a new journey

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A mischievous countenance flickered across his face, eyes twinkling the glimmer of the grin of a naughty schoolboy plays across his lips. I am used to seeing this when he is explaining to a beautiful Vietnamese girl just why it is that she would be the luckies girl to ever have been born if she were to become my wife, or at least, that is what he explains to me that he is telling her as she looks me up and down doubtfully. On this occasion though the only beautiful ladies are whizzing past on motor-scooters, there are only the two of us in the bar, or to be more precise sitting on ankle high stools at a shin high table on a pavement that masquerades as a bar. I drain my beer and order two more. “you mean to tell me that it could well rain all the time?” “Oh yes” says Phong by now having dropped the subtlety of the flickering boyish grin and fallen into a high degree of mirth at my state of dismay, “and lots of mud, last week it began to rain one day in Hanoi and it didn’t stop for a week, it is the rain season you know”.

Having spent the past eleven years living in the tropics I have come to take the rain season with a pinch of salt. For sure you are likely to have rain in the rain season, it would be a travesty of a moniker for a season were there not a drop of rain, but rain all the time. “You could have mentioned this before” I tell him flicking beer at him, he laughs, “then I would not be about to set out on an adventure with this good friend of my grandfather” he says through a frantic spate of laughter.

Whenever one reads tales or sees films of high adventure the protagonist, always a rugged handsome masculine sort of a chap of high intellect and an unrivalled knowledge of far of places, never seems to be troubled by extremes of weather. He will endure weeks of endless rain in dreadful cold and muddy conditions as though he hasn’t even noticed that he is anywhere other than a beach in the South of France during the most agreeable part of July. He crosses desserts in blistering heat and never suffers sunburn, dehydration, or the misery of having thrown all his clothes away only to be shocked to find that the temperature plummets hideously soon after sunset. He can wander knee deep through snow all day and never once complain that his feet are causing him misery of biblical proportions and that snow has found its way into the upper reaches of his long-johns. I, on the other hand, make a poor adventurer. I dislike discomfort with a passion. Come day’s end I am far keener to retire on a comfy bed following a hearty restaurant meal and a medicinal glass or two of red than settle down on the floor of a cave or shelter from a deluge beneath a rhinoceros or sleep on a string bed having dined on leaves and larva courtesy of a jolly and hospitable peasant family in the back end of beyond.

We return our attention to the map and Phong goes back to explaining potential routes, The plan is to take a night train to the Chinese border and spend two weeks cycling in the Central and North East Highlands, areas that, if my understanding of the shading on my map is anywhere near correct, well deserve their names, “This will be a very tough day” he tells me, again. I am becoming disturbed, we are on day five and five times now Phong has told me that ‘this will be a tough day’. I tell him this and he explains “oh yes, two very big passes to cross on this day”. “Ah, so two long down hills then?” I ask with optimism “yes, and two long ups hills. This will be fine for me as I am young, but for you you poor old friend of my grandfather, I have a rope to tow you, you are an old man”.

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phong considers the route

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looks hilly to me

Our journey should take us a couple of weeks and will, by all accounts, be hilly. Much of the route is very close to the Chinese border, a sensitive area of remote villages and traditional tribal folks who no doubt dine on leaves and larvae and as all minority people do, wear odd hats.

We set out this evening on the night train to Sapa, or thereabouts. Best I get on and assemble my bicycle.

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ready for dinner

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bia hoi, the local light beer at 3 pints for a pound

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breakfast

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a street hawker

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the railway runs right past people homes

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I mean right past

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i shall leave you with a few street plants

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