Sunday, 3 August
My first night in Lourdes was shared in a room with two other Soldier On riders; a tight yet restful night after trying to get sleep the day before without much luck. After breakfast Adam, Matt, Justin and I met Andy and Jodie for a coffee in down-town Lourdes. Although we were still down two riders (they were en-route from San Sebastian) a quick walk around the busy square followed before we decided a lazy spin to get the legs moving after all the travel was needed.
The easy 63.5km ride saw us head out to Luz-St. Sauveur for some sight-seeing and a taste of the Pyrenees’ weather. This was the ride in which it finally sank in that we had actually made it to France and in a few days time would be representing Soldier On in the Trois Etapes. The ride out was quite an emotional experience for me as it was the culmination of months of training, many set-backs (physically, emotionally and mentally) and a few late minute changes to the travel that threatened to delay our arrival. The ride was very enjoyable and we all soon found a nice rhythm riding together after a few weeks apart. Not wanting to push too hard on the first day in France, we headed back to Lourdes to catch up with the other two riders, Dan and Shane, as well as team driver Bruce.
Dinner was a casual affair at a local restaurant (not called a French restaurant in France) which proved challenging for this vegetarian; luckily salads are quite common in most European countries – albeit with an excess of tomato and cheese.
Monday, 4 August
The next day’s ride was a typical coffee ride that would see the entire team, and driver Bruce, explore some of the local countryside over a relatively easy 47km. There was of course a couple of ugly ramps leading up to a hill-top church including a nice little 28% stretch that left me trying to bite my front wheel!
For the first time since the Trois Etapes was confirmed, Team Soldier On had it’s full roster and was gearing up for the race in four days time.
Tuesday, 5 August – My 33rd Birthday
The plan was simple… Breakfast and then an easy ride to the Col du Tourmalet followed by a quick descent back to Lourdes. But like all simple plans; this one wasn’t. Not even 10 minutes into this ride and I was separated from the rest of the group thanks to some red lights and me not knowing the route out of Lourdes.
Suddenly I found myself riding alone and heading out of Lourdes towards the airport; definitely not the way to Tourmalet. After stopping and some back and forth messaging later, I decided I was too far away from the team and went for a solo ride instead.
I spent my 33rd birthday riding the French countryside; not a bad day at all.
Wednesday, 6 August
A very unexciting day of eating, resting and tapering for the three-day race.
Lourdes put on a fantastic day of sun and warmth; the perfect day for a slow and steady ride to spin the legs.
Thursday, 7 August
With the entire Soldier On team finally in Lourdes, photographer Matthew and manager Clare arriving the night before, it was time for us to have a look at some of the unknown sections of the race; this time in the cars!
We drove up the Col du Soulor, Col de Spandelles and Col du Tourmalet. I can honestly say after the day-trip I was dreading each of the climbs, especially the goat track that was Spandelles!
In the afternoon we set off for another short ride to keep the legs fresh for the first stage of the race the next morning, this time we were joined by coach Scott Sunderland.
In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform. A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again. And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts. When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.
Day 13: We checked out of our hotel and were picked up by our driver and guide Quyen, for a two and a half hour drive to the Bac Ha Sunday markets. The first sign that this day was going to be interesting was the distinct lack of functioning seat belts in the back of the Toyota Camry in which we were traveling. About 10 minutes into the drive down the mountain I couldn’t help but foresee my own death caused by rapid ejection through the windscreen.
In the end the drive to the markets was uneventful except for the dozens of close calls with buffalos and completely clueless idiots wandering onto the road.
The markets themselves were huge and full of the ‘upland’ people who still dress in traditional clothing. The markets were full of the usual meat, fruit, vegetables and tourist trinkets; as well as buffalo, horse, dog and singing birds. Quyen was ever helpful in explaining some of the customs of these mountain villagers. After wandering the markets for an hour or so we stopped for lunch.
After lunch we headed out for a tour of two of nearby villages. Quyen explained the daily life of the villagers to us and took us away from the usual tracks to see some of the crops and homes up close. The weather had changed and it was now extremely hot and humid; while it was uncomfortable to us the more overweight and heavily dressed tourists in the central village were much worse off.
At the end of the walk through the second village we boarded a river boat for a quick cruise on the Chay River. This was quite enjoyable in the cool breeze and Carly even dipped her feet into the water to cool down.
After a short break from the 40’C and 100% humidity we drove back to Lao Cai to wait for the overnight train back to Ha Noi. As we had a few hours to kill, we visited the Vietnam / China border and heard some stories about Vietnamese women being stolen for forced prostitution and people fleeing from both countries.
Finally we boarded the train to Ha Noi and soon we were off into the Vietnamese night.
Day 14: Our train pulled into Ha Noi at 04:30. Unlike last time’s shuddering stop to wake us up; soft music played over the speakers before we came to our sudden halt.
Once again it was a mad rush to get off the train and after a few minutes palming off the not so reputable ‘taxi’ drivers (possibly organ harvesters) we found our driver and headed off to the hotel.
We were able to arrange an early check-in at the hotel and get some sleep before wandering the nearby markets and food vendors in the afternoon after the temperature dropped a little.
Day 10: We left Hoi An and drove to the airport at Da Nang. After a quick flight we arrived in Ha Noi where we were met by our new guide Long and our driver Wei. We had a 45 minute drive into town where we were to do a tour of the city and have lunch. Long was extremely funny when explaining Ha Noi life to us during our drive; always giving us tips on staying safe and avoiding tourist traps.
Our first stop after lunch was the Mot Cot Pagoda or the One Pillared Pagoda built in 1049 in the shape of a lotus flower. Or as I liked to call it… temple #12’500 for the trip.
A quick walk down the road was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum; unfortunately we couldn’t go inside and see Uncle Ho as it was closed for the wet season.
Next up was the Temple Of Literature built to worship Confucius and house Vietnam’s first university. Oh yay another temple… We were supposed to visit here first up in the morning, but it was closed due to a visiting dignitary. I would have been happy with it being closed all day to be honest. The buildings and gardens around such areas are impressive but the temples themselves contain crap. I won’t mince words, the original sentiment disappeared decades ago and has since been replaced by thousands of incense candles, cheap recreations of long lost artefacts and locals trying to sell trinkets. By this stage I was well and truly over having shit thrust at me and being told “you buy something!”
After seeing paper mâché Confucius and paying the equivalent of 10 cents to pee we drove to the Ha Noi Lo Museum; better known as the Ha Noi Hilton. This was built as a gaol by the incredibly brutal French colonialists to basically torture people they didn’t like. Later during the Vietnam War it was used to ‘accommodate America prisoners of war’ including US Senator John McCain.
The rest of our afternoon was spent looking a temple honoring a magic turtle (I kid you not) and touring the old quarter in a pedicab helping to set back Asian/Anglo relations by having old Asian men ride us around town.
Later in the evening we went and watched a Vietnamese Water Puppet show. Basically these are puppets in water set to traditional music and song. It wasn’t too hard to follow what was happening but being 6 foot tall in seats designed for 5 foot Asians; the night definitely dragged on a little.
Day 11: We awoke and embarked on a two hour drive to Ninh Binh to see ‘Ha Long Bay on Land’. We embarked on a short boat ride up the river and through the ‘three caves’. This was quite enjoyable despite the very obvious tourist trap atmosphere to the area. The locals row you up the river and at the turn around point others in their boats close in and hard sell you their wares and expensive food and drinks. This is after others in their boats take your photo and demand you buy it. It’s a real shame that this area has become like this; ultimately it is the fault of the tourist trade but aggressive selling will eventually be the undoing of this place.
After spending the last half of our boat ride in a monsoonal storm we drove to the ancient city of Dai Vet wringing wet to see another few temples before the drive back to Na Noi and our overnight train ride to Lao Cai.
Day 12: We arrived in Lao Cai at around 05:30 to the sweet smell of the train having the septic tanks emptied onto the tracks. Our driver picked us up and we drove up the mountain range towards Sa Pa for an early check in and breakfast before our day trek on the buffalo tracks around the rice fields and villages of Sa Pa.
The short trek was a highlight for the trip as we were able to see the village life up close. Outside of the hustle and bustle of the big cities being able to witness their farming lives was much more enjoyable. The people use all available land to farm and only have small living areas for themselves and livestock. The villagers were very friendly and thanks to the local know how of our guide, the hawkers were kept at bay.
Day 5: Our driver picked us up from our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City at 06:30 in the morning. Even at this early time the people of HCMC were out and about doing group calisthenics in the district parks, opening their shops and speeding down the streets on their scooters.
We arrived at the airport and checked in for our flight to Da Lat. The flight was quick and soon we were on our way to our new hotel just across the road from the lake near the centre of town.
Before we had the chance to get out and explore the city the rain came pouring down and we were stuck watching terrible Asian MTV in the hotel room.
When the rain finally stopped we went for a walk around the lake before a quick lunch while the weather cleared up and the blue sky reappeared.
The nearby markets were full of fresh fruits, flowers and random meats; some fresher than others.
Our fifth day in Asia ended with a quiet dinner for two in the hotel’s restaurant enjoying a traditional Vietnamese banquet and local red wine.
Day 6: We awoke to a sunny Da Lat morning and a few hours of touring some of the sites around town. Our first stop of the morning was the old Da Lat Train Station.
Next up was the Valley of Love…. OMG! If you are after kitschy over romantic, how do I say… Crap! Then this is your destination. This was one stop I could have done without. The views are spectacular, but they have removed all natural beauty of the area by erecting oversized love hearts, Cinderella statues and ugly bird houses.
After the Valley we drove to the Da Lat Royal Palace. It is quite interesting to see that the palace has been kept as it was in the 1950’s when the Royal family left Vietnam. By today’s standards it is reminiscent of an old military mess furnished with your grandparents antiques. In comparison to other palaces around the world, even in its prime the Da Lat Royal Palace and its gardens would have been quite tame and understated.
Our final destination for the tour was the Datanla Falls just outside of town. Aimed clearly at a tourist market the falls were somewhat impressive but the walk into and out of the rainforest was much more enjoyable.
After returning to our hotel we headed out for a walk around the surrounding suburbs to admire the French inspired architecture.
Before the afternoon rains rolled in we enjoyed a quiet lunch at a cafe over looking Hoa Binh square; enjoying the Vietnamese sweet milk coffee.
In the afternoon we visited the local markets again to buy some fresh fruit for an afternoon snack. As usual the market was a hive of activity.
We took the long way back to the hotel walking through the suburbs and saying hello to the locals while searching for a place to have dinner. As enjoyable as the tours have been so far on this trip it is far more rewarding to spend a few hours wandering around the town soaking up the Vietnamese lifestyle.
Day 7: Once again our day started early as we were flying out to Da Nang and then driving onto Hoi An. Our new guide Tuyet and her driver were at Da Nang airport waiting for us. She was very friendly and extremely proficient with English.
The first stop for the morning was the Cham Museum in Da Nang. After spending almost all of our time in Cambodia looking at temples and artefacts; it was very hard to distinguish between these 90 Buddha statues and the 1’900 I had already seen. I don’t think I will be going into anymore incense filled museums and temples for the duration of this trip unless it is something extremely special.
Next we drove through Da Nang to the Marble Mountain overlooking China Beach. Marble Mountain used to be mined for quality marble to make statues, tiles and furniture. Nowadays it is a backdrop for an immense marble market where the locals try to sell their wares to tourists. As impressive as some of the works are I have no need for a 700kg statue of Buddha in my lounge room. It is interesting to note that all of the marble being sold at these markets is imported from Pakistan and not sourced locally.
Soon we arrived in Hoi An, Tuyet being a local of 27 years, took us to a local restaurant, The Secret Garden, for a Vietnamese banquet lunch. Once again we were not disappointed with the fantastic food on offer.
After lunch we visited the centre of Hoi An and some of the local tailors who make measured to fit clothing. Hoi An is famous for its many, many clothes stores that make clothes to order or copy fashion trends such as “James Bond’s Skyfall suit!” After a quick size up and some clothes ordered for both Carly and I we headed to the hotel for check in before our tour of Hoi An in the afternoon.
By the time we left the hotel it was pouring down with rain which thankfully dropped the temperature a little. Tuyet took us around her home town and it quickly became obvious that Hoi An was filled with and aimed squarely at tourists. Any speck of traditional Vietnamese style or tradition had been glossed over with a generous helping of kitsch aimed at parting gullible tourists with their money. This is not to say Hoi An doesn’t have a lot to offer, it does, but you need to walk a few streets behind the clothes stores and the neon signs to find it. The street sellers and souvenir traders are more aggressive here and will only stop their attempts to sell you their products after several firm “no’s” or in the case of one determined restaurant bus boy who got in our faces; “fuck off idiot!”
As night fell and the rain continued we ventured out onto the streets for another visit to the tailor. A quick fitting of our almost completed clothes and we were off looking for a quiet place for dinner. By the time we headed back to the hotel at around 9pm most of the stores were closing and restaurants empty. In comparison to Da Lat the night before, Han Oi was a relative ghost town. With another early start ahead of a Vietnamese cooking class, tomorrow looks like another eventful day in Vietnam.