I’ve been meaning to write about this trip since the day it started back on the 14th of May 2013. For various reasons I’ve not felt up to it. Perhaps the emotional upheaval that resulted from seeing such a beautiful place was a little too much. Nevertheless, months of writers block later I’m able to share with you the experience of a lifetime.
It’s hot. Not warm, it’s actually hot. Like when you open the oven to put in your roast. The kind of hot that hits you like a freight train and sucks the air right out of you.
The sweat drips from my brow with metronomic frequency. I watch mesmerized as big, fat drop after drop falls in slow motion and hits the top tube of my bright red bike. The resulting splashes remind me of the videos I saw in chemistry class of potassium reacting with water. Briefly nothing, then a perfectly formed crown, glowing with the glare from the ever-rising sun. The splash evaporates before hitting the ground. The drops become an almost constant stream, as if a tap has been flung open and my pores are allowed to pour away every last ounce of sweat my body has to offer. Why am I not cooling down? Why is this all happening in slow motion? Why is my vision fading? What is this?
These thoughts raced through my mind about 10km into the first day of riding. Having just left Lao Cai we were riding toward Sa Pa along the Tram Ton pass. Expecting something vaguely like the Alpine passes I have come to love over the years, I was instead facing the unknown and feeling terribly unprepared.
I ground to a halt suddenly at the sound of trickling water. Resting the bike against the verge, I stumbled my way through dense vegetation to the source of the sound, an open storm drain. A hose pipe made of stockings could have supplied more water, but given the urgency of the situation, I set about soaking myself head to toe. It helped. Within seconds my vision stopped swimming, my heartbeats returned to sensible levels and for a few moments my pores could close, letting me drain my water bottle and quench my thirst.
Then, as quickly as I had felt the respite, the furnace hit me. Stopping was a lot worse than pedaling along. The eery stillness of the air meant there was absolutely no breeze to cool me down. There was only one thing I could do and that was get back on the bike. I looked back as I pedaled, hoping the bus would catch me. Hoping my riding partner Gary would catch me. Hoping anybody would catch me, stop me, take me off the bike and put some sense into me. I got my head down. I pedaled. I didn’t stop again until Sa Pa. I couldn’t. I was terrified of what might happen.
Two years prior to my desperate stop under trickle of water on the side of a mountain pass deep in the Vietnamese backroads, I was out on a ride with a colleague from the bike industry in the South of England who mentioned that he was thinking about organizing a ride across Vietnam in aid of his mother’s charity. Being the impulsive and easily persuaded person that I am, I immediately announced that this was a smashing idea and I’d “be well up for that, mate.” Despite barely knowing where Vietnam was, the weather, the roads and the culture to expect, I had thought it a brilliant idea to cycle across it. Nine months later, the plans had been prepared, route mapped, support crew recruited, a few fellow riders inspired (or duped) into participating and it was official. We were actually going to do this thing.
The charity, Newborns Vietnam was set up to provide assistance in neonatal care in South East Asia, with a specific focus on Vietnam. Working in partnership with local health and pediatric services, the bulk of their work so far has been to develop the skills of nurses to help raise the standards of care, along with the provision of basic lifesaving equipment. Our plan was to cycle from the top of Vietnam where it borders China, to Da Nang, finishing the ride with a visit the hospital where the charity was making such a difference.
So off I went. Up at silly o’clock in the morning having packed all night, late to Gatwick due to a pile up on the M25, last one on the flight, and wheels up. Three inflight movies, six whiskies, two beers, four packets of nuts and two meals later, we touched down in Hanoi. Now, I’m no stranger to landing in warm places, having visited family in Turkey annually since I can remember, I cherish the blast of warmth when the cabin doors open and you breathe that first lungful of holiday air. This wasn’t like that at all…
Out of the arrivals lounge, into the baggage reclaim and what a mess. 23 bikes arrived in dribs and drabs, hurriedly loaded onto trolleys and carted through customs, we arrived on the other side to be greeted by Suzaanna Lubran and Michael Johnston, who would be chaperoning us and making sure the trip was plain sailing.
We met our Vietnamese guides on the airport concourse, loading all the bikes and bags into a tremendously rickety looking van, whilst being bundled onto a coach with decidedly Vietnamese ergonomics. Some of the taller members of the group had to sit lengthways – probably for the best, as the passing scenery was nerve-wracking to say the least. Within moments of leaving the relative calm of the airport service road, we joined the HCM trail a “mixed use” highway. Amidst buffalos, bicycles, and countless mopeds, we were expertly maneuvered though the crowds and into Hanoi city proper, where we were whisked into the Metropole hotel. I’m not a complete stranger to nice hotels, having been on a few work trips paid for by local tourism boards keen to impress, but to transition from the dusty, almost movie-set hustle and bustle of Hanoi to the tranquil opulence of the Metropole was quite something. Whilst we received as warm a welcome as any of the other guests (no doubt paying an arm and a leg) it was surely a spectacle for the staff to cater for a group of sweaty and disheveled cyclists. Within minutes I’d located the pool and dived in.
Fast forward a few hours of getting sunburnt in a pool and we are out on the town, wandering about feeling like Jeremy Clarkson and the Top Gear boys on their quest to find silly gifts for loved ones back home. Amidst shops selling live tiger fish and electric eels, glorious Vietnamese bric-a-brac and musical instruments, we saw countless couples getting married and having wedding photos taken. In front of luxury hotels, parks, monuments and even random trees by the side of the road seem to be the preferred, and most legitimate places to pose when newlywed in ‘Nam.
Whilst wandering about, we also tried our hand, (or legs) at crossing the roads like locals. Whilst a relatively mundane activity in the western world, in Vietnam crossing the road can quite regularly give you heart stopping bursts of adrenaline. You see, the way to cross a road is to calmly step off the curb, look dead ahead and walk at a steady pace, simply allowing the traffic to flow its way around you. Stopping, panicking, making eye contact with drivers of approaching vehicles, all of these newbie mistakes are likely to get you killed.
After a brief wander, we said goodbye to the opulence of the Metropole and looked forward to the joys of the night train to Lao Cai. The Pumpkin Express as it was called, featured wobbly bunks, intermittent fluorescent lighting and a beer cart. Needless to say, the beer was cheap and we drank plenty of it.
Sleep wasn’t really an option. The train was noisy and bright, constantly illuminated by passing cars, mopeds and trucks and by the time we hit the jungle, the noise of nature was overwhelming, even more so than the click-click-clack-clack of the train on the track.
Eventually I passed out/dozed off, but for how long I’m not sure, as I was woken abruptly as the train stopped in at Lao Cai. We disembarked, tricky as everyone in my cabin was still a bit drunk, and our group headed toward the centre of the town, which doubles as a car park.
Tired, drunk and incredibly sweaty, we assembled our bikes under the rising sun. We readied our kit and got changed in a restaurant dining room whilst eating a paltry breakfast (about a third of a fried egg and a bread roll each) due to some easily appreciated logistical difficulties in feeding 30 foreigners at the drop of a hat in rural Vietnam.
An hour of faff later, we’d started the ride. No real pomp and ceremony. We just got on with it. We were on our way across Vietnam on two wheels.
To be continued.
Love and Mayhem,