Below is the full text of Ash’s print only magazine interview for Traveller mag
Ashley Carruthers lectures in Anthropology at the Australia National University in Canberra and is co-founder of Velo Vietnam which runs road cycling experiences. He has been coming to Vietnam regularly for research, teaching and travel since the early 1990s and while he loves travel, his ardent desire is to see the world return to being a slower place where distance matters again and going overseas is a major physical and cultural journey.
When did you first come to Vietnam and what brought you here?
It was over twenty years ago now, I think in 1992 or 1993. I wanted to do a PhD on the overseas Vietnamese and I figured I’d better learn something about the place they came from.
How different was the country back then in your eyes?
Significantly different. My first experience was living in Hanoi with a family down near the Temple of Literature. On the one hand, Hanoi was as charismatic and wonderfully romantic as you might imagine it being back then. Cycling was still the norm. The city was still small. The whole period is kind of enclosed in my memory in a dusty, sepia-hued attic where I’m riding a bicycle down an empty street in the centre of town past crumbling colonail buildings. On the other hand, life was pretty miserable! The food hygiene was awful, and I had a constant stomach bug. There was no heating – I remember clutching a hot water bottle up in my room while I tried to study by candlelight. I think was going through a deep, deep culture shock that I’ve never really recovered from. That’s probably how I ended up an anthropologist.
As founder of Velo Vietnam, you must have ridden many of Vietnam’s most spectacular roads. If you had to choose just one stretch, where would it be?
I’d have to say it’s the stretch of the Ho Chi Minh road up in the mountains behind Danang and Hue, from P’rao to A Luoi. Possibly the views in Ha Giang near the Chinese border are more spectacular, but there is something about the remoteness and wildness of that part of the Central Vietnamese highlands that I really love. After having been up in this area where it’s all jungle, waterfalls, scattered Co Tu hilltribe villages, to come down to the plains and into Hue – which is really the epitome of Vietnamese lowland civilization – is quite an amazing experience.
Photograph: Taking a break on Ash’s favourite stretch of road with VV’s first ever big, big tour group – Project 852
As a family man, which are your favourite places in Vietnam for a family vacation?
The family loves being in Hoi An. I also love taking the kids to stay in villages, particularly in the highlands. We had an amazing time at the Topas Nam Cang Lodge last year, in a Red Dao village. My 7 year old was enchanted at the way it was, as she said, just like Asterix and Obelix’s village. You’d walk down the street and see someone doing blacksmithing, someone else weaving, someone doing silverwork.
Where is the most memorable place you have spent a night?
That’d have to be in Vietnam. It was while I was there for the first time that they lifted the restrictions on internal travel. You used to need a permit even to leave Hanoi. I hired a dilapidated old Minsk and rode all through the Northwest Highlands. Every afternoon as it was getting dark the Minsk would break down and I’d have to stay the night wherever I was while someone fixed it. One night they put me in an empty People’s Committee building with a camp bed in it. The guy looking after me said “Now bolt the door and whatever you do, don’t open it!” Suffice to say he knew what he was talking about.
What’s been your biggest adventure?
I’ve had a few, but one that sticks out was a land trip across Cambodia in the early days of the UNTAC mission, to see Angkor Wat. Pol Pot and the remnants of his army were still out there in the jungle near Thailand. You could fly to Angkor by then but I chose to go in a little local “bus” that was basically a utility with some bench seats in the back. Once we got out of Phnom Penh, every few kilometres there was a local “soldier” who had set up an informal checkpoint and demanded to be paid to let us through. Most of these guys were equipped with a sarong and an AK-47 and that seemed to be about it. Some were quite drunk. The driver was determined to pay only the minimum bribe at each checkpoint so as to not completely lose his profit on the road. A few times he accelerated away with his eyes fixed fearfully on the rearview mirror until the unhappy guy with the gun was out of sight. At one point some soldiers got on the bus and I remember feeling relieved until they insisted that they put their guns inside the cab.
Photograph: Ash also races tandem with vision imparied partners including Don here with whom he rode from Sapa to Hanoi, also on tandem.
Is there anything you never fail to do while travelling?
I always try to immerse myself in the street, even if it’s only an hour or two snatched from a busy conference schedule or some other itinerary. The absolute best way of doing this is by getting on a bike. Walking comes second. And of course eating street food is part of this routine.
What’s your number one travel tip?
Ride a bike.