MEKONG DELTA, Vietnam — "Hello! Hello!" they say cheerfully in English.
The children run to the edge of the dirt path, grinning and waving and shouting.
Sometimes it's an adult calling out a greeting accompanied by a smile.
Even the occasional rooster gets in on the action.
On a tour bus, we'd be whizzing by in air-conditioned comfort, invisible to the natives. But we're on bicycles, hot and sweaty as we ride through the front yards of these friendly folks' lives — getting a high-five, seeing their smiles up close, smelling their lunches cooking.
Heat and humidity be damned. This is the way to sample an exotic culture.
Our small group of 10 came together for nearly two weeks in December on REI Adventures' Saigon to Angkor cycling trip. Led by our always smiling and joking main guide, Phat, and the somewhat more serious but always friendly and helpful Rith, we pedaled nearly 300 miles through parts of Vietnam and Cambodia. A few days the mileage was negligible, fewer than 20 miles. On the other end of the scale there was a 62-mile day and two near 50.
The sights were amazing and sometimes moving: the expanse of the legendary Mekong River, the surreal war relics of Vietnam's Cu Chi tunnels area, the iconic splendor of Angkor Wat and Cambodia's other temple sites, the tragedy of Phnom Penh's Genocide Museum.
But ultimately it's the people who provide the lasting mental images of a visit to a foreign land: Phat telling of the impact of the Vietnam War's aftermath on his family; Rith sharing his experience of being orphaned by the murder of his parents at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; the owner of a nondescript eatery in a Vietnamese village posing proudly for a photo at her front counter; a young man riding his motor scooter down a dusty red road with several full-size bed mattresses strapped to his back.
The region's history is messy, and Westerners, notably the French and Americans, brought large doses of misery to Indochina. Yet it's the easily recognizable Westerners who are so warmly embraced by the locals, even those old enough to have lived through the Vietnam War and its aftermath. And it's not just because Westerners are pumping money into a tourism industry that gives a big boost to both countries' economies. These people are just plain friendly.
Our trip started in the chaos of what the Vietnamese government calls Ho Chi Minh City, but what the locals still call Saigon. No biking there, thankfully. Just trying to cross a street clogged with motorbikes isn't for the meek. The best bet? Get behind a local and walk right into the maelstrom — quickly.
After getting acquainted at our hotel the first day, we boarded a minibus the next day for a short ride north to escape the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City. Then we rode our Trek bikes on a mix of paved and unpaved trails, an itinerary we would repeat again and again in the coming days.
Our destination this day was Cu Chi and its tunnel system, which housed sometimes thousands of people during various unpleasantries with the French and Americans.
Anyone who lived through the years of the Vietnam War, even if experiencing it from the safety of the nightly TV news, can't help but be affected by the war museum at Cu Chi. There are camouflaged pits with the sharpened bamboo stakes to impale GIs, a display of various booby traps designed to kill unsuspecting U.S. troops, and, in the background, the near-constant sound of gunfire coming from a firing range. Visitors pay to shoot a variety of rifles that were used by U.S. and Viet Cong troops. Kind of unsettling.
But thoughts of Cu Chi can be replaced by memories of boating through the intriguing Cai Rang Floating Market at Can Tho in Vietnam or strolling through the crowd at the very touristy Skun in Cambodia, where vendors hawk fried spiders and other delicacies. Or kids being kids as they mugged for our cameras at a primitive "monkey bridge" alongside the trail at a small stream in Vietnam.
Our days became a melange of bike riding, river crossings on frail ferries that shuddered as their anemic engines labored, one-on-one talks while in the saddle and shared meals of seafood, chicken, pork and, of course, rice, all served family style.
And always the smiles and the friendly cries: "Hello! Hello!"
If you go
The trip: REI Adventures offers this cycling trip only in the slightly cooler months from November through February. Trip dates are Nov. 17-28, Dec. 1-12 and Dec. 22-Jan. 2, 2014. Dates in 2014 are Jan. 12-23 and Feb. 9-20. Pricing in 2013 for REI members is $3,099 per person double occupancy or $3,375 for nonmembers. Because an REI membership is just $20, you know what to do. Pricing in 2014 is $3,599 and $3,999. There also is a $250 holiday supplement for the Dec. 22 (Christmas) and Feb. 9 (Tet) trips. If you're traveling alone, they can match you with a roommate. The price includes 11 nights' lodging, all meals, excellent English-speaking cycling guides, support vehicle, bike, all ferry and boat charges and admission at places such as Cu Chi and Angkor Wat.
REI Adventures: 800-622-2236, tinyurl.com/mlpvgun
The biking: You don't have to be a superstud biker to do this trip, but you do need to train for it and be in shape. Our longest day was 62 miles, but that was broken into manageable chunks, and all of the routes were virtually flat. Because of the heat (in the 90s most days, with very high humidity), we generally rode no more than an hour straight before meeting the support van for a break. Riding ranged from narrow dirt paths to wider paved paths to paved and unpaved roads. Sometimes we were alone, sometimes we were in fairly congested areas with lots of people and bike/motorbike/vehicle traffic.
Getting there: It's a long haul to Vietnam. You're generally looking at a minimum of 24 hours in transit, and you also deal with crossing the International Dateline, assuming you're flying west.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun