Sunday, November 30, 2008

Day 15 Ho Chi Minh City.

Day 15 Ho Chi Minh City.

As is often the case having spent the last 15 days focused on the goal of completing the cycling challenge afterwards there is both a sense of anti-climax and a feeling something has gone missing.

One of the great things about cycling over reasonable distances is that life is very simple, you have to focus on getting the job done and everything revolves around that. In this case tasks such as eating, applying sunscreen, bike maintenance and taking anti-malaria tablets were all supporting activities. At the end of the Challenge it was time to become less focused and consider the wider issues again.

After the obligatory cold beer and warm shower - not at the same time - Chris took me to meet Paul Cleves who founded the Saigon Children’s Charity in 1992. He studied geography at Cambridge and later taught at Eton where the idea of connecting his teaching life with his "travelling life" formed and the charity was born, focusing on the educational needs of the most disadvantaged children in order to achieve positive change for them. He ended up living in Vietnam running the charity full time in 1995. In 2004 Paul’s contribution to disadvantaged children was recognised and he was awarded the MBE. In 2007 he handed on the reins to another Paul - Paul Finnis. As you might imagine he still remains actively involved as a trustee of the Charity and continues to live in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh city).

Meeting Paul was slightly surreal, after having cycled across three countries eating a variety of different cuisines, Paul served us bread, cheese and tomatoes for lunch. (I must also mention the unshelled quails eggs - delicious but way too fiddly for a starving cyclist.) It was like being transported back to England and it was delicious. During lunch Paul filled us in on the details and background to his achievements.

I cannot really do justice to the work they do so I recommend you spend a bit of time on the website - Having witnessed some of the poverty at first hand it is humbling to see what can be achieved.

Later on we met with the current director of the charity Paul Finnis - sorry my picture of Paul F does not really do him justice. He has a background of working in the English voluntary and community sector with organisations such as Age Concern, Mencap and the Mental Health Foundation. Most recently he has been working as a consultant to a wide range of charities helping them with income generation, developing strategies, research, planning and management. He has now returned to the sharp end of "doing it" rather than "telling others how to do it". He has been in the role for around 18months and is certainly passionate and articulate about his role.

He also wanted me to pass along his personal thanks to those people who have kindly donated to the charity.

Afterwards Mary, Jim, Chris and I had a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant. I guess we were all a little distracted with the imminent return to the real world - although for me I was going to head off to Ha Noi to stay with my brother for a couple of days.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Day 15 22nd November My Tho to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) 94Km

Day 15 22nd November My Tho to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) 94Km

So here we are the - last day of cycling on the Bangkok to Saigon Challenge. Looking back it has been a trip with highs and lows, but now is not the time to reflect. As I found on the day I crossed from Cambodia to Vietnam a lot can go wrong very quickly. For one thing we had to decide whether we were going to cycle into the city or not, a city known for its masses of motorbikes swarming around the streets. and of course we still had 94Km/60 miles to cover.

The weather looked good for cycling - slightly overcast, so warm but not scorching, we did not skimp with the sunscreen though. Of course I took a few pictures first thing in the morning. I found getting up at around 5.30am quite easy, for me it provided a relaxing start to the day which was due to kick off with a cycling start of 7am. Here you can see the new bridge, virtually complete, seen from my hotel balcony.

One of the idiosyncrasies of this hotel was that Chris and I were given two breakfast coupons each, we were single occupants of double rooms, whilst Jim and Mary who shared a room got one coupon each. (Breakfast coupons seem to be a feature of hotels in AsiaPac, other hotels just log your breakfast against your room number). Each coupon allowed the selection of one food selection and one drink selection. So for me I had pork and noodle soup plus bread and jam, along with coffee and juice. All washed down with a malaria tablet.

Our plan was to start at 7am and we expected to get into the city before lunchtime, assuming that there were no prolonged stops. We also had to decide whether to cycle the final 10km or not. In fact I had already decided to do it, I have cycled in Phnom Penh and London so imagined it might be a mix of the two. Of course I could always bail out if it looked really bad.

Here are Jim and Mary in front of the hotel. The rental bikes are lined up whilst Jim brings his Titanium MTB out himself. Mary had stopped wearing her helmet for some time, Cycling in this heat the helmets take quite a battering, my helmet padding was starting to disintegrate, not critical to its safety, but potentially uncomfortable. Actually if I was being truthful I quickly forgot I was wearing the helmet and several times when we were viewing the temples I continued wearing it whilst inside them without realising it. Of course I then took it off - wearing headgear is impolite in a religious building.

The plan for today was to follow the van out of the town with Tom in it. We would then switch to smaller tracks and Tom would find a local motorcyclist to carry him and some water where the van could not follow. His goal was to avoid, as much as possible, the main roads into the city.

Yesterday's ride was idyllic, the tracks they found through the villages made for great cycling - not fast but packed with things to see. Today we would be on slightly larger dirt roads, more like farm tracks. The weather was slightly overcast, but all things considered we had been very lucky during this Challenge. We had only one day with a few spots rain when cycling. The only time it had rained in the daylight was during the rest stop at Phnom Penh and then we used Tuk-Tuks to get around so it did not matter. Mind you it was warmer here in general than the previous few days so if the sun did make it through it would be a scorcher, so we did not skimp on the sunscreen.

Fairly soon our road diverged from the main road - we took a ferry and Tom looked for a suitable motorcyclist. One of the advantages of taking a small ferry is that it acts as a natural barrier to the heavier vehicles. We still found ourselves cycling on wide tarmac at this point though.

I am still not sure why we saw so many duck farms, yet were not offered duck during any of our overnight stays? Here the farms looked bigger and more prosperous, they were organised rather than being tacked onto the edges of the lakes.

As we progressed we came across a rice harvest in the fields, Chis was a little cross that we did not stop for longer and cycle down the tracks to get some more "interesting!" photographs of the harvest (perhaps he had seen a young lady he wanted to flirt with :-)). Here my impression was that this was a more industrious operation. They were not unfriendly but did not stop to wave and smile, they had work to do.

To distract Chris I got him to cycle over a nearby bridge. This was not actually the route we took, but it was typical of many wooden bridges we had crossed., as you can see there were no railings. As an old hand at this he did not hesitate on the bridge. It certainly looked a lot more solid than some of the bridges in Cambodia.

We quickly came across another ferry. After a short wait we all moved on, by now we were getting better and turning our bicycles around on the deck when the ferries only had one ramp to be ready for fhe mass exit at the other end. It was quite a wide river with houses on each side. You can see vegetation floating in it - these make for interesting biological studies and can consist of up to 30 species of plant. The main problem for the locals is ensuring that they do not clog up the ferry ways.

Almost as soon as we got off the ferry we stopped to take pictures of rice paper drying by the side of the road. I had to be careful that my sweat did not drop onto the paper. It is used to make wontons and spring rolls apparently.

By now the traffic had reduced significantly, but my "parking" by the road side left something to be desired and scooter riders are very happy to beep at cyclists whom they consider to be an inferior species. Next time I'll bring my HumVee (no I don't have one really). The pace of life here seemed just slightly slower than when we were nearer the town instead of a field full of people, here two work away.

We also saw an angler in one of the small lakes by the side of the road, he was patiently casting his lure out, but did not appear to be catching anything. Although in my limited experience of cycling past anglers in the Fens of England that is the same the world over. In the foreground are more mats of rice paper drying. Perhaps that is what he was waiting for. One thing I did note was that there were far more electricity cables around, I had to work quite hard to avoid them in this photograph.

As we cycled on we came to what would be the last ferry journey of the whole trip. A new bridge was being built by the side so perhaps the days were numbered for the ferry, progress is inexorable. Although the boat did travel between three points so perhaps it would continue to eke out a living.

A family seemed to "live" on the boat. The father steered, the mother collected the money, Granny cooked the food whilst this little lad wandered around looking at the passengers. Today he certainly had a strange bunch of sweaty western cyclists to look at. Mind you we do not get whole groups of "watchers" here in Viet Nam, they are much more sophisticated watchers of the world.

Speaking of Granny here she is busy preparing a meal. One thing I am reminded of as I look at the picture is that this crouching position was very common to see in Viet Nam as people waited by the roadside, men and women alike. It is not a position I would find relaxing, in fact I have just tried to sit like that and find it pulls on my dodgy left knee.

Here is a silhouette of the mother after completing her rounds collecting the fare. She walked around with a wodge of money, neatly organised into various denominations, each time she took a fare she would put the new money into the right place and deftly seek out the change. Generally most of the transactions use paper money, there are some coins though. You can get by with $ in the cities and large towns, since Tom handled the fares I do not know whether $ would have been usable here.

One thing that we did see on our travels were graves in the fields. Rather than see cemeteries there would be small groups of stone sarcophagi in the fields. (Stone coffins, which look rather like monuments.) The Vietnamese seem to have fuse several influences into their Buddhist observances and indeed the the positioning of the memorial is also important (as in Chinese feng shui).

One aspect of out travels that never failed to fascinate me was the availability of "exotic" fruit on the roadside stalls. I know it is obvious that the fruit stalls would sell the indigenous fruits, but it drove home that we were in a different climate. The box to the left contains eggs, although in this case not fertilised ones that were common in both Cambodia and Viet Nam, for some reason none of us got around to trying them.

Although the route did not manage to travel quite the same small concrete village roads as the day before we did find ourselves on some dirt tracks. By now the sun had burnt the cloud cover away and we found ourselves sweating profusely and trying to drink loads of water to ensure we did not have dehydration problems. After a while it becomes quite difficult to drink water - it becomes bland - I guess at this point I would have had around 4 litres over 2 hours. Jim was suffering the most from the heat and would wring out his gloves from time to time. During this stop he tried to buy some Pepsi just to make it easier to take on board more fluids. They would either sell him a case of 24 cans, or a small bottle, after quite a lot of haggling he bought a small bottle and popped it into the cooler on the back of the motor cycle. When he drank it it seemed to last a couple of gulps before it had gone.

One trick we did use was to eat salted peanuts, this helped to replenish some of the salts we were losing in our sweat and also made us feel thirsty and so made it easier to drink yet more water. I also ate bananas to help replenish the lost potassium salts. None of us actually had any dehydration problems although we almost never needed to stop during a ride to "spend a penny" to use an old-fashioned English colloquialism (have a wee - to use another). In this case it would have been spend a dong I suppose. Normal kidney services did not re-start until after we stopped cycling in the sun on most days.

Very soon we reached the main road that heralded the last 10Km into Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) at this point Jim had decided that he was losing too much fluid to be comfortable and decided that discretion was the better part of valour and took to the van. The rest of us carried on cycling, in retrospect I am sure it was longer that 10Km. Tom got back onto a bicycle to lead us the last few kilometres of the way, unfortunately he was unable to cycle very quickly so perhaps it just seemed longer.

As we cycled the density of the traffic got higher and higher, both cars, trucks and motorcycles. It felt like what I imagined being a fish in a school of fish was like. You had to respond to the other fish, sorry other road-users around you. This meant using road-positioning that was never in my copy of the Highway Code (A manual published by the UK government for UK road users.) I also found it hard to adapt to Tom's slow pace, there are times when you need speed to mix it with such busy traffic.

Whenever I asked Tom how much further instead of giving a distance he would quote a time, he was always optimistic though. At one point the traffic was swarming up a bridge. There were two lanes in either direction and a central divide. On our side some slow-moving cycle traffic was effectively blocking one lane. The traffic turned out to be a very heavily laden bicycle that was being walked up the incline of the bridge and also a Cyclo being pushed. Cyclos are a kind of tricycle with a two person seat at the front with the cyclist at the back. It must be a tough way to earn a living especially when they are so heavy that the driver (cyclist) has to push an empty one up even a small hill.

After what seemed like ages we found ourselves cycling along a road with roadworks in the middle. Each time we cleared the roadworks you ran the risk of motorcycles joining from the right running into you. Fortunately nothing untoward happened and we found ourselves in front of our hotel.

Instead of stopping to savour our arrival and take pictures we seemed to go into a frenzied mode of unloading the van and removing all of our own bits and pieces from the bicycles. It was a bit of an anti-climax. It actually took a lot of cajoling to get everyone to stop for the photograph, JIm is hiding because he did not have his B2S Challenge top on, although he was wearing his helmet, perhaps he felt it was safer wearing it for the van ride into the centre.

Just to prove my mascot also made it here is Custard in Saigon. Chris and I enjoyed a celebratory Saigon cold beer.

That was the end of the cycle ride, however I did get the opportunity to meet both the founder of the Saigon Children's Charity and the current director which I will cover in my next entry.

I will also try and summarise what this journey meant for me after some time for reflection.

For those that are interested after Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) I will fly up to spend some time with my brother and his wife in Ha Noi (including a cruise on Halong Bay) - so more pictures will feature in the blog - no thanks to one Taxi driver!!!

For the record though - according to my GPS system, which I think performed well, the statistics are:

Total distance 1127Km
Time in the saddle 56 hours 22 minutes
Calories burnt 38,000 ( an over-estimate I think)
Height climbed 9,000 metres in total (again an over-estimate I think).
Countries 3
Punctures 1 (Chris)
Funds raised £5,000 and counting.

Would I do something like this again - in a heartbeat - but not on a rental bike :-)

Day 14 21st November Can Lau to My Tho 110Km

Day 14 21st November Can Lau to My Tho 110Km

The hotel was fine, I got up early had a quick breakfast and went through my routines; taking a malaria tablet, packing, putting on sunscreen, water, GPS on the bike and satellites fixed. As a group we were all getting much better at being ready on time. One of the last jobs was to check that the luggage was all loaded onto the van prior to setting off. It was a little strange to think that this was the penultimate day of the Cycle Challenge - where had the time gone?

Here is a view from my bedroom balcony, one of my rituals is to take pictures of and from hotel rooms I stay in. (It drives my family nuts).

Today was to be quite a long day, but the early part would take some of the smaller village paths/roads. Many of these were concrete and only just wide enough for two bikes/motor bikes so we would get to see the rural side of Viet Nam. As Tom was still suffering from knee problems he had hired a local motor bike driver to lead the way. Although the paths were not quite as unpredictable as the Cambodian dirt tracks it helped to have local knowledge to ensure we did not miss the scenic countryside. A cooler box full of water bottles was also carried by the motor bike. That way we could ensure we maintained our hydration in places where the van was not able to follow.

Just for the record here is the fourth bike I rode on the trip, everything was in much better shape on this bike. Custard transferred from my blue bar bag to the black one supplied with the bike. A pity I did not include my Brooks saddle in the picture, which by now was definitely looking more aged and showing depressions where it had adapted to my shape. It was very comfortable but the wear and tear was accelerated by its time bumping in the van in Cambodia, even with the cover on, which had worn through.

Here is Jim psyching himself up for the ride, ready to leave the hotel. My hotel room had a balcony overlooking the main street, but it was not noisy. Our support van can be seen just behind Jim. One thing I have not mentioned, perhaps because I am now used to it - they also drive on the right in Viet Nam, but with more discipline than in Cambodia.

The early morning traffic was quite busy with motorbikes swarming as usual, my impression of the traffic in Vietnam is that it is a little more orderly than in Cambodia, but there are also many more motorbikes on the roads. After a few kilometres we moved away from the bustle of the town traffic and commuters to a small lane. Instead of parking the family car here they park the family boat in front of the house.

Along this lane there were a variety of houses, given the amount of water around many were built on poles, this one looks like it has had a later extension on the side of the house. The water acts as a moat.

As we cycled along the industriousness of the Vietnamese people can be seen in the roadside stalls. I am not sure what the plants were by the roadside, there were lots for sale though.

Here is a picture of the road, several contrasts with Cambodia; a good road surface and telegraph poles to name but two.

It is not unusual to see tropical fruit growing here, it is tropical after all, equivalent to say apple trees in England. When the van stopped for a water and snack stop they would sometimes have a bunch of bananas. Bananas are good cycling food, they provide carbs, potassium and vitamins and are easy to digest. Even better, out here they tasted much, much nicer than the bananas that make it to the UK. I don't eat many bananas back home as they seem to acquire a bitty texture. Out here they were sweeter and smoother.

As we cycled along, Tom and the Motorcycle driver would generally stay ahead of us, every now and then they would stop to check the directions with the locals. They ensured that we stayed away from main roads as much as possible. Choosing the route is clearly a flexible process. While they were busy navigating we followed, stopping as something caught our eye, taking pictures and then cycling furiously to catch up.

One such time I had stopped to photograph something and was speeding along to catch the others, but still looking at the scenery around me. This was the path I was travelling down when I got a bang on the head or rather the helmet fortunately. I had not seen a mango hanging down and clouted it as I went through. It would have knocked me off my bike without the helmet. I also found that they hung their electricity wires quite low across the path, requiring me to duck once or twice. The other challenge involved in cycling along these paths is that the young men whizz by on their motorbikes with almost no room to spare (I know I sound like a grumpy old man - I don't believe it). I found that the best thing to do was just carry on, if I took too much avoiding action then I would wobble towards the edge and then back again making the near miss even nearer. I don't think any of us actually brushed against someone coming the other way, the Vietnamese are well used to riding on these small "lanes".

As we progressed towards My Tho we crossed rivers using a few smaller ferries, really only suitable for people, bikes and motorbikes. As we waited we would often get giggling schoolkids looking at us, I found that the best way to "scare" them off was to pretend to take a picture. In this picture we were waiting for the ferry to arrive, it was a three-way stop. Apparently the kids travel free, but is quite expensive considering for the rest in terms of the level of wages here.

The lad in the red hat was paying a lot of attention but trying to avoid getting his picture taken, he did a good job of it. Round here it was common to see young children travelling around on the ferries. Invariably they would be the first on the ferry and first off, often jumping off before the ferry had reach the ramp.

One unusual sight during this ferry trip was a church, the first I noticed in Viet Nam.

A more common sight, in Viet Nam, was the sale of produce by the roadside, not that different from seeing farm produce sold by the roadside in the UK. The bridge in the background was somewhat larger than many we had travelled over. Often they were fairly short, around 10m and had no railings. On a bike the best approach was to maintain a reasonable pace over them - and not wobble - whilst hoping there was no-one coming the other way.

The area we cycled through was clearly set up for agriculture, fields edges were defined, with appropriate water levels for rice planting.

One thing that was not as common as in Cambodia were Palm trees, I've no idea why not.

We did see lotus flowers growing quite often, they are the Vietnamese national flower and it is a symbol of purity, commitment and optimism for the future.

This is one bridge we did not cycle over, there would have been quite a sag in the middle. Again it shows the Vietnamese ability to pragmatically overcome obstacles, in my view anyway.

Here we have some more rice fields, nicely laid out. I think that the fact that it was the penultimate day and that my opportunities to take pictures would soon diminish caused me to take even more pictures.

As we cycled along one small path we passedby some brick kilns., Tom was off in the distance, but with that odd mix of tourist curiosity and arrogance we wandered in and around to have a look. The owner seemed to be welcoming, although give the little Vietnamese I know he might just as well been telling us to go away or we will spook his bricks.

On the other side was a communal house, somewhat similar in concept to almshouses in England I believe. It was an unusually ornate building for this path.

Rice husks were used to fuel the kiln, seen in the pile in the foreground.

Inside the kiln it was pretty hot (doh what was I expecting), here is the where they fired the bricks.

A little further up the path we caught another ferry and could see the two Kilns by the side of the river bank.

As we approached the town/city of My Tho it turned from an idyllic rural cycle ride into an urban "hell", once again we had to use maximum concentration to avoid the vehicles moving in all directions including coming up on the inside, the wrong way. My Tho is situated on one of the large tributaries of the Mekong Delta and had the air of a seaside town. At one point as we cycled into the centre of the town the road appeared blocked so our support van drove on the opposite side of the road with its hazard lights flashing and we followed behind it like some strange bicycle convoy.

In one place the road was being re-built, but instead of using traffic lights to control the traffic flow both sides carried on regardless, swerving around the road-building equipment. It was a good job we had mountain bikes with thick tyres as the road surface was thick gravel in places and very difficult to cycle on.

Eventually we reached our hotel, a very nice place by the river, here is the view, from the hotel, of the other side, look at all of those TV aerials.

The view from the hotel of the hotel river bank side, shows a bridge being constructed further upstream. We saw a number of bridges being constructed during our rides around Viet Nam. This one is due to open soon, a large construction by any standards.

The hotel's restaurant was on the riverside, overlooking the river, this was the open bit, further along it was fully enclosed. On arrival we normally "celebrated" with a chilled (or as chilled as we could get) beer. Chris is sitting here waiting for his to arrive whilst I pass the time taking pictures. Then we would all pop back to our rooms to shower and sort out whatever "cleanish" clothes we could find for dinner and apply insect repellent. The more organised of us also did some clothes washing, after a while I gave up as I found myself carrying damp clothes from one hotel to the next. Our bikes got cleaned for us, JIm washed his own bike though, where possible sneaking it up to wash in the shower!

The other great thing about Vietnamese Hotels is that most of them also had free wireless internet and no rip-off extra charges. The first time I noticed my laptop had connected before I realised. To make an unauthorised connection like this is illegal in the UK and I figured that in a Communist country the rules were not going to be any laxer - gulp. So I checked with the front desk, later my brother confirmed that the internet is widely and freely available in the business hotels he uses when travelling around Viet Nam.

On this trip we atel ocal food for dinner organised by the appropriate cycling guide, although they did not eat with us. At this place we found ourselves eating our dinner inside the restaurant. It was an interesting mix of food designed to appeal to Western tastes. for me I would have preferred Vietnamese food - Pho would have been my choice. One of the dishes was a rather odd vegetable soup - I had to put chillies and fish sauce in it to liven it up.

As you might expect from a hotel situated by the river, various fish dishes were served - the giant prawns were delicious and as Jim and Mary did not want theirs Chris and I got two each.

Tomorrow Saigon or bust - we have to make a decision whether we would cycle into the centre of Saigon or not. On previous trips they sometimes cycled to within 10Km of the centre and then hopped into the van for the rest of the journey because the heavy traffic can be very intimidating.

Day 13 20th November Chau Doc to Can Lau 107Km

Day 13 20th November Chau Doc to Can Lau 107Km (planned distance was 85Km)

After the events of yesterday I was still on a high - I really did not think that I was going to get into Vietnam through that border. I woke early and strolled over to the restaurant for breakfast. In the early morning the temperature was very pleasant and at 6am there was someone to take my order in the restaurant. I chose bread and jamas we had a large meal the night before. I was a bit surprised to see someone who looked suspiciously like my waiter go cycling off, to return a short while later with a bag dangling from his handlebars. I think that he had been to fetch the bread, it was certainly fresh. I also had iced coffee, I think I was pushing my luck there, a small filter coffee on a cup turned up along with some ice, in the end I drank the coffee hot, it seemed too long a wait for it to melt the ice.

Both Tom (the Cycling guide) and Huang, who drove the van were experienced in dealing with cyclists and cycles, the van was clean and had fixing points for bicycles to be properly stored. They also worked together to load and unload the bicycles, taking care to treat them properly. In Jim's case he was concerned when we loaded his bike onto the van the previous night, but both Tom and Huang took note and treated his bike carefully.

Here is the pond that I crossed in order to get to the restaurant. There was also a little wooden bridge across it.

The four of us had three rooms around a single entrance and foyer, it was quiet and seemed well kept. We were on the ground floor.

During breakfast Chris kept suggesting that we detour to cycle a small hill nearby, he was quite adamant, actually it did have its benefits. It would help to make up for some of missing cycling from yesterday and it would certainly provide some great views of the Vietnamese countryside. Apparently the border can be clearly seen in the difference between the green Vietnamese fields, which are well irrigated and the brown Cambodian fields which weren't. Tom was a bit concerned that we might have problems with motorcycles speeding down the hill. Apparently it was a popular spot for the locals to perform their daily exercises, sufficiently refreshed they would then zoom down.

Before we set off we had a quick look at the bikes, I oiled mine, checked the seat height and tightened the brakes. I also had a look at the chain and various cogs. The chain was knackered - not a cycling term but you get the idea. I could get my finger between it and the front sprocket (cog). Hum - this did not bode well for the day, my high diminished slightly. We set off - we cycled into the nearby town, swarming across the junctions just like all the others (cyclists, motorbikes and cars). It was around 5Km to the top and as we got closer we realised it was pretty steep. My bike gave me a hint of things to come, it seemed that most of the gears were not working, It kept slipping, just about tolerable on the flat, but almost impossible to cope with cycling up a hill. As it got steeper the only usable gear was the granny gear. The gearing was so extreme and the hill was sufficiently steep that I had to sit in the saddle and lean towards the handlebars to prevent myself from tipping over backwards.

Jim and Mary sped off, I and crawled along after them. Normally when cycling up hills I like to stand and pedal, it helps to stretch the legs. It was impossible, if I tried to get any other gear it kept slipping. At one point the back wheel lost traction (because of the granny gear) and I had to jump off. The only way to carry on was to wheel the bike off the road at the next corner and get some momentum before the road steepened again. I finally reached the top, hot bothered and very unhappy with my bike.

The views were great though, unfortunately it was a bit hazy so the pictures were not brilliant. We did not spot the border. My GPS reckoned the hill was about 240m high (750ft). It certainly felt like it.

Here are Jim and Mary sitting waiting for me to get to the top. Neither Tom nor Chris reached the top, they both gave up at the first sign of a slope. Whilst it was a great view and definitely worth it, I think they just wanted to tire us out. In Tom's case his knee problems worried him and that is why he was trying to put us off. When he realised he could let us go up on our own he was happier. In the event we only saw a few motorcycles and they all treated us with courtesy. You can also see Mary's bandage, out here it seemed prudent to ensure any wounds were kept clean and dry. The first few days after Mary's accident her cut did play up.

As we headed down the hill it took me a while to sort out a decent gear and given my unhappiness with the bike I did not dare get up any speed. By the time I had reached the bottom the rear brake was practically useless. At the bottom Tom and Chris were having a drink, I virtually slammed my bike on the floor (but didn't - it had some of my components on it) and we had a look. The rear mech - the swingy thing that moves the chain to different cogs was pretty sticky, even after some oil it was not much better.

We set off back the way we came and headed towards a ferry, our country routes were to take us over a number of ferries over the next couple of days. This one was probably one of the the biggest ferries. Quite often they only loaded at one end and then did an interesting dance as they passed the ferry going in the opposite direction and reversed into their destination. Sometimes they would stop at two or three points during their journey across the river.

The country lanes were a wonderful way to see Vietnam. At first there were a lot of motor scooters around in the towns, but the further out we headed the quieter the roads became. Here are the team - Tom is in the snake-skin patterned top.

In general Vietnam seemed to be better cultivated than Cambodia, in part this was due to better irrigation systems, but I also felt that the Vietnamese were also better organised.

After a few kilometres we switch to a much bumpier track, it was being upgraded, but whilst it was being worked on that left even bigger ruts as the lorries came and went. At this point my gears slipped on every small bridge and virtually all the bumps,. When heading up a bridge you want to go quite slowly but be able to power over the top when you can see it is clear. For me that was impossible, even worse, on the bumps and ruts you need to be able to power the bike through potholes, because it was impossible to steer round all of them. In these conditions I did not clip in (allow my shoes to lock to the pedals) just in case I needed to be able to jump off. Some of the potholes can go very deep.

Chris seemed to avoid cycling with me as the bike got worse and worse, he was the supplier! The final straw came when at one rut the gears slipped completely and I ended up gashing the back of my leg, well it felt like a gash, it was a 2cm scrape plus bruise and runny blood (you need to have read the earlier blogs for that reference). I caught up with the others, jumped off the bike and fumed. I am ashamed to say that the poverty we were witnessing along with the welcome we were getting just washed over me at that point.

We had stopped near some wooden shacks on wooden stilts the other side of some water. The inhabitants were very friendly and wanted us to take pictures of them and of the insides of their houses. The chap in the middle was very welcoming, shaking hands with us and muttering something - which turned out to be give me your camera!

Jim and I followed one lady to her house, but after taking a look at the not so skinny Westerners she was clearly concerned that the "bridge" a wooden pole, would not take the weight of both of us. The way Jim looks it was clear he wondered whether it would take the weight of one of us.

Mary and Chris came back from their visit quite shocked, in the house they had seen two young kids, tied down to beds both foaming at the mouth. It was clear that there was something seriously wrong with them. It was easy to take a Western view of this and consider it as cruelty. However you need to consider that if the family does not work then it does not eat. They can't spare someone to look after the two handicapped children. There is not a health service or social support system, so they have little choice but to do what they do.

They did tell us that they had been informed and it had been confirmed by the Government that this genetic damage to the children was a by-product of chemicals arising from the massive use of Agent Orange to defoliate parts of the countryside by the Americans during the war. Obviously we had no way of knowing the cause, but none the less it was a shocking sight to see.

We weren't sure why they were particularly friendly to us, they did not ask for anything and we did not feel that they were at all hostile. Perhaps they just needed us to witness their plight.

It was also quite common to see duck farms in the water by the side of the roads. There were always people watching the ducks closely, to ensure that they did not escape and perhaps also to ensure that they were not pinched. Mind you, we never ate any duck whilst we were in Vietnam.

One noticeable thing is that these conical hats are very common in Viet Nam (as it is called here). This was the style of hat the hotel lent us during last nights downpour.

One enterprising duck farm owner had dyed all the ducks pink, they certainly stood out.

After the tracks we met up with the support van; Tom gave up on cycling for that day because of his knee and I swapped to my fourth bike of the trip. Fortunately for me the company that Tom and Huang worked for had a spare bike (well-maintained) which was more or less my size. Once again we switched over my bits onto the next bike. Although it had its own handlebar bag so I used that, I did switch over Custard though. The bike was a hybrid, a cross between a mountain bike and a normal road bike. As a result I sat more upright, it had smoother tyres and slightly rounded handlebars. The gears all worked and the brakes were sharp, for me it was a no brainer I would use it. As the rest of the trip was not going to pass over such extreme trails as in Cambodia its smoother tyres would also make it more efficient. The only challenge would be the additional wind resistance from the more upright position and the pressure on my wrists from a different handlebar position.

It was a short ride to lunch, we sat out in the open in the shade of a tree and enjoyed Pho, which to my untrained ear sounded like "fur". Essentially is it a beef and noodle soup with several herbs (four in our case) on the side. Then each person can add as much or as little of the herbs plus sliced chillies and fish sauce as desired. I think that there was also a sliced lime and some salt that are mixed up into a paste as well. It is a traditional dish that can be eaten at any meal time. It is good for (non-vegetarian) cyclists as it is easy to digest, a good source of energy and delicious.

At this point I felt that it might be a good idea to use the toilet (or bathroom as some prefer to call it) and not just to empty my bladder! Nothing urgent, I was not suffering from dodgy ice or strange food. Tom asked and the proprietor led me to a small room made from corrugated iron around the back of the cooking area. At this point I was rather confused. It was quite dark (I should have brought a torch with me), but it looked more like a laundry area, there was a pile of damp clothes and a washing basin. In the corner of the room was a small hole that led to the outside, although just what bit of outside I was not sure.

At this point I decided that perhaps I had better leave it, if I was right and it was a laundry area then it would certainly have made the owner thing that we western cyclists would somewhat barbaric defecating in laundries. Instead I took an Immodium Instant to slow things down and ensure that the rest of the ride was comfortable. It certainly seemed to do the trick, although I did not run a control experiment and certainly not a double-blind test. Later on after discussing this with Tom he was not much the wiser, it was indeed a laundry , but perhaps weeing out of the corner was allowed.

After lunch we had a short ride and then caught another ferry. For some reason my saddle kept slipping and after the ferry Chris and I stopped to tighten it up. We lost the Van and the other two following it. (Tom was in the van as well). We came to a large junction and Chris rang Tom on his mobile to get directions. Up until lunchtime Chris had been tracking the route on his GPS system, but for some reason it was playing up and so his was not tracking our position but had a map of the area, mine was working but I had not downloaded maps for the area (I had tried but could not find any free ones).

Anyway Tom gave us the direction and we set off, the wind behind us and a river to the right of us. After a while Chris was a little confused as he was expecting the river to be on the other side. So we rang Tom again, it turned out he had given us the wrong direction. None of us knew where we were, so Chris handed the phone to a local garage owner and some discussion followed in Vietnamese, I am not sure it totally resolved our position but Tom and Huang eventually found us and offered to put the bikes in the van and take us up to where Mary and Jim were waiting. Since it was only around 5Km. We thought it would take more time loading the bikes than cycling them so we set of back whilst Tom and Huang tried to shuttle between the two groups of cyclists supplying water and directions at key points on the journey.

Things seemed to be going smoothly, at one point we were only about 5 mins down the road from Jim and Mary so I tried to step up the pace with Chris drafting behind me. I would slowly increase my speed, but as I approached around 32Km/h (20mph) Chris would drop right back. We stopped for water and Chris explained that he just did not have the energy. I did not really want to set out on my own,. I didn't have my mobile phone with me, nor did I know the name of the hotel or the town even. But in the end I could not dawdle at Chris' pace so set out on my own. It was a lovely day, quite warm, but nice for cycling.

As I cycled I must have misheard the expected distance at the last stop because I was expecting to come across the ferry crossing at around 35Km after the lunchstop, but saw nothing. I was pretty sure I was on the right road as I could see the river intermittently and there were bursts of traffic coming the other way, surely an indication of a ferry load being put ashore? I decided to go on for another 5Km to 40Km, at one point I was run off the road by a bus overtaking a lorry, I had no choice but to cycle onto the verge. This was the most blatant opression of cyclists I'd experienced during the B2S Challenge. I have had the same thing happen in England - only then I think it was lack of attention, in this case the bus beeped at me to ensure I got out of the way.

As I cycled through the towns it seemed that the rice drying also seemed to be on a much larger scale in Vietnam compared with Cambodia.

At around 40Km I passed a small ferry, but since the van was not there I decided to carry on, I thought I could see something further up the river, but by now was getting a little concerned. Had I just gone past the FERRY, but such a small ferry would hardly carry our van let along other traffic. Just as my resolve was starting to weaken (again) I cycled into a larger town and saw Tom waving at me. Jim and Mary were in the van getting some rest. After a short while Chris also came into view and we all caught the ferry to the other side.

It was a short ride of 5Km into the town and our next hotel - a larger Provincial Town hotel.