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Vietnam : Sweet and Sour

- A Bicycle Journey in December 1994 -

Grace Newhaven

 PO Box 3331 RUNDLE MALL SA 5000 Australia


 

For most people in the Western world, any knowledge of Vietnam begins and ends with "the war " of the 1960's, and we shared much of that ignorance when we arrived. As we cycled down the coastal plain, we began to appreciate the unexpected complexities and contradictions within this densely populated country, as well as surprising differences between geographical regions. The journey was nothing like we had expected, both easier and yet more difficult than we had imagined. We found that the distance between Hanoi and Saigon was much more than the 1600 km on the map might suggest. By the end, we were to feel we had visited not one Vietnam, but two.  

Hanoi airport is some 45 Km from the city centre, so it's best to arrive with plenty of daylight to cycle to the city. The alternative is a US $20.00 plus taxi ride that is best avoided for several reasons, apart from cost. The highway is tolerable to cycle, though it will be quite a shock at first. For us, unprepared psychologically, our first days in Vietnam were very fearful, as we found ourselves plunged into what looked then to be a dangerously chaotic cascade of traffic. Bikes, scooters, three wheelers, rickshaws, a few busses and trucks - few of them in good mechanical order - rush through narrow streets, all at different and unpredictable speeds. Traffic lights and stop signs are either non existent or ignored, and uniformed police with wooden batons lounge vacantly on corners, apparently overwhelmed by their task. We had cycled in Asia before, but this was different. Thoroughly intimidated, we were not willing to cycle for several days, and ironically had to visit even the extensive cycle market area on foot. 

But, 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 Hanoi rush hour. We found ourselves instead two more riders in a seemingly endless procession of bikes across one of Hanoi's bridges, dedicated to cyclists, where every possible type and style of bike and load jostled gently together. The great part of Hanoi's economy that depends on cycle power was coming gradually to life for another day. We have come to remember that early morning, which began so fearfully for us as we contemplated the traffic, with a wonderful feeling of being part of such a huge but harmonious complex of machinery and people, all working quietly and peacefully together - a vision of heaven to a pair of bicycle advocates.

 Cycling out of Hanoi, we found ourselves in an infinity of rice fields, surrounded sometimes literally by a constant stream of cyclists as we picked our way through the potholes and craters in the main highway. Everything seemed to be in shades of green : fields, banana trees, canals, gum trees exported from Australia as quick growing timber for an impoverished economy. And always the army surplus plastic sun helmets and ragged dungarees of the great numbers of people everywhere. 

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.  

Banks 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 Vietnam is a little more than US $ 200.00 per year problems like this seem rather less significant.) 

Telephones 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 Australia.  

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.

 We 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 Vietnam that would have been of any use to us, even in the Saigon bookshops. Oddly though, we saw good quality military maps used to line strawberry boxes in Dalat - misprints perhaps ? The maps in our Australian guide book were generally helpful, though not always so; and we regretted the tourist ghetto effect such "compulsory" guide books necessarily produce with so few alternatives available - certainly the sections on cycling were quite misleading. Government Tourist offices were useless for anyone interested in anything more that hire car trips. No one in Vietnam travels simply for pleasure, and for most people it is an ordeal of overcrowded busses or slow and unreliable trains.  

Accommodation 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 Hanoi) took the chill off a bucket bath. Some hotels were operated by the local police, and few had any degree of appeal: most were known, unimaginatively, only by their street number, as in " Hotel 26 ". Hotels were rarely signed in English, so it was necessary to be observant. There seemed also to be a connection with a sordid sex industry in some hotels, but this was not much to trouble us. Some hotels were noisier than we would have wished, and a good set of earplugs would be useful. All considered though, most of the hotels were not too different in price, and value for money to what one might expect in "two star" accomodation in more familiar parts of the world, even Australia perhaps. The major disappointment for us was the complete lack of simple losmen or guesthouse accomodation, closer to the local people, such as one finds in other parts of Asia.

 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.

 The 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 Saigon leisured class, but quiet and relaxing. The small town of Hoi An, just south of Da Nang was an oasis of relative tranquillity, one of the few towns saved from war damage and well worth a few days despite being overrun with generally obnoxious backpackers. Khe Sanh was also a quiet little hill town with a friendly small hotel.

 As 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, Japan, China, and lastly Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. We saw hideous scraps of barbed wire baled up for recycling, an indication of the low price of labour in a blighted economy. On one occasion, a farmer excavated a helmet just where we had stopped for an orange: after unsuccessfully offering to sell it to us, he cycled off very happy, as it was a valuable find for its scrap value. Cyclos often featured an ammunition box for a tool kit. In a market one day we met a man unsentimentally chopping a supply of military steel folding mugs (" U.S. - 1968 ") into hot water dippers. But it was sad to see impoverished tiny children learning to be "guides" at one of the old US bases, while their elder brothers, with no other work available, dug up metal, spent bullets and the like, with the help of crude metal detectors, remaindered from the more recent war in Cambodia. These flashes of the violent and terrible past were enough for us, and we avoided the more commercialised war sites , of so much interest to the guide books. We were surprised, and touched, that in our whole trip, the issue of the war was raised only once to us - and then only by a woman asking with apparent sensitivity, if I was a veteran. Certainly, as a Westerner, one need not fear one will be blamed for the war, by either side. At the personal level, there seemed to be no resentment for the war. Indeed we were sometimes depressed to see so many war toys for sale, most of them ironically bearing crude " USA " markings, even in the north.

*

Our 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 in Hanoi, without the variety and quality of accessories we had seen in the north - a sure indicator of "progress".

 If we go to Vietnam again, we might use Hanoi as a base and go out for a few days at a time on the roads radiating out from the capital. Other cyclists we met had done this and enjoyed it. As a city, Hanoi was at least tolerable, and much more bicycle-friendly than Saigon or the South. People were pleasant and dignified, and, while poor, somehow without the great disparities of wealth apparent in the South.

*

Our 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 Saigon by this pleasant back road, which seemed to avoid the last 50 Km of highway. But, as many times before, it emerged that few local people had much knowledge of roads beyond their own very limited area. We pushed on, looking anxiously at the km's rolling past on the counter, wondering how we would cope with a dead end at sundown. Then almost suddenly, we emerged from the jungle opposite Saigon's famously bizarre Floating Hotel, to cross the Saigon River -  by bike-only ferry.

 We had arrived !

Grace Newhaven 1994 - revised 2000


 Bibliography :

Michael Dwyer 2004

http://www.teatreetourers.com/vietnam2003.htm

Mike Blackwell of Juneau went to the North in 1999. Try him for info.

See Australian Cyclist 99:10:46 & 97:08:30

"Highway 1" Australian CYCLIST Magazine, Vol 17/6 , p 19

"Through Vietnam" Cycle Touring & Campaigning Magazine (UK) Oct/Nov 1994    

Vietnam & Laos by bike     http://www.clazie.com/mike

Mr Pumpy bikes Vietnam http://www.netspace.net.au/~mrfelix/bsa/index.html

Vietnam on City Net http://city.net/countries/vietnam/

The CIA's 1998 entry for Vietnam http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html

Background Http://www.delphi.com/vietnamweb

 


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