Thomas Hollowell - Author, Athlete, Entrepreneur, World Traveler

Have Bike, Will Travel

Two months before completing a one-year teaching contract in the small Korean province of Jeju Island, wanderlust beckoned and I longed for an exciting adventure, something extraordinary and uncommon.

I would have only a few weeks to travel before returning to the United States. The next step was deciding where to go. Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand all came to mind. I scratched the first two off my list due to the lack of coastal areas to explore; I wanted to be near the sea. The third choice, Thailand, I knew, was overridden with tourists. There had to be someplace else.

I studied the world map hanging on my wall. The northern belly and elongated coast of southern Viet Nam caught my eye. What would the country be like? Could I even travel there? Would I be welcomed as an American?

The next day I went into an Internet cafe to research anything I could find about Viet Nam. I found that Americans could easily obtain a visa and travel freely. The possibility of exploring a new country thrilled me. But, after backpacking in over 10 countries already, I didn’t want to be stuck on buses, taxis, or trains. I yearned for freedom. I needed to find an alternative way of traveling.

My roommate, in his Kiwi accent, suggested I try biking the country. It was a stroke of genius. What followed were two months of research and preparation, hundreds of dollars spent on equipment, and serious training up and down Jeju Island’s hilly roads. The day of my new adventure arrived and I found myself in Hue, Viet Nam. My panniers were packed, my bike shoes laced, and my helmet securely fastened.

With only three weeks to explore Viet Nam, I had to choose either a northern or southern route. Since I was biking in December, almost all the reference materials I pored over said that the south is void of rain at the end of November. Naturally, I chose to head southward along the coast.

Starting out in Hue was easy enough as flights are always coming and going from Ha Noi. The only view I got of Ha Noi was through the backseat window of a small taxi on the way to the airport. I didn’t foresee needing my thick sweater that I had wrapped around my torso, so I asked the driver if I could swap the sweater to pay for my taxi ride. He happily obliged. I would have loved to roam the French quarters and surrounding streets of Ha Noi, smelling the rich aromas of the corner cafes, but I had to get on with my cycling itinerary.

A phone call to the national airlines or stopping by one of the many booking agencies in town can easily get you a plane ticket within Viet Nam. In-country flight prices are all regulated and range from US$25 to US$100 one-way.

After my arrival in Hue, I knew that I had chosen a great point of departure. The streets were overflowing with bicycles as small motor scooters belched beside them.

My computerized odometer spit out number after number. I was starting to breathe harder and soon found a rhythm that suited my physical exertion. The first day of biking was almost over and the tiny damp screen read 74 miles. I wanted to stop earlier, but I kept pushing and pumping, hoping my effort would somehow extend the daylight hours. The sun gods, however, didn’t grant my wish. I reached Da Nang from Hue after nearly 80 miles of biking the wet asphalt that runs along Viet Nam’s coastal highway 1A.

It rained sparingly. And, when the coolness falls on the breathtaking peripheral scenery, it etches something deep in your soul. With the undulating waves to the left and the misty mountains reflecting in the rice paddies, the experience of cycling Viet Nam is a game of give and take with the elements and your own mental state.

The initial images of a poverty and war-stricken Viet Nam were powerful. But the depression instantly faded along with my misconceptions. How foolish of me to have held onto such notions of the past.

Aligning the streets were school supply shops, eateries, cafes, Internet cafes, scooter shops, hostels, hotels, postal stands, fruit and veggie vendors, and cellular phone card booths. As I walked, numerous nods and smiles gave way to a “good morning” here or a “welcome to Viet Nam” there.

Preparing for the journey that lay ahead, I bought baked bread, dragon fruit, and tangerines. I wanted to prevent preliminary starvation on the road. My food costs would be higher than most travelers since I’d be biking and using up about three times as many calories. After breakfast, I headed directly out of town along the main road, following school kids on bikes. Cham Tower was over my shoulder where the active elderly were busy with their morning exercise routines.

While biking, I soon found out I would have no trouble getting the supplies I craved, especially the glazed cinnamon rolls that I immediately grew fond of. Several signs posted revealed that there would be plenty of sleeping establishments as well. A female German cyclist whom I met in Da Nang directed me to a quaint hotel on the outskirts of town. For the equivalent of a few US dollars, one can sleep quite comfortably in Viet Nam. Amenities include a clean bed, hot shower, TV, air-conditioning, and free drinking water. Hotel staff will always greet you with a wide grin, and if you’re biking, you’ll most likely be allowed to store your muddy bike. When it comes time to clean it, don’t be surprised if you have several friendly Vietnamese offering to give you a helping hand.

Biking onward to Hoi An was a pleasant stretch. After 19 miles, the roads were dusted with fine brown, blowing sand. Through my shirt, I could feel the cool breeze and sensed the ocean nearby. The roadside towns along the way provided me with the important rations—plenty of water along with more cinnamon rolls. Twenty-two miles later, I had finally reached the small bustling town of Hoi An.

It’s feasible to start your cycling of Viet Nam from Hoi An if you don’t have as much time to cycle the entire southern coast. The bus from Hue to Hoi An costs US$6 and takes roughly four hours. You’ll arrive directly at the biker-friendly Green Field Hotel. Here, air-conditioning, hot water, pool, and free use of the Internet will cost you US$5 per night. With a restaurant on the premise and free cocktails by the pool at sunset, it’s a true cycler’s retreat.

The providential district overseeing Hoi An labeled this year its “National Tourism Year” and rightfully so. Hoi An is known as a sort of “Milan of Southeastern Asia” for its top-quality, custom-tailored garments. You can have a pair of travel pants or a sleek ao dai made for US$10 to US$20.

In Hoi An, you can also venture to Cua Dai Beach. Tourists, who may not necessarily be cycling through Viet Nam, pedal to the beach on rented bikes or zoom along on motorbikes. Taking a break from cycling, I walked past bright green paddies. At the beach, I succumbed to the fresh fruit juices, seafood, and a relaxing seashore massage before the next day’s riding. After a hard day, you will most certainly want to indulge in the loads of sizzling appetizers and vegetarian or meat dishes scattered about town.

I decided to head to the coastal city of Nha Trang the following morning. From Hoi An, I would have to pedal for several days, about 562 miles, through the countryside and smaller towns. If you need a break or don’t have enough time during any leg of the journey, you can always take a bus or even book a cheap flight. But, reserve your plane ticket at least seven to 10 days in advance.

A busload of people flew by in a small van as it began to mist. They would arrive way before, but they wouldn’t get to see the same morning dew glistening on the blades of grass or feel the cool mist in the air from the sea. After 78 miles, the drizzle calmed. I stopped in Quang Ngai for the night.

After some hunting, I came across a few nice hotels and small eateries. I took a seat at Mimosas, which serves up a variety of goodies. I asked the young boy who served me where he went to school. In perfect English he said, “I don’t go. I work to help my family.” Eating my meal was hard after seeing how mature he was for a boy of his age. His response was so calm and final.

It was then that I questioned the huge socioeconomic gap between our countries. Why should he be deprived of going to school? Why did he have to work so hard at such a young age? Wasn’t there another way? Wouldn’t the government help him and his family?

As I sat in the restaurant with my ample time pondering the social debate in my head, I watched him go back to work. He wiped off tables and carried dishes into the back room, which was covered with a tin roof. As I left, I bid him farewell and left him a small tip.

After vivid dreams and a disturbed sleep, I rode hard for two more days, pedaling for Nha Trang. Along the way, I experienced bursts of energy that were fed by the striking surroundings. I stopped one night in Quy Nhon, and chose from a wide selection of mid-range hotels along a street that runs parallel to the ocean.

After a few days, I began to crave a big, juicy hamburger. I stumbled upon a fantastic little restaurant called Barbara’s. Barbara is a New Zealander who owns this international eatery along with the bar and budget hotel. Her accent reminded me of my roommate and his idea to venture through Viet Nam by bike. At Barbara’s, you’ll be able to store your bike under the staircase. I feasted on tacos, salad, garlic bread, smoothies and lemonade. It’s a prime place to kick back and refuel. Cyclers or backpackers alike can sleep for US$3 in the dorm-style rooms and buy or trade books from her vast collection.

From here, I decided to take Highway 1D, which connects back to Highway 1A. You will spend your time cruising between mountains, untouched beaches, and bungalows that dot the shoreline.

I arrived in Nha Trang and was surprised at the hubbub of tourists. It’s a travel hot spot for all types and ages, and offers an array of activities for the spendthrift and thrifty. It’s bike-friendly, people-friendly, and easy to navigate. If you have questions, stop by any of the tourist offices conveniently located in area hotels.

In Nha Trang, I took an all-day boat tour of the surrounding isles with the Green Hat Boat Tour Company. We spent the day snorkeling. Then, after a filling lunch we sang karaoke and drank limitless fruit wine—a specialty of the region. We departed in the early morning and ended the day lounging, and partially recovering, on Hon Mieu Island.

In Nha Trang, you can also become a PADI certified scuba diver at the renowned Jeremy Stein’s Rainbow Divers, the only company affiliated with National Geographic. If you’ve only got a day, try a discovery dive in the reefs of the South China Sea with a qualified diver.

Another notable hangout is Crazy Kim’s bar where a portion of the proceeds supports the fight against pedophilia on behalf of the city’s children. Here, any traveler can volunteer for an afternoon to teach English classes to area children who are out of school and sell their wares to tourists. Crazy Kim’s charity organization was surprising as I wasn’t aware that pedophilia was a problem in this part of the world. Other tourists sitting at the bar said that Nha Trang had trouble with pedophilia and that it was even more apparent in other cities in Southeast Asia, especially in coastal locales. I welcomed the small children who came by selling books and handicrafts. While I couldn’t buy everything they wanted to sell, I bargained and bought some great handmade cards and other gifts to send home.

Since I had some time, I took a bus up the winding roads to Da Lat. This university town keeps its temperatures set on “cool” for most of the year. While there, I hired a motor scooter for the afternoon and toured the area with the well-known and friendly “Easy Riders.” At night, I took a stroll around Xuan Huong Lake, and the next morning, I visited the eccentric Crazy House, designed by Mrs. Dang Viet Nga.

Leaving Da Lat or Nha Trang, you can easily bus or cycle to the small, windy beach town of Mui Ne. I cycled there to absorb the sun on the white-sand beaches. Admiring the surrounding sand dunes, I continued along Suoi Tien (Fairy Spring) trail. Mui Ne is also a good point to work your way farther along the coast, toward the Mekong Delta, or head towards Sai Gon.

My journey biking through southern Viet Nam ended as I entered the energetic sector of Pham Ngu Lao in Sai Gon. This area is attractive to travelers for its budget accommodations. The people, lights, cars, and other passersby matched my endorphin-fed state of elation. Even in my feel-good state, my mind kept flashing back to the countryside, to the sea, to the wonderful people, and to its hidden problems. The dichotomy was somehow fitting. The sights, smells, and sounds I experienced while cycling not only allowed me to touch the texture of Viet Nam’s diverse landscape, but also allowed me to get closer to the heart of a special people and culture.

Cycling through small villages into the larger cities, and up and down the country’s coastal vein is an unforgettable way to see the real Viet Nam. Miles of pedaling, breathing, sweating, clammy hands, and cramped legs are what you give. Fields of swaying rice, mouth-watering cuisine, and the friendly smiles of the Vietnamese people are what you receive.