Biking through Vietnam

 A year ago this week I was bicycling through Vietnam – a dream come true.

I had been captivated by the idea of biking the rice fields of Vietnam from the instant I saw pictures of such a trip on the REI adventure travel website nearly 10 years earlier when Glenn and I were looking for an international “active vacation” trip we could do with his brother Chris.

Unfortunately we were still fairly limited in terms of what we could manage from a weight and cardio standpoint. As such, we focused on picking a trip that required less physical fitness – ultimately deciding on a hiking trip on the islands of Greece (which was still really difficult!). But, the biking trip in Vietnam still called to me.

Years later biking Vietnam appeared at the top of my bucket list, although I had no idea how I was going to ever be able to physically make it happen.

The trip involved riding long distances every day over very challenging terrain, including two significant mountain passes. All of the bike commuting in the world wasn’t going to be enough to get me in good enough shape to make the trip possible.

Fast forward nearly a decade…I was in much better shape; I was in the process of losing a lot of weight; and I needed an epic goal to help me keep up the momentum. It was time to dust off that bucket list.

Biking through Vietnam went from being an impossible dream to a reality!

Every time I thought about staying in bed instead of doing my morning run, eating those cookies in the break room at work, or driving my car instead of bike commuting to work I reminded myself about my goal of not only making the Vietnam trip happen, but of being physically ready enough to fully enjoy and embrace the experience.

I have since learned that setting these stretch goals – biking through Vietnam, hiking around Mt. Hood, participating in a 200+ mile running relay, running a half-marathon – are exactly what I need to stay motivated and focused on making my health the number one priority in my life.

The trip  represented the culmination of all of the hard work I had done to get in shape and improve my health.

In the end I was able to physically tackle everything the trip threw at us – even those big mountain passes. Admittedly, I was always at the back of the pack finishing last…but I was holding my own and having a blast.

Even better, we did the trip with our friends Kim (of So Many Places) and Brian (of Wandering Sasquatch). That made the trip extra special because their decision to sell everything they owned and travel the world was the catalyst for us to begin our journey toward health.

Favorite Moments

Since you may not want to wade through all of the “vacation photos” I’ve including in the rest of this post, I thought I’d share just a few of my favorite moments from the trip…

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The sea of scooters and the mesmerizing flow of traffic, especially in the big cities. (see the video from Saigon posted below)

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The food. Every meal was amazing, fresh and flavorful. Don’t even get me started on the pastries!

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Glenn racing this pig.

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The endless line of children that would run out to the road yelling “hello! hello!” and giving us high-fives as we rode past.

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Crashing a wedding.(photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Reaching the top of Hai Van Mountain Pass. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Sharing the road with friendly bicycling locals…not to mention cows, scooters and anything else you can possibly imagine.

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Kayaking in Halong Bay


TRIP HIGHLIGHTS

The People

The trip departed from Saigon where we met our amazing guides (Vu and Thai) from REI Adventures and the rest of the traveling group. The guides ensured we had an amazing trip full of fun, history, culture and amazing food.

Every day we would ask Vu how hilly the ride was going to be and he’d inevitably say “technically flat, with maybe some up.” You could guess how hard it was going to be based on the twinkle in his eye – the amount of twinkle was directly proportional to the difficulty of the hills! Our other wonderful guide was Thai. He is an amazing photographer and I am so thankful he was along to beautifully capture our trip – I’ve included several of his pictures below.

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Our tour guides Thai (left) and Vu (right) giving the “cool guy” look. (photo by Kim Dinan)

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The bike touring group – although we were strangers on day one, we knew each other well by the end! (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

Saigon (Ho Chi Min City)

My strongest memory of Saigon was my first taste of traffic patterns in Vietnam. Traffic there flows like water through a delta or blood through your veins. It weaves together and pulls apart, constantly moving, forever shifting, never stopping. As such, figuring out how to cross the street much less ride your bicycle through it was challenging to say the least. I’ve never experienced anything like it!

I took this video below from the balcony of our hotel. I could have watched the traffic forever, completely mesmerized. Watch pedestrians in the crosswalk at the top of the frame toward the end.

Da Lat

Our first day of biking was on the country roads around Da Lat (or Dalat City) – a hillside resort area with forests, lakes and acres of greenhouses where they grow beautiful flowers. Many Vietnamese families come to Da Lat to vacation and get married.

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Beautiful countryside outside of Da Lat.

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Exploring the flower greenhouses surrounding Da Lat. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

Hon Giao Pass

Hon Giao Pass was one of two epic climbs over a mountain pass that would happen during the trip. The climb was challenging but worth it because it resulted in a 20-mile downhill section that flew through mountains, forests and waterfalls. We stopped for lunch midday where we had one of the most amazing meals of the trip before finishing our ride to the ocean.

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Riding up, up, up Hon Giao Pass. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Stopping for some photos on the way up the mountain with our dear friends Brian (left) and Kim (second from left).

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Celebrating our accomplishment at the top of the pass – cold and foggy!

The video above is from the downhill portion of the ride after summiting the pass. Imagine…20-miles of this coasting splendor!

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I still dream about this mustard greens soup that Glenn and Brian are eating here for lunch – it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had!

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For dinner we went to a place where you cooked meat and seafood at your table over a container filled with hot coals. It was a very festive place that was very popular with the locals.

Cham Towers, Hon Gom Peninsula and Whale Island

We visited the Po Nagar Cham Towers, dating back to the year 781 before riding out the Hon Gom Peninsula. We visited a small rural school on our way to catch a boat to Whale Island, the solar-powered eco-resort where we spent Christmas Eve (2013).

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Dancers at the Po Nagar Cham Towers (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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I love this picture of Glenn and I at the towers – it was so beautiful there. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Biking out the Hon Gom Peninsula – it was VERY windy!

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Visiting a small rural school – Gary leaving a message from their visitors. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Jack joined the kids at their desks. I wonder what the children thought of these spandex-clad Americans that showed up out of thin air? (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Brian and Jack headed to catch the boat to Whale Island. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Me and Glenn – no doubt trying to figure out how to get connected to the island’s wireless network. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Not a bad way to spend Christmas Eve – good friends (Glenn and Brian), good drinks, beautiful scenery.

Hoi An

Hoi An is a remarkably well preserved historic trading port city and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Hoi An is known for, among other things, beautiful paper lanterns and amazing silk textiles. We had a rest day in Hoi An and folks were able to explore on their own or take part in any number of other outings. Glenn went on another bike ride around the area while I took a Vietnamese cooking class.

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Fishing boats anchored in Hoi An.

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The colorful paper lanterns decorated the town – beautiful both day and night.

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Brian and Glenn (orange shirts) enjoying a bike ride around Hoi An.

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While biking around they came across a gentleman that had made the most ingenious “do it yourself” weight lifting gym. Here Thai is spotting Jack.

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Shopping at the local market was the first part of the cooking class I took. Everything in their markets is fresh and beautiful. Some of the fish had just come in off the boat and were still moving in the baskets.

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Joan, a fellow biker, and I had great fun learning to make traditional Vietnamese dishes.

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One of our final products – fish with lemon grass cooked in banana leaves. It tasted amazing, if I do say so myself!

Hai Van Mountain Pass

This was the second of the two epic mountain pass climbs during the trip – Hai Van pass, also know as the “Pass of the Ocean Clouds.” The morning of the ride I was exceedingly nervous because the chef from my cooking class kept talking about how crazy it was to ride a bike over this mountain – he was sure it was going to be the end of us. At one point I thought he might be right because on the way to the starting point we passed several roadside shrines where people would stop to make offerings and prayers for safe passage over the pass. It was, indeed, very challenging – but in the end I conquered the elevation gain and I have one more major accomplishment to add to my list.

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One of the switchbacks on Hai Van pass.

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Celebrating on top of Hai Van pass!

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It rained on and off during the ride this day – Glenn was sporting some “mud freckles” to match my natural ones.

Mai Chau

The end of our bicycling trip took us to the Mai Chau region in Northern Vietnam (just Southwest of Hanoi). This is a beautiful region with amazing karst mountains (my long defunct Geology degree came in handy) and is home to the Thai ethnic minority. We bicycled through the rice fields and villages made of homes on stilts. Our ride ended with a home-stay in the village of Buoc, where we spent New Year’s Eve (2013).

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Our group about to ride down into the valley below. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Glenn riding along the roads through the rice fields.

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Sometimes the footpaths were too technical and we had to walk our bikes. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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Riding to our home-stay in the Mai Chau region. (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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The house on stilts where we spent the night – group photo with our gracious hosts.

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Me, Kim, Brian and Glenn – Celebrating New Year’s Eve with homemade rice wine sucked through a VERY skinny straw. It was sweet and warm, and very high in alcohol content! (photo by Minh Thai Hang)

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I think she was ready to join us on our bike ride through her village!

Wedding Crashers!

One of the highlights of the trip is when we happened upon a wedding while riding along a quiet road in the countryside. The wedding party invited us inside, plied us with beer and food, and gave us the karaoke stage. I imagine the bride and groom will have quite the story to tell their grandkids about the bicyclists that crashed their wedding day! (wedding photos below by Minh Thai Hang)

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 Halong Bay

We extended our trip to include a cruise on Halong Bay, one of the most eerily beautiful places on Earth. We spent several days relaxing and recuperating after our biking adventures – eating amazing food, watching the karst formations float by, and occasionally venturing out by kayak.

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Halong Bay

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Kim and Brian relaxing on our cruise ship as we meander through the karst formations of Halong Bay.

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The karst formations are always beautiful, no matter the angle or the lighting.

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One of the floating villages in Halong Bay.

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Kayaking in Halong Bay

WOW!

You made it all the way to the end of the pictures. Very impressive! As a reward, how about this awesome picture of me looking super cool with a camera mounted on my head?

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5 comments on “Biking through Vietnam

  1. Pingback: Prying the lid off my bucket list | A Life More Extraordinary

  2. Another great write-up, Michele! And such a more enjoyable way to see and hear about your adventure, as opposed to just a big fat gallery of pictures! I’d like to go do that same REI tour some time (even though I’ve been there before).

  3. Hi Michele!
    I didn’t realize you had your own blog, but was aware of you because of Kim and Brian. We met Kim and Brian, here in PDX, a few months before they left on their RTW adventures, and have remained close every since. I remember vividly her blog last year on the wonderful biking trip you took them on through Vietnam and was so impressed with ALL of you for taking on the challenge (the idea of riding between all those scooters would do me in on it’s own) Happy New Year and good luck on your continuing journey!

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