Same same, but very different
by Lynne Mackie
Vietnam is a country of amazing sights, smells, tastes – and cycling. Getting to most of the magnificent spots takes training, but that’s better than pushing your bike or sitting in the mud.
When my heart eventually stops thudding, it’s very quiet. There is just the distant jangle of a bell that identifies a precious water buffalo to its owner. The air is hazy and the view of mountain upon green mountain is glorious. Vietnam has lots of water, occasional dense forest and countless tiny villages. The rice paddies on the hillsides are neatly planted in rows as even as the lines in an exercise book.
The splutter of a small motorcycle negotiating the snaking bends of the rocky dirt road breaks the silence. Two youths sit astride the machine sacks of just-harvested rice piled between them. They look at me with curiosity. A woman on a bicycle, wearing Lycra shorts and a helmet is a real oddity in these mountains. But they are friendly and give the universal welcome of a wave and a smile. Some of my travelling companions are up ahead, others behind. We are enjoying our first day of mountainbiking in northern Vietnam. Today’s route takes us from Lao-Cai on the Chinese border in the northwest to Sapa, a distance of about 70 kilometres.
Our picnic lunch next to the river is delicious –enormous crusty rolls the size and shape of rugby balls, filled with cheese, tomato, cold meat and other tasty things. This is followed by juicy watermelon, small bananas and sweet persimmons.
We are covered in mud and some youngsters materialise to wash our bikes in the river. The morning’s riding has taken us over hard, rocky terrain, through knee-deep mud, through streams, up long, winding rutted tracks – a bit of everything. There’s nothing much on the road apart from rice drying in the sun, occasional dogs, water buffalo, small children and motorcycles piled high with all manner of passengers (including pigs) and cargo.
Our guide and now firm friend, Mr Hoa (known to us, by his own request, simply as Hoa), says the afternoon will start with a steep climb of about a kilometre and a half on rocky gravel. Then it’s tar all the way. I am so relieved about the tar I don’t ask questions. It turns out the promise involves about 25 kilometres of climbing, with no flat bits or descents. A humid heat has descended on us out of a blue sky following a mild and very pleasant morning under cloud. But it’s beautiful and deserted.
After a good few hours and close on 1 800 metres of climbing, we find one of our back-up vehicles with driver and mechanic (to help keep our rented Trek bikes in good shape) blocking our route. Waving bouquets (similar to those handed to stage winners at the Tour de France) they indicate that it’s time to throw in the towel. It will soon be dark and we need to move on. A couple of the stronger riders are up ahead and they descend at breakneck speed into Sapa as night closes in.
This is just the beginning of our two-week trip through bits of Vietnam, a country of almost 90 million people. It reminds me of South Africa in some ways, but could not be more different in other ways. One thing we definitely have in common is a wealth of unexplored opportunity for mountainbiking.
Tour de Nam
South Africans have a reputation for being explorers. When eleven of us set off for Vietnam in October, some were meeting for the first time. Two things brought us together: a love of cycling and the tenacity of Terry Dearling, who came up with the idea after she overheard a conversation in a coffee shop. Soon enough, Steve Forster, owner of Ride Away Mountainbiking and Cycling Tours, was invited to work his magic. Steve is a South African mountainbiker and adventurer who has spent many years exploring Vietnam, Nepal, South Africa and other mountainbiking paradises and now creates custom tours around his intimate knowledge of these countries.
Our tour group, mainly from Gauteng, represented a cross section of cycling. We had a mix of roadies, marathon runners, recent MTB converts and a tri-athlete.
Expectations on a trip like this are varied. Some of our group went mainly to cycle, others mainly to see the country and nearly all of us got more than we bargained for. “I was expecting a tough cycling holiday with not much else, my focus had been to prepare for a lot of time in the saddle,” said Rebecca Sands (the MTB convert), “However, there were so many instances where I was delighted by the other activities on the trip – the wonderful food, learning about the country’s history and getting to know something about the people, the shopping, the spirit in the group. It was the things that I didn’t expect that really made it a trip of a lifetime for me.”
Vietnam is a growing tourist destination and, yes, we did many of the things you have to do as tourists. We spent two nights on a junk in the amazing Halong Bay (recently voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature), learned about some of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, watched a water puppet show in Hanoi, bought local crafts at the market in Bac Ha, visited the medical and war museums, dodged the motorbikes and shopped in Ho Chi Minh City, explored the historic Cu Chi tunnels, attended a ceremony at the exquisite Cao Dai temple and had a brief taste of the Mekong Delta.
We couldn’t get enough of the wonderful food, certainly the best I have eaten anywhere. We ate and ate, but felt great. The food is tasty, healthy and varied, with ingredients from noodle soup with chillies for breakfast to magical bread, cheese and fruit lunches on the side of the road, to fresh fish prepared in private homes in the countryside, to wonderful vegetables, spring rolls and meats accompanied by a huge variety of dipping sauces, to whole pineapples on sticks eaten while relaxing on the roadside in hammocks. We all took along our own chopsticks to avoid the dreaded lurgy, but no one used them, or needed to.
Warm hearts and distant horizons
To help us find our way, we had a full-time guide who accompanied us out of Hanoi for our week in the north and another week out of Ho Chi Minh City in the south. We really appreciated the support of our guides, backup vehicles and technical assistants. It would be foolhardy to just get on a bike and go in Vietnam. The roads are busy – and I mean frantic – and the best cycling is to be found far off the beaten track.
Our four days of cycling in the Sapa and Bac Ha area were some of the most spectacular I have ever experienced. It was so far remote that several of us sailed right through a Chinese border post. Alastair Mackie, who unwittingly led the charge, casually waved off the surprised border guard’s protestations yelling, “Don’t worry, our guide is coming!”
On the almost deserted rural tracks, I made the mistake – more than once – of moving over to the left when confronted by a motorcycle, only to find the driver doing the same thing. When you are out there in your own little cycling paradise, you forget that the rules of the road are different from at home.
The cycling could be as challenging as you wanted it to be. Nobody was disappointed and, despite the mud, we were lucky with the weather. There were a few drops of rain here and there, and cool weather ideal for cycling interspersed with some murderously hot and humid days, which always seemed to be when we were climbing. In one day we could look forward to awesome singletrack with river crossings, mud, steep switchbacks, lots of wet roots and rocks and a little portage. Steve Paterson (our Absa Cape Epic trainee) summed it up when he said, “What more could you ask for? All this is in beautiful mountainous terrain with friendly, smiling locals who even offer you a drink in their homes as you ride by.”
Rebecca relished to opportunity to hone her technical skills, which were stretched by the deep mud, wet, rocky downhills and incredibly steep hills, but added another perspective. “It was just so nice to feel safe riding absolutely alone – something that doesn’t happen for me in South Africa.” (This was really thanks to Hoa, who ensured that our routes were really in the outback.)
Living to tell the tale
Cycling out of Sapa on our second day, a few members of the group chose to negotiate some very muddy, steep singletrack. The others (myself included) selected what seemed the more rational option – a rocky road winding through villages down the mountainside, into a valley and then up the other side, with streams cascading down the mountain and over the road.
It was in one of these that Richard O’Donoghue slid out on the slippery, mossy road surface and ended up with a fairly substantial hole in his elbow. When later in the trip this wound started looking as if it might cause problems, Hoa quickly arranged a doctor and some antibiotics. Problem solved.
On the same eventful day Henk Theron, having to stop suddenly in the middle of another stream, went down and was washed straight off the road heading down a mountainside together with his bike. Some quick thinking and grabbing handfuls of foliage saved him from a long downhill slide. Henk, was notorious for being so hard on bikes – he went through a few and wouldn’t have been able to keep going without the mechanical support.
Beep beep to the south
Our cycling in the north was followed by two days of relaxation on a junk in Halong Bay and then a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). For the first time we saw western influences – hamburgers, expensive boutiques, skyscrapers and five star hotels – creeping into what until then had been a magically eastern experience. But there are bargains to be found and, wonderfully, tourists don’t get ripped off at every turn.
The cycling experience in the south of Vietnam was quite different, but we first had to negotiate our way out of the city in our minibus. This was an experience in itself. The city goes on and on as does the traffic, yet amazingly there is no aggression. The roads were reasonable and, although busier, hooting is an acceptable means of alerting other road users that you are coming by and approaching vehicles gave us more than enough notice of their proximity.
Eventually, after a few harrowing hours, we took to the road on our two-wheeled transport. The cycling was easier, so the tempo, for some, was fast and furious, while others (me included) took time to absorb the experience. It was hot and very humid. We were lucky to get not a drop of rain during what was meant to be the latter part of the rainy season, but there were times when a shower would have been most welcome. Our cycling in the south was interspersed with interesting cultural stops, such as the Cu Chi tunnels; an extensive network of hundreds of kilometers of underground tunnels used by Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam War.
One day in the Mekong Delta provided some lovely cycling, but it was not enough – you should spend more time there. We rode on fairly narrow paths between waterways (containing all manner of transport, floating markets and dwellings), patches of cultivated land and homes. It was green and lush and the cycling was flowing and exhilarating, but serious concentration was needed to negotiate past the motorcycles and other obstacles.
When it was time to head home, Terry had the last word: “This is probably one of the best places in the world to cycle. Why? The people are friendly, helpful and respectful to cyclists, accommodation is not expensive and you can find lots of luxury if you want it, crime is uncommon and the food is delicious! Cycling in Vietnam is food for the soul.”
Get your planning right
On tour, the overnight accommodation is as important as the riding, and it can make or break the whole experience. Our tour convener made a very wise decision right at the start. “If I’m going to cycle hard during the day, I’m going to have some comfort at night,” she said. And so we did. The hotels we stayed in were world class, close to everything we needed and not overly expensive.
Don’t take a road bike to Vietnam. You can take your own mountainbike if you want to, but then you need to be ready to do all your own maintenance. There are few cycling shops, and they are nothing like the high tech cycling stores we are used to in South Africa. Rather hire a bike when you get there.
Cycling in Vietnam is an amazing experience, but you need to train for the hills and you’ll put any technical skills you may have to good use. Our traffic is no match for what you will encounter, but do get comfortable riding your bike among cars.
Plan your trip in advance and use a guide who is able to gauge your strengths as a group and plan the route accordingly. Your guide will also need to help with the language – English is rarely spoken in the rural areas. You could never find he places you really want to visit on your own.