I braced myself a little bit before our visit to Vietnam. I’d heard such mixed reports about the country. I’d been warned that the people were hard and unfriendly. I’d been advised to watch out for pickpockets and that even those you feel you can trust will steal things out from under your nose.
But then there were others that raved about how truly wonderful Vietnam is. “It’s the best place to visit in SE Asia,” we were assured more than once. “The people are kind and welcoming. The land is beautiful.”
I suppose I was nervous, too, about entering Vietnam saddled with the uncomfortable reality of being American when the wounds of the Vietnam War are still so fresh on both sides.
We biked Vietnam with a tour company. Our group was blessed with two excellent Vietnamese guides, whom I learned a lot from, but who also acted as a sort of buffer between the group and the rest of the world.
The last time I had my own wheels in a country I was in India and the experience was raw. I had no translators, no fancy hotels (well, one) no safeguards. I loved it because I felt exposed but transformed. I felt like I’d jumped into the middle of the fire. Our time biking Vietnam felt more like lounged back next to the fire while someone brought me cocktails.
Regardless, it was good. Brian and I had the unique honor of taking this trip with our friends and mentors Michele and Glenn and that alone made the experience special.
With Michele and Glenn
And I learned so much from our guides. The kind of insider knowledge they were able to provide about the history and culture of Vietnam would take me months to glean as a normal backpacker talking to other travelers and the local or two I might manage to befriend along the way. I think that this sort of access to information is the best reason to travel with a tour group.
So, that leaves me with the biking. Our bike tour started in Da Lat. We navigated our bikes through traffic circles and the honking chaos of the city streets and then onto the back roads outside of the city. We peddled in the shadow of Mount Langbian and through the Valley of Love. It was beautiful.
Da Lat Traffic
The Valley of Love
Outside of Da Lat we crested Hon Giao Pass and then flew down a 20-mile hill. It was fun until I remembered that I am a human made of skin and bones and blood hurtling 25 miles an hour down a mountain pass on two tiny, inflatable wheels. I survived. We all did.
Up and then down the other side
We biked out to the Hon Gom peninsula and hopped a boat to tropical Whale Island where we spent Christmas Eve. The island was a lovely and peaceful place. We hiked and relaxed and even ate Christmas cookies that Brian’s mom had shipped in from Ohio.
Hiking Christmas Eve on Whale Island (wind = gravity defying hair)
Our group eating Christmas cookies all the way from Ohio
From there we headed on to Quy Nhon, a busy town that doesn’t see too many tourists. Outside of Quy Nhon, in a tiny village surrounded by emerald green rice paddies, we were ushered into a Vietnamese wedding where we sang karaoke and took photos with the bride and groom. It might be my favorite memory of the whole trip.
Waiting for our turn to serenade the bride and groom
The next day we visited the site of the My Lai Massacre which was an incredibly hard place to be. I walked past the ditch that ran through the village, where hundreds of innocent people had been shot and killed, and whispered, “I’m sorry. Forgive us.” What else can you say in the shadow of such tragedy?
Later, we cycled on to Hoi An, a lovely little tourist town dotted with colorful lanterns and ancient traditional homes. We took a bus to Hue to visit the temples and Imperial City and then climbed back on the bike to cycle up and over the Hai Van mountain pass, called the “Pass of the Ocean Clouds.”
Hoi An, Vietnam
The gilded tomb of Emperor Khai Dinh in Hue
We flew to Hanoi and climbed back on the bike for another two-day ride out to Mai Chau, a village where the Thai People, a Vietnamese ethnic minority, live. We stayed in a homestay and, because it was New Years Eve, were treated to dancing and the ceremonial drinking of rice wine (delicious).
On our way to the home stay
Our room at the home stay
The thing is, for some reason the biking seemed like the most insignificant part of the tour. Sure, my butt hurt (real bad). Sure, I felt amazing as I crested a mountain pass and then zipped down the other side.
But the whole time I just felt that I was somehow missing something. Because we were sleeping in fancy hotels and escorted around by private transportation, I didn’t feel like I was part of the whole. I felt like an observer instead of a piece of the larger, pulsing puzzle.
When we travel, I love sitting down on a crowded bus, my legs smushed against the local next to me, somebody’s baby halfway on my lap, and feeling for a moment like I am not just visiting somewhere else but living there, like I am alive and interconnected with the people that call the place home.
It was hard to find that connection in the insulated comfort of our tour group. Yet, there were moments. As we biked through the countryside the voices of children would materialize out of nowhere, “Hello! Hello!” we’d hear them scream. Then we’d see the tiniest of kids high-tailing it out to the street to slap our hands and giggle as we biked by in all of our spandexed glory, our oversized group of Americans.
A group of kids (and their moms) that we met along the way
Eager for a high-five
Our tour ended and everyone else flew home. Brian and I settled in Hanoi for a few days but, finding it incredibly polluted, we cut ties and hopped a plane to Phu Quoc Island off of Vietnam’s south coast. Cambodia is visible in the distance, just across the blue sparkling sea.
The days here are slow like the lapping of the waves and I can feel myself slowing too, adopting the pace of island life. I’ve traded in my sore butt for beach runs, my legs happy to stretch, my arms content to pump once again. I don’t miss the bike yet but I think I might soon.
Phu Quoc Island by day
Maybe I’ll miss the bike tomorrow?