Vietnam by Bike, Boat, Bus and Plane.

Lampshade stall in Hoi An

Michael Harper’s journey cycling through Vietnam earlier this year

It was due to some careful planning that I had managed to get 9 weeks off work and with that I hatched a plan of cycling through Vietnam. I’d never done anything like that before; my holidays had previously been within the confines of Europe, it was also to be the first time that I’d travelled alone. My plan was purposefully vague, I would fly to Ho Chi Minh City in the south and make my way north.

I’ve known Ben, the owner of Rohan Keswick for many years and I think he was as excited about my trip as I was. One Saturday morning we set off on a walk to a pub to have lunch and watch the football he asked if I would test some clothing for them. I must point out that this wasn’t your average walk to the pub, we started near his shop in Keswick, went up Walla Cragg to Surprise View and Lodore Falls before dropping into the Borrowdale Valley and round the western side of Derwent Water, finishing in Portinscale.

The mountains of Northwest Vietnam

My trip began with me landing in Ho Chi Minh City at 21:00 and I was quickly whisked into the city centre to the guest house I’d booked. Straight away I was struck by how chaotic and dangerously unpredictable the traffic is. This is a city with 5 million scooters and they all seem to be on the road at the same time. There seemed to be few rules of the road and the Highway Code had been replaced by ‘might is right’, this didn’t bode well for my cycle trip. I soon worked out that traffic is meant to ride on the right hand side of the road, unless that is, if the place you want to get to is on the left, in which case it seems acceptable to ride on the left. At any junction there will be a thousand or so scooters, most of them waiting for the green light before crisscrossing whichever way they choose to get to their destination. Standing at the side of the road it looks impossible to cross but is bizarrely very easy. You soon get used to the way the traffic flows, realising that there may be 5 million scooters but they aren’t actually travelling very fast. To cross the road you simply wait until there are only a few hundred scooters heading towards you and then casually amble across with the scooters flowing around you, but, whatever you do, don’t stop!

Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it was called at the time was the home of the Viet Cong army during the American War, which lasted between 1965 and 1973. It’s referred to as the American War rather than the Vietnamese War as Vietnam has seen almost continual conflicts for the last few decades and it is only since 1975 when the North Vietnamese Army captured Saigon they have not been involved in conflict.

After a few days, not daring to brave the traffic on my bike I caught a bus out of Saigon to Mui Ne, a coastal resort that has been taken over by Russians, but that didn’t matter as it was just the starting point for my bike ride. I got off the bus and, as is customary in Vietnam I was surrounded by taxi drivers vying to give me a lift to their recommended hotel. They appeared confused when I was turning down their kind offers, saying that I had my own transport but as I unpacked my bike from it’s cardboard box their confusion turned to intrigue as to how you fit a bike in a box. Within minutes of my bike being reassembled the box was being recycled and I set off on my 100metre ride to a quiet palm tree surrounded bungalow I would call home for the next couple of days.

The cycle ride proper started well. I found myself on quiet tarmacked roads, hugging the coastline of the South China Sea. There was quite a strong head wind, but I assumed that was just the sea breeze.

Fishing village outside Mui Ne

After a few hours, I turned off the nice smooth tarmac onto a dirt road. The riding became slightly harder as the dirt road was covered with a couple of centimetres of soft sand, which was also continually sand blasting me.

A fisherman’s shelter, housing their conicals. The only shade for miles around, looking out over the South China Sea.

Each evening I would read my guide book to decide where I would to get to for the next couple of days and choose my route, basically heading north. I had a road map which I used to plan my ride but I found that the easiest way to navigate was with the GPS and map on my smart phone, downloading the local street maps from the free wifi which seemed to be available in every village.

It was clear that much of the route I took was on the main tourist trail, with plenty of shiny, air conditioned sleeper buses thundering past me. However, they would all travelling for 6 to 16 hours, covering hundreds of kilometres in a single journey. I was travelling for 5 to 6 hours, covering 40-50 kilometres, with a strong head wind and baking sun. My slower mode of transport meant that I got to see what was going on in the villages and speak to people I met during my many drink stops. I was drinking on average 5 litres of water while I was cycling and another couple of litres in the evenings, just to stay hydrated. The feel of the Sprint Jersey which I was cycling in was surprisingly cool, which is what it’s advertised to be, but I didn’t expect to be noticing it in heat in excess of 35°C. The fabric of the Sprint Jersey was also amazingly good for cleaning sweat smears from my sunglasses.

Typical village transport on the dirt road.

Regularly as I was cycling, scooters would slow down and rider and passengers would either giggle or ride alongside for a chat. Mostly they just giggled at me. Mid-way through my journey on one of the days a rickety bus slowed down beside me and a chap leant out the door and started speaking to me. His English was about as good as my Vietnamese, so needless to say, it was a while before I worked out that the bus was travelling to Nha Trang which is where I wanted to be in two days’ time and they wanted me to get on board. So I did, and in the next village so did three goats!

After a few more days cycling I reached the beautiful old town of Hoi An. I still struggle to explain what is so special about the town but it just has a peaceful yet bustling charm. It’s an old town that escaped most of the American War, the central streets are full of brightly coloured shops and stalls selling tailored goods and crafts. It’s also a town with many fantastic looking restaurants and food stalls and where I had some of the best food of my trip. On my second evening in Hoi An I walked into town dressed as though I’d come straight out of the Rohan catalogue (Convertible Trailblazer Trousers, Overland Shirt and Ultrasilver Trunks). Mid way through my meal the heavens opened. I know it was the midpoint of my meal as I’d ordered two dishes, expecting each one to be quite small as they only cost £1 but I now appeared to be greedy as I was presented with my second large main dish. As part of my review of the Overland Shirt I can confirm that it is great in the hot weather but is in no way waterproof, on the walk home I got completely soaked! In fact I was drenched by the time I’d crossed the street. One of the great things about the Overland Shirt and the Convertible Trailbrazer Trousers is that they dry incredible quickly and I had no concern about them being dry and ready to wear again the next morning.

Fishing and transporting tourists through Hoi An

Hoi An is roughly the midpoint of the country and is where I chose to part company with my bike as the next few hundred kilometres are fairly industrialised areas that I didn’t fancy cycling through, and I’d kept being passed by nice, shiny air conditioned buses. I had considered giving my bike away but by this point I’d become attached to it so instead I took it to the local post office where they boxed it up, put it in a wooden crate and loaded it onto a boat for its three month voyage back to the UK.

A soggy day at the market

From Hoi An I got a bus to Hue, which is referred to in all the guide books as a beautiful town on the Emerald River full of palaces and pagodas but I didn’t connect with it, it didn’t do it for me. From Hue I took a day trip to the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site and into the Phong Nha Cave, the worlds longest cave system. To get to the cave we travelled a few miles up the river in a small motor boat and then engines were cut before entering the cave, where we proceeded to be rowed 600m into the hillside before disembarking and wandering through the vast caves, caves in which I’m sure you could fit all of Hue’s palaces and pagodas and still have room for a few temples. It was spectacular. I took a lot of photos during the hour that I was in the cave but every one struggles to display the enormity of cave. As seems to be the tradition, various features in the rock were illuminated in day-glow colours and each appeared to have a story to it relating to what it’s supposed to look like. Some of the stories and the resemblances are a bit hard take seriously but that was often part of the fun travelling around the country.

Villages surrounding Sapa

From Hue I continued north and after a torturous and tiring ‘sleeper’ bus ride and hair raising scooter ride through a deserted Hanoi at 5 am I found myself booking what would turn out to be the best parts of my trip. I had a few hours sleep during the day and then caught the sleeper train to Sapa, which is stunning. Sapa sits up in the hills of northwest Vietnam, overlooking rice terraces and tribal villages, with Fansipan, the highest peak (3143m) towering over it. This is what I wanted all of Vietnam to be like, walking through the villages and farms alongside the locals in their traditional dress. At first I presumed that they only wore their traditional clothing to influence the tourists whom they accompanied around the countryside trying to sell their wares but that is not the case, as you look into the hills and rice fields everyone is dressed this way. It was very nice talking about farming and hydroelectric plants with the ladies and children selling their bracelets and blankets. I stayed in a nice hotel in Sapa with stunning views but I’d encourage anyone to go for the ‘homestay’ option to really experience the mountain tribe life and culture (although apparently the electric generator and free wifi comes on as soon as it gets dark!)

Sapa has apparently been malaria free for at least two years but I didn’t want to take any risks and was pleased to have the Convertible Trailblazer Trousers and Overland Shirt, both with the embedded mosquito repellent. Not only did I not want malaria, I didn’t particularly fancy being covered in itchy bites in the 25-30C heat. I can honestly say that I was not bothered by any of the mosquitoes, which was a very pleasant relief.

Traditional dress, a common site in all the mountain villages

The sleeper train to and from Sapa was a great experience. I was in a six bed cabin and had managed to book the top bunk. In the cabin with me were a young couple and their son, who can’t have been more than three. I don’t know how it came up in conversation, or how in fact we were having a conversation as I struggle to mispronounce only a few words and nobody in the carriage spoke a word of English, but their son had just had a heart transplant. I was soon being shown his chest and the long incision. This was a very moving experience and one which left me deep in thought once the lights had gone out; how could they afford to pay for his operation? What must they have done to be able to give him that chance? All night I was thinking that I would like to give them some money, but the Vietnamese are proud people, they certainly weren’t asking for money, would I cause offence?

On returning to Hanoi I caught a flight back to Saigon where my trip started. I had a few spare days here so took the opportunity to experience some of the conventional tourist excursions.

For anyone that visits Saigon it’s essential that you visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is an hour’s bus ride from the city. The network of tiny tunnels with numerous floors originally extended over 200km and was dug and used by the Vietnamese for accommodation and fighting during the American War. On the organised tours, after watching one of the propaganda videos you are escorted above ground and shown various bomb craters and booby-traps before having the chance to fire a range of machine guns (if you’re so inclined). As we were leaving the gun range there was suddenly a lot of commotion and shouting, something I hadn’t experienced throughout my stay in Vietnam. There was something ironic about an American women protesting because her son, who can’t have been 10 years old, wasn’t allowed to fire any of the machine guns. At $1 a bullet and 600 rounds a minute it’s a good job they only sell the bullets in packs of 10.

Michael Harper For me, the War Remnants Museum in the centre of Saigon was an unforgettable experience. It’s housed in a modern building with three floors of air conditioned rooms displaying photos taken during the American War of the devastation that was being inflicted by the Americans (you have to remember which side is telling the story). The most moving moment, having seen photos and read reports of the effects of the dioxins in the Agent Orange on the people and the country during the war was on my way back past the entrance, seeing the severe deformities of the men and women who were playing the music that was filling the room. Having taken over 2,500 photos during my stay, in this moment I couldn’t bring myself to take a photo, it was a moment too heart-breaking to be captured with a camera and something that will always stay with me.

Michael Harper 

 

Rohan Heritage

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