Sunday, December 01, 2013

Cycling Vietnam

Rural traffic.
In hindsight, the typhoon season might not be the best time to visit Vietnam, but the two and a bit weeks we just spent touring the country were among the most enjoyable holidays I've had on a bike. We joined an Intrepid Travel group travelling on the Cycle Vietnam tour from Hanoi to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City if you prefer). There are advantages and disadvantages to this kind of travel, but we decided that having someone else look after the organisation was well worth the cost. 

The group assembled in Hanoi on what was nominally Day 1 of the trip. There was no cycling this day, just some formalities of filling out some forms and sorting out bike hire ($US150), the snack kitty ($US40) and the tipping kitty (from memory about $60) for the trip. Day 2 saw us fitted to some fairly ratty mountain bikes and a 90 minute spin around Ho Tay Lake.  

Most of the kids we encountered were friendly.
Day 3 was the first real day of cycling. We began with a long descent of a mountain pass, during which my front rim disintegrated while I was braking, causing a front wheel blowout. This potentially quite dangerous failure didn't enamour me of our bikes greatly. Soon after I grabbed a handful of left brake when I tried to stop in a hurry (left brake is rear in Australia, has been all my life) and fired myself over the handlebars. A skinned knee seemed to be the worst of my injuries. I frequently wished I bought my own bike with me, although the conditions of he road meant mountain bikes were probably the best choice. While it is possible to bring your own steed, it is all but discouraged in the tour information. In hindsight it would have been easier than I thought before we departed.

Mechanical issues aside, the riding was wonderful. The scenery we passed through was superb, great karst landscapes with beetling crags and lovely flat travelling through rice paddies. We stayed the night under mosquito nets in a longhouse especially set up for tourists, an enjoyable experience.

The pattern that emerged over the next few days became an easy routine. We'd get up around 7am and have a light breakfast before a shuttle on the bus to the starting point for the day. Because we had a bus and a truck supporting us we didn't need to carry anything heavier than a camera. Chi, the capable, informative and endlessly patient tour leader would set the pace, and a mechanic would follow up the rear. The bus or the truck would be parked at intersections to show us the turns.

We'd ride for 45 minutes to an hour and have a drink and a snack before tackling another section of roughly the same length. We'd have lunch in a local restaurant, often pho, then do another section before a bus transfer to our accommodation for the night. It's not cycle touring from point to point for the purist, but it did allow us to cover a fair bit of ground. Mostly we rode 70km to 90km a day and finished in time for a few beers before dinner. 

The pace was easy and although we strung out along the road, we regrouped at each rest point so nobody was every too far behind and the last rider had the mechanic for company. We were also fortunate to have a most convivial group of 11 cyclist ranging from the hugely experienced and fit to a woman who bravely decided on the trip despite not having ridden a bike since childhood. She completed the tour in fine style. That said, there was a bit less cycling than I expected. There were three days along the way we either didn't ride much or at all, plus the nominal first and last days. Overall we covered about 515km.

Another flooded crossing.
The tour took us from Hanoi to Mai Chau and on to visit a primate sanctuary in the Cuc Phuong National Park before heading south to Nihn Binh, where we jumped on the overnight train to Hue, which was one of the highlights of the trip. From there we stayed in Da Nang, Hoi Ann (which was unfortunately flooded) Quy Nohn, Nha Trang and Da Lat before a long bus transfer to Saigon. Each of these towns was well chosen and we had a great time in each.

Along the road we'd often encounter groups of children travelling to or from school or who just wanted to say hi. Most were delightful, although there was the occasional one who would deliver a slap or try to grab you as you went past. A couple of riders reported having a stone thrown at them or being hit with a stick. I suppose it's to be expected.

And another. We rode around this one. 

Also to be expected was the traffic. Traffic in Vietnam might charitably described as chaotic. Even something as basic as which side of the road to travel on doesn't seem to have been agreed upon definitively. All the same, people are less challenged by the presence of cyclists than western motorists and even in heavy traffic I generally felt safe. Most Vietnamese get around on motor scooters. Those few who drive cars bear watching because they're infested with the sense of entitlement that seems to afflict some of our drivers too. 

There was only one slight downer of the trip, and that was the weather. It rained a lot, although it was warm rain so it wasn't as bad as two weeks of wet weather touring in Tasmania would be. The start of our trip was impacted by rains associated with the devastating typhoon which hit the Phillipines several days before. Under the circumstances there I wouldn't dare complain about the minor inconvenience we suffered. And having signed up for an outdoor holiday, you tend to have to take what comes your way.

Typical scenery.
The highlights for me included the quaint National Park Hotel with it's mosquito-netted beds, the bustle of Hanoi's old quarter, the beachside restaurants in Nha Trang and the cool and beautiful Da Lat. There were many more highlights of course, but those stand out. The people we travelled with were also a highlight, we had a good group. The accomodation was generally of a good standard and Vietnam is an extremely cheap place to travel. Dinner for two of us frequently cost less than $A30 including drinks and the food was excellent.

If you're thinking of cycletouring in Vietnam, I highly recommend it. With the benefit of this experience under our belt I would think about travelling independently next time, particularly as I'd much prefer riding my own bike. A well-planned trip would need to take into account the sheer size of the country, certainly we could not have covered the ground we did without the many transfers. Even expanding the trip out to three weeks, it would be wise to confine oneself to the north or the south rather than trying to pack too much in. 

6708km so far this year.

1 comment:

KP419 said...

Hi David! Great blog. I plan to do this tour in early December and had a few questions, can you provide your email address so I can reach out? Thank you!!!