Merry Christmas from the Depths of Despair

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

From Halong Bay I travelled to Vietnam’s beautiful capital; Hanoi, where I was to have a three week holiday away from the tour while waiting for some bike parts to be shipped from Australia. It was great to have some quality time off the bike to give my body and mind a chance to rest and recuperate. There was no better place to do so.

The tourist scene in Hanoi is based around the Old Quarter that consists of a labyrinth of narrow streets and inacessible scooter-cluttered footpaths lined with shops selling everything from handicrafts to musical instruments to paint to tools to 2,000 dong beers.

A happy married couple in one of Hanoi's many beautiful parks

A happy married couple in one of Hanoi’s many beautiful parks

Due to my desire neither to shop nor be struck down by a passing taxi or moto, I preferred to spend most of my time outside of this area and among some of the many lakes that dot the city and are the basis for its beauty. These lakes, ranging in size from large swimming pool to ocean-like, are a romantic and peaceful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the streets beyond. Surrounded by splendidly-landscaped grassy areas, they are the perfect place to take a stroll unimpeded (a rarity in Asian cities) along the winding walkways or to sit on one of the many concrete seats and take in the view, that is if you can find one that is not occupied by a pair of local lovers who can be found canoodling in one another’s arms at all hours of the day and night.

The lakes are well complemented by a real feeling of openness in the city. I only realised after a week or two that this was due to a lack of imposing high-rise structures that tend to block out the sun and sky and are the reason behind the cold, ‘concrete jungle’ feeling of many cities.

Ho Chi Minh Memorial

Ho Chi Minh Memorial

Perhaps part of the reason for its large expat community, Hanoi manages a perfect blend of the East and West where the Western side of the spectrum caters not only to foreigners, but to a definite upper-middle class of Vietnamese. Vietnamese business-women who drink 40,000 dong cups of coffee at Gloria Jeans rather than 5,000 dong cups at the locally-owned cafes, Vietnamese kids who spend a small fortune at the video arcade, Vietnamese teens who ride imported European Vespas while wearing the latest fashions from the West. This class difference was something I found as being unique to Hanoi and which gave it an air of style and prosperity. One doesn’t have to go very far however, just across the Red River in fact, to get a glimpse of the reality of the nations situation, which is the relative poverty of the majority.

During my three weeks there I made myself right at home, procuring quite a collection of crockery from the hotel kitchen so that I could make favourites such as; cereal; ham, cheese and tomato sambos and; chicken, cheese and mayo break rolls. I spent my days enjoying a marvellous string of perfect weather – 25 degrees and sunny, while strolling the lakes and parks and visiting the various tourist attractions. Highlights included; the extremely picturesque Temple of Literature, Hanoi’s first university aged at just under 1,000 years; the Museum of Ethnology, whch is an informative introduction to popular Vietnamese culture as well as that of some of the many minority groups and; the whacky interior design of the Ho Chi Minh Museum, dedicated to Uncle Ho himself whom unfortunately I did not have the chance to meet as his embalmed corpse is undergoing some routine maintenance in Russia.

Vietnamese bicycle repair shop

Vietnamese bicycle repair shop

My evenings were spent either in bed getting a solid dose of international TV, including coverage of the recent federal election and a couple of Star Wars marathons, or enjoying Hanoi’s lively though temperamental night life. Legally, pubs and clubs are supposed to close at the ridiculously early time of 11:30pm and they do unless they have an agreement with the cops. In this case, at some point in the evening, the music will cease, the lights will be switched on and the hookers will magically vanish while the police in their turtle-green uniforms collect their bribe.

Needless to say, I had it pretty easy in Hanoi, but when the King Brown’s new chain and cassette arrived, I couldn’t hit the road fast enough. I planned on doing the ‘Northwest Loop’ that would take me up, down and around the mountains of the far north, the most spectacular in Vietnam.

I prepared for battle with my old nemesis; the mountains, but little did I know that they would have some assistance in their quest to destroy me mentally and physically. This assistance came in the form of roadworks.

Dodging the occasional steam roller was usual in these parts

Dodging the occasional steam roller was usual in these parts

Roadworks are bad for cyclists in the best of places, in the third world they are nothing short of a nightmare. It is not like in the developed world where the construction crew build a nice alternate route separated from the dangers of the construction, which they mark clearly with “detour” signs and everyone slows down because the road is narrower and less predictable. Over here, the traffic simply travels on the road as it is being built, regardless of what stage of construction it is at. Side by side with vibrating rollers and 20 tonne excavators swinging their massive buckets around, picking up and dumping rocks and dirt just metres from the traffic flow. Next to road crews who break up the road base the old fashioned way; with sledge hammers, wielded by young men and old women alike that sees shards of shrapnel flying in all directions across the roadway. Added to this is the usual flow of traffic, plus contruction trucks, who certainly do not comply with the 5km/hr construction zone limit. They drive and overtake with the same speed and gusto that they always do, turning a one-lane strip of mud into three lanes by driving up onto the footpath, the ledge of a cliff, over mounds of construction materials, anywhere to save them having to use that dreaded pedal next to the accelerator, blowing up vast quantities of blinding dust and rocks as they go.

Food drying in the sun

Food drying in the sun

As I made my way in an uneventful and fairly flat four-day journey to the border town of Lao Cai, it appeared that entire towns and indeed the entire northern road network was undergoing such construction. Little did I know how right I was and that the worst was yet to come.

While taking an evening stroll in Lao Cai, I got a glimpse of China, which was just across the river. In stark contrast to the Vietnamese side, it looked extremely lively with plenty of flashing neon lights, giant video screens and an array of music being played up and down the promenade. However, as exciting as it looked, China would have to wait a few months for I was heading to the old hill station of Sapa, only 40 kms away, but 1500m higher than Lao Cai. Needless to say, the next day was tough as I undertook what was undoubtedly the biggest climb of the tour. As I ascended, the temperature began to drop, though I hardly noticed as I became saturated in sweat. About half-way up, I encountered the “montagnards” or hilltribe people who are very conspicuous in their extremely colourful and beautifully-made traditional dress. I was chased by grubby-faced kids with no shoes from the few villages I passed. They didn’t have any trouble keeping up as I struggled to go much faster than walking pace. Climbing such a mountain is hard, doing so with five or six little weiners hanging on to the back of the bike is near impossible. I realised that a well-aimed squirt in the face from a water bottle is an effective way to get rid of them that is fun for all.

At one point, unknown to me, one of the cheeky little buggers was rifling through my rear pannier as I rode. I don’t think he intended to steal anything for when he managed to pull out my hat, he held it up in front of me proudly. When I stopped the bike, said “Why you little……..” and moved towards him threateningly, he dropped the hat and fled in fear.

A haggling tourist in Sapa

A haggling tourist in Sapa

Sapa is a heavily touristed town that caters mainly to two-day package tourists who come for the scenic beauty, the treks among the local hilltribe villages and the bustling market from where one can buy an array of traditional handicrafts.

My first day was sunshine-filled, which was quite fortunate as it seems to be a rarity in these parts where an everlasting mist envelops the mountain tops. I spent it on a leisurely walk that took in a nearby village containing a picturesque river and waterfall within a deep valley. Like Sapa, the village was a surreal step back in time where locals wandered about the paths leading from one thatched house to another in their traditional garments and kids, pigs, chickens, dogs, etc. ran amok. However, the heavy touch of the hand of tourism was clearly obvious as at the front of each dwelling hung countless embroidered bags, purses, pillow cases, pencil cases, wall-hangings, mobile phone holders, hats, etc. all for sale and in amongst them, a woman making ever more. Catering to the tourist market has become their livelihood as evidenced by the fact that surprisingly, way up in the mountains, the level of english spoken from among the montagnards was the best I have encountered on the tour.

Hill tribe woman

Hill tribe woman

Straight from the handbook, “Selling to White Folk for Dummies” they would attempt to build a rapport by running through a series of introductory questions.

“What your name?”

“How old are you?”

“”Where you from?” “Uc,” I would reply to this one, for that is the name of our great nation in Vietnamese. “Uc”; it’s not even a word, it’s the sound you make in a futile attempt to regurgitate what you have just swallowed when someone tells you it was maggoted pig snout.

“Are you married?”

This one I have been asked right throughout my trip, but only in Vietnam has my response been met with such enthusiasm to find me a partner. Fathers will offer me their daughters, grandmothers their grand-daughters, brothers will suggestively wiggle their eyebrows up and down and nod their heads towards their sisters. It seems that marrying a “rich” foreigner is highly desirable as it is seen as one of the only entry points into a better, more prosperous life. Thus far however, none of the prospects have met even my most basic criteria for a life-partner and that is that we be able to have a conversation.

Although, perhaps their inherent beauty, culinary skills and the fact that they age so damn well could make up for that.

Around Sapa

Around Sapa

On one chilly morning in Sapa where winter temperatures can drop to freezing and nothing is heated, I woke up and stepped out on to my balcony to a most amazing sight, or lack thereof. The entire world had disappeared. It was just me and my balcony left, floating through the clouds. If I had have jumped, I would surely have fallen into oblivion for all eternity.

As I set off for my days trek, the scene was a spooky one. With visibility down to ten metres in the heavy fog, anyone beyond that distance appeared as an eery silhouette that slowly came into focus as they neared. Many tourists later complained that the fog had ruined their views, but I embraced it. The mountains have many moods and this was just one of them and it was beautiful in its own way, hauntingly beautiful.

Around Sapa

Around Sapa

I had opted not to pay for a tour guide and to go it solo at my own pace. However, Sapa has an “Everybody Gets a Guide” scheme. The way it works is that if you are alone, some local hilltribe women will just starting walking with you, ‘showing you the way.’ After about an hour or two they will say, “Maybe later, after we walk, you buy some from me.” At this point, having walked so far knowing their motivations all along, it is pretty hard to refuse. In this way, I picked up two guides from the Hmong and Dao tribes. They led me into a valley through which a river runs and along which are several more villages belonging to various tribes, each with their own language and traditional dress. We had moved below the fog and the views of the terraced rice paddies stepping down the mountain side to the crystal-clear river below was fantastic, even though the winter had turned them a dull brown. I imagine that in the middle of spring, the scene would be nothing short of spectacular.

Around Sapa

Around Sapa

In the end I was thankful that I had acquired my guides for without them I would surely have got lost and frozen to death in the wilderness that night. They were also very useful support when it came to having to walk along the very thin, very muddy, very unstable and very slippery ledge of the rice terraces. At one point I just knew I was going to stack it. I was slipping and sliding, each movement becoming more erratic than the last. The only question was whether I was going into the drink beside me or the one half a metre below. Then at the last second before going horizontal, my Dao guide offered me her hand and restored my balance. A couple of moments later, still with my hand in hers, she went belly up, falling awkwardly with her top half on one level and her bottom on another and covering her beautiful outfit in murky water and mud. I felt bad because I was probably the cause of her loss of balance, but I guess those are the perils of being a guide for clumsy tourists.

My two hilltribe guides

My two hilltribe guides

The final village we visited was the home of my muddy guide and was the least touched as it didn’t lie on the ‘tour group trail.’ Walking through it was amazing. An array of paths that had simply been worn into the ground by human traffic led between the villagers’ shacks that were scattered over the hillside and whose properties were separated from one another with bamboo fences. Villagers were scattered about the place, quietly going about their business, be it a man carrying out some handy-work like fixing a thatched roof, a woman cooking up some rice or kids lighting fires and bashing eachother with bamboo poles. Combined with the views, it was enchanting. It is amazing to think that in the 21st century, people are living just as they did in the 1st and much much earlier.

Finally, we came to the business end of the tour, so to speak. So satisfied with the service I had received that I was only too happy to buy a couple of embroidered items and get in some Christmas shopping at the same time. I paid 60,000 dong ($4) for each, which was equivalent to 6% of the value of my Dao guides new modest, though surprisingly spacious home that she had been kind enough to show me around.

So a good days work for them I thought, as well as a great days trekking for me.

On the day I left Sapa I thought that surely I had done enough climbing and deserved a downhill. The road disagreed. I spent the first two hours struggling upwards through heavy construction to get to the top of Tram Ton Pass, which I was actually dreading because I assumed the dirt and rock-strewn surface would continue making for a very slow, bumpy and uncomfortable downhill. Upon rising to the crest however, I struck black gold. A smooth, tarred surface began exactly at the point where I was able to take my feet off the pedals and leave them off for the next half an hour as I coasted down and around green carpeted mountains so massive and so close, they didn’t seem real. Fortunately, there was little traffic and I only found myself face to face with the grille of a truck once as I rounded one of the many blind corners.

A great view: a invigorating downhill

A great view: a invigorating downhill

The next few days was when I really reaped the rewards from the north. Scenically, every day brought something new. The green giants turned into rolling green hills on which were patches of dirt, sheer rock cliffs and sections where one species of plant had won out over another. This gave them a very rough and unkempt appearance, much like a hippy who hasn’t washed his dreddies since the ‘70s. One day was spent deep in a valley where the road straddled a flowing river filled with smooth, white rocks while the sharp spines of mountains ranges ran high along either side.

Cute hill-side village

Cute hill-side village

This spectacular scenery was perfectly complemented by fantastic weather, good roads and isolation, a very rare combination from my experience in Asia. It is the isolation that I have been craving most and that which has been most elusive. It was so peaceful to be able to ride, be it climbing or falling (and in these parts it was only ever one or the other) and not have to endure the ugliness that is the sounds of an old, clunky moto or the deafening airhorn of a truck. And of course it was nice to get away from the “hellos” for a while. It was on these days that I decided not to plug in and tune out, but to enjoy the silence of my surrounds and the tranquility that came with it.

If those were the days of reward, then the tide was about to turn and the next few would become the days of pain. These would include the toughest day of the tour thus far that would see me go somewhere where I have rarely gone before; past the point of despair.

It began one evening when, poring over my map and feeling a little adventurous, I decided to take a shortcut on what my map classified as a “minor road/cart track.”

Cycling above the clouds

Cycling above the clouds

When I awoke the following morning the sky was looking quite overcast, which was surprising because I hadn’t seen a drop of rain for five weeks. As I had become accustomed to, the ride began with a long, steep climb. Halfway up, upon rounding a corner, I was struck by a sharp beam of sunlight that had seemingly come from nowhere on this gloomy morning. A little further up and I was being bathed in blue skies and sunshine from above while below me was a carpet of thick fog that filled the valley from which I had just ascended. I had ridden above the clouds and it was a beautiful sight.

The construction began not long after and this is when what I was riding on failed to even deserve the title of “cart track.” Every 7km/hr stroke was emphasised by the seat banging against my ass as the King Brown was thrown around by unavoidable rocks beneath his wheels.

If going up was painful, going down was torture. My hands and arms ached from having to hold the brakes permanently squeezed and then squeezing harder when approaching a rock patch………or a pot-hole……….or a drop-off……….or a water buffalo. My feet ached from having to permanently stand on the pedals to keep my butt clear of the jack-hammering seat. My thighs ached for the same reason, my back also. My neck ached because that is what my neck does, it aches.

This road was a world of pain

This road provided a world of pain

By the 30km mark, I was a mess and I still had 70 to go! I was physically and mentally defeated and I despaired. I would be spending the night in these chilly mountains with no food and no sleeping bag. But I carried on. A glimpse of hope remained in the form of a hot shower, a cold beer and a soft, warm bed.

The state of the road did not improve and it many places it got a lot worse, so much so that it ceased to be a road and to give an indication of my mental state at the time, I told it so. I looked down and yelled, “You are not a road!”

I then decided that a village wasn’t a village if it didn’t have a road running through it and I told the villagers that too, “You are not a village!”

They looked at me bemused.

After seven hours in the saddle, nine in total and countless massive ascents, each followed by a frustratingly slow and painful descent, I rolled into a small town, got a hotel room and made a new tour rule; no more cart tracks.

It seems that my choice of road may have been of little consequence however, for if after a days rest I had been dreaming that because I was getting back on the main highway, I would have a nice, smooth surface two lanes wide, I should have stayed in bed and kept dreaming. The entire highway was being reconstructed and its condition was arguably worse than what I had just endured, made infinitely more so by the number of cars and trucks who filled the air with a fine dust, which in turn coated me, my bike, my bags, my eyeballs and my respiratory system. After two days of this, which placed me in Son La from where I write now, I said something that I have rarely said in my life let alone on tour; “Cycling has ceased to be enjoyable.”

But despair not. I shall battle on and look forward to brighter days, whether they arrive in the immediate or not so immediate future. They will be valued all the more having had this experience.

As it stands, I am 300kms from Hanoi where I will be enjoying Christmas and New Years with my very good mate, Luke. It will be fantastic to have some familiar company and a loved one with me over this festive season.

On that note, I would like to wish all of my loved ones out there a very Merry Christmas and a great New Year. I miss you all very much.

Lots of love,

Damo

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