So, we made it to Saigon (barely)
Last month, my friend and coworker, Keith, and I set off for Vietnam with the ambitious goal of riding our bicycles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City in just 11 days. Our itinerary took us over 1,000 miles along Highway 1 which was relatively flat and primarily along the coast. The limited amount of gear we were carrying (see below) and the distance we had to cover in such a short of amount of time made for a challenging adventure, but not necessarily in the ways I anticipated. The following are some of the more interesting stories and illustrative images from the velocipede enterprise.
Day 1 — Hanoi to Thanh Hóa
We began the expedition with a couple thousand calories at the breakfast buffet (soon to be a recurring theme). This was also the first and last time we would have the indulgent luxury of putting on bone-dry cycling kits before riding a hundred miles.
Getting out of Hanoi was a strange combination of tedious and dangerous. We averaged 13 mph leaving the city and over 19 mph once we emerged from it’s congested underbelly. Despite heading out for a spin around Hanoi the previous day, I was still adjusting to the Vietnamese’ unique road etiquette.
We were also solicited for our first bribe by a police officer (which I avoided paying by playing the dumb American card.) Keith also got two flat tires and it started raining. To be honest, it was not a very fun day and I was already beginning to feel pretty melancholy about the remaining 900 miles by the time we got into Than Hóa.
Day 2 — Thanh Hóa to Ha Tinh
We averaged 19 mph into Ha Tinh and rode through some pretty interesting parts of the country. At 115 miles it was one of the longer days but we were still fairly fresh, both mentally and physically.
This was also the day we were introduced to the first (and maybe only) rule of the Vietnamese road: Cows always have the right of way.
Ha Tinh was an interesting place: the food was excellent, there was a department store in the basement of our hotel and there was a fair amount of commercial and residential development going on.
After learning our lesson at the hotel the night before, Keith used Google Translate to ask the lady at the front desk whether there was anywhere in town that we could get a “non-sexy” massage. She replied, “I’m sorry sir, we don’t have that in Ha Tinh.”
Day 3 — Ha Tinh to Dong Hoi
Our third day wasn’t even 100 miles so we weren’t too worried about it being hard. We had a pretty decent tailwind and really enjoyed the interactions with people we saw in the villages we rode through. When riding past schools as the kids were getting out it was fun to see so many smiling faces and waving hands.
I was starting to feel the mileage in my legs so we took the opportunity for a few more food and photo stops. Like this one from one of the many bridges we crossed.
It may have been the 2,000 calorie deficit, but this was the best bánh mì I had in all of Vietnam.
Day 4 — Dong Hoi to Hué
It rained. A lot.
By now all the touch points (feet, hands, sit bones) were starting to feel the miles. But the ride was well worth it because we ended up here:
La Residence was the best hotel we stayed at during the trip. My only regret is that we had to leave so early the next morning to make it to Tam Hai before dark. That said, dinner was fun: The look on Keith’s face as he read the menu at the French restaurant was priceless.
Day 5 — Hué to Tam Hai
Things didn’t go according to plan on Christmas Eve. First, we took a detour to climb the Hải Vân Pass. Despite not really having the legs for that kind of thing after close to 500 miles of riding, it was a welcome mental reprieve from what been, up to that point, a decidedly horizontal endeavour. It was a fairly epic ascent; Keith’s photos will do it more justice than my words ever could.
At around mile 100 things utterly fell apart. Keith began vomiting and I could tell my stomach was battling something peculiar. To his credit, Keith managed to keep riding to almost the distance our hotel should have been. However, because we took the mountain detour we were still at least 10 miles from the hotel by the time the sun began going down. It was at this point that Keith keeled over on the side of the road and curled up into the fetal position while he continued to empty the contents of his stomach.
We were incredibly fortunate that a Vietnamese family took pity on us and helped contact our hotel to get a shuttle sent. And while we waited for said shuttle, the grandmother was rubbing a dark-staining substance on Keith’s belly as the daughter force fed him some kind of vegetable root. The latter remedy appeared to have its intended effect, as a few minutes later Keith finished vacating that morning’s breakfast to seemingly approving tones from the grandmother. I’m very sure Keith remembers almost none of this debacle as he was vacillating between comatose lifelessness and feverish convulsions.
By the time we arrived at the resort I was freezing. I promptly developed a serious fever and jumped on Keith’s rapid weight loss program. Christmas was not shaping up to be happy holiday for us. And in case you were wondering how exactly we got sick, it wasn’t anything we ate but something we drank: Namely, dirty water left on the road from the storm…
Day 6 — Christmas Day in Tam Hai
Kind locals continued to help us. This time our Christmas angel came in the form of a generous Frenchman named Cyril. Cyril ran the small island resort we stayed at during our Christmas Day off the bikes and, coincidentally, is an ex-professional cyclist himself. This may be why he had such empathy for two crazy Americans in spandex, giving us clothes to wear (ours were still soaked and dirty from the storm) and medicine from the U.S (none of that weak Vietnamese stuff), and even getting our bikes cleaned.
The universe bestowed another fortunate coincidence upon us in the form of USDA Choice Angus Beef. Cyril ran into another American while out buying supplies that day. A Coloradoan who split his time between The States and Vietnam, and who was making a habit of deep freezing, and checking into his luggage, 100 lbs of ground beef and steak when he made the trip out to the land of the ascending dragon.
Day 7 — Tam Hai to Quy Nhon
I was at 80% this morning and Keith was around 50%. Therefore, the only bike riding we did was the 3 km from the resort to the ferry.
And instead of riding the planned 144 miles to Quy Nhon, we took the car that our new friend Cyril had arranged for us.
Given that we weren’t as focused on not getting killed by other motorists, we were able to enjoy our surroundings a little more than we had grown accustomed to.
Day 8 — Quy Nhon to Nha Trang
This was our first day back on the bike after our Christmas miracle. Because the hotel was at a lower elevation than the highway, we started the day with a 19% grade sprint hill climb.
After waking the legs up we rode the rollers along the coast.
However, we ran into a spot of bother once we hit a town called Tuy Hòa. As we were passing through one of the many intersections with no traffic lights but plenty of traffic, I managed to run over a Vietnamese guy on a scooter while going about 20 mph. This other motorist and my backpack took the brunt of the fall and I walked away mostly unharmed. Even more fortunately, the other guy was fine and my bike appeared to be functioning properly.
It wasn’t long before we were back along the coast and enjoying the view.
We just made sure to stop and refuel a little more frequently than we had been, due to Keith’s fragile physical condition and the fact that we had to cover 127 miles before we got to take showers.
Once we got to Nha Trang we joined the rest of the tourists on the beach. Accessing said beach required a perilous street crossing in front of our hotel. Here’s what it looked like on the way back in.
Day 9 — Nha Trang to Phan Rang
At just 61 miles, this was the shortest day of the journey so we woke up late and went to the bike shop before heading out around lunch time.
It was also the day with the strongest tailwind. We averaged 19 mph for the day with an average power output of just 103 watts (for those of you non-cyclists, that’s an almost painfully low effort.) The wind was so strong that I was able to hold nearly 40 mph on the flat for a few minutes as we passed nearly everyone on the highway. Needless to say, this elicited some confused looks from the other motorists.
The scenery was some of the most beautiful of the trip. We rode through a farming village on the way into Phan Rang where nearly every single person we saw greeted us with a big smile and a wave.
This was probably the most enjoyable day of riding we had. No one at the hotel spoke English but we did have access to a stunning beach and plenty of Tiger beer.
Day 10 — Phan Rang to Phan Thiet
This was probably the least enjoyable day of riding we had. The tailwind that had been a boon to us down the coast became our bane as we made our way along the dragon’s belly. It was also around 90 degrees and extremely humid, and we had a long series of steep rollers to contend with.
By this point we were so close to the end but we knew we still had another very long day ahead of us, even after we made it to Phan Thiet. I did, however, discover the most delicious cookies I think I’ve ever had.
The scenery was nice but the last 15 miles of the ride were a death march. I was so tired I resorted to having Keith pull me the last 3 miles to the resort.
Day 11 — Phan Thiet to Ho Chi Minh City
This was it. The grand finale. The day we’d been working towards since Hanoi. We rode through some fun towns on the way into the city and, as usual, got lots of smiles and waves from kids and adults alike.
Once we got closer to Ho Chi Minh City, however, things got a lot less jovial. The level of aggression from some of the other motorists, especially the bus drivers, was the worst we experienced in Vietnam. At one point, a passenger leaned out of his window and tapped me on the shoulder as the bus he was riding in squeezed by me in the bike lane. Almost 1,000 miles of Vietnamese road cycling hadn’t prepared me for Saigon.
But after 120 miles we made it to the InterContinental hotel where I found the following photograph above my bed.
After my cycling trip to Europe last summer I wanted to try something that would would test my limits. I thought the challenge was going to be physical but ultimately it was the emotional toll that weighed most heavily on me. Being in a country in which I didn’t speak the language and where I was so out of place felt isolating. And waking up at 6 am every day to put on a damp cycling kit before riding a century in the humidity and heat lost its appeal very quickly. Of course, I was with Keith, so we had each other to rely on. Had I done the trip solo I think it would have been extremely difficult.
But the challenge and the prospect of failure was the whole point of the expedition. If it weren’t for the life-threatening traffic, the wind and the rain, getting violently ill on Christmas Eve, the cows and the buses, the head winds and the Hai Van Pass, the heat and humidity, and the linguistic isolation, riding into Saigon wouldn’t have been as meaningful of an accomplishment as it ultimately felt like it was. I’m not sure I’ll spend next Christmas doing something so difficult but I’m certainly glad I spent the last one on this journey.
Thank you to Keith for blindly agreeing to join me on this ridiculous pursuit. His curiosity, mental fortitude, and open attitude towards life are qualities that I genuinely appreciate and hope to emulate myself. If you want to see anymore photos of bikes and food, his album is a good place to start. The camera on his Google Pixel is significantly better than mine on the iPhone 7.