Our last trip ended in sadness because my brother, Peter, a wonderful musician, devoted Dad and much loved brother died on 3 February 2019. He was a traveller who loved this part of the world and was responding with wit and perceptive comments to photos we sent to him by WhatApp up to a few days before he died. We all miss him greatly.
But Peter would have wanted us to carry on and so, over the Christmas break, we are planning the next leg of this amazing journey. At the moment we are planning to leave the UK on the 29th February for about 7 weeks, with a provisional plan to cycle from Bangkok to Singapore.
If anyone reading this has experience of cycling this route, we would love to hear from you. All tips, routes and information about places that must be visited (or must be avoided) would be most welcome.
It seems prescient to start the trip again on 29th February, the leap day of a leap year, and we will start the blog again as we lead up to our departure.
Happy Christmas to anyone reading this and our very best wishes for 2020.
At some point today, Bernie (who was cycling in front of me) said “makes you think all this cycling”. Makes you think what I wondered – but the answer is that it just makes you think. There are lots of times of the day when the road looks much the same as it did for the last hour, and will look much the same for the next hour. Traffic was light, the surface was good and there were not too many kamikaze motor bikers doing 60kph on the wrong side of the road just to prove they were invincible. We duly got out of the way of the few who did – thus proving they were right, of course.
We learned today the sad news that one of my favourite comedians, Jeremy Hardy, had died of cancer. It also would have been have been my father’s birthday today – he died 16 years ago. If he had lived, he would have been 94 – which would have been a far better age than the age when he was taken from us all so young. Jeremey Hardy was a year younger than me, at just 57. I met him about 18 months ago at a legal charity dinner; he was as funny, genuine and engaged in person as he appeared on the radio. Both were sad losses and died far too young.
So back to cycling – why do we do it? I recall a cyclist in Scotland who referred to cyclists as “coffin cheaters” which is part of the reason – though there are other ways that are probably more effective.
Other than that, going up hills is easier on a motorbike but fewer children wave excitedly at motor bikers but we get waves en route all the time. Going slowly on a bike also means that life happens in slow motion around us – markets are full of people and bustle; but we slide through on our bikes with few observers (other than the children). We get fit I suppose but that is a side product – like losing weight – but is not the main reason we cycle. I suppose I still think there is something magical about having travelled 2,500km in a month under our own steam, seeing a country at slow motion and being a “tourist-lite”. There are sights we see, smells we experience, and people we meet that add up to things we would never have got any other way.
Take Viet for example. A fantastic young man who was cycling home to his family from Danang (where he worked) to BMT (see yesterday for an explanation of where this is). He was cycling the opposite direction today and we stopped for a chat – and it filled us both with great feelings of joy. Happy New Year to him and his family.
Then there are the times when things go wrong – such as today when 2 gear change cables snapped. We only have 2 spare cables and both are used up. It took me over an hour to work out why the first (and second) ones failed and then gingerly put the last one in place hoping it would hold (it did). Job for tomorrow in a city – replace spare gear cables. I know Malcolm would have been far better at sorting it out but, honestly, where is Malcolm when you need him in a crisis? I just hope the last cable will last until we get to Pleiku (about 50 km) tomorrow. But perhaps solving a problem such as a broken gear cable can be just as satisfying as a great view.
So back to Bernie and the fact that cycling makes us think. She is right – it does. There is plenty of time to reflect on what makes us tick, what is important, whether we live our values, considering past decisions about things that are important and things we have got wrong. In my case there is plenty of material for the last category but somehow the rhythm of the road means that, instead of destructive thoughts, the thought pattern is to accept where things have gone wrong, gently accept the delusion (or otherwise) that this does not make me a totally bad person, and try to learn the lessons from things that have not gone as well as they could. I have no idea why this process is better undertaken on a bike, but it is. So as long as the gradient is not more than about 5%, the mind is in overdrive. Of course if the slope is steep, all energy is focused on turning the pedals and cursing the climb. Not much profound thinking gets done when the slope is 7%.
We had a good day today – single road but at times a ridge with views on both sides. The overall feel of the country is definitely “pre-holiday” – like Britain feels on 20th December. Lots of people loaded onto motorbikes going home to loved ones for the new year. Some packing was better than others – and some came apart at the side of the road. But it was soon repacked and on the way – all to add to families reunited
Strange to think that this delightful, peaceful and (becoming) prosperous country was the site of a bloody war less than 30 years ago as the west fought to stop the spread of communism. The pointlessness of that loss of life on all sides is now clear but was clearly obscured at the time. If today’s Vietnam is communism today (which it sort of is and sort of isn’t – just like China) then there are things to be said in its favour as well as the obvious things to say against it. This is a country with private businesses competing for customers, funded by capital and with some people who wealthy and many who are doing OK. Corruption is problem (so we are told) but its GDP has grown by over 6% per year on average for the past 10 years, The population (97M) was growing at 3% per year in 1070 but is now growing at 1% a year. So economic progress results in a sustainable population growth – once again.
We have had some tough days since HCM City so decided to give ourselves an easier day today. Having splashed out an extra #1.50 for a “VIP room” with a huge picture window overlooking the lake we had a lie in (ie did not set the alarm for 5.15am and opened my eyes at 6 as it was getting light). We had coffee and breakfast in bed looking at the early morning light on the lake. We slowly packed up but were still on the road soon after 7.30am.
The first 10km were glorious as we rode round the lake and across the valley. Yellow light, green paddy fields and stunning surrounding hills. However the best laid plans do not always work and things soon changed after we had climbed a small ridge and wound through a few hills when we found ourselves in a different world – the world of modern Vietnam.
Busy roads and almost continuous development for the next 35km as we followed the road into the large city of Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced Boon me Tote or Burn my Tart or “BMT” as we referred to it as we could not cope with the full pronunciation).
Coming into the city we found ourselves on a large dual carriage way (not too busy) but, as the city is billed as the coffee capital of Vietnam, finding a coffee shop had to be our first port of call. We soon found a small coffee shop where we had an excellent cup of freshly brewed coffee. In Vietnam coffee shops only sell drinks but no food so the next hunt was for food. As a rarity there seemed to be a distinct lack of food shops or restaurants. However, aided once again by google maps we found a ‘mega supermarket’ just off our route. The shop could have been a large supermarket in Kidderminster – with very many of the same brands. Only a tiny proportion of the population shop at such places at the moment (and I refused to pay 50,000 dong for 1kg of bananas when we get them for 10,000 dong/kilo from street stalls and they are nicer) but, it was useful to stock up on some bits and pieces.
We then cycled out of the city along leafy tree lined boulevards – much nicer than our way in. However, we then hit our main problem of the day – WIND. We had a strong side wind most of the morning but were now changing direction into the teeth of the wind. The weather forecast said the winds were 17km/hr with gusts of 22km/hr. It seemed more ‘gust’ than anything and was tough going. We had taken a more minor road to avoid the heavy traffic out of the city but then had a triple whammy of strong headwind, poor road surface and a continuous 300m climb. I was finding it particularly difficult as the gusts would drive me back, so David took more of my weight from my panniers.
The km slowly ticked off passing coffee and pepper and a large rubber plantation (which provided a brief windbreak). We were glad to stop as planned where our road met the main road again. Our ‘easy’ day had also accumulated 850m of climbing so although not as much as the last few days, that and the wind left us with heavy legs.
We soon revived. It did not take long to look round our environs – the busy main road and a few side roads with the usual busy market of fresh produce. As much ‘real’ Vietnam as anywhere else but a world away from where we had started the day.