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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #9:
Vietnam
30/7/99

Crossing the border, we exchanged the peace and tranquillity of Laos for the fast lane: Vietnam. The sheer noise, hectic pace of life and curiosity of the people make it unlike any other country I have cycled in.

Transport up and down the country revolves around Highway 1, the Vietnamese equivalent of the autobahn. It crosses the symbolic Demilitarized Zone and passes through Soviet-style towns, rebuilt after being levelled in the American War, as it is called here. Along with burnt out tanks and moonscape craters, the many injured veterans are another reminder of the long war which tore apart the land. But for now, it's the buses that cycle tourers need fear the most. Plying the Hanoi - Ho Chi Minh City route, they announce their presence with ear bleeding staccato blasts of their horns. Replacing the need to brake, feet pressed firmly to the floor, old wood panelled Renaults swerve around carts pulled by swaying water buffalo and bicycles slowed to a crawl under a pile of coconuts.

Golden rice fields line the roads and stooped figures in conical hats work the land. Russian made Minsk motorbikes burn past carrying squealing pigs and crates of restaurant-bound dogs. Ribbons of bicycles disappear into the distance, burdened with anything and everything - enormous sacks of rice, chickens and ducks dangling from handlebars, canoes, furniture, live animals, dead animals... Often without brakes, pedals and gears, these bikes would have long since been consigned to the rubbish tip in the UK, yet here they are indispensable.

After a diet of 'Pho Ga,' chicken noodle soup, Hanoi provides a welcome respite with all things western. Each hectic street in the colonial old quarter overflows with different goods - tin, bamboo, shoes, clothes - spilling out onto the pavement. When it gets too hot to cycle amongst the Honda Dream mopeds that crowd the traffic lights like the start of a Grand Prix, there's always the air conditioned mausoleum to visit where the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, hero of Vietnam, rests.

It's not until pushing on into the more mountainous northern provinces, whose passes rise to a maximum 2000m, that a welcome coolness displaces the oppressive heat and humidity. Dramatic mountainscapes, colourful hilltribes and terraced rice fields covering every spare inch of land provide wonderful cycling territory, with a memorable 30km climb to the hill station of Sapa, set high amongst the clouds.

Other tourers I have met include a Dutch couple, pulling a trailer with their 2 and a half year old son, and Ken, a lone Canadian on the road for two years. His fur handled mountain bike was piled even higher than the locals. The constant vibrations of the highway have paralysed Trystan's fingers, riding as he is on narrow tyres, straight forks and drops. Subjection to a three week acupuncture course at the Traditional Medicine School in Hanoi has brought them back to life again, and with straight bars and a suspension stem ordered from the States, he is ready to ride again.

Vietnam is a country where it's easy to get wound up by foreigner pricing, the hard sales tactics of the locals and the lack of personal space. But beneath this veneer is a fascinating land with a genuinely friendly people. It's a country that can drive you mad and yet make you want to go back. Above all, it's a country that leaves an indelible impression.



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