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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.

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 – 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

Kedging for Fun and Non-profits

In sailing terms, kedging is the process of moving a ship forward by sending an anchor out ahead of it, and then pulling the ship forward by hauling on the anchor. This slow and laborious process can be repeated indefinitely.

“Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond”

As the book “Younger Next Year” explains, the same process can be used to pull yourself through the slow and laborious process of a daily exercise regime. The idea is to set a physical stretch goal that will keep you moving forward when the couch is softly calling.

Last year, I had used our upcoming fall cycling trip to the hilly Dalmatian Islands as my kedge, and the thought of those climbs got me out riding our local hills on many a summer’s day.

This year, I elected to participate in a late-August two-day bicycle ride to raise funds for cancer research. However, the real fun began when I elected the optional “challenge” route of 290 km (180 miles.) The longer Day One would be close to double the longest ride I’d ever done.

As I started my training rides, I soon realized that my trusty hybrid cycle was not up to the task. At a top average speed of perhaps 22 kph, I’d be at risk of not finishing before dark. I also wanted to join the local road-riding club for extra weekly motivation, and they had a “no hybrids” policy. So, in April, I acquired an entry-level road bike, the first since my 20s. Shortly after that, I persuaded myself to try “clipless pedals” – so called because the cyclist’s shoes are clipped into the pedals – go figure!

As anyone who’s had their feet attached to the pedals can tell you, a few slow-motion falls are to be expected, especially on days with high cross winds. It hurts a lot less if you land on flat ground rather than a roadside planter. Ouch!

Trying out the new "clipless" pedals

Trying out the new “clipless” pedals

As spring headed towards summer and I worked my way towards 225 km a week, I inched my average ride speed from 22 to 24, then 25, and finally 27 kph. That was the point I’d told myself I’d be ready to join my first group ride. An informal ride was advertised for Tuesday morning: “Pensioners’ Easy Ride.” That sounded good.

I arrived at the meeting point with a slightly bloodied knee – remember those cross winds? The collection of sleek carbon-fiber machines looked intimidating, and some of those “pensioners” must have taken very early retirement. For 20 km, I managed to keep them in sight – although it nearly cost me a lung – after which, they disappeared from view. At the end-of-route coffee stop, they gently suggested the “other” club might be closer to my speed.

Towards the end of the summer, I did manage to get out with the “other” club a few times, and while the rides kept me moving, I was able to hold my own. Good thing! I had my hands full learning the hand signals and other techniques for riding in close formation. This was a very different style of riding than what we do in our recreational club, and I came back from a few “white knuckle” rides with aching fingers.

Fellow riders on the bike trail into Cascade Locks, OR

Fellow riders on the bike trail into Cascade Locks, OR

Meanwhile, our recreational club kept Cheryl and me busy this summer with a number of great rides including a three-day circuit of Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, a multi-day exploration of the BC wine country around Oliver, and a couple days of riding on Washington’s Whidbey and BC’s Pender Island. I knew my training was starting to have an effect when fellow riders remarked on how my hill climbing had improved, and sometimes complained that my “easy” pace seemed to be quickening.

Despite all this, by August I was growing concerned that I still hadn’t proven to my own satisfaction that I could do the ride at month end. So I pushed myself to do longer rides, and ten days ago, I completed my longest ride ever. Although I was still only at 75 percent of Day One, I knew I still had the reserves to do that last 25 percent — and before sunset to boot. Not a moment too soon, as our training advisors soon told us it was time to taper down for event day.

Now, with the ride only a few days off, the kedge has done its work. It got me out cycling on the days I otherwise wouldn’t: when it was too hot, or sprinkling, or when my road bike needed repairs and I needed to take my hybrid. It got me out earlier, later, and longer. My attitude towards hills shifted from “OK, if I have to” to “Bring’ em on – I need the practice!” A 70-km cycle went from being a full-day’s outing to a shorter morning ride.

Cycling Friends, on the ferry to Lummi Is, WA

Cycling Friends, on the ferry to Lummi Is, WA

It got me trying new things such as close-formation riding on a new type of bicycle. I met a whole new set of people I wouldn’t have found otherwise. And it kept me focused on my goal while dealing with a number of mechanical problems such as bent derailleurs, broken spokes, and the need to replace a wheel. And ergonomic problems – I had to hire a bike fitter to implement the recommendations of my physiotherapist. It’s definitely helped my fitness, including loosening a couple of joints that had been over-tight since last October.

This particular kedge has also done something else. It’s allowed me to raise several thousand dollars towards cancer research. For many riders, the fundraising part is the hardest – and many struggle with it. In my case, a number of generous friends, associates, and family members made the job painless. All I had to do was keep them entertained with my painful cycling pratfalls.

Taking a break from cycling on Pender Island, BC

Taking a break from cycling on Pender Island, BC

With only a few days left, I’m looking forward to my weekend ride – forecasts of showers notwithstanding – and already wondering what my next kedge will be. While Cheryl and I plan a 400-km cycling trip in Vietnam early next year, it doesn’t seem solid enough for the purpose. So, I’ll have to come with something else. Stay tuned. I’m off for an evening training ride.

What experience have you had with your own kedges?

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Spark Spotting in Uganda: Sawa World

The “problems” I’ve been blogging about here are definitely “first world problems”: low-cost travel, best mobile technology, staying active in retirement.

But I’m reminded that there are still a billion people in this world trying to get by on a dollar per day. This grinding poverty persists despite huge amounts spent on private and government foreign aid since World War II.

“Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo

Some say what’s needed is more aid – and more aid might help with specific problems, such as malaria, tuberculosis, and malnutrition. However, especially in Africa, there’ve been voices questioning the efficacy of government-to-government aid, and other forms of top-down “first world” solutions. In the post-War decades, there was development economist, Peter T. Bauer and his “Dissent on Development.” More recently, Zambia’s Dambisa Moyo published “Dead Aid”, so titled in reference to the famous “Live Aid” concerts. She argued that these programs have primarily served to keep populations beholden to charismatic dictators living high on Western largesse. It’s a sobering assessment. And while Moyo was more positive about the micro-finance movement, others have called into question a solution that facilitates widespread debt among the poorest of the poor.

At the same time, economists such as Peru’s Hernando de Soto Polar have suggested that the poor of the developing nations have the ability to lift themselves out of poverty, if only they could gain access to the civil and legal protections that we take for granted in the West. I suspect there’s much truth in that.

Still, I’ve often wondered if there might be ways to offer effective assistance. That’s why I was excited to learn of a small, young organization called “Sawa World.” Bearing the byline, “Solutions from within,” Sawa World’s summarizes its mission as follows: “We find inspiring innovators (Sawa Leaders) living in extreme poverty, that have created local solutions that are already working. Local youth ensure these successes are shared so others living in extreme poverty can replicate them.”

Training a Sava Youth Reporter

Training a Sava Youth Reporter (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

Sawa World’s original point of leverage was to secure training in New Media for unemployed youth in the poorest countries, and encourage them to publicize the ultra-low-capital successes of local homegrown entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs so that others could emulate them.  That model has evolved based on extensive feedback on its effectiveness.  Over time, their video and outreach teams progressed to capturing these solutions step-by-step, to be shared with others in the community. Rather than take advice from well-meaning foreign advisors who lack local context, hopeful entrepreneurs can see that they already have the knowledge and resources to succeed, right in their own communities. Recently, Sawa World has focused on helping the most promising of these new entrepreneurs, dubbed “Sawa Sparks”, find local training opportunities.

Sawa Leader

This young man became an entrepreneur at 10, has trained 6000 others (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

The Swahili word “sawa” can signify “equal, right, true, good, or ok,” and perhaps all of them apply. The Sawa World approach is to focus on the poorest of the poor, those earning less than $1 US Dollar per day, and highlight “Sawa Leaders” who, from those same conditions, have been able to create a better living for themselves and others in their communities. Even the ability to earn an extra dollar or two a day makes an incredible difference. As Sawa World founder Daphne Nederhorst says, “$2 to $4 means that they can actually now pay their school fees, they can pay their basic necessities, and can pay their rent.”

The organization initially started work in five of the poorest countries: Haiti, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Zambia. After some initial success, the founder decided to focus on one country while she ensured that her business model was as scalable and self-sustaining as possible. She wanted to make sure that every dollar donated to Sawa World would produce the maximum benefit in terms of self-sufficient entrepreneurship among the poor communities she was targeting. Ideally she would like Sawa World to be completely self-financed.

Sawa Youth Reporter

Sawa Youth Reporter at work (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

Uganda’s extreme youth unemployment rate – more than 60% by some estimates – made it an obvious choice. Sawa World looks for vulnerable, unemployed youth, and through local media organizations, trains them in audio-visual production, digital video editing, multimedia design, social media, and outreach & impact tracking methods. (If that sounds counter-intuitive, remember that, worldwide, more people have access to cell phones than to power or toilets.)

These young “citizen journalists” then scour their communities for inspirational examples of success, using their training to spread the word so that others can replicate their business models in the provision of water, food, shelter, education, health care, environmental protection, and gender-equal opportunity. To date, 253 young people have been trained as Sawa Youth Reporters, and together they’ve identified dozens of Sawa Sparks, and produced 100 videos. Over 16,000 people have been directly affected, and many times more indirectly.

New entrepreneur

A new entrepreneur learned how to make these bags at a recent event (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

Scores of new entrepreneurs have been trained and inspired to start their own operations in very short order, growing or producing essential commodities such as banana chips, briquettes from organic waste, chickens, clay stoves, herbal soap, honey from beehives, lemongrass tea, mushrooms, paper bags, paper beads, pineapple jam, rehydration salts, sanitary pads, and wallets. The most influential Sawa Leaders have provided training in how to make all of these items, often employing many others in the process. Sawa World reports, “Olivia Damali Sserabira has empowered over 46,000 vulnerable women in urban and rural settings in Uganda by providing employable and income generating skills training in eleven different areas through her organization, the Peace and Hope Training Centre.”

As promising as this is, Sawa World continues to search for even more effective ways to spread local business and technological knowledge where it will do the most good. For the past couple of years, the organization has sponsored a Sawa World Day in Kampala, Uganda. The idea is to bring community leaders together with vulnerable youth who can instantly learn skills to improve their livelihoods.  Nederhorst had hoped to more than double last year’s attendance. “The impact that we want to have is that we want to host 10,000 vulnerable and unemployed youth from Uganda and the East African region and empower them with local, simple skills that allow them to start a small business the next day.”

New entrepreneurs

Training new entrepreneurs at a Sawa World event (photo courtesy of Sawa World)

She didn’t quite meet her target, but almost 5000 did attend Sawa World Day in Kampala in April 2015. Since the event, on the Sawa World Facebook page, there have been reports like the following: “This is Ritah from Uganda. She became homeless at a very young age when both of her parents died. Most recently a friendly lady in the community invited her to the Sawa World Day. There she learned how to make earrings and necklaces. Within two weeks she made 40 pairs and raised her income by 150,000 Ugandan Shillings ($50 USD). She also offered free trainings to 15 other orphaned girls in her community and now has a safe place to live.” Their statistics suggest that half of the attendees were able to do something similar within a matter of weeks.

New Entrepreneur

A woman shows off her new business just weeks after Sawa World Day 2015 (photo courtesy Sawa World)

It sounds like Daphne Nederhorst and Sawa World are onto something sustainable and scalable. As she says, “This allows other impoverished people to feel inspired and to replicate the solutions in their own communities. And it allows the Sawa Youth to find leadership in their communities, and in themselves – to become the Sawa Leaders of tomorrow.” As an indication that they believe they have honed their model, the Sawa World Team was recently invited to host a training in South Sudan, a new country on the brink of mass starvation.

Daphne Nederhorst

Founder Daphne Nederhorst talking to local change makers (photo courtesy Sawa World)

Others are beginning to recognize this success. Nederhorst was a semi-finalist at the 2013 Forbes 400 Summit of Philanthropy at the United Nations. This year, Sawa World won the Saville Foundation’s Pan-African Award for contributions to development in Africa, and was featured on Virgin Unite, the non-profit foundation of the Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

If you want to help out, check out their Donation page, where they list what you can enable with amounts as small as one dollar. (One DVD capturing a practical solution of a Sawa Leader: marketing material to support their work.) If you happen to be in Vancouver, Canada, you can visit their small shared office a few blocks from Science World. The day I visited, volunteer office manage Brittney Fehr was excited about her upcoming self-financed trip to Uganda for Sawa World Day, 2015.

If you happen to be in Kampala, sounds like you should have no trouble finding their office.

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Mi Smo Tako Sretni – We Are So Lucky!

It was on the Island of Korčula that two opposing visions began to converge.

While we were cycling in the southern Dalmatian Islands of Croatia, one of our riding companions began to exclaim at every opportunity, “We are so lucky!”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

Our transport awaits at Prigradica, Korčula

“Look at us,” Heather would say. Here we are, riding on this beautiful island on a warm September day. Friends, all in good spirits, surround us. Everywhere we look, there are stunning vistas. We get back to our luxurious yacht for a fine meal, and first we go for a swim in this clear, warm Adriatic ocean. The roads, the villages, and the countryside are so peaceful. Think of all the people who aren’t able to be here and enjoy this right now. “We are so damned lucky!”

While I couldn’t fault Heather’s logic, after hearing this several times a day, it began to grate on me. So I asked one of our guides for a translation into Croatian. “Mi smo tako sretni,” he said. It had a ring to it – once I got the pronunciation right – so I began to prod my shipmates with this from time to time. “Mi smo tako sretni!” The phrase began its work while we began to absorb some of Korčula’s history.

A small-town church on Korčula

A small-town church on Korčula

While today, this island of anglers, vignerons, and hosteliers feels pretty laid back, it was not always so. The history of invasions and takeovers reads like a “Who’s Who” of the continent.

Between 1000 BC and 900 AD, Korčula was invaded by the Illyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Slavs, and the Byzantine Empire. Then the pace picked up. Over the next 500 years, the Island’s rulers included the Serbian kingdom of Raška, the Slavic kingdom of Zahumlje, the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the Republic of Venice, the Croatian kingdom of Krka, the Hungarian monarchy, the Republic of Genoa, Venice (again), the Kingdom of Hungary (a couple more times), the Kingdom of Bosnia, the Serbian Kingdom of Zeta, and finally ended up back under the thumb of Venice in 1409.

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

Impromptu a capella performance. Some say that Marco Polo was born in Korčula during its Venetian occupation

In 1571, the Islanders repelled an Ottoman Turkish attack, and then – except for frequent attacks by pirates – things settled down. However, in 1797, a new series of takeovers began, including the Hapsburg Monarchy of Vienna, the French under Napoleon, the Kingdom of Montenegro, France again, the British, and finally ended up under the rule of the Austrian Empire in 1815.

During WWI, the Island was caught between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Italians (after they switched sides.) Italy won out in 1918, but in 1921, Korčula became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. For the first two years of WWII, the new central authority was the Banovina of Croatia, but between 1941 and 1944, the Island fell under the control of Mussolini’s Italy, then the communist Yugoslav Partisans, then Nazi Germany, and finally the Allied Forces.

Close call.  Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

Close call. Not far to the Pelješac Peninsula on the mainland.

After 1945, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was in charge, until Croatia declared its independence in 1991. The war for independence largely bypassed Korčula although most of the nearby Croatian coast was less fortunate. However, it would seem that the Islanders have had to endure a considerable helping of violence and upheaval over the past three thousand years.

As the reality of this history began to sink in, I began to see our good fortune in a new light. Because my grandparents located in a relatively peaceful part of the western hemisphere – one that was to become quite prosperous – I have not had to grow up in the shadow of war and cycles of violence. Instead, I had the opportunity to become better off financially than the overwhelming majority of the world’s inhabitants. We can afford to cruise the Dalmatian Islands on a well-appointed yacht, and have our every need catered to. As our friend Heather said, “Mi smo tako sretni.”

Mi smo tako sretni - we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

Mi smo tako sretni – we are so lucky. Near Lastovo.

As we toured a number of other areas in Croatia and nearby, the contrast between our good fortune and the recent suffering of others kept bubbling up.

It started in Dubrovnik as we sat with our friendly Airbnb host on his balcony, admiring the spectacular view of the Old Town spread out below us. Not twenty years earlier, our host had been unable to venture onto the balcony for fear of sniper fire from Yugoslav forces on the hilltop above. At age 13, he was stuck inside with his grandmother, while his parents worked as medics in a nearby war zone.

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

From high on Srđ, destruction rained down on Dubrovnik

Later, on top of that same hilltop – Mount Srđ – we could see the view the gunners would have had as they shelled the city of Dubrovnik below. Built as protection from medieval forces, the famous walls were of little use in protecting the citizens from late-20th-century armaments. Srđ now hosts a sobering museum filled with photographs of taken during the siege of Dubrovnik. As you wander the streets with thousands of other happy tourists, it’s hard to imagine the pain and destruction of the 1990s.

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

The rustic shelters high up Mt Velebit served as refuge from coastal pirates for centuries

In the Islands, there are echoes of slightly more distant wars. The Island of Prezba, adjacent to Lastovo, was a Yugoslav military base during the Cold War. With the Italian coast less than 200 km distant, this area would have been part of the front-line in the 45-year standoff between East and West. Now, fortunately, the island flora is reclaiming the fortifications. Up the coast, similar tunnels dug into the base of Mt. Velebit will become a new tourist attraction next year. Perhaps Tito intended to hide out here if the Russians and Americans started lobbing nukes at each other.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

Mostar from the Bridge. A war zone not so long ago.

In the middle of our week of cycling, our tour bused us all out to the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar is famous for the Old Bridge (Stari Most) after which it is named. The bridge, now a UN Heritage Site, was built in 1566 when Bosnia was under Ottoman rule. During the ethnic fighting that took place in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, the bridge was destroyed. In 2004, the bridge reopened, having been reconstructed from original plans and using original material that had fallen into the river during the bombardment. It now serves as a symbol of peace.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Remnants of war for sale at the Mostar bazaar.

Still, the signs of the recent war are all around in Mostar. Plaques in the market read, “Never forget 1993.” A cross on the hill above town commemorates some of the victims of the war. Here and there between the tourist shops are the bombed out shells of buildings that have yet to be reclaimed from the fighting. In the part of town that divided Croat from Bosniak ethnic groups, apartment buildings are still pockmarked in shrapnel wounds. It’s sobering to imagine what those years must have been like. Over 100,000 people died in the Bosnian conflict. Today however, the only visible conflict seems to be among tourists for open-air tables or the best views of the young men who once again jump off the new Old Bridge.

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

Some of the falls at Plitvice Lakes

The week after our cycling trip, we traveled to Croatia’s famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. This is a unique region of unparalleled beauty, where calcium-laden rivers of unbelievable shades of blue create a “Land of Waterfalls.” It’s impossible to convey the scope of this landscape with a single picture. As you walk down the trails and boardwalks, it’s as if you are right in the middle of the cascading falls. Between the falls are peaceful lakes, and the entire scene is surrounded by forest.

Our home for five nights would be right in the park, in the small village of Korana, nestled on the banks of the same river that sculpts the waterfalls. Just a handful of houses, Korana boasts one of the few still operating water-powered grain mills. Our accommodation in a private home had no WiFi. The valley walls blocked cell phone reception. As we walked along the bank of the river that first early Fall evening, the smoke curled peacefully up from the woodstoves. The tranquility carried with it a soothing balm for the soul. But there is pain that lies beneath.

Our home at Korana Village - peaceful once again

Our home at Korana Village – peaceful once again

Our host explained to us that most of the homes had been destroyed during the Croatian conflict. All the men had spent a year in prisoner-of-war camps run by enemy militias. “If they seem a little strange now,” he said, “perhaps you’ll understand why.”

Right in the beautiful park at Plitvice were fired some of the first shots of the conflict that would rage for three years. Plitvice was the centre of the area of Croatia known as Krajina, which stretches in a big arc along 40% of the Croatian-Bosnian border. During the Middle Ages the Austrian Empire encouraged large numbers of Serbs to settle in this area as a “buffer” against the Ottoman possessions in Bosnia. In recent times there were several hundred thousand Serbs living in this area, with some areas having more Serbs than Croats. In 1991, as the Croatian government prepared to declare its independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs in Krajina jumped the gun and declared their own republic independent of Croatia. When the war broke out, most of the Krajina Serbs sided with the Serb-controlled Yugoslav government. The fighting that ensued must have been brutal.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

Plitvice changed hands four times during the fighting.

As we toured the area around Plitvice, most notably in Karlovac and the surrounding countryside, we pondered the still stark signs of devastation. Almost every home in this region had been war damaged. Apart from ruins that had not been salvaged, numerous homes were still peppered with shrapnel damage, almost 20 years later.

In the countryside around Karlovac, we passed extensive areas that appeared to be reverting to nature, with trees and bushes growing up around the ruins of farmhouses. From time to time, signs warned of uncleared landmines. Some of these areas were formerly populated by Serbs, but several hundred thousand left Croatia during and following the war.

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Open air war museum in Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac

Traveling through these areas really got me thinking about how hard many people have it. Meanwhile, Cheryl and I live in a peaceful, prosperous country. It’s not too difficult for us to afford a trip like this, where we can eat well, be well looked after, and have guides show us around or entertain us. We get to sail to beautiful islands on a yacht, or hike through beautiful national parks, or spend the day cruising the countryside on comfortable bicycles.

As our cycle guide explained it, “Mi smo tako stretni.” can mean either “We are so lucky” or “We are so happy.” Could this linking of “happy” and “lucky” offer a small insight into the Slavic temperament? Or perhaps we just need to acknowledge some of the good fortune in our happiness. “Mi smo tako jako sretni!” We are so darned lucky!

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Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Enjoying the peace of an evening stroll in Korana

Our five-day stay in Korana Village in Plitvice was arranged by Huck Finn Croatia Adventure Travel. It’s a reasonably priced and somewhat different way to see this part of Croatia. Our guide, Zlatko, picked us up in Zagreb, and spent the next four days leading us on a number of activities around the area: the waterfalls of Plitvice Park, hiking on Mt. Velebit, cycling in the Karlovac countryside, and rafting on the Mrežnica River. Each evening we enjoyed traditional meals in the riverside cookhouse in Korana. Zlatko turned out to be an accomplished classical guitarist, and one evening played a selection of his own arrangements of Balkan flamenco from Macedonia. Our group definitely enjoyed Huck Finn’s Croatia.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

Some of us are very lucky. Some not.

One of our most memorable activities in Dubrovnik was a visit to the galleries of War Photo Ltd. on Antuninska Street, just off the main thoroughfare. According to their promotional literature, “It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.” There are several photo exhibits about the conflicts in Croatia and other parts of former Yugoslavia, but there are also revolving displays on war’s human costs in Northern Ireland, Syria, Chechnya, Colombia, Israel, Lebanon, and other hot spots. We spent a sobering couple of hours there, and once more came away thinking, “Mi smo tako sretni!”

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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.