The Pink Panther hits Saigon

I ALWAYS GET FINISH LINE NERVES towards the end of long journeys. And my final day of the Ho Chi Mission was no different. During the last six weeks The Pink Panther and I had clunked 3000 km through three countries, taking on every type of tropical terrain imaginable.  The journey had by no means been incident free: Panther had had several engine rebuilds and was partially held together with cable-ties, and I now had a large scar across my left shin. But otherwise, we were recognisable as the same beings who had set sail from Hanoi all those weeks earlier. With only 50 km to cover until we hit Saigon I couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to us in the dying strides…..

I spent the last night of the journey in a dive of a hotel near the Cu Chi tunnel complex, 50 km north-west of Saigon. Sleep remained elusive, and I lay awake thinking about everything that had happened since I’d left Hanoi. The faces of all the people who’d helped me drifted through my consciousness. I thought of those days in Laos when I’d fought to get Panther through the mud, sand and mountains. And I shuddered at that dreadful time in the Cambodian jungle, when for a few hours I really thought I wasn’t going to make it out alive. But more than anything else, my mind dwelt on the war and how awful and pointless it had all been. Millions of men, women and children from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, America, Thailand, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and the Philippines died*. Tens of thousands have died since from UXO and the after effects of Agent Orange. And for what? Next week I would be going home. 58,209 young Americans never got that luxury.

After self-medicating with an industrial dose of coffee in the morning, I checked Panther’s oil, fuel, tyres, chain and brakes, loaded my panniers for the last time and cranked the kickstart. It was a public holiday and the road south towards Saigon was even more thronged with people and traffic than usual. Teenage girls cycled  in flowing white ao dai’s, mopeds laden with families, watermelons, pigs and mattresses streamed past. Old men tottered obliviously along the roadside. Carts pulled by gleaming, noble oxen trundled by. And through the middle of it all roared kamikaze buses and vast Kamaz trucks. All this on a narrow single track road. In a bid to survive the multi-directional vehicular onslaught I pootled along at a geriatric 30 km/h, swerving the lawless river of traffic that assaulted me from every direction.

The volume and insanity of the traffic was not helping my last day nerves. My shoulders were so tense they were wrapped around my ears, and I found myself becoming increasingly bellicose about the Vietnamese style of driving. I may have been used to it by now, but I was far from understanding the illogic of it. How on earth could people simply turn onto a busy road with neither a glance to the left or the right? How could people never, ever look in their mirrors and think it was fine to swerve all over the road whilst texting, smoking or holding their baby? Why did young girls cycle the wrong way down the road, in the middle of the counter-flood of traffic? People paid so little attention to other road users they might as well drive blindfolded. Their traffic-sense defied every iota of human survival instinct. Amidst loudly  – and entirely pointlessly – castigating people, I concluded that the whole of Vietnam must have had a collective traffic awareness lobotomy.

I stopped for my final lunch at a roadside stall about 20 km north of the city. A young woman in leopard print pyjamas fanned pork chops as a they sizzled over a barbecue. Next to her an old man read the newspaper, jars of tofu stacked up for sale on the table in front of him.  Having explained I was vegetarian, a meal of rice, eggs and greenery was placed in front of me, and the family sat down to inspect me as I ate. Via some successful sign language and my improved Vietnamese, we managed to have a passable conversation. The lady couldn’t believe I’d come so far on such an ancient moped, and she held my hand and laughed uproariously. She then ran across the road and came back holding a watermelon, which we all ate with gusto. As I left they all smiled, wished me luck and held my hand, prodding the armour of my Weise jacket in amazement. What a perfect final meal on the road.

The one major caveat was my navigation system. I had a 50 pence French tourist map of Vietnam I’d bought in Hanoi, a compass, and not a lot else. For the rest of my time in Vietnam I’d relied on the basic GPS system on my iPhone. But in the last two days, just when I needed it most, the 3G signal and mapping system on my phone had inconveniently gone kaput. I was just going to have to drive south, in the general direction of Saigon, and rely on vigorous pointing and sign language to get me to the Reunification Palace, my ultimate destination. It was through the gates of this palace that the North Vietnamese tanks had burst on April 30 1975, ‘liberating’ Saigon and ending 10 brutal years of war. There was nowhere else I could have considered finishing my journey.

My Vietnamese map
My Vietnamese map

As we closed in on the city, the flow of traffic became a raging torrent. At a huge roundabout Panther and I got squeezed between a Kamaz lorry and a bus. A wall of metal closed in on us and for a split second I thought it was the end. I let out an involuntary scream and heard the lorry’s brakes whine to a stop inches from my back wheel. It was an unpleasantly close shave, and I pulled Panther on to the pavement, shaking. It really would be a bore to find ourselves under the wheels of a lorry so close to the end.

I followed the traffic south, half beset by nerves, half leaping with excitement. My mind sprinted forward to standing at the gates of the Reunification Palace, and I hauled it back, pinning it to the present. We weren’t finished yet.

At a fork in the road I stopped to ask a woman directions, and was amazed to find she spoke excellent English. ‘You take the left fork and just go straight on for 9 km. Once you get to the New World hotel ask someone how to get to the Palace’. I thanked her and kicked Panther into life. Nothing. Her engine remained ominously silent. I’d run out of petrol.  What an idiot. Luckily, there was a petrol station less than 400 metres up the road and I wheeled Panther there against the  traffic, laughing at my ineptitude.

Now it was truly the final furlong and we inched towards the finish line, pulled along by ten lanes of traffic, part of Saigon’s never ending two-wheeled cavalcade. At a traffic lights near the centre I asked if anyone near me spoke English. ‘I do!’ replied a teenage boy, leaning over the handlebars of his moped a few rows away. ‘Brilliant. Do you know where the Reunification Palace is please?’ I asked. ‘Yes – I’m going that way, follow me.’ What a stroke of luck.

The lights turned green and a hundred tiny engines thrummed into life, leaping forward. The boy ducked and dived through the traffic and I weaved after him. Just when I thought I’d lost him, I’d see his brown helmet bobbing amongst the traffic.Then – there it was – the Reunification Palace. The boy pulled over and said goodbye and I thanked him, waving goodbye as he vanished into the mopeds. In front of me the gates of the Palace rose up, and buses spilled tour-groups onto the pavement. I rode Panther slowly forward towards the gates, savouring the last few seconds of our journey, until her front wheel bumped the metal. ‘We’ve made it Panther’ I said out loud, and lent over the handlebars. ‘We’ve bloody made it.’

I didn’t want to get off my beloved little C90 and just sat, staring at the Palace, smiling. After 6 weeks, 3000 km and one hell of an adventure, the Ho Chi Mission was finally over.

I am raising money for MAG (Mines Advisory Group), who do sterling work clearing UXO in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. To pop a bit of money in MAG’s coffers please click their logo below.

MAGlogo

.*America lost 58,209 in the Vietnam War. Vietnam lost an estimated 3 million, 2 million of whom were civilians.  On top of this 4.8 million Vietnamese were exposed to Agent Orange. South Korea (who fought with the USA and South Vietnam) lost 5,000 soldiers, with a further 11,000 wounded. Australia had 520 killed and 2,400 wounded. New Zealand had 37 killed and 187 wounded. These figures are from the War Remnants Museum in Saigon.

A book about this journey will be published by Summersdale in the Spring of 2014. Watch this blog for more details.