Ok so I’ve not seen the whole of Vietnam yet, and my cycling here untill now is pretty much limited to Ha Long. But still, I think I can give a good first impression of what cycling in Vietnam is like. The blogposts on the days yet to come will add to this first description.
Uptill now I’ve made three cycle trips in the Ha Long area. The first was to explore the city (about 60k), the second was to explore the surroundings of the city (about 70k) and the third was to Cat Ba Island (about 85k). The urban fabric of Ha Long is quite different from the Dutch build up area. Ha Long consist only of a number of through roads with continuous ribbon development (lintbebouwing). This ribbon development also continuous outside the city without being interupted, merging one city seamlesly into the next. So there is no dense network of primary, secondary and tertiary roads like in the Netherlands. There are only primary roads, which are also the busy roads.
The traffic on these roads is quite chaotic. The Vietnamese are always in a hurry and they developped quite a unique “tooting” language. They have a toot saying “get out of my way” and a more gentle toot saying “watch out, here I come!”. They also have toots to say “what are you waiting for!” and toots to say “hey that’s something you don’t see everyday but why the hell are you cycling here?”. If the horns of the car don’t work, they have a similar more scilent language with flashing headlights. Although the traffic is quite chaotic, average speeds are quite low. Despite all the accelerating, overtaking and Jos Verstappen manouvress – which makes you feel like you’re driving with a 160km per hour and makes you wonder why you ever got in the car – average speeds are actually only around 50km per hour. It’s just not a very efficient way of driving.
After my first acquaintance with Vietnamese traffic I was quite hesitant to start cycling here. I was a little worried about the air quality, but in Ha Long it’s quite okay. However in Ha Noi for example it’s quite poor. The Vietnamese drive on the right side of the road (which is the right side), but when there are multiple lanes the slow traffic is using the left lane (which is not bad, just different). All overtaking formula 1 Vietnamese use the right lane (which in Dutch terms is actually the wrong side of the road). However, scooters and motorcycles also use the right lane. None of the scooterists or motorcyclists ever look backwards. They just use the right lane and pray to some god that the overtaking traffic will not hit them. This is why there is also a “get out of my goddamn way!!!!!!” hoot. As a cyclist you belong with the motorcycles and the scooters, on the right lane (which I guess is indeed the right lane). At first it was pretty scary, however in the end it’s not that bad. And I didn’t die yet, so that’s a good sign. This is also due to the fact that there is often a broad shoulder on the right side of the road which puts you at safe distance from the fast lane. And although other traffic hoots a lot (not the “hey that cyclist is something new and interesting” hoot) they do take into account that you are there. However it does require an assertive riding style. And you have to pick your battles because I have not yet been able to win from the Chinese touring car busses.
A bit more to the north the city makes way for rural area. However construction works on a large new highway between Hai Phong and Van Don makes this area very hard to cycle through. On my second cycling trip I ended up with a rear wheel which was jammed due to all the thick mud and gravel that got in the space between the bike’s tire and fender. And I lost the use of my gears due to little stones being stuck between the blades of my cassette. So my second ride here was quite a challenge. The ride on Cat Ba Island was quite okay. People were waving and smiling and happy and little children were running along with me and dogs tried to eat me. I hope that the roads up north are as nice and quiet and that the quality is similar to the roads over at Cat Ba.
So what do I think are my main challenges for the next two weeks? First of all I will be riding with a very limited amount of gear. I have no tent or sleeping and cooking material, which means that I will need hotels, homestay’s or hostels to sleep in. With the help of our team’s local assistant I’ve been able to book the first four sleeping places ahead, which I did mainly due to the Tet celebrations. After those four nights I will have to cross my fingers that I will be able to find a place to stay. However I did plan my routes to end in town’s which actually have places to stay, so I should be okay. The second challenge will be food. The Vietnamese food is very high on protein (meat, seafood, tofu) and fiber (vegetables and fruits) but quite low on carbohydrates (some rice and noodles). For that reason I stocked some high calorie foods (nuts, dried fruits, chocolate, wheat bars) in the hope that I will have sufficient energy and that I will not lose to much weight during the trip, as I do not have many reserves left to lose (I know, it’s kind of a luxury problem).
So in short I’m hoping for beautiful sights, okay roads, okay places to sleep and sufficient food. To be honest I’m quite excited about my first long bicycle trip on a continent that’s not Europe. So let’s hope everything turns out fine!
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