Cycling Plus #9:
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
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.