“Roll With It” the Vietnamese Way
by Alan E. Lewis
Entry: May 2011
Cycling in Vietnam can take you all the way to the gates of Hue's Imperial Citadel.
The cover of Driving With No Brakes, the book I wrote with my wife Harriet, gives you a good sense of my personality: the photo on the book jacket depicts the two of us tooling down a country road on a bicycle, feet off the pedals as we exult in the thrill of the moment. Captured in that photo are many of the elements I love best about travel: joy, a spirit of adventure, and the ability to take real pleasure in the world around me. But not every bike ride is a leisurely amble through cozy woods—just ask anyone who has bicycled in Vietnam.
It’s been a few years now since my last visit to Vietnam (it was back in 2007, and I was accompanied by my close friend and the Chief Architect of our OAT adventures, Mark Frevert). But so many memories of my time there will remain with me forever …
Hop on a bike in the beautiful country of Vietnam and the cycling experience is a whole other beast: It requires more risk-taking, as well as more physical effort and a willingness to be thoroughly immersed in a culture not your own. As it happens, those are also ingredients I value in a travel experience. The risk-taking comes into play because of the sheer volume of vehicles interacting in cities and on the highways. More Vietnamese people ride bicycles, mopeds, and motorcycles than drive automobiles, so the roads are a seeming jumble of all those smaller vehicles weaving among the larger trucks, buses, and cars. Until you’re used to the pace (and discover that there really is a flow of traffic whose rhythms you’ll soon intuit), it can feel a little terrifying.
The sensory impressions alone can be overwhelming. Passing you on the left, three women share one moped—two on the seat, one on the handlebars—each one bearing a bag of fruit slung over her shoulder…zipping up on your right, here comes a young couple on a bicycle, the gal clinging to her beau, her feet atop his as they both pedal furiously…and then a wizened farmer, with a bicycle that looks even older than he does, squeezes by narrowly, trying to make room for the wide bundle of tanned hog hides strapped onto his rear-wheel cover.
With my wife Harriet at the Pan Mass Challenge in 2009.
There was a time I’d never have been able to picture myself cycling among crowds like this—or, really, doing much cycling at all. As adventurous as I am, biking had never been my sport. But in my early 50s, I was diagnosed with cancer. Facing that battle inspired me to participate in the Pan Mass Bike Challenge, a 192-mile bike-a-thon in my home state of Massachusetts—a worthy event that now raises over $30 million for cancer research and treatment each year. Ever since, I have joined 5,000 others, including several of my Grand Circle associates, for this rigorous and inspiring trek. My transformation from a casual rider to a distance cyclist in a pack of thousands was like going from zero to 60 in a car—and terrific preparation for riding in Vietnam.
When you cycle in Vietnam, you can set your own pace, but the diverse terrain provides a real workout for those willing to leave the cities. The hills of Dalat, the mountain passes on the way to Hue, the beaten-earth routes through the Mekong Delta—each requires stamina and endurance, but the rewards are profound, as you get to witness some the of the most unforgettable landscapes on Earth. It doesn’t hurt that that Vietnam has so many lovely beaches where you might stop and rest. The route to Nha Trang, home to a village that Grand Circle Foundation has helped restore, wanders past French colonial villas, lush coffee plantations, and finally to the beach, the best place in Vietnam for my favorite hobby: diving. If you ask me, a refreshing dip in the water is a perfect rejuvenator before taking to the road again.
As you cycle, or xe dap, as the Vietnamese say, you’ll find that doing so makes you feel a little closer to the local people. Though they might giggle if you come dressed in your full-on cycling kit of matching bib, jersey, and helmet, they are likely to feel a kinship with you because you’re traveling the way so many of them do. I’ve had local riders pull alongside to chat with me as we pedaled on our way—the mere fact that I, too, was on a bicycle, seemed invitation enough to start a conversation. And that, of course, is the thing I love best of all: the chance to meet new people all over the world.
Whether I am cycling in New England or on the other side of the globe, simply feeling so at home on a bicycle reminds me that I never know where life will take me next. When I turned 50, I never expected to become a cyclist with thousands of miles under by belt; now in my 60s, I can’t foresee all the adventures ahead or who else I might someday be. But the wheels keep turning, and I’m thankful for all the roads yet to come.
Alan E. Lewis