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Cycling 400km through Vietnam: An Asian adventure on two wheels

The sun rose slowly from behind the vast limestone peaks that ring the northern Vietnamese village of Mai Chau. Birds sang. Pigs grunted. Someone was whistling. There was a trickle of running water; there’s always a trickle of running water in Vietnam, whose carefully tended channels distribute the lifeblood that nurtures the rice crop to feed the nation.

These are the sounds I heard. What I didn’t hear was construction work or car engines. We were a world away from Singapore. The fan beside my mattress hummed, the only detectable noise within our “home stay”, a longhouse on concrete stilts where I’d slept on the bamboo floor.

I glanced across the room at the snoring lumps hidden behind dense mosquito nets. My companions were still asleep after the 100 kilometres we had covered on mountain bikes the day before.

I creaked down the stairs and headed towards the rice paddies. A buffalo pulled a wooden plough through the quagmire while its owner squelched behind in the mud. I don’t envy a lifetime of toil that involves waking at dawn and then plunging up to the knees into a swamp, wading behind an ill-tempered beast.

I wandered through a street where women sold silk weavings. They were setting up for the morning, spreading scarves over wooden display frames and sweeping away the leaves from the pavement with witches’ brooms of twigs. Lest this might seem a timeless scene of artisanal craftwork, with the clacking of ancient looms, one of the houses had MTV blaring out at full blast. Celine Dion rang out across the village.

Breakfast was dire. The French bequeathed the baguette to Vietnam, and bread remains an integral part of the local cuisine. Unfortunately, the home-stay owner palmed off yesterday’s dry loaves on us. But there was hot coffee with condensed milk. And, underneath the beer in the communal fridge, I found a stash of yoghurt.

One of my friends was busy talking to the owner’s son beside her display of silk scarves. He was rewarded for his kindness with a stunning photo opportunity: the boy in front of the spread of lush fabrics. The owner told me her mother made them, so I bought an indigo one for my wife. It was light as a feather, which may be a sign it was incredibly high quality and had taken months of painstaking labour to complete, or that it was machine-woven rayon and I was a sucker.

Conserving our energy, we took the bus back to Highway Six, zig-zagging up the mountainside, skipping the most troublesome hills. We were high up in rugged country where the farmers grow maize rather than rice. Our cycle guide, Mr Long, told us that a few years back there had been a gunfight between opium smugglers and the police; two officials had been shot. A poppy plantation could easily be concealed in the hidden valleys beyond the one good road, but today’s Vietnam is too closely governed a nation for covert narcotic production. It has migrated up the economic value chain.

Yet death was still omnipresent here in the highlands. We rounded a corner to find a group of villagers standing around beside the road. One lane of the highway had been coned off, and policemen were bending over debris. Two motorbikes were fallen with bits of fairing strewn around. As we approached, Mr Long slowed. We saw that the police had outlined the fallen motorbikes in white spray paint. Then we saw the outlined silhouettes of two or three human forms on the tarmac and the blood; vivid, scarlet and arterial. Nobody spoke. Son La was the nearest town with a decent hospital, 120 kilometres away.

Shortly, we stopped outside a shop at the top of a downhill gradient and unloaded our bikes. This was Moc Chau, the dairy heartland of Vietnam. Inside, three elderly Vietnamese ladies sat around a table pouring green tea. They were selling handpicked herbal infusions made from chunky, dried weeds, and assorted milk products. The guidebook alluded to a tooth-rotting speciality of Moc Chau, described as semi-hard condensed milk bars. These should be mandatory on any cycling trip: condensed full-fat milk and sugar baked solid into a creamy yellow slab with scores of calories in every chunk, delivering an instant glycaemic spike.

Next came a six-hour cycle to Son La on Highway Six, which is to safe traffic management what General Westmoreland’s carpet bombing of Vietnam was to international peace in the 1960s. Maybe it was the triple-glucose-and-sucrose hit, but my riding became a little foolhardy, according to my friends. It felt great. Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to nearly kill themselves once on a holiday? My friend Richard was mortified that I had overtaken a lorry on a blind downhill bend, although I assured him I had a get-out escape route at hand (the hard shoulder on the opposite side of the road, that well-known refuge for the scoundrel).

My recklessness was catching. The third member of our group, Marc, also tried overtaking a lorry at very high speed at the bottom of a hill, just as it started to regain acceleration from the low-gear descent. Richard and I were tracking the truck from behind. Marc pulled alongside and was pedalling hell for leather. Suddenly, a blue van appeared in the opposite direction, horn blaring, lights flashing, heading straight for him. He cut in front of the lorry at the last second, and disappeared from view, just as the lorry speeded up, with a thunderous roar from the diesel engine and a puff of exhaust smoke. Double jeopardy! Thankfully the expected crunch, the braking and the recriminations never came. But we could tell that we were pushing our luck too far. We regrouped and agreed that the kamikaze style was out, despite its exhilarating attractions.

We climbed through stunning countryside. The traffic thinned, the hills got higher. We overtook and were re-overtaken by an articulated log truck over and over during the morning. The driver honked and waved, and we’d wave back. We traversed a steep valley, planted with thick-leaved banana plants and giant bamboo, over a misty nadir hundreds of feet below. A pair of Indiana Jones-style bamboo suspension bridges spanned the muddy river, and we cycled over, creating a wave through the planks.

The condensed milk bars provided enough energy for us to reach the small town of Yen Chau, halfway to Son La, where we lunched on beef pho. Pho is the classic Vietnamese noodle soup. Once you realize that pho is pronounced like “fur”, you will never starve in Vietnam. Pho is your friend: noodles in a clear, pungent broth, with fried slices of meat, a squeeze of fresh lime and a sprinkling of bean sprouts, basil shoots and diced spring onions.

The streets of Yen Chau were lined with billboards. Uncle Ho (Chi Minh) was pictured below his ideological inspirations Marx and Lenin, while bands of smiling Socialist-Realist-style workers thrust their square chins forward towards a brighter future, beneath the hammer and sickle.

We mounted up and pedalled on. The road ahead was long and arduous, but when you cycle the Vietnamese highlands, that’s half the fun.

Travel Tips

  • The Tongkinese Alps are about 100km from Hanoi, which is served by direct flights from Singapore by Singapore Airlines, Tiger Airways and Vietnam Airlines.

  • We began cycling in Hoa Binh and finished in Sapa, a loop of about 400km.

  • Asia Pacific Travel in Hanoi arranged our transfers, guide, bikes, accommodation and bus. https://biketourvietnam.com

  • Spice Roads also offers cycling itineraries around Vietnam and Indo-China. www.spiceroads.com

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