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Cycling in Vietnam: Summary & Advice

Our two week tour of Vietnam proved a great experience.  While we only cycled a few hundred kilometers on nine days of cycling, the mix of activities fit the conditions we encountered.  For instance, the two days devoted to Ha Long Bay did not involve cycling, nor did our day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon.)

Our experience of Vietnam and its people was very positive.  We had three different sets of drivers and guides – for the three separate regions – and all of them were helpful, experienced, interesting, and personable.  All of our hotels were clean, comfortable, and endowed with good breakfasts.  The personnel were courteous and helpful.  The included meals at chosen restaurants were tasty and copious, if sometimes repetitive.  Overall this trip was “two thumbs up.”

So, should you do this trip?  And if so, what might you need to know beforehand?  Here are a few thoughts.  Some we learned ahead of our departure;   some we wished we had.

So many colourful occasions

So many colourful occasions

Should you do this trip?

If this is your first cycle trip overseas, Vietnam may not be the best place to start.  Vietnam’s travel infrastructure is not as well developed as locations like northern Europe.  You’ll be more exposed to traffic with unfamiliar rules.   Our day cycling in Hanoi was not for everyone – although we wouldn’t have missed it.  Language challenges may be greater here – important should you get separated from your group.  The different cuisine could leave you battling a stomach bug on a ride, and facilities are often hard to find.  But if you’ve got a few tours under your belt, and are looking for more culture, history, and different landscapes, then we’d highly recommend the tour we took.

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

You might meet one of these in the middle of your path. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Best Time to Go

Using climate sites, we determined that February is generally the driest, coolest month of the year, and the average temperature is good for cycling.  However, averages can be deceiving.  On our own tour, it was 60F (16C) in the north, and 95F (35C) in the south.  Most of the time it was cloudy and misty, and in central Vietnam it rained non-stop for two days.  However, two weeks later, some friends enjoyed blue skies all the way.  So, we still think February and March are good bets, as long as you avoid the holiday rush at Tet – usually over by mid-February, occasionally a bit later.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Even rainy days are included in a sunny average.

Visas, Vaccinations, Medications & Trip Insurance

Finding online information about visas was challenging.  There are a plethora of companies offering to help get you a Vietnam visa for a fee, and it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s legitimate.  In end, Cheryl and I opted to leave our passports at the local Vietnam consulate for a few days.  Others in our group were happy using the services of a local travel company specializing in Vietnam.

Vaccinations were another matter.  This is a complex subject, and a lot comes down to your assessment of the risks versus costs.  We all updated our basic travel inoculations, but we fretted over rabies and Japanese encephalitis.  Different members of our group got different advice from different travel clinics.  How big is the risk?  Frankly, it’s small for both diseases.  Still, losing the gamble would not be fun.  Some in our group opted for both.  Cheryl and I elected just to be cautious about mosquitoes, which can spread more than just encephalitis.  As for rabies, we found a local doctor who offered much cheaper rabies shots provided we came in as a group;  the cost saving came from a technique developed by the WHO.  The lower price tipped the scale for us.  Our decision was reinforced when a friend was bitten by a dog in Cambodia; she underwent the full post-bite inoculation series upon her return to Canada.

Advised by a conservative doctor, we also had prescriptions for anti-malarial drugs and antibiotics, loads of insect repellent, and even a set of clothing impregnated in pyrethrins.  To our surprise, during our two weeks in Vietnam surrounded by flooded rice paddies, we never saw a mosquito, and so left most of our supplies untouched.  We did run out of some common medications like decongestants;  Paul reacted badly to the smoky air that seemed to blanket the country.  However, we easily replenished our supplies locally.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

Flooded paddies all around, but no mosquitoes to be found.

For the first time, we elected to take the Dukoral oral vaccine against traveler’s diarrhea.  Traveling friends swore by it.  Still, the jury’s out on how effective it was.  We used bottled water, even for teeth-brushing.  We stuck mainly to the tour-sponsored restaurants and didn’t indulge in street food, although we ate salads freely.  Had we slipped up, we were prepared to follow a questionable meal with Pepto-Bismol and a stiff drink – again, as advised by our travel doctor.  But, despite eating a wide variety of dishes from set menus, no one in our group had any problems.  So we didn’t really need that rice wine with snakes in it.

We also bought travelers’ health insurance for our trip.  Since our Vietnam tour was only part of a ten-week away time, we ultimately bought full-year travel coverage, plus a rider for the extended time.  A friend who works as an insurance broker tracked down the best deal for us, which had trip cancelation and lost baggage insurance into the bargain.  Fortunately, we never needed any of it – but we have in the past.

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Ate something questionable? Try this! (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Clothing

What to take can be a challenge.  We packed largely for biking in the “average” climate.  Turns out we were under-dressed for the cool conditions in the north, and our polyester biking gear was too hot for the steamy heat down south.  Check the temperatures in Hanoi and Saigon.  Cheryl wished she’d brought some compact down, and a couple of extra light pants and long-sleeved tops for the North.  As you may know, the local inhabitants wear long pants and sleeves, even when it gets warm;   tourists are obvious because they wear shorts and singlets, even when it’s chilly.  The cycling rain gear we brought turned out to be too warm; we did better with the semi-disposable ponchos we picked up in Vietnam for a dollar.  After the first day, we eschewed our heavy lace-up shoes in favour of Keen’s sandals;   they were cooler and dried out more quickly after a rain.  Even the locals mostly rode in flip-flops, rain or shine.

Finally, after Cheryl’s run-in with a pickpocket in Hanoi on Day One, we wished we had more clothes with zippered or concealed pockets – anything to make it easy to spread our cards and cash around.

Whenever we stayed two days in the same hotel, we were usually able to wash a few light clothes and have them dry before we checked out.  Laundry prices at the hotels were often fairly high, although at one or two locations that charged by the kilogram instead of per piece, we found them very reasonable.  And the clothes always came back neatly folded, flower scented, and well before the promised time.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Wet-weather riding increases the need for laundry facilities.

Cycling Equipment

Taking your own bike helmets is absolutely necessary.  In some countries, bike tour companies have the odd spare for those without.  In Vietnam, even some of our guides rode without helmets.  Paul had taken a spare to Vietnam and left it with our last guide, who was most appreciative.  Biking gloves were also a good idea, although not essential.  And they did get very sweaty in the steamy south.

Since distances were relatively short, we decided not to take our gel seat covers.  Some of the tour operators supplied bikes with gel covers included.  The bikes themselves were mostly decent Trek mountain bikes; the ones in the hilly north were almost brand new and had disc brakes; in the flat south, they were older and less well equipped.

We had also taken rechargeable blinking lights for front and back, but ended up not using them.  While we use them at home, especially when riding country roads with higher speed limits, we decided not to in Vietnam.  In the traffic conditions we usually encountered, we suspected they might have been more distracting than helpful.  Bright clothing was useful; for one thing, it alerted drivers that we were tourists, unfamiliar with the local driving customs.  It also helped us keep track of our group.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Even with colour, the Mekong Delta trails presented challenges in following.

Unlike trips in Europe, the bikes did not have carriers or panniers, only a small pouch on the handlebars.  However, the van was seldom far away, so we could generally leave extra clothing there and retrieve it if needed.  However, we were glad we’d brought a couple of small packs to wear.  The operators also supplied water bottles for the rides, but we were glad we’d also brought our own – especially handy on non-ride days.  Given the frequent advice not to drink tap water, we were always buying large bottles of water and refilling our own.  Or drinking the beer, which was often cheaper.

Perhaps the most useful thing we took were rear-view mirrors that attached in seconds with Velcro.  None of the bicycles came with mirrors, but every scooter on the road had two, and we soon knew why.  For about US$4 each, the mirrors were well worth it.  Two per bike wouldn’t have been remiss.

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These paths left little room for passing.

Money, Cards, & Internet

Since almost everything was included on this tour, the money we needed was primarily for drinks, tips, and extras.  Since many of the smaller shops didn’t take cards, a bit of cash was essential and that in Vietnamese Dong.  To keep our wallets filled, we relied on debit cards at ATMs.  We had no trouble finding ATMs, although perhaps only half of them worked with our cards.  One in our group had a “special” card that was non-standard.  She never got it to work, but fortunately she had another.  Advice when traveling: always have more than one type of card, and keep them separate, just in case.  When Cheryl had hers stolen, she still had another – and I had two as well.  The limits on ATM withdrawals were quite low, but then, we didn’t need much money.  Larger hotels and restaurants accepted most credit cards.

The free Internet in every hotel was excellent without exception:  fast, ubiquitous, and reliable – much better than we later experienced in Australia.  We had no problems backing up photos to the cloud – until we left Vietnam.  Reminder:  don’t forget your power-plug adapter.

Water puppets in Hanoi.  (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Water puppets in Hanoi. (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Tips

Tipping provided us with considerable confusion, and our group had several lengthy discussions on what to do.  Tipping porters at hotels and airports was easy enough, usually around US$1.  At meals, we only paid for drinks, and tipped on that amount.  However, all the set meals were included in the tour price, as were hotel stays, but we never figured out how tips should be handled on these items.  Mostly we just muddled through.

The real confusion came with tipping cycle guides and drivers.  We received three different guidelines from the tour operator and the booking company.  Some implied a sliding scale, depending upon the size of the group, others did not.  None were clear on whether the suggested amounts were a total for guides and drivers, or an amount for each.   In the end, our group held lengthy discussions and came up with a per-day per-couple minimum for guides and a smaller minimum for drivers.  Then, at the end of each segment, Rob would collect the amounts in an envelope and present it to the service provider.  Even that didn’t go as smoothly as hoped.  Most of the time – but not always – there were two drivers, one for the van, one for the bike truck.  Drivers sometimes came and went without notice; twice, last minute changes of plan had us miss our farewells with a driver.  The line between drivers and guides was often blurred:  on one leg, our cycle guide spoke little English, so a second attractions guide rode with us, and the first guide doubled as van driver.  One day, our cycle guide was under the weather, so, he brought in cyclist friend and sat the ride out.  In the end, we did the best we could.  We tried to remember that everyone we dealt with worked long and hard, and none were overpaid.  Tips were always welcome, whether in dong or US dollars.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Our guide and drivers make tea, while we admire the view.

Cycling Protocol

Finally, it would have helped if we’d reviewed our cycling protocols.  The six of us had often ridden together at home as part of a larger group, and we should have known better.  Somehow, in the excitement of a foreign country, we forgot some of our practices.  Especially in the Mekong Delta, the trails turned and branched endlessly, and it was very easy to miss a turn.  If each of us had stopped at every decision point until we could see the following rider knew where to go, we would never have become separated.  As it was, we lost members twice, both times for more than twenty minutes – which seems like an eternity when you’re listening to crickets.  We will allow that following the protocol can be challenging here, as there are so many decision points.  So, don’t hesitate to ask your guide to slow down, especially if you want to stop to take photos.  At day’s end, we were all reunited, and after unruffling a few feathers, had a good laugh about it all.

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There’s lots to distract an avid photographer. “Which way’d they go?”

Bon Voyage!

We trust you’ve found these thoughts useful in planning your cycle trip to Vietnam.  Have a great time, and let us know how it went.

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Rest stop in a northern village.

Rest stop in a northern village.

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Cycling in Vietnam: Saigon & the Mekong

Day 11: Hoa takes us to the Hue airport early the next morning, where we catch our final plane leg to Saigon. After ten days of temperate to cool weather, we step out into sauna-like temperatures.

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Staff welcome us to our Saigon hotel

Whether you call this city “Saigon” or “Ho Chi Minh City” is a sensitive issue to some, depending on which side you found yourself on during the Vietnam War. On April 30th, 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon and renamed it “Ho Chi Minh City” to honor the Communist leader. Although this is the official name of the city, many continue to use the old name, and the main river that flows through the city is still the Saigon River.

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Ho Chi Minh is Everywhere. (Portrait in Saigon Post Office.)

Our Saigon city guide picks up us and takes us for a city tour of the colonial-era post office, followed by a small factory and retail store where disabled people – including many war casualties – create lovely pieces for the tourist market. We’re not sure how much of the proceeds the artisans make. We visit a large, noisy, pungent wholesale market where you can buy almost anything. We also do a self-guided tour of the Ben Thanh retail market near our hotel. It’s hot, and we are soon looking for ice cream.

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Wholesale Herb & Fungus Counter

Our new cycling guide, Hai, picks us up the following morning and we take a two-hour van trip out of Saigon, heading into the Mekong Delta. We are relieved to not be cycling in Saigon, which is hot and crowded, although it seems a little less chaotic than Hanoi. Hai tells us that this is this fifth profession. He was a farmer, teacher, fortune teller, priest – almost, until he met his future wife – and now he’s a travel guide. His father fought for the South in the Vietnam War and was imprisoned following “Reunification.”  He died in prison a couple of years later.

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Modern Police Presence in Ho Chi Minh City

Gathering our bicycles between My Tho and Cai Lay we catch a tiny ferry to an island, cycle over it to another ferry, disembarking on the island of Tan Qui. The paved pathways are narrow, and used by many others on foot, bicycle, and scooter. Frequent bridges rise over shallow canals and sloughs, and passing is often tight.

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One of the Wider Paths on the Delta Islands – note the added “passing lane”

I have my clip-on side-mirror knocked off by a passing scooter, but fortunately, it isn’t damaged. (Nor am I.) We see lots of jackfruit growing beside the pathways, and continue to be amazed by how large and varied are the loads that can be carried on the scooters.

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A load of jackfruit passes en route to market (Photo by Rob Mudie)

We catch a tourist boat and tour the larger waterways of the Mekong River where large floating markets used to flourish, but are now much diminished. We stop for lunch at an open-air restaurant on the water and gawk at a beautiful elephant-ear fish presented to us for lunch. The waitress teaches us how to make spring rolls from its white flesh. (Yes, we are still eating spring rolls for every meal!).

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It tasted even better than it looked!

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An Elephant Ear Fish soon to be someone else’s lunch

During the afternoon, we also pass an unusual Cao Dai temple. Caodaiism is a uniquely Vietnamese religion, that sounds like an amalgam of all of the world’s major religious traditions and beliefs. Founded in the south of the country in 1926, it was banned by the communists between 1975 and 1997, but currently has about four million adherents. These numbers put it behind Buddhism and Catholicism – the latter a legacy of French colonial rule – but ahead of Islam and Hinduism.

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The All-Seeing Divine Eye caps a Cao Dai temple

The twisty tree-shaded paths crisscross the islands of the Mekong Delta, with branches around every corner. It’s hard to tell one lane from the next, and we try to stay close to the rider ahead of us. At one junction, Paul and I realize we’ve lost the scent, and alight to reconnoiter. We don’t want to guess at the correct direction, and decide to wait until someone notices and returns to see what happened to us.

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A peaceful moment on one of the larger bridges over a Mekong channel

The minutes tick by, and we listen to the sounds of cicadas, as well as commerce at the local corner “store,” really no more than a couple of shelves outside a path-side home. Eventually, Hai comes cycling back and we’re reunited. En route, we learn that one other of our number had also lost their way, and made a guess. Fortunately, he guessed right.  Two days later he was less fortunate.

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A Catholic Church on a Mekong Island

We can imagine how easy it would be for Viet Cong infiltrators to hide out in the Mekong Delta. Aside from the dense cover, even the river and tributaries are filled with meandering bunches of water hyacinth. According to Hai, the Viet Cong would often hide in the water using lumps of the floating plant to camouflage their movements. Today there is enough vegetation floating by to hide an army.

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Water Hyacinth floats by a Middle-Class Dwelling

We take another ferry across hyacinth-spotted waters, then pedal a few kilometers to spend the evening at a lovely homestay set on a large estate. The rooms even have air-conditioning, which we appreciate.  At the start of dinner, we have another lesson in the making and eating of Vietnamese pancakes.

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Our homestay in this comfortable estate built in the 1800s

Day 12: The following cycle day is a very busy one. We visit a local black pepper plantation, as well as a brick kiln.

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This farmer was happy to show off her newly planted black pepper plants

The kiln is fueled with rice husks, but this practice may be discontinued in the future, due to the amount of smoke and pollution generated. We watch a lady make rice paper with rice flour and mineral water. She steams it, removes the thin paper and dries it for two days in the sun, resulting in a very hard circle of rice paper.

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Rice paper is used to wrap the salad rolls we learned to make earlier

A man demonstrates the creation of ‘popcorn’ when he heats sand, pours rice into it, and filters the result through a sieve. The product tastes a lot like puffed rice, which is to say, rather bland.

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Hai explains brick making methods at a canal-side kiln

We find ourselves in front of a large bottle of 40-proof rice wine filled with layers of dead venomous snakes. Apparently they are put into the strong wine alive, and they respond by emptying their venom sacs while expiring. According to tradition, the wine is ‘guaranteed’ to promote strength and longevity.

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“Mot, hai, ba, yo!” (Did I really drink that snake wine?!)

Before we have a chance to think rationally, we find ourselves with a thimble of the concoction in our hands, and with a ‘mot, hai, ba, yo’ it’s down the hatch. We notice that there are many bottles of rice wine filled with all types of snakes and scorpions for sale, but we decide that it’s unlikely we’d get them through customs, so choose not to purchase them. That’s the only reason, I swear. Paul looks a little green, but he swears he feels stronger.

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Can we buy this at the Duty Free?

We cycle past a couple of men cooking rats over an open fire. They are called ‘rice rabbits’ here, perhaps to make them more palatable, but while we consider ourselves pretty game for most things, we decline to partake in this delicacy when offered. Hai told us he got used to eating them during the lean years in the early 1990s, and finds them tasty with a good sauce.

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Would you like soy sauce with your “rice rabbit,” Ma’am?

He takes us to a small coffee shop to try durian. It is the stinkiest fruit on the planet and in some apartment buildings it’s banned. The first durian he purchases he opens and declares ‘bad’, and goes out to get a new one, which he declares ‘really good’. We can’t tell the difference.

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When it comes to Durian, I’m afraid I’m in the other 95%

The sloppy flesh takes a lot like smelly cheese, and Hai tells us that Vietnamese love this fruit, but only about 5% of the rest of the world cares for it, so it has little export potential. We head back to Saigon after this busy day. Two hours later, Paul says he can still taste something like stale Limburger.

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Coffee in a hammock seems a more palatable custom

Day 13: Our last cycle day we head out of Saigon again, and take a 30 km cycle through the rice fields and rubber plantations around the Cu Chi tunnels. After lunch, we visit the tunnels where local villagers who sympathized with the Viet Cong for years hid from US and South Vietnam troops in a 250-kilometer network of tunnels. At one time, over 16 thousand men, women and children lived underground.

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Tunnel air vents were hidden in forest termite mounds

Tunnel entrances were sized to admit only the narrow shoulders of the generally small Vietnamese people.  The area was peppered with lethal man-traps.  In many areas, there were three levels of bunkers; the lowest, more than 30 feet below ground level, could usually protect the tunnel-dwellers from bombs dropped from B-52s. Still, more than half the tunnel dwellers were eventually killed during the Vietnam War.

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Rob tries out one of the larger tunnel entrances

That evening back in town, we savour our last meal on an IndoChina junk on the Saigon river, enjoying the warm evening and beautiful skyline of the city. And although the food is good, it’s pretty unanimous that we won’t eat another spring roll for a month or two.

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Saigon’s skyline from the River looks as modern as any

Day 14: The next day we visit a local museum, where Rob, the collector in our group, continues to find Tin Tin paraphernalia (while Rose rolls her eyes and tries to figure out where each new purchase will reside in their home.) We don’t really understand why Tin Tin is such a big thing here in Vietnam, but Rob is in seventh heaven. We way our goodbyes at the hotel as we catch our ride to the airport for our flight to Sydney. The other four in our party will fly to Cambodia to continue their cycling adventures the next day.

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Tin Tin and Friend, in Saigon

We’ve had some interesting and varied cycling over the past couple of weeks. All our guides were very different, but each of them was friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. We feel they truly enjoyed meeting us and letting us experience a little of their country and customs. We learned as much about the culture as we could have expected, and were very well fed. But it might have been interesting to know what the locals were eating when spring rolls weren’t on the menu!

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The owner’s youngster has it better than most Vietnamese children

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Ready to go our separate ways – It’s been a great two weeks

Cycling in Vietnam – Central: Hue & Hoi An

Day 8: We awaken to continuing dismal rain today, but our spirits are rescued by the amazing variety of food at our buffet breakfast at the Romantic Hotel: full Chinese breakfast, plus full American breakfast, plus many varieties of exotic fruit. We head out from the hotel with our newly fitted bicycles and plastic raingear, determined not to let the rain stop us. Unlike the last bikes, these don’t have disc brakes, but we’re told to expect fewer hills. Still, the unrelenting rain makes both roads and tires slick, so we exercise some caution.

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Wherever we cycle, we pass neighbourhood temples like this one outside Hue

After tasting water apples and milk apples at a local market, we visit a lady at her home who is making incense – placing sticks into a metal contraption that coats the upper part of the stick with a perfumed clay. She can turn out over 1000 sticks an hour. We all try our hand at it, but with the exception of Don, who’s a whiz in a workshop, our host has good reason not to be impressed. There must be many artisans like her, because incense is everywhere in Vietnam. It is thought to form a bridge between earth and heaven, and is used by millions requesting spiritual intervention with their earthly challenges. Upon passing temples and pagodas, we usually feel its sweet smoke catch in our throats.

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Rainy-day Rose Tries her Hand at Incense-making

Our guide Hoa teaches us a lot about the thirteen Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty (that reigned from 1802-1945). Note: the word “Nyugen” is almost impossible for us English speakers to wrap our mouths around. Our group of six had six different pronunciations, even while sober and with our wits about us. Only Paul seemed to be able to provide a version that Hoa didn’t cringe at! “Very clear!” he would beam, “You should study Vietnamese.” (Paul explained that his pronunciation was somewhere between “Just like it’s spelled,” and “Wynn,” with a slight emphasis on the second syllable.)

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Typical Pagoda Altar

The first Nyugen emperor, Gai Long, reigned from 1802-1819 and unified the country. The nation officially became known as “Vietnam” during his reign. The 13th (and last) Nyugen emperor, Bao Dia, abdicated at the end of WWII, transferred power to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and lived out the rest of his life in France. (By this time, the Democratic Republic controlled only the South, while Ho Chi Minh’s communist party ruled the North.) Many of the emperors had many concubines, and therefore many children. The emperors would allow only eunuchs near their concubines, so those that were granted this equivocal privilege had high status, as did their families. A significant percentage of hopefuls, however, did not survive the enabling amputation.

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The Middle Staircase was for the Emperor Alone

We visit the Thien Mu Pagoda on the Perfume River, the Imperial Citadel, and the Mausoleums of Tu Duc (1848-83) and Khai Dinh (1916-25). Tu Doc had over 100 wives and concubines, but his childhood illness denied him children, so he adopted a son. He was buried someone else in Hue, and the 200 laborers who buried him were beheaded afterwards, so the location is still a secret. Khai Dinh collaborated with the French regime in the mid-1800s and was very unpopular with the Vietnamese people. This collaboration led to 100 years of French colonial rule, and 40 years of war before Vietnam was officially reunited in 1975. (Various follow-on wars continued the blight on the next 36 years.)

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Trying Out for Boy Emperor

The rain has kept the tourist count lower than usual, but bus loads of tourists still arrive, arrayed in multi-coloured plastic ponchos and carrying hotel umbrellas. Inside, they do the usual tourist things such as posing for photos on some past emperor’s throne.

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These Incense Coils burn for Two Weeks

Meanwhile, Hoa teaches us the correct way to proffer incense in the pagodas – apparently, many native Vietnamese don’t know the whole story. The petitioner bows three times with the incense, once for the earth, once for the heavens, and once for the human being. Then she respectfully places the incense in the burner. Once again, Paul gets full marks for his technique. Hoa wants to make him an honourary Vietnamese.

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Hoa Tests our Incense Offering Technique

Soaked to the skin, we cut our day short and return to our hotel. We can see that Hoa is disappointed that we may miss the Heavenly Lady Pagoda, but as we tire from cycling in challenging conditions, we realize our margin of safety is impaired. It’s a real shame, as we can see that a sunny day would have made Hue perhaps the most beautiful cycle of our entire trip. We struggle not to let the gloom overtake us. Fortunately, the Romantic Hotel has a good price on massage, so Paul and I enjoy a side-by-side relaxing hour for about US$15 each.

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Will we ever see the Heavenly Lady Pagoda?

Hoa tells us about “weasel coffee,” a brew made from beans that have gone through a civet cat, but we have yet to do a taste test against un-pre-digested coffee, so we don’t know if the extra cost is worth it. We continue to try out new beer. Huda and Halida seem to be topping the charts. Ba ba ba remains at the bottom.

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Guardian of the Pagoda

Day 9: After another amazing breakfast on our second day in Hue, we travel by van to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda. The grounds are beautiful, even in the continuing rain. They are also well kept, unsurprising since the resident monks’ daily chore-filled regimen appears to start before four in the morning.

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Monks’ Schedule includes several Karate Sessions

Leaving Hue, a brave two of our number cycle through the still-rainy countryside, and we stop for a delicious Vietnamese pancake, home-made by Chef-in-training, Lori. The rest of us pace the riders in the comfort of our van. A truck-load of bicycles follow should we change our minds.

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Lori made some Excellent Pancakes from Tiny Eggs

In fact, the rain lets up just in time for lunch at a seaside “a la carte” restaurant. This is the only meal on our tour that isn’t “set menu,” and a surprising number of us end up with french fries somewhere on their plates; often fried in coconut oil, Vietnamese fries are a tasty treat. This is perhaps our only meal of the two weeks that doesn’t include spring rolls.

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Tiny Eggs at the Market (for pancakes?)

With no rain after lunch, most of us start a climb via lightly-traveled road to the top of the 500-meter high Hai Van pass, where the successful cyclists are warmly welcomed. The ocean views are spectacular, even under the clouds, and we can imagine the vistas with azure skies. Our guide Hoa, who is admittedly not a cyclist, also makes the summit.

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Hoa and Paul celebrate their 1650-foot Ascent

He claims he’s paid double for this day – over 80 km of cycling – and I’m not sure he’s joking. This exertion is followed by a short van ride past the five-star beachfront resorts of Da Nang, to the ancient city of Hoi An. We have another nice dinner in a touristy area near the river, streets alight with silk lanterns, but our appetite for spring rolls is beginning to wane.

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Dragon in Chinese Temple in Hoi An

Day 10: On our last day in Hoi An, we visit a Chinese temple, one of many where individuals and even companies pay large amounts of money to purchase a spiral incense contraption that will burn for a fortnight. We have a tour of a silk factory where women product beautiful tapestries and clothing for sale.

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Not About to Give up our Day Jobs

While beautiful, Hoi An is the most touristed place we will visit in Vietnam. Crowds are everywhere, and other tourists on bicycles are more dangerous than locals on scooters. A friendly behatted pair carrying traditional fruit baskets ask us if we want to see how heavy they are. (Quite.) We take turns being photographed staggering under the weight, followed by buying some fruit at several times the market (rates – the extra covers the photo op, I guess.

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Art made from Bamboo Roots

Sometimes the impromptu stops are the best. While in Hoi An, we came upon a temporary roadside shelter, where a few older men where offering a feast to their ancestors. The food was laid out attractively under the canopy, and some of the old men played on simple musical instruments. Wondering what would become of the offering, Paul posed the question to Hoa, and he assured us that, once the ceremony was complete, the men would enjoy eating the food themselves.

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Local Offering to the Ancestors

Good to know. On our rides, we’ve seen many modest Vietnamese homes, overshadowed by temples and tombs far more opulent than their earthly abodes. Between richly endowed temples, tombs, pagodas, schools, and communist party buildings, there doesn’t seem to be so much wealth left for day-to-day living.

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Feasting Ahead

Our final ride is a cycle to Cua Dai beach following the ever watchful lead of Mr. Tien, Hoa’s cyclist alter-ego. Mr. Tien speaks little English, but we all feel a deep connection to his friendly demeanor, and he is an expert cyclist and ride leader. We understand he has planned many of our cycle routes in Central Vietnam.

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Mr. Tien shows us the East Vietnam (a.k.a. South China) Sea

Cycling back to our Hoi An hotel for our final night before flying south, we stop to watch some preschoolers giving their parents an outdoor dance recital in front of their school. One of the teachers invites us inside the gates, where we smile and make goo-goo eyes at the cute little youngsters. It seems a wonderful way to end our too-short visit to Central Vietnam. Paul says he’d like to spend more time in this part of the country, but tomorrow early we fly to Saigon. So early, in fact, that the hotel staff obligingly offer to open the entire breakfast room well before the advertised hour. As with almost all the hospitality staff in Vietnam, they seem so eager to serve their clients in any way possible.

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These Kids were Great Performers

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Heavenly Ladies at the Pagoda

Cycling in Vietnam – The North outside Hanoi

Day 4: This morning we are about to leave Hanoi for the countryside to the west. Nam attempts to teach us some important Vietnamese words. The Vietnamese language is tricky. Due to its tonal nature, a single word can have many different meanings, depending on the inflection you put on it.

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Hanoi Morning (Photo by Rob Mudie)

The greeting ‘Xin Chao’ with a downward emphasis on the second word, means “Hello”, but say the same phase with an upward emphasis on the second word and you are begging for rice porridge. We learn the first few numbers, so we can say “one, two, three, cheers” (“mot, hai, ba,Yo” ), how to say “Thank You”, “How much?”, “Too Expensive” “beer (bia)” and “I love you.” We feel we are ready to go out into the world, hopefully without insulting anyone’s mother.

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The Original Water Puppet Theater at Thay

We travel Northwest of Hanoi by van, to visit the ancient town of Thay, and the Tayphuong pagoda (built in the 8th century). The pagoda hosts many Buddha statues, and nearby a market is in progress. We ride a bit further by van to the spot where our bike truck is waiting, and where we begin our 50 km cycle through the countryside. As we pass, young children run out into the roads yelling “Hello, hello!”, looking for high fives and smiles. We dodge lots of dogs, chickens, goats, beautiful cows, and the odd water buffalo. We see surprisingly few cats, and wonder why.

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Cycling with Motorbikes and Buffalo (Photo by Rob Mudie)

Plant stalks for brooms lie drying by the side of the road. Fields of sugar cane and rice paddies surround us. Wet rice is grown in this area, and the inhabitants produce two or three crops a year, depending on the water supply. The plants are in the early stages of growth now. Apparently the seedlings are grown in bulk elsewhere, and when the planting is ready to begin, they are taken from these nursery paddies and planted individually in the paddies where they will mature and ripen.

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A Country Road West of Hanoi

Small towns are dotted with pho (soup) shops, where customers sit on diminutive yet colorful plastic chairs in front of low tables. There are shops with decorated, tall and narrow living quarters built behind them, the sides unfinished as another one will likely be built adjoining. Many shrines surround the homes and fancy temples dot the neighbourhoods. Ancestors are often buried in sepulchers in the family rice field. We stop for jackfruit and coffee towards the end of the day at a nice waterfall, and then cycle to our home for the night.

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Rice Paddy outside Homestay at Mai Chau village

We spend the evening in Mai Chau village, a popular location for homestays, and all sleep in a greatroom on stilts, with bamboo floors, similar to the one we saw in the Ethnology Museum. As we walk on these floors, we feel that the slats could break at any time and send us plummeting to the floor below, but in reality they are sturdy and safe. This picturesque little village is surrounded by rice paddies.

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None the Worse for Wear after the Night of the Rooster

Tossing and turning on board-hard beds under mosquito nets, we are awakened around 1:30 am by a lively rooster right under the floor, whose every ‘cock a doodle do’ is answered by ten others in the neighbouring farms. Some of our group find it a comforting rural lullaby, others not so much. The meals are wonderful – rice, spring rolls, veggies, meat dishes, soup (at the end of the meal) and fruit for dessert. We are still enjoying spring rolls.

In restaurants the local beers are cheaper than bottled water, so we feel compelled to try them all out. (Rob is collecting labels so we feel a duty to contribute to his collection.) The Hanoi brand seems to be the favorite to date, with Saigon next, and 333 (“ba, ba, ba”) at the bottom of the heap. Vietnamese Dalat wine is not great, and is much more expensive than other drinks, so we don’t drink it often.

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Rob Surveys the Market

Day 5: We spend an hour in the morning at the local country market, where live chicks, chickens, pigs, ducks and dogs (yes, they eat dogs in the north) are crammed into in bamboo baskets and available for sale. Live fish swim in bowls to be cut up as required for sale. I find it hard to look at the dogs, as they are so cute.

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Two Pigs in Two Pokes – It’s No Joke

There are oodles of vegetables, some even recognizable: beans, cabbage, bok-choy, spring onions, garlic, ginger, cilantro. There are small tart Vietnam apples, water apples, milk apples, tapioca root, watery dragon fruit, and sweet pineapple. Nam introduces us to jack fruit, which we all really like. Later in the south, we will find the stinky durian fruit, which piques our curiosity.

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On the Buffalo Track in the Hills, the Valley Smoke behind us

We begin our 50 km cycle pushing our mounts up a steep mile-long hill, then enjoy a lovely stretch of downhill cycling on a pleasant but bumpy buffalo track, overlooking beautiful vistas. We experience our first country toilet, making our way through the home and garden at the back of the country store – upsetting the chickens and the huge pig (thankfully penned) en route – to the open shelter with the porcelain hole in the ground and a bucket of water nearby for flushing. It is rustic, but workable.  It also underscores the tough conditions many in the country still face.  We meet a very old bare-footed women on our trail, with teeth blackened to show her married status, and give her some of our snacks, for which she thanks us all profusely. There is little social safety net for the old in Vietnam – the family plays this role.  It seems that little is gratis in “communist” Vietnam.

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Mile after Mile of Peaceful Rice Paddies

We return to Hanoi for another night at the Authentic Hanoi Hotel. About 10 kms out of town we hear a ‘buck buck’ from the back of the van and discover a stowaway chicken, which was purchased by one of our support staff. We decide we need a change from Vietnamese food and go out for pizza. The street has been closed for a weekly festival, and several singing performances are held right across from our tiny table.

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Misty Ha Long Bay often lacks the Blue of Tourist Brochures

Day 6 and 7: We set out from Hanoi again by van, heading Northeast towards Ha Long Bay, where we are to spend the night on a tourist junk. Ha Long means “descending dragon” , and the bay is full of the most interesting natural structures. We climb into small boats and visit a local fishing village, oyster farm, and pearl factory. Back on the junk we receive a lesson in making salad rolls, and after dinner Rob and I do some squid jigging at the side of the boat. We each catch a squid, but mine is more beautiful than his. I’m not certain if they were cast back afterwards, or became part of the next day’s lunch.

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Catch of the Night

The following day we visit a local cave, followed by a beach, but the weather is too cold to swim. It’s back to the boat for brunch, then the return voyage to the mainland, where we are met again by Nam. Continuing to the airport, we take an afternoon flight to Hue, in central Vietnam. Rob travels through airport security with a full bottle of water in his hip pocket, without being arrested. Hoa, our new guide for central Vietnam, meets us at the airport and takes us to the Romantic Hotel, then out for a Central Vietnamese dinner.

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Almost Every Tourist Visits Ha Long Bay

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Spring Roll Presentation in Hue (Photo by Rob Mudie)

 

Cycling in Vietnam – Hanoi

Day 1:  Our jet-lagged party of six was greeted by our friendly guide Nam upon landing at Hanoi airport in Vietnam  and we felt instantly in good hands. On our trip from the airport to the Authentic Hanoi Hotel, my first thought was “where is the sun”?.   The hazy sky of Hanoi seemed a combination of exhaust, smoke, and humidity, and it was hard to pinpoint where the sun actually resided.

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A roundabout near our hotel

Hanoi is a crazy chaotic city with an astonishing number of small cars, trucks,  scooters, bikes, pedal cabs and people that drive, walk, cycle and park in whatever direction they want, on the roads and sidewalks.   The majority of vehicles are scooters, which carry up to four people, and are often used to carry huge loads including fish traps, produce, poultry, eggs, and building supplies.  Whole families with the dad in front, mom in back, and two small children sandwiched between them are seen everywhere.  Most intersections are  uncontrolled and the infrequent traffic lights are largely ignored.  There is a constant cacophony of honking, and weaving going on, but there’s a certain rhythm to it all that works.  Paul summed up the rules of the road as “Everyone has the right of way;  just don’t hit anyone.”  Road rage seems nonexistent.  But more than half the scooter riders wear face masks to filter out the fumes.

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Intrepid pedestrians

Crossing a busy road for the first time was a life-altering experience.    Traffic will never stop for pedestrians, even at a crosswalk.  Our guide Nam instructed us to raise a hand, move into the fray (and pray), walk slowly but steadily, make no sudden moves,  and weave in between the traffic.  The ‘raise your hand’ step didn’t seem to  be used by the locals, but perhaps helped the locals recognize us as tourists and make some allowances for us.  The method of  give and take, ebb and flow, seems to work.   Nam shared with us a story of his friend who got a ticket from the local police for not stopping at a traffic light.  The police asked him “Did you see the light” and he said “Yes’.  The policeman then asked”  So why didn’t you stop” and he said  “because I didn’t see you”.  Wrong answer, followed by pretty large fine.

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The 1000-eyed Buddha might have foiled the pickpocket

I wasn’t paying attention on the first day while walking in a crowded tourist area in the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake,  one hour into our first outing, and  had my wallet stolen from my purse.  Cancelled the cards quickly, but lost some cash.  Took a day to shake off the funk, but it was a reasonably inexpensive lesson.  After several tips with my bag zippers pinned together, I had grown careless.

Dinner out at a nice restaurant with nearby croaking frogs.  Great spring rolls, beer passable.

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The sacred unicorn

Day 2: We also had the second day on our own, so we visited the Museum of Natural History, where we discovered the four most important sacred animals for the Vietnamese – the phoenix, unicorn, turtle and dragon.  Of these, only the turtle closely resembles the western concept.    We now had our “Hanoi legs”:  using bottled water, finding our way around the restaurants and local shops, figuring out the money  (15,000 Dong = 1 Canadian dollar) and how the ATMs work, and returning to the correct hotel at the end of the day.  Still, we kept forgetting to watch for mopeds traveling counterflow on both sides of the street, and seriously doubted our sanity when we contemplated a city tour by bicycle the following day.

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About one ATM in five honoured our cards

We failed to notice that the Temple of Literature was on tomorrow’s tour agenda, and spent a couple of hours marveling at this centuries-old university.

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At the outskirts of Hanoi

Day 3: Our single day of cycling in Hanoi consisted of a visit to crowded cemeteries and rural pottery plants, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (closed Mondays and Fridays, unfortunately for us), the Ethnology Museum,  the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Citadel.  As with almost every meal on this tour, we enjoyed a copious set-menu lunch at a nicely appointed restaurant revealed to us by our guide.  Still enjoying the spring rolls.

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Excess kumquats

After our first and only day of cycling 30 kms within Hanoi, at the end of the day were amazed at how well we had done in the traffic, without feeling the  panic we would have felt doing the same at home.  The relatively slow pace of the cars/scooter/bikes probably made this workable.  Speeds ranged from 10 kph for the latter to 30 for the former.  We finished the day with a colourful water puppet show just a block from the spot I last saw my wallet.

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Nam, our guide for the North

We especially enjoyed the personal stories told us by Nam:  how he’d helped a friend dig up his ancestor after three years in an overcrowded cemetery so his bones could be reburied more compactly;  how he’d paid for his condo with a backpack full of Vietnamese cash (worth about US$ 38,000) delivered by scooter;  how he’d paid his bride’s parents about one percent of that for the ”bride price,” and a bargain at any price.  Friends of Nam’s, faced with a bride price financially out of reach, did an end run around the parents by getting in the family way.

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At the Museum of Ethnology (Objects not to scale)

We were most fascinated by the Ethnology Museum, where we learned a little about some of Vietnam’s many ethnic groups, some male-dominated, others ruled by the women.  We would run into several of these groups during our rural cycling in the days to come.  We tried out some of the houses on stilts, not unlike one we would later spend a night in.  We fell asleep dreaming of the quiet country roads we hoped were in our future.

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Several ethnic minorities live on stilts

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Changing of Ho Chi Minh’s guard

Cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands

“Pshaw!” said Cheryl. “They won’t blame you.” I wasn’t so sure.

Our long-awaited late-September boat and cycle trip through the southern Dalmatian Islands was to begin the next day. After two previous European cycle trips on our own, Cheryl and I had invited members of our outdoor club to join us in Croatia this year. We’d hoped for half a dozen. When the boat sold out 11 months ago, we had 17 in our group. Fantastic.

The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.

The southern Dalmatian Islands at dusk as seen from Srđ above Dubrovnik.

Or was it? What if the trip wasn’t what we’d advertised to our friends? A mismanaged trip, or even a bad guide, and our names could be mud. The weather was threatening as well. We’d arrived in Dubrovnik a few days earlier only to wade through an unseasonal deluge that one fellow-traveler described as “biblical.”

This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.

This storm over the Dalmatian Islands later deluged Dubrovnik, turning the stairs to cataracts.

We were also a nervous about the hills. This had been the biggest single topic of discussion among our group during the planning stages. While most of us were cyclists, we did range from late 50s to early 70s, so it made sense to be prepared. Like many in our group, Cheryl and I made sure to get several trips under our belt over the summer in the islands near our home – but they averaged less than half the heights we were expecting here.

Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs

Before heading for the ship, Cheryl and I enjoy a final view from the deck of our Airbnb digs.

Departure day dawned with bright sunshine. Arriving at the Port of Gruž by bus, Cheryl and I were buoyed when we spotted the elegant and modern yacht, the Harmonia, with more than 30 bicycles arrayed out in front of her on the dock. It was time to meet our two guides, the crew of six, and our 30 fellow-travelers. Besides our own group members, arriving in Dubrovnik on various itineraries, there were another 15 from other parties.

Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.

Along with a fellow-rider, Cheryl inspects the bicycles.

Of the 32 passengers, there was one American, a few each from Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark – and the rest were Canadian. On the previous week’s sailing, the majority had been German-speaking. The crew and the ride-leader guides were from various parts of Croatia, and like many Croatians we met, they all spoke excellent English. A good thing, as we found Croatian impenetrable.

Cheryl and I unpacked in our air-conditioned stateroom, which was bigger and better equipped than some hotel rooms we’ve been in. After that, our guides, Petra and Neven, introduced us to our bikes. While many in our group had brought their own pedals or seats, Cheryl and I decided we would live with whatever we got. After a few test rides around the dock, we were all satisfied: comfortable, easy-shifting, almost new, and well-maintained. Two of our group and a few of the others had elected to reserve e-bikes, and they were promised a complete lesson before the first ride.

Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it.  Try to avoid the crowds.

Spending a few days in Dubrovnik is well worth it. Try to avoid the crowds.

Our first formal activity was a tour of Dubrovnik with a professional guide. For some on the ship, this was their first visit to the city. Even though others of us had already spent two or three days here, we saw new parts of town and learned more of its thousand-year history. After some free time in town, we enjoyed the first of many tasty shipboard dinners featuring Croatian seafood and other specialties. The first evening also included wine and schnapps on the captain. “Živjeli!”

Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.

Captain Josip at the helm of the Harmonia.

The follow morning Captain Josip set course across an incredibly azure Adriatic towards the first of our island destinations, Šipan. This was our test ride: fairly level and about 45 minutes each way from the harbour to the small town of Suđurađ. Everyone would have a chance to iron out any kinks in their bicycles … or legs.

Neven gives a rider a lesson on the ebike.

Neven gives a rider a lesson on the ebike.

The promise of this ride was encouraging. The bikes performed well. The roads were quiet, and with a few exceptions, well signed and in good repair. Just in case, our guides had provided each of us with maps of the island, with our route hand-traced. Along the way, we passed vineyards and other crops, fascinating churches or occasional ruins, and figs and other fruit growing along the roadside. The quiet coffee stop at the picturesque waterfront town of Suđurađ was an excellent introduction to the many small island villages we would be visiting over the week to come. As we dug into our hot lunch back on the Harmonia, we got under way to our next destination.

Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan

Our first kava stop at Suđurađ, on the island of Šipan

About the only thing that had been missing from the Šipan ride were panoramic vistas. On Mljet, that would be remedied. We would pay for it in lengthy hill climbs and “undulating” roads, making it the “hardest ride of the week.” That turned out to be smart strategy on the part of the organizers, although some of the e-bike riders who hadn’t quite got the hang of their rides elected to sun themselves on the Harmonia as she sailed the length of the island to meet us. For the rest of us, as we contemplated the island summits each morning, we could always say, “Well, it can’t be as hard as Mljet!”

Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra.  Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?

Starting up the first hill on Mljet, above Sobra. Why are we leaving this idyllic spot?

The crew and the guides on these trips work long hours and hard. Yet somehow they manage to remain up-beat and friendly all the while. Besides three hot meals a day and the on-demand bar, great Croatian coffee was always ready before seven, and the last drinks were served after 10 pm. Once and often twice a day, the entire stock of 35 bikes had to be unloaded from the hold and readied for the next ride. (Those e-bikes are heavy.) There was always something interesting for us to do while the staff worked.

Even a boathouse for a PT boat sports that azure water

Even a boathouse for a PT boat sports that azure water

Before our ride on Lastovo, some of us toured decaying Cold War era tunnels on the small connected island of Prežba, until recently an off-limits military base. Others kayaked lazily around the bay, or sunned themselves top side, while taking in the spectacular scenery.

Succulents line this waterfront road on Lastovo.

Succulents line this waterfront road on Lastovo.

On Lastovo, we had another glimpse of the challenging job of ride leaders. As fifteen of us are in the same outdoor association, many of us have had experience leading bike trips of from ten to thirty individuals. We know how challenging it can be to provide suitable guidance, watch out for road safety, and still allow riders to set their own pace and enjoy the ride. When we arrived at the town of Lastovo, it came out during coffee and beer, that one of the riders had continued through town and not returned. His companions had become concerned when he didn’t show up, mentioning that he was “getting on in years.” Petra and Neven managed to spend a couple of hours searching the far end of the island, while coordinating others of us to help, and the rest to get back safely to the Harmonia. In the end, the wayward rider showed up unassisted at the ship, having spent a couple of hours drinking beer and discussing wines with a local farmer in his barn. All in a day’s work for our hard-working guides.

In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home's social status

In Lastovo, each chimney is different, and reflected the home’s social status

There was a little bonus from the adventure. While Cheryl and I were out searching Lastovo with a friend of the missing man, we stumbled upon a tiny home-based winery, and were invited in for sampling and a mini-tour. Our companion was happy to buy a very inexpensive bottle of a very local wine. By policy, the tour company does not do winery stops in order to avoid dangerous afternoon riding conditions.

Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.

Two of our club members approach the summit of Korčula.

Our next trip was the first of two across the island of Korčula. Although the rides on Korčula were not as long as Mljet, they included some of the biggest hills of the week. A couple of them were more than five kilometers of uninterrupted climb, although never more than a 10 percent grade, and more often six to eight. Not impossible, but definitely a challenge if you aren’t used to hill climbing. Our club members all made it, but some of the other passengers sometimes pushed their rides, or made use of the e-bikes (which often meant they led the pack.) On most days, the guide who was “sweep” at the end of the group would start out with an e-bike so that they could swap if someone tired on their regular bicycle. This was not advertised, but it really showed the effort taken by Petra and Neven to ensure the trip worked for everyone.

How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica

How could you resist a swim in the beautiful anchorage at Prigradica

Hey, did I mention the swimming? Most days, there were one or two opportunities for swimming off shower-equipped back of the Harmonia. It was impossible to resist. The water was stunningly clear, and that distinctive azure blue that characterizes the Adriatic in this area. It was also warm enough to get in and stay in. That despite the late September date following the “worse summer in decades.”

The water's great at Prigradica on Korčula

The water’s great at Prigradica on Korčula

After three days of hilly cycling, some of us were glad of a day off for a side trip to Mostar in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Others might have preferred not to break up the rhythm of the cycling. On the one hand, it was a two-hour bus ride each way, with lengthy stops at both Croatian and Bosnian customs in both directions. Mostar was hot, and rather overrun with tourists. On the other hand, it’s an iconic place, in terms of both its ancient and recent history.

A quiet moment in one of the mosques in Mostar

A quiet moment in one of the mosques in Mostar

Our guide, Senad, was interesting and informed, and I found it engaging to discuss with him some of the aspects of the recent ethnic conflict, together with his hopes for the future. With a little effort, we were able to visit places with fewer tourists, such as the interiors of some of the mosques that dot the city. In the quieter spaces, one could reflect on the significance of the cross upon the hill, or the war-damaged buildings. We could appreciate our return to our peaceful port that evening. “Mi smo tako sretni!” We are so lucky!

A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera

A peaceful evening in Gradac on the Makarska Rivijera

The entire tour had a satisfying cultural component. In addition to Dubrovnik and Mostar, we also had a professional guide in the old town of Korčula. For all the other islands and towns we visited, Petra gave an interesting historical or cultural presentation somewhere along the way. Although I’m sure she was well-versed in Croatian culture, it was obvious she put a lot of preparation into her job. Often, the guides went beyond the strict requirements of the job description. One morning, a half-hour Croatian language lesson lasted for 90 minutes; we were such eager students, she said.

"Good Morning!" While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.

“Good Morning!” While under way, Petra (wearing her Croatian flag skirt) leads us in a class in Croatian.

One evening, as a special treat, Petra spent several hours giving us her personal view of some of the challenges of life in Croatia. The country suffered considerably during the multi-year war that followed its declaration of independence in 1991. Many industries have yet to recover, and the very personal scars of the war run deep. The country was hit hard again in the global crisis of 2008. Unemployment currently sits at over 17%, and the average gross income is less than $18000 per year. Petra had spent several years working as a nanny in the UK and the US before returning to the country she loved. As an independent guide in a seasonal industry, staying employed was always a challenge. Yet, she also knew that she was better off than many of her compatriots who would have to leave Croatia to find work. Croatia’s recent EU membership was not embraced by everyone. There have been some losers.

Like Croatia, Bosnia suffered horribly during its war for independence (photo taken near the bridge at Mostar)

Like Croatia, Bosnia suffered horribly during its war for independence (photo taken near the bridge at Mostar)

It was an engaging evening, and we definitely appreciated Petra’s frank and sometimes emotional delivery. We felt we were getting more than just the canned tourist spiel, and were grateful for it. Perhaps in return, we all opened up a bit more. On this trip, I learned things from some long-time friends that I’d never heard before.

Cycling hundreds of meters above the bay at Pupnatska Luka on Korčula

Cycling hundreds of meters above the bay at Pupnatska Luka on Korčula

Back on Korčula again for one of the longer rides, the hills no longer seemed so forbidding. They were just part of the journey, and we knew that each one led to views more stunning than the previous. At the end of the longest climb, it was a cool delight to encounter a roadside fruit stand, where we quickly demolished more than one juicy watermelon. Riding along the seaside into Korčula town that evening, I felt a little sad knowing we had only one more day of riding.

A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town

A leisurely sea-side ride into Korčula town

That last day, for the first time all week, we woke to gray skies and whitecaps on the water. Given all we’d heard about the eastern Adriatic’s “year without a summer,” we thought ourselves lucky to have enjoyed the past six days of blue skies and sun on our shoulders. Our final day of riding took us through the old town of Ston, a salt-drying region since Roman times. The surrounding countryside is protected by a huge wall, second only to the Great Wall of China. Leaving Ston, we had to make a decision on whether to climb the final hill, which, on clear days, would offer “the most spectacular view yet.” Just then, the sky darkened and we heard the rumbling of an approaching storm. Our guides explained that coming down the hill could be dangerous in the rain, and advised that we might do better taking a shortcut down the Split-Dubrovnik highway. What to do?

Thunder rolls ominously overhead as we decide to avoid the final hilltop climb

Thunder rolls ominously overhead as we decide to avoid the final hilltop climb

We broke up into groups of three or four, and cycled down the paved shoulder at two-minute intervals. It was busy, although not as harrowing as I’d expected. In the end, it was almost certainly the better option. The storm broke just as we reached the ship. Had we gone over the hill, we would have found ourselves right at the top just when the deluge hit. Although riding in traffic is something I try to avoid, the last half hour in traffic reminded me that, for the entire rest of the week, we’d had the roads almost to ourselves. We often rode for an hour or more without seeing a single car. I even wondered why they kept such well-maintained roads for so little traffic. Whatever the reason, this was one of the best weeks of cycling I’ve ever enjoyed.

A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads

A rider demonstrates her e-bike on one of the many quiet back roads

I needn’t have worried about letting our group down. Comments ranged from “awesome” to “best trip ever!” September is a great month for riding here, and the best month for swimming. Apparently, this is true even in an off year. This was a well-organized tour; the crew and guides were personable and highly professional. A beautiful part of the world, with history stretching back for millennia, the southern Dalmatian islands are a great place to swim, boat, and cycle. Or just to sit in the sun, watch the world go by, and enjoy a coffee, beer, or ice cream – national favourites, all. Some of us will be back.

"This trip was awesome! When's the next one?" (aboard the Harmonia)

“This trip was awesome! When’s the next one?” (aboard the Harmonia)

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If you want to follow in our tracks:

The tour company is Island Hopping, based in Germany. They operate similar tours in Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Turkey, and Vietnam. Others in our club have been on a number of these; all reported great trips. Their organized approach is evident. As with our Dalmatian trip, Island Hopping charters local ships and crews, and contracts independent ride leaders and guides. Their tour list sounds like our bucket list.

Harmonia and friend await us for lunch and a swim

Harmonia and friend await us for lunch and a swim

We booked this trip through BikeTours.com (formerly Bike Tours Direct.) This is the second trip we’ve booked through them. You pay the same rate whether booking directly or through BikeTours.com, but we have done well going through a company we know, and in our time zone. The small team at BikeTours.com are all riders themselves – sometimes they’re spread a little thin when they’re out reviewing rides, but that’s the good news. They know a lot about the tours they sell. Simon & Richie did an excellent job of helping us coordinate the plans of 17 riders. (That may warrant a post of its own!) We look forward to dealing with them again. Meanwhile, here’s the tour: “Dalmatia from Dubrovnik

At the top, a placque commemorates the defence of Korčula from a Turkish attack in 1571.

At the top, a placque commemorates the defence of Korčula from a Turkish attack in 1571.