Tom's Journey To Make Lives Better
29 Jan 2020
Find out what our CEO Tom has been doing on his charity challenge
It’s Tet, Vietnamese New Year and The Truants have invaded. Inoffensively. The busses rolled in to the anonymous giant hotel in the nondescript town of Phu Ly somewhere between Hanoi and Trang An. We met our mechanics and got to the setting up our battered and crunchy local mountain bikes just so and then caught up with friends old and new while tackling dinner.
It was OK, the first of many just like it: chicken and sweetcorn soup and bits and overcooked bobs and then at the end rice and watery vegetable soup and fruit. Not untasty in parts, and you get used to it.
Up early next morn and off into the hinterland, where our bikes awaited our backsides. We headed off between the rice paddies, utterly beautiful stretching away for miles to the limestone karsts of Ninh Binh in the distance with a huge pagoda as our guiding mark.
A lady in bright blue under her iconic conical hat spreading rice seed, alone in a vast sea of green; farmers bent double hoeing their field with the same square bladed hacking tool their ancestors used; tethered water buffalo grazing the verges, the occasional mud tractor roaring through a paddy with its steam boat paddle-type wheels readying the bed for the lady in the hat presumably, a sudden 1000 strong gaggle of white ducks flocking into the water on either side of the road, never actually getting in our way – like the traffic in Hanoi they flowed safely around us like water.
All a rural idyll, really except for the omnipresent plastic trash and smouldering rubbish dumps. It felt like a weather forecast: beautiful overall, but foul in places. Utterly foul.
Rant over, but not the pedalling. 72ks to do on the day, on mountain bikes and dirt tracks you can double that if you are comparing it to your road-bike outing on the South Downs. We reached our first gathering point after a gentle warm up on roads of reasonable quality, before tackling a long stretch of bumpy to potholed to dirt and back to road, all of which took us to that once distant giant pagoda for our next regathering.
We stretch out across any route, the faster ones forming a drafting peleton a way behind the lead guide and travelling at 20k’s+ per hour and the slowest doing half that in pairs and groups for a bit then alone with their knees and crotches aflame as they grind into the headwinds in solitary heroism, or with Henk and Lee, our Geordie paramedic, seeing the sorest through with pills, potions and positive chat.
The rear guard do tend to avoid the wrong turnings though. The lead group had to turn round 4ks or more down the wrong road and rejoin just as the tailenders were reaching the same junction for the first time. Serves them right thought our Heavy Cavalry!
And then after our next break under the shadow of the giant pagoda by a holy lake dotted with smaller ones we took off into a dramatic land of huge limestone karsts wriggling alongside the rivers between them, the scenery truly spectacular now as we knocked off the k’s to lunch in Trang An, a land of guesthouses and backpacking youth from all nations. We had the same meal again, and a few beers, cokes and lots of water and electrolytes and enjoyed lolling about as long as we could before setting off to our hotel along roads that now ceased to be such, becoming tracks and mudholes and jarring our wrists and twisting us this way and that weaving along two long loops of muddy paths between the paddies and fields in the shadow of the dramatic limestone cliffs. We negotiated them with only a few fallers and none of them bad (a rice paddy is good to fall into); and loved the beauty of the views as much as we loathed the jarring of ever-bruising backsides. 1st 72k done.
Next morning after the traditional Tai Chi warm up we set off down the main road, dodging the Tet traffic over a vast roundabout and a set of the traffic lights the locals regard as entirely voluntary, and heading off along the River Vac down the roughest of roads, made of granite lumps set into mud it seemed to me. That was 5ks of hell before things got a little better and then delightful on an brand new, empty, concrete highway had us hurtling along, only to end dramatically some 6 feet above the river.
The Tour de France would have gone in like lemmings, but after 7 rides we know to expect trouble, so we slewed to a halt with inches to go and tacked back to where Sen, our local guide, had just discovered the right way by asking the locals.
They sent us out through the fields on varying surfaces (surfaces REALLY matter), until our first brief roadside stop next to the smiling lady who was selling her just slaughtered pig piece by piece, and then on again, for we had 90ks to do today. We got to the little town of Phat Diem a long while later and met our first full on urban traffic and pedestrian chaos. It was brilliant! We picked our way along, past the cathedral you see when you watch ‘The Quiet American’, which you should.
We were the only people not hooting, instead we brought smiles and hellos from all we passed, which we returned with delight to even more amusement. It was a joy, but complicated riding, weaving into the traffic and out at very slow speed, a 100 Viet scooter hooters blaring not in anger, but in notification of approach from all directions. Don’t try it at home. Big Frank tumbled while narrowly avoiding a scooter and manfully rode on with a badly battered wrist, others narrowly missed crushing the roadside wares as we whizzed, then wobbled, then speeded up again through the melee. We gathered laughing and energised in the town square to sit down on tiny chairs for coffee.
We watched the fisherman work through the rugby pitch-sized pond in the square using nets in which he swam-walked to grab a catfish by its tail and hurl it out onto the road for his mate to gather in, all while more agile and frankly tastier looking fish jumped over the closing net and struggling bloke. Fishing the hard way!
After coffee (and an exhausted doze for some) we went back into the chaos of town and headed for the ferry a few clicks away, another hilarious delight of a ride through all the life and fun and chaos of a celebrating Viet village. It distracts one entirely from the hard work that legs and bums and wrists were still doing k after k. Then a welcome breather while we caught a seriously dodgy ferry across a tiny river and then off again, but only for a bit until we did the same again, river deltas being a bit like that.
Then it was off again amongst the fields and through the villages and a amazing number of huge Christian churches, sometimes 3 to a village, a weird sort of Easter Island heads kind of thing it seemed to me, before dropping in to a roadside restaurant for a picnic lunch of baguettes and burgers made by our local bike mechanics and guides. We welcomed knowing what it was we were eating for a change, though the vegans and veggies were not so charitable about their fried rice and onions.
The thing about riding is that you inevitably sometimes end up entirely on your own. You find you can’t quite keep up with the group or person you are with and the next Truant or group of them is far behind, so suddenly you round a bend and you are all alone in an utterly different land. You slow or speed up to try and reconnect, but you stay on your own, eventually enjoying that, revelling in the peace, or just working through the cacophony or smell before you then get wondering if you are still on the right road.
There is no map and when you get to a junction, there is quite often no guide there just then. He was, but he got a radio call to get to the front, or mend a puncture and roared off on his bike leaving you to guess. You do, and get it right, but the doubts grow and grow so you stop and meander back, until either you see a red shirt approaching and relax, or maybe catch a glimpse of one rounding a bend far ahead and pursue it with new vigour hoping it really was Truant red and not just Viet red, or maybe neither and you stop and ponder a life in the paddies until a motorcycle roars up and barks orders at you and you recommence your grind forwards or back depending. You can tell its real by the relief you feel when one of the 3 happens, as to be fair it always has this last decade. Eventually.
It’s not a usual thing to be utterly lost in our modern world, but when you don’t know where you are meant to be going and you don’t know from whence you came, your phone is useless and your great big ego disappears very fast.
It happened a lot that afternoon, the getting lost and finding ourselves, until a bunch of us lost ones ended up almost part of a Tet karaoke party when we paused to regather and wait to learn if we were on the right path. We were and as others caught up or looped back to us, we made the evening ride into Hai Phong,
Vietnam’s 3rd largest city and the dodgiest hotel of our tour. That was 90ks in a day, about half of it on rubbish roads or tracks: a mighty achievement for all and a superhuman one for the quite a few of us who weigh twice what we should. We then ate the dodgiest dinner of the tour across the road, with clever Mark and Helen sneaking in a pizza from Pizza Hut across the way while the rest of us survived the pork knuckle and slidy fish bits, even if the ‘crap broth’ was a bit much.
The next day, our last on the road thanks be, saw us head out through the city, almost devoid of traffic now the Tet revellers had all reached home; through spectacular new developments of beautiful housing, entirely unoccupied as yet and utterly different to all that surrounded them, like finding Holland Park amidst a council estate. Which come to think about it is where you find it I thought as we pedalled on over a huge bridge with a climb that was as steep and long as most of us can do and then sharp right and onto dire bits of canal-side path until we stopped for a desperately needed break next to a random fly-tip.
The smell moved us on asap out over our worst roads yet, some single file, some through toxic smoke from burning rubbish dumps and then into the villages and hamlets of joy and a sort of Viet poshness, with the roads getting easier and the landscape a bit cleaner as we headed out into the country to catch a proper ferry across the vast Da Bach River before stopping before heading out across much drier farming country towards Halong Bay on the toughest stretch of all: a long hard ride into headwinds all the way, seemingly all uphill.
We were truly knackered when we gathered at a school closed for the holidays to rest up a bit and repair Adam, who had tumbled while trying inexplicably to avoid Shacky’s fallen-off hooter and wait for poor Mike who had needed an emergency pitstop and found the rest of us gone when he finished his work some time later. A desperate WhatsApp message saved him from a life of wandering the Viet byways and made us complete again.
Our last leg saw us cycling the remaining ks slowly and together under lowering skies into the La Paz Resort on Halong Bay where we posed for photos and to relish a job and more than 220ks of hard riding well done, and more than ¾ of a million Sterling raised for our causes. Thanks to all of you.
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Tom's Opening Words
1 Feb 2021
We meet as if on a sunny little island in the middle of a vast sea of trouble and sadness