I was in high spirits when I signed up for the bicycle tour but regretted it immediately. Only 9 kms she said, a nice lunch and a boat ride back. Sure that you don’t want the full, all day trip of 20 kms in the mountains. Much better for man like you. I knew that it was double the price and the temperature was due to climb to over 40 on the next day. I shook my head politely. A quadruple bypass, a new titanium hip and endless other scars were testament to man who should be starting to take it easy in life. Not cycling in the midday sun in Vietnam.
I woke early, did my stretches and squats and fortified myself with a full breakfast and masses of strong coffee. I then returned to the room, tried the cheap hat on again and forced it as far as it would go down my head. I then smothered every inch of my body with factor 30, especially my nose. I charged the camera, packed as much water as I could carry and made my way down to the lobby. The girl who had sold me the tour smiled. It very hot today. Pleese take care.
At 8.15 on the dot, a small girl appeared who looked about 15. I watched her go to the reception and knew it was her in an instance. She wore very tight blue jeans, a grey hoodie and gloves. She carried one those Vietnamese hats by her side. I walked towards her and she asked me if I was Clementine. I said no and indicated that that was the name of the receptionist who had booked it. Graham, I smiled. GraHAM, she replied emphasising the H. I nodded. She led me outside, placed a small helmet on my head and pulled the strap tightly around my chin, almost choking me.
She then climbed on the very small scooter, turned the engine on and asked me to climb on the back. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was and decided not to put my arms around her waist and grip her. I felt around and found a small handle at the back of the machine. I put one hand on it to steady myself, forced my knees inwards to get a good grip and held tightly on to my undersized, white cowboy hat that I had bought on the previous day for a ridiculous amount of money.
She said Ready and the scooter jolted forward. I held on as we sped up the road, crossed the intersection without looking and turned right over the bridge. At the end, she swerved in front of a bus and cavalcade of scooters and accelerated down a narrow street. A lorry came our way but she pressed her horn repeatedly and it moved to one side. I had forgotten whether I was covered by my insurance policy. We eventually stopped outside her office with a mass of bikes lined up in the street. We got off and she undid the helmet and I could breathe again.
Outside was a group of people covering themselves in factor 50 including a group of small children who were clearly Australian. The Mum was blonde and would not stop until they were ashen white. Dad looked on and shook his head. A tall English lad came out, as white as a sheet and introduced himself as Alan, a web designer from Leicester. He said that he had been welcomed everywhere because of Leicester’s standing in the Premier League. There was also a Dutch couple and three Americans who were distinctly quiet.
We all tried out the bikes and cycled up and down the street. The seats were adjusted and then we assembled in front of the girl who had collected me and her friend. The little one spoke and said her name was Quen, which meant Power. Her friend was Hue, which meant Thought. She gave us a few instructions and we set off down the street weaving from side to side and then turning left towards the lake. We stopped alongside a wooden boat, rolled our bikes along a plank and stacked them at the front. We were told to mind our heads as we sat down but as usual, yours truly walked straight into beam and flattened his cowboy hat.
The boat chugged away over the calm, still lake and came to rest against a wooden pier after ten minutes and we disembarked. I assumed that was where the cycling would begin but we turned a corner and stopped and entered a wood yard. We moved in and were given a lecture on boat building by Quen as the men hammered, screwed and sawed their way through large cuts of dark wood. At the end was a semi-finished one with a bright blue hull and large eyes painted on the front. We were told that the eyes were there to guide the fishermen in the right direction after a night on the rice wine. I looked on as a man in sandals with his toes exposed, placed a circular saw between his feet and cut through a large piece of wood. His friend was chipping away with a hammer and chisel at a smaller piece of wood, again with no shoes on and his toes exposed.
We left, walked across the road and watched another man with his legs crossed, chip away at mother and pearl as he weaved delicate patterns on the wood and pasted the tiny shells into complex shapes. She said that he had taken 5 years to learn the skills.
By the time that we returned to the bikes, the seats were red hot and the water in the bottles was roasting. The temperature was starting to rise rapidly and we cycled past boat yards and along the riverbank. Elevated fishing nets billowed in the wind waiting to be lowered in the evening to secure their catch attracted by lamps and candles. We cycled past houses with rice and peanuts drying outside on bamboo mats; water buffalo cooled in the muddy waters, occasionally grunting as white herons pecked at the water searching for fish. Everything was lush green with birds circling the small fishponds.
I was aware that I was getting hotter and hotter but had not realised how much until one of the small Australian children said that I looked like a beetroot. I was definitely wilting and the water was too hot to provide any reprieve from the heat. I was on the verge of turning back when the Dutch man offered me a biscuit filled with honey, which seemed to revive my sprits temporarily.
We cycled on as the heat grew more intense and my seat sank lower and my knees almost came to my chest. We stopped and Hue pushed my seat upwards. Shade was a relief as we swept through a small village where everyone shouted Alo and held out their hands to give a high five. All the cyclists in front held out their hands and carried out the manoeuvre but when I lifted my hand off the handlebar, I swerved to the left and almost hit a small woman and her child.
I had just about given up when we pulled into a small house and parked the bikes up. We were then given a lecture on how to make a circular boat from bamboo and how to fill it with cow shit to seal it. We were then led to the river where a toothless old lady dropped the boat into the water and paddled away with her knees tucked underneath her. She came back and beckoned us to try it out.
The Aussie lady was in first and was very adept, much to the admiration of her kids. The Dad refused claiming a bad back. The Dutch also refused but one American with the Jewish cap stitched into his hair, was off like a shot and didn’t need the old lady’s help. He congratulated himself as his colleague moved in gingerly with the old lady jumping in behind him and deliberately rocking it wildly. He was not amused when Quen shouted that there were crocodiles in the water and the old lady rocked harder and harder, singing Gangham style. He was relieved when he got back to the pier but was clearly upset by the experience. I declined on the grounds that I had a new hip and needed to be careful with bending. The Americans laughed and asked if the titanium would rust or not.
I thought that we would be off again but by the time we returned to the house, the table was laid with cakes and there were bottles of ice-cold LaRue beer. More importantly, there were two very large fans, one of which I sat in front of, as I put my hand in the ice box and held the freezing cold cubes to my face and neck. Bliss. I thought that I had recovered and felt good about myself until the little Aussie girl said that I looked like a tomato about to explode. I asked where the toilet was and was pointed to the back of the house past a bedroom with an old woman lying on her side. There was a room with large basin in it but no door. I decided I had no option despite the thought that the old lady was staring at me. I emptied the contents, put my hand under a tap and smiled as I walked past her.
I re-joined the group as we cycled past small temples and across paddy fields and narrow canals with small stone bridges. Quen insisted that we get off our bikes at each bridge in case we toppled in. In my case, there was a very distinct possibility and the water would have been a welcome relief.
We stopped at a house, parked the bikes and were greeted by the owner who kept bowing his head and smiling. We were then shown the process of making the rice wine, which made the local men very drunk especially after a hard day’s work. First it was soaked for days until it fermented; then it was put into plastic pots and then into metal canister where the distillation was finished. A large fat pig lay nearby obviously high on the fumes from the distillation process. Then to the tasting. One lot was cloudy and was only 30 per cent alcohol. We were given glasses and made the customary toast. Then the real hard nuts sampled the 50 per cent version, which was in a clear bottle. Again the customary toast. It tasted like the palinka from Hungary to me and was quite palatable. As we left, the owner smiled more and more and nodded. Obviously, he had been sampling the 50 per cent stuff to see if it was of the right quality.
We cycled much quicker after the rice wine, whisking through villages and waving our hands at the locals like lager louts. They must have known that we had just been down the road at the rice wine factory and just laughed. I don’t remember the next part of the journey but we passed through a sort of jungle retreat with bamboo houses and long tables. Lots of foreigners were busy eating and it reminded me of one of those POW camps in Japan in the Second World War.
We parked the bikes and entered a house, which we were told had been destroyed in the Vietnam War. It had been rebuilt and now a family lived here and this was a restaurant for tourists. There was one bedroom with no door and just a curtain for privacy. In the main room was another double bed and this had no mattress and just wooden slats and a bamboo mat. This was done to let the air circulate. In the main room was an altar and pictures of the deceased surrounded by incense candles. The dead were consulted on a variety of issues especially children’s names where two coins were thrown into the air and selection was based on the two same colours landing at the same time. They were allowed five goes before the ancestors got fed up and asked them to start all over again.
We then moved to the tables and were served lovely vegetarian food for those like me who had been newly converted as well as chicken for those who still liked eating dead animals. This was followed by mango, which was delicious, and of course beer. I sat opposite the oldest of the Aussie children, Rupert who had been quiet up to now with the conversation dominated by his two younger sisters. He started to disclose all of the family’s dark secrets much to chagrin of his Dad who sat next to him and tried to keep him quiet. His wife just smiled and said that they had encouraged the kids to integrate with older people like me and to be outspoken. His Dad attempted to stop him talking by feeding him but it was impossible to stop as he moved on to disreputable family members from the past.
The Americans thought that this was hilarious especially the one who was a journalist and training to be a Rabbi. I discovered that one was a surgeon; the other was an Emergency response Doctor and the latter, fluent in Hebrew and just moving to New York to finish his training. For one who has suffered so many misadventures and health scares, this was great to know. Open heart surgery in the bush; a new hip made from bamboo; brain surgery using the circular saw from the wood yard. The mind boggles.
We finished and walked across the road to watch a son and mother weave bamboo mats. He was cross-legged and pushed the weaving mechanism backwards and forwards. She inserted the coloured bamboo strands to create a multi-coloured mat in 4 hours. We left and there was a mound of what appeared to be black hair at the front of the house. I asked if it was horsehair and was told that it was seaweed and they would soak it and eat it that evening.
We left the bikes, walked out over a bridge and there was the boat waiting to take us back to Hoi An. What a relief. The thought of cycling all that way back had filled me with horror. Instead the small boat chugged away; we donned our bright red life jackets as if on the Titanic and sailed for 45 minutes down the river. Fishing boats passed us by; the large nets had turned a sharp sandy colour as they were lifted off the bottom and they billowed in the wind.
We relaxed, hid from the sun and reminisced about a beautiful day in the Vietnamese countryside.