I had been staring at my bike for quite a while before I realised it was missing. I had only been on the road for two days, one of which I spent riding amongst the paddy fields and limestone karst formations of Ninh Binh, but on that third day from Hanoi, before I could even begin to explore the parts of Vietnam and Laos I had planned many months ago, it dawned on me that the fuel bottle to my stove had disappeared. It’s a simple, bright red metal bottle that only costs a tenner but it’s also nigh on irreplaceable in this part of the world; with it went my independence, to eat and sleep anywhere I wanted and to make my own coffee which, at the time, I extravagantly could do so in three ways.
The rest of that day was spent retracing my steps from the last 48 hours in the vain hope that the bottle had fallen off my bike rather than being pinched, as I ended up bitterly assuming, by some bored kid wanting to add another trophy to his collection. Luckily this didn’t take long as all my anger was channelled to my leg muscles which, in light of the situation, wanted to work a little harder than usual. That’s the good thing about bike touring: whenever something goes wrong you can just turn any frustration you have into endorphins through the simple act of pedalling. This then leaves your head clear to come up with a contingency plan.
Mine was simple: hightail it to Bangkok. I decided to get to Vientiane, the Lao capital, and cross into Thailand where I could catch a train to Bangkok in time to meet a friend who had agreed (for the second time in 6 months) to dedicate a considerable portion of his baggage allowance to shipping my gear over to me while on holiday.
I had to skip the quiet backroads in favour of big roads; the deafening roar of passing traffic that’s drivers must have mistaken the horn for the accelerator; and a higher number on the screen of my computer at the end of the day as the sole commiseration. This was life cycling on Vietnam’s Highway 1, a road I’d never thought I’d see myself on. The flat, featureless terrain and suicidal drivers brought with them an binary of monotony and mortal terror. Luckily, again, my anger with my fellow road users was channeled to my legs and I was able to make a lot of progress during those days. Three figure numbers on my bike computer. Yay…
It was Tet and Vietnam had shut down for a a couple of days. This meant that there were some mercifully quiet days on the big roads as I made my way down to Vinh, a town that’s famous for being flattened by the Americans during the war and is therefore the equivalent in form and appeal to Coventry. Unfortunately it was also the wrong time to be stoveless and dependent on restaurants to refuel on those big ‘distance days’. Even getting water proved to be problematic. I usually drink like a fish in this heat and on one day I had been cycling for well over an hour with empty bottles before I came across one of the few shops that wasn’t closed. By the shop’s door was a big bottle that usually goes on top of a water cooler but the owner wasn’t to be seen. I wasn’t prepared to ride what could have been another hour without any water and, after a load of fruitless shouting, I helped myself. The plan was to leave some money on the counter but some guys on a motorbike turned up, also looking for the shop owner. There was definitely a sense that what I was being talked about by the new arrivals, so I felt obliged to wait and explain in person to the shopkeeper, who eventually turned up thanks to the efforts of the guys on the motorbike, who were still paying a great deal of attention to me. With this audience, I pointed to my filled-up bottles and then the the big bottle in the shop and did the usual ‘how much’ gesture and was disappointed to hear the owner answer “30,000 Dong”, about 5 times the price 2 litres of water should cost. Great, another case of being ripped off in Vietnam. I tried explaining that water was not this expensive but he then produced some bottles of water. Pointing to the big bottle only seemed to raise the price and so we went back and forth between the small and big bottles with the price fluctuating to the entertainment of the guys on the motorbike. My bottles were already filled, so there was not exactly much I could do, so I handed over the cash and left in a huff. The whole experience was yet another case of being ripped off that I heard backpackers talk about.. I took a sip of my expensive water, which seemed to have set my mouth on fire.
The penny dropped. It wasn’t ‘just another case of being ripped of by the Vietnamese’. I pulled over and spat out the rice wine the slapstick way they do on TV to the delight of the guys on the motorbike, who had been following me, waiting to see me realise what they had known from the very beginning. The shop owner gave me the right price but I ordered the wrong thing. I was so caught up with trying not to be ripped off that being ripped off had become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I simply expected to be overcharged and entered any transaction with my defences up. I was too quick to jump to the conclusion that I was being conned, leaving no room to consider that I had just filled my bottles with a clear, odourless local moonshine.
Lesson learnt. Until later in the day, when I was genuinely ripped off. So it goes.
As I left the main road and headed for the mountains that separated Vietnam and Laos, I wanted to summarise my time in this country by saying I was rained on, ripped off, and stolen from. But there were times of generosity, that stopped me from arriving at that conclusion. During one night, when the incessant rain had stopped and I could camp, I was woken up by the headlights of several scooters, the owners all had celebrated New Year a little too much and who insisted on inviting me to their nearby house to continue drinking. One was particularly obnoxious, and every time I politely declined the invitation just shouted “Vietnam, Tet! Tet, Vietnam!” a little louder. They returned half an hour later sans “Tet Vietnam” guy and instead with gifts of rice cakes wrapped in banana leafs and several cans of coke. Without a stove, these proved to be a vital lifeline for the rest of my time in the country while many of the shops remained closed. Just as you want to arrive at bitter conclusions about a place, the generosity of strangers always ruins such simplicity.
What was clear and simple, however, was the contrast between Vietnam and Laos. Riding up the vietnamese side I could once again barely see two meters in front of me, thanks to low lying rain clouds. I was waiting at the border post for the rain to die down until one of the guards came up to me and suggested I moved on not because hanging around at a border checkpoint was forbidden but because, as he told me, it’s sunny 10km down the road. He wasn’t wrong and within half an hour I had shed all my waterproof gear and, for the first time since China, had sunglasses and a smile on my face. I was on a quiet road, with beautiful scenery in a country renown for it’s laid back nature whose people, as the next few days unfolded, never tried to rip you off even though I was never 100% certain I was buying the right thing. The few days I cycled through Laos were a complete joy and it was a shame I couldn’t have seen more of the country, as I originally intended. In contrast, I was desperate to get out of Vietnam after a relatively negative experience (but without leading to any conclusions about the place). If I remember my English GCSE correctly, you couldn’t get a closer example of pathetic fallacy than the contrast in the weather at that border crossing and my attitudes to each country.
Once again, it seems the South East Asia leg of this trip hasn’t really began in earnest yet. So I decided to get my bike a complete overhaul int he legendary BokBok Bike shop in Bangkok while I crashed my friends holiday in Koh Samui. The plan for the next few months changed remarkably,too, thanks to discovering Japan has a rainy season. From Bangkok, I’ll be heading south, with time only to explore Thailand and Malaysia properly instead of trying to fit in Myanmar and doing all three badly. This time, I hope there will be no more interruptions and false starts, and less angry pedalling.