I can still vividly recall the iconic TV footage of people dangling from helicopter skids as the Americans abandoned the Saigon embassy at the end of the Vietnam War. The place held a fascination for me, what with all the movies and books I'd devoured, and its tantalising taboo status for casual travellers. Then all sanity broke loose - the government figured some foreign cash would be nice and the doors swung wide open. I'd grown up in the eighties, fearful of communist oppression and nuclear uncertainty. I really wanted to see what the fuss had been about.
We landed in Bangkok only to learn that while we were in the air, Southern Asia had been devastated by the Boxing Day tsunami. Not the most uplifting start to a holiday. Our flight continued on to Hanoi. From the window we spotted concrete hangars and MIG jets lining the runway. We envisioned being greeted by inscrutable soldiers wielding AK47s but were disappointed with standard issue po-faced border control officers. Hanoi's franco-asian food is outstanding and the people lovely. Ho Chi Minh was resting in state and looking good after his annual refit in Russia. The weather was a modest 14 - 18 degrees. We reacquainted ourselves with our bikes and toiled with Hanoi's sea of cyclists. It's total mayhem but totally effective given the absence of any cars. I pity the day when the Vietnamese all trade 'up' to motorcars and gridlock becomes the norm.
After a magical side-trip without bikes to Halong Bay, where we were part of a temporary theft of a rowboat, we finally set off on the business end of our trip - cycling 1000km to the Mekong Delta. Like most big cities, the only safe way to exit the urban sprawl is by public transport. We took a bus, sitting in the back with our bikes on the roof - sharing bread rolls and cigarettes with the locals. Actually I don't smoke but it felt right at the time. After stopping at Nimh Binh to climb pagodas and watch sunsets we continued by train to Hue. Now it's true that we hadn't done much cycling at this stage, but the stretch between Hanoi and Hue is reportedly quite dull and we only had three weeks left. Had we not ridden the train, we would have missed one of those unforgettable experiences - over-nighting in a 'hard' sleeper. The 'hard' part is the mattress because it's actually a bamboo mat. We shared with an Australian family of four and our bike bags. Bicycles are not allowed on this particular train. We pretended to be Americans with lots of luggage - no one asked any questions. We were awoken the next morning by stirring revolutionary music, followed by a bottle of water and a steam bun lobbed into our compartment for breakfast.
A crowd gathered as we assembled the bikes outside the train station. Disc brakes were a source of wonderment. Like blokes hanging around the barbeque, the men pointed and rubbed chins in admiration. Anything with a handle or button got yanked or pushed. The Vietnamese are naturally inquisitive and can create anything with a piece of scrap metal and a hammer. If terrorists really want an atomic bomb they should talk to a Vietnamese street vendor- "certainly sir, can I interest you in a missile launcher as well? Should be ready next Friday". Hue is ridiculously beautiful, packed with temples and even the occasional elephant patrolling the streets. We visited the Imperial City - where the Americans bombed the snot out of the Viet Cong guerrillas during the Tet Offensive of 1968. Extraordinarily there was no apparent animosity towards westerners, even Americans.
The next day we blew the cobwebs off our bikes and had our first taste of cycling Highway 1- not as harrowing as we had feared. The trucks steered well clear of us and the scooter drivers were friendly. In fact it felt a good deal safer than cycling the open road in New Zealand. Hitting the resort town of Dinh Binh, a young girl beckoned us from the side of the road, offering us a room in her dad's hotel for US$10. With one exception we never paid more than 15 bucks the entire trip, even at flash joints with pools and all the trimmings. A fellow cycle tourer warned that a steep, unassailable pass awaited us in the morning. It transpired to be quite straightforward. We even passed a few buses and trucks- on account of their sad engines rather than our fitness. Hawkers accosted us as we crested the pass, flogging tiger balm and costume jewellery at inflated prices. The Vietnamese are clearly coming to grips with this capitalism caper pretty quickly. The pass blocks Southern Vietnam from the chilly winds up north. It was instantly 5 degrees warmer as we descended to the other side. Our warm clothes were duly bundled off home.
We rode past the biggest Buddha I've ever seen on our way to Danang where one of the biggest US bases once was. It has that awful strip-mall look typical of fast growing industrial towns. So it was on to Hoi An, along with every other western tourist - or so it seemed. We discovered you could buy any piece of clothing imaginable, tailor-made to your individual shape and ready tomorrow. After lingering for a few days we caught a bus to Dalat where we drank beer with a German who reckoned he was on the run from the German secret service. From Dalat it was all downhill to Thanh Binh and a very questionable hotel- complete with full length mirrors, tired ladies in mini skirts and dodgy-looking drunk guys. Lonely Planet maintains it is the only accommodation available. Our sleeping silks came in handy.
120kms of pedalling the next day landed us in a valley that time had forgotten. The village of Jun was established for the displaced Montagnard highlanders. The government is forcibly creating refugees to undermine dissent in areas home to ethnic minorities. The village is poor with few amenities. Families live in long houses with parents, grandparents and kids separated by a blanket. We met another traveller - Michelangelo from Rome (no, really) who was touring the world on his 'easy rider' motor cycle. Normally people would pass comment on his name and the famous painter, but while in New Zealand someone earnestly thought it was funny to be named after a ninja turtle. Who says we ain't got kulcha?
At a campsite a few days later, we shared a drink with a motorcycle tour guide who had been a special forces ranger with the South Vietnamese Army. The more he drank, the more harrowing his stories became, including those of his three years re-education after the war. At the same campsite a French couple raved about Phu Quoc Island off the south west coast. We were sold. Picking our way along back roads and over rickety stick bridges, we rode for three days across the totally flat Mekong Delta to the coast. The markets were awesome and the food unimaginably good. A Russian-made hydrofoil whisked us from the coast to the island. A beach-side bungalow was secured without any reservations. We indulged - eating exotic fruit, quaffing smoothies, swimming in bath-temperature water and snorkelling amongst the coral. All too soon we were in Saigon and winging our way home. Vietnam is a spectacular place to travel- cheap, friendly... and by bike is a great way to see it.