Vietnam on the mandarin road

Vietnam on the mandarin road

 
Matthieu Pouly a 26 year old French philosophy Student, is the first person to have travelled alone on a bicycle from Paris to Hanoi. The journey took him 18 months. I was present when Matthieu met the press in Hanoi and all the time I was recalling to mind the many follies of my youth in the colonial period.

The last stage of Matthieu’s voyage- the 1750 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh city to Hanoi- called up old memories. When I was Matthieu’s age. I cycled between Hue and Hanoi,a distance of over some 1300 km, just one – third of Matthieu’s journey from France.

Yet, more than 50 years ago , that was something to be proud of . And to people of a liberal profession like myself, it was pure madness. Anyhow,as we were rebelling against the colonial regime and all the structures of the great feudal- bourgeois family, and because we were more or less influenced by

Andre Gide, we found in those long excursions a cheap means of escape. Matthieu was luckier because he had a different motive, being of a generation un affected by Gide’s complexes. He was trying to illustrate cultural, ecological and humanist concerns through his “Transhuman” project.

And I wonder if while pedalling along the former Colonial Road No 1 and now National Highway One, the young Frenchman, who brought with him a message of “World Citizenty”,was aware of Sur la Route mandarine,a book written in 1925 by his compatriot Roland Dorgeles to proclaim his colonialist faith a la Kipling? Other Times, other ways.

It would be difficult for people to day to imagine how conditions were on the main portion of the Mandarin Road in the 19 th century. Our great – grandfathers would have to spend a month and a half covering the distance on foot.

To have a rough idea of all the risks involved we should read Leu Chong (Tent and Writing Desk) by Ngo Tat To,who devoted an entire chapter to the odyssey made by two young men travelling to the royal capital for court examinations.
“From Thanh Hoa the road became more and more difficult. Beyond Ha Tinh fore Bidding scenrs uere encountered frequently. All day long one was enmeshed in bush

So dense that one could rarely have a glimpse of the sky above. Ahead were cliffs that looked like towering walls while swift torrents threatened to cut off one’s way at any moment. Going up one had to keep the head thrown back ; going down one had to lean on one’s knees. A wrong step wouldd surely land one in some unfathomable chasm. ”

The stretch across Mount Trong was infernal torture. The travellers had to chop their way through the bush while their feet , despite the protection of thick rush sandals,bled from cuts caused by knife-sharp rocks. At night the two students and their servants would sleep in hammocks strung between the branches of a big tree “It was so dark. The night would be shattered by the hooting of owls, the chattering of monkeys and the roaring of tigers. A cold wind would bring with it whiffs of some fetid odour. In his fever-troubled sleep.

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