From Hanoi to Saigon...


by Ted Ritter


I would say Hello in Vietnamese, but you don't know it and neither do I. Besides, it is gender and age specific and I run the risk of insulting or overly flattering you.

Girl w/ baskets, 65k This is the result of my need to write about my trip, a 1,200 mile bicycle ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, on Highways 1 and 20, with a group of 55 other cycling tourists from North America (and two from Europe) and 11 hosts from VietnamTourism. Organized by a very capable gentleman from Portland, Oregon, Cycle Vietnam was the first such group to do this ride and had the full support and cooperation of the Vietnamese government. We were in-country from January 8-27, 1994 and biked 14 of those days. For a visual summary of the trip, check out this video.

Map of Vietnam, 128k The trip was a great thing to do, and I would do it again. It took me a while to come down from the sensory overload that is Vietnam. Others were able to speak eloquently about the experience, I simply babbled to anyone who appeared to be listening.

Many people have asked me about the Communists in power in Vietnam. To me, the country seemed like a democracy, although questions about the government received blank looks or an unrelated answer (from those few who could speak English). It seemed, at times, that our VietnamTourism guides had been instructed in correct politic-speak. There was a party line.

Boy w/ bike, 69k I was never threatened, nor did I ever feel at risk. Some in the group reported isolated incidents; as such the villages were very safe, the cities perhaps less so, as cities go. One person lost a wallet in Da Nang, which contained roughly one year's salary for a Vietnamese adult. Five days later the wallet, with all contents intact, caught up with the owner.

There were few remaining signs of the war, with the most visible aspect being the numerous bomb craters that surrounded most every bridge we crossed. There were seven Vietnam veterans in our group, most back for the first time since the war. An eighth veteran dropped out after the nightly blast of firecrackers in Hanoi brought back memories too painful for him. I expected the war to be a major theme during the trip, but there was really very little to see. It was easy to overlook that such a tragic event had taken place in the not so distant past.

 Soldiers, 39K


 Soldiers in Hanoi
 War Damage
 Hard Labor Unloading Coal
The cycling was tough, particularly at first because the roads were very rough, the traffic thick, the mileage hefty, and the weather hot. It took a few days to adapt to such an environment, although there were some things we never really adapted to - we just learned to live with them. Most of us toughened up eventually. Daily rides varied from 60 to 110 miles. But of the 55 cyclists, less than ten of us cycled every day. The others, realizing there was a bus, found reasons to be in it from time to time instead of on the road. I rode the bus one day because I hung out an extra day at a particularly beautiful sea-side town (Nha Trang). I looked forward to getting back on my wheels, because the bike was the place to be.

Consistent in the 1,200 miles, covered in fourteen days, were the people and the scenery. Each time I stopped, I was immediately swamped by a group of locals who were extremely curious about every aspect I represented - my size, my color, the hair on my arms, my language, my bright cycling clothes, and my state-of-the-art cycle with its many gears, bar end shifters, break levers, aero-bar, and high-pressure tires. Constantly under examination, even when riding, I found the people easily won over with a direct look and a smile. There was no feeling of distrust, only, at times, uncertainty. And those that could help in any way were immediately willing to do so. They were generally puzzled at our travel plans, and often suggested better means of transportation in order to reach Ho Chi Minh.

Children of Vietnam, 112k

It became apparent early on that we would be in the spotlight on this trip. We were accompanied and supported by VietnamTourism, an element of the government focusing on bringing tourism to Vietnam. The finest vehicle in the country was our new tour bus, which served as sag wagon to pick up riders wanting or needing to ride. Two women with VietnamTourism were with us around the clock, working with advance hotel arrangements, meals, and catering to the whims of 55 spoiled Westerners. Others were in attendance, too. Bus drivers (in addition to the luxury tour bus were two Vietnam-standard buses used to transport food, water, luggage, and bikes) and the Blues Brothers, so named because of the old black sedan they drove. The Blues Brothers were never positively identified, but the indications and rumors were that these guys were secret service / police, running interference. This very well could be, as we were never hassled or confronted by the police at any time; the hotels were mysteriously void of the prostitutes we had heard would be in many hotels (one rider had a conversation with one of the local girls who told him they had been warned away from our hotel for the night). The Blues Brothers were cleaning up the road right in front of us. Another bit of evidence, circumstantial as it may be, was the night we couldn't camp at Ba Don and had to travel down the road to accommodations made that day; the girls were there in full force, knocking on doors and walking into rooms. It seems that the last minute re-arrangements didn't give our boys in black the opportunity to sweep the porch.

Sleeping Girl, 45k The second evening after our arrival we were entertained by the Ministry of Tourism at a reception on a floating restaurant, complete with video coverage, welcome speeches, and plenty to eat. On the day we departed Hanoi there was a photographer from AP - I later found out that an article with photo showed up in numerous U.S. newspapers the next day! One of the veterans on our trip was later filmed running the Saigon marathon and was featured the following evening nation-wide on the CBS Evening News. Twice we ran into expatriates living in Vietnam who knew who we were, as they had been following our progress on Voice of America radio.

Two Girls, 48k We were truly famous, at some level. Phil, a rider currently living in Taiwan, accurately referred to our ride as the "1200 Mile Parade Route." It was. Everywhere we went we were mobbed by crowds of curious onlookers. It was incessant and required, later on, serious concentration to maintain a proper ambassadorial attitude. As much as I liked this sort of thing, I reached a point where I had tired of saying hello and of smiling to everyone and of people demanding attention (which included an occasional friendly rock thrown at us).

We really enjoyed Hanoi; it was complete sensory overload to bike among hundreds of other people on bicycles. One had to be careful not to make radical maneuvers while flowing along with all the bicyclists. Intersections were what could only be called 'managed chaos.' I was unable to determine how the Vietnamese manage without frequent collisions. We toured the capital area, got to see "Uncle Ho" in his mausoleum, and saw the house where he lived while ruling North Vietnam. It was a very pleasant little house, so simple and functional - we all wished for a place such as this to go to. The lower floor was completely open, with a bench seat around the perimeter and a table for six where Ho received visitors. Supported on posts above this breezeway were his living quarters, simply an office and a bedroom. All in beautiful dark hardwoods.

Another interesting site was a very old university that taught Confucianism and graduated one person every three years. A Masters Degree carried some weight in those days.

Marktplatz, 104k

We were also taken to a Water Puppet show, theater borne of the monsoon season when everything is flooded. Vietnamese in origin, the puppet masters were behind a screen, thigh deep in water, operating figures with sticks under the water. Even without the knowledge of the language, the show and accompanying band was interesting, mostly humorous. Twice on the trip we were entertained with live Vietnamese music, and I was very impressed. The unique instruments and talents of the players were unforgettable. The music was upbeat and happy. After a speech by the Minister of Tourism extolling Vietnamese-American reconciliation, we departed Hanoi and quickly got a taste of what the trip was going to be like. Frequent looks of disbelief and friendly waves from every direction.

The country's landscape was fantastic. The northern portion of the journey was generally flat, and the hills were in the distance, leaving us with less to break up the view. But it may have been the most interesting because it was here, at the start of the trip, that we first saw the people, the paddies, the brick kilns, the pig and chicken farms, the vegetable plots, the cemeteries, the oxen and Brahma and carts, kids working and going to school, the women carrying huge loads suspended across their shoulders, the trucks and buses and motorcycles and bicycles; the sites of Highway One.

Fishing Boats, 48k As we traveled south, the hills began to close in on us, pushing us to the coast and the beaches and serving up the occasional climb. For some reason I hadn't expected the country to be so mountainous. It was here that the northeasterly trade winds became apparent, at first showing up at the top of the inclines, later blowing us down the road like crazy. And with the hills came deep heavy jungle greenery, filled with amazing growth and wonderful bird sounds; such a visual distraction that made cycling up the hills enjoyable. Ted & Old Man, 36k

I rode with Jay most of the time, and there were six or eight of us that liked to leave early (between 6 & 7 a.m.) to beat the midday heat, and ride faster, because we like to ride fast, I guess. Over time Jay and I learned that, even though it was nice to ride with a larger group, it was safest and most efficient to travel as a pair. We drafted each other when the conditions allowed, and had more access to the locals when we stopped - larger groups caused huge crowds and little chance of sitting in someone's front porch for a snack, and a chat, and a drink. In fact, my best run-ins with the Vietnamese were when I was riding like this, ahead of everyone.

Hue, called the Emerald City, is a very beautiful and comfortable city, and the destination of choice for many residing foreigners. The Citadel is here, home of a notable battle in the Vietnam war and of the Forbidden City, where the rulers of old lived and frolicked with their concubines. We all came away with our own theories about why many of these leaders had died so young. It was here that Jay got sick and consequently missed a day of biking. I put him on a boiled potatoes and eggs diet that set him quickly back on track.

Fishing Boats, 48k The South China Sea was fantastic. In Nha Trang the waves were enormous, and although exhausting and a bit dangerous, provided plenty of swimming entertainment. Later as we rode from Phan Rang, on the coast, to Dalat, Vietnam's honeymoon capital in the hills, we climbed 5,500 feet over 19 kilometers of jungle filled switchbacks. The views were spectacular.

At lunch in Dalat the bus drivers offered me a drink. It was a small glass of amber liquor, and since I had established a good rapport with the group, I trusted their judgment and respectfully accepted. After downing the substance with moderate poise, they pointed to a three gallon glass container full of dead snakes and an amber colored liquid. The worm in the bottle of mescal no longer impresses me.

The road from Dalat to Saigon was primarily downhill and downwind. We spent the next night in Bao Loc, known for its silkworm breeding, where I had my first glass ever of sugar cane juice. Potent stuff. We were treated to a fancy hotel. Usually the hotels had been nothing to look forward to. Showers were not always guaranteed, but rats in the rooms turned out to be something you could count on. However Rick, the organizer, explained that Cycle Vietnam has a frequent cycler program and that after 1000 miles you get a hotel upgrade. It was warmly welcomed; the first room that was designed without breeze holes, thereby allowing for a mosquito-net-free night. And there was a normal bathroom, whereby in most of the hotels, the architects had the unnerving habit of placing the bare and exposed electrical wiring and breaker for the water heater right next to the shower head. Coconut Girls, 77k The last and longest day of cycling (110 miles) took us to Ho Chi Minh City, a.k.a. Saigon. Actually, Saigon is one of three areas of Ho Chi Minh City, but the entire city is still often referred to as Saigon. The name change has not taken hold; even the kilometer markers along the route vacillated between the two names.

It's hard to describe my feelings as I arrived in Saigon. I have rarely experienced such a strong feeling of elation. It was a bittersweet day, bitter because it meant the end of our adventure was near, but sweet because we had met our challenge. At a reception outside the city, we waited for the other riders to re-group and we were greeted by Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, the Minister of Tourism and his entourage, the Saigon Girls distributing leis, and other speechmakers. After many handshakes and mutual congratulations, we all rode together, under police escort, to Reunification Hall for a group photo, passing the former U.S. Embassy along the way.

Saigon is quite metropolitan and, while definitely Vietnam, certainly far different from the rest of the country. We saw other tourists, but they were rare in the north and, with few exceptions, were traveling by tour bus or Range Rovers. In contrast, Saigon was crawling with tourists. Since our trip, President Clinton lifted the U.S. embargo against Vietnam. Many Vietnamese were interested in this issue, and spoke about it. To a soul they were very eager to do business with the U.S. and I am happy the embargo was lifted. These people deserve an equal chance and will make great gains given an opportunity.

Ted and I, 35k The entire trip was an incredible experience. We were free to do what we chose, were welcomed into people's villages and homes, and with few exceptions had totally positive experiences. I have never had a trip that was so consistently sustaining, always thought provoking. Vietnam is poised for great changes, and it was a good fortune to see the country and the people at the onset of what appears to be momentous transformations.

If you are interested in attempting such a journey, you can contact Cycle Vietnam at 1-800-661-1458, for international inqueries, you can fax at +1-503-331-1458. I have no affiliation with Cycle Vietnam - just a satisfied customer. You can also visit their web site at

*Site and Photos by Jay Rolls (email here). Story by Ted Ritter.

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