In March 2015 my wife and I participated in a 17 day cycling tour from Saigon to Hanoi with Spice Roads Bicycle Tours. We were in a troupe of 16 riders (6 other Australians, 7 Canadians and 1 American).
As we are comfortable being self-sustaining travelling partners, this trip marked our first time on an organised multi-day group trip of any sort. Fortunately, we both came away feeling that it was a great experience with many highlights. However, as I am a regular gym-goer during the week and often cycle or hike during the weekend, I was dealt a lesson in humility. That is, I was not concerned to see that Spice Roads rated their Vietnam cycling tour as three “chillies” out of five. Three out of five? This must mean that it’s an average cycle and since I fancy myself an above average exercise enthusiast the trip shouldn’t be too arduous. How wrong can a person be??? It was a very arduous trip.
I belatedly learned that the next chilli up the scale (#4) signifies the tour is for expert riders. I am much further than one chilli away from being an expert rider, that’s for sure. I never learned what level of expertise five chillies is and perhaps it’s best kept that way so as not to further feed my new found feelings of cycling inadequacy. My usual spot on cycling days was at the tail end of the group which stroked my ego not at all. Despite the difficulties I endured on the trip, at least half of our group had no problems maintaining a cracking pace. I have no doubt they would be untroubled doing an expert ride.
Notwithstanding my humble position in the cycling pecking order, I have to say that as a group we lucked out as, along with our two excellent guides Hai and Tuan, we quickly coalesced into a solid, friendly bunch.
It is important to have a cohesive group on group tours as personality clashes can turn a pleasant journey of discovery into a miserable experience. In one case I am aware of, a Himalayan hiking expedition cleaved into two antagonistic factions. There were no nightly campfire singalongs on that tour, just threats of calling in the helicopters to whisk certain individuals back to Kathmandu. In a second case, a mother and father were pitted against their teenage daughter and her iPhone. It was not a situation that affected every member of the group but the shouting and screaming did occasionally cast a pall over the whole group.
I will admit to being somewhat uncertain at times about how well the Australians and Canadians would mix. I don’t think I’m stating anything inflammatory when I say that while the two nationalities have many similarities (both being former English colonies), Australians in general are a tad boisterous while Canadians are a tad genteel. Who knew what kind of strains this could produce? And myself, being Canadian by birth and Australian through marriage, I feared that I might have to be the intermediary if the nationalities didn’t gel. This was an unrealised fear fortunately; although there were a few times when a Canadian appeared aghast at some offhand off-coloured Australian comment. Such moments quickly passed, however, as the initial shock wore off.
While I’m on the subject of nationalities, I should write a bit about the Vietnamese. Despite pervasive poverty the Vietnamese character did not seem to be oppressed by it. That is, for the large part the people we met were smiling and seemingly happy. As we passed through the villages, we were usually greeted with joy and friendly waves; even by those who were otherwise occupied with some mind numbing menial task. The photo below of these ladies processing cashews is a case in point.
As the ladies worked their way through the mound of cashew shells, their happy chatter made their jobs seem more like a social gathering than a livelihood to be endured during the course of a working day. I must admit though that since I am now much more aware of the work involved in getting cashews from their high tree branches, through the shelling process and on to the transport that delivers them to my table, I am not very comfortable gorging myself on these nuts.
While the adults greeted us with smiles, it was the rock star receptions we received from the Vietnamese school children that was the best experience of the trip. The excitement and joy on their faces from simply catching a fleeting glimpse of real live Westerners was a joy for us, too.
Also, while I am not a student of architecture I did enjoy studying the French colonial architecture which can be found throughout the country. I found the buildings, particularly those in Hanoi, decaying and sometimes decrepit as they sometimes were, to be a fascinating throwback to an era that has now passed into the history books.
Of course a person of my generation can’t travel through Vietnam without the American war being in the forefront of their thoughts. On the occasions where I could ease off the pedals and coast for a while I would survey the jungle surrounds and try to cast myself back to that era. I would imagine myself as an American soldier carrying a machine gun and heavy pack in the heat and humidity of the thick jungle foliage; all the while never knowing whether the Viet Cong or a booby trap was going to make my next step the last.
At other times, as I passed the subsistence farmers working their rice fields, I would ponder the purpose of the war. What was the purpose exactly? I well remember clips of President Johnson explaining its purpose in terms of the now discredited Domino Theory. Even in the unlikely situation that the Domino Theory had manifested itself, what threat would a few Asian countries that could barely feed themselves have posed to a technologically advanced America? At these thoughts I would re-play over in my mind the French plantation scene from Apocalypse Now Redux . Specifically, the scene where the plantation owner excoriates the Americans for fighting for “the biggest nothing in the world!” It’s a harsh assessment but one that I could not dispel as I passed by the rice paddies.
What was being fought for and where was the threat?
My war ruminations met reality when the cycling tour stopped off at the My Lai Massacre memorial. The documentary we were shown at the memorial not only illustrated the barbarous massacre of Vietnamese innocents by a group of American soldiers but also the torment suffered by some of those soldiers over their role in the massacre.
The site of the massacre is now a placid area of rice paddies which would be unremarkable were it not for the memorial.
I suggest that if you do venture to Vietnam looking to view major war landmarks you do your research in advance. While there are occasional markers highlighting major events of the War, these are often not easy to find without foreknowledge.
Indeed for the most part, the country appears to have moved on as the war with America is only a blip in its military history. For example, after the signing of the 1973 American peace agreement and the collapse of Saigon in 1975, historic tensions between Vietnam and China returned. The resulting conflicts between the two meant Vietnam did not enjoy peace until 1991. One can even question how long this present peace will last as tensions again rise as China attempts to establish dominance over the South China Sea. There is no small irony in the possibility that China’s moves may result in an American/Vietnamese alliance.
I would not present a totally candid view of our tour if I overlooked the greatest blight on Vietnam’s otherwise beautiful countryside. That is, roadsides are often littered with unsightly plastic garbage bags. The ugliness was truly appalling at times. The Australians in the group discussed how beneficial it would be for the Vietnamese to adopt our “Clean Up Australia Day” where people volunteer some time one Sunday a year to clean up neighbourhood litter that does not otherwise get collected. Just this simple act has made a significant difference in beautifying areas of Australia (including the hill in front of my house). But, of course, this suggestion is made from the perspective of a well-off westerner who can afford to devote one day a year to volunteer with rubbish collection. My suggestion also carries the presumption that the Vietnamese have conveniently located waste collection sites. Both suppositions demonstrate either my western naivete or arrogance.
(Sorry but I didn’t take any photos of the strewn garbage. Probably because it’s not the way I want to remember our otherwise excellent cycling trip.)
Anyway, should this post spark an interest in cycling through Vietnam you can check out this and other expeditions at the Spice Roads link.