We boxed up the bikes, packed the panniers into boxes and boarded a plane from Perth airport to Ho Chi Minh. We flew with Thai Airways, had a stopover in Bangkok overnight for 7 hours and landed in Vietnam at 8am in the morning. The minute we stepped out of the plane the humidity hit us.
It is still wet season in South East Asia which means humidity is very high and usually thunderstorms every evening. The temperature rarely drops below 25 degrees at night and reaches about 30 degrees during the day. We were joined by my parents Michael and Mary for the first 5 days. It was an absolute pleasure having them join us for a few days and gave us a chance to get used to the humidity before hopping on the bike again.
We visited the War Remnants museum, a hard hitting reminder that less than 50 years ago this country was in one of the most brutal wars of the 20th century. What happened here between 1955 and 1975 and to see where the country is at today is an absolute show of resilience and shows the character of the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese people are so welcoming (even to the Americans that dropped 14 million tons of bombs during the war). One of the best things I’ve ever watched is a 10 part documentary on Netflix called: The Vietnam War: A film by Ken Burns. It details how the Americans ended up involved in Vietnam through their alliance with France and how 5 different US presidents knew they had no chance of success yet they had to stay here to save face against the Soviets and the Chinese.
We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels where the Vietnamese fighting the South and the Americans build a vast tunnel system so the Americans did not know where they were and had an advantage been able to surprise and ambush the enemy. Gunshots of AK47’s, M16’s, and M60’s from the shooting range making the experience more authentic and letting the imagination get a sense of what it would have been like in this area 5 decades ago. Craters of B52 bombs, some 6 metres deep still to be seen. Stopping in disabled work shops on the way where evidence of agent orange the Americans used during the way still lingers even 4 generations later with victims born disabled from this horrible chemical sprayed by planes and used to clear vegetation during the war. Most of the land in Vietnam has been cleared of this chemical but unfortunately it can be genetically carried on.
We travelled out to the Mekong Delta, the 12th largest river in the world with some areas 3.3km wide. Visiting villages on the Mekong and seeing the floating markets. Tasting the local fruits that grow there and been serenaded by the locals while we drank tea. We enjoyed some lovely meals together, then the time came to say goodbye for now again. Even after all these years I’ve lived abroad the goodbyes never get any easier.
So it was back to business for us then. Daithi and I decided that it was better to get out of Ho Chi Minh to run the ultramarathon. We decided on an island just off the South Coast called Phu Quoc. In hope that an island would be less humid than the mainland. First we had to cycle 300km to get to the ferry that would take us to the island. Although the traffic over here looks a bit reckless with very few rules of the road.... motorbikes drive on footpaths during rush hours, there is one way streets but it’s very common to see traffic travelling the wrong way up that street, at roundabouts the rule is try not to hit anyone as there is no right of way and traffic just enters from all directions. Seems like madness?? It looks it but if they were to implement the rules of the road we have then there would be total gridlock. This way works, everyone keeps moving and it is very rare to see an accident although they do come within inches all the time. Everyone keeps moving and makes no sudden moves or attempts to overtake. The constant beeping of the horns is just to let people know you are there and is no way meant in an aggressive manner. Drivers are far more courteous to each other and it feels a lot safer on the road here than it did in Australia.
Our first few days cycling through rural Vietnam was fascinating, in the city you see the designer shops, the fancy hotels, the dress coded rooftop bars, Burger King, McDonald’s. Once out of Ho Chi Minh there is none of this, Vietnam has an annual income per capita of $1800 US dollars. That is under $35 a week, now these are the people that have to survive on that and evidently some even less. Open fronted sheds that you would just about fit a car, they sell whatever they can at the front, some fruit, some drinks, some snacks and their bed is directly behind this, many times just a hammock.... families are raised here. This is their life. Unless they can get an education there is very few ways out for them. And what’s remarkable is they seem happy and content. Cycling past you hear a shout from one of these shacks “hello” you look to your left and you see someone waving with the biggest smile you are likely to see. This doesn’t happen a few times a day, this happens hundreds of times a day. If anything they seem happier than anyone did in Australia or back home in Ireland. No one spoke English but I really wanted to know, I did a bit of research and one thing I read is that many Vietnamese believe that if you smile and be happy, you make other people happy and that makes you happy. I can’t argue with that, cycling down the road and people waving and shouting hello from all angles made us very happy and very appreciative to be in this country, to give them a wave and a smile back, we don’t need to speak the same language to make each other happy. Nothing more simple than a smile and a wave, doesn’t cost a thing and yet so fulfilling. Wave and the world waves back!
A few days when showers came we pulled in and sat with the locals, as soon as we pull in they come out and insist we bring the bikes in with us so they don’t get wet, point to the hammocks encouraging us to take a rest. We buy a drink off them, many still hand us out bananas for free, make us tea and go back doing their few jobs, every now and then smiling over and making sure we are ok for everything. Maybe that generation remember how bad things can be, it is only 44 years ago this country was at war. How can one know peace if they have never been to war?
We decided to get the ferry from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc island, we passed through paddy fields and cycled down along the vast maze of rivers and swamps that is the Mekong Delta, as we meandered our way to Rach Gia, banana plants and coconut trees growing on the side of busy narrow roads filled with school kids cycling to and from school, mopeds loaded up with everything you can imagine, from meat to vegetables, from fruit to mattresses, anything you can think of is seen on the back of a moped, the most efficient way to travel. A lot of transportation of goods and produce takes place on the rivers and a few times a day we would cross the river with boats that carry the motorbikes and bikes to the other side. It’s a simple process, you drive onto the deck of the boat, usually pay about 2,000 Vietnamese dong which is about 8 cent in euros and drive off the other side. Because South Vietnam is so densely populated camping isn’t an option here. Accommodation once you get out of the city is cheap, between 10 - 15 euro a night and that’s between the two of us. Food a couple more euro between us. With our own means of transport and no fuel costs we can travel on about €15 euro a day each and that is been good to ourselves. The benefit of travelling by bike really to be seen.
We reached Rach Gia and got the two and a half hour ferry across the Phu Quoc. On arrival we checked into our accommodation and hired a moped to check out our route for our Vietnam Ultramarathon. Important we do this with the heat and humidity we needed to make sure there was places to top up with water and get some food along the way. Everything was good on the route with plenty of places to refuel. Our plan was to get out early as possible and try and avoid the heat. We got our running vests ready the night before, we can carry 2.5 litres of water each and packed some apples and some m & m’s for snacks.
We woke up at 5am the next morning, we got the running clothes on, covered ourselves in suncream and hit the road, the first 20km flew by, two hours in and 20km done, we were projecting to be finished by 2pm and finish by running into the ocean. Soon after the clouds that had been so good to us by covering the sun were no where to be seen. The searing heat of the sun starting taking a toll on us, by this time it looked like we had just jumped into a pool of water. The sweat running from the top of our heads and literally running down our body’s and filling our running shoes. Not long after the blisters started, maybe if we had some spare socks to put on it would have helped.... you learn from your mistakes! 20 - 30km we were able to maintain a run 1km and walk 1km. By 30km we were down to a walk, the heat was unforgiving, we were willing clouds in the sky to cover the sun but no such luck. We continued on with a few breaks to top up the water. As we edged closer and closer to covering the 64km distance to achieve our goal. The last few kilometres were tough, the feet were really cut up. We kept the moral up, building resilience and building self belief with each step. Pain is temporary.
Finishing was sweet, the time was 6pm and it was dark and the last thing we wanted to do was jump in the ocean. We had a shower and went and got something to eat. Running this ultra felt like more of an achievement than running the 50 miles in Australia two weeks earlier. I think mainly because it wasn’t an organised event and there was a lot more to do, in Australia we just had to focus on running and everything else was taking care of. The next 2 days we rested the legs and rehydrated. Packed back up the bikes the following day, Cambodia here we come, quick ferry across to Ha Tiên where we spent the night, got some American dollars, the Cambodia visa has to be paid for in US dollars. $35 each for a visa valid for 30 days.
Really looking forward to been in Cambodia and have only ever heard good things about it.
Thanks for the continued support,