Day 1 of bike touring: A taste of Vietnam

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I awoke at 4am and tried to noiselessly exit from my cramped room, trying not to disturb my 11 (yes, that’s not a typo) roommates. I had barely managed to sleep at midnight, but I was excited. This was going to be the first day in a series of long bike trips from south of Vietnam, up north.

It all started with a vague idea of doing something adventurous –  something I hadn’t tried before. When researching Vietnam, I noticed a number of tours offering country wide biking trips. A big draw was the country’s supposedly flat terrain. However, I was not up for doing a guided tour so I decided I would do my own bike trip through the highlands and coasts of Vietnam, and get a taste of its culture.

I can’t explain how, but everything just fell into place. I found a great, experienced riding partner, Mike, who found me a second hand bike from someone that had just completed such a trip. Thank God (Vint Cerf?) for the internet. Only two days ago, I bought my bike, met Mike for the first time, and got accessorized. Today, I was ready to set out with my freshly packed panniers, caffeinated and eager.

My awesome ride

Our plan was to get to Dinh Quan, a little lakeside town, known for its picturesque views. Our path was fairly simple. Zigzag through the city roads, find the main highway (highway 1) and stay on it for a while before eventually making a cut to the more remote Ho Chi Minh road (HCMR), which would reward us with better views and lesser traffic.

We started off slightly before dawn to beat the heavy city traffic, me with 45lbs in tow. It took me bit to get used to the bike wobbling from all that weight, but eventually I got the hang of it, and we danced with the oncoming traffic from various directions making our way out of the city. We were equipped with fairly unreliable maps, and there weren’t many road signs, so we resorted to using a compass and our instincts.

Only when we stopped for breakfast, two hours later at a roadside Phó cafe, did we find out we were significantly off our planned route. This was the first of many incidents over the day where we got ourselves into trouble and relied on the excellent Vietnamese hospitality to get us out of it.

As we skirted around towns, trying to find the elusive highway, we stopped occasionally, stretching the navigational and language skills of locals getting them to point us where they thought we were going. Quite often, this led us further down the rabbit hole. Eventually we stopped at a gas station, and found a young guy who helped geolocate us on his phone, and even volunteered to escort us to the highway on his motorcycle. We followed him through hair raising traffic for 15 minutes. When we finally reached, we bid a grateful adieu, wished each other a happy new year, and parted ways.

In Vietnam, the right of way goes to the largest vehicle. As a result of this we were quite frequently run off the road. Motorcycles darted in and out, their passengers staring at us like we’d lost our minds, and giving us the occasional wave. On our right, frequent violators who rode the wrong way, would try to push us further into the road. Sometimes even children would run along or follow on their tricycles on the side, screaming “Hello!”. Needless to say, it was a stressful ride, and we were really looking forward to that cut into HCMR.

A few hours later, we heaved a sigh of relief as we saw a huge intersection that marked our turning point. And what a turning point it was. The roads were about half the size of the highway, with just about the same amount of traffic resulting in a very perilous journey indeed. We were pushed off the road and forced to bike through gravel and sand that were so loose, we risked skidding and falling right into the road.

Exhausted and not wanting this to be the last day of our lives, we decided to call it a day and start looking for places to stay. We were passing dusty little villages, and had little hope for our options. We came across a group of local boys one of whom spoke some English and tried to help us. After a really funny conversation about hotels, motels and Nha Nghi’s (motel in Vietnamese), he passed us over to a guy on his motorbike who motioned us to follow him to a “place to stay”. Reluctant at first, I eventually relented and said, “OK, let’s follow him”. As we did, I laughed when I heard the group of boys applaud for their friend who helped us communicate.

The man led us into narrow alleyways away from the busy main roads and into a beautiful little town, with bridges, surrounding gardens and quiet streets and eventually to an amazing little boutique hotel, where we were greeted by our wonderful host, Thanh. For $7 a night, with our bikes secure in our rooms, this was a steal.

Truly an amazing off the beaten track experience, we had a great evening. Since the only nearby cafe was still closed on account of TET, Thanh took me on her scooter to go get dinner, first to the deep ends of town, to meet her mother and pick up dinner for her sister and herself, and then to go pick up food from stalls for Mike and myself. We eventually joined Thanh, her sister, and her nephlings for dinner at their beautiful home, that would give most Manhattan homes a run for their money.

Mike, Thanh and Liz in the Kitchen

Dinner!

When we all finally retired to our respective rooms in the evening, I took some time to think about my day. M  ike and I had covered close to 130kms over 10 hours on treacherous terrain through a country whose language and people we did not know. If the people had not been so helpful, and accommodating, our day could’ve ended very differently.

Today was a day with a lot of lessons. The kind of day that teaches you about trust, patience and kindness. The kind of day that restores your faith in humanity. The kind of day one hopes to experience during their lifetime. I’m glad I did.

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