Good travel writing aims to engage, inform and ultimately entertain the reader, but it’s rare that all three truly combine. In recounting her ride through SE Asia, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent demonstrates that thankfully it’s not a lost art.
Having read Christopher Hunt’s ‘Sparring with Charlie’ back in the 1990’s, documenting his ride down the Ho Chi Minh trail from Hanoi to Saigon on a Russian 125 Minsk, I remained completely unaware that the bulk of the trail network is not in fact in Vietnam, regardless of what some sanitised tour operators may wish to sell you.
Much of the trail that the Vietnamese communist support network used, went through Laos and Cambodia and this is reflected in the almost two thirds of ‘A Short Ride…’ which is set in these rarely explored countries. The author utilises as many old military maps as she can source to ensure the accuracy of her route, retracing the footsteps of the men and women who trudged under huge weights and constant aerial bombardment, regardless of whether or not the tracks are now thoroughfares.
Given the parlous state of the regional infrastructure, it makes no odds that Antonia is riding a C90 rather than a BMW because this is proper adventure riding. Encountering mud, river crossings (by canoe or with the help of hordes of children), petrol, food and water shortages, engine rebuilds, it’s all here in a story that’s incredibly well written. One quote on the back cover reads; ‘impossible to put down’ and I must concur.
This book is a fantastic exposé of the 2nd Indochina War that raged throughout the 1960s and 70s and the current state of affairs in all three countries: the adoption of new economic models that are destroying natural resources and generating huge social upheaval and the continuing effects of the deadly remnants of a conflict that saw more ordnance utilised than in any other.
I hate using the word vicarious, but the powerful prose almost lets you feel the heat, touch the filth and smell the atmosphere, as well as experience the panic and sense of loneliness when things go horribly wrong in the jungle. Antonia’s daily adventure and social interaction blends seamlessly with historical or cultural anecdote and I’m yet to read anything that inspires me more to visit the region, while simultaneously filling me with absolute dread of doing so. Fantastic.
Paperback 366pp, £9.99
Summersdale Publishers Limited 2014