Holidays, homesickness and alien invaders

By the time we were about halfway up the length of Vietnam, Steve and I overwhelmingly felt the need for a proper break from cycling. As such, it turned out quite well that we would be meeting some special visitors within the next few days. Leaving Hooch in Hue without so much as a second glance, we took a 16-hour overnight sleeper train to the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, to be reunited with Steve’s parents, Ian and Sue.

A much-anticipated family reunion.

With them they also brought a bounty of gifts from home and a lot of new equipment. Thank you to Sue and Ian for only packing your swimmers to make room for all our gear; to Col and Cherie for the handy rain poncho which we’ll have plenty of opportunities to use but which you might need more than us back at home; to Christine and Michael, and Anna, Tom and Harry for the mega supply of chocolate bars (Ian and Sue did wonder how we would get through it all to which Steve whispered to me that they really must have underestimated our capacity to consume chocolate); to Grandad and Granny for the delicious cake from Grandad’s 80th birthday party and the new bike bell (much needed and much used!); and to Mum for all the new underwear, tops and eye cream (much needed and much used too!).

That mountain of chocolate didn't last long with us two around!

The same can be said about Grandad's birthday cake!

We spent a wonderful ten days with Ian and Sue – being treated to luxury accommodation, tasty food, amazing sights but more importantly just being able to spend time with them, watching the Vietnamese world go by. For the first few days we spent our time exploring all the exciting sights and sounds of Hanoi, walking down tiny alleys, seeing the sellers peddling their wares, visiting pet shops…oh sorry, I mean food markets, visiting museums and catching up on all the news from home.

Savouring the sights and sounds down tiny alleys.

The backstreet barber.

The Vietnamese Marks and Sparks.

The green grocer.

Street food.

Steve was keen to try these (I am sure it was to impress his Mum and Dad) but was disappointed/relieved to find out that they were for a family meal.

No sidling away from the pot for these poor blighters.

Steve seemed less keen to try these.

An odd-looking turtle.

Toads in a very unfortunate hole.

Dried fish stalls.

Dread to think what Steve's brother, Pete, a newly qualified electrician, would make of this intricate wiring!

An unusual tribal woman we met at the Women's Museum.

We then went on the most luxurious cruise of Ha Long Bay, an enormous bay dotted with thousands of limestone karsts and isles. Steve and I couldn’t believe how breathtaking everything was – the posh cabin, the posh shower, the posh toiletries, the delicious five-course meals, the friendly staff, all with the backdrop and ever-changing spectacular karsts. Initially Steve and I felt that maybe we weren’t ready for polite society but we soon got into the swing of things. There was never a dull moment with the constant change in scenery and all the activities we did – a visit to a floating village, kayaking to a deserted beach, swimming, lessons in how to make spring rolls and the art of Vietnamese tea drinking, and spending the evenings squid fishing (I caught a whopper – my first ever catch!).

Being transported to our cruise boat.

The dream boat.

What a view from our balcony!

Our transport to the floating village.

Houses in the floating village.

A house with a boat-parking space instead of a driveway.

A floating school.

Another pretty lady we met on the way back from the floating village.

The commute to work.

The fishmonger.

A visit to Cat Ba Island.

Catching a squid that was such a whopper it need three of us to reel it in!

A perfect Ha Long Bay.

Our time with Ian and Sue all too soon came to an end and it was time for the thing I hate the most – saying goodbye. However, we didn’t have long to be upset as we were whisked away in a rickety old van to catch our 14-hour sleeper coach. After being uncomfortably clammy due to the breathing of 60 fellow passengers and the continual breakdown of the on-board air-conditioning, the regular stops so the coach driver and his mate could bang a few things to try to get said unit working again, shards of glass in my seat apparently as a result of a fight on the coach the previous night and the knowledge that the driver would be driving for 14 hours straight, I was more than a little relieved to arrive in Hue and to be reunited with Hooch who had been well taken care of by the staff at the Bamboo Hotel.

The more awake than sleeper bus.

Those first few days back on the bike were really tough as the sun shone hotter than it had done for a while and our bums must have gotten soft as we suffered with terrible saddle soreness. I was just glad that we weren’t doing this trip in the early blooms of our romance as we spent our evenings comparing who had the bloodiest, most bruised bottom followed by a thorough session of sudocreme slathering. Ah, the romance!

To demonstrate how hot it was take note of the pool of sweat around Steve's chair. Don't worry, no photos to prove how saddle sore our bums were!

Not long after leaving Hue, we started to cycle through the Demilitarized Zone, the demarcation between the North and South of Vietnam, which saw the bloodiest fighting during the Vietnam War. It was clear to see that many of these places were still recovering from the devastation caused by the war and it may be because of this that we noticed a real difference in how we were treated. Leaving the warmth and hospitality of the people in the South, we started to get ripped off more and more.

A coffee or a sugar cane juice had become double the usual price so we had to start asking the price of everything before ordering. Then once we had consumed the drink we wouldn’t receive any change as the price would suddenly rise from the agreed price when ordering to the same value as the note we used to pay. So then we had to ask the price and then pay before drinking our drinks to avoid any nasty surprises.

Hotels had even worse tactics. In one unpleasant town there were limited options of places to stay with all of them charging over the odds for their grubby rooms. With it being late and being tired from cycling, we settled for the cheapest place albeit still over-priced and grubby. We unloaded all the bags from the bike and whilst Steve went to lock the bike up, I went to pay the young receptionist the price agreed for the room. The old woman who up to this point had been asleep on a bed in the reception suddenly found a new lease of life at the sound of me opening my wallet and took the money for the room. However, I needed change from the note I had given her but she certainly acted like she didn’t think so. I had to keep pressing her that she hadn’t given me my change until she reluctantly threw me some money. It wasn’t enough so again I had to press her for the correct change. She threw some more at me. Still not enough. After a little more insistence she got on the telephone to someone (to whom I have absolutely no idea!) after which she very begrudgingly handed me the right change.

Their fun and games didn’t end there though. In the room there were some drinks but as they were warm and we didn’t trust the staff to charge us a fair price for them we went to the stall across the road for a couple of cold beers. As we were carrying our bags downstairs in the morning one of the staff ran past us to check our room. On her way back down she literally skipped past Steve ecstatically waving the empty cans in his face as if ‘Aha, now we’ve got you!’. Whilst Steve went to unlock the bike, I went to hand the key back and to retrieve our passports (it was common for hotels in Vietnam to keep hold of your passport when you checked in) but this was refused as the receptionist, with a sly look on her face, insistently rubbed her fingers together. I clearly indicated that we had bought the beers from across the road but still I didn’t get our passports back. I was, by this point, a little fed up with this silly and unnecessary nonsense so I politely frog-marched the staff up the four flights of stairs to our room so that they could count the drinks and see we didn’t owe them anything. Back downstairs, after some more chit-chat amongst themselves, they sullenly conceded and handed me back our passports.

What with all this rigmarole at the end of a tiring day’s cycling accompanied by the soundtrack of nerve-jangling and deafening air horns blasting in our ears from overtaking trucks, we were rapidly beginning to lose our patience and sense of humour. At one supermarket people were following us around, pointing at us, taking photos of us on their mobile phones, looking to see what we were buying, telling their mates to go down the aisle we were in for a gawp and coming up to our faces and laughing in them but before we lost all of our sense of humour, Steve came up with a way to make us chuckle. Every time somebody pointed at us and laughed, Steve would point back at them, say something to me and we would then both laugh hysterically. It was amazing how much they didn’t like it either and how amusing it was for us!

However, it wasn’t long before we left that strange section behind us and we began to meet lovely Vietnamese people again who reminded us not to tar everybody with the same brush.

These two guys insisted on paying for our tab as guests in their country.

Back to the funny sights of Vietnam we had come to know and love.

Some young chaps risking life and limb to pick us some rose apples to go with our soft drinks.

Steve fixing a puncture under the watchful eyes of the locals but who first made sure they kept us topped up with cold water.

Rice noodles drying beside the road.

Unlike the mayhem of cycling into Ho Chi Minh City, arriving into Hanoi for the second time, this time by bicycle, we were amazed at how easy it was, despite being covered in thick road slurry splashed over of us from unsympathetic truck drivers following a heavy downpour. Spending so much time here with Ian and Sue it felt like a little coming home. We even got to relive some of the luxury as we walked our bike past the hotel we had stayed with them to say hello to the staff and who without hesitation offered us a very generous discount on a room. We spent a couple of days there to revive ourselves with some 10p bia hoi (draft beer) before our last push in Vietnam.

Arriving in Hanoi for the second time.

Bia hoi session!

A happy send off from the Artisan Hotel.

Vietnam had one last surprise for us as we rose above the flatness of the emerald green paddy fields into the hills of north-west Vietnam, where nestled between the folds lay villages of many different minority ethnic groups.

When I was at school I never knew what I wanted to do as a career, all I knew was that I wanted to study anthropology at university. I would dream of far away lands, hacking my way through jungles, meeting and living with people who thought and lived in ways so differently from my city perspective. I would read books of those adventurous types, picturing their tales of weird and wonderful cultures, knowing that I would never undertake such brave escapades as I was too shy, too scared, too unconfident.

Cycling through village after village, buying fruit from, and waving and smiling to women wearing intricately woven traditional costume and headress, completely distinct from the previous village, with teeth blackened or shaved hairlines to heighten their beauty, it was quite a moment for me to be experiencing cultures, however briefly, that I had only ever imagined I would read about in books.

A banana stall deep in the hills.

Looking down on the neat fields below.

Village houses nestled amongst the folds of the hills.

A longhouse to accommodate an extended family.

Taking shelter from the thundering rain outside the home of a family who beckoned us in.

Granny taking care of baby.

But that is not to say I feel any more confident, less scared or shy. In fact, as cycle tourers go I am a complete fraudster! Sometimes I read the blogs of other people who have cycled similar routes to us and they seem to relish challenge and take everything easily in their stride. I cannot express how difficult I find this trip with seemingly at least one ‘challenge’ a day. I never stop ranting on/crying about how I can’t wait for my own bathroom again where I know that hair in the drain is mine, it is always a western toilet and where I am allowed to flush the toilet paper; or how much I hate cycling up endless hills; or why do we always have to cycle, getting nowhere slowly, into energy-draining headwinds; or how distraught and self-conscious I was at the loss of my leggings worn over my cycling shorts from my already limited clothes supply, knowing by the size of the South-East Asian ladies there was no way I would be able to easily replace them; or how disgusting I feel wearing sweaty, dirty cycling clothes for days on end; or how I can’t wait to open my fridge and make whatever meal takes my fancy; or my anxiety about where we will end up at the end of each day; or how fed up I get at people gesturing how big I am when after a day’s cycling, finding somewhere to sleep and eat I somehow just can’t find the time to exercise; or how hot/humid/cold/wet it is; or how I can’t wait to wear some flattering clothes for a night out with friends; or the utter horror that fills me when I know that any minute I may have to dash into the bushes again due to the sudden onset of a dodgy stomach; or how embarrassed I get when people constantly stare, especially when I am eating; or waking up with bites from bed bugs when staying in grubby hotels; or how painfully I miss people back at home (oh gosh, how I miss you!).

The time we shared with Ian and Sue was wonderful but it had left me wanting to so much more of my life at home. My constant homesickness that quietly bubbles away was finally coming to a fierce boil. I lost my sense of humour and despite smiling for Steve’s photos, I felt sad all the time. I spent so many sleepless nights squashed between the decision to continue the trip or go home. Would I be going home as a failure when so many other people have been able to complete similar trips? Hadn’t I already achieved so much when I have never done anything like this before? Would I go home early and be sat on a bus one day regretting the things that I had missed out on? Wasn’t it terribly selfish to be missing all the once in a lifetime celebrations friends were having when they had been there for mine? Would the lives of those who I think of to keep me going have moved on so much that I would no longer be a part of their lives? Would I be reignited about what was around the next corner? Maybe I was just going through a rough patch? Wasn’t this trip now getting in the way of all the ideas and plans that I have for when I get home? Who do I have to prove anything to? And if I do, haven’t I already done so by cycling thousands of kilometres for over a year? Was I just scared about what lay ahead as we approached the end of South-East Asia and headed for countries that I knew little of but knew would be so very different and without a doubt more challenging? Maybe I should stop self-indulging myself as a spoilt little brat when my problems really are nothing compared to those of others? And on and on these questions and many more churned through my head, never reaching a satisfactory answer. I had no one to talk to as no one apart from Steve knows the stresses we experience daily and he said that if I wanted to go home he was perfectly happy with that. But I knew that he wanted to continue, and unlike me, believed that we both could do it. So in the end it would still be my call to make and it made me feel so alone.

But despite my inner turmoil, day after day I would put on my sweaty, dirty cycling clothes and head off into the unknown. Before we knew it, we had reached the border of China, a country that gave me butterflies at the thought of how different it would be but I just thought, ‘Well, now that we are here, why not just see how it goes?’.

Beyond the river lies the dazzling neon lights of China.

Crossing no man's land between Vietnam and China.

Oh, and how different it was! That first day we realised we were more remote than we had been for a long time as there were no little stalls regularly dotted along the road selling refreshing drinks. Unlike the raucous greetings that we had become accustomed to throughout South-East Asia, people we passed stared at us stony faced despite my best attempts at saying hello in Mandarin. Our decent map didn’t seem to match up with the roads we saw. Everything was written in Chinese symbols, completely indecipherable to us. Hand gestures we thought universal such as counting to ten on your fingers were completely different. Yes, China was going to be different. We felt we had landed on a different planet and the locals looked at us with such fear as if we were alien invaders.

Heading along a road that we hoped we would take us in the right direction, we eventually popped out into a small town where we found a pleasant enough hotel, created a stir of excitement and enjoyed some really rather excellent food after pointing out a few vegetables and what we hoped was pork. Day one in China was under our belt.

A solitary road under a perfect expressway.

Crowds gathering for a spin on the tandem.

I knew we would have some climbing to do to reach Kunming, our first goal in China, but I didn’t expect it to be so soon on our second day. A road sign, thankfully written in Roman script, directed us to a town we were heading for which took us off the perfectly tarmaced road onto a cobbled road. It was several hours of climbing switchback roads before we could no longer see the town which we had seemingly risen vertically above. We must be near the top now we thought. No, this climb went up through some substantial mountains all day, with only a few water buffalo and completely bewildered goat herders for company. Anxious at the prospect of where we would sleep that night as every available space was used to grow crops and with not enough water to camp, I had a complete meltdown, bursting into tears on a mountainside and realising that I really wasn’t cut out for this when I knew I had a lovely home in the UK and could have been attending a wedding today. But what could I do stuck here but to pull myself together and carry on cycling uphill? No sooner had my tears dried to a salty stain on my cheeks, we had a small descent and out of nowhere appeared a small town.

Up we go.

And up again.

And further still.

People tending to their crops clung to the mountainside.

Surely we must be at the top now?

No, you've still got a little further to go.

The last picture at the top?

A town at the top of an extremely big mountain.

Steve hoped by finding a nice little hotel, this would be the happy ending at the end of a hard day but judging by his face as he led me into our digs and knowing that what I could smell and knew Steve would soon be confirming were the communal toilets (a gutter spanning the ‘cubicles’ separated by a three foot high wall with no door and certainly no privacy) it wasn’t to be. We were led to a dormitory where thankfully there were no other guests and all I wanted to do was get into the wooden crib with the thin piece of foam acting as a mattress and sleep and dream of home. But before I did, Steve ran to the shop next door to get a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke to cheer me up. He did manage to muster a little smile!

The entrance to our home for the evening.

A little unhappy.

We awoke early the next day and continued to climb up. Although it was still hard going, even I had to admit we were seeing some spectacular views.

Another climb the following morning.

Wooo-hooo, at the top of this one!

The next few days we left the serious big climbs behind and began to pass through the expansion of huge towns where the outskirts were spookily empty with endless construction of massive high rise apartments with wide tree-lined boulevards. Next we were cycling past imposing industrial factories that reminded me of what England must have looked like during the Industrial Revolution, being coated with the black fumes spewing from the lorries that served them and along with a turn in the weather to wet and cold, it all made for rather bleak scenery. With the weather turning cold, I had to pee all the time and so after my initial despair at the toilets on that second day, I soon had to get over it and learn some tactics on how to deal with them. That was to always carry some pocket tissues, hold my nose, carefully watch where I was walking and then once in a stable position shut my eyes to pretend I was in my own bathroom.

A huge state building.

Cycling through lots of industry on a bleak cold and wet day.

Men smoke these massive water pipes that look like drainpipes.

Chinese advertising.

Cycling towards Kunming we met Frank, a Chinese cycle tourer at the end of a month’s tour of Yunnan province, and we enjoyed riding with him until 20kms outside of Kunming where he was packing his bike up and sending it home before heading into the city by bus. As it was still early giving us plenty of time to get into the city and find a hostel we made plans to meet up with him later that evening and waved him goodbye. No sooner had we left him than the road disintegrated into mud. The cycling was hard going but the navigation even harder. We didn’t have a map of Kunming and all we were relying on was the hope that we could find an English speaker to send us in the right direction. But it was pretty much like arriving in Penge and asking where London is – well you are in it – yes, but where’s the centre? – how can you possibly give directions to that! Before Frank left us, he wrote down in Chinese the area where we would find the hostels so that we could show people for directions, which we did, but instead of pointing us in a direction, people would write down the instructions but in CHINESE thinking that whilst we couldn’t speak Chinese, we surely could read it. We had no hope and we were going one way, then the other, then back again. We finally found the street with a hostel from our guidebook and when we got to the right place found that it had been knocked down. Right, back on the bike and try again. With even more cycling round in circles, being sent one way and another, we found a lake and I literally jumped on the first Westerner we had seen since leaving Hanoi to ask directions to the nearest hostel. Speaking English with this American guy was like music to my ears as he confirmed there were at least two nearby and gave wonderfully clear instructions. At 8.45pm we finally found a place to rest our weary bodies.

Frank, a fellow cycle tourer.

Road into Kunming.

We spent three days off in Kunming and it gave us the opportunity to prepare ourselves better for the next leg such as unlocking our smartphone so that we could use google maps and getting a Mandarin phrasebook. But more importantly it gave me the opportunity to reflect on our trip as we walked round the lake watching the wondrous activities of the local people – karaoke in the park, groups of elderly ladies dancing gracefully with fans, young guys playing drums, wise-looking elderly gents painting beautiful Chinese symbols on the ground with four-feet long paintbrushes dipped in water, strange group exercises, men beating spinning tops with cracking whips as their mates looked on with proud approval – and it made me realise that for all the things I find difficult, the things I am getting to see are truly amazing and will be memories that I will surely treasure for the rest of my life. Nobody said this trip was going to be easy and for me it isn’t but maybe it is only with these trials and tribulations that I can truly appreciate the good, weird and wonderful. As I had battled with my homesickness, I had lost sight of that as I was too caught up with the negative, too close to the day to day challenges that I did not have the time to breathe and reflect on all that we had achieved, even me who is scared, unconfident and shy, and to just laugh at some of the ridiculously hard things we have had to overcome. If I have got this far, surely I can go further still. So dusting myself off, smiling and laughing again, I was ready to do battle with the next set of challenges, realistic enough to know there will probably be more tears but even more fascinating sights and experiences to relish.

The calm following our troubled waters.

Dusted off, smiling and ready to do battle once again!

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10 Responses to Holidays, homesickness and alien invaders

  1. Cherie And Col says:

    Your latest Journal has bought tears, and am still sniffing…………. what a beautiful photo ‘your dusted off and smiling’ photo is. We are all with you both, you inspire us each time we read your amazing, honest accounts, and put it in to words so we can try and grasp the numerous hills and valleys of this ride. You are thought of all the time. And we can’t express how proud we are that you are part of our family.
    Love always Cherie and Col xxx

  2. Thomas Nickels says:

    Wow!!! The determination from the two of you is truly inspiring. Keep going! None of us want you to miss out on any further adventures you will come across on your travels.

    Will speak soon.


  3. Granny & Grandad says:

    Dear Steve and Kat, your last blog left us feeling heavy hearted to know the discomfort you are facing at the moment. Your spirit sounds low Kat but I’m sure if Steve is anything like Grandad (and I suspect he is) he will find a way of over coming your problems. We can’t give you a big hug but we can help with a small gift to pamper yourselves as soon as you can. Love, hugs and prayers, G & G

  4. Houston says:

    Johnny and I had similar feelings towards Vietnam once we got north of Danang. Not nearly as charming, is it.

    I’m sorry you’re feeling homesick. I get homesick a lot and think of all the wonderful things back in Canada but then I think I have the most important thing from home with me here, Johnny. It makes me feel better but I still miss home.

    You both have accomplished so many amazing things. I hope you’re feeling better.

  5. Rhiannon says:

    Scared? Unconfident?? Shy??? Add to the list brave and determined and inspirational – There’s not many people who could have got as far as you have. You’re doing great xxxx

  6. Janie says:

    Hi Kat and Steve! Still following along on your journey, even though we have made it to Salida and settled into our new home. I know that will make you jealous, Kat, but I have to say once again that your honesty and sense of adventure remains an inspiration to me. I know you don’t think of yourself as a “real” cyclist – but sorry to say, you have become one indeed. Life is short, but it is also long, and you are going to have so many amazing memories to take with you for always. And your own private loo is going to be that much sweeter once you complete the journey. Hang in there!

  7. I’ve been to Vietnam, I like the crabs.

  8. Debbie Stott says:

    Keep going Kat , you are doing brilliantly !! You are bound to have some down days but remember that there are down days in London too. i can’t believe you have cycled so far, It is incredible.. Meanwhile I have been living it up in Ilford ! , although there are some sights here too !!!

    Lots of love to you both ,

    Debbie xxxxx

  9. Anna Chalk says:

    Just read your blog Kat, and I agree with the above comments- you are definitely doing amazingly well. There have been so many challenges that you have overcome, and will continue to do so together. We all still feel a big part of your life especially through reading your blogs and seeing photos. Of course we all look forward to you arriving home but want you to carry on, filling us in on all the adventures. We think of you every day and hope your happy experiences outweigh the negative ones.
    Love always, Anna x
    Ps read your article in Chat today!

  10. where are you now ? I am in Xiamen China : )

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