Revelations Per Minute:
A Cycling Adventure in Vietnam
By Fred Giovannini
Thirty years ago, when Vietnam first became a household word in the U.S., I did just about anything I could to avoid going there. When I graduated from college, I took on teaching jobs to change my draft classification from 25 to 2A, which kept me out of the military after I was drafted in 1967. I was curious about what was going on in that war-torn country, but not curious enough to take an all-expenses paid trip courtesy of the U.S. military! When Saigon finally fell in 1975,1, like a lot of other Americans, tried to forget about the small, far-oft country that a decade of war had thrust into our national awareness.
Yet in 1992, when I turned 50, I realized that this curiosity about Vietnam hadn’t left me; in fact, it had only grown stronger over the years. The Vietnam War had been the most historically impactful event in my life, and yet I had never fully understood why we went to war there. At the same time, bicycling was becoming a passion for me, and I was spending more and more of my free time riding. One fateful day, I picked up the Sunday San Francisco Examiner, and there it was: an ad from a local company called VeloAsia advertising a bicycle tour of Vietnam. Right then and there, I knew I had to go. This trip would kill two birds with one stone, by satisfying my thirty-year curiosity, and allowing me to have an adventure at a time in my life when most of my friends would rather hit a golf ball than hit the road.
Vietnam seemed like an ideal country to tour by bicycle, and the route sounded interesting, a 400-mile journey north from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue in central Vietnam, staying mainly on the coast along the South China Sea. I met with the guides, Pat and Mike, two friendly young men in their late 20's, and they described a trip that wasn't regimented or highly structured -- one, which I could get a lot out of. They convinced me to go, which, of course, didn't take much! My wife, my business partner, and most of my 50-something friends thought I was absolutely crazy, although in my male friends, I could sense a tremendous amount of envy.
On a bright January day in 1994, my wife took me to the airport, said goodbye, and wished me luck, I was a bit apprehensive, and not fully knowing what I was getting myself into. After an enjoyable 14-hour, no smoking flight on Cathay Pacific, we landed in Hong Kong, where one of my fellow passengers, a farmer from mainland China, was arrested for smoking on the plane! I had an overnight layover, then left the next day, also on Cathay Pacific, and flew into Ho Chi Minh City. It was early in the evening when our plane touched down at Tan Son Nhat Airport, and as I looked out the window, I was immediately reminded of where I was--and who I was. On both sides of the runway, there were rows of Quonset hut, and underneath each one was one or two old U.S. fighter jets! There were billions upon billions of dollars worth of aircraft just sitting along the runway rotting away. They obviously hadn't been flown or moved since 1975.
When we got off the plane, I had a more pleasant surprise. There were no loading gates at Tan Son Nhat Airport; in fact, it reminded me of the little airport on Molokai. It was a far cry from the days of the Vietnam War, when Tan Son Nhat was the second busiest airport in the world, behind O'Hare in Chicago. Now, it looked like an airport where Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman could have acted out that climactic final scene from Casablanca!
After going through customs, I walked out the door, and was immediately engulfed by a noisy, smiling crowd of people and their children. It was my welcome to Southeast Asia and the Third World. Pat was in the crowd, and he briefed me and several other fellow riders about Vietnam and the bike trip as we rode in a van from the airport. We were brought to the Emperor Hotel, a hulking, block like structure that looked like it had been built by the Soviets. I had been to Eastern Europe in 1969, and it seemed that almost every hotel there had bathrooms in the same room as the bedrooms, with no doors or shower curtains to separate them. Water can be a highly destructive force within a very short period of time, and many of the rooms I stayed in were heavily water-damaged. Happily, the Emperor Hotel was new enough to have escaped this damage, and the room turned out to be nice and spacious. I'd stay there again.
In the hotel lobby the next morning, I had a delicious breakfast of the local specialty, eel soup. As I was eating, I saw a dozen models, actors, wannabees, and other Hollywood types running around the hotel. It turned out they were filming a movie about Vietnam in the hotel, and one of the actors was Sam Bottoms. The irony is that in the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now, Bottoms played the surfer in the "Charlie don't surf," and ~'I love the smell of napalm in the morning" scenes with Robert Duvall. Another irony is that one of the VeloAsia leaders is Willard Ford, whose father, Harrison Ford, had a bit part in the beginning of Apocalypse Now before going on to bigger and better things.
I got out a makeshift map and set out on foot to join the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. It's a lively, beautiful place, with lots of trees and wide streets, which were chock-full of bicycles, pedicabs, cyclos, and most of all, people walking about. I was greeted with incredible curiosity, and no hassle, like I've seen in other parts of the Third World, particularly Bali or Egypt, where people always seem to be in your face trying to sell you something. For such a large city, the air was remarkably clean, because there were hardly any private automobiles, just a few old government-owned Russian or American trucks roaring around.
The War Souvenirs Museum was my first stop, a hokey but interesting place, full of tanks, helicopters, old fighter planes, and photographs from the war. I saw a lot of macabre souvenirs for sale, including some poor dead G.I.'s dog tags, which were the last thing in the world I wanted to buy, and Zippo lighters, which I found out later were probably fakes. I was in awe, and quietly walked around the museum for an hour and a half, feeling very guilty.
I hired a bicycle rickshaw, or cyclo, for US$3.00 per hour, and was pedaled around like Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham soaking in the sights, sounds, and atmosphere of Ho Chi Minh City. Immediately, I was greeted with an amazing sight right on the street: a woman holding her baby by the ankles, and washing him down with a hose. It's something that happens every trip. I see the perfect snapshot-- and miss it.
The sign outside the American Embassy reads "Captured From The Battle Against The Imperial State," without mentioning the United States by name. As I stood outside the gates, the events of April 30, 1975 came back to me in a flash. I remembered watching the news, and seeing Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker evacuated, and the U.S. Marines clinging to the helicopter ladder on the roof of the embassy. Yet, some 20 years later, there I was, an American citizen, back in Vietnam, and feeling so casual and comfortable. The American Embassy building is abandoned now because the air conditioning broke down and no one around here can fix it. I thought wistfully that perhaps the building was waiting for the Americans to come back to it someday. Interestingly enough, since Ho Chi Minh City fell in three or four days, it suffered very little damage, and I could see no visible signs of the war anywhere.
Politically, the city has opened up over the last two years. The people are more friendly and open, and they have more ability to travel, whereas two years ago, it was a more suppressed place. International companies were getting harassed left and right by petty officials, and the government finally said, "leave them alone." There used to be a lot of thievery, mainly the police fleecing tourists at the airport, but that has changed for the better. While there was much talk about poverty, I saw very little. There seems to be enough food for everybody, and nobody looked malnourished to me.
You can buy or get anything you want in Ho Chi Minh City, and it's been like this forever. I spent most of my three days there out walking and riding in pedicabs, on the streets, taking in the sounds and smells of the city. I took a boat trip along the Saigon River, which was packed with people living on its banks like the Chao Phrya River in Bangkok, although with far fewer boats and nowhere near as much pollution. Ho Chi Minh City is even more exciting at night that it is during the day, for that is when lots of young people come out on their motor scooters. Sadly, three days is simply not enough time to spend there.
Finally, it was time for our cycling adventure to begin, and we were briefed on the complex first leg of our route. Pedaling through the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City was deemed too risky, since the guides were worried about all the bicyclists getting strung out all over, and losing at few on the road. As a result, we settled for a beautiful 4-hour drive instead of a beautiful 12-hour bike ride. The sag support groups consisted to two Toyota vans, with any broken-down bikes and the bags in one, and the rest of us in the other. For the first hour and a half, we drove through the sprawling area outside of Ho Chi Minh City, observing the nonstop people, shopping, commerce, and comings and goings from outside our window. As the sprawl thinned out, the countryside became exquisite and green, and we finally arrived at our disembarkation point of Bao Loc, a sweet little town 110 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City. We stopped for lunch, then put the bikes together, and set out for our destination, Dalat, 80 miles away. Everybody was pent up and happy to be riding, as we pedaled up and down the long, rolling, graduated hills, with no cars in sight. The weather was nice, perhaps 75 degrees and crystal clear, a perfect day to ride. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the curiosity of the Vietnamese we passed. They came out in the streets, and yelled the same words: "Hello! How are you? Where are you from?" It seemed like everybody in Vietnam knew about 10 words of English, and these are 6 of those 10 words.
Since we got off to such a late start, we ran out of daylight before most of us could make it all the way to Dalat. I didn't want to push myself or my luck on an unfamiliar highway at night, so I pulled over some 17 kilometers short of the city At a roadside stand, I had several Vietnamese BMR beers for US 3Oc apiece with two other cyclists, and I was in heaven. We chatted and reminisced about the wonderful first day we had, until the "sag wagon" picked us up. One of our fellow riders, an ex-bicycle racer named Neil, made it to Dalat, but quickly got lost there. Nobody was concerned, because Westerners stand out like sore thumbs in Vietnam, especially Westerners with their full regalia of bicycle clothes on, and we quickly found Neil. Nobody really cared that most of us didn't make it all the way to Dalat, and all in all, we were exhausted but exhilarated at the same time, which is what you look forward to on any bike trip.
Dalat is a fascinating, beautiful city, and the highlight of many trips to Vietnam. It's totally out of touch with the rest of Vietnam because of its incredible French influence. Dalat was originally built as a French summer retreat during the '20s and '30s, because at 4,500 feet in elevation, it was cooler than Saigon. We stayed in a wonderful hotel which was the former home of "the Dragon Lady," Madame Nhu. The next day, we pedaled around Dalat, marveling at the many beautiful old buildings, which were abandoned, but are now being fixed up, as tourism is on the upswing. The city was relatively untouched by the war, because both the North and the South would honeymoon there. Even today, the place is full of honeymooners. There's a golf course being built outside of town, so we could see that change is just right around the corner. Although this golf course was two years in the making, I didn't see a single bulldozer or any other mechanical equipment being used. Instead, all the construction had been done by about 250 guys working on the course by hand. I doubt if a single weed will ever be able to grow there!
In Dalat, I discovered another amazing aspect of Vietnam: the French bread. I never expected bread to be a staple of Southeast Asia, but sure enough, it is in Vietnam, and it's wonderful. The consistency and quality of it is amazing; it's just as good in Dalat as it was in Saigon. Quite a surprise, considering that I was expecting rice!
After two nights in Dalat, we continued on our route down toward the coast to Cam Ranh Bay. The guides thought it would be too much for some of our bikes, since it was a winding road with a lot of potholes. So we were talked out of pedaling it, and some of us were disappointed. We rode in the van down a twisting, 20 mile-i1ong road, through some villages that would have been spectacular to bike through. After the 2 112 hour ride, we hopped on our bikes, and pedaled north on a flat road toward Cam Ranh Bay. Soon, we came to the best examples of the ruins left behind by Cham people, who are the ancient ancestors of the Vietnamese, particularly in the South. There, a group of Australians told us about the devastating Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles, which alarmed most of my fellow riders, who were from L.A. In this age of fax machines and satellite communication, we're never far away from what goes on in the world, even on a bicycle in Vietnam, and in the next 48 hours, we learned the extent of the L.A. earthquake.
We pedaled to Cam Ranh Bay, the largest, deepest natural port on the coast of Vietnam, where we ate lunch. This former U.S. Navy base is deserted today, a mere shadow if its former self. The U.S. poured billions upon billions of dollars there, turning it into a little naval city during the Vietnam War. Few remnants of the war or what went on here 25 years ago are evident today; wind and the elements have taken care of them. People who were stationed there during the war said it was a beautiful place, and on this particular day, it looked like a windswept beach in Mexico.
North of Cam Ranh Bay, it was a pleasant ride along the South China Sea, a mostly flat pedal with a few hills, about 45 miles to our next stop, Nha Trang. I saw a few peasants working the onion, rice, and potato fields, and they all came out to the highway to greet us. There were a lot of buffalo in the rice paddies along the side of the road, and people constantly yelled, "hello, what's your name, where are you from?" Whenever one of us got a flat, a mob of people would appear out of nowhere. The Vietnamese were always amazed at the vivid multi-colors of our bicycling outfits and expensive mountain bikes. The very old and the very young were the most curious, and not the slightest bit apprehensive about asking us questions, or touching us and smiling at us. The highway was basically deserted, except for a few motor scooters and public transportation vehicles. Like jitneys, they stop, pick up people, move them 1000 or 2,000 yards, and let them off. The tops of the vehicles were~ always full of marketplace goods, and staring out the windows were the smiling faces of the children and the women.
We finally pulled into Nha Trang in the early evening. This beautiful town was a major R&R stop for American G.I.s during the war, but is mainly a beach resort today, full of beautiful old abandoned houses. Tourism is starting to get into Nha Trang, and the guides remarked that the year before, and there wasn't a soul in the place. At the hotel, there was a little controversy over our rooms, which were supposed to be on the seventh and eighth floor, but were all gone when we got there. Only the expensive rooms were left, and they were down on the lower floors. Apparently, the room rates go down the higher up you go, which is the opposite of hotels in most countries. We ended up with third floor rooms at the low price. Socialist realism in action
We had pedaled some 200 miles to Nha Trang, and we had a free day to ourselves. Most people jumped on a boat or headed to the beach, but I hopped on my bike, excited to be out exploring on my own. As I pedaled out of town, I was greeted with lots of smiles, and "hello, how are yous," as I strained to get up over a grade. After pedaling 30 miles in 2 1/2 hours, I stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a sign reading "Last Stop For Cold Beer." I was greeted with curiosity and a smiling "how are you, where are you from?" by the owner of the restaurant, an ex-North Vietnamese officer with a missing leg. He told me his restaurant, although deserted now, was really busy during the summertime, when the people who could afford it leave the sticky heat of Saigon. For lunch, I had half a kilo (1 pound) of tiger prawns and two beers--all for less than US$5.00. When I took out my wallet to pay the bill, a gust of wind blew all my Vietnamese money out of my hands into the swampy, muddy water next to the restaurant. Quickly, the waiter jumped off the balcony into the muck, and retrieved every single bill. I gave him 50,000 dong as a reward, which is roughly half a months pay for him. He was so overwhelmed that I would give him money for doing this that he didn't even want to take it at first, then graciously accepted it. It's just another example of how the country just makes you feel so comfortable, and I pedaled back higher than a kite on emotion. When I shared my adventure with my companions, everybody agreed that Vietnam is a constant high.
A bicycle tour group, like an army, travels on its stomach, and the food in Vietnam is simply exquisite. The main food stay is soup, called pho, which is pronounced "fah." It's eaten 24 hours a day for breakfast, lunch, dinner1 or snacks, and I saw pho stands all over Vietnam. I ate a lot of eel pho, and most of it was delicious. Most of my fellow cyclists were younger people, who were a little more apprehensive about what they were eating. At night, all they talked about was the Mexican food they were going to eat when they got back to the U.S! But in coastal Vietnam, the fresh fish, snails, clams, and the various kinds of large crab and small crab are all simply wonderful. We would partake in these incredible fish feeds, and while all the kids scrutinized and examine the seafood, I just plunged right in and enjoyed it.
In the morning, we assembled our bikes, once again drawing a crowd of 200 curious people. The road out of Nha Trang is flat and beautiful, making for a wonderful bicycle ride along the coast. As I pedaled along the highway, I saw onions and rice paper drying along the sides of the highway. The farmers actually put rice right on the highway to dry, regardless of the cars corning by. Then, I got my first flat tire of the trip. Fortunately, there's a bicycle repair shop every 50 feet in the cities, and every 100 yards on the highway. I walked over to one and got the flat fixed for 10 cents, while a crowd of about 150 people grew. They were just so sweet, quiet, and curious about us, and no threat whatsoever. The flat now fixed, I went no more than 10 miles when I saw Fat on the side of the road surrounded by hundreds of people. Sure enough, he had a flat, too.
It was here that we got the first rain of our trip, and we spent several hours cycling in the drizzle before we finally got into Qui Nhon. It's a gloomy, worn-out town, and looked even more beat up in the drizzle. Qui Nhon is up in an area where there was a lot of fighting during the war, and we saw huge cemeteries with thousands of monuments honoring the dead. The hotel was mediocre at best; a gloomy, dark, grimy, Eastern European place, and we cut short our sightseeing to get some good sleep.
Heading for our next destination, Quang Ngai, we saw concrete road markers along the side of Highway One, and had fun reading them. Since we were going north, the side we'd look at most of the time showed the distance to Hanoi, while the opposite side had the distance to Saigon. They were probably put up by the French 50 or 60 years ago. Quang Ngai is another bleak and beat up city that has had hard times over the last 30 or 40 years. Even today1 the residents are very hostile to both the North and the South. Quang Ngai saw a tremendous amount of fighting during the war, as the numerous military hospitals and cemeteries attest to. Again, we stayed in a hotel that was every bit as beat up as the town.
North of Quang Ngai is the My Lai area. Since the road to My Lai is too difficult to bicycle, we rode there in our van instead. After 30 miles of bumpy road, we came to My Lai, which is called Song My by the Vietnamese. I was not affected anywhere near in My Lai as I thought I would be. What was done here was horrible, but it was done all over Vietnam, as any Vietnam veteran will tell you. There are a lot of monuments here, with names of the dead families, and a small museum full of photographs from Western journalists. It's a very peaceful, serene place now, completely grown over, with a lot of trees and greenery. No one lives there any longer.
Everybody was very happy to get out of Quang Ngai, and get back on the road to Hoi An. Riding along, I could see amazing remnants of the war now, including lots of brass casings from military shells being dug up. We took a side trip to My Song, and its extensive Cham ruins. This former Viet Cong stronghold is in a heavily wooded big valley, with a beautiful river running through the center of it. There are five different temples at My Son, mostly destroyed by USAF percussion bombs during the war. The ruins are heavily grown-over by grass, and sadly, there's no money to fix them up. During the war, the bombing finally came to a halt after an archaeologist went before the United Nations, and pleaded for the U.S. to stop destroying these archaeological treasures.
We finally made it to Hoi An after a Wonderful 60 mile pedal in and out of a lot of villages. It was probably the second greatest day we've had, with the sun shining but not too hot. We were told that Hoi An would be one of the highlights of the trip, and we weren't disappointed. Hoi An was an old port that was silted up by a river. Today, it’s a tourist attraction seaport. We stayed two days in a beautiful old French hotel, built in the early 1900s. The grounds were spacious, somewhat like a compound, and the rooms were U.S. $19.00 apiece.
Wandering around Hoi An, I fell in love with the post office, which happened in every city I visited starting with Ho Chi Minh City. Each post office was simply spectacular, with beautiful hand-painted maps on the wall, along with clocks and pictures of Ho Chi Minh. Behind the counter were these beautiful little postal workers with gorgeous smiles on their faces. One amazing aspect to the post offices is that there's no glue on the stamps. Instead, there are several communal little glue pots at the counter, and you stand in line, and when it's your turn, you apply glue to the back of the stamps with a brush and stick them on your letter.
Our Vietnamese guide, Thuot, had a sister and brother-in-law living near Hoi An, and we visited their house. Thuot was a sympathizer with the South Vietnamese during file war, and as a result, he's card-marked, which means he cannot get a job. His wife supports the family with a little shop. We were welcomed into the primitive, two-room stucco house by Thuot's wife and two daughters. Good weather is a relative term, for while we were sweating in our T-shirts, Thuot's wife was shivering in a fur coat!
The next day, we crossed over the Hai Van Pass, which was absolutely breathtaking. During the war, whoever controlled the Hai Van Pass controlled all the traffic into the South, so it was crucial to keep it open. There were a string of forts on top of the Hai Van Pass, built originally by the French, then maintained by the Americans. On the pass, I saw another amazing sight--a Vietnamese man completely tearing apart and rebuilding an engine. Valves, cylinders, and piston rings -- all were sitting by the side of the road! We descended down the Hai Van Pass into Danang, the home of China Beach and Marble Mountain. Now a Buddhist shrine, Marble Mountain was where the Viet Cong hid and watched the American soldiers on R&R. China Beach is exquisite, probably 5-10 miles long, surrounded by rice paddies and heavy green foliage.
Danang today is just a commercial and industrial city, and we bypassed it on our way to our next destination, Rue, the imperial city. Pedaling along, I saw a lot of scaffolding and rebuilding going on through the smaller villages. Usually, it was the home of a person with relatives in the West. In Vietnam, family is such an important structure that1 even if family members have migrated to the West, they send money back home.
We finally pulled into Rue, a big, fun city that's wonderful for bicycling. There was more traffic in Hue, but mostly big buses and scooters, and very few private cars. Another irony of this trip is that Hue is the sister city of New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up. There are many remnants of the war in Hue, where the Tet offensive really struck big-time. Hue is bisected by the Perfume River, and the Viet Cong overran one side of the city, an area called The Citadel, and flew the Viet Cong flag for 45 days, after hand-picking some 3,500 people, tying their hands behind their backs, and assassinating them. 25 years later, rocket holes and bullet marks in the brick walls give mute testimony to the heavy fighting. Sadly, before the war, The Citadel in Hue must have been just like the Forbidden City in Beijing, with monuments everywhere. They're trying to rebuild it, but probably 80% of it is destroyed, and overgrown with grass.
We took a boat trip up the Perfume River to the pagoda of Trich Quan Duc, the Buddhist monk who attracted worldwide attention when he set himself on fire while sitting on a Saigon street corner in 1963. The monks at the pagoda are still among the most militant in Vietnam, and many of them are in jail for protesting against the Communist government. The Morris automobile that Duc drove down from Hue appeared in the background of the famous immolation photograph. We saw that same car on display at Duc's pagoda.
Alas, the wonderful bicycle trip is over. It's hard to believe 400 miles and 12 days have just flown by. We all say goodbye to one another, and I take an airplane up to Hanoi. As the plane landed, I saw that the weather was overcast and drizzling. Hanoi's an interesting city; big, gloomy, but a clean, hustling bustling place. I visited Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, which reminded me of Lenin's tomb in Moscow, with soldiers standing at arms, clicking and clacking; it's a somber, yet fascinating place. I visited the Hanoi Hilton, which I would have passed by if I hadn't read about it in the guidebook, because it just looked like a beat-up old governmental building. The Hanoi Hilton was famous during the war as the place where the USAF B-52 pilots were incarcerated. Anytime the North Vietnamese wanted to cheer up the population, they'd have a parade, and march these guys through. Looking at this building now gave me goose bumps. (It's currently being demolished to make way for a shopping center.)
In my two weeks in Vietnam, I learned that 60% of the population is under 30 years old, and the war doesn't mean anything to them, it's in the history books. This particularly accounts for the incredible friendliness toward Americans. But was there another reason? It was in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi that I had my final--and most important--revelation about Vietnam. As I went inside the museum, the clerk asked me where I was from, and I told her "America. She greeted me so warmly, and asked me all sorts of questions about the U.S. During the w&, she had to leave Hanoi as a little girl because of the B-52 bombings, and her family moved to the countryside. Then, she said, “Ho Chi Minh told us that there's a big difference between the American people and the American government. The American people are wonderful, warm, giving human beings. Don't judge the American people by the American government." I was completely stunned. I couldn't imagine anybody saying that, especially while U.S. bombs were raining devastation on the country. I now think of Ho Chi Minh in the same light as Abraham Lincoln. Ho was first and foremost a nationalist who was forced to be a communist in order to free Vietnam from the grip of French colonial rule. If only my government could have figured this out thirty years ago!
I think about this as I ride in a taxi to Hanoi Airport, driven by a jovial, hustling, capitalistic Vietnamese man. For U.S. $6.00 he takes me to the airport about 30 miles outside of Hanoi. My last memory is of a dreary Hanoi Airport, and I say goodbye. But I know that I will come back, hopefully soon, on a bicycle.
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