Three weeks had quickly passed by in the south of Vietnam, leaving us with only a week on our visa. We needed to cross into Laos half way up Vietnam, however that border was about 1500km away from Saigon. It seemed inevitable that we would be putting ourselves on a series of long distance buses…
I've competed in many long distance cycling events in the past, and calculated that the shortest possible time I could cycle 1000km up to Hoi An would be about 96 hours (four days). I would ride Tan-nay-nay on my lonesome, with all of our gear so that Kat with her recovering back, would have as light load as possible on her 24 hour bus ride.
I advertised the race on Facebook, and seemed to get about 75% of the support. In order to win, I would have to cycle 250km per day on our tandem bike weighing between 50-60kg through the mountainous region of Vietnam. It was going to be a close race ONLY if everything worked in my favour.
At 4am Kat was up cooking my last porridge for a while. By 5am we were having final hugs; this was the FIRST time in almost two years that we were setting off apart. With emotions running high, and tears in our eyes, I put the pedal down and rode out of Saigon.
The first 100km were relatively flat and avoided the heat of the day. I had arrived to this point within five hours and was confident everything would be fine for the rest of the day. I purchased a big Coca-Cola to keep up the sugars, caffeine and carbs – it seems to be a bit of a wonder drink when endurance riding. I managed to shoot out of Tan Phu with 10% of the ride complete and only 5% of the time passed.
The next 100km were hell.
The first problem was the heat. After 10am, the temperature in the sun soared past 40 degrees celcius. When you're spending over 12 hours cycling under direct sunlight this hot, dehydration poses a high risk. Every pedal stroke gets harder and harder as your body tries to keep itself cool and composed.
The second problem were the short, steep climbs. On a graph they looked like nothing, but on a fully-loaded tandem touring bike they were everything. My average speed up many of the climbs was well under 10km/h, and in combination with the incredibly hot sun (which made cycling extremely difficult) the air simply wasn't moving fast enough past my sweat to keep me cool. Not only this, but there seemed like hundreds of these short climbs which weren't doing wonders for my legs!
The third problem were the road works. Long sections of dusty, dry, bumpy road made cycling far slower than it should've been. I had my throat filled with dust over and over, and to throw fuel on the fire, trucks and buses were passing within mere inches bringing visibility to almost nothing. Then with dust in my eyes, they would blare their horns to 'let you know they're coming' – the horns were deafening.
By 1pm, I couldn't take it anymore. Three hours had passed and I'd only done 28km. I pulled up at a roadside stall which had 20 hammocks set up in the shade for people to relax in with an ice cold drink, while the heat of the day beat down. The sun was still hot two hours after I put my feet up in the hammock, but I'd never make it 250km this day if I didn't get back out there.
One regret of this challange is that I couldn't really stop and spend time with people. So many kind Vietnamese gestured that we should have a drink together at the next cafe, or wanted to stop for a chat, but I had to keep my head down and my momemtum going.
By nightfall, the temperature was finally comfortable again. It was SO MUCH easier riding without the sun, which seriously made me consider whether I should go nocturnal. Up one of the climbs in the dark, while I was going approximately 7km/h, a loud BANG came from not more than 5m in front. It sounded like a cannon going off, but was actually a truck tyre exploding on a vehicle coming down the hill! With ringing in my ears, I soldiered on to a restaurant with lots of trucks parked out the front, as this is always an indicator that the food is good (and it was!).
Most people cannot grapple with why I would be on a tandem bike. Villagers would press and twist the carbon belts with intrigue and often try to swing a leg over, before realising the bike weighs a tonne and quickly jump off. People love to look at the Garmin GPS, as well as the maps and notes in the plastic sleeve on my handlebar bag. Upon departing the restaurant, the owner came out and even jumped on the back of the bike. I could sense a trend occurring as the guy behind was laughing and cheering.
By days end, I had covered 220km over nearly 18 hours (including rest), which unfortunately wasn't quite enough to get me to the quarter way point.
Saddle sores! Argh! I hadn't really noticed saddle discomfort on the first day, but it was certainly noticeable on the second. The long hours in the saddle the day previously, in combination with a few weeks off the bike had really made a mess of my backside. I had only brought along nappy rash cream which unfortunately didn't do much to help.
I decided to try and get off the roadworks-heavy road, in favour for some quiet country back roads. This was a blessing in terms of less dust, less traffic and less horns, but still had its fair share of rough sections.
A few hours in, in a very remote area, a soldier waved me down. He wanted his photo taken with me and it HAD to be perfect! The soldier then waved down a passing motorbike and got the poor guy to take photos of us together. Every time the photo was taken, the soldier would look super disappointed, some firm words would be said to the motorcyclist and we would be posing again. This went on for 10 minutes until the soldier was satisfied with his picture!
The road was finally becoming nice. Previously, there were dusty fields and houses, but now there were trees on both sides and a bit of shade. This didn't last long, as the detour ended and it was back to trucks and dust. I chose not to ride between 12-3pm which gave me time to catch up on missing sleep and respite from the extreme heat. While I was cycling, the Garmin showed an almost unbelievable temperature of 51.7 degrees, which although wasn't the air temperature, was the temperature in the direct sunlight!
The highlight of the day was when someone handed me a mango out of the window of their van – it's small things like this which, even though you're doing it pretty tough on the road, still put a big smile on your face.
Late in the evening and after another 220km day on Tan-nay-nay the tandem, I met a girl who not only spoke good English (very rare in rural Vietnam), but who made me two wonderful bowls of Pho (noodle soup). She gave me directions to the nearest hotel, however after cycling in circles for 20 minutes, I simply couldn't find the place. To my surprise, she later pulled up next to me on her motorbike and asked if I needed help finding the hotel. Yes! As you can imagine, I was really knackered from the ride and needed to get some rest, so unfortunately declined her request to hang out somewhere. It is these time constraints that allow one to miss the best experiences of travel.
The saddle sores are WORSE! Argh! How is this possible? Sitting on the bike seat is so painful that nothing else enters my brain for the whole next 220km stretch. That isn't entirely true, I did think about: how much I didn't want to be cycling in the heat, how much I missed Kat, how many white/yellow butterflies were getting about (it must've been millions), how horrible the roads were, how dusty the roads were, how much I hated filling up the tube that had a slow leak, and how barron the landscape was (the Americans sprayed Agent Orange right across this region to kill the trees and hence expose the Vietnamese forces).
I'm not ashamed at all about saying that my eyes welled up with tears on numerous occasions – the emotions were running so high while I was having such a rough time (literally) without Kat. I somehow made it past 200km, although it was no doubt the toughest day I'd had since we'd left Amsterdam in 2012. The saddle sores had meant I simply couldn't sit on the seat properly, if at all. I was even beginning to convince myself that it wasn't possible to get to Hoi An first, with over 340km left to go, some big climbs in between, horrible saddle sores and only 30 hours to get there.
While resting in a hotel I came up with a plan to give it a go. I would need as much time as possible, would swap Kat's seat for mine (to give my bum a change), would wear two layers of Lycra padded shorts and would put a double dose of nappy rash cream over my raw skin. I asked on Facebook whether people thought I could ride 340km+ over the next 24hrs, however the response was far from enthusiastic compared to just three days prior. Given my average speed of around 15km/h, I would need to ride for 22 hours out of 24 in order to make it to Hoi An in time.
With only 24 hours left, Kat was jumping on a bus to cover 1200km from Saigon to Hoi An via the coastal road. I was already two hours into the ride by this time and was feeling suprisingly more comfortable (given the saddle change and double knicks) than the previous two days. My plan was to ride 100km at a minimum and if need be, would find a local bus to take me the rest of the way.
Breakfast was at a little roadside stall in a quiet rural town. The proprietor and her one customer thought it was really funny how tall I am, standing next to me and pointing out our differences in height. They turned out to be such lovely people however, as they split the bill and paid half each! A very kind gesture from people who really didn't have much.
With a big smile on my face, I was knocking over the kilometres. The first hundred kilometres were the best I'd felt since setting off from Saigon. The roadworks had finally ceased, and the traffic volumes were really low on this road. In this region the sun was much more moderate than the days prior, so everything was actually looking good, however with well over 200km left, it was not going to be easy.
I stocked up on food and had a big feed around midday. It crossed my mind about how lucky I'd been with the street food, feeling a mild stomach ache one afternoon, but nothing that would stop me riding.
The undulating road followed a river for the next 60km and there was almost no wind. The children in the villages were all smiling and waving which certainly helps you to not get stuck in your own mind. Traditional housing spread throughout the area and I finally met my first tourists since leaving Saigon. The tourists were on motorbikes and had english speaking guides riding for them. One of the guides asked me where I was riding (Hoi An) but told me it simply wasn't possible to ride a bike there today. He seemed to think it was 230km away when my GPS was saying just 170km to go. He then started telling me that the mountain range coming would be too steep and too difficult!
Motivated by the fact that a bunch of people wouldn't believe I could do it, I pushed on. Not long later, thunder started sounding and a big rainstorm closed in. The raindrops felt amazing after the dry heat of the previous days. I pulled into a restaurant to wait out the close-by electrical storm, as I had visions of the fact that my friend Jesse Carlsson had been blown off his bike by a close striking lightning bolt!
Once the rain had reduced, I had to climb 700m in elevation with an average gradient of 10%. This was the most beautiful part of the entire ride, as the mountain road went up through many incredible valleys, however it was pretty tough going given I'd already put 180km into my legs. The odometer was telling me I wasn't riding more than 6-7km/h!
Numerous offers were made from people in villages to come inside out of the rain, but I knew I couldn't stop now. Trucks had broken down all over these steep roads, presumedly from overheating. One group had even set up a bonfire behind their semi-trailer truck to make the most of their wait. I really wanted to stop and join.
It got dark just as I was cresting the climb. I could tell that the descent was going to be stunning, but unfortunately my dynamo lights were switched on and I wasn't going to be seeing much other than a small circle of tarmac the rest of the way.
With 230km down, I stopped for dinner in a small town. I had been on the bike for more than 15 hours! A noodle soup was whipped together while I helped some children to log into a Disney account (for their iPad game) which was all in English.
Cycling out of town, the front tyre lost all of its air! Argh! It was pitch black now and all I wanted to do was get on with the distance. In less than 15 minutes I was back cycling again – it seems there was a fault in my Maxxis tube as the hole was right on the tube's seam.
The next 110km were hard. I was unsurprisingly exhausted and despite the elevation profile looking like it was going down, there certainly was a lot of up. I was riding down a quiet rural road now, with barely anything or anyone about except a giant owl that swooped towards me, perhaps curious why I was riding a tandem with four panniers along a remote section of road in Vietmam.
I stayed awake with the caffeine and sugar of my trusty friend, Coca-Cola. I had a few lay downs here and there, but knew it was dangerous to stop for too long, or even to shut my eyes. The road seemed to go forever and the kilometres didn't want to get counted. The time looked to have stopped too. The graveyard shift was getting tough!
Luckily, I was passed by a bunch of logging trucks moving along at a bit over 20km/h. These trucks gave me the motivation to keep going, as I followed behind their bright lights. The trucks set a good speed and gave me something to do, other than stare at the dark pavement. Eventually, the road became good enough for them to drive off on me, but by this time I was super close to the main north-south highway on the Vietnamese coast.
Two drunk men sat next to me 25km from the finish. It was almost 3am. They weren't all too bad to have around; they probably shared the same intrigue as the swooping owl a few hours prior. I had to stand up for the remaining kilometres as my bottom and legs needed a change – it's amazing that my backside even made it this far!
I made it! It was 3:37am when I set up our tent to sleep in a field on the outskirts of Hoi An, after cycling 342km over the last 23 hours. Tan-nay-nay had made it 1000km through the mountains with all of her luggage from Saigon to Hoi An!
I was sitting at our hotel by 6am the next morning looking pretty smug when Kat arrived. We shared a big hug and were both surprised by how much we had to catch up on after only 96 hours apart!
You can find some scenes from the ride in our Vietnamese Film!