Food. What in the world is wrong with the food supply?

Food is quite simple stuff. We grow it or we catch it or gather it, we might cook it, and then we eat it. For many of us, food is more about the choices available. What to eat? When to eat? How to eat less? How to eat humanely? How to eat ethically? Are food kilometres important? Paleo? Neo? Vego? Vegan? Ovo-Lacto? Or, perhaps most importantly, which of these questions are important for us and the planet, and which are irrelevant?

First, let me answer your question about the quantity of food. It’s a good question, and the answer isn’t obvious. Is there enough food in the world? The answer is ‘yes’. In fact, so much food is produced that there’s enough to give every person on earth more than twice as many calories as they need. (Each day there are 5,600 calories of food grown per person, whereas adults only need 2,600 calories). Few people are aware of the considerable excess in the food supply. Welcome to an exclusive club of people who know that the world is overloaded with food.

Today, the population is 100% more than it was in the mid 1960s, when the food excess was small. There are three and a half billion extra people now. But over the same period, food energy production has increased by more than 200% (from 24,000 PJ/year to 60,000 PJ/year).  Over the last 40 years,food production has increased at more than twice the rate of population increase. An amazing achievement, and has been achieved in most countries around the globe. Many poor countries have increased their food supply by more than the average.

Currently, there is no shortage of food on earth. In fact, the reverse is true; the food surplus is massive.


There’s heaps of food. So, why would I want to write this essay? I invite you to consider the following facts and figures concerning food production, and make up your own mind about the state of the global food supply.

Nobody should be starving, as explained above, but people are starving and people are undernourished – on every continent except Antarctica. In some regions, there are millions of people undernourished. Although we grow 100% more food than we need, about 15% of the population in poor countries don’t receive the food they need. Besides the diversion of food as part of warfare, there are some simple reasons why food does not reach the people who need it.

The map below shows the uneven distribution of food, based on the average daily calorie consumption by country (source: Wikipedia). Yellow is greater than 3000 calories per day (excess), while the dark grey colour is less than 2000 per day (insufficient for adults). Much of the world has either an excess or insufficient supply of calories. South America is the only continent without widespread excess or deficit. Of course, within many countries there are large regional and sociological differences.

Given that there are serious inequities, I want to know the reasons for such strong differences in the food supply. The obvious reason is the main reason – in poor countries food is too expensive to buy. The United Nations have a food price index that shows large increases in recent years (graph below). Conventional economic theory says that when a commodity is in excess supply, the price is very low. Especially if some of the commodity has low quality, in which case the price is expected to be very low. This hasn’t happened for food, because the economics of the food supply are subverted by wealthy consumers.

Food is now too expensive because food prices have been globalised. The prices have been maximised globally because food is sent to wealthy people if wealthy people will pay more for it. Whether they eat it or not. If the oil price goes up, corn can be cheaply converted to ethanol, and the corn will fuel a car instead of feeding hungry people. Undeniably, the “highest bidder eats” model has been the one that the world has increasingly adopted for several decades now. In recent years, the concept has expanded so that the highest bidder also gets the automotive fuel and oil, while the poor are undernourished. Unfortunately, governments around the world are opening up global markets rather than asking whether these open global markets cause harm to poor people.

Within countries there are also open markets working against a more equal distribution of food. With increasing urbanisation of traditionally agriculture-based populations in China, India and other countries, the connection between people and food growers has been getting weaker for several decades. More of the remaining farmers are growing and selling crops for cash rather than keeping crops for their own use. For some people, cash is more difficult to store for a bad season than food. The immediacy of cash puts farmers on a treadmill of producing bulk commodities instead of producing food for local consumption. The economics of food supplies are complex, and I don’t claim to be an expert, but long-distance transport of food, and the trend towards cash crops is having consequences for many people. 

While mentioning food kilometres, there is a lot of conflicting information out there, and it seems difficult to work out whether it is a big problem. Here’s your answer. Although all emissions are a problem, food kilometres are only about 4% of greenhouse emissions from the food industries. A high proportion of that 4% occurs from market to home, because only a small amount of food is moved in a typical car trip from the market to home. This is by far the least efficient part of the journey, emitting up to 100 times as much per food kilometer as long-distance transport by truck. Sea transport has exceptionally low emissions per kilometer and per kilo – so the food kilometres in sea-transported bulk commodities (such as grain, coffee, tinned veges) have very low emissions. And, of course, purchasing food from low-income countries, via a FairTrade system, may have preferred ethical connotations than purchasing from other sources.

Wasting food

Perhaps the most baffling and worrying aspect of food supply is food waste. The photo below shows good, but imperfect, oranges in California being dumped into landfill (photo from the USDA). Nothing unusual here – it happens to usable food by the thousands of tonnes every day, and in most countries.

One third of food is wasted before it gets to the consumer. This is not a simply a problem of rich countries, where food choices concerning unnecessary standards and the demands of continuous access lead to waste. In India, with its hungry millions, about one third of food is wasted before reaching the consumer, according to a recent statement by India’s Minister for Agriculture and Food Manufacturing Industries. 

Grains are some of the most nutritious foods available, and produced in vast amounts, so anything that affects grain production and use has a huge influence on food supply. Unfortunately, a great deal of waste occurs during grain harvest, preparation for storage, and storage. For example, if grains aren’t dry when stored, they are prone to moulds and mildews and quickly become inedible. explains some of the details. Recently, in Vietnam, I saw many people using concrete and bitumen and gravel roads to dry rice. The warmth of the road and the wind from the traffic was helping, but it was lightly raining, and it seemed that the produce would go to waste. Simple driers such as dark-coloured tarpaulins (solar powered!) would help so much in these situations.


Photo of grain stores in West Java, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The misuse of human food

Another major issue is that one third of grain production is used to feed livestock. That’s one third of what isn’t wasted in harvest and storage. Basically, animals are fed grains that are energy dense, and therefore grows more meat per kg, and low in fibre, so animals can eat more kg of feed. This creates more fat, less sinew and more favourable flavours in the meat. This is unheathy for consumers, but it is what the food supply chain and many consumers are currently demanding. 

Cows, goats, sheep and other herbivores used to be fed grass and clover and brush. Pigs and chickens were fed food scraps and some spoilt grain. Animal growth rates were slower. The meat might have been tougher, and the taste might have been stronger. The meat was from older animals that used their muscles for walking around to get food and water. Was it so bad? I don’t believe it was. Was it more efficient? In terms of the area used and time needed to produce meat, it IS inefficient. But in just about every other way that you can measure it, the grass and scrap-fed animal production systems are wonderfully efficient. Pastures grow from good soil, sun and rain. Food waste wasn’t wasted – and cmost of it is still valuable stock feed. That photo of Californian oranges? Mixed with a few other things, they could feed some very happy cows, chooks and pigs. Except for the chicken because they don’t have teeth. But they DO like an orange.

One of the main concerns over feeding food scaps to livestock is that diseases might be transferred around the food chain in a cycle, building to an epidemic in either the animals or in humans. However, some countries have legislated to allow food waste as a feed for livestock, choosing instead to treat feed or quarantine certain high risk feeds. Treatment of scraps, for example by pasteurization, may be sufficient to kill a wide range of pathogenic organisms. It works for humans who like milk.

The options needed for reducing the consumption of human food by animals are already available


A feedlot in Texas for fattening beef cattle. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Waste by consumers like you and I is a large problem, not a little one. Many consumers purchase their food at irregular intervals, and rely on storage in refrigerators and cupboards. A trend in some countries towards fresh food over canned and frozen food has increased the difficulties for many people in maintaining food quality in the time between purchase and consumption. Commercial food manufacturers and sellers are famous for their wastage – especially those who rely on high quality ingredients and a very high standard of food aesthetics. Restaurants in particular. Every restaurant is a food waste nightmare. It has been estimated that food wastage from western restaurants ranges from one quarter to one half of the food purchased.

Food loss and waste per person and year Total Production and retail  By consumers 
Europe 280 kg 190 kg    90 kg
North America and Oceania 295 kg 185 kg 110 kg
Industrialized Asia 240 kg 160 kg   80 kg
sub-Saharan Africa 160 kg 155 kg     5 kg
North Africa, West and Central Asia 215 kg 180 kg   35 kg
South and Southeast Asia 125 kg 110 kg   15 kg
Latin America 225 kg 200 kg   25 kg

Table courtesy of Wikipedia ( 

So that’s the story of producing, but then wasting food. 

The environmental and ecological costs of food

The environmental cost of food production, distribution and consumption goes largely unnoticed. Why? I don’t know. Farming and grazing have been the main causes of plant and animal extinctions for a long time. Just in case you skimmed over it, and to make it clearer – Farming and grazing for the last few hundred years have been the largest causes of plant and animal extinctions in the last 64 million years on the Earth.

In this discussion of environment and ecology, I’m not focussing on genetic modification, or animal cruelty, or extreme examples of land contamination, or acute or chronic effects of pesticides on people. In my opinion, virtually 100% of the harm has been caused by the ‘normal’, uncomplicated farming of the land that has been going on for decades, using familiar technology, such as a tractor (or horses or a water buffalo), a plough (plow in the US), and something to harvest the crop. If you are wondering how growing a crop by ploughing the land and planting some seeds could destroy land and water and drive species to extinction, I have a whole lot of news for you.

Conventional tillage in preparation for planting (source: Wikipedia). Note the lack of forest cover in general, and minimal plant and animal biodiversity in the cultivated field. The purpose of ploughing is to kill all plant life.

I’ll start the next bit with a story. A BIG story. From space, astronauts can only see really big things. The Sahara desert. The Great Barrier Reef. The River Nile. But astronauts can see the rabbit proof fence. Not the fence itself, but the difference between the land on each side of the fence. If you’re not from Australia, you probably haven’t heard of the fence, despite the fact it’s easily the biggest fence in the world. It was built in the middle of Australia to stop rabbits spreading from the east to the west. Rabbits were grazing out land and reaching plague proportions in the south-east. To protect the southwest, a fence was built and maintained, and it kept out the rabbits. Free from the destruction of rabbits, farmers brought in more grazing animals, and in some places cultivated right up to the western side of the fence. The sheep and cattle grew fat, and many bags were filled with wheat.

Photo of the rabbit-proof fence. It is the longest fence in the world.

From space, astronauts report big differences between the eastern (rabbit ridden) side of the fence and the western side (grazed). The western side is brown and bare. In some places there are saline seeps where there were none before. Fencing the pastoralists and agriculturists out of the east side of the fence has protected the environment on the eastern side of the fence. 

In Eastern Australia, in New South Wales, the Soil Conservation Service estimate that 25% of previously farmed land is now unusable. That’s a few million hectares of damage. How much land has gone from productive cropping land to uncropable in Australia? More land than is is presently cropped in England. We’ve lost more than England has. Worldwide, this is a huge problem. Farming is by far the greatest cause of land degradation and future losses of food production. 

Global, regional and local environments are affected by agriculture and food production. Many of the problems arise from the simple fact that increased plant and animal production comes mainly from land clearing, the conversion of pasture land to cropping land, and increased intensity of operations on farms. These three things share something besides producing extra food. They produce serious amounts of pollution. In the discussion below, I’ll concentrate only on the few problems that are in my area of expertise (as a scientist).

1. When pasture and forests are cleared for farming, much of their stored carbon is converted to carbondioxide, and contributes to greenhouse warming and ocean acidification. Farming usually begins on fertile soils, covered in forest or woodland (trees and grass), which is cleared and cropped. In some cases the organic matter in the vegetation is burnt, with a dramatic release of thousands of tonnes of carbondioxide per square kilometre. However, the end result is generally the same as for burning when the soil is cultivated and cropped. The carbon is still converted to carbondioxide, but the process involved is microbial respiration instead of fire, and takes months or a few years instead of hours or days in the case of a fire. 

After just a few years, regardless of the farming system adopted, a large proportion of the carbon stored in the natural environment will be released into the atmosphere as carbondioxide and act as a greenhouse warming gas. Per square kilometre, typically they will be 1,000 tonnes of carbon converted to 3,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide (based on 1% soil carbon). A typical Australian car emits just 14 tonnes of carbondioxide per year, so this small area emits as much as 260 cars. It a forest was cleared before cultivation, there would be an extra 100 to 500 car-equivalents of carbondioxide released per square kilometre (depending on whether it was a woodland or rainforest that was destroyed).

In Australia, we sometimes hear about the potential for soils to store carbon, and paying farmers for the carbon storage they can achieve. This has been true, to some extent, in southern Australia, and in the past. This is because many of the sandy soils were very low in organic matter, and with fertiliser and farming, the organic matter content increased. However, in many cases there was a large carbon store in the vegetation before it was cleared, so the net storage isn’t much, if anything at all. Many years of research show that only pastures can return significant amounts of carbon to farmed soils. And only forests can return carbon to pastures. Messing about with different crop, pasture and tree species is inconsequential. 

It’s a fact that cropping releases very large amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

2. Conversion of forests and pastures to crops destroys biodiversity. Forests are valuable as habitat to a vast array of animals. But pastures, too have some diversity, and are important for many plants and animals. It’s not often that I’ve gone into a permanent pasture and not seen dozens of different plant species. Often, there will be fifty, and sometimes a hundred species in one field. In a crop, it is common to find just the crop and a fhalf dozen weed species. These don’t provide very much habitat for the animal community, other than some ants and moths and the like. There just isn’t the complexity of plant height, shape, food type or other attributes that would support a range of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals like forests.

This graph shows how even a simple pasture is a mix of many species.

Graph courtesy of

It’s a fact that cropping reduces biodiversity.

3. Conversion of land to cropping causes soil erosion. Sometimes the extra erosion is just 10 or 20% more than before, especially if the land was overgrazed pasture. But often there is 100% or 200% or 500% more erosion when land is cropped. Erosion depletes the land of productive soil, it is an expensive problem if the soil is deposited on roads or in drains or in houses, and it eventually winds up in rivers and oceans, where it causes severe environmental problems.

On steep land or in tropical areas, farming may increase the rate of soil erosion from 100 tonnes a year per square kilometre, to TEN THOUSAND tonnes of soil per year for every square kilometre. In some farming systems the rates of soil erosion are much higher than this. Is that affordable or sustainable? No. In many areas of the world, soils are running down faster than the world is running of of fossil fuels. You might want to read that again. We are losing soils fast. How fast?

Where I live, a hectare of farm can produce 5,000 loaves of bread. The soil erosion per crop is 10,000 kg, which is considered a good, low level by almost everyone (not me). That’s 2 kg of soil erosion for every loaf of bread, and 1000 times faster than the rate of soil development.

It’s a fact that cropping causes severe and damaging soil erosion.

4. Plant nutrients are good when they are in the soil feeding crops, but the same nutrients cause environmental damage in waterways, estuaries and the ocean. Coral reefs only occur in clear, low-nutrient water. It is no surprise then, that the Great Barrier Reef is affected by farming on the nearby mainland of Australia. The pre-European rate or soil erosion flowing to the reef was 3 million tonnes per year, but farming has increased that to 17 million tonnes per year.

One type of nutrient, phosphorus, is usually attached to soil particles, and travels with them to the ocean. The saltiness of the ocean then releases some of that phosphorus, and it fertilises algae in the water. Unfortunately, these algae are the enemy of sea grasses and corals. In many parts of the world, the marine ecosystems have become slimy and green due to excess growth of algae. A visit to an inland lake often shows the same effect.

It’s a fact that cropping pollutes the land, waterways and oceans with nutrients.

5. Converting forest and pasture to cropping land introduces a diverse and problematic range of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Forests and pastures receive much fewer types, and much less quantity, and less environmentally damaging pesticides than cropping land. Tebuthiruron is an example of a chemical that has severe environmental consequences when it is used. It kills the forests to which it is applied. Because that destroys the habitat of a wide range of animals, it effectively kills them, too. The chemical is used in Northern Australia specifically to kill forest trees so that grazing and farming can go on. The simple fact is that dead forests and destroyed ecosystem are being exchanged for food. 

There are many more cases of chemicals that last for long periods in the soil and waterways being used around the world. Atrazine is the most commonly used herbicide in the USA, and is very widely used in Australia (but banned in the EU). It persists in the environment and is readily transported. It is the subject of on-going debate about the levels that are harmful in the environment and harmful to human health ( Atrazine is being used in close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. In order to grow sugarcane. A completely unnecessary food. A food that is harmful to most of the people who consume it. Does this make sense? Harm the reef to make sugary drinks?

It’s a fact that large amounts of environmentally hazardous chemicals are used in cropping. The fate and environmental effects of many chemicals are not well known. 

How to solve these things?

Food wastage must be treated seriously.

Food storage must be a higher priority for engineers, particularly in low income countries.

Converting pasture and forests to farms for grain production must stop.

Converting forests to pasture for animal production must stop.

Soil erosion must be reduced. The current rates are unsustainable in many of the cropping lands of the world. Soil erosion is a silent killer of future undernourished generations.

The source and fate of nutrients and pesticides must be better monitored and regulated.

Wealthy people must not be allowed to buy and waste food that is needed by undernourished people. 

Poor people must not be encouraged to sell their household food supplies to rich people.

High income countries must help regulate the global food supply. An unregulated food supply isn’t working for people in low-income countries.

It’s food for thought.

All comments are welcome.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. SonLa: no reason to stop, every reason to stay.

Hi again. In what seems a never-ending series of disagreements that I’m having with the Lonely Planet Guide, I really like SonLa. Few attractions? Did they have their eyes closed? It is located I a cleft between mountains sticking out of the ground like the teeth of a dragon. Less than 1 km from the centre of town, on the road to MuongMa, I took this photo this afternoon:

There were dozens of places to take photos like this one. This was a truly GREAT bike ride. I was on my way home from the shop (50 metres from my hotel), and diverted along this road. Fifteen km later I decided that I had better turn around. People who know how lazy I am will know that this is a big vote of approval. 

A better interpretation of SonLa for travellers is this one, from ;

For the vast majority of visitors, Son La is but a series of slow vistas taken out of a minibus window as they make their long winding trip from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu and while the same-named provincial capital holds little of touristic value, it’s a classic the pleasure is all in the getting there type destination. 

There are far less spectacular provinces in which to lose a day or two than Son La, and, if you’re travelling under their own steam, particularly by motorbike, Son La holds terrific potential with ample side-roads and off-the-main-road villages and valleys you can explore. 

Yes. That’s hitting the nail on the head. SonLa isn’t any Disney theme park. There’s nothing much to gawk at and spend your money on. It’s just a very Vietnamese town in some beautiful Vietnamese mountains. The farms come up to the doorstep of town. The rice is impossibly green. The mountains are steep, with caves by the dozen (some are in the town!). My accomodation at the SonLa hotel was a slightly expensive for regional Vietnam, but the room was a huge twin and had aircon+WiFi+fan+refrigerator. 420,000VND or AUD$18. A motorbike repairman made a vinyl waterproof cover for my top bag for $8. A waiter at the restaurant had some English and the Bun tofu was $2 (Bun are delicious noodles and the deep-fried tofu was excellent, even for a tofu-skeptic like myself).

SonLa, you exceeded all expectations. Well worth a visit for a couple of days.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. The rise of the machines (electric bicycles).

Electric bicycles are everywhere in north Vietnam. In some places, such as around schools, they are at least 10% of the traffic. The school kids like them because they are funky and cool and cheap to own and run. Also, I suspect that they can’t get a licence for a scooter until about 16, whereas kids have these from 10 or 12 years old. The fact they accelerate like a cat with it’s tail on fire doesn’t hurt, either. The top speed is about 30km per hour but less on the hills or with 3 people on board.

There is a waterproof storage space under the seat on the larger models and usually a platform on the back (takes a tin of paint to work or a kid to school) and a basket in the front for books or shopping.

All of the major scooter manufacturers have them. Common brands are Honda, Yamaha, Giant, Suzuki. There are cheaper models from China and Taiwan, but everyone likes the Honda. At least 80% of the motor scooters are Hondas. A reputation for quality is very important here.

The Suzuki 150-A cruiser (top) is in the mosaic because I like it. 3L/100km. Only $2000, including an instant reputation as a very bad boy.

Lastly, a reflection on options for living with low environmental impact; People taking care of the future and the planet are taking care of my children and their children. Thank you very much!!!

Bye. Tam biet. 

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. MuongLay. Happy shiny smiling people with great noodles. 

The ups and downs of remote.

Three pm I head out of the Lan Ahn hotel to get money out of the ATM. Or change some currency at the bank. And find a biscuit, even if it is made out of sesame seeds or seaweed. Maybe somewhere there is WiFi?

Down the world’s steepest driveway, turn left. Crap. Swerve onto the proper, right hand side of the road and ride to a shiny new hotel a km or two up ahead. I can see two people inside the massive reception area, and they are dressed as staff, including shirts and shoes. I am hopeful. ATM? Blank. ATM? Blank. Viet for ATM. Blank…thinking…then “DienBenhPhu” (100km away). Not MuongLay? Seriously, dear reader, the hotel reception is easily big enough to play basketball – on two courts – including 30 feet high ceilings. Any town with this hotel has to have an ATM. No. Do you have credit card facilities? No. Change money? No. Bank? No. Yes. No. Not today. Excitedly I ask “Bank tomorrow?” Yes. Yes. Credit card? Yes. Definitely? Yes. Oh. Maybe no. No, sorry mistake. No credit card. I’m low on VND, and rich in credit card and AUD$. I really need to get to Dien Benh Phu. Do I have enough $$ to catch the bus out of here and also buy some western food? Fortunately, there’s no western food to tempt me. 

I ask whether I can get some food in the restaurant, and one of the receptionists leads me to the huge kitchen and shows me a packet of two minute noodles. Yes, please. I don’t feel like eating, but it’s 4pm and 8 hours since the 2 minute noodles I had for breakfast. The chef shows up from one direction just as a magnificent bowl of noodles, beef and veg shows up from the other. He’s a friendly fellow, but apparently leaves the cooking to the staff. Many times I am told that these are very clean vegetables. This dish is made from scratch. Full of real beef, real leafy veges (mustard greens I call them, like brocollini) and made with real herbs. I’m into it like a rat up a drain. The broth is heavenly. The veg tastes extra healthy.

After a minute, the receptionist says “is it good?”. For 30 minutes she didn’t say a word of English and now a whole sentence just pours out. What? In any case, she can understand enough to communicate my stories to the chef, and quite well from the chef to me. 

It turns out that a 53 year old Vietnamese chef and 54 year old Australian traveller have a lot to talk about, despite him being so much younger. His name is Hi. We all wave to each other and variously say Hi and XinChau. The receptionist/translator is Kim Kim. Hi isn’t just a chef – he knows his geography, too. We draw maps of Australia and Vietnam and discuss children and travel. The more we talk, the easier and better it gets. 

They straighten out some of my Viet language, and are very surprised and applaud if I get something correct. Then it’s getting late, so I ride to the hotel and it comes to my mind that my circumstances haven’t changed a bit since I walked into that hotel and became a man frustrated by a lack of electronic gizmos. But in just a couple of hours of socialising, I’m feeling so much happier and a little bit connected with the people in this crazy, non-financial town. Connections. Mean so much. Listening, learning, sitting, eating, talking a whole lot of bullshity stuff.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. DienBenhPhu. We’re not in Kansas, anymore, Toto (my small edible companion).

Hi again. It’s me, stealing another five minutes of your life. About the same as smoking one cigarette. I’ll try to be quick today.

Today I’m resting in DIenBenhPhu, the sweetest little town in northwest Vietnam. It isn’t big, but it has everything. The food here is some of the best you’ll find anywhere in Vietnam. Very tasty, and not too spicy. And they know their meat, often combining slightly tasteless chicken or goat or dog with fatty delicious pork or bacon.

There’s a rich modern history. That I must tell. After the drama. Always the drama number 1.

The drama; I’m doing a return trip to a good cafe, and there are two westerners out the front. An uncommon sight around DBP. Checking the food cabinet reveals the same meaty good things as were there in the morning. The pig knuckles look good, but I order some spring rolls. It’s a lottery as to what is in them, but they are always delicious.

One of the westerners takes a big drag on a bamboo pipe. She coughs and says to her mate that it’s strong and then is wobbly in her seat and says that it is strong (again). Her friend is frightened by the way the smoker falls limply off the chair. The smoking woman has a red face – and she is limp as a rag doll. Her friend is freaking out, and the blood is draining out of her face. Doesn’t anyone around here have normal blood pressure? The locals are confused.

How much damage can be done by a single drag on even on the most potent tobacco or marijuana? I don’t know. But I know that the locals are encouraging her to stand, and that’s wrong. I suggest that she sits down. She doesn’t understand her predicament until she starts vomiting and getting confused and falling down (should have taken my advice, it turns out). Ten minutes later and Veree, the smoker, is feeling better. She is passing through from northern Laos to Hanoi on a cheap holiday from Perth. 

Later I’m thinking: Who would try out an unknown substance in an unfamiliar place, in a country where you might be jailed for having drugs that are smoked? They bought this pack of stuff on the street. Alarm bells? In what way does this place look anything like Perth? DienBenhPhu has been, and maybe still is a port for drugs. Serious amounts of serious drugs.

On the other hand, who am I to be the fun police or the thought police? They are adults. Adults learn by experience. There’s no use treating anyone over 12 years old as a child. 

Time to go home to clean the vomit off my legs and contemplate some of the stranger aspects of primate behaviour.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. LaiChau to MuongLay. Flying too close to the sun.

Before I start : My family shouldn’t read this. It sets a bad example to my children and will worry my mother. However, those of you with  you with no genetic connection to Brett Robinson, recently of Toowoomba, Qld, then please read on.

Today had many dream-like qualities. I dreamt that a dozen Vietnamese people were shouting at me to wake up and get on a bus. After which I woke up, took off some filthy clothes, got blasted by a jet of water and got on a bus. After that I found my bicycle on the bus, too.

This will make so much more sense if I start earlier in the day. 

Up early and into some food, drinks and bicycle clothes. It a short ride from LaiChau to the start of the hill climb for the day. It’s a bit cloudy and later it rains. The hill is tough, but what do I expect from a hill? All very ordinary. Very ordinary. There’s a long descent. Really good. I’ve gone about 45 km in 3 hours. As I ride into PhongTo. I see a lot of trucks parked along the road and the drivers seem to be living under tarps. Maybe waiting for the almost-ready corn crops?

Town is about 1 km away and has buzzillions of potholes and mud on the main road. This is a popular trick so that people slow down (safer for the kids) and will stop and buy stuff. Nothing special. Very ordinary. There are many people who look Chinese, which is natural because PhongTo is about 10km from China. 

This next bit of riding is to be a feature of my time in north Vietnam. A ride along the Na River gorge. My research says that Highway 12 takes me to MuongLay, about 60 or 70 km away.  There’s some rise in the road. Then some bumps. I guess this was to be expected – The Lonely Planet Guide to Vietnam said that the roadworks here weren’t due to be finished until August. There’s another 5 days in August. And delays with the monsoon are normal. RedSpoke tours say the road is usually in excellent condition. 

My previous experience in Vietnam is that the road conditions are good, then a bit of bad, then good again.Very ordinary.

I took some photos of rockfalls because Sam likes my stories about landslides. After a while there are too many to photograph. After another while the road is gravel. Then gravel with potholes. And muddy potholes. Thinking that I should be cautious, I ride slowly. Then see a snake and ride quickly. (Trivia: all snakes that move with their heads held high (a bit like a cobra) are elapid snakes. Mostly quite dangerous). This snake looked and acted like a dangerous one.

Soon there’s serious mud. Sometimes associated with landslides, sometimes where bridges had washes away, sometimes near drains or where creeks crossed the road. Millions of tonnes of mud.

The gorge is breathtaking (couldn’t say gorgeous, could I?) soon the minor hills and mud and potholes are breathtaking in an unrelated way. My bike is clogged with mud.

It’s hard to push, and it takes a couple of minutes every 500 metres to unclog it. Fortunately, there are some potholes with cleanish water that wash off some of the clay. There are also sections that are soup-like. Mud and water mixed so perfectly that it is like soft brown/orange toothpaste. I kid you not. This stuff was amazing. Up to about 10 cm depth, this stuff was possible to ride through. Hilarious if not for the heat. More than 10 cm deep I wasn’t generally game to ride because there could be a rock in there. Actually, it was ALL rocks under there, I just mean a big rock. I was determined to stay upright, which required an extra degree of concentration and mental grit.

The toughest 10 km were between 53 and 54 km. If I rode, it was only for a few metres. I was advancing at around 1 or 2 km per hour in the midday sun. Another km or two and small shop is an opportunity to refill water bottles, and drink some ice green tea (warm but nice). I sit in front of a fan and regain some verve.

Back on the road, the effects of the fan and drinks seem to evaporate in minutes. In another hour I’m physically busted. But just in the nick of time, the track heads downhill quite nicely. But the bike is so muddy it’s difficult to even go downhill in the muddy sections. In the dry sections it is mostly rocky. Sharp rocks that threaten my tyres. 

My mental and physical weakness have me slipping and sliding in the mud. The heat is unbearable. I unclog the wheels, ride and sit by the road. There hasn’t been a cooling tree for 20 km. Sometimes I’m only managing 50 or 100 metres between rests. Some workmen want to give me water, but it’s out of a creek into a 44 gal drum, so I say I’ve got some (I have) and move on. A few motor scooter riders continue to go past, so I don’t feel too alone.

I might have covered 3 or 4 km in the last hour. It seems to be going better. The woman at the last shop said it’s 50 km to MuongLay. Surely that’s wrong (it is only 30 or 40). I drink the last of my ice green tea, which is the same temperature at hot tea. A few more km, some of which is made from rocks so big I am concerned about twisting my ankle or busting a tyre. It is an hour since I had the energy to take a photo. The sweat always seems to drip into my left eye, so I have been walking the last half-hour with only one eye open. Or maybe an hour like that

Then a shop. I invite my muddy self inside and sit under the fan. The roof is a tarp and it’s 40 degrees in here. Maybe more. I ask for water and they refuse. I offer to pay and they get some from a drum. I have an an iodine tablet. I think it takes 30 minutes to work, but I only wait 15 minutes. Tastes quite good. Considering. A rider stops who has some English. How much more bad road? Only 6 to 8 km. Good. He says “It is very bad road from here”. What has it been like so far? A highway? (Actually, it is Highway 12). Not sure what to do, I do nothing.

A few minutes later, I feel bad. Very bad. I sit there morose. I have an idea that maybe it’s salt that I need. I grab my “top” bag and sort through. I ask for more water, and I’m told no. I offer a ten thousand bill ($0.40) and I get a 2 litre bottle of pure water. They had this all of the time? What was all of that negotiating for water crap about? I make another trip to the bike to get the pannier bags (30 metres in the sun). I’m looking for salt. I can’t find it in the first pannier. Crap. I rest for a couple of minutes. That doesn’t seem right at all. How can this be so tiring? Why is my heart pounding? What has happened to my energy? I find the salt in the other pannier. It tastes good. I buy a fruit drink to wash down the salt. Yes. Five minutes later and I’m feeling better. Thinking about the downhill. Less than 8 km of bad road left, and maybe 10 more to a village. That’s maybe 2 hours, maybe less if I’m feeling better.

Then a wave of nausea and confusion hits me. Bad. Sweating like it’s raining. I can hardly talk. I ask if they can call a car out from MuongLay. No. Can you get some help? No. I make it clear that I’m sick.can you get a taxi from MuongLay? I can pay. My heart is out of control and sweat is pouring out of me. I can pay anything. I try to ring 911, but no reception. Gorge. I make an ambulance sound. Nobody does anything except laugh or stare. I feel like fainting, so I crawl down onto the floor. My glasses go crooked, and I have this odd thought – “There’s nothing to read down here, so let’s not bother adjusting them”. Who am I talking to? At least I’m not so dizzy now. And the floor is a bit cooler. Much cooler. It’s quite good. Think I’ll have a sleep. Do I dream?

I don’t think I was down for long before I hear voices and feel people picking me up. My gear is stashed into the pannier, picked up and thrown on a minibus. A minibus? I wave at the bus driver and yell stop. The bus had probably been stopped for a while, but it was important to me that they did not, under any circumstances, consider leaving me there.

But the bus driver won’t let me oto the steps. He doesn’t like my muddy boots. I take them off. Still no go. Socks too. No go. I’m taken around the back and hosed down. It feels good. Onto the bus, where I see my filthy bike down the middle row.

People are clearly angry. I apologise profusely and take a seat. There is air conditioning and I sleep. A while later I’m woken and asked to pay. Clearly, if I can’t, I’ll be thrown off. I pull out some 20 and 50 thousand notes. He shakes his head and pulls out a wad of cash and shows me a 200,000 VND note. It’s a wrestle around in the back pocket of my jersey to find the cash. Now he wants 400,000. There’s another reserve I have somewhere, and find it just in time. Phew. Then a passenger asks him somethin, and his reply is that “the guy wanted a taxi to MuongLay”. I assume that I’m paying over the top. But $16 for an air-conditioned bus to MuongLay when you’ve got heat exhaustion? Bargain. Even if the bus gets delayed by some nasty landslides.

I get dumped in the road (the middle), and cycle barefoot across a bridge to the Lan Ahn hotel (see other blog). 

The day has a dream-like quality about it. A certain unreality. Like it happened to someone else. 


The gorge is so steep that there are landslides all of the time. The roadworks are causing a lot of them. The Lonely Planet people describe the roadworks as “very rough”, but also said they were expected to finish in August 2014. In fact, they are about 20 years from completion. 

And why didn’t I pay more attention? The trucks at Phong To are waiting for the mud to dry out before they can get through. Dummy

It took the minibus 8 hours to go the 80 km from LaiChau to MuongLay.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. The Lan Ahn hotel, MuongLay.

It’s a bit strange. Something is Fishy In Denmark, as they say. Not quite right 

The Lan Ahn sits on a bit of a hill overlooking the lake. And it’s a big hotel. Maybe 40 rooms? A restaurant that seats 100. Tonight it had some serious karaoke equipment in there. My room is excellent – air con, marble-ish bathroom that’s big, like the room. 

So why am I the only person here? I’m “it”. The entire clientele is “moi”. The whole guest list reads “Brett Robinson”. Total number of children staying here: none. Women: none. Vietnamese: none. Australians: 1. Men: 1. Cyclists: 1. Not the stats I would expect.

And where are the staff? Is the guy in a singlet and board-shots who said he would hose the mud off my bike for $2 in charge of this prestigious establishment? Yes. Is that the sound of his motor scooter driving off in the night? Am I in charge? 

And why is fried rice with chicken the only meal available in the restaurant? (plus Viet-style chicken spring rolls, but only if you bypass the bike-cleaning waiter and talk directly with the housecleaning cook) Why is there no fruit or fruit juice available? More disconcerting is that there is no green tea available. It may be the national drink, but no, you can’t get it here. Strong similarities to Monty Python’s cheese shop that doesn’t have any cheese.

It IS expensive, but there are usually some well-healed tourists around enjoying a place like this. Especially this close to affluent China (a couple of km away).

A couple of days later I find out that there is a bustling Viet town across the bridge and 3km down the road. The hotel is on the wrong side of a long bridge across the river. I’m also fairly confident that there are cheaper guesthouses in the town, where the locals stay. Curse the Lonely Planet Guide for saying the Lan Ahn is the only hotel in town. The Thanh Binh, also on the wrong side of the river, is MUCH better, and cheaper – if you want a fancy-pants hotel up the river and not a guesthouse in town.

Bicycle diaries, Vietnam. SaPa to LaiChau. Beyond the bucket list.

The title is a bit of a give-away. Today’s ride isn’t on anyone’s bucket list. Stuff on bucket lists are never as good as this because it is impossible to imagine an experience like this before you have done it. 

Apologies for the long blog. Today took about 2 weeks to get through (mentally, physically, emotionally). 

Riding out of SaPa is hilly, but not impossible. Some steep parts are marked “10%”, which for me usually means “give up all hope you fool”. But today I have very low, tough gears. Other steep parts don’t have the 10% sign, perhaps by way of encouragement.

Like SaPa, the views are amazing. Today the rain and mist is hiding a lot of what sometimes might be on offer. Some big waterfalls are rumbling away and the odd crack of thunder keeps me on my toes. Figuratively. The traffic is sparse. Mostly scooters. 

I stop outside the Love Waterfall tourist park (about 15km out of SaPa) to catch my breath and look for coffee. A couple of minivans are there, and the tourists stare at me without saying anything. I’m thinking “who in their right mind would be jammed in a minivan going out to see foggy waterfalls on a rainy day like this?”. Some people are nuts.

It’s getting cold and my legs are tired. I walk a bit. Mostly ride. Near the top of the mountain pass known locally as “not rideable today” I stop at a cafe and have some hot green tea. Sensational. Very warming. And a fake orange drink for a sugar hit. I ask a fellow for a towel, and he looks for one, but his mate says I’m filthy and don’t dare give me a towel. They proceed to check out my bike, which peeves me a bit after being classed as “below towel standard”. 

After nearly 3 hours I’ve ridden a mere 25km, but gained about 500 metres in height. Totally worth every minute – the scenery wouldn’t be out of place in a fairy story. 

Over the top, and it is SO good to be descending. Descending for miles and miles. At first the descent is steep and wet, so I go slow. The photos give just a bit of an idea how good it was. 

Towards the bottom it is less steep and it’s warm because the road dropped a thousand vertical metres (worth about 12 degrees). 5 km from TamDuong and the descent is done and dusted. It is tempting to stay here, in quite a good town, but recklessly I ride forward. And upward. Mostly upwards. The upward gets steep. And not always riding. There is a considerable amount of walking ahead.

The views are still mind-bogglingly good, but the sun has come out and it’s 30+ degrees in the shade. There’s little shade, and in the sun, it’s mind-bogglingly hot. About half way up this rise, I am pooped. 

It takes a good long sit on a rock under a tree to regain composure. (Unknown to me, I’m only half way up the hill). The scenery and people and just everything is so good that I’m reluctant to feel anything but joy. Shut up body – I’m confident that you have 10% more to give. (See above comment regarding the remaining climb being 50%)

No matter how busted I feel, I’m putting this ride up there with the very best of them. And that’s from a guy who hates hills. Did I mention that it’s hot and this is a big hill? About 4 times the Toowoomba range. Or 8 Mt Coothas. And I’m FAT. And riding a FAT bike. Thankfully the sun goes behind some clouds and the temperature drops to about 30. The scenery remains stunning. The people are saying “hello” (because it’s an opportunity to use ALL of their English), and scooter riders are beeping their horns in encouragement. Most of the people are from the hill tribes and wear beautiful costumes.

Over the top and It seems impossible, but this descent is better than the last. LaiChau isn’t far. I find a coffee shop then a little hotel. 

Clothes are drying, I’m stuffed. It has been one of the most amazing days ever. Cold. Freezing. Tough. Nail-through-your-hand tough. Hot. Dripping, soaked, salty steaming hot. Raging rivers, waterfalls, corn, chokos, peanuts, tiny little pigs and chooks. A hundred water buffallo, when only one is sufficient to cause a big hairy accident.

Beyond the bucket list, there are days like these. A few. Maybe. If you look and you’re lucky.

Six inch high pig sets new world record for being the fastest and cutest thing combined.

Footnote: Top of the hill, stuffed, and wearing the internationally-admired “David O’Loughlin” pink and black jersey of the 2011 Cairns to Karumba charity bike ride. David passed away a few months ago, and is greatly missed.