Together with our two guides, Tri and Huiy (David) we collected the 28 weary but excited cyclists at the airport.
On the way to the hotel in central Saigon, the group was stunned into silence by the sight and sound of the teeming traffic of mainly motor cyclists on the roads. Saturday and Sunday nights' "In" entertainment is to ride around town on your motor bike with your girl friend on the pillion seat, revving the engine and honking the horn. Masses of them did so around the square outside our hotel. Crossing the road on foot was considered an enormous, fearsome challenge at first, but overcome by not making eye contact with the drivers. And having a free afternoon, nothing was going to stop our women from crossing, for the first opportunity to attack the local market for clothes, gifts and souvenirs.
On our first day out on the roads, we saw the result of a fatal accident. A sobering sight. After stopping to mount our bicycles, we headed off to the Cu Chi tunnels, calling out something like "Xin Chow" which means "hello" in Vietnamese. After hearing about the history and size of the network of tunnels, and the booby traps, some of us managed to crawl through a short length of them (which had been considerably enlarged to cope with westerners).
We enjoyed dinner that night, sharing lots of laughs and comparing experiences.
Constant rain prevented us from cycling and could have spoiled the next day if it hadn't been for a cruise on the Mekong River to the floating market. The women immediately joined the fray of bargaining for the best deal in this authentic market where the locals shop. On the way back to Saigon, we again drove over a huge bridge spanning the Mekong River, which was 60% financed by Australia.
While a dozen of the women made an emotional visit to the Christina Noble Orphanage to deliver donations of cash, clothing, toys and educational aids, the rest of us boarded Xich Los (three wheel cycles) to be taken for a cruise around the streets of Saigon, through China Town. Whereas before we had witnessed the noise of the traffic from the footpath or bus, to be amid the roaring rumbling racket was a stunning experience.
Having gained confidence on the excellent Cannondale bikes we had been provided with, we were driven into the countryside to mount our bikes once again for what I thought was my greatest ever day of cycling. The first 17kms was over undulating back roads through villages and lush green rice fields. Whereas we were there as sightseeing tourists, it soon became obvious that we were the spectacle to the amused and cheerful villagers. After testing our brakes, next came a long winding downhill 12km run requiring absolutely no pedaling, followed by another flat and easy 7kms, before the final 17kms adrenalin pumping down hill cruise. Dinner that night was enhanced by two young Australian Vietnamese families at the same restaurant, singing the Australian National Anthem before they departed to visit relatives still living in Vietnam.
The 15km long up hill grind at the start of the day's cycling was quite a challenge, but the following 16km downhill cruise through scenic hills was a pleasure. The 17km ride along the scenic coastal road was also a great contrast, comparable if not better than the Great Ocean Road back home.
QUI NHON TO HOI AN
Hoi An being famous for its tailors, half the group ordered a variety of colouful and stylish outfits. Those who didn't shop retired to the pool Bar for re-hydration. The local market where a mass of fresh produce was on sale, and a funeral procession through the town, added spectacle to our stay.
HOI AN to HUE via DANANG
To our surprise, the previous ride was excelled by a 40km ride along another flat back road, through villages and past the Hue population's huge elaborate graves and enormous, colouful mausoleums on which a third of each families income is spent. Once again, it was difficult to determine who was the most interested and amusing observers, we or the locals. The children especially were excited, and frequently lined up to slap our hands as we cycled past. Distributions of gifts, sweets and souvenirs along the way were always welcome. And displaying photos of them on our digital cameras never failed to provide laughter and excitement.
OVERNIGHT TRAIN , HUE TO HANOI
Whereas the overnight train trip had been viewed with trepidation, it turned out to be a fun event where other passengers joined us for drinks and comparison of experiences.
Another shoppers paradise into which we delved with enthusiasm. Some of us also took time to walk around the city's central lake, observing the myriad events the locals enjoy in the relative cool mornings. Weight training, Tai Chi, badminton, jogging, aerobics, fan dancing, to name several. The layout of the historic Royal Palace which survived the war, was comparable with the much larger and impressive Forbidden City of Beijing.
The gods looked on us favourably on the day we went for a cruise there. It rained non stop as we drove there, and teemed on the way home, but whilst out on the ferry, the weather was fine which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the superbly picturesque, island dotted scenery. The weather was so severe north of us, we heard that 57 people had drowned and 300,000 were left homeless.
The population appears to thrive on the motor bikes. With a population of over 82 million, Vietnam must be the motor bike capital of the world. I swear I saw an old man with dark glasses and a white cane driving a motor bike. Three on a bike is not uncommon, and I saw an adult with four children on one bike. Looking through the front door of many homes, the motor bike can be seen in the centre of the living room. On a rainy day, they are parked on the footpaths under awnings while pedestrians walk on the roads in the rain.
Cycling in Vietnam provides the opportunity to to enjoy the superbly attractive scenery close up, and engage villagers in amusing exchanges of happy laughter. We thought our bus driver was exceptionally popular, constantly being signaled, and waving back, as we drove the highways. Then we discovered it was a signal system. Flashing headlights were a question "are there cops ahead ?" A wave means "No, it's OK". A finger pointed down means "yes, slow down."
Many houses were up to 5 stories high, and only about 3 metres wide. How they had any room left after building the stairs had us puzzled.
Traffic drives on the right. Even with two lanes, you never pass on the inside, but tail-gate, flash your lights, and honk the horn non stop to get the front driver to move over.
I was surprised at how many Vietnamese collected Australian coins. Until it was time to leave and I was offered several in exchange for local currency. A novel way of earning extra income.
An inexpensive massage was a surprising experience for some of the men when they were aggressively offered vigorous "extra" services.
Our final dinner was a noisy affair, followed by more drinks back in the hotel. A fitting conclusion to two weeks of fun, frantic traffic, great cycling, sightseeing, and entertaining and being entertained by the happy Vietnamese people we met along the way.
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