It feels like it was yesterday but it has been already three years since the Sunday Bike Ride started n Ho Chi Minh City since then we had the chance to welcome riders every Sunday, discover new places in our city, make new friends, enjoy the slow pace cycling and, in short, enjoying. Many of us can no longer understand Sundays without the Sunday Bike Ride and this enthusiasm has allowed us to expand to Nha Trang and Hue and keep expanding the passion for cycling in this country.
The ones who joined on Sunday November 6 had the chance to do a 50km round trip ride around the city, before the birthday party in Dong Tao tearoom. We had the chance to cycle through Ben Thanh Market, Phu My Birdge, Dong Van Con, Mai Chi Tho, the Thu Thiem bridge and finsih our ride in front of Dong Tao tearoom, where we had a nice party, enjoyed food, beers and chatting with one another. Events like this remind us that biking is about exercise, it’s about discovering new places and cultures, it’s about moving in a respectful way for the environment but it’s also about developing a special relationship with your fellow riders. Cycling is often pictured as an individualistic sports, as opposed to collective sports such as football or basketball, but as much as this can be true, it is also a great way of making friends. Only those who have discovered new places with fellow riders, who helped or were helped when they had any problem on the road, who know that experiences on the bike often become better when you are with the right people will understand this. Cycling is a sports, but more than that, it is a way of life. Happy birthday to the Sunday Bike Ride and hoping for many more years to come.
As VietnamBikeTours grows, we also get more and more friends all over the world. It’s always rewarding to see how people from all over the world enjoy our cycling tours in Vietnam and go back home with good memories from our work. In some cases, cyclists who join our tours and our Sunday Bike Ride, become good friends. This is what happened with Saad Ahmad, our new man in Singapore. Saad lived for 10 years in Vietnam, five in Hanoi and five in Ho Chi Minh City, he joined several of our rides during weekends in 2013 and 2014 and became a good friend of our chairman, Ngo Trong Huy. Now retired from his work in the garment industry, this cycling enthusiast moved to Singapore and happily accepted his new position as Vietnambiketours representative in that market. As he tells us, “cycling in Singapore is becoming popular with the new PCN (park connector) built near housing estate”.
Although Singapore is becoming more and more friendly for cyclists, there is not much space left to explore, and that’s why cyclists there, who usually ride in groups several times a week, will for sure be happy to explore wild Vietnam, as they also cross sometimes the border to enjoy nature in neighbouring Malaysia. Singapore isless than four hours away from Saigon by airplane and you don’t even need to bring your bike with you, you can rent it from us.
Mr Ahmad thinks Singaporeans will be interested in any kind of cycling, enjoying the real Vietnam. If any tourist is interested, he can tell his own experience, as he joined a cycling tour last November from Ho Chi Minh City to Hue. When he is not cycling, he also likes playing tennis or enjoying a motorcycle ride (legs need some rest sometimes). If you are in Singapore and are thinking of doing a cycling tour in Vietnam, you can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You won’t regret it.
Last February, some regular Sunday Bike Ride cyclists and other bike enthusiasts in Saigon sent off Simon Barry and his Vietnamese girlfriend Nguyen Kim Ngan before their long trip through Asia and Europe to rise awareness about climate change and reach Paris before the United Nations Conference on Climate Change starts on November 30. It looked like a long shot when we crossed the Cat Lai ferry with them but anyone who could spend five minutes with them could see how determined they were and how hard they would try. Nine months later, after an extenuating adventure, with Ngan having some health problems, Simon simply says “it’s not that hard to do” and he highlights something anyone having travelled by bike knows: “the vast majority of humanity are kind and generous”. However, they are disappointed to see the very small awareness of the problems climate change is bringing.
The couple are now reaching French city of Lyon and are just a few days away from making it to Paris, a city many may want to avoid after the recent events but not Simon and Ngan. Although the demonstration before the summit starts and day of civil disobedience at the end these have both been cancelled after the terrorist attacks, they still plan to be very active. “In the light of that it makes it even more important that people in other countries attend the demonstrations in their country. However other events are still going ahead and we’ll be participating in those and sharing the story of our journey at the counter summit and speaking everyday”. Here are a few questions Simon and Ngan had the kindness to answer us by email.
– How do you feel after all these months traveling by bike?
Really good. It had been a wonderful trip. We have seen so many beautiful places and met so many wonderful people. Every day something new happens so it doesn’t feel boring. And i’m the fittest I’ve been in my life so physically I feel good too.
– Are there days when it’s hard to get on the bike and keep going?
Not really for all the reasons I’ve outlined above. We have been taking rest days every week so sometimes by the end of the week the legs are getting tired and you appreciate a day off. But the world is a beautiful place so seeing lots of it doesn’t seem hard. We have also been lucky with the weather. It has only rained 7 times when we were riding in the whole of the 9 months we have been travelling. Although that will very likely change in the last week in the north of France.
– What has been the most difficult time of your trip?
Ngân got quite sick because of the food in cental Asia. Going from a Vietnamese diet with lots of vegetables and rice to a diet of lamb and bread was a bit of a shock to the system. It was challenging trying to find doctors and it affected her ability to ride. It lasted for months too which was worrying but thankfully she is ok now.
– What are your best memories so far?
Being woken up by the sound of a fox stealing my shoe while we were camping in Iran. The landscape in Kyrgyzstan. The snowcapped mountains and bright blue lakes. It is probably the most beautiful country I’ve been to. The wonderful people that we’ve met. Unfortunately too many to mention. We have been using hospitality sites like Couchsurfing and warmshowers a lot and it’s been fantastic meeting so many interesting people and experiencing their hospitality.
– You want to call attention about climate change. After seeing all these countries what are your views about pollution in Asia? Is it worse or better than you expected?
Actually we have passed through mainly rural areas so haven’t seen too much pollution. Even in China it was only in Xian and Lanzhou that the pollution was noticeable. However we have been seeing and hearing about the affects that climate change is already having. In Vietnam we spoke to farmers who told us about the salt water contaminating their fields as sea levels rise. In China we saw the spreading deserts. In all the mountainous areas we visited people explained that there was a lot less snow in winter and the snows were melting earlier causing water shortages. In many areas it was drier and hotter again causing water shortages. Iran was probably the most threatened country we visited. Within 30 or 40 years up to 50 million people could be forced from their homes due to lack of water. Even in Europe we saw problems. Flash flooding had ripped through the town of Benevento in Italy a few days before we passed through killing 5 people. And people told us the weather was becoming much more variable, some summers are cool and wet others much hotter. Even warming of only 2°C would see 50% of summers at least as warm the heatwave of 2003 which killed 70,000 people.
– How do people react when they meet you and find out about your trip? Are they receptive when you talk about climate change?
Yes people were receptive but we were speaking to mostly educated people who could understand English or were involved in environmental groups already. But what really surprised me was the lack of awareness of just how serious the problem is and how much it could affect them. Even in places like Iran were the population is highly educated there is almost no awareness that within 40 years much of the country could be uninhabitable desert. We only met one person who understood that and he was a geographer. But then again even in Europe people don’t understand that deserts could also start spreading through southern Europe this century unless we take serious action to cut emissions.
– What did you learn in all these months?
Apart from a hate appreciation of the impact of warming of less than 1°C was having I learned that the vast majority of humanity are kind and generous. We have met so many people who helped us, gave us things, invited us into their homes. That’s what gives me hope for the future. That we can actually create a better society which cares for the earth and for each other. We just need to get rid of the arseholes who are running the show at the minute.
If you want to find out more about their story and their commitment, you can read their website and blog: http://bike4afuture.com/
As the Sunday Bike Ride anniversary event (November 8th) is getting closer it is a good time to remind a few advantages of riding a bike compared to cars or motorbikes.
Only bike riders can understand this. The feeling that you are flying on the road, the feeling that a tiny vehicle can take you anywhere, the feeling that you own your destiny. Going downhill on an empty road can be the closest humans can be from flying.
2) It’s fast
It’s true than in a tropical climate like Vietnam’s you may need spare clothes because of the sweat (or the rain) but riding your bike in the city (with a mask and a helmet) is one of the fastest ways of moving around. For sure faster than cars if the distance is not too big and sometimes quicker than motorbikes. On a bicycle you can always find a space to squeeze yourself on traffic jams or find alternate routes.
3) It’s clean
Not only you don’t produce any carbon footprint when you ride it but the impact on the environment of producing a bike is much smaller than the one to produce a car or a motorbike. In a country like Vietnam, where climate change is already a big issue the use of bikes should be strongly encouraged.
4) It’s cheap
Yes, there are bikes out there that can cost a few thousand dollars, but in general a bicycle is way cheaper than a motorbike or a car. And it doesn’t require much maintenance. YOu can take your bike after ten years and it will only need some oil and air for your tires.
5) It makes you fit
Why would you spend so much money going to the gym when you can actually use commuting time to improve your fitness by using your bike. Ride your bicycle everyday and you will soon experience how your body feels better.
6) It makes you feel good
That happens when you make exercise, your body produces endorphins that will make you feel better. Sometimes it can even help you be more productive at work.
7) Bikes are silent
Except for the relaxing sound of the chain and the wheels turning, bicycles are really silent. You only realize how refreshing it is to move around without hearing a constant buzz.
Some cyclists prefer mountain bikes wherever they go, others would bring their road bikes even if they risk punctures on rough and dusty roads, and there are fans of touring bikes or cyclo cross models that can take them comfortably in almost all kinds of roads. But we always overlook a new kind of bicycle that is emerging in recent years, specially in Asia: the bamboo bike.
Can a bicycle be made of bamboo? This challenges everything we thought we knew about bikes, no metal needed, not even carbon, just bamboo frames, the same bamboo that grows around in countries like Vietnam. As they say in bamboobikevietnam.com, one of the most important bamboo bike suppliers in Vietnam, “Bamboo, during war time, was used to make weaponry to fight the enemy, but more importantly, as kids we play with bamboo; as a family we live in bamboo houses, take shade under the leaves; and eat young bamboo shoots. Even while sleeping, the bed is made from bamboo, and is the crib for little children”. Yes bamboo has always been a part of Vietnamese people’s lives until it started changing in modern times with new industrial materials. It is however regaining power recently with furnitures and now with these bikes.
People who have tried them highlight their flexibility and their shock absorption. Mekong creations, which offers a wide variety of bamboo models, from children bikes to fixies, also praises their resistance. This could be the most dubious issue, since we might think that bamboo can never match metal in terms of strength or sturdiness. It could be true, but it seems that these bikes are made to be strong and survive in all sort of conditions. Claude Perzo, who used to be a semiprofessional racer in Europe, is one of the testers and his thoughts are quite revealing: He traveled in Cambodia for 160 km on a road with really rough parts with a bike loaded with 17 kilos and not only did he survive, but he seems amazed by the experience. “I am really impressed by the reactions of the bamboo frame. I did not avoid any bad part of the road to make a drastic test, nothing broke”, he says. Another user, Romain Gaudin, feels he goes faster with less effort. “There is less fatigue. I use it to go to the gym and I see a clear difference with ordinary bikes. I believe comfort is a strong argument in favor of this bike”, he explains.
On top of that, they are more sustainable, since the main material just grows around us and can be reabsorbed by nature when the bike needs to be replaced. All this said, we will have a more accurate opinion when we can try one of them. We are looking forward to try one of them, maybe during one of the upcoming Sunday Bike Rides if someone brings one. All users who have tried them are welcome to leave their opinion here.
Probably the most popular mountain pass in Vietnam, the bike ride through the “clouds ocean pass” gathers almost all the elements that make cycling in Vietnam so enjoyable. The route from Hoi An to Hue (or vice-versa) has a beautiful coast road, a charming winding road uphill (but there is always a downhill at the end), a little bit of challenge for those who like climbing but nothing unfeasible if you are used to riding a bike. And it has something no other pass has, two different climates, as the weather changes a lot if you are on the northern or the southern part of the pass. Towards the south, there are only two seasons, the rainy and the dry, towards the north, there are three or four (depending on who you ask), but it never gets extremely cold during the winter. If you choose to go from Hoi An to Hue (South to North) you will have time to warm up during 50 gentle kilometers following the coast, passing by the central city of Danang, pedaling along the bay where both French and American military ships first arrived, and be prepared for the start of the climb. It is the longest and highest mountain pass in the famous road number 1 (which is mostly flat) with a length of 21km. From its summit (496m above sea level) you will have stunning views of the coast in Da Nang and Thua Thien Province.
O Quy Ho: the longest
If you want big mountains in Vietnam, you should go to the north. And if you are not scared by big challenges, you can try the O Quy Ho pass between the provinces of Lao Cai and Lai Chau. People know it as the “cloudy mountain pass” because its top is always cloudy, but its real name is much more poetic: the cry of the phoenix bird. According to the legend, in those mountains there was a couple of lovers who couldn’t marry. The girl became sick because of this and died, but turned into a phoenix bird which still cries in the forrest every night. True or not, this breathtaking and tough road that stands over 2,000 meters above the sea level goes through the Hoang Lien mountains, where stands the majestic Fan Si Pan, the highest mountain in Indochina. Only for expert cyclists.
Ma Pi Leng: the king
It is not the longest, it is not the highest, it is not the most popular, but Ma Pi Len (over 1,500 meters over sea level), in the northern province of Ha Giang, is probably the most legendary mountain pass in Vietnam. What makes it so special is not the toughness (yes, hard climb, but never too steep) but its beautiful, surreal cliff road at the top, surrounded by peaks that seem to pierce the sky. It was built during the sixties, mainly by workers from the Hmong ethnic minority. You will see dozens of members of this ethnic group as you go through this winding road. It is when you reach the top that the fun starts, you will feel like you are flying in the descent towards Meo Vac. If you are fit, adventurous, you really like mountains and you can only do a short and different ride in Vietnam, go north and cycle those mountains, cross the Ma Pi Leng and feel like you are the king of the world. Usually it is cloudy, which makes it charming and mysterious, but if you get a sunny day, the views might even be better.
Bicycle history is very rich in Vietnam. Until motorbikes expanded everywhere a few years ago, bicycles were the main transportation. And in a country that has been haunted by so many wars in the last two centuries, it is not surprising that they played an important role in some of them. One of the most remembered battles in Vietnam history is the one in Dien Bien Phu, where general Giap earned worldwide respect for his military talent after defeating the French Army. Not that we want to diminish general Giap’s merits, but according to some historians, that victory would not have been possible without the help of bicycles.
According to researcher Dong Xuan Dong in an article published in the may-june issue of the magazine Vietnam Heritage, over 21,000 bicycles were mobilized during that battle. The bikes were used for logistics and most of the time the pushers couldn’t even ride them, since they were packed with goods for the fighters. At the beginning they could ‘only’ carry 80 kg, but they reinforced the frames and made it possible to carry between 200 and 300 kg. The official record was held by Mr Ma Van Than, who loaded his bike with 352 kg.
The Pack Bicycle Force, as it was called, was operating on more than 1,500 km of forest and rural paths where they could easily hide from the French troops. Each town had its caravan of Pack Bicycle Force, which were divided in smaller platoons of 30 to 40 bikes each. We can imagine how difficult it was to push them, but it made sense, since a single bike could bear at least five times the weight a man could carry, it could go in rough paths easily compared to motorized vehicles, they are not noisy, and they don’t consume fuel. They always carried spare parts and tools with them and at least one member of the platoon knew how to repair and weld the bikes.
No matter how hard the French tried to cut the supply routes with bombings, they never managed to stop those sturdy bikes and their brave pushers. As French journalist Jules Roy wrote in his book about the battle of Dien Bien Phu: “General Navarre (the French Commander in Indochina) was defeated by no one but the pack-bike pushers, who carried 200 to 320 kg each, who never had enough to eat, and who slept on a piece of nylon spread on the roadside”. After reading this, any ride with an unloaded bike in peaceful Vietnam should feel like a walk in the park.
Even by bicycle, the beach is really close to Saigon. Technically, Saigon even has a beach, since Can Gio district belongs to Ho Chi Minh City administration. But today we will focus on a more set up for tourists and that many people who live in Saigon know for sure: Vung Tau. About one hour away by the hydrofoil boats that recently resumed operations after a ban due to a fire last January, or a bit longer by motorized vehicle, it is worth going there by bicycle and spend a couple of days relaxing by the sea.
It’s around 90 kilometer from Saigon city center, which is easily done for riders with an acceptable level of fitness, since there are no big hills. The only one is the Phu My Bridge, that you have to climb and descend before getting the Cat Lai ferry. It will still not be strictly the countryside, but you will avoid the big traffic from highway number 1 and the distance is shorter. After a few kilometers along the Ton Duc Thang road, you will have to turn right and follow the road AH 17. Here you will have to go across some big towns and industrial areas, until you reach Ba Ria City 40 kilometers later. You can already smell the sea, but it’s still not there. Maybe it’s a good idea to stop for lunch before the last ten kilometers to the sea, here you can finally relax.
Although it is often dismissed by many foreign tourists, Vung Tau has a lot to offer. Known as Cap Saint Jacques during the French time, this coastal city gives Saigoneers some fresh air and rest from buzzing Ho Chi Minh City. Thousands of locals go there during public holidays, so it’s good to avoid those days if you are looking for some peace. You can climb to the Christ mountain, a local version of Rio de Janeiro’s Sugarloaf mountain, from where you have stunning views of the bay. Or you can try more unconventional ideas, like watching the greyhound races at the Lam Son stadium, one of the few venues where gambling is allowed for locals. If you want to see other animals than greyhounds, Ho May ecotourism may be worth a visit. Or if you are tired from the trip and all you want is relax, go to any seafood restaurant downtown, seat down, order a beer and enjoy the local specialties.
If you have the energy, you can also keep cycling. You can choose to go from Ba Ria to Loc An through rice fields, or to follow the coastal road from Vung Tau through Long Hai. The road keeps going northwards along the coast, the beginning of a new adventure if you have the time and the energy. But this will be the topic of another post…
We know it doesn’t sound very credible if we are the ones who encourage you to join Sunday Bike Ride. That’s why in this post, the blogger will abandon the usual corporate tone of previous posts and tell his personal experience during the ride last Sunday, November 2, when we were celebrating our first birthday. It was my first time, and for sure it won’t be the last. Here are a few reasons for you to join with me.
1) Saigon early morning
I admit that waking up at 5:30 AM on a Sunday morning doesn’t sound very attractive to possible new riders, and this is one of the reasons that had kept me from trying Sunday Bike Ride before. There is always someone ready to drink some beers on a Saturday night and discourage you from waking up early to take your bike. But it is really worth it. As I was cycling towards the meeting point in Ben Thanh Market at 6AM I was rediscovering a very quiet Saigon, with a gentle breeze under a clear blue sky, a cleaner air and barely any traffic. Waking up at this time I could still see the picturesque image of people doing their exercise in the park or a surprising group of Vietnamese boy scouts who were just camping with their tent in a middle of a sidewalk in a park. Sure, I could have been sleeping but I’m happy I didn’t.
2) Meet great people
Since I parked my bike in the roundabout in front of Ben Thanh Market and joined the riders who were waiting there I could feel the relaxed atmosphere, the genuine friendliness of all the members. They’re all ready to greet the newcomers and make sure they are fine. You will meet foreigners and locals, of all ages: the youngest rider, the amazing Khang, was just 13 years old (don’t be fooled by his height, he is a terrific cyclist) and the oldest… well, we are not going to be impolite.
3) Learn about Vietnamese culture
Sunday Bike ride really tries to bring Vietnamese culture closer to foreigners or to whoever is interested. It’s not only about the bike. Last Sunday, for instance,. we took 15 minutes to visit, in a hidden street near the airport, the monument to Phan Chu Trinh, an early 20th century Vietnamese nationalist. He died in 1926, if you want to know more about him click here.
4) The actual cycling
This should be obvious but it still needs to be highlighted. Last Sunday was a bit special since we were celebrating the anniversary and we didn’t go very far, but I still ended up doing 62km when I went back home. it is really true that all levels are welcome as long as you know how to ride a bike. We did several stops for pho and for coffee, and we were pedaling at a gentle pace, with occasional sprints for fun if you want to challenge a friend. I liked it that I could see any kind of bicycle, from a very old road bike with the gears levers on the down to modern mountain bikes, cyclo-cross bikes, touring… Most of the ride was on the road so there were no issues with the different kinds of tires.
5) It’s fun!
I think it’s been very clear through this post that it is really fun. If your goal is just to improve your physical condition and train to compete in triathlons, then this is not for you. If what you want is to cycle, meet people, discover unknown things of Vietnam, enjoy the local food and have fun, you shouldn’t wait any longer. Come and join, you won’t regret it!
You may know by now that we don’t only like to ride our bicycles, we like to do it with you. Companionship, sharing happy and funny moments is as important as the fact of feeling good about the exercise and this is what truly makes a difference between us and other cycling groups in Ho Chi Minh City. This is why one year ago we decided to start the Sunday Bike Ride. It is hard for us to believe that twelve months are already gone and we are waiting for you this Sunday November 2nd to celebrate it with you. For such a special event we chose to ride to peaceful and relaxing Gia Bao Villa, in Ho Chi Minh City’s district 12, about 20 kilometers from the city center.
It is a short and easy ride for any level and we will actually spend most of our time relaxing, singing and swimming as we get to know each other a bit better. And there will be some exciting surprises that we can’t tell you about yet… You’ll have to come if you want to know. As usual, the meeting point will be Ben Thanh Market at 6:30 AM and we expect to be back there around 1pm, after having lunch together. If you need a bike, you can rent it with us, here you can read about the new ones that are available.
Since we started this adventure on the first Sunday of November last year, we have cycled on 49 Sundays out of 52 and we ventured into kinds of terrains, enjoying nature, exercise and friendship. We learned about Vietnamese culture in places like the Cao Dai Temple, the Thanh Da Peninsula or in the floating Market in Tien Giang, we discovered amazing natural sceneries a few hours away from Saigon such as Da Han waterfalls or the beach in Bien Ho Coc, and, most important, we had a lot of fun. It would really be a pity to miss the surprises going on this Sunday!