Post Office, with everyone riding around him as a buffer against Saigon traffic.  I’ve no doubt he’ll be back in future to complete the whole Ride.

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Photo stop on Lê Duẩn Blvd; Oli is being camera shy so you can only see one of his wheels there in the bottom right hand corner.  Photo by Storm Langley:  https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Storm-Langley

For once, we’re early so stop part-way down Lê Duẩn for photos.  Zak is carrying his dog in his backpack having picked him up at the Boat House; the flag for Blue Dragon, one of the charities we support is planted in the back of his bike.  We turn left at the Cathedral of Notre Dame and do two laps of it (during which, I may have teared up a little) before cycling into the Post Office and surprising a whole bunch of tourists and ruining their holiday snaps.

There’s a whole lot of cheering, and crying, and speeches, and TV crews, and chanting the names of our excellent sponsors [1], and singing Bohemian Rhapsody.  People from the charities we support [2] are there, as well as friends and family and riders from previous years who have donned their H2H jerseys and brought us bottles of water and donuts.  Also present is the British Consul who Amy, our friend Emma and I had met about a year ago at a university stage production of Atonement.

Amy and I are called over for a photo with some of the dignitaries, and I’ve a half-eaten donut in my hand.  Riders are to squat in front of the standing dignitaries. Unsure of whether a half-eaten donut should be in a photo with the Consul and our charity representatives, I put it behind my back only to wipe some of the icing onto the leg of the nice lady from KOTO.  Both Amy and I are having donut related dilemmas because she turns to me and whispers,

“Hey, have I got icing in my teeth?”

“No – but I just wiped my donut on the KOTO lady’s leg!”  The KOTO lady is a good sport about having streaks of yellow icing on her and just laughs. (Someone posted a copy of the photo later, and you can still see the offending donut peeking out from behind me.)

A security guard from the Post Office approaches me to ask that we clear off because we’re on government property and need permission if we’re going to be parking our bikes there, shouting and generally making a spectacle of ourselves.  At first, I think he’s denigrating our singing when he says ‘shouting’ (we Harrieted the hell out of Bohemian Rhapsody earlier) but in hindsight I think he was referring to us chanting the names of our sponsors – I suppose if you were a Vietnamese security guard at a public building you’d be nervous too if a bunch of people with banners turned up and started chanting in a foreign language. Especially on the eve of the Reunification Day long weekend.

Before anyone is arrested or awkward diplomatic incidents can occur, the celebrations move on to the Pasteur Street Brewery and J U S T and then well into the weekend.

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[1] Our splendid sponsors for the H2H 2017 are:
DHL
Giant
Saigon Outcast
Family Medical Practice
Dymax
Nutrition Depot
California Fitness & Yoga

[2] The charities supported by H2H 2017 are:

SAIGON CHILDREN’S CHARITY: this organisation is our principle charity partner.  SCC helps disadvantaged children receive an education through building schools, giving scholarships and vocational training.  Read more about SCC here:  http://www.saigonchildren.com/what-we-do.aspx

BLUE DRAGON is an organisation that assists children and youths by rescuing them from traffickers and works to prevent at-risk children from being trafficked. Where possible/appropriate the children are reunited with their families or are provided with shelter, given counselling, and supported in their education. The legal team at Blue Dragon assists with prosecution of traffickers and lobbies the Vietnamese government for stronger laws to protect children from such situations.
Read more about Blue Dragon here: https://www.bluedragon.org/what-we-do/

You can read about some of the children who have been helped by Blue Dragon here:
http://www.bluedragon.org/tans-story/
https://www.bluedragon.org/ngoc-and-minhs-story/
https://www.bluedragon.org/drama-group/

KOTO stands for “Know One, Teach One”.  It seeks to empower at-risk youths to break out of the cycle of poverty through practical and meaningful training programmes in hospitality.  Read more about KOTO here: http://www.koto.com.au

LIVE AND GIVE: a charity based in Belgium that also aims to assist disadvantaged children in Vietnam by building schools and kindergartens. You can check out its terrific accomplishments here:  http://www.liveandgive.eu/home.html and read about our visit to one of its school, on Day 20.

ILA COMMUNITY NETWORK (ILACN) is the charitable arm of the company I work for in Vietnam. It is a non-profit organisation that co-ordinates fund-raising activities to support disadvantaged children in Vietnam. Its volunteers provide English language lessons at orphanages.  You can read more about the ILACN here: https://www.facebook.com/pg/ILA.CommunityNetwork/about/?ref=page_internal

Day 27: Spill! Spill! Spill!…The Bảo Lộc Pass

The Vietnamese term for going downhill is “đổ xuống” (spill – down/pour – down).  At last night’s team meeting, Zak gave us another ominous warning about descending the Bảo Lộc Pass. We’ve had a number of white knuckled experiences when descending mountain passes due to their steepness, blind corners, terrible road conditions and road users with a cavalier attitude about other people’s lives.  But apparently the Bảo Lộc Pass is the most dangerous of them all because it is very narrow and has a high amount of traffic and no shoulder.  In Zak’s view, if you’re a nervous or anxious sort of person, then you shouldn’t hesitate to just jump in the van with Mr Cường and he’ll drive you to the bottom of the Pass.  Even the DHL guys gave us a pep talk this morning and said that, if in doubt just stop, and lean as close as possible to the mountain face on our right to avoid contact with the trucks and the coaches.  A well-known incident occurred last year in which a coach descending the pass had a brake malfunction.  A truck driver also on the Pass realised the problem, over took the passenger bus then allowed it to crash into the back of his own vehicle and so guided it down to safety.  A pretty impressive manoeuvre  considering how narrow and busy it is.

With that in mind I started the descent, 12 km from our hotel in Bảo Lộc, feeling guilty that my parents might be receiving my remains in a lunchbox. The Bảo Lộc Pass turned out to be the most beautiful descent we’d had all journey – and not that steep (or maybe it just doesn’t seem steep now that we are road-hardened endurance athletes).  The warnings about the traffic hadn’t been exaggerated: the Pass is as narrow as the Great Gravel Descent of Day 7 (though well-paved) and there were many trucks and coaches.  Some of the trucks gave us a wide berth; others would overtake massive vehicles on winding sections of road just in front of us, or moved into our lane to overtake and passed us head-on by about 10-15cm.  It’s weird how the mind becomes inured to these dangers over time.  Truck-dodging is a life skill that we’ve had plenty of practise at since leaving Hanoi so that it has become just something else to take into our stride, like a herd of cattle crossing, or motorcyclists weaving all over the road ahead of us because they’re sending a text while driving. (There were a couple of times that I did stop though because those trucks came very, very close but overall, on my personal Brown Trousers Scale of Terrifying Descents where the Days 7 & 8 ones would rate as “Tell my family I love them”, the Bảo Lộc Pass gets a middling “Proceed with Extreme Caution.”)

All the while, the most gorgeous scenery was passing by on our left.  We were descending into a deep, seemingly bottomless, green valley and I slowed down partly due to safety reasons, and partly so that I could enjoy the views.

At the bottom, I picked up the pace again – I really didn’t want to get caught in another storm when there was still about 85km to go until Gia Kiệm.

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A rare moment without trucks and coaches on the Bảo Lộc Pass

 

Day 26: Another day, another drenching

The day promised a fairly straight forward ride despite being over 100km to Bảo Lộc; the hardest rated climb was only a grade 3.  As the morning progressed it became another scorcher and we probably took more and longer breaks than necessary but it’s nice to stop and catch up with people along the way.

As we reached the crest of the Grade 3, a beautiful smell wafted over us.   According to Hoà, it was the smell of late-blooming coffee flowers.  (He would know as he is a native of Đà Lạt.)

By about lunch time there were about 40 km to go but storm clouds had gathered.  It wasn’t long before we were again drenched by heavy monsoon rains.  Shelter was easy to find as we were passing through a town at the time, and we waited until it had subsided before heading off again.  As I hadn’t been soaked like yesterday, I wanted to keep it that way and avoid another day of cycling in wet clothes in the wind and rain.

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The enterprising store owner where we sheltered emerged briefly to soak her dirty crockery in rain water.

I decided to skip lunch and just forge on hoping to beat the next downpour.  But the best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry and it was only another 7km or so before the heavens unloaded again.  This time I found shelter at a service station where the kindly owner came over to chat for a bit and offered me a chair to sit on while I waited.  Half an hour passed and Bianca rode by and joined me – she was sensibly wearing one of those 7K VND plastic raincoats which, trapping a layer of air around her, would have been so warm and useful!  We pedalled on but I lost her at some point on a climb.

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Er, someone’s roadside herb garden.

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Portents of DOOM! Cloudy skies and thunderclaps on the way to Bảo Lộc.

5km out of Bảo Lộc the rains came down with a vengeance, and again I pulled over, hoping it was pass soon because I was sweaty, damp, cold, hungry and thirsty.  I ate some crackers and a handful of haribo then waited.  With only five km to go I would ordinarily have chanced it but we’re descending the Bảo Lộc Pass tomorrow which is one of those sections of road with high traffic and a reputation for accidents, and I didn’t want to risk doing it with squeaky, soggy brake pads and sticky gears.

Bianca came pedalling by again – this had become my sign for getting a move on – and we tried going as fast as we could to the hotel but the rain just got heavier and heavier. We came upon a fork in the road but it was impossible to tell which was the road less travelled due to our rain-splattered eyes and poor visibility.  The storm had caused flash flooding in the streets and the water was sluicing around our legs at just below calf level; around the drains the water was forming vortices.  I’m pretty impressed that the standard issue Schwalbe Lugano tires for Cannondales were still able to maintain grip in these conditions (especially as mine had become quite worn over the journey.)  After twenty minutes of sloshing up and down the road trying to figure out which direction the house numbers were going and trying to get a location pin from those who had already arrived with my wet and increasingly malfunctioning phone, we arrived soaked and hangry at the hotel.  Another day DONE.

 

Day 25: Monsoon Season arrived early this year. Drat.

 

The day started off so innocently with a couple of hours of easy riding in cool temperatures.  We passed a community of house boats on a lake that straddles the border of Dak Lak and Dak Nong Provinces.  I couldn’t really tell from the bridge but the residents seem to have cultivated patches of grass on some sort of substratum on the river.

Turns out I was wrong about Day 18 being the final Hell Day because that distinction belongs to the unforgettably bonkers day that was Day 25.  To start with, today’s 106 km ride from Liên Sơn to Lâm Hà Province had five graded climbs including two successive grade 2s.

Isn’t it just great how well the body can adapt to physical exertion because the first grade 2 up the Banana Pass (Đèo Chuối; 19km) didn’t seem that bad.  (Also, I had recently discovered  two additional levels of lower gears on my bike, which helped immensely.)   We stopped for lunch after surmounting the Banana Pass, and had ginormous coconuts (they must have weighed two kilos each and were brim-full of juice).  We were there quite a while because Travis and Keith managed to fit in quick hammock naps, but when the sky became overcast, the wind picked up, and we heard a thunderclap we figured it’d be best to get going in case of a storm. There was, after all, still 40 kilometres to go.

Now, it’s not uncommon here for there to be lightning and thunder storms for hours without there being any actual rain.  However, today wasn’t one of those occasions.  We had barely been on the road for five minutes and were just starting the climb of the next grade 2 when lightning and thunder claps were followed by a violent deluge of water from the heavens.  We were soaked through immediately.  The road, which had more craters than the moon, filled up with muddy rainwater. Just was we were blinking hard to see our way through the downpour (and bouncing all over the rocky terrain), with water coming down on us from both the sky and the upper slopes of the mountain, some trucks and a couple of shuttle buses rounded a bend and descended upon us like a herd of stampeding mastodons.  As each vehicle passed and sprayed us with mud, so did the rain wash off said mud in what was like some perverse laundry-based relay.  Not for the first time, we felt a little nervous.

A quality video by fellow rider Tun Than who was smart enough to stay back at the lunch stop a little longer.  You can support his ride here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/TunThanH2H

Gradually, we got used to the rain, the wind, the thunder, the lightening, the trucks, and the road conditions which effectively turned our bikes into pogo-sticks.  Perhaps it was the adrenalin but we started cheering and hollering because, well, we were bouncing our way up a mountain jungle dodging trucks and tour buses in a massive monsoon storm, and if that isn’t bloody cool, nothing is.

We soon found Deema, who had left the lunch place a bit earlier, sheltering in a drink stall and convinced her to come out and keep cycling because we were already wet through and if we stopped, we’d only get cold and our muscles would stiffen, and who knew when the rain would stop, if at all?  And the rain didn’t stop for another two and a half hours, though it did get slightly lighter so we just kept going up and up that mountain pass in the rain; the climb was 11km long.   The drop in temperature was actually energising and we made the crest a lot faster than we would have in the heat.

At one point, we came upon Rhiannon by the roadside with a flat tire, so we made a quick call to Mr Cường and Hoà who were still somewhere below us on the mountain.  While we waited, someone needed an urgent Jungle Wee. (We had drunk a lot of coconuts at lunch expecting to sweat it off later; a strategic error because liquids consumed which aren’t expelled through sweating must exit in other ways, and repeatedly.)  We were hiding our fellow rider amongst the bamboo trees, when Mr Cường’s van pulled up, and it was one of those moments when you just have to laugh long and hard, because, again, we were on a mountain pass surrounded by jungle that was looking especially beautiful and green due to the rain, while our friend was having a Jungle Wee and trying to hide it from Hoà.  Although, we were also very wet and cold, so it could just have been hysteria.

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At the top of the pass, we saw mist rising up from the valley (it had been a very hot morning, though in hindsight it could have just been clouds), so we descended along the side of that mountain and into the mist.  (We found out later that an earlier group of riders were in the middle of their descent when the storm started, and someone had a fall – thankfully a minor one.)

We took it slowly and steadily though we would have made it to Lâm Hà sooner if we hadn’t stopped to take photos so often but the changing light and skies were too hard to resist.

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Finally, we made it to Lam Ha around 4 o’clock, when the sun obliged us by reappearing and giving us some lovely late afternoon light.

The lake in Lâm Hà, which was across the road from our hotel, had a floating lotus sculpture on it.  Surrounding it was a splendid variety of trees.  The ones with the red crescent-shaped flowers are called Cây Phượng – in English they’re known as “flame trees” but the translation of the Vietnamese name is “Phoenix Tree” because the blooms look like the tail of that mythical bird.  It is a tree that is often seen in paintings of Vietnam and is associated with students because they bloom towards the end of the school year and final exams.

Also spotted around the lake: a Jacaranda, and a Bottlebrush which is a native plant of Australia.  I don’t know what the one with the yellow blossoms is called but saw many beautiful ones in lovely Kon Tum.  The final picture is of the lady making bánh tráng nướng (a speciality of the Da Lat region).  Her version was simple and consisted of grilling rice paper with egg, spring onions and optional bits of dried beef.  We had a lot of these this evening.

Day 24: Making long work of a short ride.

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Today was our last easy day of riding with only 49km to Liên Sơn.  For some reason, including another flat tire, I didn’t get there until 2.45pm!  With the unnecessarily long hours in the heat, especially as we have three days of 100+ km rides ahead, I was really grumpy and took myself off to sit by the lake on the edge of town until the wind started picking up and rain clouds gathered.  With the last two days in BMT ending with cracking rain storms, I hope it doesn’t mean that the Wet Season has arrived early.  Cycling through the sewer-water floods of Saigon would not be an ideal homecoming.

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Rice fields and storm clouds over Lak Lake, Lien Son.

Day 23: Rest Day in Coffee Country

Buon Ma Thuot is the capital of Đắk Lắk province, and a major coffee producing region. My paternal grandparents lived here for most of the 70s.  An uncle of my father’s, by marriage, used to manage the estates of Emperor Bao Dai in the area, including his Summer Palace. (Incidentally,  Đắk Lắk is also home to one of my favourite Miss Vietnam 2016 contestants.)

For some, our final rest day in BMT started in the early hours with getting lost on the way home from Team Karaoke.  This, after Harriet had delighted all with a virtuoso performance with the microphone.  Harriet is the sort of person who makes going to karaoke worthwhile – she sings with the passion and commitment of someone who’s in the shower and thinks no one’s listening.

I was saved/prevented from spending all day in bed eating coconut cream tarts by Storm who suggested we visit a nearby waterfall.  (Apparently the coffee plantations were too far away to visit.) Dray Sap was 30 kilometres from the city centre but as it was meant to be a day’s respite from pedalling we opted to take a bus there.  Perhaps it was general fatigue setting in, but we’d forgotten our vow never to get on one of these, having shared the road with them for three weeks.  We were soon reminded of it though because, just after we boarded, it started bouncing all over the road and threatening the lives of innocent motorists. Except this time, we were the dirty collaborators on the inside, not the terrified road users clinging to the hard shoulder.

Dray Sap is the lesser of two neighbouring sets of waterfalls.  The other is Dray Nur, but apparently the bridge connecting the two areas has fallen into disrepair.  To access  Dray Nur we’d have had to take some circuitous route that heat and laziness prevented us from doing.  Nevermind, there was plenty to see at Dray Sap.

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“Help me, you guys – this sucks!”

Out in the open, in a shady wood, we came upon an old elephant looking sad and solemn.  She was grabbing tufts of long, dry grass with her trunk and chomping on them with all the energy of a recently tasered G20 protester; her rear leg was in irons.  Adjacent to the waterfall visiting area was the sort of zoo that promises visitors the opportunity to stare at chained up bears.  We did not visit the zoo.

We walked first to the top of Dray Sap to watched water flow gently towards the falls then gather and form a torrent that gushes over the rock face.  Somehow, two men had climbed up to a spot of rock between the two falls and seemed to be fishing.  Then we walked down, through a jungle-shaded path, to the blue-green lake at the bottom of Dray Sap for a refreshing swim, during which Keith made some more terrible puns and we tried not beat him with water bottles.

The only follow-up worthy of such an adventure was, of course, another lunch at Buon Ma Thuot KFC.

Tun, Becca and I did try to do something cultural afterwards and visit the Dak Lak Museum of Ethnology but were thwarted by a random power-cut to the building.   On the grounds surrounding the Museum though, some scouts were having a jamboree.

Back at Rest Day HQ, the rest of the gang were having a wholesome afternoon watching the “Blues Brothers”, while Jimmy was feeling a bit smug because he’d gone to the Museum of Ethnology in the morning before it had run out of its daily ration of electricity.

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Scouts learning semaphore

Day 22: In praise of fried chicken

If getting away from Ea Drăng’s tire-stabbing vandals and getting ourselves to Buôn Ma Thuột for our final rest day wasn’t enough motivation, we were also promised a visit to KFC and… a supermarket.  Because yes, we’ve led such lives of ascetic deprivation since leaving Hanoi that a promised visit to Coopmart, Buôn Ma Thuột, left everyone giddy at the prospect of non-rice-based snacks and deodorant.

If I’m honest, I don’t remember too much about the ride.  I just wanted to get to BMT so I could have some KFC.  I suppose there were probably some hills, some nice forests, a group of camo-clad young men carrying spades and hoes while marching.  But mostly, I just remember KFC.

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At some point during the ride, this happened: Some young men in camouflage march with an assortment of farming implements.  In the top right hand corner you can see a yellow butterfly.  Since leaving the mountains, we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of yellow butterflies everyday spilling across the the highway as we ride along, likes swirls of yellow confetti, or as Deema says, “Autumn leaves being blown by the wind.”

I haven’t had any KFC since I moved to Saigon – mostly because whenever I’ve ventured to my local, they’ve always claimed to have run out of chicken.  How can a KFC run out of chicken?  I don’t know, but each time I’ve been, I get shaky-shaky-jazz-hands [1] and told that there’s no chicken left.  (Excuse me? If you’re a KFC that’s run out of chicken you need to lock the doors and turn off the lights, not lure starving fans of fried chicken with the promise of the Colonel’s eleven secret herbs and spices, only to feed them Bitter Disappointment.)

But I digress, because I was not denied KFC in BMT.  It was the perfect post-76km ride meal.  I don’t think I said a word during the five minutes I spent eating and drinking everything within arm’s reach.  I vaguely remember people saying things to me but I didn’t quite register the noises they were making. (Something along the lines of “Slow down, you’ll choke”, I suppose.)  Truly one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had.

In fact, based on the year-round availability of hot & spicy chicken (unlike backward under-developed fried chicken nations liked the UK and Australia which only have H&S for limited periods during the year), table service, peach iced tea, and the availability of paradigm-shifting egg tarts [2], I’m gonna call it:

KFC Buôn Ma Thuột, is the World’s BEST KFC.

Meanwhile, the DHL guys were collecting everyone’s receipts from Coopmart, because this Coopmart gives out packs of instant noodles if you amass enough receipts and because they are total champs they were collecting them for an elderly lottery ticket seller. By the time we leave, they’ve gathered enough for her to get about 15 packs of noodles.

And then we went to the hotel and I passed out from food-related bliss, just as a terrific rain storm hit BMT.

[1] Shaky-shaky-jazz hands (where your fingers are extended on an open palm and you shake your hand by twisting your wrist) is a nation-wide gesture used by Vietnamese to say:

  • I don’t understand.
  • I don’t understand and I can’t be bothered to attempt other forms of communication with you.
  • I don’t have it.
  • I don’t care [about your needs or wants].
  • I’ve stopped listening, you no longer exist and I’m walking away now.

It’s wonderfully dismissive, especially if you do it while walking away.  Try it some time.

[2] Until today, I’ve never understood the fuss over egg tarts.  Why so much excitement over congealed custard in a soggy pastry case…?  NOT SO AT KFC BMT!  At KFC BMT, the egg tarts have a fluffy crisp puff pastry shell that holds a warm, sweet custard centre; they are served hot and brought to your table.