Australian House & Garden
Biking the backroads of Vietnam reveals a fiercely unique country. Vanessa Walker shares her highlights.
We have pulled over to the side of the road, and are smearing on sunscreen, which promptly melts off in the 85-per-cent humidity, when our Adventure World guide, Vu, asks how much training we’ve done for the 400-odd kilometres, or nine days, of cycling ahead. I tell him I did a 12km ride the weekend before landing in Ho Chi Minh City and note he has perfected the guide’s knack of appearing unfazed. My partner and I are here on a tailor-made, guided, biking holiday for which we are keen but underprepared. Still, we jump on our Trek 4500s and head to the Cu Chi tunnels, north of the city. We ride 20km, past fields of bok choy and betel vines, boys selling snakes and small animals roadside and through a rubber-tree forest, to tunnels that introduce us to the recent history of Vietnam. The Cu Chi tunnels are a 250km network of Vietnamese-body sized passages that the villagers and Viet Cong used to subvert the US army during the 1962-1975 war. They were incredible innovators: tyres salvaged from trucks were fashioned into sandals(designed so the prints were back-to-front); spent bombshells were made into weapons and booby traps; the tunnels housed schools, ammunition storage and first-aid stations. Afterwards, our driver takes us to Phu Binh cafe, a pho shop in bustling Ho Chi Minh that was popular with the US army – unaware its owner, Ngo Toai, was planning the Tet Offensive upstairs.
Had the Thu Bon river not silted up in the late-19th century, stopping ships from accessing the town’s docks, Hoi An would be very different. For 100 years it stayed hidden, until it was inadvertently rediscovered in the 1990s. Thus its character remains preserved; the narrow cobbled streets of this dense village are lined with merchants’ houses, wooden-shuttered tearooms, temples covered in bougainvillea, lane-side herbal-tea sellers, bikes for hire, tailors and banh mi shops. After a day wandering on foot, the next morning we meander by bike through the neighbouring islands and agricultural villages – including Tra Que, which has been supplying coriander, lettuce, spring onion and morning glory to the old town for more than 300 years.
HO CHI MINH TO MUI NE
The next day our driver drops us in Binh Chau, from where we embark on a 50km coastal route, past plots of dragon fruit with its thick wavy tendrils, and cordoned off salt fields, sea side. We ride through villages of brightly painted houses lit up by the iridescent-orange flowers of phoenix’s tail trees (see bottom right), past people working the fields, lying in hammocks, going about daily life. Late afternoon we arrive at Ke Ga, hot and tired, to be revived by a seafood hot pot with green mango, mint and wasabi leaves. A short, air-conditioned drive follows to Mui Ne, a popular weekend getaway for the Saigonese. Deposited at our luxurious beachside villa, we while away the remainder of the day by the pool.
MUI NE TO DA LAT
We set out early. I’m pedalling along happily when the landscape changes from motley roads through open fields to a narrow road that winds its way uphill, bound on each side by pine forests. It becomes silent aside from birdsong as we ride until we reach the plateau. The weather is cooler and cycling easier as we make our way through ramshackle settlements whose economy depends on robusta coffee. After 60km our eyes alight on our parked van, waiting to transfer us to Da Lat. After the southern part of the country, the central highlands are a surprise. At 1500m above sea level, Da Lat is where the French colonialists retreated to at the height of summer. Today it’s prosperous and Alps-like with chalet-style hotels surrounding Xuan Huong lake.
DA LAT TO NHA TRANG
Up, up, up we bike until we reach the Hon Giao pass. Once or twice I am so dispirited by the relentless hills that Vu assists me with a hand on my back pushing me forwards. After a 50km slog – and as Vu had constantly reminded us – we are rewarded with an awesome 30km downhill stretch, with stunning views into endless deep-green valleys.
HOI AN TO HUE
Our final day entails a 100km ride to the former imperial capital, Hue, over the Hai Van pass with its spectacular views, along the white shore of Lang Co beach, a couple of mountain passes and then, mercifully, a flat coastal road. Our journey ends when we pull up beside our van, enjoy our last sips of oolong iced tea, and depart for the city. Hue is a metropolis bisected by the Perfume River and we enjoy being tourists for a day; swapping our bikes for river boats and backroads for museums and monuments, proof that we must return one day; Vietnam has many layers left to peel.