Cycling, trekking and paddling rural Vietnam

Explore a land where there are buffalo on the singletrack, fried crickets in the salad and hooting is considered good manners.
By Filip Bartkowiak January 7, 2015 Reading Time: 7 Minutes

I had my head down. Eyes peeled. Hands poised on my brake levers. Recent downpours had transformed patches of our off-road ride into a slick obstacle course.

Rocks and pebbles once encased in the earth had been freed, each capable of upturning my two-wheeler and sending me into the stony, muddy bath underfoot.

As I carefully navigated a downhill stretch, an obstacle I’d never encountered before reared its horned head: three huge water buffalo, overshadowing an elderly woman trailing in their footsteps.

Hearing the chime of our bells, she looked back and, with a bamboo stick three times her length, assertively steered them as close to the track’s edge as possible. Even so, the singletrack was dominated by buffalo and we snaked past within arm’s reach of the half-tonne beasts.

This was rural Vietnam.

Road rules of Hanoi

We had arrived in Hanoi six days earlier. After meeting our tour leader, Ngoc, “pronounced like door knock”, our group of 13, ranging in age from 12 to 57, was ready to embark on World Expeditions’ “Bike, Hike and Kayak Northern Vietnam”, an 11-day trip.

During a whirlwind two-day tour of Hanoi, we had our first informal training in Vietnamese road rules, or lack thereof. We explored the labyrinth of markets and alleyways in Hanoi’s Old Quarter on foot, overwhelmed by vendors peddling their wares and dazzled by the frenetic pace and blaring horns on the streets – Vietnam’s 30 million-plus motorbikes and scooters account for more than 90 per cent of registered vehicles.

We noticed the lack of pedestrian crossings and, from observation, learned how to cross a Vietnamese road: look for a gap, start walking and don’t stop until you reach the other side. The sea of motorcycles – some carrying families of four – will weave around you.

Mai Chau valley

We rose early and boarded the bus for a 3.5-hour ride to our first cycling drop-off point: Mai Chau, in Hoa Binh province. Soon we were a world away from Hanoi, enjoying our first glimpses of rural Vietnam.

Coming over the crest of a mountain pass, we began our descent into Mai Chau valley. The area, 135km south-west of Hanoi, is home to about 47,500 people of various ethnic groups – mostly White Thai, but also H’mong, Zao, Muong, Tay, Hoa and Viet.

As we descended, villages nestled between tree-crusted limestone peaks were revealed. We arrived in the early afternoon; our residence for the night was a homestay in Poom Cong village.

Our host family gave us a warm welcome and we unloaded our gear into their stilt house. We joked about the possibility of wi-fi, thinking we’d gone Vietnamese bush. To our surprise, our host overheard, smiled and pointed to a wooden beam, where a modem hung. “Yes, yes. Wi-fi. No password.”

“Who’s ready for a ride?” asked Ngoc, sensing our anticipation as his support crew unloaded the bikes. We quickly changed into cycling knicks, then claimed our bikes for the trip.

The ride took us through a maze of village lanes, craft markets and the valley’s endless rice fields, carefully maintained. Ngoc promised the ride would be “undulating and wet, but safe”. He delivered.

Before long, our wheels had kicked up muddy water and streaks of brown traced our spines. Breaks from rough terrain gave us time to unwind and take in the view. Rising from a foundation of vibrant, yellow-green rice fields were rows of emerald peaks that cut into the clouds.

It was the tail end of the wet season and sporadic showers gave us reprieve from the heat. We returned to Poom Cong just before dusk and that night, after a Thai-Vietnamese banquet, a traditional Thai music performance kept us entertained. Rice wine capped off the night, then we retired to our mattress and mosquito net cocoons.

Cycling and trekking toward Ninh Binh

Over the next four days, we travelled south-east towards Ninh Binh.

We spent two days road cycling, one trekking and another doing both.

We soon learned that asking Ngoc about any day’s cycle would result in the same answer, regardless of actual intensity, inclines or duration.

“Actually, a little bit undulating, yes, but is okay.” This became a running joke. The mix of flats and climbs, the hardest lasting about a minute, was demanding, but downhill stretches of active recovery followed, flushing out the lactic acid in preparation for the next hill.

Hoa Binh’s topography struck the ideal balance: it was challenging, but also easy enough that we could pause to take in villages and scenery, including views of terraced rice fields and their caretakers in conical hats.

Although we were far from Hanoi’s hustle, rural and urban landscapes had common ground. In Vietnam, regardless of your location, you’re always sharing the road – it’s just a question of what with. More than half of the Vietnamese workforce is in agriculture and the roads teemed with farm life. Weaving between water buffalo, pigs, cattle, dogs, roosters and ducks became second nature.

Motorcycles, cars, trucks and farmers with shoulder poles carrying the day’s harvest, their baskets overflowing,  became familiar co-owners of the road. School children returning home on foot and by bike signalled the early afternoon.

They would grin and raise their hands for high-fives and, in limited English, shout words of encouragement. “Hello! Go!” Echoes of their laughter trailed behind us.

Despite the frequency of these encounters, they never dulled. Sounding the bike’s bell became instinctual. While horns in the West express anger, disdain and a general “what the f***!”, in Vietnam, they’re a courteous “hello”, informing those ahead of your approach.

Vietnam’s first National Park

Two-thirds through our journey to Ninh Binh, we came to Cuc Phuong National Park, Vietnam’s first, declared by Ho Chi Minh in 1962, when he proclaimed “forest is gold”.

Its 22,000 hectares is home to many wildlife species, including 336 bird, 133 mammal, 76 reptile and more than 2000 plant species.

Viet, our local guide, met us and took us around the park’s Endangered Primate Rescue Centre and Turtle Conservation Centre before we began the 16km hike from Khu Trung Tam park centre to our village homestay in Ban Moung.

Habitat destruction and illegal poaching plague the park and the rescue centre’s tireless work has ensured the survival of 19 species of turtle – including the Vietnamese pond turtle, which is near extinct in the wild – and 15 species of langurs, loris and gibbons, some critically endangered.

On the drive to the trek’s starting point, we were baffled by Viet’s choice of gear, which rested on the spare seat beside him.

“No way can he be wearing sandals for this,” I thought. Jumping off the bus, we enjoyed a quick tea and watched Viet intently. He opened his bag and pulled out a pair of knee-high leech socks, something we’d all overlooked.

“Are there many leeches?” we asked, already fearing the answer. “Ugh, some, yes.” he responded.

The trek varied dramatically in pace. In parts, thick foliage and fallen trees slowed us right down, forcing us to contort our bodies through small gaps.

The unforgiving terrain was exacerbated by recent rainfall. Mud clung to the soles of our boots, turning them into skates so there were times when we glided down steep gradients of roots, liquified soil and stone. The sound of rustling leaves was a prelude to an impending thud, which could mean only one thing: an arse had hit the ground. Light streamed through the jungle canopy and leeches swayed in mock salute to the sun, hoping to latch onto their next feed.

Five hours later, slightly worse for wear, we came out the other end, washed our shoes and proudly counted our leech bites in a creek on the village’s outskirts.
We met our host family, then a couple hours’ later had a feast, with one menu item inspiring much conversation: fried crickets.

I was one of a handful of tasters and was shocked by their flavour: intensely fishy.

We only ate a few on their own, they’re far better as a crunchy condiment and a couple of adventurous eaters continued adding crickets to their bamboo shoot salads. That night’s stilt house accommodation was the most basic, with only bamboo mats between us and the wooden floor, but it was the most authentic.

At lights out, I was handed a Hello Kitty blanket – startling evidence of the vast reach of mass production.

Two roosters started crowing about 3am and kept it up until sunrise. Unable to sleep, I visualised breakfast as fresh rooster pho. That day, we completed our last cycle, on about 50km of flat road. It tested our endurance, but despite the broken night we came out on top. That afternoon, we hung up our helmets in Ninh Binh and thanked the support crew who had helped for the past five days, before jumping on a boat tour of Tam Coc.

Ngoc referred to Tam Coc as “Ha Long Bay on land”, and the six kilometre ride through Tam Coc along the Ngo Dong river offered a preview of our next destination. I asked my guide how Ha Long Bay compared.

She rowed and steered  the entire way by foot and with two free hands, stuck her thumbs up and said “Better!”.

World Heritage Site Ha Long Bay

Our last stop was Ha Long Bay, a seascape of limestone peaks. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an aquatic oasis in north-east Vietnam stretching over 1500sq.km. When we visited in October 2013, Typhoon Wutip was raging in central Vietnam, so the weather at Ha Long Bay was surprising: minimal cloud cover and patches of blue in the sky. The turquoise landscape was also worlds away from the tropical greenery and city life we’d experienced so far.

Ha Long Bay is a semi-submerged mountain range in the Gulf of Tonkin with about 1695 limestone islets, a number Ngoc repeated with conviction. Peaks range from 50m to 100m. The bay’s still, reflective waters doubled the size of the rock towers, which have been spared almost entirely by war and human inhabitance. The wind and ocean have given each pinnacle a unique design.

Millions of years of erosion have cut into the pillars, carving grottoes and caves, often accompanied by a patchy coat of green and coves of sand.

Our final days were spent kayaking and cruising around aboard a private junk rig. Our first stop was Ha Long Bay’s largest and most famous cave, Sung Sot. Afterwards, Ngoc vowed to take us away from heavily touristed areas and we found relative seclusion for our first kayak in the warm waters. Navigating through the drowned karst landscape, we docked at a beach to swim and explore on foot.

Ngoc guided us into tunnels worn through the peaks. We’d heard horror stories of tourists dying on unguided explorations, so Ngoc’s advice was valued. Essentially, if you can’t see to the other side, don’t go in. “There is light! Is okay,” he said, giving us the go ahead to paddle through and touch the craggy ceiling.

Our last kayak gave us a new vision of Ha Long Bay. Rising early, our group set off as the limestone giants turned orange at sunrise. This was a last gasp of solitude before we were thrust back into the urban chaos of Hanoi.

As we returned to the city, the mood turned nostalgic. We reflected on our experiences and prepared for a final shopping spree in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

This time we zigzagged expertly through the traffic, hopping from stall to stall to burn our last dong.

The essentials

The adventure:  World Expeditions’ Bike Hike and Kayak Northern Vietnam tour runs 9 months of the year. Trips aren’t available during June, July and August (Vietnam’s peak monsoon season).

The 11 day trip costs $1,990 per person ex Hanoi.

Getting there: Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam Airlines can get you to Hanoi from all Australian capital cities.

Gear and support: Mountain or touring bikes are supplied, but bring your own helmet. A support vehicle and two guides – one in front, one in back – accompany the group on rides.

Fitness required: Withan introductory 3/10 grading, you will need a reasonable level of fitness. Trek days average around 4‑6 hours (16km) and up to 50km on cycling days. If at any point you do not wish to ride the support vehicle can transport you and your bike.

Food: 10 breakfasts, 9 lunches and 7 dinners are included. Vegetarians can be catered for.

Accomodation: A mix of well-serviced hotels and traditional homestays.

More info: 
www.worldcyclejourneys.com or www.worldexpeditions.com