Vietnam: of Pedals and Paddy-fields

COLLEEN MCGUIRE from the USA describes cycling in one of the world's least motorised countries.

Dense jungle, dense traffic. No right-of-way rules anywhere. Thankfully bicycles outnumber automobiles. Vietnam is Cycling Mecca if your bike can hack it. Although many of the roads are paved, the main highways are often bumpy and surfaced with gravel. In remote areas I longed for a mountain bike.

Vietnamese people transport just about everything on their bicycle: pigs, logs, sacks of rice. Two and sometimes three individuals arrange themselves on a single bicycle. I saw one man transporting a full-size refrigerator. A serious problem is diesel fumes from trucks and buses. Sometimes I had to stop and cover my face as black clouds from passing vehicles engulfed me.

Vietnam's terrain is dazzling. It seems that almost every inch of arable land is cultivated, predominately with rice. Fields appear greener than golf courses. The beauty of the land is still pockmarked by large brown-dirt bomb craters, for the damage and destruction of war are still evident.

One might think the Vietnamese would harbour anger, or at least resentment against Americans. Quite the opposite. I consistently felt tremendous warmth and kindness. While cycling hard one day under the hot tropical sun I exhausted my water supply. I came upon a village where huge watermelons were being sold. One man offered me a large red slice, which I gratefully plunged into. He declined to accept payment. His attention was centred on figuring out how my bike computer worked.

There seemed to be little aggression in Vietnamese society. I witnessed several accidents involving bicycles, and motorbikes and bicycles, but on no occasion were there menacing looks or raised voices.

One of my most profound experiences was descending into the Vinh Moc tunnels which lie roughly five miles north of the former border between North and South. It took two years for the villagers of Vinh Moc to build this intricate maze of underground tunnels: testament to the resilience and determination of the Vietnamese. For six years 1200 villagers lived underground to escape the bombings. The deepest level was used by the Viet Cong fighters. I emerged from the tunnels awestruck.

Vietnam offers a wide variety of challenging bike rides, from rugged dirt roads in remote jungle areas along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to climbs of 6,000 feet up into the Central Highlands. My journey was enchanting and memorable: one that I wholeheartedly recommend to other bicycle enthusiasts.

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