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Biking Through Cancer

Ask someone living along the road from Ha Noi to Ho Chi Minh City, and they may report having encountered an unexpected sight: a middle-aged woman with long gray hair riding, with just one swollen hand, a very old bicycle.

by Pham Vu

The woman's bike would have been laden with a few bags, a canteen and a kerosene stove. If she came to a steep hill, the woman would dismount to push her weary bike, and still-wearier bones, up the road. If she went down a slope, she would bind a tree branch to her pedal to use as a brake.

The mysterious cyclist, Huynh Thi Kieu Thu, is a former special task force member who proved her mettle on the Truong Son battlefield during the American war. Now, she's fighting an even tougher battle: against the advanced stages of cancer.

But Thu hasn't let pain or illness keep her down. Leaving her home in HCM City's Binh Thanh District, she made two extraordinary, month-long bicycle journeys to and from Ha Noi.

Thu's army experience taught her to pack light; all she carried on her trips was some dried rations, a herbal medicine kit, two changes of clothing, a pot and a stove. The most valuable items she took were her five diaries.

"I'm making this trip because I want to visit Uncle Ho, overcome my disease, live a few years longer, and complete some unfinished business," Thu wrote in one of the diaries. The notebooks detail her feelings at important moments during the trips, such as when she arrived the peak of Dac To Mountain in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum.

"I am standing at the foot of the mountain, and turn my eyes up to look at it. Overwhelmed by its height and majesty, I am suddenly afraid that crossing it will be impossible. I sing to encourage myself, making the songs last until I reach the top."

Thu says that wasn't the only time she felt discouraged. She was feeling weak when she began her second trip, so much so that thoughts of quitting flashed through her mind. She stopped to rest in Lai Thieu, 15km from HCM City. The people she met there all advised her to turn around and go home. After spending half the day considering her options, Thu left a number of her bags and water bottles with the villagers and continued on her journey.

Thu says the beautiful landscapes and interesting architecture along the Ho Chi Minh Highway more than made up for a little sweat.

According to Thu, the experience of touring the country on your own power is unique. Waxing lyrical in her diary, Thu described "the sense of freshness and relaxation when you stand next to a waterfall or a spring, or when you lie down on a stone or in a forest hammock."

"It's wonderful to hear the sound of engines in the Hai Van Tunnel, or to be the first person to cross a newly built bridge."

But not everything about the trip was so enjoyable. In addition to battling her illness, Thu was hospitalised for two weeks after an unexpected accident. She continued on despite the warnings of many people she met along the way. Do Ung, a villager living in the Ho Chi Minh Trail area, said that when he met Thu, she looked emaciated. "I saw that her left hand was paralysed, and the right was swollen. I advised her to return home, but she was determined to go on. I was afraid she might die on the road."

An elderly man told Thu that he thought of her like a daughter, and that if she died en route, he would bury her on his family's land.

But Thu refused to give up her bicycle, even though one of her friends offered to buy her a plane ticket. "I wanted to prove that I could make it," said Thu.

Thu said that on the return leg of the second journey, her heath improved because she was satisfied with what she had accomplished. She had driven the length of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and visited Uncle Ho's hometown, the village of Sen in Nghe An Province. Thu also visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ha Noi, met General Vo Nguyen Giap, and toured the former Dien Bien Phu battlefield.

Physician Luong Thi Ngoc Thai of Ha Noi said her glimpse of the eccentric lady, standing with her bag-draped bicycle in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, was unforgettable.

Others who met her first on the way up to Ha Noi and then again on the way back down said they were happy to see her looking much healthier on the return trip.

Thu said that hundreds of people encouraged her along the road, including builders who shared meals and accommodation with her, an ethnic minority woman who washed her shirt, and a herbalist who wrote her a prescription.

As luck would have it, Thu even ran into a documentary film team. Fascinated by her story, the producers decided to make a movie about it. When the documentary, The Days She Overcomes Herself, was screened last May, many witnesses expressed their impressions of both the woman and the trip.

One viewer sent Thu a letter saying, "I've been very sad since the death of my mother. Before I saw the film about your journey, I wanted to die. My mother is no longer alive, but I admire your life and energy. I realise that life is still valuable."

When she finally returned home to HCM City, Thu showed her friends and neighbours the diaries as well as dozens of photographs, and regaled them with tales of her adventures.

Even those who did not meet Thu personally were eager to express their admiration for her bravery and persistence. Le Ngoc Tu Uyen, a six-year-old citizen of HCM City, wrote to Thu, "I hope you got to meet Uncle Ho on your journey. I promise to do well in school for you."

An illegal logger wrote saying that he hoped Thu had completed her trip successfully, and that, if he were to meet her, it might change his life.

Thu's disease still threatens her life, but it hasn't dampened her spirit. Phan Van Hai from Dac Nong Province in the Central Highlands said, "When I met her, I realised that miracle are possible. They can originate in anyone."

Thu said that she hoped to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum again when she's feeling well enough. - VNS

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