Power out in Phnom Penh

11th MARCH 2019

After leaving my motel I trundle round Svay Rieng for ten minutes trying to find somewhere that’s open for breakfast. I’m finding that street food stalls and Plastic Chair Cafes are nowhere near as abundant in Cambodia as they were in Vietnam. In the end I find an outdoor restaurant who say they will feed me even though it looks like they’re not open for business yet. A girl takes my order by showing me images of meals on her mobile, while I try to keep things simple by pointing to a plain fried rice. She leaves me a little basket of drinks on my table to start with, which consists of water, Pepsi and melon tea. The melon tea sounds interesting so I try that poured into a big glass over ice. My God it’s refreshing and it tastes brilliant ! Then my fried rice dish arrives, with an unexpected bonus of squid, baby octopus and a couple of large prawns. I can’t get my head round people who skip breakfast in the morning.

Once I leave town I’m back onto Route Nationale 1 again, heading West with the sun blazing down on my back to begin with. As the day moves on the sun climbs progressively higher, until soon it’s overhead and my exposed forearms are bearing the brunt of its relentless rays. And, just to compound things, it’s another bloody scorcher today. By mid-day I’m flagging, so stop for lunch and a break at a Plastic Chair Cafe on the opposite side of the road. I pay 10,500 Cambodian Riel for an average beef noodle soup along with a can of mysterious fizzy juice that is a vivid, luminous green in colour. I’m beginning to notice that food and accommodation are slightly more expensive than in Vietnam, even though Cambodia seems a poorer, less developed country. Still, in the big scheme of things it’s only £2 per meal, so I’m not exactly complaining. When I leave, the owner bloke tells me to be careful with my bike in Phnom Penh. This might be fair warning, but I also know it could be someone from a country town being a bit apprehensive about the big city. I’m hoping it’s the latter.

The afternoon is a hot trudge through brown, bone dry countryside. It’s so ridiculously hot that it’s starting to affect the water bottles I have strapped to the rear of my bike. They’ve been in direct, blazing sunlight for over three hours now, and are so horribly warm that it feels like I’m drinking bathwater. I stop to buy some chilled water and continue my slow Westward slog, arriving in the town of Neak Loeung just after 2.00pm. Finding my guesthouse proves to be less than straightforward though.

Both Google maps and my accommodation booking site show the building in the same place, but annoyingly they are both completely wrong. I faff around the bumpy, unsurfaced streets for a while trying to locate the place myself before I resort to asking the locals. The only method I have for doing this is to show a picture of the guesthouse on my phone, which draws a couple of blank faces, before a third guy says he recognises the location. He goes to get his motorbike and beckons me to follow him, delivering me to the guesthouse within a minute. In reality it was just round the corner, but would have taken me ages to find on my own, if at all.

The bloke then comes in to act as interpreter between me and the guesthouse owner. I’m told that a room with a fan will cost 6 US Dollars per night, so I hand over $10. Normally this would mean a simple transaction with me receiving $4 change, but of course I know I’m going to get my money back in Cambodian Riel. I think I’ve worked it out though, as 1 US Dollar equates to 4,000 Cambodian Riel, which means that for my $4 change I’ll be due 16,000 Riel. At first the owner tries to palm me off with 3,000, so I tell my interpreter friend that I know it should be 16,000. He translates this to the owner who (miraculously) manages to find the rest of my change and apologises for his ‘mistake.’ I’m glad I know what I’m doing now. The upstairs room is basic at best, with cobwebs hanging lazily from the ceiling and a shower that operates on one constant, cool temperature. This chilly shower isn’t so bad mind you; my phone told me it was thirty-seven degrees when I checked in.

In the early evening I go for a walk and to search for some food. Neak Loeung turns out to be quite a scruffy, dusty town right on the East bank of the Mekong River. I try to make my way down to the river’s edge, walking along a messy street that’s lined with stalls, cafes and modest houses, only to be thwarted by tall, corrugated barriers between me and the waterfront. I walk back for food, realising that I must stick out like a sore thumb in a town that would normally be bypassed by most tourists. The locals are a friendly bunch though, to such a degree that I’m taken aback by the amount of people who smile or say Hello as I pass.

For dinner I find myself sitting outside a cafe, while a young guy gets me to choose food by showing me pictures on their menu. I point to one dish and he shakes his head, then try a second and he shakes his head again. This isn’t going particularly well. In the end he points to Fried Rice with Seafood and I just nod my agreement, even though it will be my second helping of this meal today. As I wait I watch the staff come and go, which mostly involves them playing on their phones. One girl is trying to take a selfie on a ten second timer, but every time the countdown reaches zero the young guy who took my order puts his foot in front of the camera to ruin her picture. I have a bit of a laugh at this and pretty soon we’re all friends and they’re taking selfies with me too. The people here just seem very open and warm. I can’t imagine this kind of spontaneity happening in Vietnam, where the locals behaved in a more reserved and detached fashion. I’m beginning to like these Cambodians.

When I return to my shoddy accommodation I’m plunged into darkness for half an hour by a power cut, which is destined to become a recurring theme here in Cambodia. In between power cuts, the fan will remain trained on me all throughout the hot night.

The following morning I return to the sister restaurant of the one I ate dinner at last night. It’s situated right across the road from the first and I recognise some of the staff, thinking they can’t have had much rest after working a late shift yesterday. I have a beef noodle soup that includes some tiny, puzzling meatballs, before leaving Neak Loeung and its rutted, uneven roads. I’m quickly back on Route Nationale 1 and heading for a huge new 2km bridge that will take me over the mighty Mekong River. Financed by Japan and only open since 2015, this is now the longest bridge in Cambodia. If I’d been doing this trip four years ago, I’d have been crossing the river by ferry. There’s quite a slope to get to the highest point, where I join a dozen or so scooterists who have stopped to take selfies and pictures of the scenes below. I freewheel down the other side, taking care when I go over a series of chunky rumble strips with my damaged spoke.

After the crossing I turn North for a while, the Mekong flowing idly along in the opposite direction a few hundred metres to my right. It’s shaping up to be another hot day, although I’m buoyed by the fact that the road surface has improved somewhat since getting over to this side of the river. I make good progress till lunchtime on these smoother roads, where a Plastic Chair Cafe serves me up yet more beef noodle soup, even though I’m sure I asked for rice. A jug of iced melon tea goes down a treat too, and I start to think this beveridge may overtake iced coffee as my favourite drink whilst on the road. I’m usually slow after lunch, but the increased volume of traffic as I near Phnom Penh seems to speed me up subconsciously. By early afternoon I can see tall city buildings in the distance, and by 2.00pm I’m checking in at Vanny’s Peaceful Guesthouse.

I’m greeted with a chilled water by Vanny’s wife, before the man himself makes an appearance. He’s a lovely bloke with good English and a wealth of information on Phnom Penh, having spent years working as a tour guide and taxi driver in the city. I check in, chain my bike to one of their unused motorbikes inside the front gates and sit down for a chat. I’m given yet more water and some mini bananas, before I’m shown to my room up a metallic spiral staircase that is as ridiculously steep as it is narrow. After showering I head round the corner of the block to No. 72 Restaurant, recommended by Vanny as every meal costs 2 US Dollars and you get unlimited free tea. With all today’s noodle soup consumption, I decide I should probably have some variety and order a rice meal to change things up a little. Being so used to eating on the go, I just ask for chicken and rice on the way into the cafe, before discovering their stack of menus and all the tasty options I could have chosen. Still, I’m sure I’ll be back.

When I return to the guesthouse, almost the entire street is in darkness due to a power cut. A college across the road and a couple of large apartment blocks must have their own generators as they still have lights, but otherwise the street has been left in dim twilight. Vanny and his wife can’t be apologetic enough and are mortified they don’t have electricity for their paying guests. He seems to think the electricity has been shut off deliberately by the power company to save energy, and that different city blocks will be without power for a period tomorrow. Apparently the combination of a massive increase in construction work and unusually hot weather has pushed the city’s electricity supply to it’s limits. I’m also surprised to learn that Cambodia has to import large portions of its electricity from neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.

In the end we all sit on chairs on the pavement while Vanny’s wife brings out candles, water and slices of watermelon. With the family, guests and neighbours all sitting together outside, it feels like a nice little village community in the midst of a big, bustling city. It’s good to feel part of the neighbourhood as we all sit and watch the world go by in the gloom, with some motorcyclists inexplicably still choosing to ride up the street without lights. Vanny keeps encouraging his twelve and ten year old daughters to talk with me to give them a chance to practice their English. They already do extra lessons after school and are not too far away from being fluent, especially the cheeky ten year old. It turns into a really pleasant evening just sitting outside on the pavement and chatting, whereas normally you’d expect a power cut to be a nuisance.

It’s only when the mosquitos start biting that I finally head inside about 10.00pm. The power supply has been off for six hours at this point. I make my way upstairs by candlelight, blindly knocking the fan off the wall in my room as I enter, and settle in for what could be a sticky night without electricity. My consolation is that there’s a mosquito screen on the window, so at least I can open that to cool the place down a little. I’ve been in my room for all of two minutes when the electricity comes back on. I plug the fan in joyously and direct it’s refreshing airflow straight onto me. I’m glad my days off in Phnom Penh look like they will now feature electricity. I’m also glad I don’t have to get up and cycle tomorrow.

 

 

 

Holiday in Cambodia

10th MARCH 2019

After cycling out of Vietnam, there’s a strange two hundred metres of nothingness before I reach the Cambodian border crossing. Straight away the architecture at this end of the border post feels different from Vietnam, the main building looking more like a temple with curved, upturned roof corners. Notices written in Khmer script are completely unintelligible to me as well, with none of the weird, squiggly letters before me bearing any similarities to their English counterparts.

My bike is chained to a bench and I venture inside to join a queue that leads me to a stocky, middle-aged lady at a passport booth. When it’s my turn she just points dismissively to a separate section where I have to get my copy e-visa stamped by another official first. She looks like she enjoys her little bit of bureaucratic power. I traipse over to the correct department, get my bit of paper signed and dated, before returning triumphantly to the grumpy woman. This time she simply chucks down an Arrivals Card and says ‘You fill that in.’ I take the card and thank her sarcastically, but then realise I better watch my mouth as she could deny me entry if she really wanted to. So, dutifully I join a table of Japanese tourists, borrow a pen and fill out my Arrivals Card. Then it’s back to the passports queue where, thankfully, the surly woman seems to have disappeared. Unfortunately, my rejoining the queue coincides with her return, and I’m shouted back for one last encounter with her. I’m preparing for more power-hungry red tape nonsense, but she just checks all my paperwork and stamps my passport with a heavy thud. I now have one month in Cambodia !

After crossing the border I’m immediately struck by the amount of casinos lining the main road, making the first few kilometres look like a mini Las Vegas. However, this tacky casino strip is not for Cambodians – it only exists so that Vietnamese can pop across the border from their own country where gambling is illegal. Their appetite for betting must be huge as there’s even more hotels and casino resorts under construction as I pass. The whole area resembles a building site, with the road I’m cycling on reduced to a dusty, gravelly track in many places. I crawl ponderously through this section, travelling not much faster than a brisk walk, and make a return to worrying about punctures once again.

The other thing to hit me is just how blisteringly hot it has become, with the temperature hovering at a baking thirty-six degrees. I’m gasping for water, so stop in the dust at a roadside shop with stalls out the front. I’m not sure how communication is going to pan out so I just grab one of my large water bottles, show it to the owners and raise a single finger to indicate I’d like one. The owner lady goes all the way to the back of her shop to get me a chilled bottle, while I’m able to chat a tiny bit of English with her teenage kids. The transaction that follows then leaves me feeling a little confused, as Cambodia uses both US Dollars and their own Cambodian Riel. I hand over one US Dollar to cover my water and then receive my change back in Cambodian Riel. I’d heard this would happen, but in the moment I’m unprepared and have no idea what the exchange rates are. I just say Goodbye, pocket the change and will try to make sense of it later.

Tonight’s destination of Svay Rieng is about 40km from the border, although it turns into a slow, stuttering plod with the bumpy roads and exhausting heat. My rest stops become more and more frequent through an arid, flat landscape of dry season brown. Although the land is currently parched, I notice many roadside houses built on high raised columns, testament to the flooding threat in wet season. These houses are elevated a good three metres above the ground, so I imagine the road I’m now cycling on may find itself underwater in a few months time. This part of the country seems like it would be quite an inhospitable place to live – baking hot in dry season and flooded in wet. However, despite the harsh surrounds, my first impressions of Cambodia are positive. As I roll slowly along I notice that I’m getting a lot more ‘Hellos’ than I did in Vietnam, and from adults as well as kids.

About 5km from town I’m able to pull off onto a minor road which is, ironically, a far smoother ride than the Route Nationale One. I cross a bridge that’s under repair by darting between barriers and am at the Riverside Villa Guest House soon after. The reception building looks very grand, a two storey mansion overlooking a river with columns, mirrored windows and a balcony at the entrance. However, I’m in a ten dollar motel room out the back. When I chain my bike outside I notice that one of my wheel spokes has become detached, no doubt a consequence of the awful roads I’ve been cycling on today.

In the evening I venture our for food, aiming for a little cafe I’d found on Google maps. I’m back to pointing at foodstuffs to make my order once again, although the owner does make me smile by saying I can have ‘cow with egg noodle’. She boils up a fresh batch of noodles behind me, while I drink tea poured from a porcelain teapot into a glass with ice. By the time I’m finished the sun is dipping towards the horizon, casting an orangey-pink glow all over town. I walk back to my motel room through a series of grid-pattern streets that face directly West into the setting sun. On each road I cross it looks like there’s an orange ball, levitating just above the far end of the street. Some of the locals seem a little bemused that I’m taking so many pictures pointing down a street that’s so ordinary and commonplace to them. Maybe if I lived here this would be a normal, everyday sight, but for me in paparazzi mode it’s a striking image.

When I get back I book accommodation for tomorrow and also give myself three days off in Phnom Penh, the nation’s capital. By that time I’ll have cycled seven days out of eight in temperatures that have been steadily creeping towards the mid-thirties. Although the daily distances haven’t been huge, I begin to feel drained cycling every day in that kind of heat. I’ll be glad to reach Phnom Penh, have some Rest Days and play tourist for a while.

 

 

Getting out of ‘Nam

9th MARCH 2019

After last night’s abominable feast, my hotel breakfast this morning is a more subdued egg on toast with tomato and cucumber. An old Vietnamese lady with curlers in her hair, looking like she’s just woken up, shuffles into the room and sits at the next table. She strikes up a conversation and invites me to sit opposite her for breakfast. I discover she’s from Ho Chi Minh City originally, emigrated to California in 1992 and has returned to Vietnam to visit family. Today is the final day of her holiday, having spent a whole two months living in this hotel. She has beef noodle soup while I’m munching my eggs on toast. I tell her this breakfast is unusual for me and that I’ve been eating mostly Asian food on this trip, but I’m pretty sure she doesn’t believe me.

To begin today’s cycle I act like a local, creeping along beside the pavement on the wrong side of the road and into oncoming traffic. I’ve resorted to this tactic as I’m not able to cross the road due to a solid line of concrete safety barriers between the carriageways. I slink back to the big roundabout I used yesterday and take an exit that will lead me West towards the Cambodian border. This is significant as I can now leave the big, busy QL1A road behind, having been cycling on it regularly since leaving Hanoi eight weeks ago. Even though it’s helped me ride the length of Vietnam, I can’t say I’ll miss it.

What could have been a potentially awkward day negotiating the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City turns out to be a lot easier than expected. I take a bridge over the Dong Nai river, leave the main road and pootle along a quiet-ish route beside the river. I’m also managing to stay out of the sun today, enjoying the welcome shade from roadside trees and buildings as well as some protective cloud cover.

Just after Thủ Dầu Một, one of Saigon’s satellite cities, I’m back onto the main road to the border and stopping for lunch at yet another Plastic Chair Cafe. I choose rice as my carbs, while the lady at the counter asks what I’d like to go with it. As usual I don’t recognise the contents of half the trays, so I opt to play it safe by abstaining from meat and point to what looks like a tofu dish. When the food arrives, what looked like a vegetarian meal in the display tray ends up containing chicken and beef as well as tofu. I’m fine with this, but it does get me thinking how difficult my trip might have been as a vegetarian. With my meal I receive a small bowl of clear soup containing potato, and also one other dish that’s not quite as easy to identify. It looks like another soup, but this time there appears to be a giant gherkin resting in the middle. I cut the huge vegetable in half to find that, bizarrely, the insides have been stuffed with sausage meat. The soup and sausage meat taste fine, however the gherkin thing tastes way too bitter and pickled for me. A quick Google search later reveals that this dish is called Kho Qua, which is in fact bitter melon stuffed with minced pork ! Second helpings of iced tea help cool me down as it’s becoming a sticky old afternoon, despite the cloud cover.

Back on the road I’m almost at the town of Cu Chi, famous for the Cu Chi tunnels used by North Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. These connecting tunnels once formed part of a vast underground network of supply routes, hiding spots and storage dumps. Soldiers sometimes lived in these dark, cramped tunnels for several days at a time alongside rats, stinging ants and mosquitos, only emerging at night to forage for food or to shoot Americans. As an aside, I learn that during the Vietnam War malaria was the second largest killer of Vietnamese soldiers. Today the tunnels are a tourist attraction, but now Western adults have trouble fitting into the pits that were once barely wide enough to house Vietnamese kids.

My accommodation is almost a kilometre from the main road, giving it a countryside feel of being out in the sticks. I’d also noticed on Google maps that it was advertised as a ‘Love Hotel’. Sure enough, as I check in, a young couple are checking out. Evidently you can pay by the hour here, as well as per night. I don’t think it’s really for prostitutes though, more for young couples who still live at home with their parents and need to come here for some ‘private’ time. One of the first things I notice in my room is a bright orange, curvy recliner that looks like an art gallery sculpture, but is more likely to be an imaginative Love Hotel prop. The young guy who runs the place puts the TV on to an English speaking channel because I’m a Westerner, then tells me all about the accommodation while Baywatch The Movie is running in the background. He’s a good kid, even offering to go into town on his scooter and bring back some food for me, which he says he will get at ‘Vietnamese prices’. I shower and watch the second half of Baywatch whilst reclining on the Love Hotel sculpture chair. Surprisingly, it’s really rather comfortable.

Later, the manager bloke tells me where I can get food in town and seems genuinely shocked that I’m going to walk a kilometre to get there. I end up in a small supermarket stocking up on Cup Noodles, cakes and yoghurt drinks, making sure I have enough for dinner tonight and also for my final Vietnamese breakfast tomorrow. I’m just about to drift off to sleep when I become aware of some ‘Love Hotel’ squeaking from the room next door. Thankfully they’re quick about it.

I’m up a bit earlier than normal the following morning as I’ve got a long, hot 90km day ahead of me. I’ve also got a border crossing to negotiate, and there’s no telling how long that process may take. Still, in a few hours time I should be in Cambodia. I’m excited and a little nervous about the prospect of a new country, having spent almost two months in Vietnam. I’ve got used to how things work here with regards to food, accommodation, currency, roads and even tiny snippets of the language. I’m going to have to start my learning from scratch again once I get over the border. But then, these new experiences and different perspectives are half the point of travelling.

When I go to pay for my room the young manager bloke gives me too much change back by mistake. His blunder happens as the 20,000 Dong and the 500,000 Dong notes are both blue in colour. The poor chap absent-mindedly hands me back 500,000 Dong instead of 20,000. I should say something, but I don’t. I justify my behaviour by thinking of all the times I’ve paid ‘foreigner’ prices or simply been overcharged on this trip. This way I figure I’m getting all my rip-off money back in one lump sum on my last day in the country. Essentially, the unfortunate guy has just given me a free night’s accommodation and will also be paying for my final food stops in Vietnam.

I stop for my last Banh Mi breakfast, which is pretty standard fare, and take a selfie to commemorate the occasion. There will be a few ‘lasts’ today. Through the town of Cu Chi itself, I reach a massive junction and take a road that will transport me through my final 40km in Vietnam to the border. My Plastic Chair Cafe lunch is a chicken, rice and green beans offering, washed down with a cooling jug of iced tea. The kilometres are passing quickly today and, before I know it, I’m only 5km from the border. At this point I decide I’d like to have one last Vietnamese drip-filter coffee, and shoot across the road to a cafe on the opposite side. I still have to ask for my drink via mimes, even though I know that coffee with milk is ‘Ca Phe Sua’. I’ll have to learn the Cambodian equivalent for that pretty quickly. Disappointingly, they have no drip-filter coffee so I have to settle for ready mixed poured on top of condensed milk. I mix it all together then pour the whole lot into a glass with ice, which still has the desired effect.

Then I’m at the border. My visa runs out tomorrow, so I’ve definitely made the most of my time here. I never know what to expect at border posts; this one is somewhat chaotic and antiquated with no clear instructions on what to do or where you’re supposed to go. I chain my bike outside the building and wander in a side door where a dodgy looking guy latches on to me, saying he can help get my passport stamped for a fee of 100,000 VND (about £3.50). It turns out his entire task would be to point me to the correct queue and stand beside me while I do everything else. I tell him ‘No Thanks’. Instead I join a queue full of Asian tourists and within ten minutes I have my exit stamp from Vietnam safely in my passport. Back outside I reclaim my bike and have about two hundred metres of what looks like ‘No Man’s Land’ before the entry point for Cambodia. I’ll be in between countries for a short while.

My time in Vietnam, though, is over. Two months and over one thousand miles of cycling has taken me South from a cool Hanoi winter to a swelteringly hot day on the Cambodian border. I can honestly say this has been one of my favourite ever countries to cycle through. The roads can be a bit challenging at times with crazy traffic, constant horns and roadside litter, but I’ve still loved it. The people have been generally polite, helpful and friendly, even with the inevitable language barriers. The flip-side is that many will happily chat to you so they can show off to their friends or practice their English. Food has been cheap and healthy, even though there’s been some interesting times when I’ve not been entirely sure what I’m eating. Parts of the country are very built up and heavily populated, yet I still witnessed some stunningly gorgeous scenery almost every day. And finally, this has to be one of the safest countries I’ve ever travelled in. I’d feel much safer with the prospect of walking through the eight million population of Hanoi at night than I would through any UK city. Vietnam was a bit of an unknown for me eight weeks ago, but now I’m a huge fan. If this country is not on your bucket list, then it definitely should be !

 

 

Bypassing Saigon

7th MARCH 2019

There’s no breakfast option at my Tan Nghia accommodation, so today’s food consumption starts with my one remaining banana from yesterday. I’ve resumed cycling on the busy QL1A road again, and am destined to remain on this frenetic monstrosity for the whole day. Although I’m creeping ever closer to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I’ve decided that I’m just going to bypass this massive metropolis and head straight for the border. I really have no desire to cycle into a sprawling city of eleven million inhabitants, only to fight my way back out again when I leave. I’ll still have to skirt round the city, but I’ll be keeping well away from the centre.

Because I’m now heading West, the morning sun is beating down on my back for a change. It’s good that my forearms will finally get some relief from the the sun, although I’ll now have to pay more attention to protecting the back of my neck and ears. I set off at a brisk pace this morning, covering half of today’s distance in no time. Then the road gets progressively busier, the day becomes hotter and I have to stop for an iced coffee just to cool down. I have the old Vietnamese drip-filter coffee which falls, drop by drop, into a glass containing condensed milk at the bottom to act as a sweetener. It takes a few minutes for all the coffee to filter through, before I give the mixture a stir and tip the whole lot into a bigger glass full of ice. My God it’s refreshing ! The good thing about cafes in Vietnam is that you nearly always receive a jug of cold tea along with your order as well. So now, through a heady combination of iced coffee and cold tea, I’m rejuvenated and ready to go again.

Fuelled by caffeine, I continue in the heat once more towards a lunch of curried chicken, rice and veggies, accompanied by a bowl of sinister looking clear soup with gherkins. By late afternoon it has become exhaustingly hot, with the sun having moved overhead to beat down relentlessly on my forearms once again. After such a speedy start this morning, the final 20km drags by in sweltering slow motion. I cut off the big road for the final half hour, plodding my way lethargically to a modern, family run motel that is spotlessly clean. The owner is a genuinely friendly and hospitable guy, even though communication between us is a bit of a struggle. He sees how hot and knackered I look at check-in and gives me two extra bottles of chilled water to take to my room. He also prints out two copies of my Cambodian e-visa, after I make my request through the wizardry of Google translate. When I shower I give my sweaty cycling top a rudimentary wash on the floor by trampling it under my feet and soaking it with shower gel as I clean.

There’s a number of dinner options on the same street as my motel, although I avoid the busy ones and the karaoke venues. For some reason I’m drawn to a tiny Plastic Chair Cafe, where a young guy is displaying his wares at a food stall that looks like it’s been set up on the driveway of his family home. I can see trays of chicken’s feet and various other body parts which look nauseatingly grim, before I settle for something that vaguely resembles curry. My seat in their driveway is right beside the lounge window, where a little girl of about five keeps popping her head up to have a look at me and giggle. When my food arrives I really haven’t a clue what’s on my plate ! At first I think it might be curried snails, but then I realise that it’s probably chicken parts, in keeping with the gruesome offerings in the trays out front. These morsels are soft and gibletty, with a disturbing squishiness as I bite down on them. It would be a stretch to say I’m enjoying this dish, but I persevere and slowly chew my way through the contents of my meal. Part of me is a little troubled that I don’t exactly know what I’ve eaten. Another part of me is strangely proud.

It’s 8.30am when I wake the following morning, my room still pitch black and me having slept like a log. Breakfast is taken at a roadside Banh Mi stall, before I rejoin the QL1A for a 50km cycle that will take me to Bien Hoa, right on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. This distance wouldn’t normally be a problem, although trying to negotiate my way through horribly busy roads and junctions might well be. Mercifully, there is a good deal of cloud cover this morning, which should make a hot urban cycle that much easier.

By lunchtime the road has become noticeably busier, with a constant throng of traffic heading towards Ho Chi Minh City. I stop for a break and some lunch at a Plastic Chair Cafe that’s advertising Mi Quang. A young body-builder type guy greets me before going to get his mother, who arrives with an abrupt ‘What do you want ?’ At first I think I might have found another cafe run by a Grumpy Mother, but she warms to me once I sit down and start eating. She keeps me topped up with cold Vietnamese tea, while I try to extract some meat from a fatty chunk of pork that’s sitting in my noodles.

After lunch I continue picking my way closer to the big city, the road becoming slowly busier with each passing kilometre. There’s one point where the road splits and traffic can join a motorway straight into Ho Chi Minh City, but even this doesn’t seem to ease the traffic on my road. The streets are getting rougher and more bumpy too, with litter and debris scattering the edges, so I’m getting paranoid about puncturing again. When I reach Bien Hoa I’m still on the QL1A, and take a huge sweeping left turn through a jumbled, confusing junction to get within a few hundred metres of my accommodation. As I carry on down the road I can see my hotel on the other side, but I can’t simply cut across the road as there’s concrete safety barriers running between the two sets of carriageways. I have to keep going, moving further away from my hotel, until I reach a roundabout where I swing round and transport myself all the way back on the opposite carriageway.

The hotel is a swish-looking three storey building, with a curved stairway at the entrance and a massage parlour out the front. My bike is stored in their underground car park, complete with a security guard who hands me a little paper receipt when I leave my bike there. It’s only 3.00pm by the time I’ve checked in and showered, so today’s cycle has gone fairly smoothly in spite of the mad traffic.

I take a wander in the late afternoon to visit a huge Lotte Mart complex just up the road. It’s basically a supermarket, although it has a rather odd layout and is set up over four different floors. The ground floor is restaurants, the first and second floors are clothes and non-food groceries, while the third floor is where all the foodstuffs are sold. To top it all off there’s a cinema on the fourth floor. The escalators to each floor are on different sides of the building too, so you have to walk through the temptations of every floor if you want to get to the top. However, all I’m after on this visit is some sunscreen and mosquito spray. I spend ages looking for sunscreen, but the only ones I find contain whitening make-up for women. A girl on the shop floor tells me they have no ‘Man Sunscreen’.

At night the hotel restaurant claim they closed at 7.00pm, so I walk down a side street where I find two Plastic Chair Cafes. One looks to be selling whole chickens only, while I have absolutely no idea what meat is being sold at the other one. I really don’t want a repeat of last night’s mystery chicken parts, so I play it safe and return to the Lotte Mart. On the way there I use the main road and pass what look like three prostitutes standing at different points on the busy roadside. Each one I pass is wearing a mouth mask to stop them from breathing in traffic fumes, which I guess is sensible, but is still a bit of a weird sight.

Instead of sitting down for food I just visit the supermarket. I’m blown away by the sheer number of unhealthy snack options, and walk around mesmerised like a fat kid in a sweet shop. I end up going completely overboard with cakes, cream filled croissant, Cup Noodles and yoghurt drink. My personal favourite though is a strange looking baked bun with sausage meat inside. In the queue for the checkouts I become aware that a couple of people are staring at me, and are being quite blatant about it too. A girl in front turns round to look at me, then whispers something to her boyfriend. I just smile and say Hello, which causes a lot of giggling on her part. This happens two or three times with different people – they stare, I smile and say Hello, and they start giggling. I find this quite endearing and I’m pretty sure the giggling is just a reaction because they’re not sure how else to respond. I also notice how much taller I am than everyone else in the queues around me. I’m aware that people in South-East Asia are generally smaller than Westerners, but I’ve never seen such an obvious difference until tonight. It’s only taken me the eight weeks to spot this.

On my way back to the hotel I notice the three prostitutes are still standing in the same positions as they were almost an hour ago. Business must be slow tonight, or perhaps the mouth masks are a passion killer and putting customers off. For dinner I pig out on Cup Noodles, croissant, sausage buns and cake. After weeks of soup, rice and noodles this food blow-out feels sickeningly brilliant.

 

 

An Indecent Proposal

5th MARCH 2019

Considering the state I was in a couple of days ago, I wake up this morning with my insides feeling quite settled. Even my morning crap is a bit more solid today, despite its grotesque, yellow baby poo colour. Breakfast is the usual yoghurt, ‘froosh’ and cereal option, before I finally get all my gear together for an 11.00am departure. I say Goodbye to the hotel’s long term residents and their peculiar brand of semi-alcoholic, expat lifestyle. They all seem happy enough, but I don’t think it’s the life for me. Even with no money worries, I’d find it too boring to be stuck in the one place just getting drunk most nights. When I do leave, I only trundle as far as Madame Trinh’s restaurant for some lunch, where I have my prawns, veggies and rice combo, washed down by a fresh papaya milkshake.

I’ve given myself a simple 30km ride today, still slightly nervous about my guts after the ‘inconveniences’ of the last few days. I stick to the coast, past sparkling new tourist developments with reams of litter and rubbish strewn on the unused land between them. The road splits, giving me the choice of a high, exposed route through sand dunes or a slower plod through the touristy town of Phan Thiet. I choose the latter, and quickly realise it’s another destination that has been over-run with Russian holidaymakers. For a while it seems like every roadside building is either accommodation or a restaurant, until I finally emerge through the crowds to overlook the bustling fishing harbour at Mui Ne. Looking from above, the small bay is absolutely rammed with colourful wooden fishing boats as well as dozens of the round coracle ‘tubs’ used to ferry fishermen from the shore to their vessels.

Sticking to the coast I pass yet more resorts, before a final climb transports me up to join the inland road. I’ve not long joined this road when a walloping, fast downhill speeds me all the way back down to my destination of Puy Thuy. I even overtake a couple of scooters and motorbikes on this rapid descent, which leads to me grinning like a lunatic as I shoot past them. My accommodation is on the main road into town and seems to be a cross between a hotel and a Homestay. The owners live on the ground floor, while the two floors above are for guests. I’m told it will be alright to leave my bike unlocked in the large, open reception area, although I still feed my lock through the frame and back wheel as a deterrent. To be fair though, I have found Vietnam to be an incredibly safe country so far. People always say I might have my bike stolen in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, but it would be unlikely to happen anywhere else. It helps that on any given street the roadside businesses seem to form a little community, all looking out for each other and all aware of what’s going on around them. 

At night I eat at a food stall across from my hotel that is situated unsettlingly close to the busy main road. My old favourite Mi Quang is on the menu, and I’m given the choice of having it with pork or duck. I choose pork, but have to eat it with my hands like a caveman to prize any meat off the fatty chunks. The stall appears to be a family run business, with an old mother and her twenty-something son serving me. The bloke speaks a bit of English and is friendly enough, however the grumpy old mother is a different matter. She makes it quite clear that she’s not my biggest fan, simply staring at me coldly when she plonks a salad bowl down in front of me. I’m mid-way through my meal when she pops her head out again to have another good look. I just smile and nod, which only serves to make her look even more annoyed. Screw her. The food itself is no more than pork noodle soup and salad, but at eighty-two pence I suppose you get what you pay for.

I’m slightly relieved the next morning to find my bike still sitting in reception, even though a passer-by could have picked it up and walked away if they’d really wanted to. For breakfast I get stuck into baguette, two fried eggs, halved vine tomatoes and some sort of salami slices. I split the baguette in half and pop all the ingredients on top, giving me a pair of open sandwiches that are tasty, but not all that filling. Happily, the guesthouse owner also gives me a couple of bananas for the road to help make up my calories. As I’m about to leave I get talking to an older couple who are Vietnamese, but now live in Lyon in France. They speak French for the most part, interspersed with snippets of Vietnamese and English, which is a confusing mixture for my brain to deal with first thing in the morning.

On departure I notice two ATM’s across from the guesthouse, one of which won’t authorise my bank card, and one of which declines it. This sends me into a fleeting panic in case my bank has frozen the card due to all the withdrawals I’ve been making from foreign banks. I have to ride into the town centre to find a greater choice of cash machines and am mightily relieved when an Agribank ATM spits out a wad of Vietnamese Dong. Then I cycle back through town and join up with the main QL1A road again, which is now turning inland towards Ho Chi Minh City after following the coast all the way from Hanoi. Being back on this road isn’t much fun though, with a crazy amount of trucks and buses, and enough roadside debris to give me a year’s worth of punctures.

There’s not much that will tempt me into crossing this hectic road, but a Plastic Chair Cafe on the opposite side displaying a Mi Quang sign does the job. When I go over I find the woman who runs the cafe asleep in a hammock, clearly in the midst of her afternoon siesta. She wakes up when she hears me faffing about and says I can have Mi Quang as long as I don’t mind it with rice instead of noodles. This is fine by me, although it’s probably akin to having carbonara with rice rather than pasta. I sit down in the shade with a bottle of iced tea, relieved to be cooling off as I wait for my meal. When the owner brings my food she also pulls up a chair and sits next to me whilst watching American wrestling on her phone. She prods my arm, points to one of the wrestlers and then points to me. What ? Am I a wrestler ? Do I look like him ? Does she want to wrestle me ? I just shake my head and laugh because I’ve absolutely no idea what’s she’s on about. She’s obviously been watching my chopstick skills too, as she wanders off after a few minutes and returns with a fork for me to use. It’s always a bit demoralising when the locals think you’re rubbish with chopsticks, especially when I know I’ve been improving.

The temperature is creeping towards an oppressive mid-thirties by the time I finish lunch. I leave the wrestling lady, slap on more sunscreen and careen straight into another bizarre meeting within a few kilometres. A motorcyclist with one of those pollution-stopping mouth masks pulls up and rides alongside me for a while. This isn’t unusual in itself, as passing riders will quite often join me for a chat or just to say Hello. This bloke, however, is slightly different. He puts his hand up to his mouth mask and at first I think he’s asking if I want food which, once again, isn’t all that uncommon. On this trip I’ve had plenty of passing motorcyclists ask if I want to visit a cafe owned by one of their friends or family. I tell him via sign language that I’m OK and don’t need any food.

The chap is persistent though, continuing with his hand to mouth gestures. It almost looks like he’s simulating oral sex. Then he removes his mouth mask and rolls his tongue lasciviously round his mouth. For Fuck Sake. He’s either offering oral sex or wanting a blowjob. I make the Vietnamese gesture for ‘No’, where you cup your hand as if you’re unscrewing a lightbulb and move it from side to side, but then realise that might look slightly sexual in itself. To make it clear I shake my head, accompany that with a definite ‘No’ and carry on pedalling. I’ll try the tactic of just ignoring him for a while. He falls behind and I think he must have stopped at his village.

Two minutes later he’s back again and carrying on with his grim cock-sucking gestures. This is starting to get annoying and feel a bit uncomfortable. He’s a scrawny little bloke in his forties, so I’m not unduly worried, but I’d still rather he weren’t there. I motion the dismissive ‘Hop It’ thumb signal, accompanied by a very clear and unambiguous ‘Fuck Off’.

He drops back once again so I think maybe he’s taken the hint, but no, he’s still there in my shadow. I’m starting to get really pissed off with him by now. I slow down and surprise him (and myself) by pushing his shoulder so hard that he swerves out into the middle of the road. I follow this up with an aggressive ‘Piss Off Or I’ll Fucking Kill You !’ tirade, and throw in a throat-slitting action for good measure. He looks suitably shocked. He pulls way ahead this time and I stop to make it look like I’m popping his bike registration down on my phone. That’ll hopefully put the shits up him even more. He pulls into a village up ahead, which I scan carefully on the way past, but that’s the last I see of him.

I’m left wondering why someone would pull that kind of stunt, especially when the other party clearly isn’t interested. I’m certain he must have copped a few punches in his time if he indulges in this behaviour on a regular basis. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience and I’m glad that he pissed off in the end, otherwise I might have been forced to live up to my threats, and that really isn’t me. The only upside to this encounter is that both time and kilometres fly past, which means I’m checking in to my accommodation at Tan Nghia by mid-afternoon.

The site is a large, dusty square set back from the main road by around two hundred metres. What looks to be twenty tiny houses surrounding this square turn out to be individual single rooms. At only £6 per night they are almost hostel-cheap, although that price does seem to reflect the shoddy cleaning regime. My room has cobwebs, damp ceiling patches and a bin full of empty bottles and take-away containers left by the previous guests. Still, I have a flat screen TV and air-conditioning, so I’m not complaining too much.

For dinner I walk back to a Plastic Chair Cafe I’d noticed on the way into town this afternoon. I remember seeing their signs for rice meals, but when I get there it happens that the Rice Cafe have, rather implausably, run out of rice. They also appear to have run out of nearly everything else too. The owner lady says she can make me some Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) instead, so I have to make do with that.

I spend the evening writing Warm Showers requests and also creating a Couchsurfing Public Trip for when I reach Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I’ve given up writing separate Couchsurfing requests as it’s a lot of effort, and usually garners very little in the way of responses. I’ll just try my luck with a Public Trip and see if anyone bites. Even if I get no replies, the mere act of writing out these requests still helps to fill me with enthusiasm for the road ahead. Suddenly, the excitement and promise of a new country is becoming very real.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hotel California

3rd MARCH 2019

It’s 6.00am when I wake, my head feeling alright after the whisky and, so far, my stomach feeling alright after the shits. I open my room door, step out onto the passageway that rings the hotel’s first floor and sit down to watch sunrise. I’m moving away from the East coast of Vietnam now, so there won’t be many more chances to tick that box and see a sunrise over the South China Sea. It’s all a bit of an anticlimax though, a fairly average sunrise being obscured by a long band of cloud just above the horizon. Back to bed.

When I surface a second time I’m pleased, if slightly surprised, when I check my phone. My Cambodian e-visa that I applied for two days ago has come through already ! Even though I was always confident it would arrive before my Vietnamese visa ran out, it’s still a relief to have it finalised with eight days to spare.

Due to yesterday’s toilet ‘inconveniences’ I’m a little wary about going for a poo this morning. Instead, I bypass the unpredictability of a toilet visit and head downstairs for breakfast, asking for a bowl of yoghurt, fruit and cereal. Hien puts a dampener on that plan by saying they have ‘no froosh,’ so I have to make do with plain old yoghurt and cereal. Mind you, this might be a good thing given the state of my guts. My drinking buddies from last night are nowhere to be seen, with Hien telling me that they don’t usually get up ’till late.’ It appears that they live here in a sort of semi-comatose Hotel California existence, sleeping most of the day and just getting drunk each night. I can see this lifestyle being OK for a few days, but to drift through a whole year that way would be mind-numbing.

Back upstairs I get the feeling that I can’t put off a bathroom visit for much longer. I sit down apprehensively for a poo, slightly nervous about what might happen next. My fears are realised when a gruesome stream of liquid comes gushing out of my backside once again. I’m still not right, so a day of relaxation and sun avoidance is very much in order. For lunch I’m downstairs once again and pestering Hien for some Yang Chow Fried Rice. It’s basically Special Fried Rice, which is bland, filling and won’t cause too many issues for my stomach. I’m still trying to plug myself up with rice and hopefully make the contents of my bowels a little more solid. I’ve been a tad reckless with my diet so far, essentially adopting an ‘eat anything’ mantra. I figure if my body gets used to weird meals and hot spices, then nothing will be able to knock me down in terms of food. This approach has actually served me pretty well for the past six weeks and I’ll continue eating this way when I start to feel better. Ironically, I’m now convinced that my current predicament was caused by dodgy water, rather than dodgy food.

With little energy or enthusiasm for movement I have a lazy, listless afternoon. Walking around still makes me feel woozy, so the greatest distance I travel is from my room to a shaded beachside hammock. I spend the next couple of hours drifting in and out of sleep, whilst listening to the sound of small waves reaching the shore ahead of me. By early evening I find the three old mates from Koh Samui have taken up their familiar positions for the night. Aussie couple Mark and Jo, along with Norwegian nurse Nina are downstairs eating scallops and drinking white wine. I join them for a chat, only to end up helping them with their scallops as they’ve cooked far, far too many for three people. Mark pours me a glass of white wine too, which is very civilised of him, and then offers up what is a rare delicacy in Vietnam; cheese. It’s funny how an everyday foodstuff can become such a welcome treat when you haven’t had it for a while. In fact, thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve had any dairy products whatsoever during my six weeks in Vietnam ! 

Later in the evening German Sam rides back on his motorbike to say that one of his friends dogs has been dog-napped. He has heard of a nearby restaurant that serves dog meat, so is going to ride round there and offer them more money than the dog is worth as meat in an attempt to get it back. Aussie Mark, half-pissed again, wants to go with him and start a fight, but Sam sensibly talks him out of it. The dog has apparently been missing for two days now, so if it has been taken by the restaurant then it’s probably met a sad demise already. Mark then tells me that one of his mates managed to buy his own dog back from a restaurant in Hanoi through ‘friend of a friend’ contacts before it ended up on the dinner table. I’m quite shocked that this kind of thing still happens in 2019, but Pa (the old father of the house) says only in Hanoi. Sam rides off to the restaurant in question, but is back within fifteen minutes as it’s closed. As a rather unsatisfactory conclusion, I never did get to find out the end result of this episode.

The gang head upstairs about 9.00pm, clearly still feeling the effects of last night’s shenanigans and, with nothing better to do, I follow suit. I’ve also decided that tomorrow will be an extra Rest Day in an effort to calm this unsettled stomach of mine. This means that, slightly worryingly, I’ll already have stayed past my intended check out day in this bizarre Hotel California.

The following morning I’m downstairs again for my breakfast of yoghurt, fruit and cereal. Today’s bonus is that they do have ‘froosh’ in the form of mango, water melon, dragon fruit and mini bananas. I also have a ginger tea, with real slices of ginger floating round the bottom of my cup. I don’t particularly enjoy the taste, but persevere as ginger is meant to soothe a dodgy stomach. Back upstairs and my first crap of the day is ninety percent liquid again, although it’s slightly more solid and promising than the last two days.

Most of the morning is spent lounging around, before I head across the road to the reputedly cheaper Madame Trinh’s restaurant for lunch. I have prawns in a spicy-sweet vegetable sauce of tomato, onion, cucumber and pineapple, along with yet more boiled rice to plug up my bowels. Then I give in to temptation and ruin all my good work by having an iced coffee to go along with it. The whole meal, plus coffee comes to £1.30, which is indeed a lot cheaper than the food at my hotel.

After lunch I return to my hammock for a sleepy siesta, before getting into the sea to cool off. As I wade further into the water, I keep catching the glint of things moving on the seabed and have a couple of momentary ‘what’s that?’ panics. In fact, it turns out most of these apparitions are plastic bags, which is such a shame. I lie in the sun when I get out, attempting to even up my absurd cycling tan-lines, and find I’ve got a 2km stretch of beach all to myself.

Our restaurant isn’t cooking tonight as Ma and Pa are out somewhere, which gives me the perfect excuse to pop over the road to Madame Trinh’s again. In essence I have the same meal as this afternoon, only this time with fish. Strangely, there’s no one about tonight when I return, even Mark and Jo are having a quiet one. I go and sit beachside in the dark for a while before retiring upstairs. I’m feeling so much better this evening, with my returning appetite a sure sign of my recovery. I certainly feel like I’ll be able to continue cycling tomorrow, although I only pencil in a short 30km day to break myself back in gently. I’ve already spent two days convalescing in the surreal, twilight zone that is the Song Hien Hotel. This place seems to lull you into booking extra days, with Aussie Mark not helping matters by saying ‘Just stay mate.’ I think now is probably a good time to move on, before I become another permanent resident like the rest of them.

Toilet ‘Inconveniences’

2nd MARCH 2019

Not long after I wake I feel the urgent need to go for a poo. The split second I sit down an absolute torrent cascades out of my arse ! It sounds like I’m taking a piss, which is understandable given that it’s all liquid that’s flowing out. Jesus. I just sit there groaning for a few minutes while waiting to make sure that it’s safe to stand up again. My first thought is to book myself in for an extra night here to let my stomach settle, but Tuy Phong isn’t the prettiest or most interesting town. Plus I’ve already booked myself into a beachside place about 60km further South, so if I can just make it there today I’ll be able to have a Rest Day tomorrow.

The old receptionist lady kindly gives me two bottles of chilled water when I check out, before I make my way back up to the QL1A road for the first part of today’s journey. I stop for my standard breakfast of two Banh Mi, although I have to almost choke them down as I’ve really got no appetite. Their spiciness and unidentifiable meats probably means they’re not the best option in my condition either. Back on the main road I’m being pushed along by a strong tailwind again, and I start thinking about what could have given me the shits. Truthfully, it could have been anything, but I can’t help thinking it was that funny tasting water from Vinh Hy two days ago. Although both bottles were definitely sealed, they did taste horribly stale. Who knows ?

I stay on the QL1A road for the first hour or so today, with the kilometres passing by in a blur. At one point I think I might even reach my destination before check-in again. However, this speedy progress is destined to change very shortly.

Turning off the main road, I ride through a small town, over a river bridge and join a smaller road that follows the coast. It looks like one of those roads that have been constructed with the promise of new resorts being built in the future. The road surface is beautifully smooth and the borders uniformly landscaped, with one tree having been planted every ten metres or so. My first action on this road is a two kilometre slog up a steady hill, in what is now blazing sunshine. This uphill is relatively easy though, as the higher I climb up the slope, the stronger the breeze that pushes me along. It’s when I reach the top that things start to go pear-shaped. I relax and freewheel down the other side, but start to feel head-spinningly dizzy almost immediately. It feels like I could black out and lose consciousness at any second. I have visions of me waking up in a tangled and grazed heap on the road, so slow down to almost a crawl on the descent.

Carrying on I feel pretty light-headed and groggy, and need to stop under one of the planted trees for a break and to collect myself. The problem is that there’s not really any settlements on this road, so I’ve not much choice but to keep going until I reach my accommodation. After five minutes I get back on the bike, but still feel weak and wobbly. Strangely, going uphill seems to be alright, as I’m pedalling and keeping myself moving. It’s when I go downhill afterwards that I begin to feel really crap. About another 5km along the road I pass a dirt track with a cutting and a shady tree overhanging it. It looks so inviting and it’s becoming obvious that I need to stop for a while.

I push my bike through roadside sand to the cutting, rest it on the ground and sit under the shade of the leafy tree. I’m sitting there trying to chill and recover, when I hear a sudden expulsion of air from my front tyre. It has literally just popped while the bike was lying on its side ! Christ, that’s all I need when I feel so rubbish. I upend my bike, get the tyre off and find that a patch on my inner tube has popped upwards on one side to let all the air escape. Fuck Sake. I change inner tubes while sitting cross-legged under the tree, with the tyre feeling frying pan hot while I reattach it. If this second inner tube punctures I think I’m just going to hitch to my hotel. That’s the way I’m feeling now. A quick check on Google maps tells me I’m only halfway through today’s cycle, with about 30km still to be covered. This is going to be a real struggle with the way I’m feeling. The fact that there’s not a cloud in the sky isn’t going to help matters either.

I take an age just sitting there and trying to motivate myself to move. I’ve just about persuaded myself to get going when I feel my arse telling me that I need to evacuate my bowels again. It feels like it could happen immediately, so I’ve no option but to down my shorts and crap right there in the cutting. I say ‘crap’ but it’s almost entirely liquid. It looks like the pale, yellowy colour of urine, mixed with the occasional soft blob of something a little more solid. I’m definitely not well. I’ve also just realised that I need to wipe my arse. I choose the t-shirt that I wear least and have to sacrifice that, simply throwing it away when I’m finished. I’ve got the cold sweats now too, so procrastinate a bit longer. I really need to get moving though, if for no other reason than to get away from the mess I’ve just left on the ground.

Slowly I push my bike through the sand and back to the roadside. Despite feeling awful, I somehow still remember to check my tyres for any spiky burrs that might have attached themselves in the undergrowth. Oddly, I feel alright for the first little while, a bit like when you throw up and feel much better afterwards. Inevitably this feeling doesn’t last too long, with me slogging over undulating roads in an increasingly sandy terrain. Massive sand dunes are the main tourist draw in this part of Vietnam, but I honestly couldn’t care less at the moment. I just want to get where I’m going. There must be only 20km to go now, over more steady slopes where I plod slowly upwards and feel unsettlingly dizzy on the way down. At the top of one hill I join a smaller road and, tantalizingly, can see my final destination further down the coast. Thinking positively, it’s mostly downhill from here with the wind behind me, but in this horrible reality I know it’s still going to be a chore.

Freewheeling down this final slope I feel awful. There’s lots of tall, mature trees at the roadside now, but I don’t stop as most have picnicking families or motorcyclists under their shade. I carry on down the hill, feeling increasingly dizzy as I’m rolling along. By the bottom I’ve slowed almost to walking pace, even though it would have been a lovely downhill. I feel absolutely rotten. There’s a paint shop on a roundabout, where I just prop my bike up against the wall and sit on their front steps in the shade. I feel so very weak. Luckily no staff tell me to move on, so I sit there staring into space and taking small sips of water every now and then. After fifteen minutes I start to feel a bit more human and carry on once again. There must be only 10km to go now. One final effort, then I can relax and have a day off tomorrow.

There’s a slope up from the roundabout, then a big downhill to the shore. I suddenly realise that I feel fine on this downhill, so the rest stop might have done the trick. The wind pushes me along a coastline that is now much easier to ride in the cooler shade of late afternoon. At one point today I thought I might get here before check in. Now I’m just happy to have arrived.

The Song Hien Hotel has a bit of an odd set up. There’s a restaurant on the beach side of the road, with the hotel on the opposite side. I try to check in at the hotel side, only to be told that this building is only used as overflow when it gets extremely busy. I’ll be staying above the beachside restaurant instead, which is just what the doctor would have ordered after today. My bike goes in the back of a huge reception area alongside a handful of motorbikes, although I still chain it to a table anyway to be on the safe side. I trudge slowly up to the first floor, shower and lie under the fan for a while. I’ve made it ! Now I can relax after what has been a pretty rough day.

In the evening I head downstairs for some food, choosing a bland plain omelette and rice. My plan is to bung myself up with rice over the next few days and also get stuck into my Imodium tablets. Once I finish my food I meet the other hotel guests, although I quickly find out that they’re more long-term residents than guests. Fifty-something Australians Mark and Jo originally checked in here for a week, but that was one year ago. They used to own a bar on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand but ‘needed to get out’ after running it for ten years. Their friend, Nina, is a Norwegian psychiatric nurse who also lived on Koh Samui and has known Mark and Jo for twelve years. There’s also Sam, a laid back German martial artist, who has lived in Vietnam for a few years and calls this hotel home. And finally Max, an affable, smiling Swiss guy who’s married to Hien, the daughter of the hotel owners.

They are quite an eclectic bunch of expats, but are extremely friendly and welcome me in. I get to thinking that this place is a bit like Hotel California, where guests check in but can never leave. Aussie Mark pours me a very large whisky and coke, which I accept, even though it’s something I’d never normally drink. The alcohol will either send my guts into meltdown or kill all the bugs that have taken up residence in there. It’s nice to relax and chat nonsense after the day I’ve had, even though I drink a lot more whisky than is sensible for the condition of my guts. I call it quits about 10.00pm and retire upstairs, before what will be a definite Rest Day tomorrow.