Sunday, 23 April 2017

Day 22: Day of the Living Butterflies

Our route today was from Ea Drang to our next rest stop at Buon Me Thuot. It was a mere 76km which seemed like nothing compared to our previous rides.

As tradition for the upcoming rest day, some of us sported our Hawaiian shirts and Zak, his sexy time medallion.

The first few kilometres took us downhill through a lovely pine tree lined road, reminiscent for me of Sandringham woods back home in the UK. We zoomed downhill for a while, but of course zooming downhill often has the downside of having to drag yourself up again. I met Zak after about 20 k who casually said ´I think this is the last of the hills´. I should have learned my lesson. When someone says there are less hill climbs coming up, NEVER BELIEVE THEM! I think if I could choose a bike for the h2h again, I would buy one that drags me up the hill, not one that I have to drag up!

The scenery was becoming less spectacular, but a haze of yellow butterflies decorating our path made it more exciting. They seemed intent on getting killed, darting into the road and at our faces as we cycled past.

It was an ecstatic moment when I reached the top of one hill and found everyone at a coconut hammock stop. Thankfully Hoa (our mechanic) and Mr Cuong (our driver) had decided it was necessary too, as Hoa had had his work cut out fixing three flat tyres. There´s nothing more heavenly than a cool jug of coconut juice, complete with the flesh, lying in a hammock watching butterflies.

The smell of pine trees changed to peppercorns being dried out by the side of the road. The butterflies led Storm and I to a temple with a beautiful garden, which we would have spent more time in had we not been dressed in lycra, (plus I looked like a twit in my Hawaiian shirt.)

The best part of the day for everyone was when we made a stop at KFC for lunch. You´d think a bunch of savages had been there from the mess that was left. Our hotel was cute but confusing. It was built on a hill so that the reception was on the top floor and the rooms were below…yet we still had a great view of the forest surrounding it. And if the KFC wasn´t good enough, we were treated to our first thunderstorm in three weeks. Most refreshing.

Grace and Storm bravely hosted a party in their room. A flashing bike light was doubled up as a disco light, pizzas ordered, karaoke booked for 9pm and we were set. Harriet, Loan and Grace did their own dance routine to the Jackson 5´s ABC which I have on record.

We stumbled to ´Friends karaoke´ and needless to say some of our team sang their hearts out until the daylight hours, with renditions of hits such as ´Hit me baby one more time´, ´Imagine´ and ´Nothing Compares to you´(by Amy and her backing singers).

--Rebecca 'Becs' Richardson

Day 21: Biking Bad

Well I dunno, but Zak says this is Breaking Bad territory. It's true, perhaps, that the most interesting thing to see is vast and sparsely decorated landscape. Zak says it's more depressing than that. A lot of the others concur. 

As for myself, I like it when the vista opens out for a second--I feel my edges melt. The rest of the time, or all the time before that particular moment, I've been very much within. The way out of Pleiku is by rolling hill and you, the motorbikes, the cars and coppers and trucks and things all point pretty much in the same direction (unlike in Saigon) and you go, go go go. The highs aren't so high if you peddle your bum off on the downhill. Your speed gets up and you have to watch out for the trucks. The air is clean though and that couples with the speed and a nicely planned central reservation to make you feel healthy and alive as you dart through, looking out for trucks and perhaps a mate who has fallen behind. I breathe quickly through this bit, eyes everywhere.
The city, as it were, gives way to countryside but the undulations continue. It's fun to just ride fast. Then the Breaking Bad bit. It's uphill for the last 20 km. People seem high from the ride at the last stop before the up but also a lot of us are ill. Not me at this point but I've shared my drinks bottle so I know it's coming. The sun starts to blaze so I throttle right back for the last 20. I stop in the shade, it's hotter than on the bike. I can see Zak--apparently just stopped for a while, I find out later he rode into what he thinks is a cloud of spores and was coughing his lungs up. 
I get out of the sticky shade that I got into only 10 minutes after the rest stop and peddle up the gentle incline. I catch up to some of the others as the gradient starts to bite. In front of me, big strong Travis, with his ridiculous orange helmet and Belleville Rendezvous legs, is looking strong. Then a change to an awkwardly low gears sees him wobble to the side of the road. He stops, he pukes or something, I ask if he's alright as I continue to climb. No answer. I slow. "Do you need anything?" He replies 'yes' and keeps riding. 
Grace is at the side of the road resting her shoulder. Storm joins me at yet another rest stop. When Travis catches up he says he'll just carry on, thanks. Storm has the flu. We rest and drink and set off just as the sun decides to emerge from behind a big cloud. She's happy to continue so I take up the rear and we go slowly. And it's great. I can see everything. There's more green now, more children to shout hello then run away or collapse into themselves under the weight of their own shyness which only manifests after they've realised that they've just successfully greeted a foreigner in a foreign language. Dark skin and big smiles. Small boys on motorbikes made of pure rust. Red dirt. Driving machines to make Mario and Luigi proud. Oxen. More uphill. But slowly does it for sure. And slowly and surely, just like that, we arrive.

--Bianca Kubairsingh

Day 20: Who We Ride For

Day 20 of H2H is now complete with just a shade over 600KM left until we hit Saigon. Today's ride was a 50 kilometer jaunt from Kon Tum to Pleiku - a cakewalk for the mountain hardened team who took the smattering of gentle inclines in their stride. By noon everyone was either sampling culinary offerings of Pleiku (which include peanut M+Ms) or catching up on some shut-eye at the hotel.
At 3.30PM a kindly nun equipped with a minivan arrived to transport us to the Thien An orphanage one of the beneficiaries of this year's ride.
For many, myself included - this visit was the most poignant part of the trip so far. The orphanage cares for 102 children, 7 of whom are severely disabled. Most of the children are from ethnic minorities who would otherwise be sidelined by the Vietnamese education system. They are schooled in both Vietnamese and English and it was heartwarming to see extra-curricular pursuits including music, dance and art being keenly encouraged.
The orphanage is in an idyllic location set amongst coffee plantations. We were greeted by a throng of enthusiastic children holding balloons. The children seemed to enjoy their visitors very much and indeed the entertainment provided! Highlights were: the sing along to 'Bohemian Rhapsody' orchestrated by Deema and Eli; Jimmy's magic tricks (performed in his signature banana costume) and a game of tag which left the main instigators Travis, Bianca and Keith quite exhausted.
The nuns treated us to a delicious supper of spaghetti bolognese, salad, casserole, freshly baked bread and a selection of cheeses. Finally we were invited to a series of costumed dance performances the children had prepared. These were a mix of Vietnamese folklore as well a dance pop performance one group of girls had choreographed themselves. The happy and safe environment that is fostered by the nuns at Thien An shone through. It was truly an uplifting spectacle.

--Oliver Southern

Day 19: Dance of the Butterflies

This ride marked the departure from the challenging yet relatively cooler and scenic mountains to the rolling hills of the central highlands.  Our ride was 63.8km and had an elevation gain of 453m (per my Strava App) so relatively easier though a warm 32°C.  I must say I will miss the mountains as they were the best segment of the trip.
In Plei Can we fueled up on Banh Xeo and Banh Mi to take us to our next destination.
The ride was relatively smooth and as usual I spent my effort near the lead trying to keep up with Oliver and stopping every 20-30km for sugar cane or juice of coconut.  The landscape reminds me of southern France because of the dryer conditions and the ocher in the soil.  The terrain was just rolling hills for the most part and the weather was hot and sunny--not the worst we had experienced.  There were only some towns to pass through, one having a war memorial, and pepper plantations became more numerous.  The butterflies started showing up en masse as well. It became surreal at times passing through swarms of medium sized butterflies (wear eye protection and keep mouth shut).

I gave up all hope of catching up when I had a flat tire (I can only catch up if I have a significant straight on downhill segment). Two Vietnamese men stopped by the road side on their motorbike to help me change my inner tube. I have been impressed with similar acts of friendly kindness. I had run over fine wires causing two pin hole punctures.  This has been my first and only flat so far.  I should thank the team leader for recommending Gator Skins by Continental; they have held up better in these conditions.
Having replaced my innertube, I headed back on the road and said goodbye to my helpful friends.  I caught up with Rhiannon who had passed me while changing my tire.  We were only about 10km away from the hotel so we stuck together and followed Google maps to the hotel. Somehow we were the first to arrive so either others stopped or we took a short cut.  I immediately felt comfortable in the Kon Tum and the hotel Thinh Vuong. The hotel had a boutique feel to it and was set up like a proper hotel with hair dryers, towels, clean and all we can ask for. The town itself was also clean and neighborhood like. A land mark in the town is the wooden church. Food options in this town were better than most.

--Andrew Bachmann

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Day 18: The Beast Rears Its Head

We woke early today. A sorry excuse for a cockrel began his morning call but got choked half way through. “Cock a dood chchchc”. He then repeated this until I could take no more and dragged myself out of bed. Bianca was already up and commenting on the view from our balcony. Kham Duc is a nice little town, nestled amongst the hills. We quickly inhaled our breakfast as we discussed the long day that lay ahead, including a 18k grade 1 climb.

The rising sun cast sleepy shadows across the road as we rode in single file out of town and into battle. We had heard scary stories about this grade 1 monster that must be defeated before we could get to our beer and our beds. We are, in general, more confident in our mountain slaying abilities since Hue, having left a string of beaten beasts in our wake. But this one was to be a tougher kill.
The beginning of our ride was nice and easy. The road was in good condition, the air cool, and the rolling hills just steep enough to help our battle worn bodies wake up. It’s slightly disorientating to only fully wake up as you pedal past screaming children and foreign, ever changing surroundings. The clouds hanging around the mountain tops and the early morning light add a strange dream like quality to the scenery. The views of the valleys to our left were truly spectacular, if surreal. Less like a real life view and more like the set of primary school play, each depth-adding piece of cardboard painted by a different student. The most talented child’s at the front, a lush, life-like forest scene. The interlocking pieces degrading in detail and colour until you get to the dunce of the art class’s grey-blue smudge of mountain on the distant horizon. Is that a real place? Is that our monster mountain?. We cycled on.
I knew our beast awaited at roughly the 18 kilometer mark. However, I had no way of telling how far I had come. The whole “only waking up as you cycle through mountains” thing has a way of messing with your biological clock. Also, I’m not sure if I have any real understanding of distance/time/space or the relation between. So I had been on my bike for an unknown amount of time when I heard our behemoths battle cry - the screeching of truck’s brakes as they come down something really steep. I cycled around a bend. This must be it. Attack! But it was over too quickly and the road plateaued. I caught up with Grace and Storm at the DHL van. “Is this it?” “I think this is it” “Look up there” “It gets worse?”. We carried on puffing and panting our way up hill. We stopped for fizzy drinks near a waterfall in the belly of the beast. “Another 2k.” “Are you sure?” “Don’t get your hopes up”.
Our beast was resilient and clung on for another few kilometres. On a few occasions we thought it was finally dead as we began to coast downhill. But then it would rear another ugly head of ascent. Finally, we felt confident our grade 1 monster was really defeated and cycled on with big, delirious smiles on our faces.
At about 50k we stopped in a little town and got some coconuts, nuoc mia and fresh fruit from the market. We expressed our surprise at having already completed the toughest part of the day. Now all we had to do was finish. But then the sun came out. It got hot. We were tired. We were not expecting the hills that rolled between us and our finish line. About 18k away from Plei Can we stopped again for some cold drinks and to get out of the sun. We lay in hammocks and complained about how little we wanted to get back on our bikes. For me, mentally, the following 18k were amongst the most difficult of the ride so far. My legs were heavy. I was tired. Each time we went over a bump in the road I felt like my wrist was going to shatter. I really wanted the day to end and cursed out loud each time we turned a corner to see another stinky hill. Mr. Sexytime, Keith, kept me company as I grumbled and moaned and sighed my way up and down the rolling hills.
Just after seeing the 3k sign we found Grace on the side of the road. Her chain had become jammed. After scaring away some well-meaning but clueless road workers determined to pull Grace’s chain off we rang the support van. Unfortunately, it was 40k back. The DHL van sped out from the hotel and was with us in minutes. When it was clear that no one had an idea what to do they moved towards putting Grace’s bike in the van. Not so fast boys! After 100k, a grade 1 climb and hours in the sun Grace was not prepared to spend the last 3k in the DHL van. And so, in solidarity, we began walking our bikes up the hill.
If there's anything more perplexing to the locals then a group of foreigners in spandex cycling past in the mid day’s sun it’s a group of foreigners in spandex glumly pushing their bikes in the mid day’s sun. However the bike gods were not through with us yet. Attempting to coast her bike down a little hill Grace’s chain miraculously fixed itself and we rode together into town.
Cue cheering and victory screams. A little walk around town led us to the best roadside banh xeo we have ever had (and also the most expensive). By early evening those of who were not already in bed were struggling to keep their eyes open. A quick meeting-less decision was made to leave early the next day. And we stumbled off to bed, battered, bruised and glowing in the knowledge that, no matter what is thrown at us on this ride, we always come out on top.

--Amy McInerney

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Day 17: Jimmy Tells A Story

A special treat on our rest day, here's Jimmy McGee's tale "Cycling Vietnam: The Hardest Roads":

Day 16: Waterfalls, Determination, and Singing

The mountains this morning were soo gorgeous. I felt like I was in munchkin land with solitary lollipop trees each poking up very straight, tall and luscious from the misty hillsides. Oh, the mist! It created a curtain between each hillside, and played with the sunshine, creating all sorts of visual delights which made me stop and stare a few times just to say "WOW".

About half way through the ride, most of the cyclists were gathered together at a roadside waterfall where we drank refreshments, took a dip and generally chatted nonsense. I, unfortunately, died. Ironically I was singing the line 'you can take my breath away' (from the song 'Hero' by the legendary Enrique Iglesias) when Zak slit my throat with an ice cube over a river (via our ongoing game of 'Assassin').

Not too long after having set off, I was stopped by what can apparently only be described as a 'tantrum' (this description was offered by the tantrum-er herself). I wasn't there to witness it, but after flying off her bike due to a rogue waterbottle going under the tire, Deema grabbed her helmet, threw it on the floor and stomped her feet, ADAMANT that this wasn't going to stop her riding.

And she was right! After being consoled by 'teacher mode' Eli, she was ready for the road again. The bike wasn't so lucky and so after lots of trying and tinkering by Hoa, Oli and Khang (and lots of watching and eating peanuts by others...), the bike got put in the van and Deema rode onwards on a different bike.

On the outskirts of town we caught up with everyone in a cafe next to the river with hammocks (my fave). We ate up and everyone rode on to the hotel to get clean. I decided it would be a much better idea not to move and so stayed an extra hour or so napping in hammocks with Becs and Mai - so good.

Back at the hotel, people were starting to gather in Amy and Bianca's room where we played ukulele for ages. Jimmy shared his originals tunes with us, some songs being cuter than others...

All in all I'd say it was an easy-going day, with the delightful stops of the day reigning supreme in my memory.

--Rhiannon Marcelo-Ripley