By Larry Maloy
uring October, 2001 I acted as class leader for the University of Utah, AOCE Adventure Learning course, Bicycle Vietnam. The class was co-sponsored by Veloasia, a tour agency that specializes in exotic bicycle tours. Our class consisted of a small group of cyclist who wished to experience Vietnam, not just visit the typical tourist sites. What better way to accomplish that objective than from the seat of a bike? Our itinerary took us from Salt Lake to San Francisco to Hong Kong and on to Hanoi, Vietnam. From Hanoi we flew on Vietnam Airlines to the old capital city of Hue about half way down the coast. Our bicycle tour began at the outskirts of Hue where we headed south to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Stops along the way included the ancient sea port city of Hoi An, and towns of Quang Ngai, Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, and the mountain resort town of Da Lat. Having been in Vietnam once before, 1970-71 it was interesting to see the changes since the war ended.
Our adventure begins with two days in Hanoi. We put the time to good use sightseeing, adjusting to the 14-hour time change and getting used to the idea that we will soon be cycling in the Vietnam traffic. There are still very few cars in Hanoi, but bicycles have nearly all been replaced by motorbikes (motos) which dominate the streets. There seems to be no sign of regulated traffic flow. Attempts to cross a street at rush hour appear, at best, intimidating and at worst, life threatening. Our guide instructs us in the proper procedure. One, step slowly into the street and the moving mass of motos, bicycles, cyclos and delivery vehicles; two, walk at slow and steady pace toward the opposite side of the street; three, DO NOT make any sudden, unexpected movements. We try it. The traffic and the din of horns seems to part before us and flow around us. Safely across, we feel like Moses, passing through the Red Sea.
We take a short flight Hue, check into our 100 year old French Colonial Hotel (nicely restored) and reunite with our bikes which made the trip by train. With the help Gia, Deng and Minh, or our guide, driver and mechanic we unpack and reassemble bikes and we are ready for an initiation into cycling in Asia.
Our first bike ride is a short afternoon jaunt though the city. We learn that there is a “flow” to the traffic that we can deal with. Horns honk constantly. The horn behind you usually means, “I am moving faster than you. Don’t make any sudden changes in direction until I get by.” Farther out in the countryside, they often just mean “Hallo.” Our confidence and skill quickly reach a level where we begin to enjoy the things around us. I must confess, I never did get used to the standard left turn of drifting from the right side of the road across the center into head-on traffic working over to the left side of the road, completing the turn into head on traffic then working back to the right hand side of the road.
We ride through the old section of town, out along the Huong Giang (Perfume River) and stop to tour the old Imperial City. Our return trip takes us through the center of town at rush hour. Traffic flows at bicycle pace but with only inches between wheels and handlebars. I feel like a twig being carried along in the spring runoff.
The next day, our morning ride has an unfortunate start when one member of our group is bumped by a moto. The new clipless pedals are adjusted tight and don’t unclip fast enough. She suffers road rash, bruises and a fractured hand. Our guide flags down a cyclo to take her to the hospital. She returns a couple of hours later with a short cast on her left wrist and hand. Undaunted, she is back riding with us two days latter.
In the afternoon the rest of the group continue our bike ride out of the city and into rolling hills and tropical forests. The city traffic gradually gives way to rural roads where we steer around ducks, chickens and, occasionally a cow or water buffalo. Adults stare in disbelief at the foreigners in brightly colored spandex while children run to the roadside waving and shouting, “Hallo! Hallo!” We make stops at the tombs of past Vietnamese Kings. We pause for refreshment at a roadside café (thatched hut) and wait while the proprietor collects fresh coconuts, hacks off the husks and pours the juice into glasses. We returned to Hue just as school is letting out. We navigate through the throng of high school students on bicycles, the boys in blue slacks and white shirts and the girls wearing the beautiful traditional white au dai (light slacks and long flowing top) unique to Vietnam.
The following day, we begin our journey south. We ride the support van through morning traffic, past several miles of construction and flood damaged road and stop about ten miles from town to unload bikes and begin a long days ride. We follow Highway 1 along the South China Sea coastline. On our left are beautiful coves and beaches while the view on the right alternates between well manicured farms and rice paddies and tropical forest that ends at the edge of the road. Occasionally, the road turns inland and to wind through one of the small villages or larger towns that spread out along both sides of the highway. I am astounded at the urban sprawl in these areas. There are no side streets or back roads. Single rows of buildings string out for miles along both sides of the highway. The miles melt away as we glide through exotic surroundings.
The road begins to climb as we approach the first of the three passes that conclude with the long climb up Hai Van Pass. A noise in my bike is persists, worsens and becomes a distraction. The first pass is a short steady climb that allows glimpses through the trees of a checkerboard of green rice paddies below. The Veloasia van is waiting at the top. Our guides greet us with bananas, peanuts (roasted in coconut oil or spiced with chilies), chewy fruit candy that contains nuts and is sprinkled with sesame seeds, and wet wash cloths which are kept in an ice chest. Very refreshing.
I am worried that whatever is causing the noise in my bicycle will do serious damage if not resolved. Mark, a member of our group who is a bike mechanic for REI and Minh use the time at the rest stop to go to work on the problem. Mark tightens up the crankarms and bottom bracket and Minh oils everything that moves. With my bike now working smoothly, we slide down the back side of the first pass and prepare for the longer and steeper second pass. The sign at the base of the pass says 10% grade, but it doesn’t seem that steep. Either grades are measured differently here, or the pleasant temperature and light tailwind have leveled the road. However, the climb becomes steeper and the road deteriorates round the last switchback near the top. We dodge around dust and broken pavement.
Again, the van waits at the top with snacks and lots of cold water. Minh, the mechanic walks toward me with the oilcan and asks if anything else is making strange noises. I tell him yes and point to my left knee. He laughs and puts the oil away. While we stretch and discuss the previous climb, our attentive guides check bikes and fill water bottles.
Down the other side and several miles later, at the base of Hai Van Pass, we arrive at a seaside resort, our lunch stop. A group of French tourists are boarding a bus but pause long enough applaud as we ride in. I guess Europeans just appreciate cycling accomplishments.
To the sound of crashing waves, we enjoy a lunch of squid, fried potatoes, spring rolls and sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and the soup and rice that accompany every meal.
It is late in the day and the pass appears to be clouding up. The group elects to ride the van to the top. We are glad we do. On the way up, we encounter fog, road damage, construction and many large, slow moving trucks and busses passing side by side on the narrow road.
At the top of the pass, the clouds clear and we prepare to transfer back to the bikes. As we exit the bus, an army of young women is waiting with a well practiced sales pitch.
Where you From?
You very handsome man. You married?
How many children?
Oh, that many. You very lucky man….
You buy post card, map, book, bracelet…
Not buy? Make me very sad.
We learn to carry small bills in the future. Any attempt to get change back from street vendors is difficult at best and frequently impossible.
We escape by mounting bikes and speeding away. The ride down the South slope exhilarating, but is not for the faint heart. We drop from 1,700 ft to sea level in what seems like only a couple of miles. The sign again says 10% grade. This time I believe it. We fly around shitch backs and work our way around sections of rough pavement, pot holes, loose gravel and shoulders blocked by stalled vehicles. David, leading the group hits a pot hole so hard that the pannier bounces off his rear rack. He doesn’t notice. Maun and I stop to retrieve it.
At the bottom, we continue through a couple of small villages and on to the outskirts of Da Nang. After several miles of heavy traffic, very bad road, dirt, dust and construction, we elect to end the bike ride and continue the last 10 miles to Hoi An on the van.
Our time in Hoi An includes shopping in the “ancient city” and a pleasant 5 mile ride to the beach. The day is sunny and comfortably warm and the water pleasant. Here, as with most places, there are children selling everything from postcards and maps to jewelry and soft drinks. I get a kick out of one in particular, a girl about age 10. In broken English, she tries to sell me a necklace and claims it will bring good luck. I ask her if it is really good luck and she says, "Guarantee, you buy, shit not happen." Hey, how often do you find a guarantee like that?
The weather cooperates and, while temperatures in Salt Lake hover around freezing, most days here are pleasantly warm. A cloud cover protects us from tropical heat, but only two days do we ride in rain. In both cases, brief tropical showers slow us only long enough to put on a light rain jacket. Half an hour later, clothes and equipment blow dry as we ride on in comfortable temperatures.
Toward the end of the tour we head inland toward the mountain resort town of Da Lat. Just before lunch, we turn westward and start our climb from sea level to 4,500 ft. We pass by Cham towers, the remnants of the ancient people that inhabited the area. As we climb, our pace slows to a crawl, but the air becomes refreshingly cool. We wind through one switch back after another, pass through a small mountain village and work our way around a child herding several cows. As the air thins and legs burn out members of the group stop and board the trailing support van for a lift the top. We cheer on the two who make it all way. From the pass, we look back down the mountain at the twisting road and the lush valley thousands of feet below. Awesome!
After two days in Da Lat, we group for our last day of cycling, a long gradual down hill ride to Saigon. We coast along amid rubber plantations and beautiful farms growing tea, coffee, tropical fruit and varieties of flowers. A little after noon we stop for lunch. While we dine, our support team washes and loads bikes into the van for the four-hour drive to our Saigon hotel. We check in, shower and dress for dinner, while our guides repack the all of the bikes for the trip home.
As a returning Vietnam veteran, I am surprised that when talking with people and with our guides and at historic sites, the war seems to be almost a non‑event. There is very little mention of it except at specific sites like the memorial at Son My and the War Museum in Saigon (still referred to by the old name of Saigon just as often as the new name of HCM City). Except for eventually tiring of the ever-present swarm of kids selling stuff, my interaction with the people is all positive. I feel no anger or animosity directed toward me, not even from those who know I am a veteran. I even run into a few older people who seem to appreciate America’s efforts here.
Along the road, I meet an older man selling souvenirs. He speaks very good English. He says he had been a houseboy for the 101st Airborne and likes Americans. He pulls up his shirtsleeve and shows me a deep scar that runs from shoulder to elbow and says, "VC hand grenade." I pull up my jersey and show him a similar scar down my stomach and say, "Same." He smiles and we shake hands. As we roll away, he yells goodbye and flashed a peace sign.
My impression of the younger generation here is that they are similar to the youth in the states. They don’t know much about the war and don’t really care. The whole affair has been relegated to history.
As a class leader, I have an opportunity to tell participants about the places and conditions we worked and fought in during the war. One class member sums up the feelings. "I listen to what you say and I am standing here looking out over the Jungle and it is still hard to believe that anyone could live like that." I have the same feeling. As I stand here 30 years later, it is hard to believe that anyone could endure those hardships, but we did. Absolutely amazing!
I meet a couple of ghost as I cycle through Tam Ky and by Chu Lai (the former headquarters of the 23rd Infantry Division) and the hills to the west where my platoon patrolled. The leisurely pace on a bicycle gives me time to contemplate past events. I pay silent tribute to those I served with and to those who did not return. I am happy that there is now no war but saddened to see that so little progress had been made since to improve the lives of the people.
From the time one steps off of the plane, it is evident that 30 years of communism have done little to solve society's problems. Sanitation, clean water, air pollution, traffic, a barbaric health system (by western standards), severely handicapped begging in the streets and a 17% unemployment rate are openly obvious. Although there is a new modern air terminal in Hanoi, it is not finished and not in use. Our guide says that it has been that way for a couple of years. The completion date is constantly revised. In the mean time, we use the old terminal that is small, crowded, dirty and had a smell of urine in the restroom that makes our eyes water.
Even as casual tourist, we see evidence of subtle restrictions of personal freedoms. Content of movies, music and magazines is carefully controlled. Upon arrival, we are questioned and checked for any items that could have a negative effect on "the upbringing of children." To monitor movement around the country, hotels hold our passports and record when we check in and out and our next destination.
A pleasant surprise is the food. I had been forewarned and expect it to be great, but it turns out to be incredible, exotic and delightful. Every culture that has touched Vietnam is present in the cooking. We dine on traditional Vietnamese fare plus food from France, China, Japan, and Thailand. As we get closer to Saigon, we find good old American favorites like hamburgers, banana splits and pizza. We learn the finer points of seasoning with Nuoc Mam (made from fish sauce with herbs and spices) and chilies that are hot enough to blister paint. When using either, "a little dab 'll do ya." Everywhere we find a large selection of fresh fruit including new and strange varieties such as jackfruit and dragon fruit. Vegetables are abundant in familiar and unknown varieties. Meals are a smorgasbord of seafood and shellfish and beef, pork and chicken. I learn it is not wise to press for specifics much beyond the identity of the animal it came from. A menu that includes pig uterus cures me of asking too many questions. Eel soup is a breakfast staple. The soups served with every meal are amazing, and the spring rolls are delicious. We cycle 20 to 40 miles a day and gain weight. About the half-way point, we rename our class, "Eating our way through Asia."
At Tan Son Nhat Airport, we say goodbye to our friendly, attentive and skilled Veloasia support team. We spend the next two hours working or way through immigration and customs and convincing airline agents that we can check bikes all the way through to Salt Lake and yes, bikes do fly free on international trips. We prevail and board our flight on time with bikes safely loaded and checked through to with no additional charges. As we depart, all proclaim the tour to be a glorious success, a bike ride that may just be the adventure of a lifetime.
"Nothing compares with the simple pleasure of a bike ride"
John F. Kennedy