Good Night Vietnam


SO we depart Vietnam, the first half of our journey completed. We leave behind nearly 250 km of road, track, trail and path, half of Dave’s stomach lining and a little piece of our hearts. The overriding memory we will hold dearest is not the cycling and the fascinating terrain – although both are unforgettable – but the happy cries of “Hello” from just about every child we passed. From sometimes world weary type like us the sheer joy of these kids, some in smart blue and white school uniforms and others in rags – reminded us how easy a smile and a life can be. Riding through what was effectively these families’ front and back gardens a little voice of welcome would ring from almost every home. It was very humbling to a Brit living surrounded by California millionaires who are so consumed with their own lives they forget there is anyone else on the planet. Over three days we went from the hustle and hustlers of Ho Chi Min City to the pastoral calm of the rice fields to the honest bustle of the Mekong Delta port that would be our springboard to Cambodia. It’s hard to judge the kind of Communism that survives in Vietnam. It’s certainly nothing like the all consuming monster envisaged by Nixon, Johnson et al. On the surface it doesn’t seem oppressive at all – no overbearing guides, not much army and virtually no police, at least in the south. But a traveler’s ignorance of what’s really going on beneath the surface is revealed in the signs at the entrance to every village. The assumption is that they are welcoming visitors. The reality is that they are telling the people to work hard, produce more, don’t commit crime.Berating them basically. We saw floating markets, ate snake and drank it’s blood (admittedly diluted with rice wine), visited museums devoted to showing the horrors of what was a very recent and awful war, and we cycled our butts off – literally. Dave, being Dave, was the only one on the 31-strong party wearing cleats, which were incredibly difficult to use on the paths with their steep narrow bridges and slippery paths. Always up for an additional masochistic challenge he persisted, somehow managing to clip and unclip in seconds on the first two days but his luck was never going to last. His first fall on day 3 was so sudden and unexpected it was like he’d been picked off by a sniper in the bushes. Landing upside down on the bank, he was mercifully unhurt. The second fall a couple of hours later after a sudden stop in heavy rain was equally intense. Any reasonable man would switch back to regular pedals, but this, after all is Dave. His preparation was so complete he even practiced how to fall! He is, I should add, a wonderful traveling companion. The food? You probably have to acclimatize a little longer before you can enjoy cold spring rolls and seafood noodles for breakfast and the pork tasted remarkably similar to the snake but any country where the hotel cashier can ask you what you used from the mini bar and you say “All of it” and it costs less than $10 has got to be worth a little struggle with the diet. As for the group we’re traveling with, they’re a little microcosm of the best of Britain. There’s the couple from Belfast raising money for bowel cancer, one of the two cancers the wife has beaten, the mother and son riding for the British Heart Foundation in memory of a husband and father they lost too early to a heart attack, the scouser with a bundle of pens and pencils in his bag to hand out to grateful schoolchildren along the way, the hospice GP from Truro who cycles 10 miles to work every day and the Red Cross worker from Sterling. They’re from Rotherham, Brighton,Newquay, Inverness, Sidney, Swiss Cottage, Swindon, Stafford, Liverpool, Belfast, and, of course, Upminster and Newport Beach. I guess that as the trip goes on we all shed a little of what we were and remember a little more of who we are. It’s a chance to restore some priorities. Now here we are sitting on a boat bound for Cambodia and if I shut my eyes I can still hear the echo of a child’s voice from an empty shack on the muddy riverfront. I can’t see anyone as I race by on the bike in my mind, but it reminds me of my own kids when they were small and the world of possibilities they represent. Onward to Cambodia, another country with a troubled recent past and children who will hopefully be entranced by a flash of Lycra and excited about that same future of endless opportunity.

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