coffee

The Flat Country – Cake, Coffee and Communism

I’m slightly surprised to find it’s my last night in Vietnam already.

I probably shouldn’t be, though.

I’ve ploughed mostly straight down the main road for hundreds of kilometres, mainly with a handy tailwind to this point.  And coastal Vietnam is one of the flattest places I’ve ever ridden.  But it still seems too soon to be leaving.

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For the main part, the road’s been a bit dull.  Wide, flat, well-surfaced and mostly straight.  It’s only really been enlivened by the entertaining traffic, though there’s been quite a lot more of that than the picture above may suggest.  Certainly enough to keep the adrenaline spiking every so often.

On the other hand, I’ve got sore smiling muscles, arms and vocal chords from the amount of ‘Hellos’ and waves I’ve had to return all the way down from Hanoi.  I’ve also drunk a significant quantity of coffee in a variety of formats (who knew that Vietnam was the world’s second-biggest coffee exporter?).

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And I’ve really enjoyed the country’s interesting mixture of cultures; the usual south-east Asian hotchpotch of cultures and religions, with an added dash of French patisserie and 21st-Century-style Capitalist-Communism (all highly appropriate when the father of the nation – Ho Chi Minh – once worked as a pastry chef on a cross-Channel ferry, at least as Wikipedia tells it…).

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Anyway, after the heavy miles of the first few days, I settled for a couple of half days in preparation for tomorrow’s (Sunday’s) big climb to Laos, with the border nearly 700 metres uphill from where I start in the morning.

As a result, I was on a slow meander today, with only 50-odd kilometres to ride.  This gave me the opportunity to discover that certain well-known mapping software is not always entirely accurate.  The road I was on looked like a highway on the map.  For a while, it looked a lot like the first picture above.

And a few minutes later, it looked like this:

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It still looked like a highway on the map.  A lesson learned…

So, with a bit of luck, it’s on to Laos tomorrow.  Hopefully just as interesting and as much fun as Vietnam has been.  I met a pair of German tourers this evening, accounting both for the fact that it’s now well past my target bedtime, and for my optimism about the road ahead.  They’ve run a lot of my route in reverse, and are (fairly) nearly finished with their ride from Germany to Beijing.

Luck, it appears, may be required with the weather.  Having been dry since the morning I left Hanoi, it’s currently tipping down outside.  So I may have the choice of getting extremely soggy, or having a day off after all.

Decisions, decisions…

Remembering How to Ride

It’s funny how you can forget how to do something you’ve been doing perfectly well for eight months.

Though, I suppose it’s no stranger than Tiger Woods forgetting how to play golf, or the England cricket team…  Well, the less said about them, the better, I think.

While I was moaning about the sweating and the headwinds last time, it also turns out that I’d forgotten how to ride in the heat.  I think it was the month in Indonesia; maybe ten degrees celsius cooler than Australia, but much steeper.  I got used to being able to go harder (and having to go harder over the hills) than I could before.  And then I forgot to readjust to new circumstances here.

Anyway, I’ve remembered in the last few days.  Start a little earlier, go a little slower, stop for a little longer in the shade.  And the miles will come.

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The last vaguely hilly section of road so far was just south of Kuala Lumpur, as I passed the motor racing circuit at Sepang (above).  I seem to be just missing a couple of big Malaysian sports events by a few days: Sepang will host the Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix in a couple of weeks, and the country’s biggest bike race (the Tour of Langkawi) is on this week, but sadly nowhere near where I am.

Once past Kuala Lumpur, and having stopped, as expected, at Klang (not as noisy as I’d expected), the roads became pretty much pan flat, and the Beast and I have made some decent ground up the coast.

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The only vague complaint is that the scenery is a bit dull; billions of palm trees and not a huge amount else.

But the towns are as interesting as ever.  It’s still hard to get my head round the diversity of the Malaysian population, with every large-ish town sprinkled with mosques, churches and Chinese temples.  I’ve had a rest day today (Friday) in Sitiawan, which seems to have a large Indian population, and I’m just across the road from a large Hindu temple here:

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What’s surprising (to me, at least) is that there’s no real sense of tension or separation between all those different groups, unlike the immigration / ghettoisation / race-relation issues you tend to see in Europe and the US.  Everyone seems to get along with no major problems.  I guess there may be some underlying difficulties which are hard to sense just passing through, but it feels like it all works pretty well from my cycling outsider’s point of view.

Speaking of cyclists, I’ve started seeing a few other tourists on the road (I’d started wondering when I’d meet any more; half of Australia and the whole of Indonesia had passed without seeing any).  There were a trio in Singapore on my way to the border.  And then two yesterday south of Sitiawan.  All heading the other way, but it’s nice to know there are some others out there.

And finally, you expect to find a few oddities when you’re outside your own culture.  But this was just plain confusing:

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So, is it coffee?  Or tea?  Or something else altogether?  I can tell you’re on the edge of your seat.  Well, it turned out to be a mixture of coffee and tea.  Which is entirely peculiar.  And an innovation which I’m fairly sure nobody ever asked for.

I know it’s hard to see how things can get much more interesting than coffee-tea.  But I’ll keep you posted; you never know what’s out there…