There’s no place in Florida to adequately train for a bicycle ride up a long mountain trail like the spectacular climb to the Hai Van Pass in Vietnam. The ride takes you up 1,627 feet from nearly sea level, through a lush forest, to a windy overlook with photo-inspiring views of the South China Sea. The abandoned bunkers at the pass are sober reminders that French and then American soldiers fought there in the mid 20th Century.
We took a mostly downhill ride through the green beauty of the highlands outside of Dalat to southern Vietnam’s coast on Thursday (December 28), traveling from cool dry sunshine to the balmy humidity of the beach. What a glorious ride through rich forests and terraced hillsides covered with coffee trees. This is our second to last day of cycling, and all of us have that bittersweet sense that something special is nearing an end.
Our group spent two nights in Nha Trang, and by all accounts this was not our favorite stop. It’s a touristy beach town that caters to a huge number of Russian and Chinese travelers. Kind of surreal to see menus and shop signs in Russian and Chinese. But that kind of neon tourist venue is no fun in any language.
We encountered a wide variety of road conditions on our cycling trips between Nha Trang to Dalat, including several floods.
We departed the beach town of Quy Nhon at 7 a.m. Monday, riding a few minutes by bus to get us to our cycling start. The typhoon that hit the Philippines a few days ago is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Tuesday. Although the eye of the storm is south of us, the weather looked foreboding. We were feeling pretty lucky that it was just clouds and a bit of wind as we got started.
Our 50 km morning ride took us through a river valley with mountains on either side. These are lush hillsides that very much remind us of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.
We left Hoi An Sunday morning at 7 a.m. and rode an easy 20 km through nearby farmland. Changes in temperature and flora are an easy reminder that we have traveled south. Coconut palms full of fruit dress the landscape, and farms are growing beautiful lettuce, scallions, peanuts, and flowers (spectacular red gladiolus). One of the regional farm products was potted kumquat trees – small and large, each loaded with near-ripe fruit. Vietnamese families place kumquat trees in their houses for the Tet Holiday much like Christmas trees are used to decorate homes in the West .
Hoi An is an old city situated on the Thu Bon River near the South China Sea that served as an international trading port during the 15th through 19th centuries. The old town of Hoi An with its narrow streets, yellow buildings, and colorful lanterns was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. It was a lovely and picturesque area for a Saturday morning walkabout after six consecutive days of cycling.
Our leader, Son, taught us a series of hand signals to help us communicate while riding single file and in close proximity to one another. We watch the signals coming from the person immediately ahead of us and provide them for the person behind us. This is invaluable for navigating city traffic, changing lanes, and signaling the group to slow down or stop.
Dodging potholes and water buffalo along the rural single lane paths requires quicker response time than hand signals allow. The water buffalo were everywhere this morning. And their size is formidable from a bike. Just as we were admiring a cluster of six or so on either side of our path, mom and her calf started running along beside us. Charming . . . until mom stepped into the path directly in front of me (Sharon) and looked me straight in the eye. Quick braking and dodging were required to avoid going face-to-face with those beautiful brown eyes and the wrath of a mom protecting her baby!
We cycled 55 km in light rain on Friday morning, making our way to Đầm Lập An (Lap An lagoon) and the base of our assent of the Hai Van Pass. Other than getting completely drenched and a bit chilled, it was a fantastic ride. Crossing the Cau Tu Hien Bridge near Thon Phu An provided our first view of the South China Sea with deep green mountains as backdrop. The rain stopped toward the end of the morning, and we were left with misty clouds that gave our ride up the pass an ethereal quality and a different beauty that we might have experienced with sunshine.
The downside of cycling Vietnam? There are very few! We can hardly imagine being able to experience so much of this country any other way. For example, on Friday we left Hue at 7 a.m., making our way by bike through the market and early morning traffic. A few kilometers outside of the city we began noticing small grass huts. Turns out these structures are constructed from rice straw and used to grow mushrooms. Our guide, Son, stopped to ask one of the farmers if we could see his small operation. He generously stopped his work and explained some of the process while Son translated.