Ups and downs

“How’s the cycle ride going, Jane?”  It’s been a constant refrain that I value, buoyed that caring friends want to know.  So,each morning as I begin my ride, I’m clear,” Tonight is the day I’ll write.”   I compose a story to share as I ride.  It’s what I’ve always done, capturing the moment before it fades for ever into the broad tangled weave of life.    Yet for the past week  each time I’ve arrived at the new destination, I’ve been content but tired beyond measure, hot beyond imagining. It’s a level of exhaustion I didn’t anticipate.  A few hours ago, like every evening, my worldview had shrunk: a cold shower, foraging for a cold beer and food, lying down to rest.

Now it’s 3am.  I found I was lying here half awake, musing again on why I haven’t written anything. The room is draped with yesterday’s set of clothes, handwashed in the basin, and my phone is recharging, suspended so precariously from my adaptor/USB plug arrangement from the one rickety powerpoint that to break its fall, I’ve left my backpack below.    “No time like the present”, I tell myself and allot an hour of precious sleep time to share how like the road, the ride is one of ups and downs. Like life.

Yesterday for example. By 7am I’m breakfasted and on the road. Its Day 9, time to leave the historic town of Dien Bien Phu and cross the border into Laos.  I’m feeling remarkably perked up after a 2 night stayover where I’ve enjoyed a pool, read a Kindle download of Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’, visited the magnificent museum, and tried to understand the reality of war through the hindsight of history.  It was the battle here in 1954, where Ho Chi Minh finally defeated the French with a substantial victory, that led to the end of what Vietnamese term ‘the French War’ (for the French, it was the war for ‘Indochine’). I now understand how this led to the uneasy international agreement for the partition into the two independent states of north and south Vietnam.  I’m clearer now on how the ‘American War’ developed in the aftermath,  have downloaded ‘The Sympathiser’ , a novel by Vietnamese American professor Viet Thanh Nguyen about this latter war, but for now it’s time to move on.

My rendezvous with my family is in 5 days time and there is a 1200m road pass in the way today. I ask a man in the hotel carpark to take my photo.  ” I look rather well”, I think as I check the picture and thank him, “Clean, fit and ready for anything”!  The feeling continues through the first 20km. Its a flat ride through villages reminiscent of childhood holidays to France, tiled roofs, locals out working the fields in the cool of the morning, tree-lined straight roads.  I’m definitely in Asia, the rice paddies and the water buffaloes grazing the harvested paddocks are unique, but muse on how the French must have felt so at home here in the 1950’s.   I am reminded of the ‘Determined to Fight, Determined to Win’ rallying flag of Ho Chi Minh’s inspirational leadership, and I reflect that buried within each of the schoolchildren I pass are family traumas from recent occupation and wars.  I’m aware of my own sadness.  I’m leaving today this fascinating country of such depth and culture and beauty, that has offered me so much, taking with me just a skimmed surface view gained as a cycling tourist.

Such reflections come to an abrupt halt as I reach the first escarpment. Its only 9am but there is no shade on this hill and it must already be well over 30 C.  Between the heat, the weight of my luggage and the gradient,  my leg muscles fail to apply themselves to the task. I stop to mop my face and drink water.  It’s the first of many times today that I will get off and walk…

How in a few lines – the hour is up and I need the rest of my sleep for today’s 1200m pass – can I describe yesterday?  Heat and dry forest leaves, dust, always dust; hugging the roadside as container trucks, barely faster than me on this gradient, pass each other on what seems a one lane road;  my fascination with the smoke in the forest below, a forest fire in its infancy.    There hasn’t been any passing traffic for an hour.  I can’t go any faster but I’m a foreigner pedalling uphill on a small bicycle and I now feel very alone.  “In an emergency, could I shelter under my bike, drape it with my towel and wet it?” but I’ve already finished my 750ml water bottle and am part way through my 1.25l back up, carefully filled with water I’d boiled before I left. I’m focused now on the wind direction and its shifts. Its an uncomfortable hour, terror intermixed with haste, as I wend my way up, cycling where I can, pushing through the dust and heat.

Like all Vietnamese government offices, the border crossing closes from 11.30am-1pm. I arrive at 11.35am.  Who cares? I’ve made it. I’m hot, dusty, exhausted and there’s  35 km still to go before the guest house but I’m here and right now, that’s enough.   I’m settling in the shade to wait when a truck driver comes over, and hands me a bottle of water.  Its the constant heart of all such journeys:  the kindness of strangers.



  1. The ever self challenging Jane.
    I so enjoyed this moment of capturing your journey thus far.
    Absolutely inspiring.
    Be safe great woman. We miss you. Xx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s