Thoughts From My Handlebars

On Ninh Binh, cycling, and having two feet on the ground

I learnt to ride a bike at age 13. Late though I was to the party and disconcerted by my teacher’s rather loud exclamation of shock when I told her, I was so excited when I first managed to pedal without falling. Mrs Matthews filmed it so I had proof for my mum and I excitedly showed it to her upon arriving home. I have achieved something, I thought. My feet are off the ground and I’m not falling anywhere.

Nowadays, I don’t cycle around that much, although I do today. In the beautiful northern province of Ninh Binh, you have to move amongst the mountains somehow. It was either a good ol’ pushbike or a motorcycle to leave upon this morning and there was no way I was coordinated enough for something that moves at 60km/hr.

In the morning, I’d cycled to the Trang An grottoes with only minor hiccups. Three of us had made our way there together and after rowing through the caves for near to three hours, we parted upon our bikes to explore this stunning town.

The scenes in Ninh Binh are surreal. It’s almost a feeling of disconnection – watching mountains and skylines that consistently puzzle me with their unabashed existence against otherwise flat land. As I pedal along the freeway towards home and trail off into these simple yet stunning sights, my mind is whittled down to two thoughts:

1. This is really beautiful.
Sometimes, when I’m driving on a long road, I can’t see its end for all the cloud, mist and air that separates us. The tunnels trap the sounds of trucks like they are thunder, but I can still hear my voice if I whisper while passing through.
One moment amongst the caves in Trang An, the water formed a circle of perfect reflection. The arch of the rocks above me mimicked themselves in the water and our boat appeared perfectly balanced in mid air. If anything in this world, I wish to have that level of grace; the kind of elegance that appears constantly in the nature of Vietnam.

2. I am not good at this.
The terrain here is not easy and I’m on the freeway amongst signs in a language I don’t understand. Other than an instruction to “follow the signs to a homestay”, I have no clue how to get home and that realisation is quickly becoming apparent to my beating heart. It’s quickly hitting me that I am not the manifestation of grace as the mountains would have me believe. In fact, it’s most likely that I am utterly lost.
Where are your feet, echoes the voice of my counsellor in my head, If you feel out of touch with reality, get your feet firmly back on the ground.

I remember, possibly around the time I was learning to ride a bike, my auntie talking about learning to drive. She described the way she’d pull herself over to the side of the road whenever her heart was racing her through traffic; singing to herself to calm her breathing and reminding herself that there’s no shame in a time out.

As I pedal, and as the rocky road and lack of order to Ninh Binh traffic finally get to me, it’s her voice that appears in my head. Pull over, she says, they won’t think you’re strange for taking your time and there’s no shame in getting your feet on the ground for a second.

I pull over. I get my feet on the ground and take a breath. Finally, I see a sign directed towards my homestay. Head a little clearer, I go back to riding.