The Symphony of Highway One

Cycling Vietnam's main roadway offers up a cross-section of the country at a reasonable pace

By Michael Buckley
(from Sawasdee Magazine, October 2001),
Photos by Jock Montgomery

Vietnam by Bicycle

"Highway One becomes smaller at Tet," Claims our guide Sinh, beaming broadly. What he means is that on major holidays, this roadway that links the north of the country with the south, turns into a chaotic jumble of conical hats, water buffaloes and squawking chickens, with vendors hawking everything from kumquat trees and apricot-blossom branches to incense sticks, flowers, fruit and sweet treats as last-minute Tet shoppers converge at roadside markets. Women bob around with bamboo poles supporting twin baskets laden with mangoes or bananas. Through all of this, we thread our way through atop bicycles on a journey that will take us the length of Vietnam all the way south to Saigon. Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year, is the most important festival on the Vietnamese calendar, falling in late January or early February, the same time as our trip.

It should last four or five days, but most stretch it a week or more, make it a family reunion on par with Christmas. A tree graces every Vietnamese home -- in the north, a kumquat bearing tint tangerine-like fruits; in southern Vietnam, a peach or apricot-blossom tree. And everyone is trying to make it home on time, which means motor scooters are out in force along Highway One. Highway One is a grandiose name for a narrow strip of roadway that is potholed, cratered and crowded with traffic. That's because it's the only road from Hanoi to Saigon, although work is in progress on a Central Highland route. Our two-wheeled group instantly becomes immersed in the holiday simply by the fact that we're part of the traffic.

Riding Along

We never lack for company on the highway -- curious local cyclists sidle up and chat as we pedal along. Motorcycles with preposterous loads -- live pigs in bamboo baskets, or trays of farm-fresh eggs piled high -- overtake. Women riders zip by, muffled in scarves, with arm-length gloves to ward off the tropical sun. Three at a time cruise past on the same bike -- grandpa at the helm, younger generations hanging on. Then a surreal panel of five faces turns in my direction, two adults sandwiching three kids on motorcycle. Five big smiles.

Some riders on our VeloAsia tour can't resist a chance to test their schoolbook English. One covers the basics of our names and how long we've been in Vietnam. Then the conversation takes a surprising turn. He blurts out: "Would you lie to marry my sister?" Several women cling to the back of a motorcycle, so I wonder if one is the sister in question. It's not so, but he hopes by this Third-World ruse to land himself in North America, although he is taken aback when he discovers I am from Canada, not California.

Then he's gone, and it's back to the symphony of Highway One. Drivers of larger vehicles have an annoying habit of hitting the horn to announce the right of way in Vietnam, so we get an earful. Hot, dusty, loud, hard on your backside, why, you ask, would anyone want to cycle this route? Chalk it up to the mystique of Highway One. Passing by legendary place names like Hanoi, Hue, Nha Trang and Saigon on a bicycle means we get Vietnam full on, all the smells, strident sounds and weather effects, no insulation such as provided by a car or bus, no barriers between us and the locals. We experience the country at a much slower pace taking in the luminous green rice paddies, the sweeping beaches, and fishing villages. The journey becomes a series of indelible images, snapshots of modern Vietnam.

A Tale of Two Cultures

Tet is synonymous with family reunion, a tough time for Viet kieu, or overseas Vietnamese. In Hue, I bump into Minh, who left the country 20 years ago and ended up in Boston. Recently, he returned and got married so now his wife is in the process of emigrating with him. In the interim, she has become pregnant and Minh jokes that they might need two applications instead of one if the paperwork takes much longer. Minh is Vietnamese, but he's been away from the country for so long that he is as flabbergasted by the bureaucracy as I would be.

Another day sees us labor over the Hai Van Pass in the heat, cycle into Hoi An, and take a breather. It's the eve of Tet and Hoi An, once a thriving port, now finds a new lease on life catering to tourists, evident in its many art shops, galleries and cafes. Still, the narrow streets of this ancient town are festooned with silk lanterns hanging from restaurants and shops, creating a festive air.

Along one of these streets, an artist I've been speaking with, Haly, invites me back to his residence for a drink. His three daughters are gathered around a television, watching the Vietnamese version of MTV surrounded by a scattering of Haly's work. Here the great mystery of what they do with all those Tet kumquat trees is solved: they eat them. Or, at least, the candied fruit they provide. The skin of these tiny tangerines is made into a candy that tastes like marmalade. Haly kindly offers accompanying shots of whiskey.

1994 Tour: Very, very large firecrackers

That said, Tet Eve is subdues in Hoi An. Once, it was celebrated all over Vietnam with deafening firecrackers (right) to frighten off evil spirits. However, there were so many lost eyes and fingers that the government banned the fireworks. I can still see the mischevious face of our guide and his wistful recollections of the glorious days of fireworks, when, as a schoolboy, he went around blowing up various things at Tet.

But other customs endure. On the first day of Tet in Hoi An, everybody is out visiting relatives, dressed in their finest. As elsewhere in the country, women in shimmering silky ao dai float by on motorcycles, looking positively angelic. A memorable holiday, indeed.

Far removed from that image is our next stop in this country full of vivid historical markers. A side trip to My Lai, the village of the infamous American massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968, proves a sobering experience. The visit offers a poignant moment, one charged with emotion. Ron Haeberle, the US Army photographer who was along the for the first hours on that fateful day and helped get the news out, just bicycled through on the previous tour, paying his respects three decades later.

Cham Towers near Tam Ky

At dinner that night, the manager of the state-run hotel in Quang Ngai gives each of us a yellow rose and a glass of Champagne, coming around to greet us one by one. he says it's because of Tet, but it also proves to be a spirited gesture of friendship, a toast to renewed links between Vietnamese and Americans.

Vietnam, or at least the way I dreamed it would be, lies just around the corner from Qui Nhon. A beautiful side route follows the coast, undulating past fishing villages with basket boats on beaches, and nets hanging to dry. It's a tonic for the senses: the road is fanned by sea breezes, traffic is light, and the vistas are stupendous. This is the simplicity I had pictured before the trip: a road, a bicycle, sleepy fishing villages and the vast sea -- all in all, tranquillity.

We develop a terrific thirst and hearty appetite cycling in the heat. My favorite pitstop turns out to be a roadside coconut stand. In Nha Trang, we hit the jackpot in the thirst sweepstakes: juice bars with all kinds of exotic chilled fruit shakes on offer -- uglifruit, rembutan, mango and spiny soursoup to name a few.

It's not too soon to replenish either as after our day stopover, a brutal day of cycling the hills of the Central Highlands takes us up to Dalat. All day, every time we thought our ascent was over, another monstorous hill appeared. Few would complete the entire day's ride, the most challenging of the tour. Yet after cycling sauna on the road, it's deliciously cool in Dalat because of the elevation, the raison d'etre for the town's colonial architecture -- it's an old French hill station.

Khai Dinh Tomb, Hue

That night we sleep in a palace: the Dalat Sofitel palace. Along the way we've stayed in renovated French colonial hotels, but this one eclipses them all. originally constructed in 1922 as a hunting lodge, it was renovated in the early 1990s with golfing clientele in mind -- Dalat lays claim to the best 18-hole course in Vietnam. more than 500 classical oil paintings grace the walls of the hotel -- all copied from French originals by Vietnamese artists.

the elegant setting inspires everyone to search for a clean outfit and show up in the dining hall looking quite civilized. Dinner is just what tired cyclists fantasize about: gourmet French food, dishes done to perfection, superb wines to ease digestion and, for the blood-sugar-deprived, some rich desserts to round things off.
Heading on the final leg towards Saigon, gravity is finally on our side. From Dalat, a beautiful road winding down through a lush green forest, weaving past tea and coffee plantations, with coffee beans drying on the roadside. the end of the day puts us in the hustle and bustle of the big brash city, where we keep an eye out for young female motorcyclists in platform shoes -- they can't hit the brakes fast enough -- and young male motorcyclists with mobile phones, whose attention is elsewhere. Our urban retreat is the Grand, another French colonial hotel revamped with the addition of a swimming pool in the interior courtyard -- the perfect place to relax tired limbs.

Cruisin on Highway One

On the final day, our cycling family gets together for a farewell dinner, knowing we will all be headed in different directions shortly. We look at the photos developed in Saigon, capturing the faces of the scores of Vietnamese we encountered along the way. There are speeches and toasts. There is food and beer. And laughter. And more beer. We toast Sinh, our guide, and then the drivers and crew of VeloAsia. And ourselves. We're toasting ourselves because we feel like members of an exclusive club in this one-of-a-kind-country, the survivors of Highway One.

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