Guided bike tour of Vietnam brings joy—and hills

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      Cycling through the thick, puffy clouds of Hải Vân Pass, I could hardly believe I’d pedalled 10 kilometres up switchbacks to reach the top of the mountain—let alone almost 500 kilometres in eight days. The “pass of the ocean clouds” was the summit of a scenic route high above the South China Sea from Da Nang to Hue that is known as one of the most dangerous cycling roads in Vietnam. For a casual rider like me, conquering the pass and logging a personal best of 108 kilometres in a single day was challenging, but also easily the most rewarding part of the trip.

      Getting to Hải Vân Pass was an adventure that began months earlier when I decided to sign up for a guided tour to see this long, skinny country on two wheels. Beginning in swelteringly hot Ho Chi Minh City in the south and finishing some 1,700 kilometres north in cool (literally and figuratively) Hanoi, the trip involved spending eight days in the saddle. The remaining distance was to be covered by coach and a 12-hour train ride on the infamous, no-frills “Reunification Express” North-South Railway. Also included was an overnight trip cruising Halong Bay by junk, another quintessential Vietnamese experience.

      Day 10 was a pinnacle of my trip, our final full cycling day. Besides the accomplishment of cycling in the next-to-unbearable heat, I was ecstatic to be the third from our 10-person group to the top, besting even Long, our extremely friendly and fit tour guide (not that it was a competition). At times I didn’t think I’d make it, especially when a truck would rumble past, bursting with live ducks or pigs, belching exhaust and emitting foul odours intensified by the heat. Then I’d see the same truck kilometres ahead navigating the switchbacks and think, “I’m cycling there?”

      At the top of the pass, an ex-military man and his wife—hard-core cyclists who’d arrived minutes earlier—eagerly encouraged me up the last few metres. I also had my own Vietnamese cheering squad, though they weren’t cheering as much as wanting me to buy something—water, iced coffee, souvenirs. Even here, the entrepreneurial Vietnamese spirit was alive.

      Twenty minutes later we’d all assembled. After some hydration and a quick photo, it was 30 kilometres downhill. There was little time to savour the accomplishment.

      The descent was a whole other experience. One minute I was cycling in complete fog and could hardly see ahead of me, jacket zipped tight against the cold. The next, the clouds would part, there’d be brilliant sunshine and impressive views of the surrounding mountains and lush, green countryside, and I’d be overheating.

      I was the last to reach the bottom. The scenery was spectacular, so it seemed a shame to just whiz past everything. My tardiness was also influenced by the precipitous drop at any given time of hundreds of metres just beyond the roadway’s edge. A crash could be at best seriously injurious and at worst fatal.

      At the bottom, we gathered the bikes and piled into the coach, travelling to the outskirts of Hue, a former imperial city situated almost dead-centre on the map of Vietnam. Led by Long, we then biked into the city to our hotel—at rush hour. (In Vietnamese cities, crossing the street on foot at any time is a harrowing experience, let alone cycling in traffic at rush hour.) We capped off our day in the hotel parking lot, sweaty and dirty, with a group photo, some Bia Saigon (Saigon Beer), a round of gin and tonics with fresh-cut limes for the Brits, and a rousing chorus of “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” (“One, two, three, cheers!”).

      Though I’m more of an independent traveller than one for organized tours, I found that a guided bike trip was a great way to experience this wonderful country and its people. I witnessed the excitement in the faces of Vietnamese children as young as two years old shrieking “Hello! Hello!” in English, vigorously waving at and high-fiving members of our group as we cycled through remote villages. A guided bike trip also allowed us to visit places motorized groups wouldn’t, such as a rural market where tourists are rare. There, I briefly experienced what it must be like to be a celebrity: the subject of excited pointing, fast talking, and genuine smiles.

      Having a support vehicle proved ideal for those who couldn’t keep pedalling at times. And having a guide was invaluable when one of our group, a fellow Vancouverite, collided with a motorcycle—immediately ending his trip and requiring him to return home for shoulder surgery.

      Something I also never expected of a tour, and not on the formal itinerary, was the wonderful hospitality of our guide, Long. At his house in Hue, he and his wife cooked up a tasty lunch of fresh rice noodles and crispy homemade spring rolls.

      When I signed up for the trip, the exertion level was described as “moderate” and I envisioned a relatively flat ride surrounded by rice fields. (I wasn’t alone in this.) Cycling Vietnam offered plenty of picture-perfect green rice fields, the kind you see in every guidebook and brochure, but we definitely did not get flat. However, it was all part of the journey—one that left me wanting to explore the country even more.

      Access: The 14-day Exodus trip, called Cycling Vietnam, can be booked through the Adventure Center. Prices start at $1,750 and include accommodation and some meals. Be prepared for hills big and small.