By Gary Corbett
For a self-confessed travelholic who has spent a large slice of his adult life travelling the world at every opportunity as both a travel writer and on personal holidays, it is somewhat incongruous that Vietnam, until now, has never been on the itinerary.
Why? I’m not really sure of the answer, but at the time the lure of Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, other countries in Asia, India, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, etcetera, etcetera was stronger for a variety of reasons.
On reflection it was a major oversight given the fact that I grew up in Australia during the Vietnam War (or the ‘American War’ as it is known to many Vietnamese), had friends who fought there and was a cadet journalist on the Australian national newspaper ‘The Australian’ during the final two years of the conflict.
Names and battles such as Da Nang, Saigon, Hanoi, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hai Van Pass, Da Nang’s Checkpoint Charlie, China Beach, the Tet Offensive, the Battle of Long Tan, the Battle of Binh Ba, the 1975 Spring Offensive, the Fall of Saigon and more were in the headlines of the day and still resonate with me today.
So while it might have taken 40 years from the end of the war, it was with great anticipation that I recently finally made it to Vietnam to participate in the SpiceRoads Cycle Tours ‘Vietnam Heritage by Bicycle’ tour.
During seven days of cycling over 250 or so kilometres from Hue to Hoi An via Da Nang in central Vietnam – the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during the war and the base for the huge American armed force – we were not only immersed in the history of the war itself, but also the long and colourful history of Vietnam, the Vietnamese people and, of course, its food.
Thanks in no small part to SpiceRoads guide Anh Co Nguyen who, as a child, lived in a village near Da Nang smack bang in the middle between the American and Viet Cong forces, the war and the reality of the horror of it for the majority of the Vietnamese population came to life.
Most importantly, the combination of Anh Co’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the war, a visit to the home of a Hue historian Mr Phan Thuan An and another visit to the home of an ex-Viet Cong soldier ensured that our group of cycle tourists was provided with a balanced overall view of the war from all sides of the conflict.
Personally it was an amazing opportunity to not only see firsthand where many important battles took place, but to learn about the war from a Vietnamese perspective and the legacy it has left.
But don’t for one moment think that the SpiceRoads Vietnam Heritage Bicycle Tour is only about the history of the Vietnam War, far from it.
Thanks to guide Anh Co, a fountain of information and knowledge about Vietnam if ever there was one, over the course of five days of cycling we also visited and learned about the Imperial Citadel in Hue which was established by the Nguyen Dynasty that ruled Vietnam from 1802 until 1945, visited the mausoleums of Emperors Ming Mang and Khai Dinh – the second and 12th Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty – learned much about the French occupation of Vietnam, visited My Son, the ancient centre of the Champa civilization which ruled central Vietnam from the 4th to 14th centuries, toured the cities of Hue and historical Hoi An and much, much more.
Personally it was the visit to My Son, a holy site revered by the people of the lost kingdom of Champa, which was my favourite.
The area, a Viet Cong stronghold during the Vietnam War which is said to still be littered with unexploded landmines, was heavily bombarded by the Americans.
The resultant damage inflicted on many of the ancient Champa temples – and nearby bomb craters which are still visible to this day – remain to serve as a stark reminder of the harsh realities of war.
But while many of the revered temples were either destroyed or badly damaged, enough remains to underline the archaeological importance of the site to modern day Vietnam, and a constant stream of international visitors.
Although absorbed by Anh Co’s ongoing tales of the Vietnam War and the country’s colourful history, it was the cycling that our group of intrepid cycle tourists had come for and each and every one of us savoured every moment of the tour on our bicycles.
Despite the inconvenience of four days of persistent rain, it was an amazing opportunity to see up close and personal the ‘real’ Vietnam as we cycled through countryside of immense beauty and geographical diversity.
While Vietnam in 2015 can easily be described as a country on the move, given the impact of 45 million two-stroke scooters and mopeds on cities such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, in the countryside it as though life has stood still.
In many of the small villages we cycled through it was easy to imagine we were 30, 50 or more years in the past. Here bicycles continue to act as the main form of local transport, while in the endless paddy fields water buffalo till the ground as they have done for centuries and villagers manually work with hoes and shovels.
Sure, modern-day tractors clearly have an increased presence on the rural landscape, but traditional farming practices continue to prevail.
It was in the rural villages where the realisation fully hit home for everyone in our tour group that travelling by bicycle was the ONLY way to see Vietnam.
Almost without exception everyone we passed would yell out a welcoming “hello” followed by a huge smile. Children’s faces would light up as we rode by and would either run beside us or attempt a high-five. In return we would respond to their high-pitched greeting with our own “hello”, a scenario repeated hundreds of times during the tour.
While Thailand is universally known as the ‘Land of Smiles’, given our experience Vietnam equally deserves to be known as ‘The Land of a Million Hellos’.
At almost every stop we were surrounded by curious children and adults (many, according to Anh Co, concerned that we were lost), with the result that photo opportunities were boundless.
Only too happy to oblige children keen to have their photograph taken, we were more often than not thanked for our trouble. But in reality it was us who were grateful for being allowed into their lives, if only for a fleeting minute or two.
As an aside, even in the most remote villages we cycled through it was fascinating to see how many people were wearing ‘real’ fake designer and sporting clothes. With Vietnam clearly a mecca for pirated clothing labels, brands such as Nike, North Face, Armani, Lacoste, Adidas, Prada, Diesel and Dolce & Gabbana were not only widely worn, but were downright common.
But while traditional Vietnamese clothes in 2015 are starting to make way for western-style clothing, fortunately the same cannot be said about Vietnamese food.
While companies such as McDonalds, Burger King and KFC have recently carved out a limited toe hold on the culinary map in the Communist-run country, it is refreshing to see that traditional Vietnamese food is still king.
With Anh Co taking all responsibility for the ordering of our meals at each of our lunch and dinner stops, we feasted on a smorgasbord of dishes and tastes.
While the key ingredients used in Vietnamese cooking (along with fish sauce, sugar and rice) are very similar to its closest neighbours, Thailand and Cambodia, Vietnamese cooking, we discovered much to our delight, has a distinct style all of its own.
Overall it is less spicy, lighter and fragrant, with many dishes served at the same time. Personal favourites were the Vietnamese soup pho (pronounced fur) which can be found all over Vietnam and anywhere else in the world with a Vietnamese immigrant population, Vietnamese spring rolls and Banh xeo (crispy pancakes).
But on reflection there was nothing that was served over the course of the seven day cycle tour that was not delicious and eagerly devoured by our group.
And basically that was the story of the entire SpiceRoads Vietnam Heritage by Bicycle Tour. Overall it was a feast of amazing sights, great food, enjoyable cycling and an up close and personal look at what is, after all, a country with an amazing history.