Wednesday, 30 July 2008


I am fortunate, this week, to be in Vietnam for a speaking assignment. The theme of the conference is 'Reflect, Learn, Grow'; three very worthwhile actions. My week in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) has been a good opportunity for me to reflect back on my ride round the world and to learn a couple of things about myself. For this is the first time I have been back in the developing world (discounting the Sahara) since I cycled out of it on my way back to Europe and home.
Arriving in the city I was interested by how happy and comfortable I felt to be back amongst the whirling madness of the world again after too long in the ordered routine of Europe. I was grinning as I wandered in the warm electric air; the lingering smell of drains and motorbikes, the beeping of the most motorbikes I have ever seen, the lunacy of crossing the streets (simply trusting that the waves of motorbikes will part around you like a shoal of fish), life being lived in the streets, families eating beneath naked white light bulbs on low plastic stools outside on the uneven pavements, men squatting on their haunches smoking and spitting. The constant, though pleasant enough, solicitations for motorbike rides, zippos, fake Rolexs' and very good sex with very beautiful ladies. I smile and keep walking. I slurp cheap noodles at a street stall and feel invigorated to be back. I eat bizarre things I have never seen before, a giggling girl shows me how to eat them, and I look back with amazement that this was how I lived my life for over four years.
I stare, mesmerised as a lady skins still-wriggling, decapitated frogs with a pair of pliers, her action as smooth as pulling off a wet rubber glove. I peer at desiccated squid, stinking yet apparently delicious with chili sauce. I wrinkle my nose and a lady in a conical hat laughs at me. The sky is grey and moist and the storm breaks through the heat. Motorbikes slosh their way homewards, ladies hide their hair in plastic bags, dashing through the downpour, and I wander warm through the gleaming reflecting streets, all the oily colours of electronic billboards. Motorbike lights look like stained glass lanterns, translucent and multi-coloured. It took me a while to realise that this was because everyone's ponchos were hanging over their headlights.
And though I love being here I realise also that I have moved on. It answers a question that has haunted me intermittently ever since I stopped riding. I don't feel the urge to get on a bike and follow my nose out of the city, riding on and on and on to discover more of the country or the world. I'm no longer self-contained enough to exist solely on my own, in the silence of my thoughts. My days of loving the squalor, the daily chaos, the feeling of being utterly alien appear, after all, to have been satiated by my four years on the road. It's an important thing to have discovered, something that can only help me begin to settle to my new life, to the more ordered stability of SOUTH.
The opulence of my 20th floor hotel room is fun and lovely, but here it seems even more grotesque than it does in England where we can ignore our rich bubble life. I make the most of the hotel though, watching the England cricket Test match live via South African cable TV, then up at 5.15 with the first greying of the sky and silvering of the Mekong river between the black skyscrapers shining with lights. I swim 80 lengths, hit the gym and then -feeling smug- consider that I have earned the right to eat fruit, miso, pho, 8 pancakes, steak and eggs, a croissant and a pot of coffee for breakfast (even I pass up the chocolate ice cream on offer). Even in Vietnam the daily intense training for SOUTH must continue (I swim also at lunchtime and again before bed), as must our search for sponsors. So I spend most of each day here in Saigon sweating in internet cafes amongst smoking, yelling youngsters, chasing a dream that will take us to the frozen silence of the South Pole. It's a hell of an interesting planet we live on!

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(This website is not really an appropriate forum for this, but I spent yesterday at the Cu Chi tunnels and today at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh / Saigon. Important, important stuff to keep in my mind. If you have the inclination, learn more here. Shocking. Awful.)

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