After two years working as a professional cycling tour guide in the Indonesian Archipelago, a question had stuck into my brain. Our tours consistently were fantastic, our riders consistently loved their experiences, but it was a lot of work to get them to the islands. Being in the industry meant keeping an eye on our competitors. While Thailand has always been the darling of Southeast Asia when it comes to tourist numbers, Vietnam has been in a class all its own when it comes to cycle tourists. Why were so many people flocking there for two-wheeled adventures?! I had to know.
In March of 2015, I cycled my way from Yunnan province of China to Danang, Vietnam. The soul purpose of this particular tour was to try to discover what made Vietnam such a mecca for cyclists. My hope was a to take what I had learned and use that knowledge to make the tours I was guiding better for my customers. I took away some very valuable lessons.
The Effort To Communicate
Including China, I’ve never been somewhere with such a huge language barrier as Vietnam. It was a struggle for me just to remember how to count to ten. But the Vietnamese seem to recognize this in some way. “We can speak with our bodies!” I heard this simple English phrase fumbled through more than several times in my 3 weeks there. And it was true - the people I met along the way all seemed to revel in and excel at using their hands and body gestures to communicate. They went out of their ways to do so. And always with a big smile. It made me feel incredibly welcome.
Luxury in the Boondocks and the Value of The Dong
Vietnam uses the Dong as their currency, and boy oh boy, does it go a long way on the accommodation front! I found myself creeping into what were little more than hamlets towards the twilight of several big days on the bike. While one can get much further into the middle of nowhere in a place like Indonesia, I was well off the beaten path in these places. Each time, I was prepared to get raked over the coals as a victim of captive audience in such out of the way spots. And yet for about 150 thousand Dong (roughly $7 US), I was welcome into perfectly comfortable rooms with air-conditioning, fans, full mosquito netting, and high pressure hot water. No horsing around with negotiating lower prices at the “front desk” because something inevitably wasn’t at all working. It all worked. Very well. No hassle. Just a smile, a seemingly set price throughout at least the north of Vietnam, and a good night’s sleep.
The Ho Chi Minh Road
I’m used to making hard journeys to get really out there in Indonesia. And it’s about as rewarding as it can possibly get. From what I can tell, few if any places in the world rival the sheer natural beauty of Indonesia’s wilderness. It’s possible to cycle through some incredible places here that will change you, but like I said, getting there is difficult. Perhaps the crown jewel of cycling through Vietnam’s natural bounty is the Ho Chi Minh Road. This road hugs the remote and contoured border with Laos, from just outside of Hanoi in the north to the south just shy of Saigon. And from Hanoi, one can reach it within a full day of easy and pretty cycling. Once you’re on it, it’s a totally different world. This road winds its way through incredible karst and rainforest most of the way to Khe Sanh, where I pulled off to hit the coast. And it’s in incredible condition! It affords ascents through beautiful jungle to wow any true cycling purist, and well deserved descents with killer views the whole way. And to get from Khe Sanh down to the city of Hue - where you can have all your creature comforts right back - is a half day ride. You can dip in and out of this road as you please with short rides like this the entire length. Pop out at Hue, ride down to Hoi An, shoot right back up to the Ho Chi Minh whenever you like. It’s never too far and is full of rewards!
Best Food On Earth?
And I’m not really even a fan of Pho!!! Vietnam pretty much blows all other places I’ve been out of the water when it comes to food. Pho is everywhere and it’s way better in Vietnam than in the US or elsewhere. But that’s truly the tip of the iceberg. There is enough variety in Vietnam to not only merit a tour based around its culinary delights, but to keep you busy discovering them for a lifetime. What’s more, the food is always incredibly fresh. Vietnamese use tons of fresh veggies and herbs in their food. There is always at least one big bowl of greens sitting at whatever take you’re sitting at for you to add to your meal. And restauranteurs there leave shop at least once a day to restock their produce because freshness is an absolute must. Rice noodles, fresh veggies, diverse proteins, and beautifully balanced broths and sauces are all perfect fuel for a cyclist. You never leave the table feeling too full or sluggish. The feeling is always, “I feel like I just had the perfect meal for a day on the bike!” If you are willing to do some research and take a chance on some new foods, you will be seriously rewarded for your efforts. Your trip could quickly start to center around what your next meal is and where you know you can find it.
Vietnam has earned its reputation in my book. This is not to say that other countries don’t have a lot (in some cases maybe even more) to offer. But Vietnam is a textbook play on how to welcome and provide for tourists on a two-wheeled adventure. Its food, its convenience, and hospitality perfected are just some of the reasons I was so impressed and inspired by the wonderful cycling tour I was lucky to have there.