The Roving Route
It's Official, The 60 Hour Covid-19 Journey Begins
We had to make a really tough decision this week. We have been speaking these last few weeks about how well Vietnam is handling the virus and that still remains the same. They have 40 times fewer cases than Canada and it is growing very slowly however with the constant changes to airlines, visa regulations, and quarantine measures, we are always looking at the long-term effects and costs of staying. Before the virus, a 3-month visa extension was available for roughly $50 USD through one of the many agencies. This week we found out that these agencies are now taking advantage of COVID-19 and are charging $400 USD for the extension. With no guarantee that flights would be running like normal at the end of that period, we had to make the tough call and pull the plug on our time in Asia. Booking last-minute tickets we have had one of the longest adventures to get us home. After 2 flight cancellations, 4 flights, 2 overnight layovers, and 3 countries we have made it home! We are both incredibly sad to have to return but feel the advantage of being in Canada out way any disadvantages of cutting our trip short.
Having made up our mind, we talked to Linh about our decision and how sad we would be to say goodbye to our Vietnamese family. Luckily for us though, having his homestay essentially closed meant that he had a ton of time to tour us around. With free bikes at all of the hotels we had stayed at in the past month, we had biked around many of the main streets but it turns out there is so much more if you know where to look. Hoping on the bikes on a nice clear day we headed towards the river to one of his favourite coffee shops. Stopping off at a hole in the wall place with no menu, Linh orders us their specialty - salt coffee. The unique mix of coffee, condensed milk, cream, and a bit of salt made for a very interesting twist on the typical Vietnamese coffee we were used to.
Back on the bikes, we moved off the main road and onto the now paved path that once was an entry point to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We had previously biked this section but unbeknownst to us at the time, partway down the road is a small ferry station. It turns out that over the years communities have sprung up on the opposite side of the river and for some reason, no bridge was ever built to connect it to Phong Nha. The only way to get across is aboard a small wooden longboat paddled by a tiny woman. Crossing the 50 metres only took a few minutes but was truly a local's experience. There is no monetary cost to locals but instead, food or home goods are the appropriate fare. Once on the opposite side of the river, a twisted network of lanes takes you through numerous communities and farmland.
Our destination was two large suspension bridges that cross the river further downstream. It was quite strange how we had already passed 2 communities by the time we hit the first bridge and another one by the second bridge but no bridge connected the area to the main streets of Phong Nha. The nice thing though is the further you get away from the main streets of Phong Nha, the quainter the villages get and the more stunning the landscape. The area was featured in a popular music video, click HERE to watch (if you keep watching the video it also takes you through Son Doong Cave). On our way back to town we stopped just before the ferry at a small farm that grew corn and peanuts. Did you know peanuts grow under the ground on a vine-like plant? After pulling off a few ears of corn and uprooting a dozen peanut plants we were on our way back home with some pre-dinner snacks!
Peanuts are a very popular crop in this region of Vietnam and will be harvested at the end of April. The bunches that we pulled up were a little underdeveloped and small but were still really tasty. Unlike the roasted peanuts that are popular back home, when they are fresh all you need to do is boil them for a few minutes. This means that they become almost the same texture as a chickpea or edamame with a semi potato taste. Though they are not what we are used to, they were really good and Derek especially devoured most of the bowl! The scenery, company, and a bit of farming made for one of our best days in the 5 months of travel! We could not thank Linh enough for taking us out and showing us a bit of the "off the beaten track" side of his town.
It has now been about 20 days since we first showed up to Linh's homestay. We have had an incredible time thanks to the hospitality of his family and small team of staff. They have prepared 3 meals a day for pretty much the entire time, tried to teach us many Vietnamese words, ensured everything was well kept and always had a smile on. As such, we knew that we needed to do something that would show our appreciation to them all. The place that we had eaten many kebabs at and spoke about in our previous newsletter is also a small bakery. One of the times we were there we notice a bunch of cakes. On one of the last days of our stay, we decided that buying a cake would not only be a nice way to show our appreciation to Linh's family but also help support a small business that is likely to have a tough run thanks to the elimination of tourism in the town. The cake was absolutely fantastic. With a very light whip cream icing and airy vanilla cake, it was so much better than many cakes back home. Even though it probably had less than 10% of the sugar that cakes have back home after just one piece the kids were absolutely wired and causing quite the ruckus in the lobby!
With the homestay's website finished and only a few more days of sun left before having to return to negative degree weather and isolation for 2 weeks, we tried to make the most of the time. We spent as much time out of our room as possible, lounging by the pool, going for short bike rides, and doing crafts with the kids at the homestay. Huey (who we have spoken about for the past few weeks) has an older sister who is very much reserved compared to her brother. She has always been shy and has been a tough nut to crack. After over 20 days in the homestay, we finally got her to play with us by creating a paper fortune teller and asking Linh to translate a few fortunes for us. Apparently, they are also a popular thing to make there so after a few minutes playing with the one Jacki folded, she grabbed a piece of paper and started to make her own. Though it took us 20 days to do it, we are happy that she finally opened up and spent some time with us!
As we are leaving earlier than expected, we could no longer start the project for the company in Dong Hoi we spoke about last week. It saddens us that we could not help another company develop their online presence but we have to make the best choice possible in the changing environment of COVID-19. We are really sad to have to end this leg of our adventure early. We had some incredible times, many memories, met amazing people and visited some of the coolest sites we have ever seen. Our last adventure was the marathon of flights to get us home. It took us roughly 60 hours with our flights going from Dong Hoi -> Ho Chi Minh City -> Tokyo -> Vancouver -> Winnipeg. Not a single flight did we have someone sitting between us giving us plenty of room to stretch out and get some sleep! Though our original flights had a stopover in Edmonton, those flights were canceled and we were left with a 21-hour layover in Vancouver. Luckily, we convinced Air Canada to offer us a free hotel and food vouchers for the inconvenience so at least there is a silver lining.
By this time in our multi-year travels, we have pretty much mastered being as comfortable as possible while in transit. We showed our train journey to Dong Hoi (Phong Nha) a few weeks ago in a newsletter with our tripod acting as a tablet stand but this week we took it to a whole new level. We had an overnight layover between flights in Ho Chi Minh City but we did not want to leave the airport as the quarantine rules are increasingly stringent. Luckily, one of our credit cards offers airport lounge passes which we utilize on many of our long layovers to eat and drink as much as possible in the few hours we are allowed in. There was a ton of good food, liquor, and even a massage chair in this lounge and we were the only ones in it for several hours. Setting up the tripod/tablet combo again, we made ourselves comfortable while taking turns enjoying it! All these plusses did not come for free as karma finally caught up to us on the 8-hour flight from Tokyo to Vancouver. Sitting in the same row as us was a family of 5 whose little girl would not stop screaming at the top of her lungs. Literally, for hours on end, you could not even watch tv as all you could hear was her scream for her mum. We have nothing against when babies cry on flights because most of them cry all the time in general and flights are not comfortable. You also can not reason with a baby. This girl was probably 5 and full well knew what she was doing. The worst part was it seemed the parents did not do anything about it. No toys were brought out, no colouring books, not even a hug. Nothing. But the bottom line of our eventful 60 hours of transit was that we made it home without any true issues. Now its time to self-quarantine and hopefully we did not pick up the virus somewhere along the way!
We will likely have some pretty uneventful upcoming weeks as we are confined to a basement in Winnipeg. We are very much looking forward to eating as much cheese as possible, ice cream, and FINALLY having more than just 5 shirts to choose from (but let's be honest, the two weeks will likely just be spent in our housecoats!) Eventually, we will be able to make it down to Lake of the Woods where we will spend the rest of the summer writing more posts for the website, youtube videos, and tutoring English. We are not sure the frequency of our newsletters now that we are home but we will keep you updated.
Cheers from Winnipeg, The Roving Route