“It’s just me.” I was 2 km from the top of Spring Pass, a nearly 15 km climb across a mountain range at the edge of the Laos border. It was the top of the Vietnamese jungle, and my guide had disappeared ahead of me some time before. I downshifted to the smallest front cog and felt the spurl of empty chain as it slipped off. I tipped to the side and managed to unclip my cleat before hitting the ground.
“It’s just me.” I sort of coughed out a little laugh as I said that out loud and righted the bike, clicked off a surge of resentment that Linh had left me behind. Technically it was his job to be there when my chain fell off. But really, this was my ride, my pilgrimage. I know how to do this. I do this all the time at home. I flipped the bike upside down and fiddled with the pedals, the chain, the cogs, lifted, spun. I’m a warrior. Stopped to look at the unfolding, green green endless hills below me. Got back on the saddle — my seat, brought from home — and managed to find the balance to get the bike going and cleats clicked back in on the uphill. As much of an accomplishment as replacing the chain.
It was day 5 of a 6 day bike trip through the central highlands of Vietnam, from Dalat in the centre to Hoi An on the coast. Just me, the guide Linh and the support driver Bo, a gentle retired forestry worker who borrowed Linh’s bike at lunchtime and rode around in circles to get some exercise. They normally only do this trip for two people or more, but I was traveling alone in Vietnam, friends had done this ride a couple of years earlier and it had caught my fancy. I booked it by myself and was paying for a ghost rider. My 50th birthday present to myself.
Coffee flowers smell like hibiscus, I learn, and the smell suffuses the air as you ride through the plantations. Women cover their faces with brightly patterned cloth to protect from car exhaust and the sun. A wild pig chopped in half can be sold by the side of the road by a woman holding a baby. The jungle destroyed in the war has regrown and obliterated almost all remnants, leaving the occasional reminder like an old airstrip near Kon Tum dotted with goats.
We started in the backpacker town of Dalat and wound our way through roads that always seemed to lead back to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the fabled route that kept the northern Vietnamese army supplied during the Vietnam American War. Now it’s the main route from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south, and is dotted with monuments that just hint at the intensity of fighting here, the people hiding in the jungles, the hills, eventually defeating the Americans. I was surprised at how alive the 525 km we rode felt 40 years after five decades of war, most people engaged in more than basic survival.
Vietnamese hipster youth can create a sweet tangerine fort of a cafe with leather menus and watermelon smoothies in the middle of an unremarkable town. The burn of exhaust in your lungs feels like smoking a pack of Mexican cigarettes, comes off brown on the cloth when you wipe your ears after a shower.
In the first few moments I was with Linh and Bo, as I was testing the bike I was renting, I crashed when I couldn’t get my cleats unclicked. I wasn’t used to the bouncy suspension of a mountain bike, and this one was a bit too big for me. The first aid kit came out and I had scabby road rash from zero. For the first four days of the trip, I rode in running shoes, not wanting to obsess about stopping.
I knew that crash marked me as a lightweight to Linh, who was really not that interested in me anyway. He got married four weeks before our trip, and was excited about having a suitcase packed “for western Tet” to go and introduce his wife to his extended family. His mother is 3 years older than I am. He got me where I was going safely and did his best to answer my many questions about the area, and we enjoyed the dinners we ate together. But he wasn’t much of a riding companion. He smoked on every break, and looked at his phone while we were riding. “You know, in Canada you can get a $1000 fine for texting while you’re driving,” I said, in front of the tanks at the monument at Charlie Hill. He laughed and smoked.
Vietnamese children smile and yell happy HELLOs from the side of the road. Busses, trucks, motorbikes, kids on bicycles, the occasional car, all come roaring up behind, blasting their horns. Vietnamese is a tonal language — the same word means something different when spoken with varying tones — and every howling vehicle has its own dialect. Unrelenting hooooonk from huge busses whizzing through villages. Trucks passing slower vehicles bear down directly at you in your lane, howling at you. Multi-note warnings from trucks, some sounding like the yelp of a small dog. I learn quickly that some of the horns just mean there’s someone behind you, don’t change trajectory, and others seem designed to trigger shudders through your limbic system so you’ll toss the bike into the gutter and jump off the road. The blasts are unrelenting, and you have to hold your course, have faith you won’t meet your death in the path of a Vietnamese cattle truck.
We stopped for lunch the first day at a small restaurant in a tiny town, garlicky fish and spinach and rice that would not sit well as I rode through the hot sun. I ate a banana and drank half a warm coke, Linh smoked. After lunch, we got into the van to go to the top of a long pass. “Do you ever ride this?” I asked. “Only strong strong riders. And they are fixing road, dust, too dangerous.” As we drove, I was antsy at not riding the climb. Smooth road the whole way. I knew the distance between Dalat and Hoi An was 700 km and we were meant to drive about 175 km of it, but the completist in me was testy. “Why didn’t we ride some of this?” I asked at the top, a little more impatient than I wanted to be. The downhill sprawled with gravel and construction. I knew Linh was putting me into the category of older people who get tired and ride in the van — and I think he didn’t want to ride it himself. “I would have enjoyed this downhill a lot more if we’d ridden some of the up,” I said. “That tells you something about me. Please don’t make my decisions for me. I’m slow on hills but I’m strong.” I made my tone gentle but I felt fierce, even as the first day’s 101 km tested my limits.
On day 3, as we rode through rubber plantations, rolling up and down, I asked Linh if I could ride in front for a while. “All I’m really seeing is your back,” I said, with, I hoped, humour. I took the front position, then the next time we stopped, he fled away in front of me so far I lost him on the dusty uphill through a town. “Please don’t disappear so far ahead of me I can’t see you,” I said when I caught up to him, smoking by the side of the road. “You said you didn’t want to see my back,” he sulked. I’ve been in this relationship before, I thought, laughing. By the time I found myself alone on Spring Pass, I was happy to be riding mostly on my own, deep in my own elemental self.
At the top of Spring Pass, I caught up to Linh and Bo, and we stopped for lunch, squishy laughing cow cheese and cucumber in a baguette. Linh let the local children try out his bike. I changed a tampon by the side of a house whose tin roof was held on with rocks, then found a latrine and promptly dropped my expensive prescription sunglasses into it. I washed them off, took a slug of water, got back on the bike.
You descend from above the clouds, dark wet jungle on both sides, the road slick under smooth tires. Mist and every moment of time that has ever been or ever will be surrounds you, the edge beyond alive. One sharp stop could fly you out of this dimension into another one. Your skin dews with the cloud and hands cramp and pinch holding on. You slide into a stop on a flat, as human as you will ever be, as beyond human as you will ever be.
Day 6 is a half day of riding, through green and rolling land, eucalyptus and betel nut trees and coffee and rice paddies. Every stroke of this trip has been effort, the flats windy, the downhills unnerving, always rolling, always hot, and I pedal in the edge between mentally ticking off the kilometres left to go and never wanting to come up for air. I’m grateful for my body, for Linh and Bo, for this life. I click my watch so I can’t see the kilometres. Be here now. I am here, now. Riding.
Cate works as a consultant and teacher in the space of strategic system change in academic healthcare in Toronto, focusing on creating sustainable, socially accountable healthcare communities. She also co-leads a learning and development project for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Uganda, and takes every chance she can to explore the world. she also blogs at field poppy.wordpress.com.