Originally I was going to name this entry “Pedal Power” since it is about my fourteen day cycling tour of Vietnam. But when I joined the group and saw that all ten of my co-riders were women, I thought it was appropriate to change the name.
We were told that it is the first time in Intrepid Travel’s history that a bike tour group is all women—and it had to be my group! At first, I was a bit disappointed because I’ve never been one for girly gossip or constantly talking about how to find a ‘husband.’ Too much estrogen can get a bit much and it’s nice to have a mix with some ‘maleness’ thrown in. But it turned out to be a really interesting and fun group of gals plus some of these chicks are tough cyclists who would still beat the bicycle shorts off most men. Not only is it all women, eight of the girls are from Australia, two from England, and then there’s me, the unsurprisingly only American. It’s a tad bland of a group as far as ‘internationalism’ goes. We are nearly all thirty-something English speakers who look as white as Wonder bread. We do have some diverse occupations, though, from a fashion designer to a radiologist, to an architect to some gals who work in mining. Mostly it’s good fun and I even scored my own room without having to pay a single supplement.
To give you just a brief understanding of the tour mechanics…here is the nitty gritty:
The tour itself started in Hanoi, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, in the north and will end in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. It’s a long but narrow country of 83 million people and we are seeing a lot of it firsthand from right over the handle bars.
We are assisted by two vehicles. A bus rides in front of us and carries all our bags and suitcases plus an ongoing supply of bottled water, fresh fruit, and, of course, snacks like the international Oreo cookie (we are all women, afterall!). A truck follows us behind and carries the bikes when we are not riding. Also, if you are riding along and just get tuckered out you can sit by the side of the road and wait for the truck to come along and throw your bike in the back and hop on for a lift and a much needed rest. We always had a local tour guide riding in the front and the tour leader would follow behind. Phuc Le (pronounced f-o-o-k, very close to another word), is our tour leader and has been with Intrepid just six months. He organizes everything for us and makes our daily lives pretty easy and stress-free. We don’t need to do much thinking each day—just riding. It’s quite nice, especially for me after traveling now for nearly six months; it’s nice to give my ‘planning’ brain a rest. He takes care of where we ride, what we eat, and where we sleep. He is from Hanoi, but went to University in Sydney where he studied English and management, so he is a bit more “westernized” than some other Vietnamese and really easy to understand and very cool and laid back. On our first day, we found out it was his first time doing this cycling tour for the Intrepid Company. My initial reaction was regret because I thought it would be better to have a seasoned veteran. But Phuc turned out to be the best we could have hoped for. He was a bit quiet and seemed shy at first, but he has a nice easy going leadership way about him. He’s in charge and ‘takes care of business’, but in a very low key way and tries to make the experience, albeit physical, as relaxing as possible and always with a smile on his face. I really appreciated this along the way. He doesn’t rush anyone, but we still adhere to a daily schedule. It’s a tough balance on tours to keep to the schedule but also not have your tourists feeling pressured and rushed. He dances along this line beautifully. Plus if any of us ever needed anything at all he was on the case immediately. I got to know him a bit since he would ride in the back and I often found myself back there with him.
Each day starts around 7am with a breakfast and then we either hop on our bikes or get on the bus for awhile until we find the spot where we start riding. We average about 50 Kilometers (30 miles) a day, but some days have done as much as 80 (50 miles) or as few as 30 (18.6 miles). Every 15K or so, we stop for a fifteen minute break for some fresh fruit and cold water. Loi, the bus driver, is another good one. As soon as we ride up, he’s greeting us with a “well done!” Then he’s putting a much needed fresh bottle of cold water in our hands plus has already sliced up some of the tastiest fresh fruit I’ve ever had. I couldn’t get enough of the sweet local pineapple. All he really had to do was drive the bus, but did so much more and became part of our family. He was also a bit of a photographer, snapping shots of us on his old film SLR as we rode past. It was really nice to see these guys become great assets to the Vietnam tourism landscape, especially after some other hawkers just see you for instant cash and don’t yet understand the idea of ‘long term’ gains from developing relationships with tourists to earn respect and in turn repeat business and recommendations for future growth of the industry.
For most lunches Phuc would just find a small, very inexpensive roadside Vietnamese joint and we will have noodles, fried rice or a local specialty. For dinner, he takes us to a local spot in each town. All the food has been tasty and super cheap. Most dinners with a beer, cost less than $5. And lunches are about $2. There’s lots of meat, pork, fish, noodles, rice, squid, etc. There are some other ‘odd’ meats here and there and the other night I tried something Phuc called “a cow tendon.” Of course, after much prodding, he told me what it really was–part of a cow penis. Mmmm. Kinda grisly. The girls seemed to like it more than the guys—now I guess that makes sense.