Ken Lee: Bicycling Vietnam, February, 2006

When most Americans think of Vietnam, they think of the war. Most Vietnamese, however, are too young to remember the war or they were not yet born when it ended. Today, the Vietnamese are very friendly to all foreigners and eager to show off their country's natural and cultural beauty.

In late February 2006, I joined a 2 week bicycle tour heading north from Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon) to Hanoi. Late winter is one of the few dry seasons in Vietnam. Spring through summer is the rainy season along the coast. Fall through early winter is the rainy season in the highlands.

Thanks to Kris for this photo.

This tour was organized by REI Adventures, but was actually led by the Vietnamese company Exotissimo (www.exotissimo.com). The tour had 13 participants, which is pretty large for a tour like this, but fortunately, everyone got along pretty well. Here are some pictures from the tour.

Click on any of the pictures below for a larger image (about 100KB each). The pictures will pop up in a separate window, so you should turn off any popup blocking software.

Route Map

Our group met on Saturday, February 25, at the historic Continental Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh City is the new name for Saigon, though the locals mostly still call it Saigon. We spent the afternoon sightseeing in the downtown area. Ho Chi Minh City is a bright and vibrant city, unlike the more industrial Danang and soggy Hanoi to the north.

Aside from some some museums and small public memorials, the war seems to be long forgotten here. The rooftop helicopter is a the former South Vietnam presidential palace, which is now a museum and conference center.

(Click on any picture for a larger image.)

We spent Sunday in the colonial French mountain town of Dalat. At 5000 feet in elevation, temperatures in Dalat are much cooler than in Saigon.

In the afternoon we fit our Trek mountain bikes and do an 18 mile loop around town. The cool climate makes this an ideal area for growing fresh flowers.

On Monday, we cruise 60 miles down the mountain from Dalat towards the beach resort town of Nha Trang. The morning is cool and foggy, but the weather warms up quickly as we descend. On the way down, we stop at a road side fresh fruit snack bar.

At lunch, young Hans downs 3 plates and 2 bowls of food, earning his reputation as the human garbage disposal.

In the afternoon, we visit some Cham temples. The Cham people lived in southern Vietnam 1000 years ago. They built several Hindu temples in this area, and more near Hoi An to the north. Our guides Giang and Luc explain the Cham history to us.

Nha Trang is a resort town, with perhaps the most beautiful beach in Vietnam. The beach looks a lot like Waikiki, except that the city planners were smart enough to put the fancy hotels across the street so they do not crowd the beach.
On Tuesday, we have an easy ride along the coast past fishing villages and house boats. Then we take a ferry out to Whale Island where we spend the night in some funky beach cabins.
This Vietnamese fisherman effortlessly paddles his round boat. Kris tries to copy him.

On Wednesday, we ferry back to the mainland, then bike along quiet back roads to the fancy Life Resort in Quy Nhon. Unfortunately, the ocean near the resort is too rough for swimming.

The roads in Vietnam are often in poor condition, but our mountain bikes handle them pretty well. Our bus gets a flat tire are one point; a road side repair shop has no trouble patching it.

While motorbikes are very popular in the bigger towns, bicycles are still widely used in rural areas, especially by kids commuting to school. Some of their bikes look way too big for them, but they seems to do fine. Giang tells us that Vietnamese bicyclists never crash, unlike Americans.
Everywhere we go, the local kids (and many adults) seem as interested in us as we are of them. As we ride past, they come out to wave and shout "hello hello".

We spend Thursday night in My Tra, which is a fairly ordinary town, except for being near the My Lai massacre memorial that we visit the next day. We also climb Thien An "Mountain" (500 feet) to visit the pagoda at the summit.

Over 500 civilians were killed at My Lai and two other villages in the Son My area by a coordinated air and ground attack. Their names are carved on a marble wall, similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. The memorial here also includes a museum and a recreation of the village.

The Thien An pagoda was originally built by Buddhist monks in the 1600s, but was destroyed by the French during the Indochina wars and rebuilt by the Vietnamese after the American war.

We spend two nights in Hoi An, which was one of Vietnam's major international port during the 1500s and 1600s, but has remained frozen in time as the harbor filled with silt and merchant ships started using Danang instead. Many of the old Chinese and Japanese merchant's buildings are still in use or have been restored as living museums.

The outdoor market in town is very lively. One section of the market is trinkets for tourists. Another section is fresh vegetables and raw seafood for the locals.

In town, we can see many of the factories and craft shops were some of the goods are made. The craft work is very good, but labor is cheap in Vietnam.

On our layover day, we bicycle out to the Cham temple complex at My Son. While many temples were destroyed during the Vietnam War, dozens remain in My Son.

Sunday, we have another 60 mile day, including the 1500 foot Hai Van Pass. The pass is notorious for the thick clouds that often shroud the top, but today is pretty clear. The 5% grade is gentle, but the climb is over 5 miles long and takes us more than half an hour.

The old French fort at the top of the pass was also used by the Americans during the Vietnam War when the main highway climbed over the pass. Today, a new tunnel takes most traffic under the mountain and the pass is only used by tourists.

After descending the back side of Hai Van Pass, we take dirt back roads and a ferry on our way to Hue. Dirt roads are fun, right?

Hue was the imperial capital of Vietnam in the 1800s. We visit several of the major sights here by bicycle, including emperor's tombs and a Roman-style coliseum where elephants were trained for battle.

We are supposed to walk our bikes across a rickety old bridge. One bike doesn't make it.

Showing off.
Despite being a communist country, Catholic churches are everywhere in Vietnam. So are Internet cafes, which are usually full of local boys playing video games. ATMs are not hard to find in the larger cities.

From Hue, we take an overnight express train to Hanoi. The ride is about 12 hours and we have fairly comfortable sleeper cars (unless you are sleeping under the air conditioning vent).

I heard someone in the cabin next to us order a dozen Tiger beers for the evening.

From the train station, we take a bus ride into the high country west of Hanoi via dirt roads. At one point, our bus slides off the road and has to get towed. A sugar can truck also gets stuck, but Hans and Matt are able to help them out in exchange for some sugar cane.

After a ferry ride, we ride about 10 miles over very scenic and sometimes rocky dirt roads. Jim crashes and has to lash his bike to a jeep to finish the day.

That night, we spend the night under mosquito nets at a stilt house in the Pu Luong Nature Reserve.

Our last riding day is also our most most challenging day. Our route is about 50 miles of dirt roads, mostly over a section of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. When the trail was first built in the 1950s, Vietnamese soldiers pushed bicycles loaded with 200 pounds food and ammunition to supply their troops fighting against the French. The main reason that the French lost the war is that they underestimated the ability of the Vietnamese to supply their armies when attacking French mountain forts.

Our route is muddy and hilly, but the scenery is fantastic.

Are we having fun yet?
Real Ho Chi Minh Trail bikes in the Hanoi army museum. These bikes were modified to be pushed, not ridden.
The army museum has both Vietnamese and American exhibits. The "Hanoi Hilton" was closed for lunch when I tried to visit.
We spend our last two nights in Hanoi. In contrast to sunny and colorful Saigon, Hanoi seems colorless and dirty. Winter in Hanoi typically has drizzle or showers every day, while you can count on heavy rain during the summer. Most of these photos are from the Old Quarter's "36 Streets", north of the downtown area.

My thanks to our guides Giang and Luc for a great job at keeping our group organized, despite a pretty wide range of bicycling abilities. This trip covered a lot of ground, with buses and trains in addition to bicycling.

I recommend this trip for regular bicyclists with an interest in Asian culture and a tolerance for a developing infrastructure. Participants should be prepared for several long cycling days, often on dirt roads. Our terrain is mostly flat to rolling, but rocky or muddy conditions can be challenging.

If you're looking for an easier bicycle tour of Vietnam, I suggest looking into VBT (www.vbt.com). VBT offers high quality bicycle tours at moderate prices and they added an easy-level Vietnam tour for 2006.

Some hints for people considering a cycling tour in Vietnam:

For more bike trip reports, please click on the link.


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Copyright © 2006, Kenton Lee, Palo Alto, California. All rights reserved.