“The traveller sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
Day 212 – 17,228 km
My final two weeks in China were a strain. I so looked forward to a change in weather and culture that, when the thermometer plunged to -1°C and I still felt I was being viewed as a zoo attraction to be glared at, my morale plunged. Raised expectations bring about optimism; a key ingredient for a traveller. However, they also do the opposite when not met; unfortunately, that bookended my journey across China.
After a failed first border crossing attempt (it had recently closed to foreigners), I was forced into an unplanned 300km detour but finally edged closer to Vietnam. It was damp and windy but my excitement was palpable. Passport checks, kit checks, a few smiles and hellos from the border guards and I was in Vietnam. The contrast to my entry to China in Xinjiang with phone scans, facial recognition software and being held in police custody, was striking.
A D:Reamy Opening
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.”
Relief is a wonderful feeling. It is the expulsion of emotional and physical toil that our body provides when alleviated of discomfort, struggle and anxiety. It is the opportunity to rid our mind of overpowering negativity and allow the flickering of hope to seep into our soul.
Perhaps it was merely psychological, perhaps it was helped by a wonderfully rich coffee at the first cafe I saw or perhaps it was the reaction of the people I saw after crossing the border. Regardless, the immediate comfort I now felt in Vietnam was present.
I was listening to the D:Ream song “Things Can Only Get Better” on repeat. It uplifted me but also brought tears to my eyes. When in the midst of discomfort or suffering, I try to focus on the immediate, zone in on the now and create small goals. It is in the aftermath of that experience, when you have the chance to reflect, that I am more prone to getting emotional. I knew I had overcome a few major obstacles on this trip, namely crossing Kazakhstan and China in winter, and was excited about the next stint in SE Asia.
Smile Like You Mean It
The Kindness of Strangers has been a theme throughout my journey, one I have included a section of in most of the blogs I’ve written, and will likely continue to do so. Here it was less about precise incidents that punctuated hours and miles of monotony, as it was on the Kazak Steppe. In Vietnam, the kindness was everywhere. From the first day in the country until the last, I could barely cycle a couple of miles without being greeted by infectious smiles, enthusiastic waves and shouts of hello. That might sound tiresome but it wasn’t, ever!
I’ve always thought that the greatest influence on my temperament was the natural surroundings I found myself in: mountains, deserts, forests or rivers. To an extent that is true but China had all of those and more, in fact, it was one of, if not the most, beautiful and diverse countries I have ever visited in terms of scenery. And yet, although it gave a lift, it did not scratch the surface on the improvement of my mood in Vietnam. Having squads of scooters pass me, or catch up with me after I overtook them, to simply say hello and smile is special. I think it is almost impossible to see the faces of schoolchildren in the countryside brighten up simply because they saw me on my bike and not want to smile back. Smiles can be infectious, a gift to us all to brighten the mood of others.
I would stop at shops and street food sellers a lot; the food is wonderful. Instead, as was the case in China, of feeling uncomfortable and being overwhelmed by crowds of people staring and taking obnoxious uninvited photos, I felt welcomed. That was the key theme and key difference, the feeling of being somewhere that seemed to view my sheer presence as a positive rather than a negative; the feeling of being welcome.
Fun in the Sun
While grinding up a seemingly never-ending ascent in the mountains, I was sweating profusely and wearing just sandals, a t-shirt and swimming trunks: it was touching 40°C. Only a few weeks before it had been 40°C cooler. A few months before that it had unbelievably been 40°C “cooler” than that – I’m still trying to erase the memories. An 80°C temperature swing from the start of December to the end of February. I think my body was too confused to know exactly how it should react. I, however, was happy to be getting an overdue and intense Vitamin D hit knowing that another epic descent and a chance to cool off lay over the brow of the hill.
A factor that hardly assisted my adaptation to this new found sunshine and humidity was a sore head and dehydration from the previous 24 hours.
One of my first nights in Vietnam ended at a small Nhà Nghi (Guesthouse). I went to a local café for some Pho (delicious Vietnamese soup) and, just before departing, was ushered over by a group of guys in joyous spirits. A few beers, quite a large number of shots of I Don’t Know What and I stumbled back to a quite a deep sleep. It reminded me of my final night in Kazakhstan when I got increasingly drunk on unique Kazak vodka with the truck drivers before crossing the border the following day in a less than ideal physical state. The atmosphere in the café was celebratory, full of banter and a lovely insight into Vietnamese culture.
At lunch the next day, I stopped at a local café for a coke, sat down and embraced the shade. Unordered beer is then sent my way by a group of people on a table nearby. Again I am ushered over and can predict what is next on the agenda. Shots of homemade beer come my way again and again. It is custom to shake to hands of the person that cheers you, and they all wanted to cheers the random cyclist, so a lot of alcohol and a lot of handshakes became the norm.
One thing led to another and I’m now part of a 9-person Scooter Squad, three to a bike, on the way to a Karaoke bar in the mid-afternoon. Karaoke is massive here. In the cities, small towns and villages, you can be pretty confident that if you want to have a good sing-a-long then you won’t be short of options. Admittedly the Vietnamese songs were not my forte but performed marginally better when Ronan Keating’s “When You Say Nothing at All” (Notting Hill OST) was picked for me. I don’t think it was my finest karaoke performance, I blame the song choice, but by the time nightfall came, I don’t think anyone was that bothered.
I tend to avoid going to more touristy spots like Ha Long Bay but felt it was worth a little visit while I was in the region. On the whole, despite their busyness, they are often worth the detour. Saying that, I loved taking the backroads on my way to the Laos border even more. It is so tempting to take the quicker, flatter and more direct route to my checkpoints but I am yet to regret choosing the scenic option, be it in Romania, Kazakhstan or here in Vietnam.
Winding my way through the valleys and over the mountains in the west of the country was a really genuine experience. There were no longer any Nhà Nghi’s so it would be wild camping again – a unique challenge given the propensity for paddies (rice fields) – in the area, or staying with locals. I did a bit of both but the latter was usually a more rewarding experience. I ended up staying in a tiny hospital one night and others with locals who I got chatting to. I was lucky to join a 5-a-side village football match and we clawed our way back from 2-0 down, courtesy of a controversial penalty call, to take an unlikely 3-2 victory. The evening unsurprisingly ended with plentiful supplies of homemade beer and another alcohol-induced slumber.
Going through the local villages in rural Vietnam was a real highlight. The odd fully laden bus would whizz by but otherwise, it was bicycles, scooters and animals, a lot of animals. Cows and bulls who showed literally no sign of moving from the centre of the road when I came by to chickens, dogs, pigs and goats. Despite the rapidly improving economy in Vietnam, there are still a lot of very poor areas and eight out of ten people in the rural areas making their living from their rice fields and subsistence farming. I found the simplicity of noise and lifestyle a very natural existence with homemade wooden houses on stilts the norm. It was such a peaceful process just pootling along and listening to the sounds and observing the nature and lives around me.
Being geographically located in the tropical zone, Vietnam is heaven when it comes to fresh fruit; one of my biggest morale raisers and something I was lacking over winter. The range is probably more exotic in the south, where sadly I could not visit due to my plan to go to Laos, but in the north, it is still a huge bonus. Dứa (Pineapple), Chuối (Banana), Vú sữa (Star apple), Bưởi (Pomelo), Quyt (Mandarin) and Durian; they’re all refreshing and wonderful.
When it comes to boosters on the bike though, there is one thing in Vietnam that will be hard to match and something I really have missed.
The blend of beans used and the preparation process gives Vietnamese coffee a distinctive taste. Coffee culture, famously in the capital Hanoi, is a big thing and something I embraced wholeheartedly. As it was in Italy, the sunshine-filled coffee and cigarette break mid-cycle is a genuine pleasure.
As for process though, the finely dark roasted ground beans go through a phin (traditional drip filter) which sits atop a small glass. Hot water is added to the phin and the coffee trickles down. This in itself is nothing that unique, disregarding the quality of the beans of course, but the real secret lies in the sweetened condensed milk and ice that blend to make it an absolute gem when cycle touring here. Vietnamese iced coffee, cà phê sữa đá, I cannot recommend it enough.
I was not planning on writing a blog on Vietnam, I reckoned I would be able to combine Vietnam and Laos in one, given the shorter period I would spend in each. I was not, however, expecting to develop such a soft spot for this country so felt it worthy of a standalone post. I remained in Vietnam a bit longer than I originally planned. It will actually create a bit of time pressure to get to Singapore for my flight to Darwin, Australia (necessary to book to obtain my Chinese visa) but I felt it was worth it.
It might have been just because it was the perfect antidote to what went before with the Kazak Steppe, an extreme winter and then a strenuous leg across China. In reality, though, I could have visited Vietnam following any country and think my perspective would remain the same.
It is a country that has had a violent and regrettable history. In a great many ways I feel fortunate to be able to say I am British and show them the Union Flag because the people I have met have no negative connotations attached with it, especially those a generation above me. Now it is developing economically at an impressive rate, it is very open to foreigners and almost everyone I’ve spoken to who has travelled here has positive things to say.
If you are short on holiday ideas, then Vietnam comes highly recommended, above almost everywhere else I’ve visited – perhaps rivalled by Slovenia if you’re interested. The weather, food, scenery, culture and history are all fascinating and would tick many boxes depending on your interests. The real joy for me though has been all of those things, of course, but mainly it has been the people. I have felt truly welcomed here and treated with hospitality and kindness throughout. For me, that says more about a country than anything else.
Vietnam, thank you.