Vietnam Bike Tours : Biking Vietnam

by Frank Walter

Riding a bicycle on Highway One, the only major road linking Hanoi in the North and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in the South, is a real life action adventure. Motorbikes (of which there are millions in the country thanks to cheap Chinese imports), bikes, cars, buses and trucks and lots of pedestrians move in all directions at all times. Riding on this road when we were in larger towns and cities resembled rush hour at Grand Central Station. There are few traffic lights, few painted lane markets, and few rules of the road. The only constant is the pounding of horns--all kinds of horns (the worse being the air horns of the trucks). When you hear a horn, you are to move to the right. Problem is there are so many horns honking at times you never really know what is happening.

Fortunately, I and the rest of my 12 person VeloAsia riding group managed to maneuver the roads and the traffic and in the process gained a unique view of life inside Vietnam, a country of 77 million people.

It is a very friendly place! Throughout the ride, we were greeted with thousands of "hellos" as we passed along side little and large communities. Kids would run out to the road, yelling "hello, hello." So many "hellos" that it often seemed like an echo chamber. I had learned how to say "hello" in Vietnamese but it didn't matter, everyone wanted to use English! Often while riding, people on their motorbikes would pull up side me and begin talking in whatever English they knew.On one day, three teenagers rode with me for 30 minutes asking many questions (what did I think about the American War, what do I think of Vietnam, what is Vietnam's greatest need?). They would confer for a minute among themselves to try and figure out how to ask the question. On one of my first days, these two young women on a motorbike chatted me up for a long time leading me around town and eventually getting me far away from town and quite lost. The one said she wanted to show me a mountain. I asked to be shown the way back to town. I think she might have been looking for an American husband. Not.

Martians on Bikes

In some of the more remote places, we were quite an attraction with our bright bicycling jerseys, bike helmets and white skin. It was like we were the Martians that landed. People would stare at us, girls would giggle, motorbikes would pull up close just for a look and a smile, and if we stopped crowds would gather with the kids coming in droves and touching the bike as if it was a spacecraft. In one town, three people got their cameras out and took my picture with their smiling family members!

Sites Along the Road

At first, I was shocked at the things I would see strapped on to a motorbike or bicycle. People with five foot blooming trees in a porcelain pot, huge amounts of fruits and vegetables, TVs, five people--and one time three live pigs. I chased the man with the three pigs on his bike down to get a photo!

The small concrete or wood houses along the road almost all have an opening the size of a garage door where someone sits all day selling food items, clothes, crafts or other items. These houses are very narrow (about 15-20 feet) but can be long and sometimes two or three stories. Most look dirty because so much dust and debris from the road hits the exterior that a fresh paint coat can't last long. The newer homes cover the front-side with enamel tile or marble tile, which must hold up much better than paint. Often many families live in one house. We toured a home in Hanoi that had 11 families in its narrow two stories. Each family had one or two rooms and they shared a common bath. The one we visited had a rat run past my feet while I was there (felt like walking the alleys of Washington!).

There are many architectural reminders of the countries that once ruled Vietnam--notably the French, but also some Japanese and Chinese influence. In Dalat, a beautiful hilly town in the central region, we stayed at a hotel that was built by the French in 1922 and restored by Sofitel recently. It was beautiful set on a hill overlooking the lake. Most the other hotels, all run by the government, were well equipped with TV (CNN, MTV, etc.) and air conditioners.

Hue and Hoi An One of my favorite spots places was Hue, a busy little city on the banks of the Perfume River--once the center of government for Vietnam. The remains of the last Vietnamese emperor and his forbidden city and citadel are part of the attractions that have earned the city a World Heritage site designation. It has interesting street life, many galleries featuring colorful art by local artists and a bustling market loaded with fresh produce, seafood and meats. Another interesting spot was Hoi An, a smaller town along the coast. It offered quaint cafes, a beautiful beach and a very good restaurant, "Mrs. Vy." At Mrs. Vy, we learned how to cook Vietnamese spring rolls, green papaya salad, grilled tuna with fresh turmeric cooked in banana leaf and vegetable curry soup. At another meal in another city I tried eel and porcupine. I passed on such wines as snake wine, bird wine, stomach of porcupine wine and silkworm wine. Each is attractively marketed served in a big clear glass jug with real birds, snakes or silk worms floating in the bottom, respectively!

Good Morning Vietnam

There are reminders here and there that you are in a communist country. Ride through any city early in the morning (5-7 a.m.) and you will hear over load speakers mounted on the major intersections the government's version of "Good Morning Vietnam." It consists of a government newscast, exercise instructions and musical selections. No one listens to it. And in Saigon, the people got rid of the speakers a long time ago and the government gave up replacing them. Then there are all the Vietnamese red flags flying on homes, boats and buildings. I am told they are sort of mandatory.

Russian is out in the schools, English is in. Nike and Addis logos are on all the kids baseball caps, t-shirts and book bags. Coke is marketed everywhere now. Capitalism is rampant in the big cities with Saigon building new industrial parks, encouraging Western hotels and investment, and making it much easier for individuals to start businesses.

Forgive But Don't Forget

For someone who came of age after the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam), and remembers little of its history, I found many reminders along the route about the War. We passed dozens of cemeteries where some of the 3 million Vietnamese who died in the war are buried, monuments marking the efforts of the Vietnamese soldiers, the cave in Marble Mountain where there once was a hospital before it was bombed by the Americans, and China beach, the site of many bombings. But no place left such a strong impression as the tour of the former fishing village of My Lai outside of Quang Ngai. It is the site where American soldiers massacred 170 unarmed villagers in 1968, mostly elderly and children. The soldiers tried to cover-up this massacre, burying the bodies in ditches and burning all buildings and crops around the village. An American army photographer released his photos that ran in Time magazine about three months later that led to worldwide outrage. The gruesome photographs are on display at this site along with a few remains of the villagers' possessions. It was a very somber experience. That night at the state-run hotel we were staying at nearby, the manager came over to our table and greeted us with a glass of champagne and gave us each a yellow rose as he shook our hands. To me it was symbolic of a new beginning among friends--people who have a sad history but a brighter future. A reminder that they "forgive" us and the others who occupied their land for so long. It was an unforgettable moment, one of many during this two-week trip.


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