Cycling Vietnam trip: From Saigon to Hanoi in 25 days
*This is a post I wrote for another blog over at deadat30.com. I used this ride as fitness training for my first summit, Mt Kilimanjaro. Was quite an adventure so I thought a few of you may be interested in having a read.
“So what are you guys getting up to while you’re in Vietnam?” asked the sensible traveller
“We’re thinking of riding from Saigon to Hanoi,” I replied
“Wow that sounds amazing! Hard though.. Make sure you get a good bike and get it checked. I’ve heard a lot of people have motor problems with the older ones.”
“Oh no we’re going to cycle, should be able to avoid any motor trouble ;)”
“I thought you said you were going to Hanoi? I assume you mean on a motorbike?”
“Nah just a bicycle, as in one that you have to peddle”
“What, are you mental? You realise how far that is right? It would take months..”
“We’ll see how we go, should be a blast”
So it began..
As I was doing a bit of research on traveling around Vietnam I came across a couple of blogs and sites that mentioned cycling from Saigon to Hanoi. Most were done through an organised tour, laying out a set itinerary and charging a small fortune to get you from point A to B, even though you were the ones cycling. I then saw a blogger that detailed his journey, solo, from Hanoi to Saigon on a bicycle, in 26 days. Since starting this site, I’m constantly on the lookout for new challenges. My curiosity was instantly piqued.
I started throwing the idea around to a few travelers, most responses being similar to the one above. Then while galavanting around in Siem Reap, I ran into an American fellow by the name of Jonah who not only liked the idea, he said he was thinking of doing the same thing himself. After a quick chat to make sure we had a similar idea of what it would involve, we locked it in on the spot.
Making our way independently to Hanoi (mine involving a 5 hour-turned-10 hour van/bus ordeal to Phnom Penh) we met up and went hunting for our modes of transport. Mountain bikes were the only option and after much bargaining at a range of different stores, we settled on 2 for a total of 9 million dong (about $430 usd) Price included all accessories- helmets, spare tyres, chains, sexy little lycra shorts etc.. I wasn’t entirely convinced in regards to the lycra initially, however after only 2 days of cycling,our asses copped such a hammering, the extra padding was deemed essential. With bikes and attire in hand, we determined to set off the next morning, with no plan whatsoever.
That was a theme throughout the entire journey, no real plan (besides eventually arriving in Hanoi). Each night, lying in our respective rooms, completely stuffed, we had a quick check of the map and set a target of where we wanted to get to, sorting out accommodation there when we arrived. We did find a great blog with a full itinerary that gave us a rough route to work to but for the most part we made it up as we went along.
Strapping our packs on the bike racks we kicked off from the intersection of the 2 main roads in the city. We were on our way. For the first 10 days we made our way up and along the Ho Chi Ming highway. I have to be honest, it was HARD. From day 2 on was a constant progression of long, steep and dusty hills. If you’re thinking of giving this a go, mountain bikes are essential. The roads are rough, full of potholes and there’s glass, nails and all kinds of other crap lying all over the place. Amazingly I didn’t get 1 puncture.. Jonah managed 3…sucker.
Without doubt the most hillarious and also the most frustrating part of our journey was the interaction with the locals. Given the route we travelled and our mode of transport, it’s fair to say a lot of the people we encountered had never layed eyes on a westerner before. Besides Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi and Hoi An we never saw any either.
In the main cities you tend to get a bit of attention, mostly from people trying to sell you something but often just spurred by a little curiosity. Once you’re in the rural areas it’s a different ballgame..
At first it was all friendly, yet fairly timid hullos. We heard them called out every few minutesand we’d wave and return the greeting, happy to be amongst such hospitable people. As we got deeper and deeper into the heartland of Vietnam the polite hullos turned more primal in nature. The timidy soon disappeared and the hullos were yelled out, often repeated with more and more force until we responded or we were out of eyesight. Then the hullos slowly turned into a ehh type sound then into an oooo, oooo (similar to the noise a spider monkey would make) then finally into a loud grunt. This usually occured once every 20 seconds or so, about every second building we rode passed. The thing that suprised me most was the fact that, although children got pretty excited and often had a good laugh yelling at crazy foreigners riding through their country, most of the noise came from adults. Grown men were our main audience and they often wouldn’t let up until we finally responded. This left them satisfied and they often had a chuckle then returned to their hammock and half finished beer.
The feeling of being a touring zoo animal was even more pronounced when we stopped riding. Every time we sat down to eat, the entire restaurant/street would stop what they were doing (usually drinking) and stare. This would continue until they got bored, we finished eating and left, or we stared them down. This usually lasted about 20 seconds until they finally looked away. When we went back to eating, the staring would recommence. If ever we stopped on the side of the road to grab a drink or buy something, a crowd of 10-20 people would gather within about 45 seconds. It’s put me right off the idea of ever being famous..
By day 10 we were in need of some motivation, nothing would serve that purpose better than a refreshing dip in the ocean. With that in mind we cut across to the coast, arriving at the beautiful seaside town of Hoi An (After a night in a private island resort. It was very romantic).
The 1 day of rest we planned in Hoi An soon turned into 4 as the laid back nature and excessive drinking sucked us in and made it very hard to get back on the bikes. There are a few crazy stories from Hoi An but ill save them for another time. One word of warning- if you think renting a houseboat off a barman at 12am is a good idea that won’t end in chaos, think again.
When we finally got underway we were on fire. Our recovered legs pumped out 120km our first day back and we made it to Hue, another of the mid-sized cities scattered all over Nam. One fact that blew my mind is that, despite a population of some 90 million, there are only 2 cities with more than a million people. As such, the rural population is the majority.
Our muscles, particularly our legs copped a hammering cycling up to 9 hours a day so pain & soreness was a constant over the entire journey. Massages would have been a tremendous help. I say would have because the 4 or 5 times we went in to a ‘massage’ parlour we were very courteously offered a little hand relief after 15 or 20 minutes. They are set up to look ‘legit’, the only way you can tell is when the massage itself starts.
To be honest it’s shit.. usually kicking off with some vigourous rubbing, some skin pinching then a bit of chopping and slapping (this is the massage..). Then after 20 minutes or so they’ll stop, roll you over and point to your pathway to pleasure, giving a quick jerking motion. I don’t know what happens after as I quickly departed at this point.
Believe it or not, the most ridiculous massage experience did not actually occur at a poorly disguised brothel. In Hue we we were led by an eccentric ex war veteran to a blind massage centre. This is where blind people give you a massge.. a pretty well known charity established all around the world (I’m too lazy to look up the name). So here we are stripped down getting more terrible massages (from a worthy cause though-happy to oblige) hoping this wasn’t going down a familiar path. About halfway through this old man bursts out of what appears to be a closet off to the side of the room. He starts wandering around the room, yelling in Vietnamese and absolutely reeking of alcohol. He stumbles over to Jonahs table, assesses the situation for a few seconds then, without warning, grabs a handful of his meat and potatoes. I heard Jonah let out a yell then burst out laughing. Assuming it was due to the massage I didn’t pay any attention until he called over “yo watch that dude”. By the time the warning registered, it was too late. The grabber had his second victim of the evening firmly in his grasp. After assessing my crown jewels he decides to test out his skills as a masseuse. I try and push him away but I was laughing that hard I had no strength. The ordeal lasted about 10mins when the grabber, satisfied with his work, returned to his cupboard to await the next victims.
From Hue it was a fairly uneventful 10 days (relatively..) as we made our way north along highway 1. Just grinding out long, hot and tiring days as we sought out the finish line. Although Ho Chi Minh was rougher, less organised and less civilized than the 1, we would take it any day of the week. It’s a MUCH more enjoyable ride. Traffic is slower and more courteous and the locals make it an entertaining journey. Although we never really felt in danger on the roads over in Nam it was slightly more nerve racking on the faster paced coastal road where trucks were missing you by inches.
It was a very very sweet moment when we finally reached the Hanoi city centre. Hugs were distributed and hotel rooms were immediately booked. We even managed to get a legitimate massage finally. My god was that painful. Without doubt the hardest thing either of us had done and certainly one of the most rewarding. I stayed in Hanoi about 4 days eating like a champ and checking out the city. Awesome place, definitely tops Ho Chi Minh in my book. The local food is just incredible.
If anyone has similar plans and wants a little more info or advice feel free to shoot me an email. I haven’t included a lot of detail in this post as I’ve tried to keep it as brief as possible.