The Cycle of Life: An Interview with Patrick Morris, Founder of VeloAsia.
If the wheels of a bicycle could offer a metaphor for life, then Patrick Morris, founder of VeloAsia would be the one to find it. Since its beginnings in 1993, VeloAsia (www.veloasia.com) has hosted over forty cycling trips to such far-flung destinations as Vietnam, Sumatra, Turkey, and Japan. As a tour host, and on personal treks through Laos, Cambodia, Italy, France, and England, as well as participating in competition cycling in Mexico, and recreational cycling around the San Francisco Bay Area, Patrick has logged over 100,000 miles.
Yet the path that led Patrick Morris to found VeloAsia was both serendipitous and circuitous. With a degree in Social Sciences from San Francisco State University, Patrick began his career as a Research Assistant at San Francisco General Hospital's Methadone Maintenance Lab. One of his co-workers had friends and family in Thailand. So, in the winter of 1992, with the intention of continuing his curriculum vitae in a more exotic locale, Patrick took a leave of absence from his job and headed to Bangkok in hopes of finding similar work at a Thai clinic. However, by his own admission, he had based his travel plans on an erroneous premise. "I was working on the naïve assumption that I could just go over and get a job in Thailand at $12 or $15 an hour, no problem." But his job prospects did not materialize.
Suddenly, almost as if the Fates had sensed his predicament, Patrick began spotting hand-scrawled signs in the shop windows of local travel agencies, announcing "Vietnam Visas." Independent travel had finally been sanctioned in Vietnam. "It completely changed my plans," remembers Patrick. "Before that, it was kind of like China, with the government controlled tourism package. You'd pay about $5000, you'd come in and a government cadre would give you a controlled tour. I'd researched it before, and that's what I understood Vietnam was doing too." This newly accessible travel opportunity to Vietnam immediately appealed to Patrick's sense of adventure. Without hesitation, he secured himself a four-week visa and bought a plane ticket to Saigon.
But even upon his arrival in Vietnam, Patrick had not yet been bitten by the velo bug. He traveled instead by pedi-cab in the cities, and by bus or motorcycle throughout the surrounding countryside. However, it wasn't long before he began to notice a network of well-constructed roads, which were both scenic and virtually free of automobile traffic. And that's when it dawned on him: Vietnam is a country and a culture to be seen and experienced up close, on two wheels. "I spent a month there, just kicking myself and thinking 'Wow, what a wonderful place to come back and ride.'"
Once back in San Francisco, Patrick resumed his position at the methadone clinic, while a part of his heart and soul still wandered the backroads of Vietnam. " Coming back to the methadone clinic after being in Vietnam was depressing. I wanted to go back there so bad. It was overwhelming. I was completely struck by how immediately endearing the Vietnamese people were. I'd never experienced anything like that in my life. They would take you into their house, share tea...it was so informal and so...natural. It was something that you were drawn into, especially after weeks there."
So, with "necessity being the mother of invention," and "where there's a will there's a way," as his guiding principles, Patrick began to concoct a way back to Vietnam. Toward that end, he wrote an article suggesting a guided bicycle tour of Vietnam. "It was immediately picked up by California Cycling magazine," he says. "And as soon as they published it, the phone rang off the hook. I got over a hundred calls the first month and put together as many tours as I could. That year, I did five tours."
And the rest...is history. Now in its eighth year, VeloAsia offers about eight tours annually, and has expanded its itineraries from Vietnam to Sumatra, Turkey, and Japan. And although the basic locomotion is provided by the travelers themselves and is not for the faint of heart, a VeloAsia tour could hardly be called "roughing it." Cyclists are accompanied every inch of the way by native speakers of the local language and veteran drivers of vans bearing nutritious snacks, refreshing beverages, tasty boxed lunches, first aid supplies, all the cyclists' personal belongings, and even their non-cycling companions. At day's end, weary pedalers are welcomed at a reputable, if not lavish hotel, with a hot shower, a sumptuous meal and clean sheets, to rest and restore their energy for the next day's journey.
Which begs the question: How does Patrick Morris successfully orchestrate the myriad details that comprise a VeloAsia bicycle tour? "It's controlled chaos," he replies with a laugh. "But we've done it so many times, we pretty much have it nailed down, hour by hour, mile by mile. And somewhere toward the end of each day, someone gets on the cell phone and calls the inn to let them know we're on our way and to be prepared for 12 people on bicycles." Patrick often books hotel accommodations for VeloAsia tours as early as six months in advance, and the tours fill just as quickly. The upcoming Lunar New Year tour filled up in mid May, almost nine months before the scheduled departure date.
The majority of cyclists who sign on for a VeloAsia tour are Americans and Canadians, most of whom are well-traveled, middle-aged professionals. However, Patrick says he gets quite a mix of nationalities. "One year, our tour to Turkey was half Belgian. And in Japan, we often get locals who sign up because it's trendy to travel with a foreign group speaking English."
"Most of the people who go are amazing people. I've made lifelong friends on the trips. We usually get a couple of veterans that are the most grounded, real people, typically, in the group. We've had some fantastic experiences. And every time that happens, I think, 'This is wonderful.' Especially when people go over there and they're just so moved by the trip, and it's the most incredible experience of their whole life."
Of the dozen or so countries that Patrick has visited, he still regards Vietnam as his favorite. "The Vietnamese people are incredibly friendly and endearing, despite the hardships. It makes you reflect on, 'Why am I so upset, and why am I so angry and not at peace, despite living in America where we have everything?' It had such a calming effect on me to be exposed to that. In Vietnam, there's no urgency. The time just passes by. Almost every day something wonderful happens there."
Of course, Patrick acknowledges that each year as many as a half million people travel to Vietnam, yet, in the minds of most Americans, Vietnam still bears the stigma of war. "People call me and say, 'I've heard it's so scenic, but is it okay?' And I say, 'Absolutely. It's a people place. If you're looking for great beaches, you go to Thailand. If you're looking for great forests, you go to Yosemite. There are not many jungles or much wildlife left in Vietnam. It's just a people country. It's so dynamic, and they're such a vibrant people.'"
Patrick goes on to say, "A lot of people still think that it's a very hostile environment. But there's never any fear in Vietnam. Anyone who writes from that aspect is really not being truthful. You never really have to fear, except perhaps the fear of bureaucratic problems. The Vietnamese speak English very well. Almost everywhere you stop they say, 'How are you? Where you go?' It's very easy to get around. It's just so different from when people say, 'I went for a week in Provence, and drank lots of wine and had lots of expensive cheese.' I like when people say, 'It's not a bicycle tour, it's a journey.' It will completely change your life."
These days however, Patrick has embarked on an odyssey of a different kind: parenthood. Patrick and his wife, Tree Tam, who, incidentally met while cycling in the Berkeley hills, are the proud parents of a son, Mario, born in June 2000. Patrick describes him as a kinetic child, and already, plans are taking shape for his second trip to Italy in August.
Due to his recently domestic lifestyle, Patrick is open for inquiries from cyclists who are interested in joining the six-member VeloAsia staff. However the criteria for the ideal candidate goes beyond a love of cycling to encompass a full complement of skills and experience. "What we're looking for is not just a tour guide. We're looking for someone who is more of a country manager, and we love to have people submit proposals and ideas for new tours. A very good example of that is Scott Boyd in Turkey. He's an American with a PhD in Turkish history, he's married to a Turkish woman, he founded his own bicycle shop down on the coast, he mapped the backroads and ran mountain biking tours before joining us. He's very organized. He's the whole package. He's the one who makes you say, 'That's the guy I want.'"
In Vietnam, Patrick's "right arm" is Le Van Sinh, whose VeloAsia website bio boasts, "A former engineer, Sinh single-handedly founded the tourist industry in Vietnam, opening the seminal and now famous Sinh Cafe in 1991. Restless for the road, Sinh soon gave up running the day-to-day business and has been traveling and guiding in his native country ever since. His knowledge of Vietnam is unequaled and he loves to share it. Many of our travelers claim that Sinh is the best guide they've ever had. In his spare time, he updates the Lonely Planet's Vietnam and Vietnam Atlas guides with Mason Florence."
Patrick places much emphasis on the quality of the experience one may expect from a VeloAsia tour. With that in mind, the VeloAsia logo is comprised of the Dai Ji (yin/yang symbol), overlaid with the spokes of a bicycle wheel, accompanied by the Chinese characters for peace and enlightenment. When asked in closing to draw a metaphor for life from the wheels of a bicycle, Patrick Morris replied, "Cycling is that part of us that makes us wander, often without purpose. Cycling is simply that curious part of us distilled, and, really, its only purpose. While enlightening and enriching us, the bicycle helps us fill that need."