Cycling Vietnam

In September 2010, I took a trip to Vietnam to do the Vietnam International Triathlon. But I didn’t just go to the race, I cycled from Hanoi in the North to Hoi An in the centre, a distance of around 1000km.

Vietnam International Triathlon
Vietnam International Triathlon, Hoi An, September 2010. Nice trophy, terrible trousers

I landed in Hanoi with my bike in a bike box. I booked into my hotel and then met up with Ali, a mate of my younger brother who was teaching English in Hanoi. Ali was a bit of a hippy, into juggling and smoking but a lovely guy. He was very kind to show me around the city and experience life in Hanoi on the back of a motorcycle. Hanoi was crazy. A sea of motorbikes and bicycles that swarm around the city, constantly flowing as the speed was generally no faster than 20km per hour. You can cross the road but by doing a gradual shuffle, and the bikes just go around you. Some motorbikes were stacked with boxes, or chicken cages or 5 kids!

We spent a few days visiting bars and having Bia Hoy, seeing the sights and backstreets, and eating Pho Ga, a fantastic Chicken Noodle soup. I also became addicted to Cafe Sua Da, the delicious Vietnamese coffee that they drink with sweet condensed milk and ice. Everything was cheap and it actually took time to adjust to paying so little for food or beer. Those few days with Ali was crucial to help me survive the journey ahead because I learnt how to ask for water and typical meals in Vietnamese.

The hotel was so cheap that I left the bike box in the room (a box that had its own hotel room for 2 weeks!) and after eating dragonfruit and lychees for breakfast, set off at 5.30am one morning and headed towards Halong Bay, 160km to the East. Getting out of Hanoi was confusing but at that time of the morning was much easier than leaving later. Some of the roads were a bit rough for my carbon road bike. I was carrying just 7kg of luggage which was stuffed into panniers which were on a ‘beam’ attached to the seat stem.

Very soon though the road surface improved and the wide cycle lanes at the side of the road were great to ride along. The scooters next to me clearly hadn’t seen anyone cycling at 30-35km before and were a little surprised as I overtook them. Every truck and bus that went past hooted just to let me know they were coming past. Although it was annoying, I got used to it, and knew when to stay to the right of the road. The roads were flat and fast, but when the sun came up it was very hot and very thirsty work. I stopped for drinks regularly and the locals were all amused to see me and very friendly. As I sat drinking coffee and water, I was offered a puff on their opium pipes which I politely declined by pointing at my bike and waving my hands.

I arrived in Halong Bay around lunchtime, and ordered some seafood. A big meal with a whole fish, I think it was quite expensive but I didn’t care. I would have eaten a horse. I booked into a rather expensive hotel room in a Novotel which was wasted on me as I had nobody to share it with, but the view of Halong Bay was spectacular. Later at dinnertime I met Randy and Shauna, a nice American couple and their friend. They had been teaching English in Korea, which pays very well, and were travelling to Hoi Chi Minh to look for work. We played drinking games including “Ring of Fire” which was a new one for me, but great fun. In the morning, they headed out to take a boat ride but I decided to press on towards Haiphong.

It was only 80km to Haiphong and an easy morning’s cycling, In Haiphong, I was very confused when looking for a hotel. It was a small city, but not a tourist destination. As a local was pointing me in one direction, a taxi pulled alongside me and a voice spoke to me in English. A Vietnamese lady called Duong Pham who had moved to Canada, said that I was going the wrong way to get to the centre and I had to catch a ferry. I cycled alongside her taxi to the ferry, and waited with her on the other side as she waited for her brother to collect her. After chatting for a while, Duong said that I seemed like a very good man and asked if I wanted to stay with her family because it was Vietnam Day tomorrow.

I took her up on the offer and enjoyed two days of amazing hospitality with her very large family. We went to the beach for a day on National Vietnam day. It was strange because they didn’t actually lie on the beach and all stayed covered up and hidden under umbrellas. In Asia, a tan is very unattractive as it means that you work in the fields. Instead we had a very large fish lunch. I paid for the lunch which was about 40 dollars, but considering we had a bus load of 20 people eating a large seafood barbeque, it was great value.

I said goodbye to Duong and her family the next day and as I cycled away, considered just how lucky I had been to meet such a nice person. Fortunately Duong and I are still in touch and I hope to repay their hospitality one day. Duong now runs a chinese restaurant in Canada, so you never know, I may pay her restaurant a visit!

The next day I headed inland from Haiphong to Ninh Binh. It was around 150km, and very hot. At Ninh Binh I finally spoke to some tourists as I hadn’t spoken to anybody in English all day.  found a local hostel for a 5 dollars a night and got some sleep. The next day I visited Tam Coc, (it translates to 3 caves), where the women row the boats with their feet and take you along a river with stunning scenery.

The river at Tam Coc (3 Caves), Ninh Binh
The river at Tam Coc (3 Caves), Ninh Binh

I also made a new friend that day, Huyen, who was sharing a boat with about 10 girls, jumped into my boat and asked if he could join me as his boat was so full. I said why not. Shame he didn’t introduce me to the girls!

The next day I intended to cycle 200km to Vinh. The day did not go to plan, but I also learnt some of the most important lessons of my life. It was an exceptionally hot day, and I kept getting punctures, 6 in the space of a few hours. The guys at the local motorbike repair shops along the way helped to inflate the tyres. I was 70 km into the trip when disaster struck.

Lesson 1…. Make sure you have the right tools for the job. The bike I was using was  a carbon racing bike and was not really built for carrying luggage.  As I hit a bump, the pannier that was attached to a beam which was connected only to my seatpost bounced up and down, and I heard a loud crack. Instead of stopping, I looked down to see whether the seatpost was completely cracked, and I hit a post by the side of the road and flipped over my handlebars.

As I hit the tarmac, I thought my trip was over. As I lay in the road, I wondered if I had broken any bones but I was lucky enough just to be bruised and to have lost the skin on my shoulder. But the front wheel was buckled, and the seatpost was snapped completely in half.

Lesson 2. When you think you’ve had a KO, it will still be OK.  Three vietnamese guys on motorbikes stopped, and offered to take me into the nearest town, Thanh Hoa. They took me, the bike and my bag on the back of their motorbikes. In town, they tried to straighten my wheel by banging it with a brick. This was stressful, as my wheels had flashy carbon rims for racing, and were now being cracked with the brick. They also tried to fit a new seatpost. They didn’t have one that fitted my bike but they manage to wrap inner tubes around one and wedge it in. It wobbled a little but it was useable.

They gave up on the brick approach and found a old local man to take me to a guy’s house who had the right equipment to repair the broken spoke and true the wheel. While I was waiting I had some tea, and the old man talked to me about his daughters. I didn’t know that he was talking about his daughters until he passed me a mobile phone  and a voice said “hello, my name’s Mai, what’s yours?” I answered “My name is Ed. You speak good English!” “Yes. I am studying English at University in Hanoi”. (At this point, the old man pointed at a picture of the university on his wall) . I nodded and the girl said “I’m 20. How old are you?” I said “I’m 34.” Then I got a message with her photo on it. She was one of the prettiest girls I had ever seen. I wish I still had her photo but I managed to lose it. I sent her this photo.

 

The guy who fixed my bike in Thanh Hoa and the guy who tried to set me up with his daughter
The guy who fixed my bike in Thanh Hoa and the guy who tried to set me up with his daughter

She said ” Yes, that’s my father. I come back to Thanh Hoa in 2 days and I can show you around.” I said “I would love that but I have to leave early in the morning because I am going to Hoi An.” She said “please stay a few days” and asked me several times if I could just wait, but I refused, explaining that I had a race that I needed to get to.

Lesson 3. If you constantly rush through life leaving no room to change your plans, you will miss out on some of life’s best opportunities. I cycled away from Thanh Hoa the next morning to get to Vinh, and I was kicking myself as I had turned down a chance to meet that girl. What an idiot.  I knew cycling across Vietnam and doing a triathlon were pretty great but maybe meeting that girl would have been even greater. I vowed to be a bit more “zen” and allow life to happen rather than always trying to force it to be what I had imagined it would be like.

On the way to Vinh, I continued to get punctures, and the wobbly seat now meant the wheel rubbed against the panniers. When I reached Vinh, I chilled out by the pool, got a tan and chatted with the locals and thought about what I would do next.

I had run out of repair kits and decided to get a train to Danang and cycle the remaining 30km down the coast to Hoi An. The next day I took a 12 hour train which arrived in Danang at 3am and I cycled in the dark to the beach. I was delighted. As the sun rose, I was at Hoi An, and had made it to the race with days to spare.

I love Hoi An. If you only go to one place in Vietnam, it has to be Hoi An. It has culture and history but also the greatest beach. After a few days of running in 40 degree heat, eating at the cafe 42 (beer for 10p and the most amazing and super cheap food) and visiting the sights, I felt at home in Hoi An. My hotel room was cheap, but I only had to cross the road to get to the beach or borrow a bicycle to get to town. Their claim to have a swimming pool was hilarious, as it was more like a hot-tub, but the sea was so close that it didn’t matter. I made some great Spanish friends at the beach and some other travellers from Italy and Germany. The night before the race briefing, we all went out and partied until 2am at a bar called “Why Not”

On the day before the race, I went to the race briefing. And there was my ex-wife.  We had originally booked the race so that we could go together but she broke up with me after moving to Singapore in January 2010. It had broken my heart and as hard as I tried to get over her, when I arrived in Hoi An in October 2010 I was still very much in love with her. Sadly she no longer felt the same way about me. She was staying at the expensive hotel with the other athletes who all came over from clubs in Singapore. I didn’t mind going back to my inexpensive hotel that evening. It tore me to pieces to spend too much time around her.

On the day of the race, I was up early, racked the bike and went to the beach to relax. The race was in the afternoon which they said was the only time they could do it as they did not have permission to close the roads but had organised for police to hold the traffic at points in the bike ride if we were coming past. It was a beach start and I lined up with around 200 people at that start line and smiled because I knew what I had done to get to that point.

It was an Olympic Triathlon, which is a 1500m swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km run. The race didn’t start very well. The sea was very choppy and I found it difficult to get into my stroke and swim in the relaxed way that I would normally swim.  But the bike was a different matter. My legs were extremely strong and I blasted it at an average speed of 40km per hour, (completing the 40km in one hour). As I got off the bike, I heard the announcer say “Ed Sutton, from England, has put in a very strong bike and has made up a lot of time and has moved into the top 10”. After putting so much into the bike ride, in 40 degree heat and not being the best runner, I struggled with the run, and a guy ran past me in the last 100m. I just had nothing left in the tank. My time was just over 2 hours and 40 minutes,

It turned out that the guy that ran past me came 2nd, and I was 3rd in my age group. It was nice to get a prize but I was really just pleased to say I was there.

The next day we did a 120km ‘recovery ride’ to a ruin at My Son, which is inland, to the West of Hoi An. And the day after that, I said goodbye to my ex-wife (the last time I ever saw her) and I cycled North to Hue, the Ancient capital of Vietnam. I went over the only hill I encountered on the entire journey, a famous route called the Hai Van Pass. It was a long climb but not very steep. In the evening I arrived at Hue and enjoyed the sights of the Ancient capital.

I can’t recommend Vietnam highly enough. If you ever cycle it, take a strong touring bike (not a flimsy racing bike) and leave yourself some flexibility in case to stay longer in some places and fall in love with the country.