What a privilege – cycling in North Vietnam while tourism is still in its infancy! Spectacular countryside and endless variety of landscape – from the rice fields to the towering mountains, steady ascents and awe-inspiring descents. But it was the markets, the street vendors, the colourful ethnic minorities and, overwhelmingly, the children and their families that made the trip so memorable.
I’ve just finished a 15-day North Vietnam cycling tour with the small UK cycling company, redspokes. The itinerary, staff and organisation made the trip a fabulous, once in a lifetime experience.
Vietnam has known more than its share of trauma. Now, it is an incredibly young country – 65% of Vietnamese are under the age of 30. As we passed by on our bicycles, children, teenagers, young parents, their toddlers and babies in arms – would all enthusiastically shout hello! Young boys getting into race mode on their old bikes (often hands-free and wearing nothing but flip flops), relishing the opportunity to race an old white woman up a hill!
All of the children looked well nourished, well clad, happy, with a spontaneous enthusiasm – no evidence of obesity here. In small sibling groups, larger family or peer groups, everybody was walking; often quite long journeys along the road to school. Toddlers were encouraged by Mum or Grandma to wave and welcome the strangers, many carried on their Dads’ shoulders. Others perched precariously, up to four of them on a scooter with Mum – the sense of kinship and family belonging so marked.
The Vietnamese language, not easy for an English tongue to master – one word can have eight different meanings dependent on the intonation! This means the kids are incredibly sound-sensitive – their laughing mimicry of our “hi’s” “good mornings” or “goodbyes” was a joy!
The people are clearly hard working physically, men and women alike. Whole houses on stilts were being built by large extended family groups. It really made me think – how much have our Western children lost out in our wealthier but individualist competitive materialistic age?
We rode along good roads, through free roaming water buffalos, pigs, friendly dogs, children, chickens and ducks amidst the houses on stilts, everyone waving, fascinated by this group of mad westerners who were paying to cycle up hills on posh mountain bikes!
North Vietnam has a young infrastructure too. There was plentiful evidence of new highway schemes, and the flooding and damming of a long valley – short chunks of un-made up road made the biking more challenging.
We had an enthusiastic knowledgeable Vietnamese guide, Phong, who managed the balance between his loyalty and pride in Vietnam, patiently answering our endless questions about the legacy of his formerly divided country and its occupying forces.
We moved through areas of different agricultural expertise… From the village where all the road side stalls sold grapefruit, to others with oranges, carrots, corn, or bonsai trees, to several kilometres of layers of potential plywood or pampas grass left out to dry for roofing.
On site visits, Phong showed us the rice growing stages, coffee plantations and the heart of ‘PG tips’ land where the price paid per kilo of tea leave tips staggered us. His love of his country, its heritage, nutritious distinctive food, Bia Hoi and coffee, and his informed appreciation of the diversity of the hill tribes, was such a bonus – “We eat or use everything – nothing gets left”.
The redspokes cycling organisation was superb. The ages, nationality, cycling skills and experience of our group were widely varied – with not a bike mechanic amongst us, so the guide’s skills and the motorised backup were much appreciated.
As for the biking, it was 8-10 days cycling with two challenging days. Most of us rented mountain bikes, and my pedalling technique improved massively with the steady climbing, stopping to take photos, comfortably at the rear – confident that there was always help behind me, ready to give me a lift to the next stage if I wanted. The well earned long mountain descents were fantastic at the end of the day, once in a glorious sunset with the red colours reflected in the paddy fields in the valley far below.
We stayed in a range of local hotels where the bar at the end of the day was usually the first port of call (we are English!). Alternatively, we would walk down the road and sit on tiny chairs on the pavement at a Bia Hoi stop. It was great people watching and we never ceased to be astounded by the volume and weight of produce that young men and women could balance on their shoulders or their bikes.
Our food was nutritious throughout. Breakfasts with noodle soup were fat-free and ideal for carb loading. The accompanying fresh baguettes were evidence of the influence of the French occupation. Fresh and healthy picnic meals emerged from our backup van for elevenses and lunches. Suppers were great and varied reflecting local specialities – one meal in an Italian restaurant in the hill town of Sapa an exception!
Never in a developing country have I felt more challenged by the disparate wealth issues. These North Vietnamese children were happy, healthy, fit, with a visible sense of family belonging and strong kinship ties. Sibling groups walking, chasing or biking home, whole families perched on scooters, with their chicken dinner still alive in the bamboo cage strapped to the rack.
There were few cars or lorries, just stately buffalo, chickens, ducks and healthy looking dogs – who were certainly not destined for the cook-pot. We delivered 200 chairs for a local primary school funded by previous redspokes groups – next time the Head Teacher said she would love a new water tank!
From the outside as a traveller to the country (though I am no expert), Vietnam appears to have an effective education system, although the Head acknowledged that kids were often absent at harvest time. And, although they loved school, few of them move on from the agricultural areas to further education, or even to the later shift times for teenage schooling. But never once did any child ask for money, pens or make the begging requests so common in other tourist areas. They wanted us to take photos so that they could see them on our cameras. I was left wanting to shout out the lessons we have learned from the Children’s Society recently published report ‘A Good Childhood – searching for values in a competitive age’, questioning if we have tilted too far towards individualism? In my personal opinion, Vietnamese kids have so much to lose in the march to affluence and increased tourism.
This area of North Vietnam, less than 10km from the Chinese border, is a place of dramatic change where infrastructure is developing rapidly. Tourism has to be the main thrust of their economic growth, and there is already a relentless move towards living in the already packed cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.
I would encourage all travellers who love culture to visit North Vietnam before the commercial side of tourism kicks in. Even more, I would encourage you to see North Vietnam by bicycle. To travel by car, coach or even scooter would be to miss the sense of intimacy and shared fun of these wonderful, warm people.
We were fascinated by their precious culture, but in equal measures, they were fascinated by our madness at riding bicycles up hills instead of driving. Yet they respected, accepted and welcomed us. We were after all linked with the country that spawned Manchester United and Chelsea, and that’s what really counts in a globalised economy!
Places visited on this cycle trip:
- Lao Cai
- Bac Ha
- Xin Man
- Hoang Su Phi
- ‘Heaven Gate Pass’
- Tan Quang
- Ha Giang – along the Lo River
- Quan Ba
- Yen Minh
- Dong Van
- Meo Vac
- Bao Lac
- Nguyen Binh
- Halong Bay
About redspokes: redspokes began life in 1990 as a collective of cyclists specialising in cycling remote and spectacular roads in secluded areas of the planet. As a direct result of these experiences, they started taking small groups of friends and acquaintances to areas that offer not only fantastic cycling, but also immense cultural interest. The success of these tours prompted the group to start a small company with the aim of bringing this type of exciting and rewarding trip within a price range that they, as seasoned travellers think is reasonable. Without cutting any corners on safety or (where possible) comfort, the tours are informal and designed to cover areas off the beaten track. If you’re interested in the North Vietnam Cycling Tour with redspokes you can read more on their website here.
Article by Eddie Brocklesby