Pho, Family & Fights – 30 Days of War and Peace in ‘Nam

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Pausing to pull faces on the winding road to Sapa!

 

SWEAT dripped off my nose as I struggled to turn the pedals up the snake-like road to Laos. The adrenalin from the morning’s fight had vanished, leaving me with a thumping headache and a feeling of regret. It was the final day of our Vietnamese visa and just 15km lay between us and the exit. But that 15km couldn’t come quick enough. I felt angry, bitter and above it all, utterly washed out because never had a country polarised me so much.

I forced myself to breathe and remember some of the good times over the past 30 days – it wasn’t hard.

It was the first country we’d entered after a year and almost three months in China and the sounds, smiles and quaint French architecture lining the leafy streets of the border town Lao Cai were intoxicating.

In our heads Vietnam was the light at the end of a very long tunnel and friends had talked up its charms months before we arrived.

True to form the first day was bliss. Strong cups of coffee blended with sweetened condensed milk alongside bowls of steaming, fragrant pho proved to be the antidote to greasy China we’d been craving and like chubby kids at a birthday party we stuffed our faces with gusto.

With our friend Nick we scored a cheap hotel in town and took a day off to soak up the unknown (and by soak up I mean eat). We were still converting everything in our heads back to Chinese Yuan (“Is that a good price? I don’t know – it seems expensive compared to China”) and trying to get our heads around the basics of the language.

A feast of fresh Vietnamese food was the perfect antidote to China

A feast of fresh Vietnamese food was the perfect antidote to China

All of a sudden we were back in a country where prices and I felt insecure – like a foreigner with a big dollar sign stamped on my head and one on the back saying “please rip me off”.

After one day, several bowls of pho (they were cheap but did nothing to sate a cyclist appetite) and a couple of fluffy, sweet baguettes we began the hard pedal up to the tourist town of Sapa – nestled among rice paddies in the nation’s northern mountains. It was a brutal 1500m climb over 30km and while China’s high-altitude G318 had prepped us for just about anything we sweated, puffed and panted over five hours up the narrow and steep road.

Sapa ranks highly on Vietnam’s well-trodden tourist trail for it’s scintillating mountain-scapes and vibrant hill tribes and we’d happily slogged out a tough climb for those rewards. But when the town came into view we could see little more than 100 metres in front of us. A thick fog shrouded the streets and the light drizzle that had soaked us to the bone over the day became a heavy rain. There was nothing for it but to check into a cheap guest house and hope to the cycling gods the foul weather would bugger off.

Tough climbing lay ahead and the clock was ticking before my sister and her partner would touch down in Hanoi. After three days of trying to wait out the weather we pulled the pin and pedalled back down the mountain towards Lao Cai. There just didn’t seem to be any point punishing ourselves over brutal roads for what? Amazing views of fog and drizzle? So instead we beelined along a secondary road to the nation’s capital, camping once on an impromptu road side bush loo (much to Nick’s surprise the following morning) and another time on a soccer field. Despite the road being secondary trucks thundered along it in droves and at all hours.

Nothing beats a soccer pitch for a camping spot - especially when it's used to graze the buffalo in the morning

Nothing beats a soccer pitch for a camping spot – especially when it’s used to graze the buffalo in the morning

They swerved dangerously close to us as we sweated along the narrow tarmac, blasting their horn at the last minute when we were roughly ear level. I’m not a patient person at the best of times but four hours of this crap in one day had me violently fantasising about ripping the driver’s hands off and shoving them up their… well you can imagine. In fact the horns seemed louder, the traffic seemed more chaotic and aggressive and while the impossibly cute village children screamed hello and put smiles back on our faces, it was tough not to grumble (or, you know, swear violently).

The hectic but defiantly spectacular old town of Hanoi

The hectic but defiantly spectacular old town of Hanoi

Eventually the small towns became bigger cities and Hanoi’s sprawling, dirty outskirts loomed in a sea of scooters, rickshaws, trucks, buses and cars. China may have been chaotic – but immense urban infrastructure meant cyclists and scooters had their own lane ensuring some kind of order to the chaos. Cycling into Hanoi, on the other hand, was like being thrown into a beehive doused in petrol. Just a few kilometres out the dog eating district sprung up, featuring whole pooches roasting on a spit while the next few victims sat sadly next to it in bamboo cages.

American expat and man about town Travis had agreed to put us up for a few nights and it was hard not to feel livened by his energy and enthusiasm for Hanoi. Despite the sheer madness it was buzzing with everything – madman, fragrant street stalls, parks, high-end restaurants and a never ending flock of tourists keen to sample it all.

Travis (far right) loves taking visitors on a tour of West Lake in Hanoi - and Scott, Nick, Kate, Semira and I were happy to join him!

Travis (far right) loves taking visitors on a tour of West Lake in Hanoi – and Scott, Nick, Kate, Semira and I were happy to join him!

But there was one reason above it all I couldn’t help but love Hanoi in that moment and it was because it would soon house my little sister.

Two years is a bloody long time to wait before seeing a loved one and I was almost mad with excitement at the thought of spending a couple of weeks with Kate. Scott’s uncle (who was born and raised just on the outskirts of Hanoi) would also be visiting in time for TET (Vietnamese New Year) so we would be treated to a day with him and his wonderful family to top it off.

Eating Bun Cha with Scott's uncle Uong and his niece Puong (who also lives in Sydney now).

Eating Bun Cha with Scott’s uncle Uong and his niece Puong (who also lives in Sydney now).

And boy did he treat us. First we hit up the city’s best bun cha (noodles in a fragrant broth with smoked pork patties and pork belly sausages) followed by a trip to his home village set amid rice fields and backdropped by jagged mountains. While sipping tea and slurping down noodles he shared tales of his time in the Viet Kong, the bombings of his own and nearby villages and eventually his capture by the Khmer Rouge.

 

It was heart-breaking, enlightening and ultimately humbling to be in the company of such a phenomenal person who had endured so much and come out the other side as a humanitarian who had since worked to better the lives of refugees from his Sydney home.

From bun cha and war stories we were thrown back into tourist mode with Kate and her lovely partner Semira who had come baring many many gifts and were determined to spoil us rotten with a Halong Bay cruise, dinners and buffet breakfasts (Scott’s favourite things in life are buffet breakfasts, beer and pizza and then his loved ones – in that order).

 

I cried pathetically when I first laid eyes on them and all of a sudden (after a trip to Hoi An, Halong Bay and endless hours lounging around with beers and iced coffees) the two weeks was ending. I was devastated to see them go and for not the first time I wondered just what we were sacrificing by being away from our families for so long.

I’d missed them so much and it was heartbreaking to see how much life they’d gotten on with since we’d left. I felt like an outsider looking in on a timeline I was no longer a part of and it was almost enough to make me jump on a plane and go home there and then.

To make matters worse my older sister Mel had just given birth to a gorgeous baby girl (the news came while the four of us were indulging in a massage…whoops) adding to a growing urge to simply be home.

In the blink of an eye Kate and Semira were jumping back on a plane and were hammering it down the hectic A1 highway to Vinh with just five days left on our visa. On day one out of Hanoi we bumped into two sweet Korean cyclists scaling the length of the country by bike and decided to pedal on as an odd looking motley crew, negotiating the feral traffic, hot weather and madness of the highway.

Our new friends Jake and Han from South Korea

Our new friends Jake and Han from South Korea

It was a bad way to wrap up a country that had already divided our feelings and by time we’d farewelled our friends and turned right towards the Laos border we were desperate to escape. There’s probably a thousand and one reasons why Vietnam had polarised us – of which not least was the fact that 80 million people have been squeezed into a pint-sized nation, making it one giant ants nest . But at the end of the day cycling a country so brimming with everything – people, traffic, touts and just chaos had exhausted us.

Vietnam might have polarised us but there was no doubting it's rustic beauty from Vinh to the Laos border

Vietnam might have polarised us but there was no doubting it’s rustic beauty from Vinh to the Laos border

Then the final night came.

We’d made it just 50km from the Laos border the day before our visa expired and decided to check into a cheap guest house to ensure an early start the following morning. The host was a toothless and grubby looking old man who spoke not a lick of English and tried to rip us off shamelessly before consenting to a cheaper but still inflated price.

We paid it and began to settle in – but not before realising that our tacky little guest house was also serving as a brothel – yikes!

The following morning we woke early with plans to get on the road by 8.30am and tackle the final leg to the border (hopefully leaving us with a few hours to spare). We hauled our bags downstairs and I headed for the front desk to drop our key back and pick up our passports (Vietnamese hostels often take travellers passports as a security measure during the stay). But there was a small problem – they were no longer there. I rounded on the toothless host and demanded our passports back but he just laughed and pointed out the door. I was furious. Not only had the witless git allowed our most precious documents to leave his care without our permission – but he was laughing at my clear confusion and stress at finding them gone.

I’d always hoped I’d be a calm and rational person under pressure but the sad truth is I’m not – I’m more like a drunk pirate with the emotional calm of a toddler missing its rattle.

I screeched like a banshie – demanding our passports be returned immediately but the host just laughed louder. Scott had joined in on the fray but the best we got was a vague gesture at the clock that they would return soon.

If it was a cartoon steam would have shot out of my ears and foam would’ve frothed at my mouth so when a woman eventually walked back into the hostel with our passports and additional copies in her hand I marched over with hell’s fury in my stride and snatched the lot out of her hand.

She tried weakly to snatch them back but I was building up the kind of rage reserved for drunks who end up on the six o’clock news.

I stuffed them in my bag and attempted to wheel my bike out of the front yard but the grin had faded from the host’s face and he was hastily shutting the steel gates to stop us leaving. In my best bogan accent I screeched for him to “open the f&%king gate” and attempted to drop my shoulder and push past him. He pushed me back and then elbowed me in the face for my troubles. He’d carefully avoided standing in Scott’s way (who was roughly double his height and weight) but it seemed he had no problem what so ever exerting his power over a five-foot tall woman.

My instinct was to instantly slog him back but a very small, weak voice in the back of my head piped up, to caution. We’d done nothing wrong until this moment and if we fought violence with violence I knew the law wouldn’t favour us.

I was shaking with rage but instead I drummed up years of soccer skills and barrelled past him – it helped that Scott was just behind me and he seemed reluctant to stop him hurtling through. A crowd had gathered as the irate host attempted to grab my handlebars and again stop me leaving but Scott – who could finally see what was going on – began bellowing like a bull with a bee on its arse.

“Don’t you dare f*&king touch her”! It was all that we needed and he reluctantly backed off and we pedalled quickly away. I felt sick to my stomach. I was partly angry at myself for losing my cool and angry at the man who was clearly giving Trump a run for his money in the “World’s Biggest Asshole” trials.

In the end it was clear they’d taken our passports away to make copies (something we’d never had to do in Vietnam previously) but nevertheless I didn’t want a brothel masquerading as a hostel doing anything of the kind.

Half expecting the police to pull us over we pedalled had and fast up the steep rise to the Laos border, sweating like pigs and swearing a long list of colourful language at Vietnam, the guest house, life and everything.

Deep down I knew it was an unfortunate and highly unusual thing to happen (hell, there are assholes in every corner of the globe) but it felt like the final middle finger from a place we’d struggled through from the get go.

After almost five hours of cycling we reached the border and quickly stamped out our passports (for a fee of course) and pedalled into little old Laos.

I felt a deep sense of relief to be out. I knew Vietnam wasn’t really as bad as our lingering feelings suggested. And I think if you were backpacking your way through the nation, from exciting destination to exciting destination, you’d probably love it. And there was a lot to love. The aromatic street food, the varied architecture, the sun-kissed rice paddies and the green mountains that housed colourful tribes all made it a country worth visiting. It had just challenged us in ways we weren’t expecting and for a cyclist it was a constant trial dealing with incessant, aggressive traffic, obnoxiously loud horns that gave you an ear-ache and crafty touts and stall holders who were a hell of a lot more adept at ripping naive tourists off than we were at sniffing them out.

It might have been tough but Vietnam sure was beautiful

It might have been tough but Vietnam sure was beautiful

As we pedalled off into the Laos sunset to the sounds of crickets and birds (the locals seemed to chilled out to bother beeping their horns) I realised I’d have to go back to Vietnam again just to change some of the horrible memories burned into our brains.

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