Bike Lessons from Vietnam

I don’t recall exactly why Travis and I got it in our heads that we should do a bike tour of Vietnam but I do know that ever since being deployed there in 1969/70 I had wanted to return under more pleasant circumstances.

viet tour group 2

Our Vietnam tour group.  Sorry for the poor photo quality.  I used cardboard disposable Kodak cameras (no smartphones in those days).

That wish became a reality in 2000 when Ann came across an article about VeloAsia, one of the first tour companies to organize bicycle tours in Vietnam after the war.  She thought it would be an opportunity for Travis and me to do a father/son bonding trip.  Coincidentally, VeloAsia was headquartered just around the corner from where our daughter lived at that time in San Francisco. So on one of our visits to her I dropped into the VeloAsia office and came away convinced that Travis and I were meant for such an adventure.

Viet bike tour map

Our cycling tour route.

Arrangements made, we packed up our bikes and flew to Hanoi to meet our tour guide team and the 10 other tour participants.  We spent the first day off our bikes sightseeing in a rather austere Hanoi and then we flew down to Hue to begin the real cycling part of the tour (see above map).  You might say that this is where the rubber met the road because none of us were quite prepared for what was coming.  However, we ultimately learned some valuable lessons about cycling in Vietnam and about Vietnam itself.  

The first time we actually got on our bikes was outside our Hue hotel. Our guide told us that we would begin by riding through the intersection across from the hotel, which to all of us looked like a bicycling nightmare. Literally hundreds of pedestrians, bicycles, and motor scooters were all funneling through the intersection with no visible stop signs, traffic lights, or other mechanisms of social order.  If chaos had a name, this intersection must be it.  Hence, lesson #1.

intersection from heck

I didn’t take a photo of the intersection from hell, but this one from the web captures the feeling of the moment.

Lesson #1 – Stay calm and be predictable

Our guide told us that getting across the intersection actually would be quite simple. The key was to remain calm, deliberate, and predictable.  Ride at a steady pace without veering or braking.  So, I pedaled headfirst into the morass with some serious deep breathing. To my surprise, like the parting of the Red Sea, an opening seemed to continually materialize to the front of my wheel and immediately close behind me. Clearly, there were mutually understood informal rules of pedestrian/bike engagement.  The seeming chaos turned into a fluid commute.   We all did high fives when we emerged unscathed on the other side. After that, getting through busy intersections was almost fun.

Lesson #2 – Horn blowing is a sign or courtesy, not a venting of anger.

Once we got to the outskirts of Hue and headed on our weeklong ride down the coast highway toward Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) the scene was totally different – and much more frightening.  Because this was the only major paved (I’m using the term “paved” loosely) highway down the country, we encountered a constant stream of trucks, busses, and other assorted motor and human-powered vehicles.  A large proportion of the motorized traffic consisted of what appeared to be relics of the 60’s, belching black plumes of exhaust.  Plus the drivers leaned unrelentingly on their horns as they careened down the highway. Because much of the road was two lanes, these lumbering trucks and busses were sharing very tight quarters with the many bicycles and other vehicles on the road.

big pickup

U.S. horn honker.

At first, the cacophony of blowing horns coming up behind us was unsettling.  In my U.S. cycling experience the hand on a blaring horn from behind likely belongs to an angry young male in a pickup with wheels taller than a bike who, with his non-honking hand, is deploying  the universal digital sign of anger (okay, I know I’m profiling here, but this has happened to me more than once).  We quickly learned that this was not the case in Vietnam. 

viet bus

Vietnam horn honker.

The incessant horn blowing was a way of communicating a helpful, albeit gratingly loud, warning to cyclists and pedestrians that a large and potentially lethal vehicle was about to pass within inches – out of necessity rather than anger.  After a few miles I got used to the honking and even began looking forward to seeing what kind of vehicle would be brushing by my left arm.  The numerous vintage busses, which were the most colorful vehicles on the road, often were packed to overflowing with passengers and luggage piled high on the roof.  Plus, they often had what appeared to be at least one designated driver’s assistant hanging off the right-hand side, alerting the driver to hazards ahead (such as American tourists on bikes!). 

Lesson #3 – Bringing your road bike and lycra from home may not always be cool.

Both Travis and I brought our road bikes.  The VeloAsia folks told us that most riders on the tour probably would have some sort of mountain or cross bike, but road bikes would be fine if we preferred.  It turns out that we were the only two with such bikes in our group (and for all we could tell, in the whole of Vietnam).  So, here we were with our 23 mm (read “skinny”) tires and fender-less bikes.  When the highway was in good condition and dry (which was rare) we were the kings of the road.

au dai on bike

However, much of the time it was raining, which forced us to negotiate water-filled potholes that often came up to our axles. I am sure that the local Vietnamese cyclists got a great kick out of seeing us struggling along on our fancy bikes, spattered with mud from head to toe.   A lingering and vivid image from one of those mud splattery days is of the sweet smile (or was it bemusement?) from a young Vietnamese woman in an impeccably clean áo dài riding her “clunky” bike (with its fenders and upright handlebars) .

Lesson #4 –  Kids are the hope of the future, hopefully.

One of the most gratifying parts of the tour was the outpouring of warmth and enthusiastic welcome from the local population, especially in the rural areas.  This turned out to be major benefit of traveling by bike rather than being encapsulated in a bus or car.  Every time we rode through a village crowds of young kids would materialize, cheering and wanting to show off their command of English (did they do that for German or French cyclists also?).  Even though I have never been a rock star, the excitement we created along the way is about as close as I probably will ever get (until BigLittleMeals goes viral, of course).  

vietnam2000

Vietnam population – median age = 24.2

The former sociology professor in me can’t help but point out that it was no fluke that we were cheered on by so many kids on our tour.  Just a glance at the age structure of Vietnam is revealing (see the population pyramid above).  The median age was about 24 years old which means that more than half of the population when we visited in 2000 was born after the U.S. left Vietnam in 1975.  These enthusiastic young folks were the Vietnamese millennials that Elisabeth Rosen writes about in a 2015 article for The Atlantic.  She suggests that with no direct experience of the “American War,”  this generation is more interested in their own future than on dwelling on the past.  I doubt if we would have fully appreciated this point if we had been touring in motor driven vehicles instead being on our bikes.  Lesson learned.

Since our Vietnam cycling tour Travis and I have ridden together a number of times.  We have tooled around Amsterdam on big heavy rented bikes, done an overnighter up the Hudson River, biked through Brooklyn and Harlem, and ridden along the Russian River and Sonoma coast.  More recently our “bonding” has been in the form fly fishing excursions (which I wrote about in an earlier Andy’s Corner).  However, out of all of our great adventures, cycling together in Vietnam remains my favorite.

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Helen Weaver says:

    What a wonderful story & pictures. It was special to hear about it first hand in 2000 but to see all the pictures now & rehear the story again 19 years later is making me……. feel old. (couldn’t resist the sisterly remark) Loved it.

    Like

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