Rated as number five in National Geographic’s top ten cycle routes of the world, Vietnam’s AH1 highway connects Hanoi, the capital city in the north, with Ho Chi Minh city, formerly Saigon, about 1800 kms further south. Plagued by some of the most incredibly bad driving we’ve experienced, I’m not convinced this route sits in my top ten… if I had one. Although, to be accurate, I think National Geographic is referring to the to the little side roads through villages and dodgy, but very Indianna Jones style bridges that hover precariously over the lush and watery landscape. As expected, and had been looking forward too, we’ve arrived in a South-East Asian land of touristy goodness and all that comes with it. Good things include food, cheap and surprisingly good hotels everywhere and, having spent so long in China, plenty of opportunity to practice our dwindling English skills. As a result of having spent so much time just the two of us we’ve developed our own language that relies on the very subtle changes in air pressure when we blink. We’ve found this to be a highly efficient method of communication when compared to the English language. Not so good things include a cynical expectation that we’re rich and have an endless supply of money to burn, which in turn means that we have to check the price of EVERYTHING before we buy it. Of course you’ll get this in many other countries, it just seems that in Vietnam you have to bargain for absolutely everything from bottled water to breathing. The really irritating thing about this is that it becomes difficult not to become suspicious of anyone that approaches you. I have to remind myself not to be sharp and not to have a negative expectation each time someone tries to interact with me or sell me something. Most of the time the excitable kids shouting hello from the side of the road want nothing more than to be acknowledged and to share a smile. After all, if I put this into context the obvious reason so many people are trying to get more money out of us is because they need it. Comparatively, even without jobs, we probably do have vastly more money than most of the people that are trying to ‘over-charge’ us by what is usually no more than 50p… so I’ll shut my metaphorical mouth.
The beach at last! Friendly fruit sellers. Mary enjoying a stroll along the beach front at Nha Trang. These little porkers are enjoying relative luxury compared to other pigs we’ve seen jammed into multi-story cages stacked high on the back of trucks. Yet another challenge to my brain to try ignore the terrible things we do to animals, prior to the ultimate terrible thing you can do to a living creature, so that we can have an accompaniment to our rice and veg.
Crossing the border from China into Vietnam has very much been crossing from adventure cycle touring to a holiday on bikes. During the three months of cycling across the People’s Republic we hadn’t met too many other Western English speaking tourists, or even crossed cycle paths with any overland travelers at all, apart from our mates Honkanen and Rumdog. Many parts of the China we experienced are absolutely bursting with tourists, most of whom are Chinese. We now get to enjoy regular opportunities to swop stories over a few beers (or a record-breaking quantity of gin and tonic, wine, beer, whiskey, jager-bombs and various cocktails… in that order, as we did on Christmas Eve) with folk from our side of the World (not that we’re from Australia, New Zealand or the USA).
Our tent, camping and cooking gear have remained bundled away in their bags since we crossed the border. As you’d expect, the food in Vietnam is varied, delicious and, providing you keep an eye on your wallet, very cheap. We’re now enjoying some of the lazy days on the beach that we had dreamt of in our tent so many times. Dreaming about future destinations, even thinking too much about anything that isn’t happening now is one thing that I’m trying not to do. With all of these nights of story swopping (not strictly swopping, as this usually involves us enthusiastically recounting various situations, much as I’m doing now, at a new friend) comes a certain amount of reminiscing and reflection. I’ve recognised that through recounting events as well as anticipating our arrival at new destinations, that we are sometimes guilty of not appreciating the situation we’re in a the time. This all sounds very buddhist, perhaps obvious and a little corny, however, by constantly looking at the map and heading from a to b, it becomes all to easy to ignore the amazing bits in between; the whole point of traveling around the world on a bike. Focus on the ‘to’ rather than the a or the b.
This next paragraph is perhaps of more interest to researching cyclists…
We’ve more or less stuck to the AH1 all the way from Hanoi to the beach resort of Mui Ne, where we’re at now. It seems that the last couple of hundred kilometres before Nha Trang are some of the most scenic we’ve experienced; beautiful, lush landscapes made up of rice paddies, palm trees and hills. Actually there’s been a few other scenic stretches such as the Hải Vân Pass: a fairly easy ride up a smooth asphalt hill around 450 metres high. The climb took us into thick mist, which although masked the views, provided an atmospheric break from the flat coastal riding. The main thing that’s really opened our eyes, I mean seriously keeps them standing about an inch out of our skulls is the bloody traffic. Anyone that’s travelled around Asia, specifically countries like India and, I imagine, Cambodia, Thailand etc… will have an idea of what I’m talking about. The driving is horrifically bad. The way people use the road in Vietnam blows my mind, not to mention nearly knocks us off our bikes every two minutes. We were told recently that there’s a hang-up from the French traffic laws, but to me it just seems like an epic lack of common sense: when people want to get onto the road, wether they’re pulling out on a scooter, driving from a joining side road or simply crossing the road, nobody EVER looks left to check if there’s anything coming. The onus is completely on the on-coming traffic to beep their horn and give way. It’s absolutely ridiculous. On hour first day in the country Mary got knocked off her bike by some kid who just cycled straight out into the road. About an hour later, whilst reveling in the chocolatey goodness of countless cà phê sữas (Vietnamese coffee), best enjoyed whilst squashed into a one of the tiny plastic chairs synonymous with South-East Asian street-side dining, we saw some guy whizz straight into the road and take out another unsuspecting scooter pilot, like a heat seeking missile. I won’t mention the guy we saw who hit the side of a mini-bus or the many scooter-shaped chalk outlines we’ve cycled past.
Needless to say that the method of relying on the beeping of horns rather than using ones eyes to check for oncoming vehicles doesn’t seem to work too well. Perhaps the Vietnamese government needs to change the method of obtaining a driving license from putting a 10,000 dong note into a vending machine to actually teaching people how to drive. Rant over. Nearly. And another thing: these guys really do like to use their horns. Chatting with another cyclist we met in a restaurant last night, we all agreed that shouts of hellos, thumbs-ups and and friendly toots can be uplifting and really help get you up those hills. Ear-drum exploding blasts from atomic powered truck horns are not so welcome.
Check out more photos of our ride through Vietnam – http://www.twoonfourwheels.com/photos?album=2&gallery=40