Sunday, April 18, 2010


The worst thing about cycle touring is that there's so much that can go wrong.  When backpacking or bushwalking the worst that can happen is you miss your bus, or your legs get tired or you contract syphilis.  When cycle touring you've got to watch out for your tires being pumped, the gears to be aligned, the drive chain not worn, the seat position to be correct, your brakes to stop you (but not all the time), your knees to work properly, your physical condition to be not exhausted, your spokes tuned, your bike not to be on fire and for you to be heading in the right direction.  And you have to be aware of all of these all of the time. 

That's what the first few days of my time in Ha Noi was all about. I got my pannier rack welded back together, gave my drive train a general service and allowed my left knee some rest before the next stage of the ride.  But before I could head off I had to wait for my Chinese visa to be granted and my spare brake pads to arrive from Australia.

Some of this time was spent in the hill town of Sapa.  I took the long and scenic day train and mini bus to arrive at a viewtastic hotel room.  Walking around town the next day I encountered an official demanding to see a ticket.  "What for?" I asked.  "Tourist Mountain" was the response.  'Tourist Mountain'.  Who goes to a place with a name like that?

I was tempted to climb Mount Fansipan - a REAL mountain, and the highest in Vietnam - but my twin excuses of a sore knee and terrible visibility forced me to wuss out.  Plus my friend Tom has climbed it so I knew it couldn't be much of a challenge.  Instead I went on a two day guided trek along a rice-paddied valley.  Nice as it was, my group soon discovered that our tour guide was actually rushing through interesting river beds, rice paddies and local villages in order to get to our home-stay so she could watch a Korean soap opera on TV.

Despite this annoyance I had an excellent time.  My small trekking group met up with a bunch of other groups and proceeded to ensconce ourselves in a Big Night involving copious beerings and the ever popular game of 'I Never' which quickly got out of hand, as it's supposed to.  One other advantage of the trek was being given a first-class sleeper train ticket back to Ha Noi by a generous American who had decided to go to Laos instead.  It was luxury.  I felt so American.

Back in Ha Noi I discovered that the backackers' I was staying at had morphed into a construction site while I was away and the constant drone of jackhammers chipped away at my sanity.  Still waiting for my Chinese visa and spare brake pads I occupied my time by searching for the internet cafe where I'd left my camera, agonising over whether or not it was worth getting up early to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh and trying desperately to get to what eventually turned out to be the world's worst river-front.

On the plus side, being surrounded by tourists I honed my new-found skill of being able to pick from their accents which V-Line district Australian tourists grew up in (it's safe to assume that any Australian tourist here is Victorian).  Oh, and also showing off my Vietnamese language skills: if you bargain with a local by hurling out numbers the tourists around you think you're speaking fluently.

I also bumped into my old friend Mel from Laos.  The last I'd heard of her she'd got some sort of flesh wound on her leg and a local witch-doctor had treated her by blowing dust on the affected area, the healing of which she had boasted about endlessly.  The post script of this story turned out to be that her leg got infected and she had to see a real doctor.

Finally, after several days of being told it would be ready tomorrow, my Chinese visa arrived.  I decided to abandon my spare brake pads and beer magazine being sent to me by my old housemate Tim.  This would not end well.  A brief stop off at the post office to send the bulk of my luggage on to Hong Kong and my hotel key back to Sapa (whoops!), and I was away.  Following the coast towards China.

The first day of the ride was like most first days cycle touring: pretty uninteresting.  I very gradually extracted myself from the extenuated suburbs of Ha Noi and clung desperately to the feebly offered hand of the wilderness - a hand that would later grab me and refuse to let go.  An eerie sight presented itself in this awkward interface: a modern township that had been completely abandoned with the roads ripped up and given to pastures.  Couldn't get my head around it.  Ironically, I saw there was a storm coming and so found a hotel early in the afternoon to avoid it.  This storm was to last for the rest of my trip.

The next morning saw me riding off into the maelstrom towards Halong Bay, which started as gentle rain and soon became a torrential downpour.  It was lucky that the hotel staff at my last stop had generously built a mudguard for my bike (they're like that, the Vietnamese) or I would've had to ride the whole way with my eyes shut.

Halong, the town at Halong Bay, was a pretty dead town - in both senses of the term.  Half-constructed dripping skyscrapers and empty streets soaked with rain.  My hotel was quite nice, with a viewy balcony, but it suffered from having a terrible mouse problem: after a few half-sleeping hours of battling it over control of my left-over food it eventually took the offensive and attacked my hair (presumed to be the enemy's high command).  When I tried to complain about this to the young receptionist in the morning she thought I wanted to exchange email addresses ('a mouse', 'emails' - same same).  I eventually gave up and went along with it to prevent embarrassment.  Bad move.

Halong Bay was amazing.  Very rainy and foggy, but very awesome.  It was like global warming had flooded Pandora (yes, this country reminds me of Avatar a lot).  Thousands and thousands of densely vegetated karsts jutting vertically from the ocean.  Initially I was annoyed that I could only get a four hour boat tour, but it soon became apparent that a pair of rich Koreans had bribed the tour operator to give us all eight hours.  To keep my schedule I ended up having to ride to the next town into the night to the point where finding a hotel became a desperation.  I eventually found one in the guise of a decaying block of Soviet-style flats.

The next few days got worse and worse.  I initially rode 20 kms along an island that, contrary to my map, turned out not to be connected to the mainland at both ends, forcing a long and dispiriting backtrack.  To make matters worse, the mainland road I had to take, the highway, became mud within a few kilometres.  Although there's humour in every situation.  Every now and then a crazy dog would rush out onto the road and bark at me.  It got so muddy here that one dog couldn't stop itself and slid straight into my rear spokes, nearly toppling my whole bike.  I laughed for kilometers.

After cycling consistently for a few weeks you tend to extend your nervous system beyond your biological body and into the machine you rely on for transport (nerds: yes, just like in Neon Genesis Evangelion - but without having to fight alien monsters).  Every clicking sound, grinding feel, oily smell, loose sight and greasy... taste... is part of your sense of self and problems with these are equivalent to pain.  Getting off this beautiful and well-roaded island I suddenly sensed what I'd been dreading: the metallic scraping sound of naked disc brake.  My rear brake had worn through and I'd have to remove it.

Still, I had my front brake - two is just for redundancy right?  Well, riding along this muddy, rocky, wet, winding, undulating highway I needed all the braking power I could get my hands on.  Typical of Vietnamese road-building, they first tear up the old road, then wait five years for the paperwork to come through, then slowly start work on the new road.  And the traffic!  Huge Chinese freight trucks passing back and forth, sometimes getting bogged in the up to 300mm deep mud ruts and occasionally backing up for hundreds of metres at a bottleneck.  If I could stay on the road when they went past they would spray a thick waterfall of mud at me.  Although I knew it was futile I would still have my bike cleaned in every town, just to give my gritty chain a few metres' rest.  I was a mess.  But in the midst of all this, one Chinese truck driver gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up, as if to say "Hey - that's cool!" - it was a welcome revelation that however bad things got here, nothing could detract from that.

However, the next day really sunk the boot it.  My front brake wore through.  This was the one that had had plenty of wear left in Ha Noi - the abrasive mud scourers all.  I was forced to hobble the next 80 kilometres with no braking ability whatsoever, suffering the shame of walking my bike down the hills (for those not used to dealing with hydraulic disc brakes - the pads are practically unique).  My aim:  Mon Cai on the Chinese border - the only real population centre for the 200 kilometres of this jungle-encroached 'road'. 

Thankfully, the knowledge that there was no way I could continue riding to Hong Kong released me from all my worries about my bike, the constant driving rain and the road conditions: I became happier than I'd been in days and was suddenly able to enjoy my surroundings - and they were amazing!  I eventually rolled into Mon Cai to the tuneful screeching of my front brakes (they seem to clamp shut when worn through) where I found a hotel that allowed me to take my bike onto the balcony.  I cleaned and repaired it one day and posted it the next.  The destination: Nepal.  The only place I knew I would be in the next few months.  The postage cost $370.

On the other hand, I was now a backpacker again and welcome to rejoin polite society.  Although, as I walked across the border into China, I realised that I was more accurately a 'pannier-er', and those things are pretty damn hard to carry around.

Oh yes, and those spare brake pads?  They'd arrived in Ha Noi two days after I'd left.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Solo Tour

I spread out the tear over my cheek so it would dry faster.  I'd just seen the backs of my four cycling comrades anonymising amongst the railway crowds.  From now on, I was alone.
Getting back to my hotel the first thing I did was consume an evening meal consisting entirely of a can of stout, a litre of milk and a kilo of chocolate ice-cream while I watched a chick-flick marathon on HBO (that's the sort of stuff I wouldn't be getting away with in a pack of guys... well maybe the stout).
There was one thing keeping me in Hue: my camera.  I think now is as good a time as any to indulge myself in the tale of my camera's quest to stay alive.  For the first month of its existence in my possession the memory card refused to fully recognise its union with the hardware until I gave up and bought a new card.  Clearly in retribution for all this stuffing up I began to treat it badly.  Firstly, I crashed my bike with it on the road to Dam Rong, filling it with dirt and breaking the battery cover.  Then in Da Nang I dropped it onto concrete, bending the extended zoom to comically resemble the leaning tower of Pisa.
As it happens, my camera was still not quite destroyed: it could be rebuilt - we had the technology.  I Found a guy near the station to repair it and he finally showed me the result after two days, several attempts and $15 (the distended but still operating camera channeled Robocop 2) during which time I had been cycling around to the sights of Hue (the best way to see a city is to get lost and then try to get home again).  When I finally got it back I was too nervous to use it for a few days - and sure enough, the auto-focus cog had disengaged.  Magically, it clawed back to life after a bit of tinkering and so far continues in that state.  As an addendum, in Ha Noi a couple of weeks later I left it at an internet cafe for two days.  After searching for hours for the establishment's location I discovered they'd kept it for me all that time.  The battered camera limps on to this day.
The first couple of days of my solo tour have been blanked out of my memory - the most fascinating thing about them was that they were so boring, riding along the shoulder of Highway One for hundreds of kilometres with nothing much to look at.  But when you're riding solo you do get into an interesting state of mind - you lose yourself in your thoughts, and your emotions are free to spin off unchecked by people or activities.  Alone with the Universe.  And 90 million Vietnamese.
On the ride I started to categorise the Vietnamese responses to my presence, it being so much more overt than when riding in a group.  There's the stunned staring; the polite "Hello?"s (you have to reply in exactly the same tone or they won't understand you); the uncontrolled laughter - probably by people who think Westerners only come in packs of tourist bus; the stop-what-you're-doing-and-look-confused look (a personal favourite); school boys clapping each others' backs and laughing haughtily when they get a response, coupled with school girls collapsing in embarrassed giggles; the dreaded "Hey!" which strongly resembles the 'Hey' as in "Hey!  You're pannier's fallen off!/You're bike's snapped in half!/You're heading towards a tsunami!" but instead intended to mean "Hey!  You're white!"; and finally, the worst of all (other than not getting a response in the game 'Hey Cow'), the delayed 'Hello' - you can see it on their faces: they're stunned for a minute, then they chase after you shouting... but you're too far ahead to respond easily and have to choose between being rude and straining your neck.  Always the former.  They had their chance.
As the days went on I got so into the rhythm of cycling I lost interest in stopping during the day, pretty much at all.  When I was with the others we'd find any excuse to rest for an hour, drink coffees and talk crap.  But on my own there's only the prospect of language wrestling with curious onlookers, asking the same questions they always do, to entice me to put on the brakes.
Also, the true extent of my stinginess came out, not in money, but in conservation of momentum: with heavy panniers it takes some time slowly accelerating up to full speed and I didn't want to waste that.  I'd ride for up to 70 kilometres in three hours or so without even slowing down.  Combine this with 6am starts and you go a long way, on many days up to 150 kilometres.
Finally, I reached the seaside resort of Dong Hoi and parked myself in a hotel with a balcony overlooking the beach.  It being a hot day I went for a swim, losing my one good (Caucasian-skin-coloured and hence sand-coloured) knee brace in the process.  This would have later consequences.  Afterwards I went for a meal, that, like most meals cycle touring, didn't quite satisfy, so I went elsewhere for another.
Do you ever get that fear in restaurants that don't have prices on their menus that when the waiter produces the bill it's for 3 trillion dollars?  "But that's more than Brazil's GDP!" You protest.  "I'm sorry sir," he replies, "But we are an exclusive restaurant, I do hope you enjoyed your meal.  We have a no refund through regurgitation policy of course, but most customers prefer to pay it off as a loan."  So there you are having to quickly build a drug and arms empire from the ground up to raise the $7 billion a month interest repayments until you get enough capital to finance the extrusion of a space elevator and mine the asteroids (actually that sounds kind of fun).
Well that's (sort of) similar to what happened at this place.  The first restaurant charged 15,000 dong (reasonable), the second 180,000 (unreasonable) with barely anything to distinguish them and served on plastic chairs outside a garage on the street.  It was like paying $200 for a pub parma.  It's the only time I've considered doing a runner, but my bike was in the guy's garage (conveniently).  This put me in a bad mood for most of the next day.
This mood was finally broken when I intruded inland and almost instantly found myself surrounded by the most epic karst mountains I've ever seen - here I stopped every two minutes to photograph them (see them on Flickr!).  They emerged majestically from a sea of mist, like when you watch Avatar standing on your head.  Tragically, most were in the process of being dismantled for their limestone, so I'd check them out before they're all leveled (challenge: can humanity flatten the earth faster than it's uplifted?).
A few days of clemently overcast weather allowed me to cover even greater distances by removing the need to seek shade during the heat of the day.  I still had to have lunch though, and one thing about lunch in central Vietnam is that it invariably involves a lot of rice-wine.  For nearly a week I had shots forcefully offered to me by groups of drunk men, while their women-folk looked on shaking their heads in shame.  Does the male half of Vietnam contribute anything to its economy?  And rice-wine is such an inefficient drink - you get drunk without the pleasure of drinking.
When the weather cleared for a day I made an error of judgement.  The previous night I'd been up at all hours finishing off Jane Austen's 'Emma' (which I think is the best Austen novel, and I've read most of them now - it really gets the reader into Emma's head), and so the next morning I foolishly drank a Thai Red Bull to compensate (far more potent than the western rip-off).  This had the effect of making me deliriously happy, like most energy drinks, and I spent the day listening to Fat Boy Slim on my ipod as I rode through iron-age villages and around buffalo-ploughed rice paddies - safely, the only other traffic on the road was other cyclists.
When school finished at lunchtime (the rotters), all the kids were out on their bikes and, as usual, wanted to race me up the hills.  This time, high on Red Bull and House Music, I took up the challenge and left them and their un-panniered bikes in the dust... but wrecked my newly unbraced left knee in the process, forcing me to hobble up to Ha Noi very carefully for the next three days and ruining my dreams of cycling to the hill town of Sapa.  It is STILL recovering.
At last I reached Ha Noi and was congratulated by the Australian owners of my backpackers with a free beer.  I'd ridden 1,980 kilometres in 28 days.  Suddenly I was thrust back into touristland, meeting an Australian buddy I met in Laos, and Kye and Emma from the Mekong Delta Tour.  Waiting around for my knee to repair, for my spare brake pads to arrive from Australia and for the Chinese bureaucracy to grant me a visa, I began to realise that I have an inner need for progress, and without the tangible experience of knocking off kilometres on a map I feel like I'm wasting my life.  I had to get back on my bike...