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...


  1. I think I like the blogs better when you are alone. (It really gets the reader into Felix's head :P ).

  2. So, I just looked up 180,000 dong and it's $11. I know what you mean though.