The Big One: Cycling Vietnam

Vietnam is a country of contradictions. A stranger can hold my face between their hands, rub the hair on my arms, braid my blonde locks. Two minutes later another is shoving against me flogging their goods: “Madame smell the coffee, taste the pho, feel the texture, see the colours of the spices, buy from me, buy from me, Madame…”

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I thread softly through the markets to pick up supplies. Sweaty bodies push against me, pungent air caresses my nostrils, humidity sticks my hair to the back of my neck. Smoke rises in the alleys, plastic kids chairs and tables consume the pathways, a cacophony of horns intertwined with the high pitched natter of the Vietnamese language drown out the peace, the dust churns and settles, churns and settles, the flies hover over the raw meat spread out across cardboard on the ground, the final flick of a live fish before the machete drops to behead it and life seeps out.

The Vietnamese crouch, the sweet iced coffee with condensed milk as it touches your lips, the tacky flashing lights over every shop front, the Buddha and mini pagoda statues adorned with fruit and cigarettes and cans of booze, the heaving flem filled hack of the locals whose lives play out in a world of putrid air pollution, the smoke and inhale of the thuoc lao pipe and the fifteen second blissful high that follows.

The tanned creases of the old women’s skin, the stereotypical straw farmers hat, the kindness colliding with the meanness, closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and stepping out on the road to cross, the cruelty to animals, the resonating sound of a slap of a child across the face, the red flag and yellow star, the fat white tourists licking ice-creams, the ao xao, the sauces, the lizards darting across the walls surrounding you. Every town has its product; aloe vera land, tile land, corn on the cob land, duck land…

Millions of mopeds zoom past. The squeak of the overloaded battered bikes with no gears. The crisp linen shirts and red chiffon bow of the school kids. The terrible roads, the contrast of stunning limestone eroded mountains with the polluted dirty cities. Like Ireland eighty years ago.

This is my Vietnam.

It is a dangerous world we live in. Or so everyone keeps telling me.

But fear is a terrible thing. Fear traps you, restricts you, and confines your mind. Fear makes you settle for average, when you were destined for so much more.

I decided I would not let fear of the unknown dictate my path, so I moved to Vietnam alone. Six months later my fifty-four year old Da flew out to Vietnam’s capital city to cycle the country with me. North to South, 2000km, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City.

My foot presses down, the pedal begins its rotation, and we are off, Hanoi to Ho Chi Min by bicycle. Instant chaos in the city’s streets, we push our way slowly out of Hanoi while trying to find our balance with our overstuffed panniers. Finally we break out of the cities confines and into pure countryside, to the town made of sludge. With no compact ground to stabilise ourselves, we struggle in vain through a road of ankle high muck, we fight to keep the momentum going because if you stop, you’re stuck and you will sink. The locals on the side of the street look on laughing their asses off at us. Dad makes it through the fifteen minute mud bath. I stutter and fall and have to drag my way out on foot, giggling in disbelief. The madness has commenced, we have reached the Ho Chi Min highway, our home for the next two weeks.

We cycle against a backdrop of limestone cut mountains, patterned paddy fields, farming women bent over their crops, while a constant dribble of kids emerge from their homes and chase us down the road to scream their hellos. We aim for 70km but end up doing 92km because there is no place to rest our weary heads. The series of hills gnaw away at our energy and leave us replete. Day one and already a routine, one we will fine tune over the coming weeks. A shitty motel tonight, with cigarette butts, squat toilets, no sheets to line the rank mattresses, and only an uncased fan to cool us in the hazy heat. A full chicken carcass, beak, bones, feet, organs intact and some leaves and rice thrown in front of us to dine on. But what magic, we are here, we are finally doing it. What a wonderful life it is.

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The days roll by; I quickly learn the Vietnamese words for father and daughter because everyone thinks we are married, creepy. Da’s gears won’t change cogs, so he’s having a rough time trying to get up the hills of which there are many. Low mileage forces us to ride on through peak sunshine, ebbing away at our battery, stopping every few miles to force water down our throats and slather on sun cream over the sweat. We push on, making a note of what not to do; there will be no lie in tomorrow, up early to get the miles under our belt before the heat hits. Surreal beauty surrounds us, blue skies, water buffaloes bathing in the lakes, the beautiful people waving, we have to fight the urge to stop every minute and take a photo or we will never get there.

A sense of easiness settles between us as I plague Da with questions about his life, about the world, which at twenty-three I still have so much to learn about. He entertains me with tales about the life he has led until now, about work, about my brilliant mother. It distracts us both from the heat and the pain. We keep commenting that maybe it is us westerners that have it the wrong way round, these people in all their poverty seem happier than us. Labouring in the farms or chilling in a hammock in the shop/restaurant/house they own until a customer rocks up to be served. Taking a siesta between twelve and two each day, cruising through the rolling landscape on a motorbike,  spreading seed in a paddy field knee high in mud underneath the sweltering sun. Meanwhile we burst our balls to build a career, to get another promotion to make more money to buy more crap that we do not need. Are we really the developed country or is the joke on us?

We are both tired, needing a place to stay and not finding any, there is nothing worse than having to push on when you’ve already given up. Da grabs on to the back of a bamboo truck, to hitch a ride up the hill.  Tonight is another cheap motel, another hand held shower, washing out our gear with soap in the sink. I treat myself to a fresh pair of knickers after three days. This is the life. The days start to morph together. We stop to help an unconscious drunken man out of a dike. We despair at the miles and miles of deforestation in process around us. It saddens me to witness a world ‘develop’, Vietnam will soon mourn the loss of a simpler lifestyle without machines and technology. I want to shout at them to stop, to look at the western world and see that they are making a mistake. They should be preserving their way of life, not destroying it. We ride past a dead man on the road, after been knocked down, a sheet covering a part of him, blood pouring out of his head onto the tarmac. Tragedy, and yet somehow the world continues on as if nothing has happened. I have a rash and blistered backside and heel, and an infected ant bite on top of the foot. I am punishing my body, forcing it to adjust rapidly. But in all this pain, there must be some light, some beauty.

I push my bike up the side of a mountain in tears; a frightening descent follows as darkness closes in. Our bodies hurt; we need to rest if we are going to have a chance at making this. The Vietnamese point and laugh at us, overcharging us because we are white, therefore assumed to be wealthy. Sometimes I hate it all, the people, what we are doing. Pushing eighty to a hundred and thirty kilometres a day, every day on a motorway consumed by road works in the pissing rain. I’m in misery, questioning everything, this trip is going to change who I am. We pass war memorials every few miles, reminding us of this countrys bloody past. I snap at Da because he’s left handed and if we sit beside each other and share one plate, his elbow constantly hits off me because I’m right handed. A car hits a motorbike who hits me, knocks my panniers off and nearly topples me. Rashes, ant bites, dark rims under my eyes, a bad cycling tan, knotted dreadlocks… I look a mess. Why do we choose to suffer? But every time we reach those lows, a moment will follow that lifts us right back up. Always such simple things; a pea and grain flavoured ice-pop for breakfast, a nap under a tree at noon, the blast of a shower, calling home, a cool beer, a pineapple. And voila, day saved.

1000km later, we crawl into Da Nang, head to toe in muck, the dirty rain filling and corrupting our lungs. We have reached our half way point. We gorge ourselves on glorious western food, satisfied for the first time since we started. We take a moment to appreciate what it is we are doing. To appreciate life, kindness, beauty, fun, calmness, the freedom of choice, the freedom to change things, to evolve, to change myself and the path I walk on. To suffer in order to appreciate what I have, the luxuries of my world.

The rest is short lived and we return to the road, this time on the A1 motorway in the lashing rain. A series of wrong turns, added miles, a puncture and more rain follows. Hardship. Maybe there is something after all to the 9-5 job, the mortgage, the husband, the babies, the log fire, the cable TV? Day thirteen becomes an unplanned rest day, after I submit to fever through the night. Da fusses around me worrying that they are malaria symptoms.  We ride to the hospital to do the test. There we witness real suffering; a young man after a motorbike accident, bleeding out, with broken legs. In another corner two old men writhe in pain on their deathbeds. We perch awkwardly on the edge of a trolley. The test comes back clear, but a high white blood cell count suggests a viral infection. Rolling with the punches.

We trudge on. Miles of road works; dredging up so much dust it’s dangerous. The buses and lorries beep and barrel on through, if you don’t make a swift jerk of the handlebars towards the ditch then you’re a goner. We bellow profanities after them after the near misses, but they just wave, carting their busloads of fat white tourists from scenic spot to scenic spot, missing all the culture, the actual food and lifestyle of the Vietnamese people, content to be blindfolded to reality as they holiday. Some days I think, wow look at what we are doing with the time we have been given, what badasses we are but sometimes for a second I think, I wish I was on that bus that nearly barrelled me over into a paddy field. How great it would be to be reclining, eating a can of Pringles, and looking out the window at the lovely scenery, but not looking close enough to see the wrinkles on the locals faces, the bend of their spines after years of being hunched over labouring in a field. Not close enough to see the poverty, to see suffering. To see their lean, sinewy figures in motion. not from dieting but from manual labour. No notion of what indulgence or McDonalds or spare cash is. I pull my baseball cap down, my buff up around my nose and mouth, and through squinted eyes I push on through the dust cascading down around us.

I can feel myself growing stronger. I am starting to enjoy the burn; I don’t dread the hills as much. There is something about earning it; it’s a good kind of suffering. Around us the world chugs on, a migration of yellow butterflies surrounds us like snow falling. The hammering of the stone breakers clinking out a tune, chimes around us. After a tidy descent, we stuff our faces with mangoes; bananas and cans of coke at a quaint little food stall, enjoying the evenings heat on the back of our necks. The Vietnamese talk to Dad, he replies in Gaelic and they both pretend they are having an actual conversation. I stand back and laugh.

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Day 18 and we roll into the resorts of Nha Trang to feast on Mexican food and large pints of golden San Miguel. The sheer enjoyment we get from the taste, from understanding the conversations around us, and from simply being anonymous again. Six beers and we are blotto, like giddy school girls. We discuss life, make plans, and marvel at the wonder of it all, and the realisation that we are actually here and in the midst of doing it. We stumble back to the hotel, and call home to tell them all how much we love them in slurred words. What a hand we’ve been dealt.

Day twenty-one and we are somewhere between Phang Rang and Phan Thiet. A miserable start, a man on a motorbike drives up and grabs my breast, Dad chases him but in a case of bicycle versus motorbike, the motorbike is going to win. What is wrong with this world that makes people think it is alright for men to do that? If I am to survive, I must toughen up. Sparse desert surrounds us, there is nothing to entertain our irises, but you can’t put your head down and focus solely on pedalling because a truck will devour you. Every day we guzzle litres of hot water and butter biscuits, undercooked eggs, coriander, chilli and soya sauce thrown on a bread roll, or if we are lucky a banana sandwich. My stomach is curdling and Da’s lost so much weight he’s now got a pair of moobs.  I’ll never again take a fridge for granted.

Morals are low, my body is starting to give up, I’m sick of trying. Da is the only thing keeping my legs rotating. Four days left, we must push on. The heat presses down as we push up an exposed hill, we find a cluster of trees, lay out the sleeping bag, and lay down to ponder it all. These are the moments we crave. I cannot describe the pleasure derived from a cold can of coke pressed to your lips, when your tongue is dry and the sweat is gathering in beads on your forehead. Somehow, time passes; more crazy heat, another crusty motel with squat toilets, bum guns and no sink. I break down; Da rubs my back and tells me not to be so hard on myself. This better get better in hindsight! I swear if I ever see a bike tourer or backpacker walking past my house, I’m going to chase them down to smother them with tea, cake, dinner, a bed to sleep in and nourish the shit out of them.

And then suddenly in the blink of an eye, it is day twenty-five. The final day. We stumble into Ho Chi Min city among a traffic jam of motorbikes. I cannot believe it. Finally after all of that, it’s actually over. We make a beeline for McDonalds, sup cans of Saigon in bed, it’s all sinking in. We really did it. What an extraordinary thing for a father and daughter to do together. And although at times, I wanted to kill him, he’s my Dad, he’s my hero. He’d never been to a developing country before and at fifty four, with a year to go to retirement after years psychiatric nursing; he jumps on a plane and cycles the length of Vietnam.

I’ve realised that your life doesn’t have to be the stereotypical idea of perfect, the Facebook perfect; the far flung lands, the backpack, the tan, the Raybans, the bleach blonde hair, the figure, the boy, the parties, the selfies, the Instagrams. None of that is real. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, you don’t have to impress anyone or make them jealous. How about striving for your own version of perfect? It can be on a much smaller scale. Having a family, living in your home town, having a group of friends who you can laugh with, a Friday night beer, a little job that you love, your own idea of perfect. We are so privileged here in Ireland, and we have no idea. But I suppose I never would have known I could be happy with this, unless I did what I did, have done what I’ve done.

Two weeks later, my blisters have healed. My muscles stopped aching. The hardships suffered are but a hazy memory. I am home. I am free and I am already bored… the next adventure awaits.

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6 thoughts on “The Big One: Cycling Vietnam

  1. Thanks Orla, reading the O’Muiri Madness, is a roller coaster…mad envy of what you just did…… happy that I did not and eventually happy with my lot….. Bloody Brilliant.! both of you
    Great stuff.
    Campbell’s Dad…..

    1. Awh thank you James, this comment made my day 🙂 When are you coming home so we can eat and drink together once more?!

  2. Orla, you’re a treasure. Sure with a Ma and Da like yours giving you that little push from the start you were never going to sit behind a desk pressing keys all day. What a remarkable achievement for you both. And you encapsulate it all so well with your visceral accounts of Vietnam and its people. Maith thu. I haven’t seen you since you were about 3 or 4 but you have grown into a woman of great substance. x

    1. Awh cheers Susan, that’s really kind of you! Da just showed me the pictures of you when you were down in Bunclody, he said you have the soundest family! Hope you are well x

  3. Wow Orla what a description! What an adventure! You should be so proud of yourself and your dad, I can’t wait to read the next chapter….. you’ll never leave it there! & finally you are one lucky lady as you definitely got your wonderful way with words from that talented da of yours! Well done you!

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