So we have arrived at our final cycling destination, the modern city of Nha Trang. It was 50km, mostly along our “friend” the QL1 – or the “one and only” as we have christened it. We have now covered about 3,140km since we left Bangkok on 8 January, some 10 weeks ago. Our longest day was 112km and the shortest cycling day was 23km (on Cat Ba island), but we have had plenty of days off the trikes.
Coming down the one and only we had the usual range of lorries coming a bit closer than we would have liked (but never too close) and motorbikes going the wrong way along the hard shoulder for no apparent reason (irritating but that is how things work here so bury the irritation). We also had our fair share of motorbike gawpers – people who ride along side us looking at the trikes (or possibly us) in wonderment, saying nothing but getting so close to be a complete pain to both us and anyone trying to overtake. None have caused an accident as the traffic here mysteriously weaves around anything in its way, and we have nearly got used to these inspections. But when I reacted to a particularly irritating gawper, Bernie accused me (justifiably) of being “Mr Grumpy”. She was right – it is their country and they are entitled to gawp if they want, andI resolved to do better – even if I don’t quite make it to being Mr Cheerful.
At one point we stopped at a place titled “Motel and Coffee Land” and asked for coffee – but were told no, we don’t do coffee! The fact that the title is “Coffee Land” is sort of irrelevant because everyone knows that we don’t do coffee! Andfor all manner of reasons, that sums up part of Vietnam.
So what are my reflections on the past few months? We are both significantly stronger and slimmer than we were on 6 January. The trikes have been tricky to maintain at times but overall a real success; we cannot imagine touring now on conventional bikes. They can be a bit slower when climbing, do attract a bit more attention and the gawpers can be irritating (there is me being Mr Grumpy again) but this is far outweighed by the comfort, the smiles, the thumbs up and general expressions of approval. They are great on the flat, fast downhill, stable and the scenic view is far better for most of the time than on a bike. However, perhaps the biggest benefit for those of us who reluctantly admit that we are nearer the finish line of life’s race than the starting blocks, is that they are kinder on the body. Fewer muscle aches, no neck aches and a more comfortable seat.
We have not camped a great deal on this trip and done no wild camping. This is not surprising given how many hotel rooms we have secured for less than £10 per night, but perhaps we are getting a little soft or maybe a tad less hardy in our 60s. I still love waking up in our little tent with the dawn streaming in, but real wild camping only works where there are long light evenings. When it gets dark by 6pm, it can be a very long time without light before dawn and a tent is a small place to spend those hours!
The best book I have read on this journey is, without doubt, “A history of loneliness” by John Boyne, which is a study into the mindset of those who closed their eyes and minds to clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church Ireland in the period from the 1960s. It is not so much about the mindset of the abusers or even those who directly covered up known abuse (evil as both groups are), but focuses on those who sort of knew but put their heads in the sand to ignore the obvious signs amongst their colleagues and said nothing. The book is about those in the priesthood in Ireland, but as a lawyer I have seen the same behaviour in teachers, those working in other contexts with children and in relation to other forms of sexual abuse in other contexts. It is not an easy read but wonderfully written. Perhaps, trips give us the time to read books which are not an easy read and the cycling gives us time to dwell on the insights of others, be it in literature, in politics or in art.
There are so many fantastic places we have been that it would be invidious to single out any one place and say that this was the highlight of the trip. The Gibbon Experience will live long in the memory, as will the fantastic rock shapes of Halong Bay. But one of my strongest memories of this trip will be the loud laughter of the nurses on that terrible evening when they were putting stitches into Bernie’s head wound after the stove exploded. That memory sticks out because, applying our British (or even European) approach, it was so inappropriate. Laughing at pain is inimical to our way of thinking but equally it was so typical of the approach in Laos. Our experience is that the Lao people laugh at virtually everything, are masters of the practical joke and see the funny side of any tradegy. They are a poor people who objectively one would have thought do not have a great deal to laugh about. But happiness, jokes and fun are hard wired into the national psyche and come out all the time – even when stitching up a head wound in hospital. It is a great way to tackle adversity and reminds us of the importance of laughter – and we have done a great deal of that in the last 10 weeks. We have laughed a lot – between ourselves and in company. It is a habit we must not loose when we get back to the UK.
Some of the temples – largely in Thailand – were also trip highlights, mainly because they were places of calm contemplation and beautiful artwork in the middle of frenetic cities. They were soulful in places where we struggled to find souls! We were also suprised by the extent to which Vietnam is a catholic country – there are churches everywhere but we have not seen a single mosque. That seems astonishing given that it is so close to other countries that are deeply Islamic.
We also noted that there are virtually no Vietnamese men with beards. We wondered why and the internet provided two answers. First, the genetic makeup of most men here means they do not grow extensive facial hair but just in the chin area and upper lip – hence a more modest confusian type of beard. However a better answer is the Vietnamese saying “ram rau sau mat” which roughly translated means women see men with beards and deep eyes as “barbaric, cruel, uneducated and likely criminals”.
This has been a different trip to previous cycle tours because my work as a working barrister (like a trial lawyer) has come to an end, and so I have not been worrying about cases and answering emails as I have gone along as been the case with all previous trips. This has given me an intellectual freedom to read, think and write which I have not had before. I come back to the UK with the yoke of practice removed from me – like having the albatross taken off my neck. Day to day life will certainly be different when I get back. I will just be a part time Judge now – not a full time barrister and part time judicial office holder – so not quite a pensioner but on the way there.
One of the things which always astonishes me is the fact that, almost however uninteresting the landscape is, we rarely if ever get bored during the long hours in the saddle. It is partly the need for physical effort the whole time, partly that there is always something to see and partly because we both, to an extent, live in our heads when we are cycling. By that I mean that our minds freewheel whilst our bodies are doing the work. This produces an effect that Bernie and I have observed on far too many occasions for it to be a coincidence – one of us will say “I was just thinking X” only for the other to confess to having a near identical train of thought. It can often be about something pretty obscure, but it happens at some point most days. So I think what is happening is that we are thinking pretty solidly for much of the time when we are cycling, but not just about the passing scenery but about our children, family, friends and wider issues in our lives. And yes, we are going to explore getting a treehouse when we get home!
The trip has had ups and downs of course – physical, emotional and psychological. The exploding stove was a low point but we were just (if not more) as affected by seeing Bien and his wife grappling with the terrible consequences for their son of developing a serious and difficult to treat autoimmune disease which developed quickly and came from nowhere – but for the luck of the draw (or the grace of God), their anguish could be any parent in any part of the world. We continue to hope for the best for them. If we were people of faith, they would be in our prayers but we are not so we can just have hope for them.
So we come to an end of another fantastic journey, and hope you have enjoyed following us on this blog. We write it for multiple reasons. In one sense, it is selfishly for us – capturing memories so we can re-read it at home and it will bring great times back to life when the bikes are packed away and the flabbiness has returned. But it is also for our family and friends – to persuade them we are still going, share thoughts and persuade them that, whatever the hardships, we are enjoying ourselves.
And the blog is also for people we have never met but who might get some benefit from reading about our travels. We hope that Jack and Kiera – who of course we have met – will find it useful for their trip – they are the lovely couple we met yesterday who are battling the winds to cycle north – doing much of our trip in reverse. Maybe it is also of interest to people who have never packed a pannier or cycled off into the unknown, but who just fancy the idea of it or want to follow someone’s travels from an armchair. This blog is for you too.
I am signing off now – hasta la vista until the next trip.