The Vietnam Bike Ride – 2003

(in aid of Mencap)

By Granville Bantick

                       Good Morning Vietnam!

After a long and arduous journey taking twenty three hours on four different aircraft (Turkish Airlines to Bangkok and Vietnamese Airlines to Dangang in Central Vietnam) the Group (there were 57 of us) eventually assembled to be taken to our hotel.

Needless to say we were exhausted, and after the introductions to our team and briefings for the following day we were pleased to get to bed. It was an early start the next day. After breakfast we went down in small groups to inspect our 18 gear mountain bikes and have the mechanics to fit on bar ends and pedals and ensure handlebars and saddles were the right height. It was a routine I was accustomed to having done the India and China Bike Rides in yesteryear, but the start is always exciting and one is full of anticipation of the long journey ahead in a new country.

We had arrived in Vietnam on the 1st November and by mid-day the weather was humid and hot, and for that reason we always started riding by 7.00am. The whole population seemed to be on the streets by sunrise! Motor bikes in their hundreds jostled amongst the pedestrians going to work or the market. Our bike leader (his name was Phil) said to us before starting “go with the flow” and you will be ok. It was amazing how no accidents occurred as we joined this huge maelstrom of humanity. This first day on our bikes was to be a “warm up” and an acclimatisation and our journey would take us 30km to Hoi An, south of the city down the coast. Whilst Danang is the fourth largest city in Vietnam Hoi An is very much smaller and a picturesque riverside town and once a couple of centuries ago was one of Southeast Asia’s international ports Arriving in Aoi is like stepping back in time – with its mixture of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and European architecture. Hoi An was untouched by the conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s. We stayed over night in Hoi An.

The real challenge for the group came on the next day when we would cycle 113km on the main coastal road to Quang Ngai. We were warned to drink plenty of water at the drink stops en route and avoid problems of sun stroke and dehydration. We wheeled out of the hotel courtyard into the traffic stream with astonished locals looking on. We must have looked very odd to them dressed in black lycra shorts, Mencap logo T-shirts, and to them wearing rather strange head gear! Ages ranged amongst an even number of men to women from 25 to 69. Once out on to the open road the landscape was lush and green, offering stunning views across paddy fields with rolling hills in the distance. As we headed south, water lily farms and bananas became familiar sights. Traffic remained a constant presence being the road was the main north to south highway. We were flagged down by our Vietnamese team at about 20km intervals to allow riders to take on more water and refreshments (bananas, nuts and dried fruit were laid out in baskets for us) and to have a brief rest. I and some others took advantage of a “shower” which consisted of a bucket of water being chucked over our heads! When the temperature hit over 30 degrees in high humidity it was very welcome. Eventually we arrived at our destination, Quang Ngai where we were able to freshen up and have an early dinner before boarding an overnight train to Nha Thrang in which we had four-berth, air-conditioned cabins. The bikes and our luggage went by overnight lorries. This section of the journey by train was made to enable more ground to be covered in the short time we were there and there was much to see in the south. I had an uncomfortable journey since earlier that day I partially fell down a cess pit in a dimly lit passage to the toilets (actually a hole in the floor for both sexes!), and injured my left knee which swelled up like a balloon. Fortunately we had good medics in the team which sorted me out. It did not prevent me cycling. It’s funny when I look back upon it – even funnier when I recall alighting from the train on to the platform and falling down in a heap with my bags. The only part of me that had any sleep on the train was my legs! On arrival at Nha Trang we had breakfast at a hotel overlooking the beach, but any ideas of an early morning dip were quashed when Phil ordered us to “get on your bikes”.

This day would take us to Phan Rang, a distance of 107km. The foliage became more tropical and the roads were lined with mango and coconut trees. We enjoyed lunch at a beautiful spot on the estuary before cycling through the mountains, passing sugar cane plantations. The last 9km were “off road” at the end of which we arrived at our beach side hotel in Phan Rang. It had been another long gruelling day in the heat and we were pleased to throw ourselves into the showers and freshen up for dinner. I had already used twice as much film than I had intended but there was so much to see.

Everywhere we were met with smiling Vietnamese children, often seen smartly dressed with satchels on their backs walking or cycling to school! The high school girls in their long flowing uniforms would float by on their bicycles waving to us as we passed. The women wearing their coolie hats for protection working on the fields – probably not for much money. I even stopped to take a photograph of a couple who had just arrived at the wedding reception and seeing me beckoned me in to join them! Well I had to keep moving as much as I would have enjoyed staying.

Now the real climbs would be challenged in the Southern Highlands with the hill town of Delat as our destination.As this was to be a “short” ride (39km) we had time in the morning to be taken by coach to the Cham Towers which stand dramatically on top of a hill. The Cham people, who inhabited this area of the country, had a culture and appearance quite different form the indigenous people of Vietnam. I was told that the towers (Buddhist temples) had been built in the 10th Century. We were reunited with our bikes at the Muc Pass at 980m and continued our climb for another 9km for lunch. The rest of the day was very challenging as we experienced slight altitude change as well as hilly terrain. The afternoon ride took us through several small mountain villages with wooden houses. There were spectacular views over the surrounding area with waterfalls cascading between the rocky outcrops.

Dalat is the jewel of the Southern Highlands. It has a temperature region dotted with lakes, waterfalls, evergreen forests and gardens. The cool climate and parklike environment makes Delat an idyllic place and a popular honeymoon rendezvous for couples. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I shall be back! But it was time to move on, and next morning we assembled at 6:30am, with the sun rising through the mist surrounding the lake beside our hotel. It was beautiful scene. It was 115km to Bao Loc. The first 10km was steep downhill over the Prenn Pass. The road then continued through villages, dipping in and out of the clouds – a real contrast to the landscape earlier in the challenge. The vegetation was very green and we passed many tea and coffee plantations. We stopped at a coffee house and drank the local coffee which had a very nice flavour but very strong. At Bao Loc we had a very pleasant dinner in a nearby restaurant where pretty Vietnamese girls engaged us with music.

The next day, sadly, would be our final bike ride day with a 42km ride to the outskirts of Saigon. If promised to be the most spectacular day of the whole week! The beginning of the day’s trip was through undulating landscape, but soon turned into a long downhill ride through the Vietnamese jungle. We repeatedly stopped to admire the view -giant tall trees poking through the jungle canopy, amazing multicoloured butterflies the size of small birds flitting in and out of the flowers, the noise of water falling down but unseen and the incessant cries of the birds in the forest. It was magical – another world! But we had to move on and complete our epic bike ride. Ahead lay the finishing line. A red Mencap banner had been hung up over the road outside a bar. We wheeled in twos and threes as over the distance we were very spread out. We gave up our trusty steeds, and we were welcomed with congratulations from the two Mencap girl reps who presented us with our medals, and handed each of us with a glass of champagne. It was an emotional moment with hugs and handshakes all round. A well-earned lunch awaited us at a picturesque riverside setting. Several of us could not resist diving into the river in our gear and having a swim beforehand! Eventually we climbed into our buses for our journey to Saigon (now called Ho Chin Minh City, but still called Saigon to many). We transferred to our hotel, the Viet Dong Hotel, where I was to stay on and take a boat trip around the Mekong Delta. This was officially the last night for the group and we went out for a celebratory meal and let our hair down and had a really good night. The Group had the next morning to explore the city before transferring to the airport. Looking back on this week one can just say what a wonderful experience it had all been. I was pleased to have raised £2,700 for Mencap which will go towards helping those with learning disabilities.

In the next edition of “Rye’s Own” Granville will describe his experiences travelling in the Mekong Delta and living in a homestead with a Vietnamese family. He will also describe how the Vietcong guerrillas beat the Americans in the Vietnam war in the south by their amazing underground network of tunnels know as the Cu Chin tunnels.

Rye’s Own February 2004

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