Vietnam By Bike
Graham Swain gets on his bike to tour this fascinating country from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
By Graham Swain on 27 March 2012 in Travel Articles
Vietnam can easily be described as a country on the move. Forty million 2-stroke scooters and mopeds are a powerful statement to that effect and all acquired in the last decade. That equates to 1 scooter or moped for every 2 people!
Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), was my starting point for my 16-day cycle ride the length of this fascinating country, to Hanoi. Everywhere you look, swarms of motor scooters head towards you from every direction and rules of the road are redundant. Red traffic lights at junctions are considered merely a passing inconvenience.
So at night, we took to walking. In fact, it was the perfect way to enjoy the aromas of the steaming fish from the charcoal stoves and watch as motorcycle lights fill every conceivable space in waves like a fibre optic lamp. You are never far from a street stall selling the most sumptuous tropical fruit or a temple daubed with Chinese script, as fashion dressed teenagers mixed with traditional dressed street hawkers always with mutual respect.
We reached the mountain town of Dalat, known as the ‘City of Love’ due to its popularity as a national honeymooning spot. The climate is mild and feels like an everlasting spring ideal to enjoy marvellous landscapes throughout the year. Dalat is also famous for the street café culture, where people promenade and play board games.
We headed off the next day, for a two-night stop in the resort coastal town of Nha Trang on the South China Sea. Having explored Nha Trang on foot I crashed onto the beach, bordered by the blue glinting sea in the early evening sun to take in some ‘rays’. Not to be, as like moths to a flame, the most persistent street hawkers, this side of the Kasbah, surrounded me. These cute looking girls speak any language you want and have the greatest range of facial features an Oscar winning actress would be proud of. There was going to be no peace for me until I had purchased from a range of goods from mints to postcards and tiger balm, not to mention an optional foot massage.
Hoi An was a revelation, a cornucopia of ‘East meets West’, a living museum of architecture and life. Situated close to the border zone on the Ben Hai river, which between 1954 to 1976 separated North and South Vietnam, it is a major tourist attraction, bustling with all nationalities. It is blessed with fascinating houses and temples in the Chinese pagoda style together with a thriving riverside market.
The 95km ride to Hue presented the most memorable and spectacular Hai Van Pass (‘Pass of the Ocean Clouds’). As the twisting switchback road hugged the cliff face, we pedalled up a 580 metre climb to the top of Marble Mountain, with stunning views to fortify our efforts. Plummeting down to the ocean from the top, made the effort all worthwhile and we continued on a fascinating rural back-road ride bordered by ‘Paddy-fields’ and timeless small villages.
Once Vietnam’s feudal capitol from 1802 to 1945, The World Heritage of Hue is widely known for the magnificent architecture of the citadels, palaces, royal tombs, pagodas and temples, set in the poetic background of greenery on the banks of the Perfume River.
Nothing could have prepared me for the glorious 26 km coastal ride to Cat Ba town from the ferry. It was simply idyllic. Bathed in the warm enveloping unique microclimate of the Island, I was treated to the most soft, sensual and serene ride of the whole trip. It is a very lively and popular seaside resort, bustling with life and tourists, many from China. At night along the main drag on the promenade road, were cafés, bars, shops and dubious massage parlours where ‘doll like’ girls plied their trade, promising to fulfil your every dream.
The ferry across the famous Unesco Heritage site that is Halong Bay proved to be superlative. Emerald sea, 3000 Dolomite crags forming fantastic shapes, the sheer cliffs rising above the azure waves to jagged spires. Nestling in between floated boathouse villages of fisherman and pearl farmers. This dramatic and gorgeous bay was certainly an unbelievable curtain call to Cat Ba Island’s main act.
Fit as a fiddle, with legs like tugboats, I sadly bade farewell to this intoxicating country, where the Vietnamese people are the main attraction and they treat you like movie stars, with overwhelming friendliness. Given the option of a sanitised car or coach and sensible clothes, I would choose cycling every time. There is a lot to be said for viewing life anywhere in this leisurely way, but especially if you are trying to unravel the densely woven historical and cultural strands that compose Vietnam.
The trip above was organised by UK operator Exodus and cost between £1,869 and £2,299 for a 16 days trip, including flights, accommodation on half-board basis and bike hire.
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Photos by Exodus.co.uk
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