Day 25: Monsoon Season arrived early this year. Drat.

 

The day started off so innocently with a couple of hours of easy riding in cool temperatures.  We passed a community of house boats on a lake between Dak Lak and Dak Nong Provinces.

Turns out I was wrong about Day 18 being the final Hell Day because that distinction belongs to the unforgettably bonkers day that was Day 25.  To start with, today’s 106 km ride from Liên Sơn to Lâm Hà Province had five graded climbs including two successive grade 2s.

Isn’t it just great how well the body can adapt to physical exertion because the first grade 2 up the Banana Pass (Đèo Chuối) didn’t seem that bad.  (Also, I had recently discovered  two additional levels of lower gears on my bike.)   We stopped for lunch after surmounting the Banana Pass, and had ginormous coconuts (they must have weighed two kilos each and were brim-full of juice).  We were there quite a while because Travis and Keith managed to fit in quick hammock naps, but when the sky became overcast, the wind picked up, and we heard a thunderclap we figured it’d be best to get going in case of a storm. There was, after all, still 40 kilometres to go.

Now, it’s not uncommon here for there to be lightning and thunder storms for hours without there being any actual rain.  However, today wasn’t one of those occasions.  We had barely been on the road for five minutes and were just starting the climb of the next grade 2 when lightning and thunder claps were followed by a violent deluge of water from the heavens.  We were soaked through immediately.  The road, which had more craters than the moon, filled up with muddy rainwater. Just was we were blinking hard to see our way through the downpour (and bouncing all over the rocky terrain), with water coming down on us from both the sky and the upper slopes of the mountain, some trucks and a couple of shuttle buses rounded a bend and descended upon us like a herd of stampeding mastodons.  As each vehicle passed and sprayed us with mud, so did the rain wash off said mud in what was like some perverse laundry-based relay.  Not for the first time, we felt a little nervous.

A quality video by fellow rider Tun Than who was smart enough to stay back at the lunch stop a little longer.  You can support his ride here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/TunThanH2H

Gradually, we got used to the rain, the wind, the thunder, the lightening, the trucks, the road conditions which effectively turned our bikes into pogo-sticks.  Perhaps it was the adrenalin but we started cheering and hollering because, well, we were bouncing our way up a mountain jungle dodging trucks and tour buses in a massive monsoon storm, and if that isn’t bloody cool, nothing is.

We soon found Deema, who had left the lunch place a bit earlier, sheltering in a drink stall and convinced her to come out and keep cycling because we were already wet through and if we stopped, we’d only get cold and our muscles would stiffen, and who knew when the rain would stop, if at all?  And the rain didn’t stop for another two and a half hours, though it did get slightly lighter so we just kept going up and up that mountain pass in the rain; the climb was 19km long.   The drop in temperature was actually energising and we made the climb a lot faster than we would have in the heat.

At one point, we came upon Rhiannon by the roadside with a flat tire, so we made a quick call to Mr Cường and Hoà who were still somewhere below us on the mountain.  While we waited, someone needed an urgent Jungle Wee. (We had drunk a lot of coconuts at lunch expecting to sweat it off later; a strategic error because liquids consumed which aren’t expelled through sweating must exit in other ways, and repeatedly.)  We were hiding our fellow rider amongst the bamboo trees, when Mr Cường’s van pulled up, and it was one of those moments when you just have to laugh long and hard, because, again, we were on a mountain pass surrounded by jungle that was looking especially beautiful and green due to the rain, while our friend was having a Jungle Wee and trying to hide it from Hoà.  Although, we were also very wet and cold, so it could just have been hysteria.

18197851_10154312058550047_163405754_n (1)

At the top of the pass, we saw mist rising up from the valley (it had been a very hot morning), so we descended along the side of that mountain and into the mist.  (We found out later that an earlier group of riders were in the middle of their descent when the storm started, and someone had a fall – thankfully a minor one.)

We took it slowly and steadily though we would have made it to Lam Ha sooner if we hadn’t stopped to take photos so often but the changing light and skies were too hard to resist.

DSCF2896 (2)

Finally, we made it to Lam Ha around 4 o’clock, when the sun obliged us by reappearing and giving us some lovely late afternoon light.

Day 24: Making long work of a short ride.

IMG_2553

Today was our last easy day of riding with only 49km to Liên Sơn.  For some reason, including another flat tire, I didn’t get there until 2.45pm!  With the unnecessarily long hours in the heat, especially as we have three days of 100+ km rides ahead, I was really grumpy and took myself off to sit by the lake on the edge of town until the wind started picking up and rain clouds gathered.  With the last two days in BMT ending with cracking rain storms, I hope it doesn’t mean that the Wet Season has arrived early.  Cycling through the sewer-water floods of Saigon would not be an ideal homecoming.

DSCF2846 (2)
Rice fields and storm clouds over Lak Lake, Lien Son.

Day 23: Rest Day in Coffee Country

Buon Ma Thuot is the capital of Đắk Lắk province, and a major coffee producing region. My paternal grandparents lived here for most of the 70s.  An uncle of my father’s, by marriage, used to manage the estates of Emperor Bao Dai in the area, including his Summer Palace. (Incidentally,  Đắk Lắk is also home to one of my favourite Miss Vietnam 2016 contestants.)

For some, our final rest day in BMT started in the early hours with getting lost on the way home from Team Karaoke.  This, after Harriet had delighted all with a virtuoso performance with the microphone.  Harriet is the sort of person who makes going to karaoke worthwhile – she sings with the passion and commitment of someone who’s in the shower and thinks no one’s listening.

I was saved/prevented from spending all day in bed eating coconut cream tarts by Storm who suggested we visit a nearby waterfall.  (Apparently the coffee plantations were too far away to visit.) Dray Sap was 30 kilometres from the city centre but as it was meant to be a day’s respite from pedalling we opted to take a bus there.  Perhaps it was general fatigue setting in, but we’d forgotten our vow never to get on one of these, having shared the road with them for three weeks.  We were soon reminded of it though because, just after we boarded, it started bouncing all over the road and threatening the lives of innocent motorists. Except this time, we were the dirty collaborators on the inside, not the terrified road users clinging to the hard shoulder.

Dray Sap is the lesser of two neighbouring sets of waterfalls.  The other is Dray Nur, but apparently the bridge connecting the two areas has fallen into disrepair.  To access  Dray Nur we’d have had to take some circuitous route that heat and laziness prevented us from doing.  Nevermind, there was plenty to see at Dray Sap.

IMG_2518
“Help me, you guys – this sucks!”

Out in the open, in a shady wood, we came upon an old elephant looking sad and solemn.  She was grabbing tufts of long, dry grass with her trunk and chomping on them with all the energy of a recently tasered G20 protester; her rear leg was in irons.  Adjacent to the waterfall visiting area was the sort of zoo that promises visitors the opportunity to stare at chained up bears.  We did not visit the zoo.

We walked first to the top of Dray Sap to watched water flow gently towards the falls then gather and form a torrent that gushes over the rock face.  Somehow, two men had climbed up to a spot of rock between the two falls and seemed to be fishing.  Then we walked down, through a jungle-shaded path, to the blue-green lake at the bottom of Dray Sap for a refreshing swim, during which Keith made some more terrible puns and we tried not beat him with water bottles.

The only follow-up worthy of such an adventure was, of course, another lunch at Buon Ma Thuot KFC.

Tun, Becca and I did try to do something cultural afterwards and visit the Dak Lak Museum of Ethnology but were thwarted by a random power-cut to the building.   On the grounds surrounding the Museum though, some scouts were having a jamboree.

Back at Rest Day HQ, the rest of the gang were having a wholesome afternoon watching the “Blues Brothers”, while Jimmy was feeling a bit smug because he’d gone to the Museum of Ethnology in the morning before it had run out of its daily ration of electricity.

IMG_2548.JPG
Scouts learning semaphore

Day 22: In praise of fried chicken

If getting away from Ea Drăng’s tire-stabbing vandals and getting ourselves to Buôn Ma Thuột for our final rest day wasn’t enough motivation, we were also promised a visit to KFC and… a supermarket.  Because yes, we’ve led such lives of ascetic deprivation since leaving Hanoi that a promised visit to Coopmart, Buôn Ma Thuột, left everyone giddy at the prospect of non-rice-based snacks and deodorant.

If I’m honest, I don’t remember too much about the ride.  I just wanted to get to BMT so I could have some KFC.  I suppose there were probably some hills, some nice forests, a group of camo-clad young men carrying spades and hoes while marching.  But mostly, I just remember KFC.

IMG_2510 (2)
At some point during the ride, this happened: Some young men in camouflage march with an assortment of farming implements.

I haven’t had any KFC since I moved to Saigon – mostly because whenever I’ve ventured to my local, they’ve always claimed to have run out of chicken.  How can a KFC run out of chicken?  I don’t know, but each time I’ve been, I get shaky-shaky-jazz-hands [1] and told that there’s no chicken left.  (Excuse me? If you’re a KFC that’s run out of chicken you need to lock the doors and turn off the lights, not lure starving fans of fried chicken with the promise of the Colonel’s eleven secret herbs and spices, only to feed them Bitter Disappointment.)

But I digress, because I was not denied KFC in BMT.  It was the perfect post-76km ride meal.  I don’t think I said a word during the five minutes I spent eating and drinking everything within arm’s reach.  I vaguely remember people saying things to me but I didn’t quite register the noises they were making. (Something along the lines of “Slow down, you’ll choke”, I suppose.)  Truly one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had.

In fact, based on the year-round availability of hot & spicy chicken (unlike backward under-developed fried chicken nations liked the UK and Australia which only have H&S for limited periods during the year), table service, peach iced tea, and the availability of paradigm-shifting egg tarts [2], I’m gonna call it:

KFC Buôn Ma Thuột, is the World’s BEST KFC.

And then we went to the hotel and I passed out from food-related bliss, just as a terrific rain storm hit BMT.

[1] Shaky-shaky-jazz hands (where your fingers are extended on an open palm and you shake your hand by twisting your wrist) is a nation-wide gesture used by Vietnamese to say:

  • I don’t understand.
  • I don’t understand and I can’t be bothered to attempt other forms of communication with you.
  • I don’t have it.
  • I don’t care [about your needs or wants].
  • I’ve stopped listening, you no longer exist and I’m walking away now.

It’s wonderfully dismissive, especially if you do it while walking away.  Try it some time.

[2] Until today, I’ve never understood the fuss over egg tarts.  Why so much excitement over congealed custard in a soggy pastry case…?  NOT SO AT KFC BMT!  At KFC BMT, the egg tarts have a fluffy crisp puff pastry shell that holds a warm, sweet custard centre; they are served hot and brought to your table.

Day 21: The Bates Motel at Ea Drăng

The first 80 kilometres of today’s ride was pretty sweet, being mostly downhill.  I think we only had about 30 kilometres to go by 11am.  But after a few complacent nuoc mia stops (during one of which, Zak killed Jimmy with a condom), it was back to an endless series of steep hills with shallow spills.  It got to a point where we’d approach the crest of one hill, panting and sweating madly, only to see the crest of another in the near distance and so started screaming obscenities at it for existing.  More obscenities followed when a stationary shuttle bus pulled out without any indication, or checking for oncoming motorists, just as Amy was passing it.

We were there by 12.30pm but we needn’t have hurried.  Ea Drăng is one of those places with not much to recommend it and is as bleak as the surrounding landscape.  This year, the team stayed at the half-constructed Hoa Dao Hotel, conveniently located (given its current state as a “renovator’s dream”) on a street full of tile and toilet shops.

Our rooms were on the second floor but to access them we had to bypass the first floor which was still a study in bare concrete and wrapping paper.  I mention wrapping paper because that was what was pasted over the entry to the lift well so no-one would fall down the shaft to an untimely end.  In a hopeful attempt to distract us from any departures from applicable construction codes and standards, someone had placed a heavy pot plant on a length of red carpet on the first floor, helpfully blocking our way in the event of a fire or such like.  As for why the builders have finished the upper floors before the lower floor, I couldn’t possible enlighten you.

I’m told that this hotel was far better than options for previous teams which included a grim offering from across the street, and a truck stop around the corner.  The latter was apparently so awful that even its owner thought that Team 2015 should go elsewhere for the night.  In fairness, the Hoa Dao Hotel did have a spacious underground carpark to store our bikes overnight.

We passed out soon after lunch, not want to leaving our rooms even after nap time, so uninviting was Ea Drăng.  I only ventured out after receiving Travis’s plaintive cry for help over FB Messenger just after 7.

“Where the hell has everyone been this evening?  I think we’ve got a “The Hills Have Eyes” situation here!”

When we found him having dinner a few doors down, he didn’t elaborate so presumably he just got lonely.  Or got the willies by staring out into the dark, joyless streets of Ea Drăng.

The next morning, as we heaved our luggage downstairs we found that the big pot plant had been moved to the foot of the stairs on the first floor, right in the centre – an excellent location for tripping over anyone carrying lots of baggage in front of them.  And Travis’s bike had mysteriously acquired a flat tire.  Loan’s had two. Theirs had been left in the courtyard of the hotel at street level rather than in the safe and cosy bosom of the underground carpark.  Hoa found that their tires had been punctured by single staples.  Some staple-wielding fiend must have come by and deliberately pushed them in because the chances of a punctured tube from rolling over a single staple lying flat on the road is relatively low.

The best thing about Ea Drăng?  Leaving.

IMG_2504 (1)
Between Pleiku and Ea Drang, this was the most interesting thing I saw.  I don’t really know what it is I’m looking at though.

 

Day 20:  An inspiring orphanage visit exposes me as a linguistic fraud

 

Day 20b.jpg
I remember when all this was fields!  Some green scenery before the dull, dry landscape leading to dull, dry Pleiku.

Only 49km to Pleiku today, but as the terrain was like this:

Day 20 a

(and has been for the last 100 kilometres), it wasn’t my favourite day of riding.  The highlight of the ride itself occurred when, on entering town, some ornate gates caught my eye.  I got off and spied, through some trees, a large gold-leafed dome that looked a little bit like Les Invalides.

I thought it might be some historical building or a museum under renovation but when I asked a passing motorist it turned out to be just some rich dude’s house.

Just a spot of accidental trespass in some rich dude’s garden before we get into town…

There’s a line from the Vietnamese song “Còn Chút Gì Để Nhớ” (There’s a Little Left to Remember) about Pleiku women: Em Pleiku má đỏ môi hồng (Pleiku girls, with red cheeks and rosy lips).  I’m not sure if that’s meant to be a compliment or not.  Red cheeks and rosy lips makes me think of women who are soliciting, but in any case nothing about the city makes me want to celebrate it with song.  Pleiku is a large-ish, non-descript town where everything seems to shut down before 9pm.  Kon Tum, it ain’t.

But we aren’t here to explore a dull and charmless city, because on the outskirts of Pleiku is a boarding school and orphanage for disadvantaged children, abandoned children and orphans.  It was set up on a large tract of land by two Dutch nationals (one of whom is a Viet Kieu) and run as one of the many projects funded and administered by Live and Give.   The school and kindergarten are managed by the Nuns of the Order of St Paul de Chartres, who have been in Vietnam since 1860.

On the land around the school, plants, vegetables and coffee (the beans are roasted in butter) are grown. The vast majority of the children who live here are from the ethnic minority groups of the region.  Each year the H2H Team  rides to Pleiku and visits the school and orphanage as Live and Give is one of the organisations that we support with our fundraising.

I’ve only packed shorts and t-shirts with me so I‘m quite self-conscious about being underdressed when I go downstairs to wait for a ride to the orphanage.  I needn’t have worried though because Jimmy is once again attired in his bananas on pyjamas.  We set off at 3.30 and on arrival are greeted by a group of children and teens waving colourful balloons.  They seem eager to befriend us but also shy.

Jimmy takes the initiative and starts doing magic tricks for them; Deema and Eli launch into a spontaneous rendition of…Bohemian Rhapsody, and soon the ice is broken.  We spend the next two hours exploring the grounds and gardens, and playing with the children who are warm and friendly and energetic. They seem happy and well-cared for here.

Soon after we arrive, Sister Xuan hands me a three page hand-written note: the children are putting on a show for us and the note is an explanation, written in Vietnamese, of what each of the performances are so I can translate it to the non-Vietnamese speakers.  I start to panic because, although I can read Vietnamese, it’s only to a  fourth or fifth grade level. It would take at least an hour and a bilingual dictionary for me to decipher the evening’s programme.

An online dictionary wasn’t even able to explain what a “kẹc” (or a “hẹc”) was so I had to call in the Big Guns.

Me:  Excuse me, Mr Cường…?  Can you please help me?  I don’t know what all these words mean –

Mr Cường:  *laughs in my face and walks off*

Me:  Mr Cường? Where are you going? MISTER CUUUUUUUOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNGGG!!!  HEEEEELLLLP MEEEEEE!
(Hmm, it’s fine.  It’s fine.  I’ll just make sh1t up. No one will know…  Except for JESUS, whose statue is standing right THERE, judging me. *whimpers*)

Just as a fine patina of panic sweat forms on my brow from my imminent exposure as a quasi-illiterate, Mr Cường returns.  With his reading glasses.  Phew.

He explains that a “kẹc” is a bird that’s slightly bigger than a crane, as well as some other big words I’ve never seen before.  A wave of sweet relief washes over me when I realise I’ll be able to wing it.

Before the children’s performance though, the nuns usher us into a dinner which they’ve kindly prepared. But it’s not so much a dinner as a feast of chicken stew, omelette, salad, spag bol, fruit and large wedges of longed-for, rarely-seen-in-Vietnam CHEESE (that isn’t of the Laughing Cow variety).

After 7, we head over to the main hall and the children cheer as they see us, which is both adorable and massively embarrassing.

First up is a mandolin performance:

Followed by the Dance of the Kẹc.  So cute:

DSCF2805 (2)

Followed by a dance about how women field workers enjoy the quiet, tranquillity of evening after a long day of toil:

DSCF2809 (2)

Then, a dance inspired by Hồ Xuân Hương’s poem The Floating Sweet Dumpling [1], a metaphor for the Vietnamese Woman:

DSCF2818 (2)

The sound of a mỏ signalling the time for school or homework.  A mỏ is a hollow piece of wood which Buddhists beat or tap while saying their mantras; I’ve no idea what the English word is.

DSCF2824 (2)

And finally, to close the evening’s performances, we enjoyed a dub-step routine called “Good Boy”.  I really, really want to believe that a French order of Vietnamese nuns on the outskirts of Pleiku choreographed this.

Live and Give does terrific work by giving a stable and caring home for, and supporting the education and well-being, of poor, orphaned or abandoned  children, particularly those from ethnic minority groups in Vietnam.  You can support them directly, or through our H2H 2017 Fundraising page.  Thank you!

[1] Hồ Xuân Hương is one of Vietnam’s most celebrated poets. Many of her poems question male authority and women’s role in society. Read some of her works, which are quite racy and include numerous double-entendres, and guess which era she lived in:

The Jackfruit

Weaving at Night

On Sharing A Husband

The Snail

.
.
.
.
.

Hồ Xuân Hương was born in the late 18th century, and it’s remarkable that her work was so well received during her lifetime and remains popular today, give how socially and sexually conservative Vietnamese society is …on its surface.

Day 19: Ahhh, Kon Tum…

We continued with the rolling hills of yesterday but today’s 60 kilometres featured much steeper hills but without the long spill on the other side – we’d heave ourselves up and then there’d just be a short downhill or the road would level off a little.  Highly unsatisfying.

The slog and heat from previous days have started exacting their tithe, and a few riders have had to have Van Time today.  Despite how uncomfortable and exhausting it can get on the road, no one wants to spend time in the van; we’ve committed to cycling across Vietnam and that’s want we want to be doing.  But some days the body just says “No”, and you’ve got to listen.  There’s no shame in having a bit of Van Time. Some have been assailed by dodgy tummies (necessitating what our esteemed leader calls “a jungle shit”), heat exhaustion (especially now we’re heading into the south and the heat and sun are becoming particularly destructive) and just general exhaustion.

Day 19 b

The road between Plei Can and Kon Tum, our home tonight, was arid and dull.  We kept seeing large tracts of land which seem to have been recently cleared of trees.

Since leaving Hanoi, we’ve often see roadside shrines.  I had thought that perhaps the nearby villagers were particularly devout, but having seen some in the Annamite Ranges I asked Hoa about them. He said that they mark the spots where there have been fatal road accidents.  In Australia and the UK you often see bouquets tied to telegraph poles, or mounds of flowers on a median strip after an accident but there is rarely a permanent memorial to road deaths at the point they occur.  It’s frustrating to think that despite these frequent reminders, many motorists in Vietnam are still so careless that they frequently run red lights, text and make phone calls while riding their motorbikes, join traffic without checking for oncoming vehicles, and drink drive – just to name a few of their most egregious practices.

(1) A road side shrine between Phổ Châu and Hương Khê, Day 6
(2) In the mountains on our way to A Lưới, Day 13
(3) Today, between Plei Can and Kon Tum

It’s a short day today, and despite TWO flat tires, I get to Kon Tum around 12.30pm.  We rode past the hotel a bit to the Wooden Church of Kon Tum because Hoa reckons that there’s a saying which goes “You’ve never been to Kon Tum if you’ve never seen the Wooden Church.”

We’ve seen some lovely churches in the distance while riding through the countryside, particularly in the first 10 days.  I remember an especially beautiful Florentine one, with terracotta tiled domes on Day 7 that may well have been inspired by Brunelleschi. Anyway, here is the Cathedral of Kon Tum:

Day 19 e

Day 19 fVietnamese Catholic Fun Facts: In 1988, 117 Vietnamese martyrs were canonised by Pope John Paul II; their feast Day is 24 November.

I’ve never heard of Kon Tum but I start loving it as I turn off an enormous roundabout that is covered with flower beds.  Our hotel is on Nguyen Trai street, which is where I live in Saigon.  There are plenty of trees here to give shade, even at 1pm.  There’s a massive Jacaranda down from our hotel, which has just started to blossom.  (Jacarandas remind me of October-November in Sydney; their flowers spend more time on the ground than their branches and in late Spring, at the time of final exams, you see mounds and mounds of purple flowers in streets that have them, and on people’s lawns.)

On the corner of Nguyen Trai and Nguyen Hue there is, wonderfully and unexpectedly, a Korean restaurant and juice bar!  (A creditable Bibimbap for First Lunch and a truly excellent Bun Thit Nuon at 641 Nguyen Hue for Second Lunch.)  In addition to the friendly and encouraging people, we come across serendipitous discoveries, like PAPPA ROTI:

How is there a Pappa Roti in this tiny town I’ve never heard of?  IT’s MAGIC.  (Pappa Roti = a soft, over-toasted mound of coffee and butter flavoured bread.  That’s basically all they sell.)

And at the pizza place we go to for dinner, THIS was the drinks selection:

Day 19 h (2)

Then, on the way home from dinner, Becs and I come across some boys by a construction site who are practising Múa Lân (the Lion Dance you often see at Tet).  Two of them are dancing in the lion costume and one boy play the drums. They put on an enthusiastic performance for us and then look really proud but shy when they finish.

IMG_2486 (2)#ClassicVietnam: We had such good intentions of an early night but Rhiannon found a live music venue across from our Hotel at the I *Heart* Kon Tum Café.  It was more of an open mic night though, and as with all places where Vietnamese sing, the volume was on max and so was the reverb.

Day 19.JPG
Early morning in Kon Tum