Life is like riding a bicycle / Love is an adventure — as cliche as these may sound, Thibault Clemenceau and Trân Nguyên Khanh Nguyên took these overused phrases to a whole new level. The French-Vietnamese couple spent a full year (April 2019 - May 2020) biking from France to Vietnam for an admirable mission they dubbed as the “Nón Lá Project”, a homage to one of Vietnam’s traditional symbols.
“The initial idea and desire came from me,” Thibault said. Growing up in France and in a family who pushed him to go outside and explore new places, bicycles very quickly became synonymous with freedom — freedom to go to see his friends in another village or to buy candies at a grocery store. After completing a 4,000km bicycle trip with his younger brother from France to Slovenia and then Italy, Thibault felt an intense sense of freedom and happiness and knew he wanted to go one day for something bigger, somewhere farther.
Then in 2015, he came to Vietnam. Through a common friend, Thibault met Khanh Nguyên. After two years of being together, the two decided to get married. A few weeks later and out of the blue, Thibault asked Khanh Nguyên, “Do you want to cycle from France to Vietnam? From my home to yours?” An immediate yes from Khanh Nguyen signaled the start of their biggest adventure yet.
Thibault and Khanh Nguyên then organized a fundraising campaign for a Vietnam-based NGO — $1 for each kilometer they cycle. The distance between France and Vietnam is 16,000 kilometers. The couple successfully gathered $17,600, which they donated in full to Poussières de Vie to build a school and provide education supplies for underprivileged children.
The power couple, now based in Saigon, graciously granted Vietcetera their time to tell us what’s been going on in their lives after being on the road for one whole year, the foundation they’ve donated all the money they raised to, and what else is on their bucket list.
What’s up with the couple who biked their way and spent their honeymoon from France to Vietnam? What’s keeping you busy nowadays?
Khanh Nguyên: After one full year on the road it has been a bit challenging to come back to “normal” life — to switch from nomadic life in which you discover new places every day and new people to a sedentary life can be hard to handle. Presently, we are based in Saigon but will soon move to Hoi An.
Thibault Clemenceau: What kept us occupied since we arrived are our new projects — putting all our energy into them. One of which was a book we wrote about our adventures and then we’re planning to establish our own companies. Khanh Nguyên’s tailor-made wedding dress is on the pipeline and my still-confidential project that I’ll soon reveal. What we can share for now is that the English version of the book “From my Home to Yours'' will be released in June this year and will also be available in Vietnam. Lastly, perhaps another adventure somewhere?
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How do you describe each other as a married couple and as adventure buddies?
KN: We make a good team — Thibault is more on the adventure and over-optimistic side while I’m more cautious and sometimes a bit pessimistic. We then make a good balance to take the right path.
For instance, Thibault made sure that I get enough rest to go on. He paid daily attention to me, making sure I could go all the way. I built enough strength and confidence to slowly become the stronger of the two during the last part of the trip, especially when we had to cross Vietnam during the COVID-19 outbreak. You can read about it in the coming book.
TC: If I may add, we both understand the strengths and the weaknesses of one another and I fully accept everything about her and I know she does feel the same to me. We take pride in seeing the other one growing and shining. It was one of the keys to why we made it all the way from France to Vietnam. Of course, we’re hopeful that it will also be the key to go through life together.
Which came first, the intention to help or the bike journey?
KN: The bike journey came first. It was Thibault’s greatest dream. But during our four years together in Saigon, we got involved with a local NGO called Poussières de Vie (Dust of life). Poussières de Vie provides free education to children who cannot go to school. After years of doing charity with them, it was pretty obvious and expected for the two of us that we would seize the opportunity of this bike journey to organize a fundraiser for them.
TC: They inspired us in our journey. They served as a kind of mission for us and they showered us incredible support, a real motivation to finish the journey. Thanks to them, every time we encounter tough moments on the road, we pull ourselves together by just thinking of the kids we'll be able to support and the people who have been there for us since day one.
What was your biggest takeaway from the trip?
KN: Embody what you want to be, what you want to attract. This trip has been a life-changing experience and a virtuous circle — an incredible number of good and well-intentioned people have paved all our way from France to Vietnam. If you are 100% committed to what you love, your dream, other people will feel it too, they will come to you and give the very best of what they have to support you. You will eventually inspire people to do the same or to have the motivation to follow their own dreams.
Once back in Vietnam, several people came to see us and told us “You guys inspired me to follow my dream”. When someone tells you something like that, you’ve done your job. And for us, that is the best reward one could ever have.
How did you feel when you realized you’ve already reached Vietnam, the end of the journey?
KN: When we reached Vietnam at the Lao border close to Diên Biên Phu, we thought that since we’re back home, almost at the end of the journey, it would be smooth and pleasant. But then we realized, we still had 2,000 kilometers to cycle down south to Hanoi and then to Saigon. On top of that, there was the COVID-19 outbreak. It was probably one of the most challenging parts of the trip. After leaving Hanoi, most of the local people were scared of foreigners, and several times we did not know where to stop or to sleep. Thankfully, we got our dear tent to set up and sleep behind some bushes.
TC: After all this stress and pain, we could finally meet the family of my wife (her hometown is in Ba Ria, Vung Tau). It was pretty unreal to finally see and hug them. After so many experiences on the road, we sometimes had the impression that we had left home, away from our families, for more than 10 years.
The last kilometer before reaching Saigon and finally giving the money raised to the NGO was a bittersweet feeling. We reached our destination but all of this was finally and sadly over. We were having separation anxiety. No more camping in the wild, no more every day meeting with incredible people. But as Ulysses in the Odyssey, a journey has to have a final destination, to come back home, otherwise, we would wander and from wander comes madness.
Let’s talk about money. After weeks of careful planning, what was your budget range, and was it enough?
KN: We managed to save enough money in Saigon to purchase the necessary materials like our bikes, gears, and all the equipment to camp and cook anywhere, as well to cover our travel costs such as visas, insurance, accommodation (in case the weather’s unbearable or whenever we have to), food, etc.
Our initial budget was $12,000 for one year on the road and that’s already for the two of us, which means $500 per month per person. With the experience we had, it was the best investment we have ever made in our life.
TC: It was more than enough, the budget we set aside. During all our trip we spent most of our nights for free — under the tent, invited by some locals, at a church, a mosque, or a pagoda. And we all know that accommodation is generally the most expensive item when one travels, right? Plus, cycling is free. You just need to fuel your body with thousands of calories every time you can.
You both appreciate and embrace the local communities you met along the way. How did you get in touch with them and what was the biggest learning they’ve taught you?
TC: The main reason we traveled by bicycle was to have the opportunity to meet local people. There were different ways to reach out to them, sometimes we would simply meet them on the road and they would invite us for lunch or to sleep at their homes (it happened on a daily basis in Iran for example) OR through a website called warmshowers.com. It is a website on which cyclists from all over the world welcome other cyclists for free in their homes. We used it a lot, especially in Europe where there are thousands of Warmshowers hosts.
KN: The biggest learning from them was just to help, whenever you can, wherever you are. Some travelers or even strangers have a big heart and are expecting nothing in return for their goodness, we’re lucky to have bumped into quite a lot of them. In our "modern" lives in the big cities we tend to be very individualistic, a bit selfish, and fearful of others. Everything tends to be "contractual". We need more "human" relationships based on trust, mutual help, and without money being involved all the time.
Tell us more about the foundation you’re supporting.
TC: Poussières de Vie organizes several charity activities in Vietnam such as providing learning opportunities to disadvantaged kids and teaching young adults the basics in the hospitality business. I met them for the first time in 2015 in Saigon thanks to a friend who was a volunteer teacher for them.
KN: Both of us got more and more involved with the NGO over the years until the point we decided to sponsor a family of three sisters. For two years we came regularly to visit them and taught them English. At the same time, if they were attending school seriously with good grades, we would save some money for them every month in a bank account to finance their future studies.
Education is the key for us. It enabled us to grow and to follow our dreams. We believe that every child anywhere in the world should receive proper access to education and to eventually one day follow their own dreams.
We heard you used all the money you raised to build a school.
TC: The construction of the new school in District 12 has just finished. With the NGO, we made the decision that all the money raised during the journey would go to tangible things and teaching materials including uniforms for the kids, notebooks and pencils, tables, chairs, computers, etc.
We can’t wait to visit the school and share with all the donors the result of this fundraising!
What or where is your next adventure?
KN: Difficult to say with the current pandemic and threats of the new outbreak but while waiting for all things to go back to how they used to be, we will both grow our businesses and eventually start to build a little family which is in itself a great adventure.
But of course, we dream of being able to come back on our saddles one day, to explore wild countries such as Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, or South America. We will do it, that’s for sure. The only question is… when?
Given the chance to do it all over again, the 16,000km journey, what will you change or do better?
KN: Hmm… as much as we’d love to keep everything as it is, there were several occasions we hoped we did a better job at doing. For one, as we had to cycle our way from France to Vietnam, and due to lack of information, we sometimes had to cross very difficult and also dangerous regions. It was the case in the North-West of Bulgaria, in some parts of Azerbaijan and Iran. But, in a way, we don’t really regret it. It was part of the trip. Having to be outside on the road all the time, unpleasant moments really happen but in the end, it will make even more valuable memories for us.
TC: On a more practical matter, we think we could have been better cooks, especially when wild camping. We often cooked simple and boring meals such as pasta with veggies. Some other long-distance cyclists are incredibly creative and skilled for cooking in the wild. Some are even able to cook their own bread while wild camping. That will be our target for our next trip — unlock our cooking skills.
If there’s one thing you haven’t told anyone in your previous interviews about your bike trip, what is it?
KN: It is maybe about the philosophy of long-distance cycling. When you travel by bicycle you sometimes make a very intense physical and emotional effort — it will turn all the small little things into pure gold. It is sometimes just the fact of being able to drink clean water, eat fruit or some local bread, or being invited by some locals to sleep at their homes. There is a kind of pure joy of being alive that is incomparable to so many other ways of traveling.
TC: Also, when you travel by bicycle you will move slowly and will totally embrace the environment, the landscapes, everything along the way. You won’t cross them but you will inhabit, belong to them. When you reach the top of a mountain, the feeling of accomplishment is just unbeatable.
Ultimately, as you are slowly moving and that you belong 100% to the place where you are, you will have countless opportunities to get to know the local people. They will come and talk to you and eventually treat you with some food or invite you to their homes. Iran was by far the best of the countries we crossed for that!