Differences Cycling in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1993 and 2006

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Vietnam and Cambodia
By Jay Jacobson

In 1993, there were ten times as many bicycles as motor vehicles, and now there are ten times as many motorcycles as bicycles. In 1993 the country was still recovering from a war in which it lost millions of people and its infrastructure, economy and even its vegetation was devastated. By any standards it was a backwards society at that time.

Artwork brought home as a souvenir
Artwork brought home as a souvenir
In addition to the difference in the country, there were stark differences in all aspects of my cycling tours. In 1993, we were one of the first to participate in such a travel experience. Vietnam and the United States were technically still at war and the trade boycott imposed by the U.S. was still in effect. The ’93 bike tour was poorly planned and operated from almost every aspect. I have gone on about 50 bike tours over the past 18 years and this is the only one of which I was totally dissatisfied with the operator. Their false claims in the brochure as to the quality of hotels, food, bicycles, guide, etc. and erroneous claims about the airfare prices led to me taking legal action against them. On the other hand, Backroads Co. of Berkeley, California, ran the 2006 tour which was superior in every respect.

In 1993, we were advised not to stray off the road because there was a danger of stepping on an unexploded land mine in a field or in the woods. We wouldn’t follow a truck carrying scrap metal too closely on our bikes because it might be carrying a mine (the driver was hoping to sell as scrap) which might fall off the truck onto the road right in front of us. We noticed quite a few amputees (obviously as a result of war injuries) and did not want to become one of them.

I thought it might have been a good idea to bring several hundred ball point pens to distribute to the children I encountered as I was cycling. I started giving them out in one city. It was obvious that the people had no idea what they were as they started unscrewing them and taking them apart. A crowd of about 300 quickly swarmed around me, blocking traffic in the street. I panicked, afraid they would overrun me and try to steal my money, documents and my bike. I then picked up my bike and swung it around in the air to give myself some space. After that experience I only gave the pens in rural areas with only a few people around. I also brought a few disposable Polaroid cameras and photographed some local children and gave them the photos which they treasured.

Many of the children seemed to be in poor health. They had mucus running out of every body opening. They held my hand tightly and gave me a look, which I sensed was them begging to take them home with me. They rubbed my arms and legs and touched my body hairs which they had never seen before. One or two tried to pull out a few as a souvenir.

In Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) as I was cycling among throngs of natives, a group of three stunningly beautiful teenage girls on one bike started riding next to me. They were wearing pastel colored gowns called “ao dais”. I was startled by the question they asked: “Mister, would you like a good f—?”

One of the women in our group, a banking executive from Houston, was slightly husky and had dirty blond hair. She resembled some Russian women and the Vietnamese assumed we were all Russians (their allies) and did not welcome us warmly. Once we explained that we were Americans (their enemy!) we received a warmer reception. As I was cycling with her in Hanoi, she insisted on stopping in front of the Hanoi Hilton (the infamous prison which held a number of our captured troops including John McCain) to take a picture, which we were told not to do. The guards definitely were not happy with us and started aiming their guns at us.

We were told that we couldn’t wear cycling spandex shorts to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum but when I arrived there the Vietnamese honor guard was more interested in my Oakley sunglasses. We visited the war museum which included a “gallery of war criminals”. This was essentially a row of photos of all the American presidents from Eisenhower to Ford. We visited the Cu Chi Tunnels which were a vital aspect of the guerilla war. It was fortunate that I was wearing my cycling helmet in the tunnels, because they were built for short people and I kept bunking my head on the top.

While cycling in the coastal city of Nha Trang, I noticed how exquisite the beaches were and commented that this would be a good place for a luxury resort. Little did I know then that I would be returning 13 years later to a five star tourist paradise! We had drinks on the roof of the Rex Hotel in Saigon, which was the scene of all types of intelligence intrigues during the war. (I returned to the Rex in 2006, but it is now dwarfed by modern New York style high rise hotels and office buildings)

In a restaurant, I removed my contact lenses. The Vietnamese were dumbfounded to see anyone take something out of their eye. We rode our bikes all over Saigon and Hanoi amid a million denizens. There weren’t many traffic lights then but the traffic coming from left and right seemed to “flow” into us when we were going straight ahead. If I was in doubt about how to proceed, I tried to get into a group of locals, especially letting them run interference against the bikes coming from the sides or I just “went with the flow”. In any event we were the only cyclists wearing helmets, let alone spandex. An accident, if it happened, probably wouldn’t have been serious as no one was going fast and there aren’t many hills in the Saigon and Hanoi areas.

To get to a restaurant for dinner we either rode our bike or hailed a cyclo. When we arrived at the restaurant we could “park” our bike for 10 cents (US) and they would watch our bike. We would have our bill “validated” by the restaurant and the parking would be free!

Once we took a cyclo downtown. A cyclo is a pedicab in which the driver pedals 2 or 3 people. The cyclo driver was stopped by a policeman for going the wrong way on a one way street and he had to buy the policeman a pack of cigarettes as a bribe. He didn’t have any money so he collected our “fares” in advance to buy the cigarettes. He waited at the restaurant while we dined and as it turned out the bribe was his earnings for the evening.

The bike touring company promised us “excellent hotels” but according to the Lonely Planet Guidebook, they were at the “bottom end”. Some charged about US$3 or $4 a night. Bats were flying down the hall and rats were running around the rooms in addition to swarms of insects. There was very little hot water so when our bike group returned each day, I would run into the shower to get the limited supply of hot water before other members of the group. The water in the pool was a bright slimy green – I lost my desire to use it.

The bikes were of poor quality – maybe sub Wal-Mart! The guide had no knowledge of bicycle mechanics but that wasn’t a big problem because all over Vietnam there were numerous “bike shops” An enterprising individual would “set up shop” on a curb at a heavily trafficked location with a few tools and rubber bands. He would gladly repair our bike for a typical charge of 15 cents. This repair would last for eight or nine miles and we would look for another bike shop. At the end of the two week tour the bikes looked like they could be added to the scrap metal dealer’s inventory.

The guide was selected on the basis of his knowledge of Vietnam. However, this knowledge was gained while in the US Army during the war. What the company didn’t know – they apparently never checked his background – that he had a psychiatric military discharge.

On New Year’s Eve, the Vietnamese who love fireworks set them off for hours. The sounds of explosives brought back his war memories and he went “bananas” and disappeared for a few days. Fortunately we also had a local Vietnamese guide who was very helpful. The American guide worshipped Ho Chi Minh and was also a big fan of Fidel Castro. Each evening during the cocktail hour he had a “reeducation session” for us. He also said he hoped that Saddam would destroy Israel. This was an interesting comment since the owner of the tour company was Jewish.

They wanted me to bring them home with me
They wanted me to bring them home with me
We took the midnight train from Saigon to Nha Trang (12 hours) We shlepped our luggage and the bikes through a sea of humanity (including beggars, pimps and vendors of everything) and threw our bikes through the windows of the train. The windows had no glass, just bars and metal which rolled up and down. People hung on to the outside of the train between cars and rode on the top of the train, which could be a problem when the train passed through a low tunnel! They also stuck their hands through the window bars into the compartments and attempted to grab whatever was within reach.

The reservations on the train (like everything else) was screwed up and instead of a first class compartment with two upholstered berths, we were relegated to a large 3rd class “room” shared by a number of Vietnamese with their children and livestock, often cooking meals in the room. Sleeping accommodations were 20 wooden shelves.

After a number of telexes to the railroad’s headquarters our guide finally secured a 1st class compartment for me and one other cyclist. The woman from Houston had to decide whether to share the compartment with me or the 3rd class “shelf” with the Vietnamese families.

It took her about 5 seconds to opt for me as a roommate. In the middle of the night she got up to go to the toilet down the hall but she couldn’t open the door to our compartment. A Vietnamese man had strung a hammock from our outside doorknob to a hook in the hall and was fast asleep! As a result of a cooperative bladder, a rechargeable razor, breath freshener and deodorant I was spared a visit to the “lavatory” but heard a description of it. A meal was served in what in the U.S. would be a plastic dog food bowl. I took one look at it and threw it out the window and subsisted on energy bars I had brought.

The roads were paved and for the most part weren’t that bad. The rice farmers apparently didn’t have any space to lay out their rice crop to dry so they just used the roads. They didn’t seem to mind when our bikes went through it. This saved them the task of agitating or turning the rice kernels. We also ran into sections of road which were used to dry new chopsticks.

There were cattle, water buffalo and oxcarts along with a mixture of cyclos, bicycles carrying everything from furniture to pig’s bodies and some motor scooters and trucks. On a typical day we cycled 20 or 30 miles. There were plenty of stops to look at points of interest which included pagodas, farms, markets, museums, war memorials, beaches and cemeteries.

The food ranged from bad to abominable. A few times I took a stroll around one of our restaurants and watched barefooted people sitting outside in dirt or mud in the back and washing dishes by hand in small plastic tubs. By the end of the tour we asked the guide to just give us the meal allowance which was under $5 and we found some places to eat which adhered to minimal sanitary and culinary standards for not much more money. In any event no group member either in 1993 or 2006 suffered more than a day of mild stomach distress.

We had several internal flights on Vietnam Airlines, which at that time was using old Russian turboprops. One had Polish writing so I assumed it was a castoff from the Polish airline.

There were no seat assignments and the flights were apparently overbooked. There was a crush to get on the plane and since there weren’t enough seats, some passengers sat on their friends’ laps or stood up in aisle for the duration of the flight.

Fast forward thirteen years to 2006: The Backroads tour started at Hanoi’s premier hotel, the Sofitel Metropole. The 11 night tour cost about $5,000 plus $1,000 single occupancy. We had nine women and eight men ranging in age from about 25 to 70. The group came from all over the U.S. and there was one couple from Vancouver, Canada. There were three couples. The others were married, traveling without their spouses, or single. The guides, one American, Holly and one Canadian, Becca, in their late 20s with at least five years experience with Backroads. They were friendly and very well qualified and trained for the demanding job. In addition they had a staff of about 5 Vietnamese, including an English speaking guide and drivers of our 4 vans and busses.

The Backroads staff was extremely well coordinated. If we were thirsty, a van would appear with icy drinks. If we were starting to get hungry, a van would be there with a gourmet box lunch or we would be directed to a nearby restaurant at which they had arranged a group meal. Whenever we arrived at an airport they would always have an air conditioned bus waiting for us and by the time we arrived at the hotel, the luggage would be in our rooms. Whenever we weren’t sure of the cycling turns or directions a staff member would “appear” at the intersection pointing the way and sometimes even directing traffic to stop for us.

After a cyclo and walking tour of Hanoi under overcast skies and 60 degree weather, we left early the next morning for a flight to Nha Trang. Vietnam Airlines had got its act together by now – it had assigned seats and was no longer using Russian planes.

From this point on we had only sunny and warm weather. We stayed at Nha Trang’s Ana Mandara Resort which a leading travel magazine called “a subtle overindulgence”. We each had a luxurious beach bungalow amidst lush vegetation and a giant seaside pool and exceptional; cuisine. Upon arrival, we were greeted by about a dozen comely female hotel employees and we could pick which one we would like to show us to our room. Then we had a bike fitting and short shakedown ride.

The next day we could ride from 15 to 37 miles. The route passed through palm-fringed rice paddies, serpentine rivers and tiny rural villages. Picnic lunches were catered by Backroads. Although I did the long option, I was back in time to lay out and swim at the gorgeous pool before an excellent dinner at the hotel.

The most difficult day in Backroads worldwide (6 continents and dozens of itineraries) repertoire of bike tours followed. We climbed up to the historic and charming hill town of Dalat. The 3 H’s (hills, heat and humidity) made it one of the most difficult biking days of my life. Towards the end I had to stop, drink some cold water, which was always available from a Backroads support vehicle, and ready myself for the next climb.

There was a contemporary of mine from California, a gentleman named Mitchell who is also married and traveling on this trip without his wife. Of the 17 in our group, he and I were the only ones to cycle the whole length of the long option that day. In fact he and I went on to cycle E.F.I. (every f—ing inch!) of the 10 day, 200 mile tour.

We then flew south to the Mekong Delta, an agricultural area and we had many opportunities to observe river life as we brought our bikes on ferries and a long tail boat.

The cyclo with the most passengers in Hanoi
The cyclo with the most passengers in Hanoi
bike route frequently crossed the river and its tributaries. We spent several evenings in Saigon, which like many major Asian cities has been rapidly modernized.

The population seemed to be much healthier in 2006. We didn’t encounter beggars and no one seemed to be hungry, but there were very few Vietnamese staying at our luxury hotels and owning cars. I think that by now they were familiar with pens!

There was no evidence that we had lost the war. We were waited on hand and foot by the Vietnamese. The level of of service was outstanding and very friendly. Tragically, we had 50,000 deaths in the war, but Vietnam’s death toll has been estimated at 5,000,000. The Vietnamese eschewed their currency, the “dong” (which is about 15,000 to the dollar) for the US money at every opportunity. Ho Chi Minh’s crusade was apparently against capitalism, but Ho Chi Minh City is one of the most capitalistic places I have seen anywhere – everyone has a business even if it is on the sidewalk and “HCM” City has its own stock exchange! Finally I didn’t notice any Russian or Chinese presence at all – and they were Vietnam’s allies. I didn’t see much of a French presence either.

In addition to Dalat and the Mekong, our final cycling venue neighboring was in Cambodia. This was also a new cycling destination for me. Cambodia is somewhat different from Vietnam. It has a different language and somewhat of a Thai influence. We had another set of bikes (Cannondale mountain bikes) and a local support staff with their own vehicles. The focus there was on several complexes of ancient temples, such as the famous Angkor Wat. I can’t think of enough superlatives to describe the Raffles Grand Hotel, which was our home for our three night stay there.

The two trips were outstanding and memorable cycling experiences and the opportunity to compare them from different points in time gave me a special insight and perspective into this fascinating part of the world.

Practical information: Backroads, whose claim is that they are the “World’s #1 Active Travel Company”, is probably valid: telephone 800-GO-ACTIVE; www.backroads.com has detailed information including hotels on all of their tours.

I took EVA Air. In March their web site advertised round trip air from Newark to Vietnam for as low as $775. I was able to upgrade to a roomy and comfortable large seat for an additional $150 one way for the long legs.

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