Petal Power in a delightful land
By Lisa Lubin
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 the history of Intrepid Travel that a bike tour group has been 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 were tough cyclists who would still beat the bicycle shorts off most men. Not only was it all women, eight of the girls were from Australia, two from England, and then there was me, the unsurprisingly only American.
It was a tad bland of a group as far as ‘internationalism’ goes. We were nearly all thirty-something English speakers who looked as white as Wonder Bread.
We did have some diverse occupations, though, from a fashion designer to a radiologist, to an architect, to some gals who worked in mining. Mostly it was good fun and I even scored my own room without having to pay a single supplement.
The Cycle Tour 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 were seeing a lot of it firsthand from right over the handlebars.
We were assisted by two vehicles. A bus rode in front of us and carried 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, after all!).
A truck followed behind us and carried the bikes when we were not riding. Also, if you were riding along and just got tuckered out you could 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), was our tour leader and had been with Intrepid just six months. He organized everything for us and made our daily lives pretty easy and stress-free. We didn’t need to do much thinking each day — just riding.
Each day started around 7 am with a breakfast and then we either hopped on our bikes or got on the bus for awhile until we found the spot where we would start riding. We averaged about 50 kilometers (30 miles) a day, but some days we did as much as 80 (50 miles) or as few as 30 (18.6 miles).
Every 15K or so, we stopped for a fifteen-minute break for some fresh fruit and cold water.
Loi, the bus driver, was another good one. As soon as we rode up, he was greeting us with a “Well done!” Then he’d put a much needed fresh bottle of cold water in our hands plus had 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 he 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 since 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 would have noodles, fried rice or a local specialty. For dinner, he took us to a local spot in each town.
All the food was tasty and super cheap. Most dinners with a beer, cost less than $5. And lunches were about $2. There was lots of meat, pork, fish, noodles, rice, squid, etc.
There were also some other ‘odd’ meats here and there and one 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.
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 and cars and other bicycles. Plus the inhaling of constant exhaust fumes kinda makes you feel like you’ve smoked a pack of cigarettes by the end. We were ready to get out into the countryside and explore.
Our first day of real cycling we cycled 37 K 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 eventual 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 working on reintroducing them into the wild. For now they are reintroduced to a semi wild area near the park.
After a fun big shared dinner of fish and chicken and 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.
The Dirty Dozen
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 70K 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.
An Uphill Battle
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 out and the 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 a bit too intense for my leg muscles.
The other tough mountain bike trained girls road up the winding mountain pass road. 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 my hill that took about 20 minutes for me and 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 this 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 as if we were part of a triathalon or something.