After 4 vaccination jabs, 17 hours on a plane, 3 in-flight meals, 6 forms confirming I don’t have swine flu, 8 hours sleeping on a floor and one angry visa control officer I found myself in Vietnam. The first thing that I encounter is absolute mayhem.
The streets in Hanoi are nothing like I would have expected. I was amazed to see motorbikes and bicycles happily travelling on completely the wrong side of the road against the flow of oncoming traffic without a care in the world, I counted up to 5 people on a single motorbike and I watched as an elephant walked down the street with no one even batting an eye lid. To the outsider the roads look like absolute chaos but no doubt to the Vietnamese it seems completely normal. By the end of the holiday I would be putting my cycling skills to the test on these roads.
Luckily my first cycling experience for myself and my good friend Mat (seen above) was in the more sedate environment of Halong Bay. For 90 dollars we purchased a 3 day tour of the bay and were taken to a small island near Cat Ba. The island and the bay in general are extremely beautiful and I would recommend them to anyone. What I wouldn’t recommend however are the rented bikes we were provided with. The breaks were questionable, the gear changing was none existent and the wheels were very wobbly.
After a slow start on my rusted bike, I encountered the first hill and I was certain the bike would not cope. Sure enough upon applying heavy pressure on the peddles the bike began shifting through gears and progress was impossible. Defeated, I returned to the dock where I was greeted by 10 bemused Vietnamese that could not speak a word of English. They attempted to rent me a motorbike instead, though that would be admitting defeat. After persisting with getting a new bike I acquired another highly wobbly bike and went to catch up with the rest of the group that had long since abandoned me.
The surroundings however, more than make up for the scrap worthy bikes. The island we visited remains untouched by tourism. After a quick refreshing drink we walked through the jungle and had a look round a cave filled with bats. The bike ride back was much more downhill and we even had a race. I came second. Out of two.
With the first cycling experience in Vietnam out of the way it was time to take on the crowded Vietnamese roads. We continued our holiday by taking an overnight train to Hue. Renting a bicycle in Hue costs $1 for the whole day and is the perfect way of seeing all the ancient monuments in the area. Cautiously I stepped onto my bike and scouted the road before setting off. However, I soon got into the Vietnamese experience and began navigating my way across the busy roads. Vietnamese drivers always have one hand on the horn to warn you when they are either about to do something illegal or overtaking you. As I rode along children would frequently shout “Hello!” upon the sight of a tall Englishman standing out from the crowd. “Sinchao” I shouted back.
Upon arriving at a monument someone would always come up to us and look after our bike for a few Vietnamese dong. The car above is the one the monk Thich Quang Duc used to travel to the site where he set himself alight in protest. Later that day in Hue things took a turn towards the unexpected.
The first local to approach us while we were cycling was a friendly old chap that insisted on taking us to get food. We agreed and we showed him some English currency that he had never seen before. He was absolutely amazed and promised us he would put it in his temple and light some incense candles for us.
We were pleased with our local cultural experience and after a change of bikes due to a flat tyre we set off again.
Soon afterwards we were again approached, this time by a woman inviting us round for tea. We discussed rice fields, schooling in Vietnam and Halong Bay that she had never been to. As a thank you we gave some money to buy a Vietnamese to English dictionary for her child to study.
It was good to have these local experiences though it did ultimately cost us. Absolutely shattered we retreated to the comfort of the hotel and the air conditioner.
When cycling around Hue and leaving the bikes at monuments what I found quite interesting is that they come with a built in lock that slides around the back wheel. This would be quite useful as a secondary lock in the UK.
If you are considering a cycling holiday in Vietnam then I recommend bringing plenty of changes of clothes as the temperature is very hot. In June that we visited it was around 36-38 degrees celcius. It is also not easy to wash clothes yourself as the humidity outside means they are slow to dry. The hotel will happily do your washing for a fairly cheap price. Renting bikes in Vietnam is cheap but quality will vary so make sure you check first. It is also worth negotiating if you feel you are paying too much.
I really recommend Vietnam as it is a place of extraordinary beauty with many friendly people to welcome you. There is much to see and do in the country and things are well priced. I also visited Cambodia which was absolutely fantastic and a different experience. It is great to visit new parts of the world and I’m already thinking of my next trip to the region to visit Laos. I’ll leave you with this awesome picture that shows the versatile uses that the Vietnamese find for their bikes:
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.