Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

13 Nov 2013

And then came the rainforest

Posted by Will

While speeding for half an hour off China’s south-west plateau my surroundings changed in phases. First, the dense mist that had hung over my eyes for so long lifted to reveal spectacular views of a deep canyon and steep winding road below. Next, the chill in the air disappeared transforming the rushing wind over my bare arms and legs into a welcome and invigorating breeze. The twists and turns continued, I raced a competitive young man on a moped, dodged the occasional pothole at high-speed, overtook a convoy of smoky construction trucks and waved in a flash to a blur of smiling faces.p1060672-800¬†Plants emerged with leaves as big as my bike and stacks upon stacks of boxed bananas appeared by the side of the road. Soon, I could hear birds and insects too, all scurrying around a suddenly denser pack of trees and bushes and then the roadside houses became poorer shacks of wood, bamboo and sheet-metal rooves. Finally the road flattened along a river of deep muddy brown and the mist swallowed me once more.

My sweat glands are apparently displeased by the stifling rainforest conditions, particularly in the tent, where for the first few nights I lay awake, dripping to the sound of creepy-crawlies. Sleeping wasn’t helped by the disconcerting number of frogs that found it pleasing to crawl under the tent’s groundsheet to become warm throbbing patches against my body. They are disrespectfully loud too with all their scuffling and ribbeting, noises they no doubt learnt and perfected with their equally raucous rainforest friends: the crickets. Mosquitoes now find their way into my lair with renewed ease, minuscule insects tickle (or if they’re particularly moody, bite) the skin and the other morning I found a thick spiky caterpillar wriggling about an inch from my nose. I couldn’t be happier with the change though. The new surroundings offer a fresh challenge and a whole host of unfamiliar experiences.

Usually, the slow pace of bicycle travel means changes are gradual. Farmland turns to desert through several shades of yellow, distinct cultural practices have a middle ground and faces pale or darken through intermediary pigments. Not this time though. The dramatic drop in altitude has thrust me into a climate zone further removed from home than anything I’ve cycled through so far.

Passing the border into Vietnam was entirely hassle-free. A large X-ray scanner foreboded having to unpack everything for security’s sake, always a stressful and annoying process when in the midst of a pressing crowd of impatient local border hoppers, but the slouched official simply waved me on. He probably saw the dishevelled state of my bags and decided that the inconvenience of checking them all one by one was a much greater risk to his country’s national security than the lethal weapons I was clearly not concealing amongst my dirty cycle shorts. I was helped to look completely harmless by a drenched rat style appearance, bestowed upon me by an unexpected bout of heavy rainforest rain an hour or so before. I wheeled past the final security check, forced my way through enthusiastic money-changers and pedalled off into the countryside.

p1060807-800I remember thinking immediately that everything man-made was so much smaller in Vietnam. It must have been a combination of leaving the jumbo-sized Chinese infrastructure behind and the enveloping quality of the rainforest. The highway became a thin, single-lane affair, the tallest buildings were two or three stories high, most structures looked haphazard and without proper foundations, motorbikes and bicycles replaced cars as the dominant species on the road and all the while thick vegetation pressed in on all of us. Palm trees drooped over village drives and the verge lay bushy and overgrown. I quickly realised I would have to pitch my tent in a strangling mass of leaves and creepers if I wanted even a smidgen of privacy.

The two exceptions to my ‘things in Vietnam are smaller’ observation are the money and the hats. Twenty-one thousand Vietnamese Dong make a Dollar, making me a comfortable six figure spender every day. It means the simplest of transactions can become complicated and confusing. Although the vendors and I count and show our fingers to bargain a price it’s sometimes difficult to know for sure how many zeros should be on the end of the number we’ve agreed. For instance, recently I bought three bananas from an old lady and was shown two fingers (fortunately not in a rude way). I handed over a 20,000 Dong note thinking the price was slightly steep only to be handed back 18,000 in change.

By contrast, the hats are neither complicated nor confusing: they are are quite simply larger than life. The sight of a lone Vietnamese in a conical hat working a field of rice is one of the most striking images I will ever see. It is a picture of beauty, an embodiment of culture and a pure representation of hard work. The hat bobs up and down, most visible from a distance, as the worker puts his or her back into cultivation of the world’s most important crop. Incidentally, Vietnam is the world’s second largest exporter of rice and it certainly shows in the countryside, where every scrap of land not entirely consumed by the rainforest is dedicated to its production. I will resist buying a conical hat for myself since I find it rather tasteless to imitate the locals in this way, but I can understand other tourists’ desire to appear as good-looking as the Vietnamese.

p1060802-800I cycled through village after village of ramshackle homes and cafes, all of which were in desperate need of a lick of paint but nevertheless oozing a certain charm missing from their Chinese counterparts. I stopped for tea several times at the request of locals which gave a nice introduction to Vietnamese hospitality. I don’t like the tea much as it is overpoweringly strong but the attention given to the way it is stirred, poured and sipped makes the ceremony well worth taking part in. I’m sure I was offered a prostitute at one of those stopovers but was well-placed to deliberately misunderstand given my at-the-time two word Vietnamese vocabulary: ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. I stuttered my way out of the situation as I have done so often in the past. As I moved south, the distinct villages began to evolve into connecting towns and cities with richer-looking inhabitants. Mankind had started turning the tables on the rainforest and by the time I was within 100km of Hanoi had won completely, stripping it back to the fringes to make way for large clusters of smartly decorated houses and shops.

The day before I arrived in Hanoi I crashed the bike at fairly high speed. When I say ‘I’ crashed the bike what I really mean is: a stray dog crashed it. As I flew down a steep hill into a village the harebrained dog bounded out of the trees and collided perfectly with my front wheel sending us both sprawling over the asphalt. The dog yelped and I lay disorientated. Whenever I crash, even if I’m unhurt, it always takes a second to come to my senses, and that second is always impossible to recall. Thankfully no vehicles were roaring up behind me and I managed to drag the bike and scattered panniers shakily off the road. The dog had escaped unharmed and more importantly my bike and I had too. A nasty moment, although one compensated by a delightful cafe owner who let me come inside to wash the blood off my arms and knee. I got back onto the road looking more adventurous than ever with stained remnants of blood on my shirt and shorts.

That evening I came close to Hanoi and quickly realised that I would be hard-pressed to find a place to camp. The remote villages had long-since disappeared and every inch of land was being used to grow rice or house its cultivators. The light faded as I cycled further and further without any luck. While I was often willing to continue at night in China, the idea of pedalling under the veil of darkness on these narrow roads, and with only manically impatient Vietnamese drivers for company, wasn’t even worth considering. I veered off the main thoroughfare in search of somewhere quieter.

p1060677-800The first group of houses I came to looked as uninviting as those on the main road. I stopped to ask for water so I could set up camp nearby and immediately received an invitation to come inside for tea. At first I hesitated slightly. While there was a good chance the invitation would expand into a comfortable bed for the night, there was also the possibility of being turned out and having to find a campsite in the dark. In this case I saw my alternative options were limited to none, so I consented to join them for a few cups of unpleasantly strong tea.

It turned out to a wise decision because for the family I ended up staying with were top-draw to say the least. Completely undeterred by the language barrier, they set to work preparing a feast of rice, pork, spinach and a sumptuous garlic and ginger dipping sauce. I managed to entertain the host with pictures of my family, a world map showing where I’ve cycled and a photo collage showing the different foods I’ve tasted. He was particularly interested in the picture of ‘kale-pache’ soup in Iran which I tried to explain, via a prolonged series of violent-looking hand gestures, is made from the boiled skulls and feet of dead sheep. My top party-trick, disappearing small bunches of crumpled paper with sleight of hand for the younger members of the group, went down very well indeed and I was forced to repeat this clown’s repertoire until they rumbled the trick. It turns out kids in Vietnam don’t believe in magic.

The night became hazy when my host phoned round his various brothers and uncles, all of whom arrived a few minutes later with presents of rice-made alcohol in crumpled plastic bottles. Each of them engaged me in competitive drinking under the guise of toasting my journey which meant my recently nurtured chopstick technique became very sloppy indeed. Unfortunately, Vietnamese culture dictates that one should place food from communal dishes into other diners’ rice bowls, meaning competent use of chopsticks is absolutely essential to keeping up with standard etiquette. I lost count of the number of times I tried to pass a piece of pork to my opposite number and dropped it half-way across, in one instance splattering an 8 year old with dipping sauce. As far as alcohol versus the Vietnamese is concerned, although it visibly affects their ability to stand and other such basic bodily functions, it seemingly has no effect at all on their chopsticks ability, nor on their generosity. My host insisted I take his bed, an offer I rather unchivalrously declined to resist by duly collapsing upon it, while he took the sofa downstairs.

p1060680-800The previous night’s antics left me in an abysmal state during the next morning’s ride into Hanoi, my head made worse by the thunderous tooting of drivers who all seemed know I had a hangover and were intent on punishing me further. After a couple of cans of Coke, three packets of biscuits, seven punctures and innumerable bouts of nausea, I made it to down town Hanoi with time in the day to spare.

Since then, I have spent 2 blissful weeks in Hanoi. It’s time to stop the story for now though. I will write about Hanoi, the delights of Vietnamese food and ‘severe tropical storm’ Haiyuan in the near future.

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3 Comments already on “And then came the rainforest”
  1. 5:22 pmpermalink
    13 Nov 2013

    Mumsy

    Frogs, prostitutes and rice wine….Vietnam has it all !! xx

  2. 6:24 pmpermalink
    13 Nov 2013

    Nevin

    Dear Will – I can’t wait to hear what you make of Vietnam. It’s quickly climbing the list of places I want to visit (thanks in part to the most amazing Vietnamese caf√© around the corner from my office). Your posts just keep getting better and better – I often find myself reading them out loud or emailing my favourite parts around at work, especially now that it gets dark at 3pm and we could all do with some entertainment. I’d love to think we’ll meet up somewhere along the way in 2014! Love, Nevin xx

    • Will

      9:09 ampermalink
      14 Nov 2013

      Will

      I love Vietnam so far and I can’t imagine there’s much which will change my opinion at this point. I’m already working out a new route through SE Asia meaning I can come through Vietnam a second time. Will be posting more about the country in due course.

      It’s very flattering that you would share excerpts of my blog with your no doubt HIGHLY important work colleagues. If you find the blog entertaining you simply won’t be able to control yourself when you see my disappearing-crumpled-pieces-of-paper display. Now there’s a good reason for you to bump into me in 2014!