Vietnam was my initiation to cycle-touring. I was convinced in Luang Prapang in Laos when I came across a family of 4 which included 2 kids aged 7 and 9. They were cycling around South-East Asia for about 3 months and told me that was the best trip they’ve ever done. If they can do it, I can certainly do it too I told myself.
A few days later, I sitting in a bus going down the Vietnamese east coast, thinking how amazing would it be to cycle instead of having my ass on a bus seat. Most of the time, I was looking through the window wanting to be out there, thinking about this family of 4 and how amazing would it be to pushbike. Being in direct contact with the local, stopping at the numerous markets, veering right towards a small village through a rice field were all things I wanted to do. And everyone seems to be using a bike anyway!
A few months later, I was back in Vietnam with my pushy. That was my initiation to cycle-touring and loved every minute of it. That got me hooked to cycle-touring big time.
Lao Cai – Sapa – Lao Cai leg
From the train station in Lao Cai, it’s about 35kms to Sapa. It’s mostly an uphill ride, but the scenery is breathtaking with many small villages and communities are peppering the road sides. To this day, one of the best riding I have ever done. Rice paddies, traditional tribe people are appearing from the roadsides sometimes with their buffalos, food and drinks sellers every now and then providing well-earned energy for the hills ahead.
Seeing older tribe people (Mostly Hmong) carrying heavy loads either on their shoulders or in their handmade back-panniers wearing thongs is shocking at first. Pushing a bike certainly feels like luxury and easy given these conditions.
Mountain people’s manual work is something at the very heart of their survival. From collecting rice, plants and herbs from the fields, producing rice powder to constructing and renovating houses or making clothes, everything is manual work. Machinery is completely absent. I even came across two young adolescent who have built their own skateboard / luge. Using something built by your own hands from start to finish amplifies the satisfaction considerably. I could see this on their faces making their way down the hills, seated on their homemade assemblage of small wood beams with wheels, luge style.
The downhill ride to Lao Cai is the best feeling ever. Hard to not stop every 5 minutes to admire the views! You’re down the mountain in a flash, earlier than you’d wish.
Hue – Saigon
After a night train into Hanoi, I decide to spend a day around Hanoi before going to Hue on yet another night train. Since I had only a month, I wanted to concentrate on the South region of Vietnam.
Going around Hanoi’s train station with the bike attracted quite a bit of attention. My toe straps were surprisingly generating quite a buzz! I realised later that traditional vietnamese bikes rarely had toe straps on. Getting a ticket proved to be a bit of a struggle, being asked to go to a different ticket every time I got to a ticket booth. After a thorough visit of the station, I was finally told that I needed to buy 2 tickets; one for my bike and the other for my berth. Not sure if I absolutely had to buy 2 tickets or if it was ripped off, but I was relieved to get on that night train.
After a day in Hue, I took off towards Hoi An, going through Danang along the way. This was my first stretch on Highway 1 and I instinctively knew it’s going to be an amazing experience but also a dangerous one at the same time. After a few kms I came across a bus that crashed into the ditch just before crossing a bridge. The road was busy, but I was confident and relief to see literally 100s of local farmers cycling along the road with their ridiculous loads of a wide variety of products. Veggies, cardboard, chickens, ducks, hay, rice, motorbike parts and the lists goes on. It is so inspirational seeing these aged farmers carrying such a weight on a single speed decrepit bike. I felt ashamed at times when zipping past them with a friendly “Xin Chao!”. And they always have the biggest smile on their faces. I know a few that would be swearing doing this sort of job, myself included.
Hoi An is one of my favorite cities in Vietnam. The market is amazing with amazing food options especially seafood. Many buildings dates from early A.C. and the Old Town is listed as a Unesco World Heritage site. There are also many tailor shops (apparently over 200) where you can simply walk in, choose amongst 100s of tissue fabric, have your measurements taken and come back 1 or 2 days later with a new suit! Most shops can also send packages my mail if you want to. All of this for a fraction of the price you’ll normally pay.
I also took a day to visit the Cham towers at My Son, another Unesco World Heritage site. These are set in the jungle and despite being heavily bombarded by the americans during the Vietnam war, there are some structures still intact today. This Champa site is a smaller version of other bigger sites including well-known Ankor Wat. Well worth a visit.
Next stops on the map were Quang Ngai, Sa Huynh, Quy Nhon then Tuy Hoa. This section was awesome, cycling not too far from the ocean, sometimes with amazing views. Rices paddies is dominating the scenery. These cities are not frequently visited by tourists which gives a better Vietnamese experience. The locals are so friendly and curious at the same time. They are constantly smiling and welcoming. Water and snack breaks along the road is guaranteed to attract a few curious minds. Many times I was invited (or should I say drag) into houses and offered tea, bread, soup and even a bed for the night. There was this one time when I was sitting drinking tea just outside the main door, chatting with this lady when all of the sudden all the kids in that rural village came running. In a flash, they were surrounding me and asking me questions all at the same time. Since they were learning English at school, they all came along with their English schoolbook asking me to do their homework for them!! I ended up doing an impromptu 30 minutes English class with these kids and helping them completing their homework. Fantastic experience.
The way to Nha Trang was really difficult because of a single reason: wind. I spent 2 days in a row pushing so hard against that fierce wind. I took my legs away. I spent a few unexpected few days in Nha Trang where I treated myself a bit. Massages, party and recovery on the beach. I abused the Sailing Club more than once and enjoyed one of the best street seafood around Tran Phu bridge located at the north end of Nha Trang.
The ride to Phan Rang was once more against the wind. That’s when the moral aspect of cycle-touring becomes important. I yelled a few times during that ride. I met a friend living in Phan Rang where I ended up spending 3 days. That was an incredible experience living in her house, helping her around the house, going to the market, preparing food, visiting local temples and historical sites which mainstream tourists has no idea of their existence. Especially Po Ro Me Cham Tower located about 15kms south of Phan Rang, one of the best Cham tower in whole of Vietnam according to Lonely Planet.
From then on, I realised I had 5 days to get to Saigon and catch my plane. I wanted to go to Dalat, so I decide to grab the bus instead of cycling. My firend Ann decided to join me to Dalat where we spent 2 days. Not as good as Sapa, but still an amazing city in the central highlands of Vietnam. The market is simply remarkable. It’s roughly 70kms uphill into Dalat from Phan Rang. That would’ve been tough riding. I’m glad I took the bus on this occasion to be perfectly honest.
Going into Saigon was simply ridiculous. From the bus, I once again didn’t regretted cycling into this absolute chaos. It’s almost suicide. At least from the road we took. Maybe coming in Vietnam’s largest city from a secondary road would be quieter, but unless you are determined to cycle into Saigon I wouldn’t recommend it.
Hue to Saigon leg