- A Bicycle Journey in December 1994 -
Box 3331 RUNDLE MALL SA 5000
most people in the Western world, any knowledge of
we told ourselves, we had come on a cycling holiday after all !
By the third day, we had found the courage to set off before dawn from our
hotel in a cool drizzling rain, in the hope of at least beating the
We soon came to realise that the horrendous traffic was mostly an urban disorder, and while most of the cities were an appalling cacophony of scooters, buses and trucks ploughing their way through a teeming mass of pedestrians and cyclists, in the stretches of highway between main towns, motorised traffic was often thin and usually quite tolerable. Roads were so potholed in the north, (perhaps unrepaired war damage), that motor traffic was almost down to our own speed. Great numbers of cyclists travelled the highway, pacing alongside us with every possible load, sometimes for quite long distances, from home to work in fields or construction sites. Bikes varied from ten-speed derailleurs of servicable quality, both locally made and imported from East Germany or Czechslovakia; down through fixed gear roadsters and Japanese-pattern commuters; to heavy duty, crankless, load carrying "wheelbarrows", steel reinforced with bamboo. Cyclos (rickshaws), fitted out in galvanised iron, carried anything and everything, from a family of passengers, to live pigs and enormous fish going to market. Village workshops and small factories by the highway produced basic cycle frames and accessories for the local market, while small retail shops sold a good range of locally produced spare parts. We had a number of pleasant calls at these bike shops in the North, and were always treated very helpfully.
In the usually flat terrain on the coast, we were able to cycle 100 km or more most days, even with frequent rain showers and heavy down pours. We sometimes briefly had to leave the sealed road for the dirt or mud of the unsealed shoulder as buses thundered past, usually with an assistant leaning out ready to push cyclists or pedestrians out of the way if necessary ! Recurrent obstacles included sheets of corrugated iron and lengths of steel rod, left on the road to be straightened by the impact of passing traffic; peasants used the shoulders of the roads to dry coffee beans or sweet potato. Paradoxically though, while we saw the most appallingly unsafe driving, (eg overtaking on single lane bridges and blind turns, scooters driven with their rear mirrors turned in, cyclists entering the traffic stream without a glance behind, and some terrible crashes as a predictable result), we agreed that we felt safer than we would at home, so much did we feel part of a vast army of bicycles, or "xe daps" as local people quickly taught us to say.
Bicycle facilities were a delight in the north. Well-stocked shops displayed bike parts everywhere - I bought a pair of aluminium mudguards for less than US $3.00. We saw many frame shops even in quite small towns producing the heavy duty utility bikes that were the norm in the countryside. Bike parking was always easy, at least with a kickstand like most of the local bikes, and sometimes attendants operated parking lots at post offices etc. for a few cents. Bikes were actually so common that we had some difficulty on occasion persuading hotel keepers to let us take our bikes inside our hotel rooms, rather than leave them with the attendants outside.
Everywhere we went the bicycle was an accepted feature of the transport system, and bikes were used for every possible purpose - we once saw a three star general pedalling home from his office, and elsewhere, a team of four cyclists delivering a double bed ensemble.Most buildings featured little ramps over the front steps, allowing cycles (and motorbikes ) to be wheeled inside houses and shops very easily. River crossings were often by ferry, with dozens of bikes on every trip. Curiously though, there were no special facilities for carrying bikes on either trains or buses, even though it was common for passengers to take bikes with them. Bikes were often stacked one on top of the other five or six deep on the roof of the bus. Putting our fragile bikes on the train was a fraught experience, though in the end they were not damaged after several trips.
In the north, we were an astonishing phenomenon to the shy but curious rural population. We were greeted with much good humour and pleasant "hullos" as we cycled through fields and small towns. Shopkeepers were pleased to be helpful, tolerating our "eat food" gestures good naturedly. Market women sold us our supplies with warm cheerful smiles, and even when our presence attracted crowds of 50 or more, rarely did we feel uncomfortable. We were humbled by the generosity and dignity of these materially poor, almost destitute people who had only kindness and goodwill for us.
were no problem in the cities, except for the cumbersome wads of money we had
to carry. With the largest bill in the currency worth US $ 5.00, any
transaction was a lengthy process of counting. Some foreigners told us of
dishonest bank staff short changing them ; but if it happened to us, we never
noticed. It proved best to pay for hotels in US cash, and to keep small value
bills - there are no coins - for street purchases. ( When one remembers however
that the annual per capita income in
and the post office were less easy to access, and their services quite
expensive. There were no aerogrammes, for example, and a postcard was almost a
dollar to send to
Local people seemed very worried about criminals, and often warned us to be careful. We were cautious about our personal security, but apart from several minor incidents (losing small things from our unattended bikes) we had no serious problems, nor did we even hear of any from other foreigners, We took the precaution of breaking our money up into several batches, distributed about our bikes as we travelled. We were relieved also that we had no questions from police, immigration or any other authorities at any time.
There were downsides. In the tropics, days are short, with sundown soon after 1800 hrs. Cycling after dark was difficult, with the state of the roads. There were no street lights in most towns, and not much of a footpath either, and unseen obstacles were constant for both cyclist and pedestrian. None of the cyclists used lights after dark, a further hazard. We found we had to be ready to leave at dawn to be sure of reaching accommodation by dark, and to avoid the heat. Even in December, the cool season, the heat built up quickly after about 10.30, and we soon felt sunburn unless we covered up thoroughly. Sunblock was available in some places, but we preferred long sleeves and pants, as the locals do. We have been told that susceptibility to sunburn may be a side effect of some anti-malarial drugs.
soon realised that there was very little reliable information for the traveller
outside the main centres, and almost nothing at all for the touring cyclist. It
proved impossible to locate a train timetable, for example, and it was a waste
of time to ask the management of a hotel about accomodation in the next
town. We never saw a locally produced map of
was often widely spaced and relatively expensive, and as poorly maintained as
it was advertised. Our guide book here, the latest available, was out of date,
and not as useful as it claimed. Hotels were generally around US $12/dbl, ( not
much less for singles) usually with mosquito nets and clean sheets, but also
usually with faulty taps and basins that emptied onto our feet - plumbing
seemed to be rudimentary at the best of times. Not all hotels were available to
foreigners. Most hotels, in the north especially, were not privately managed,
and service was generally indifferent. In the north and in the highland areas,
hotels promised hot water, but when they didn't deliver, our small immersion
heater ( US $2.00 from
Food in the north was basic but filling and cheap, if not particularly interesting. Family operated street side cafes always made us feel welcome , and a good, if simple, meal, even with beer, was less than US $1.00 each. Food was often laid out, precooked and thus easy to point to when ordering. Only pretentious restaurants had menus, and we avoided them, as they never seemed to serve vegetables, or to understand why we wanted any.
We had lots of cabbage and chicken noodle soup, indeed most things we saw other people eating. Food was generally quite bland. We always asked for the optional hot chillies, as a precaution against stomach problems. We accepted the ice that came with the bottled beer in small cafes, against the advice of our guide book. Cold "draught" beer, sometimes from second hand Australian kegs, was also common and even cheaper ( US $0.35c per litre) than the bottled brands, and was excellent for take away. Bottled water was of varying degrees of palatability, but safe, ranging from US $0.30 to $1.00 per litre - working people seemed to drink from wells. Frozen yoghurt was a treat, made from condensed milk by small shopkeepers. We bought bananas (100 = US$ 1.00) and fresh French-style bread everywhere, often from bicycle mounted vendors, very cheap, and delicious with salad vegetables for a picnic lunch. We were surprised to see French-made cheese spreads almost everywhere, courtesy of the EU butter mountain, we supposed. Local coffee, very strongly brewed, was cheap and easy to find, but we also made our own, more to our taste, with a small dripper, bought in the market.
In the south however, food prices rose sharply and we found ourselves having to be careful not to be "overserviced" ( and overcharged) by less honest traders. Many (but not all) shopkeepers and vendors now wanted to "bargain", asking ridiculous "first prices" for their goods, usually marking up 50 % or so when they saw us coming. To ask for food in a cafe was to be offered the most expensive items available, and it was sometimes difficult to order simple food rather than rich and expensive banquet style dishes. After a couple of times we tumbled to this tactic, but then found the constant negotiation, even for trivial things like cups of coffee, wearing to the point of irritation. While prices were still cheap to us as "rich" foreigners, we wondered why the much poorer people of the north had been so much more straightforward and helpful.
The "pandemonium" factor also increased markedly as we cycled south, with choruses of seemingly demented children, adolescent boys and even adult men screaming at us from their houses and shops. These shouts may have been well intentioned, but they sounded derisive to us, more cat-call than friendly greeting, especially when the cat callers began to throw stones, as they sometimes did. We decided that being on bikes here, far from "camouflaging" us as part of the local scene, only made us more accessible to the more inane elements of a modernising society, the layabouts displaced from the agricultural workforce, with nothing better to do than watch the passing traffic. In one rough town, I had to fend off a lighted cigarette thrust forcefully into my face as we cycled through. People sometimes despised us for having "only" bicycles, and several times offered to help us equip ourselves with motor scooters. We were, apparently, so ridiculous sometimes that teenaged boys would swerve their bikes into our path even at speed, just for the devilment of it. We began to realise that in the south, while many people spoke some English and plied us with silly questions, almost no-body listened to our responses, and our own questions to them rarely had an answer. We were not seen as "real", we began to feel, even when we were a centre of attraction. Just like goldfish with someone tapping repeatedly on the bowl.
South had some pleasant areas, however. The steep climb from the coast to Dalat
was worthwhile for its views. Dalat itself was pleasantly cool, though very
noisy - in the hilly terrain, the locals had changed from cycles to motorbikes,
with the usual results. Vung Tau was another pleasant town, popular with the
to the war, relics were frequent but by this time less obvious than one might
expect, even subtle. Craters around bridges, the remains of US bombing, were
blended into the landscape as duck ponds; block houses had become storehouses
for charcoal. One is reminded that for the Vietnamese, the war lasted 40 years
and more, and that we are familiar only with the part they call
" the American war " - as distinct from those against the French,
advice would be, forget the idea of traversing the Hanoi-Saigon route with a 30
day visa. It's too far, 1800 km, leaving aside the far south. Besides, Saigon
was awful, a real disappointment, with bikes rapidly being edged out by
scooters and cars, ( petrol is only US $ 0.30/litre) a noisy jumble of
importunate rickshaw drivers, beggars, touts and pickpockets preying on a self
centred tourist rabble, and of little interest, especially after the beauty of
the countryside. People in the South seemed to be complaining a lot, but to us
it seemed as though the south had won the war, for all the
private business activity, galloping development and conspicuous consumption by
the elite we saw all around. Even the cycle market was a mere shadow of the one
we go to
last cycling day in Vietnam, from Vung Tau to Saigon by a back way, was one of
our best, an unexpected delight as we passed down a narrow, single lane road,
for once totally free of buses and trucks and their air horns, through what
seemed to be a continuous village for 40 Km or so, winding along through the
jungle as we neared Saigon. We had been told we couldn't reach
We had arrived !
Grace Newhaven 1994 - revised 2000
Michael Dwyer 2004
See Australian Cyclist 99:10:46 & 97:08:30
"Highway 1" Australian CYCLIST Magazine, Vol 17/6 , p 19
Mr Pumpy bikes
The CIA's 1998 entry