Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mission (mostly) Accomplished

I've been back in Saigon after completing my bike ride since Wednesday, dreading the fact that I'm now leaving Vietnam in less than two weeks. The trip was amazing, as well as one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done. Here's a rundown of what happened.

I flew up to Buon Me Thuot, in the Central Highlands, with my friend Andrea last Friday afternoon. Things got off to an inauspicious start when her wallet was stolen from right under our noses while eating dinner at a restaurant. I was nervous as we prepared to set off on Saturday morning for the 50km ride to Lien Son. A quick reminder of why I was doing this: both times I did the H2H ride, I pulled both quads right outside BMT, leaving me unable to complete the last five days of cycling. Even though I'm in fantastic shape I was anxious, but once we passed the spots where I had came up lame in the past I calmed down. The riding was easy, and things went smoothly with the exception of Andrea getting simultaneous flats on both wheels an hour into the ride.

I was carrying the majority of our stuff in two panniers attached to a rack on the back of my bike. With only 12 gears my bike is not made for this, and I was definitely slower than usual. Still, the relatively flat terrain wasn't much of a problem, and the last 10km into Lien Son were great, with a fast downhill leading to a quiet road snaking between rice paddies.
All pictures were taken with my phone, hence the lower quality.


There were two elephants marching down the main road through town as we arrived.
We spent the rest of the day in a family-run restaurant, drinking beer, playing Monopoly Deal, and goofing off with the adorable toddler named Dung who lived there. He didn't want us to leave, and we didn't really want to either.

The next morning was overcast and misty. This was going to be a much more difficult day - 110km to Lam Ha, with three significant climbs along the way. Fortunately the weather improved rapidly once we set off, and it turned out to be a beautiful day with gorgeous scenery. We made good progress, though the hills were rough with the bags on my bike. The first two weren't terrible, however, but by the time we hit the third I was exhausted and felt a cold coming on, as the temperatures were cooler high up on the plateau of the highlands. The final climb seemed never-ending, and by the time we finally started descending into Lam Ha it was almost dark. The sun set shortly after we checked into our hotel, and I was shattered. I now had a sense of just how insane doing this with panniers on my shitty bike was - everything was sore, and even though I was starving I was almost too tired to eat.
I slept like the dead and felt better physically the next day, though I had definitely caught a cold. I'm so used to the 365-day heat in Saigon that I forgot they actually have seasons in other parts of the country, and all I had brought with were t-shirts and shorts. The third day of the ride was 105km to Bao Loc. The weather was perfect, and we were getting some serious tans going. The main problem was a nasty headwind that kicked in a few times, but for the most part the riding was fine. I took my time in the lowest gear on hills (none of which were even close to as big as the previous day), and rolled into town feeling fine. Bao Loc is actually a pretty nice town, with a lake behind the hotel we were staying in. We went down there to play some more Monopoly Deal, and as usual attracted attention from locals. One guy sat down next to me and we started talking in Vietnamese, but I couldn't understand everything he was saying. Eventually he scolded me for not being able to understand him even though I've lived here for over three years. He said he could understand everything I was saying, why couldn't I do the same? I protested that Vietnamese is really hard, and by expat standards I'm pretty damn good at it, and eventually he ambled off. Then a tweaking junkie squatted next to us and started begging for food, money or beer. We immediately left the area. Buzzkill.

Bao Loc is also home to an excellent bo kho restaurant with an unintentionally hilarious name.
The penultimate day was a 70km jaunt to Dinh Quan. We blew through a significant portion thanks to the massive downhill that drops you out of the Central Highlands into the deep south, but progress slowed once we entered Dong Nai Province, where the highway we were on is in absolutely awful condition. Huge stretches of pavement had been removed, even though there was no construction machinery in sight. It was hot, and even though there weren't any significant hills I was tired from pulling the panniers along. We arrived in Dinh Quan, which is little more than a rest stop on QL20, filthy from the dirt and grime of the shitty road. There was one day of riding left, and I was feeling excited about finally getting my revenge on this stretch of road and triumphantly entering Saigon on a bicycle.

The weather the previous four days had been perfect, and we were hoping for more of the same for the final 110km into Saigon. Sadly, this was not to be. A couple of hours after setting off, while still on QL20, the skies opened up. Our panniers were waterproof, but it was raining so hard I couldn't see very well, and once a few 18-wheelers plowed by while sending a tidal wave of floodwater over me I decided it was time to pull over. The storm passed, and we set off again into a comedy of traffic, potholes masked as lakes, and badly paved road surface. Somehow we made it to the junction with Highway 1, which leads into Saigon, without getting a single flat on the horrid road.

As the main artery leading into Vietnam's biggest city Highway 1 is always packed with every kind of vehicle imaginable. Luckily there is a lot of space for bikes on the right shoulder, and things were fine for a while. Then, two more downpours hit, forcing us to wait them out at drink or food stalls. We were badly behind schedule now, and as we neared Bien Hoa (30km away from Saigon) the traffic became extremely dangerous. Huge tour buses were passing other huge tour buses, leaving mere inches between us as they screamed by. Dump trucks simply cruised down the bike lane without a care in the world. SUVs pulled out of businesses on the right side into the traffic lanes without even looking, and the general disregard for human life was simply incomprehensible. Andrea and I were furious, but every time we flipped off a driver and screamed "motherfucker!" they simply smiled and waved. Few things are more infuriating than somebody not registering your anger. I've spent a lot of time on bad roads in horrible traffic here, but this was probably the most harrowing stretch of riding I've been through. One tiny mistake by either us or a bus driver would have meant instant death, or at least serious injury. Yet we were the only people who seemed to care.

With just 15km to go the sky became frighteningly dark, and a monstrous downpour opened up. We stopped at a drink stall, hoping it would end after 30 minutes like the others. An hour later, it was showing no sign of abating. The road was turning into a river, and the stall was even starting to flood. Buses and trucks were still bombing down the road, honking wildly. It was late afternoon, and with friends in Saigon saying it was pouring there as well we made the decision to just call a taxi and have him drive us home. Cycling any further would have been asking for death. I was crushed to have come so close, only to have to pile into a taxi soaked and angered. Once I got home and cleaned up, though, I was proud of what we had done. I had come as close as possible to finally completing those last five H2H days, this is just the wrong time of the year to expect good weather for several days in a row. Physically this was extremely tough, but I did it, and no worse for wear in the end. Any bike expert would probably call me an idiot for riding a route like this on my bike with the equivalent of a small human strapped to the frame, but I know what I'm capable of. Yes, the apocalyptic rain ruined the ending and blew up our plans to have friends greet us at the gate of the Reunification Palace, but that's part and parcel of living in southern Vietnam during the monsoon season. I'm glad we gave it a shot, and I can't wait to get back on the bike.

5 comments:

  1. great account. i never knew cycling was so hair rasing. always looked so scenic.

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    Replies
    1. Most of the time it is fairly scenic...but not when drivers here get involved.

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