HCMC Dining Guide

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cycling the Dragon's Spine

After abusing myself physically for a month and then chemically for four days, I finally resumed functioning as a normal human being on Monday, and I should now be able to compose a proper send-off to H2H 2012, though it will still be difficult to condense all of my post-ride thoughts into one post.
 "A bicycle does get you there and more...And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun." - Bill Emerson
"It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of the country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle." - Ernest Hemingway
In case you've just come across this blog, last week I finished a 2,000km bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon called H2H. While the ride was undertaken in support of charity and we ended up raising nearly $40,000, it's safe to say that that wasn't the primary motivation behind my participation. I love riding bikes, and I love Vietnam, so what better way to experience this place than by cycling most of its length? With the journey now over and all of its associated images and emotions firmly imprinted in my mind, one of the things that most strikes me looking back is the incredible diversity of Vietnam.

Let's start with the weather, which basically divided the ride into several distinct stages. The first 11 days of riding, from Hanoi to Hue, took place in a seemingly infinite chilly mist under leaden overcast. While there were a few semi-dry days, the abiding memory from this first stretch is one of constantly being wet: clothing wouldn't dry in our drafty hotels, bike chains rusted, seats stayed damp. This went along with being covered in mud for days on end.

Once we got past Hue the weather improved dramatically. The skies dried out, and there was often more sunshine than cloudiness, though there was still some awful weather to deal with, as well as this:
Catastrophic accidents aside, most days started to look like this:

Once we reached Ngoc Hoi on Day 17, it was clear sailing all the way to Saigon, as we cycled through the blazing heat of southern Vietnam, where there is no respite even in February.

Vietnam is also very diverse geographically. The jagged karsts of the region southwest of Hanoi looked they had been stolen from Ha Long Bay.

Once we reached central Vietnam the limestone karsts gave way to rolling hills, providing us with the hardest cycling of the ride.

Next up were the soft undulations of the windswept, sun-baked Central Highlands - probably my favorite stretch of the journey, at least in terms of enjoyable cycling.

Once we dropped out of the Central Highlands it was almost completely flat the rest of the way to Saigon, as this region of the country has almost no topography.

We also saw the surprisingly wide array of people that call Vietnam home. While it's true that this is a rather homogeneous country, 14% of the population (that's over 12,000,000 people) belongs to one of the 54 ethnic minority groups found here. The people of these groups look completely different from ethnic Vietnamese, and many of us were struck by the fact that some looked more like they were from the Indian Subcontinent.
The final easily noticeable area in which this country is different from region to region is food. To be blunt, food in Southern Vietnam is far superior to the cuisine up north. (Sorry Northerners, but it's true.) While there are specific Northern dishes, especially in Hanoi, that are awesome, it is a far cry from the South, where you can order practically anything and expect it to be absolutely delicious. The first few days of the ride made for pretty grim eating, as often our choice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was pho, pho, or more pho. Chao, a thick porridge, was widely available as well, but I don't really care for it, and neither of those dishes are very filling when you're riding a bike an average of 80km a day. Even something as simple as a banh mi op la, or even just a loaf of bread for crying out loud, was nowhere to be found, and the minimal dining options combined with the awful weather made for a trying first week.

As we moved south of Hue though, the food improved remarkably. Banh mi carts were open for breakfast, bun thit nuong restaurants started appearing, and when we found a woman cooking up banh xeo on a sidewalk in Ngoc Hoi, we could actually taste our progress. Our meals become much more exciting: mi xao, com tam, a smorgasbord of fresh fruit that isn't available in the less climatically hospitable north, nuoc mia, and so on. By the end of the ride we all agreed that we were happy to be living in the gastronomic utopia that is Saigon.

While it may look to some as if the ride was basically a month-long vacation, it wasn't all easy: the worst hills were absolutely brutal, and there were times when it became mentally difficult to envision going on; dealing with the execrable drivers of this country was often a harrowing, terrifying experience, as many seem to have little regard for human life (They also simply aren't used to bicycles that can move as fast as ours, since everyone here rides single-speed Martins that won't be winning any races.); traversing bone-rattling roads made life absolutely hateful on a few days; missing the last five days thanks to pulled quadriceps was crushing both physically and psychologically; and then there's the fact that I had five punctures, one blowout, and crashed four times.

All of that aside though, H2H was an incredible experience. As Emerson says in his above quote, cycling keeps you alert, it makes you feel alive in a way that no other mode of transportation is capable of. I learned the contours of Vietnam well, sometimes while on my face, and I feel that I've come to know this country better. I met locals at nearly every stop, and was able to see how different life is in a place like Vu Ban, where there isn't even a paved road, compared to Saigon, where there is far too much concrete.

Perhaps what I most enjoyed about this trip was that it allowed me to rediscover the singular joy that is riding a bicycle. You are able to stop wherever you please, you can say "Hello!" to a group of excited children as you cruise by, you really get to know a place. Whereas a car keeps you cocooned from the world around you, on a bike you are open to the sun, the rain, the heat, the herd of cows wandering languorously down the middle of the road, the tour bus driver overtaking another tour bus that is already overtaking a car on a small two-lane road. To be honest I've felt somewhat listless since returning to Saigon. I want the open road, the pedals beneath my feet. After 2,000km, I want more.

"Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia." - H.G. Wells


  1. Looks like a great trip. I didn't know Vietnam was a bike friendly place - I travel a lot with my folding bike and I'll be sure to add it to my list of places to visit.

  2. I wouldn't call all of it "bike friendly", but it's obviously doable - this was an amazing trip, so you should definitely give it a shot. We saw a few people on touring bikes in different areas, so it must be somewhat popular.