It started outside a movie theatre with a text message: “Be there in 10 minutes. Also, I have a proposal for you”. Over dinner, my friend explained his idea to bike 300km of the Ho Chi Minh Highway in three days. His pitch had phrases like “wing it” and “villages or bust”. It was a perfect invitation.
The archetypal road trip story has been experienced and told countless times. There is a road, a vehicle and a traveller. There are inevitable lessons learned. Internal and external struggles are confronted. With a little luck, the protagonist survives the journey a changed person, but unscathed.
In some ways this story is no different.
The Ho Chi Minh Highway runs north to south, just parallel of highway 1A. It is currently a two lane, 1,234.5km stretch from Hanoi to Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands, travelling approximately along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (though never into Laos).
A seven-speed Trek bike. I know nothing else technical about it. It was grey with a basket.
I am 28 years old. I have not ridden a bicycle since I was 23, when my bike was stolen in Philadelphia.
At 7.30am, armed with a lightweight backpack, a patch kit, a first aid kit, 12 Snickers bars, new bike shorts, a poncho and a helmet, I loaded my bike onto the bus. By 9.30am, we were at the head of the Ho Chi Minh highway. I needed a final preparatory step: a cafe. As soon as we were sat down, the sky split open and spilled a downpour.
After an hour, the rain stopped. We mounted our bikes. I peddled, staring straight ahead at my fellow traveller, with the gorgeous landscape that typifies the region in my peripheral vision. My muscles warmed up. After the first 10km I started to imagine the highway as an analogy for my early twenties — not knowing what I was getting myself into; hoping the person ahead of me would be a good guide; wanting to stop and look around, but feeling compelled to keep moving. Soon it was lunchtime.
There is nothing better than hot food after biking in the rain for several hours.
The second half of the day, the analogy and the highway continued. The rider in front of me sped ahead. Like my early twenties, there were times when I felt alone; at points I had to remind myself it wasn’t a race, to stop and rest if needed. Seeing an incline on the horizon triggered a pang of anxiety. At the top of a hill I felt triumphant. And damp.
By the evening we reached the town where we would spend the night. The only thing better than hot food is sleep.
A breakfast of juice, sticky rice and coffee — all under a lovely bright blue sky. I was stiff but looking forward to another day of scenery, introspection and peddling.
The landscape, which had been cloaked in mist before, was naked and illuminated today. It was a postcard. I biked up and down the hills, talking to myself a little bit to keep myself company. Water buffalo-drawn carts passed me. I was engulfed by a group of teenagers on electric bikes for a few minutes. But mostly I was alone, physically on the road, mentally in 2006.
Then a sharp pain shot up my right heel to my calf. The back of my ankle felt like a rubber band that had been overstretched.
At our 10km break, I wondered if I would be able to complete the day’s goal. By 27km, I convinced myself to take a break. I caught a ride to the next town, iced my ankle, and waited for my friends to arrive. When they did, we had a bowl of pho — not nearly as satisfying as yesterday’s lunch. And, my ankle did not feel any better. I hitched a second ride to the town where we planned to spend the night. The scenery zoomed by too fast to appreciate the details. It was a montage of rural Vietnam. Was there ever a point in my twenties when I was equally handicapped, I wondered? Have I been zooming through my late twenties, failing to enjoy the minutia?
I hobbled into a guesthouse, wheeling my bike into the lobby. I was asking about room prices when I heard the crash. Once the cloud of incense dust cleared, I saw my bike on its side with a crushed alter underneath it. A pang shot up my Achilles tendon as I limped over to clean the mess. It was time to go home.
On the night bus back to Hanoi I felt disappointed, but mostly relieved to be off my feet. I would wake up closer to home. Maybe I’ll try again, I thought as I dozed off. Only first, I should do a couple day trips.