By Cressida Blumson, CARE Australia’s Key Partnerships Officer and Vietnam Cycle Challenge participant
Today I shouted ‘I am powerful!’ after completing a 10-kilometre mountain climb, to have Justine, one of the other challenge participants, respond, ‘I am sore!’.
It’s no wonder that she’s sore – today we rode a whopping 80 kilometres from Hue to Danang. Think Melbourne to Woodend, only hotter, with less bitumen.
It would have all felt impossible if we weren’t encouraged along by the chorus of ‘hallo, hallo’s coming at us from every angle. There is nothing more uplifting than bumping your way along a dusty road, in 28-degree heat, and being serenaded by children at every turn. Their little voices floated up at us through the trees, from their doorsteps, from the side of the roads – high-fiving us as we went.
It put the oomph back into or legs, that’s for sure.
Before attempting our uphill climb, we discussed over a plate of delicious fried noodles how wonderful it was to have made our way by bike. I declared that I was never travelling again unless it was by bike, because it’s so much more intimate. We are the only foreigners in sight as we roll through village after village.
I regretted my comment halfway up, but we were rewarded for our efforts by a glorious downhill jaunt. With the wind in our helmets, I forgot my regrets and swore once again that travel by bike was the way to go.
Justine provided some comic relief once we’d finally reached the other side of the pass, by demonstrating the correct way to approach photography and promoptly toppling head-first into a rice-paddy irrigation ditch.
Our arrival in Hoi An was most welcome – it is one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever visited – the perfect refresher for the next leg!
Yesterday was filled with the sights and sounds of Vietnam that we’ve come to know and love, as we made our way from Hoi An (after a day’s rest, or should I say shopping) to Quang Ngoai.
As usual, people of all ages sang out their hallos as we passed through village after village, all surrounded by the lush green of the ever-present rice paddy.
A break for lunch was a simple affair of omelettes, french baguettes – a relic of the French colonial era – tomatoes, cheese and cucumber, tucked into with gusto by all! It was particularly nice to feast on this simple picnic by the beach, our fist glimpse of the Vietnamese coast.
From there we ventured to the very moving and sombre My Lai massacre memorial. Having experienced, in these few short days, the incredible warmth and hospitality of the Vietnamese people, it was harrowing to consider the trauma and sadness that had passed before us. The tone of the memorial, while incredibly sad, also highlighted post-war reconciliations.
Unfortunately, I was struck down by a bug I had picked up and was unable to complete the last 8 kilometres of the ride to our hotel.
Feeling quite ill and, well, pretty embarrassed, I convalesced at the hotel in preparation for the big 100-kilometre ride, kicking off at 7 am the following day. Everyone was early to bed with the thought of undulating hills (100 kilometres of them) permeating their dreams.
My pre-departure comment this morning: ‘Everyone here is so friendly, it’s giving me little nuggets of warmth in my stomach,’ to which Justine responded, ‘That’s the bacteria talking’.
With hydralyte in hand, our brave and fearless team set off for our biggest day of riding yet.
The impression was formed that Vietnam was actually raised from the sea on one big giant rice paddy, and the cities and villages that we were rolling through must have very soggy foundations. Everywhere we looked we were treated to a feast of patchwork-quilt green, against a backdrop of misty mountains – not bad for a Friday jaunt on the bike.
Just before breaking for a rest and a Vietnamese coffee (mud consistency atop condensed milk – delicious), we were helped up the hill by two women aged 50 and 63. Embarrassing but true. These same women came and joined us for our coffee break, stopping mid-sentence to jiggle our thighs and stomachs and marvel at how ‘healthy’ we are. While potentially very offensive in Australia, here it is a compliment to comment on weight, particularly if you’re carrying a little extra, as it it’s a sign of prosperity.
Leaving behind our complimentary hosts, we carried on down the other side of the mountains (we were driven up this time, but if you’d seen the height and incline of them you would have agreed it would be an impossible task to ride up!), transgressing from drizzly and misty, to hot and arid. A stunning transformation.
More undulating hills, kilometre after kilometre, and some hoarse ‘hallo’s later and we’d reached our goal. With weary legs, but cheerful grins, we’ve thrown down some food, and as I tap away, people are making their way to bed.
I can’t be sure where I met my mate e-coli, but we became firm friends post the epic 100-kilometre leg – perhaps he thought it was his time for a holiday and he preferred I lay flat and contemplate the ceiling rather than participate in the last bike leg through the coffee plantations?
Whatever his motivations, he won out and lay still I did.
The rest of the crew, however, powered on for the final 45-kilometre ride, at first accompanied by the fragrant scent of flowering coffee plants and finally to the pungent aroma of burning rubbish. Never a dull ride in Vietnam! I was told it is was a gruelling last leg, but despite that, everyone dismounted with a look of great satisfaction (and some relief).
What a fearsome group of riders – we were told we’d beat the Inspired Adventures time record for the 100-kilometre leg and, well, their efforts on the last day left me in no doubt that their cycling prowess was only matched by their ability to raise a great deal of money for it!
As a group, everyone really pulled together and it was nice to reflect on what we can achieve when we put in the hard yards (all 450 kilometres of them!) and work together for a common goal. I’m extremely proud to have been a part of such a successful group of women, peddling together for the same cause.
We’re all looking forward to the CARE project visits tomorrow and I’m sure it will be inspiring and moving for all as they contemplate exactly what their efforts have achieved.
It’s particularly exciting to be visiting the projects on International Womens Day, which is actually a public holiday in Vietnam. Happy IWD to everyone back at home on behalf of the 2011 Vietnam Cycle Challenge team!