Vietnam

We had a super trip to Vietnam. Time has flown since our return & there's been a lot to do!

I suppose the thing that struck us most at first was the traffic in Saigon (most people still call it that, especially the buses & trains). Large numbers of mopeds coming down the road, usually stopping at traffic lights & usually going in the correct direction but not always! Bicycles, taxis & vans too but very few private cars. Impossible to cross the road we thought but then we did what the locals do - just walk across & they go round you! Even more fun when you're on a bike! The Vietnamese only look in front when they're driving & use the horn a lot to warn about overtaking (whether space or not!) or just to attract attention. They don't seem to get anywhere near as worked up as we do when driving. They also use their vehicles to carry the maximum - a family of 5 on a moped or even a fridgefreezer! They manage to get mopeds on the roof of the buses.

Before we set off on our bikes from Saigon Nev & I took an optional extension to see the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. We had an excellent local guide & in spite of the heat (40degrees) thoroughly enjoyed the stone reliefs in the restored temples, the jungle temple which has been left as they were rediscovered in the jungle & a boat trip to the floating villages on Tonle Sap - the huge lake near Siem Reap. On our way back to Saigon we had a few hours in Phnom Penh where we went to the Killing Fields memorial. A sobering place, especially when you remember that this was Cambodians killing their own people & the educated ones too. Our guide was sixteen at the time & was sent to the northern highlands to survive doing manual work in the fields with little to eat or drink. He never saw his father, brother or sister again. Cambodia is a very poor country with very few made roads - most are worse than our tracks & bridleways, even in Phnom Penh the roads weren't tarmac & the drains didn't appear to be good! Our guide in Siem Reap didn't have running water in his village or electricity.

We returned to join the rest of our group in Saigon. It was a good group, mostly from the UK with the addition of a Norwegian & a Canadian. Our two leaders, one British & one Vietnamese were both excellent. We started with a short ride to the Cu Chi tunnels where the Vietcong lived underground only 60km from Saigon & regularly surprised the Americans. They have enlarged the tunnels for western tourists but they were still quite difficult to get through, especially the original entrances, which were well camouflaged.

Then we set off on our journey to Hanoi by bike, bus, train & boat. We had an air-conditioned bus with the rear seats removed so the bikes could be stacked inside by the driver & his mate who also made sure we didn't get lost & ensured regular stops for refreshment. First we travelled to the hills around Dalat where we saw tea & coffee growing & some rain. Dalat is where the Vietnamese go on honeymoon & they have swan pedaloes on the lake! Then we had a long downhill ride to the rice growing areas, & a rest day involving swimming in the South China Sea at Nha Trang. We were then introduced to cycling on Highway One, the main road that runs between Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City & Hanoi. This might be their main road but that does not mean much in terms of road surface or road width. They are also resurfacing in lots of places but seem to start but not complete the work. When there is a good surface then the outer parts are used for drying rice or fish or whatever else needs spreading in the sun! The Vietnamese were delighted to see Westerners on bikes, by the end of the day I was getting tired of shouting "hello" & waving. Sometimes a motorcyclist would travel alongside & practise their English! We had a couple of days riding near the coast, one of them into a stiff headwind, & then a visit to the site of the My Lai massacre. Another moving memorial, only this time it was Americans slaughtering Vietnamese villagers. We had no Americans in our group, but we were surprised that the Vietnamese showed little bitterness.

Another rest day this time in the old port of Hoi An. Shopping & looking at the old houses & temples with their Chinese & Japanese influences were preparation for our longest ride past the marble mountains, through the modern port of Danang (Hoi An is silted up) over the Hai Van pass & into Hue. This was the capital from the early 1800's to 1945 but we didn't really have sufficient time to look around. We then had a 15 hour overnight train journey north, travelling very sedately on the mainly single track line that runs the length of the country. A lot of organising to get 17 of us & our luggage into a carriage with only two doors in the space of 4 minutes, half of which is taken by people getting off! Fortunately the bikes went earlier! We arrived in the north for breakfast. The North Vietnamese were more reserved, the clothes less colourful & the women less elegant. They have coal & worst of all eat dog. They do however have dedicated lanes for bicycles & bullock carts! We cycled & rode on our North Vietnamese bus to Haiphong the port on the Red River delta. From here we cycled to meet our boat for the next two days for our visit to Cat Ba Island & Halong Bay. This is an area of limestone karst scenery, with thousands of rocky islands rising out of the South China Sea's Gulf of Tonkin. An incredible place, quite rightly a World Heritage sight. A wonderful spot at the end of our holiday - the following day we cycled into Hanoi, with a stop for lunch at rehabilitation centre for children & young people disabled as a result of the American War - either congenital defects from agent orange or from mines.

Hanoi was a little quieter than Saigon & the shopping was nearly as good as Hoi An! It's amazing that they still have Ho Chi Minh preserved (?) in his mausoleum against his wishes! The Temple of Literature commemorates a University established before Oxford. The other thing I should mention about the Vietnamese is their overwhelming interest in football. The English premiership televised live with commentary in Vietnamese, Man. United their main interest but they're also aware of other premiership teams. The place will stop during the World Cup!

So, a good holiday. We can recommend cycling as a way of seeing the country & meeting the people. This time Exodus were good - we'll do another cycling trip with them. Photos when they're sorted!

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