Our first day on our bikes, we took them for a spin to brave the chaotic traffic of Hanoi. It was pretty intense riding alongside dozens of motor bikes, cars, and other bicycles. Plus constantly inhaling exhaust fumes kinda makes you feel like you’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes. By the end, though, we were ready to get out into the countryside and explore.
Our first day of real cycling we biked 37 km to Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first National Park. Inside the park we visited the Endangered Primate Rescue Center. The center, run by German biologists and local Vietnamese, rescues and cares for primates that are often hunted and traded for medicinal ingredients. There are several different species cared for here including the long-armed Gibbon, the long-tailed Langur monkey, and Lorises—smaller nocturnal primates. They are eventually working on reintroducing them into the wild. For now they are reintroduced to a semi wild area near the park.
After a tiring first day of riding, we then did a ‘mini-trek’—up about one thousand steps in the forest… quite possibly harder than the cycling trip we are on. For our first day, this was a bit much for me. I was exhausted! Plus, I would probably now have sore quads and hamstrings from stair climbing, which wasn’t good for me considering I had about 13 more days of riding ahead.
After a fun big shared dinner of fish, chicken, rice, and veg outside, we slept amidst the sounds of the forest that night in the national park. It was bare minimum lodging—we were in a cabin with mosquito nets, cold showers, and electricity was only on from 6p-10p. But this wasn’t that big a deal considering we were all pooped and could hardly keep our eyes open after ten o’clock anyway.
Our third day was a rain and mudfest into the town called Hoa Lu and possibly my favorite ride of the trip. It drizzled all day and the roads were dirty so when you are going fast through puddles there was no helping the Jackson Pollack effect of mud splatter all over your body.
Despite the free mud wraps (you’d pay about $100 for a spa treatment like that in Chicago), we rode about 70 km through some of the most charming and tiny stonewalled villages and mysterious misty mountain towns.
For lunch some of us tried a ‘hot pot’ goat soup… somewhat tasty, but a little gamey for me. After replenishing our energy we rode further into the city of Ninh Binh where good tour planning allowed us to check into day rooms at a local hotel to shower and relax with a beer on the rooftop bar before hopping on the overnight train to the town of Hue.
Hue was a charming cultural town of pagodas, temples, and a citadel. We did an easier cycle tour around the city checking out the sights.
The following day we tackled a few major hills. The first one was a four kilometer uphill mountain climb. It was super hot and humid and salty sweat was dripping into my eyes. I stopped mid-way for a breather and some water. I was happy and proud to reach the top as this was probably the biggest hill I’d ever climbed. But it was only the beginning. After a fun beach lunch and refreshing dip in the ocean we were faced with the infamous Hai Van Pass, an eleven kilometer ten percent grade uphill climb of windy road and switchbacks. I use the term ‘we’ loosely, since I and two other gals skipped the bike ride up and caught a ride with Loi on the bus. It just didn’t look fun to me and seemed a bit too intense for my leg muscles.
The other tough mountain-bike-trained girls road up the winding mountain pass. It took them about an hour to an hour and a half. For many it wasn’t the climb, but more the heat that made if difficult. When I did the hill that took about 20 minutes for me, I felt proud of myself and called it a day. Coming from the Chicago ‘flatlands’ I have no training with hills and pretty much despise them. But I will say that after several days of riding all day, I was certainly getting better. Back at home I’ve done long rides (about 70K or 40 miles), but never as intensely or consecutively as this.
It was fun stopping along the side of the road to take photographs and cheer on the others as they climbed the mountain pass. It was like we were part of a triathlon or something.
But at the top, instead of being greeted by fans, we were faced with eager salesladies that I’m pretty sure managed to sell every one of us a bead bracelet or two. They know all the tactics that probably take four years of business school: they get to know their client first, asking our names and where we are from, they develop a relationship with us and then go in for the kill and you feel too guilty to say ‘no’ since they invested all this time with you. But of course, if that doesn’t work with them, they always resort to more guilt-inducing tactics.
“Buy from me.”
“Please buy from me, I talk to you, Lisa.”
“Please, I need money for my baby.”
“OK, how much?”
After some bartering, I’d pay about $1.20 for a bracelet. It’s so cheap and goes a long way for these ladies; it just seems silly to have even said ‘no’ in the first place. But I guess it’s all part of the game. Plus they basically follow you around until you buy something anyway.
The wonderful pay off of the pass was heading down the eleven kilometers on the other side. We hit speeds of close to 30 mph which is pretty fast on a bike and cruised down the mountain with a wonderful cooling breeze in our faces. This time I was one of the first to the bottom… love the speed.
Now, on our way to Hoi An, we cruised past the infamous China Beach where U.S. soldiers went for a little “R & R” during the Vietnam War (or American War as they call it here—makes sense, I guess).
Inevitably I always ended in the back of the herd, sometimes because I would stop and take photos while many of the girls raced on by, but mostly because I just wasn’t as fast as them and didn’t care to try to be–that’s not why I was doing this ride. Many of these girls were on a mission to be number one. Whereas I was on a mission to just get good exercise and see the country from this unique perspective.
Another thing that inevitably slowed me down were these amazingly adorable kids that we would pass on the way. As we cruised by, eager kids greeted us with excited “hellos” every few yards the entire way. I’ve never seen such innocent smiles as the kids would run out of their homes and drop anything and everything just to be able see us and to shout their one English word. I’ve never heard so many “hellos” shouted at me in my entire life.
Plus, from all the cyclists that go this route over the years they have learned to do hand slaps. I would slow down and give them a “high five” as I whizzed by. And then you would hear their chuckles as you continued down the road to the next group of excited kids. These are mostly incredibly poor kids, that couldn’t look happier. It always made me smile to see them, even if bugs were getting in my teeth. And I did my best to wave and say hello to each one knowing it made their day.