Tag Archives: Slow Travel

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 – 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

Travel, Allophilia, and World Peace

From time to time, I ask myself “What is this thing about travel? It’s a lot of hard work, and usually costs more than staying home. So why do we do it?”

The answer usually isn’t long in coming: I’ve enjoyed and profited by the different perspective that meeting other cultures provides. Travel is one of my favourite activities for satisfying my incessant curiosity. It engages me fully: most of the time when I’m visiting some place new, I find myself solidly in the present moment. And in every culture I’ve visited, I’ve found some aspect I like better than my own.

Similarly, learning other languages has let me see where my own language constrains my view of reality. Knowing different ways of thinking gives a certain freedom from one’s own unconscious inherited biases. Plus you get a whole new set of proverbs.

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Destructed Hiroshima with autograph of “Enola Gay” Bomber pilot Paul Tibbets

Recently, I got to thinking about the connection between international travel and world peace: “See the world, while helping to prevent World War III!”

A possible WWIII had been one of my personal bugbears since watching – in my teen years – a 1960s documentary depicting the horrors of an atomic attack. With the war in Vietnam heating up, it didn’t seem so far-fetched. The decades that followed offered little indication that wars were going out of style: the Cambodian civil war, the Iran-Iraq War, the Rwandan genocide, the Afghan conflicts, the war on Iraq, the Ugandan civil war punctuate a long list of lesser conflicts. Today there is conflict in the Ukraine, not to mention ISIS. The world’s nuclear missiles have yet to be mothballed.

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Hiroshima, Japan. 1945-08. Hiroshima street scene after the dropping of the atomic bomb of 1945-08-06

Still, being anti-war brings a certain negativity to life. Is there more to peace than just the absence of war? I was pondering this recently and wondered if the growing discipline of positive psychology had been applied to this question.

An internet search for “world peace” together with “positive psychology” led me to discover a new word: “allophila.” The neologism was coined by Todd Pittinsky, the author of “Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” when he realized there was no word to describe the opposite of “prejudice” or “intolerance.” Tolerance, the absence of intolerance, was not really it. There had to be a word for more “positive attitudes of behaviors towards the members of another group.”

Us Plus Them

“Us Plus Them: Tapping the Positive Power of Difference” by Pittinsky

In Dr. Pittinsky’s research, it turns out that decreasing intolerance does not equate to increasing allophilia. Furthermore, high allophilia seems to be much better at guaranteeing peace than does mere tolerance. As we’ve seen recently in several world hotspots, political demagogues have been able to wipe out years of tolerance in short order, sending formerly peaceful societies into internecine warfare. Perhaps what was missing was a higher degree of allophilia, manifested in terms of curiosity, comfort, engagement, and even kinship, affection and enthusiasm for members of other groups.

What organizations, I wondered, were fostering curiosity, engagement or enthusiasm for other cultures?

The obvious first answer was the original hospitality exchange, Servas International. Founded in aftermath of WWII by an American conscientious objector, the mission of Servas is “to help build world peace, goodwill and understanding by providing opportunities for personal contacts among people of different cultures, backgrounds and nationalities.” Their system of “open door” directories made it “possible for people of various nations to make visits to each other’s homes.” Servas now has official UN status and boasts of about 20,000 hosts in about 100 countries. Cheryl and I have been among those opening their doors for the past two decades.

Servas International

Peace through cross cultural understanding

Lately, Servas has been facing some stiff competition from the new Internet hospitality exchanges such as Couchsurfing. The old paper-based organization is having trouble quickly adopting the new technologies used by Internet startups, and their membership is ageing. Travelership is down.

A debate is ongoing about whether these new Internet exchanges represent the same peacebuilding ethic, or whether they’re just about cheap travel. Site names like GlobalFreeloaders and WarmShowers suggest the latter. Cheryl and I decided to join Couchsurfing as well as continue our Servas association. We have hosted and traveled with both organizations. In all cases, we try to adhere to the original vision of cultural interchange: hosts and guests interact like friends, often eating or cooking together. The Servas and Couchsurfing hosts we’ve stayed with have all done the same. It’s not just about accommodation: when we’re in that I-wanna-be-alone mood, we book a hotel or AirBnB.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Our delightful Couchsurfing hosts showed us all around Avignon in Provence, with lots of time for discussion.

Meanwhile, while Servas struggles to bring their 100 constituent national organizations into the Internet era, a Servas discussion group within the Couchsurfing site expresses two opposing views. The first tries to encourage Couchsurfers to adopt the more allophilic perspective of Servas. The second suggests this was never the intention, nor should it be. We hope the former view predominates – although we never discount the value of free accommodation.

And while travelers may view a hospitality exchange as merely a cheap way to travel, it’s hard to see what hosts get out of offering free room and board if it’s not the opportunity to connect with people from other lands and cultures. So perhaps the allophilic spirit is alive and well in the new Internet world.

Santiago de Cuba

Our boys jamming with a couple of local musicians in Santiago de Cuba (circa 2006)

Will it help? Is WWIII becoming less likely because of the humble hospitality exchange? Perhaps these words from the founder of Servas provide a clue.

“This story is not only about the beginning of Servas but the awakening of a mind on a slow overland trip from Norway to India. Confrontations with divergent cultures replaced my colored glasses with an often diamond clear vision. An ever deepening awareness from immersion in diverse ways of life shook up my ingrained assumptions. From shades of gray suddenly rainbow colors burst into my consciousness. Freed from the shackles of my upbringing and a classic American mentality I began to soar with the perspective of a global citizen. The human community emerged as a magic quilt of life styles and manners of thinking and living, a single tapestry of myriad designs unfolding before me.

“Shifting from a tourist absorbing scenic vistas to a traveler actively searching the central ideas of cultures happens gradually. At first the subtle thought/observation changes are unnoticeable. Then one discovers that a once passive and barely opened mind has blossomed into an inquisitive flower hungry for pollination. As I learned to listen with empathy, the most humble persons from distant corners of the globe became my mentors, pulling me into undreamed of chambers of thoughts and insights. I was no longer a touring observer looking in but a participant savoring many ways of life.”

Near Plitvice

Near Plitvice Park in Croatia, a 1990s war memorial stands guard over a bombed out home.

As I continue my investigation of this new concept, I have a question for you: which organizations are you aware of fostering world peace through intercultural allophilia?

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Which organizations foster world peace through intercultural allophilia? Please leave a comment below.

3 Days in our City of Love – Slovenia

Sometimes when you’re traveling, you just have to go in the direction the horse wants to go.

When we were on our recent trip to Croatia, we’d planned to take a side trip to Venice. The only other time we’d been in the “City of Love”, we’d been treated to two days of non-stop rain.

Romantic Venice by Gondola

“This wasn’t what I had in mind for a romantic proposal in a gondola in Venice!”

After several frustrating hours searching Google Flights and Rome2Rio, we reached the conclusion that cheap flights across the Adriatic came to an abrupt halt in mid-September. Since we were already scheduled to fly into Zagreb from Frankfurt, we opted instead to double back two hours by train for three days in Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovenia.

Slovenia - I Feel Love

The Official Travel Guide by Slovenian Tourist Board

Through AirBnB, we booked the top floor of a heritage building apartment in the old town, right on the Ljubljanica River. We were looking forward to meeting our host, Sara, and getting to know a bit more about the city. As the date of our arrival grew near, Sara decided to go on a round-the-world sojourn, and told us we’d have the entire place to ourselves. A friend would meet us there and let us in. By then we knew that the train connection in Zagreb would have us arriving in Ljubljana around midnight, so we hoped Sara’s friend was a good one. We checked the walking route from the train station to the apartment – looked at a couple Google street views – and convinced ourselves it would be safe enough, even at that late hour.

Dragon Bridge

We first crossed the Dragon Bridge after midnight, but returned late the next afternoon.

Likely the most dangerous thing we did was to walk down 20 minutes of cobblestone streets with our suitcases mimicking rolling thunder. Such unneighbourly behaviour might soon be banned in Venice – and I completely understand. (Does anyone make a suitcase with soft rubber tires?) Fortunately, no one pelted us with tomatoes, Sara’s friend was right on time, and we crashed into a comfortable loft bed in our old town apartment.

Apartment on Mestni Trg

Our apartment building from across the River, with Ljubljanski grad above.

Jet-lagged from our overnight flight to Europe, it was 11am before we awoke to a sunny September morning and a view of the hilltop Ljubljana Castle (Ljubljanski grad) a few blocks distant. We decided to climb the hill first thing, get an overview of the city, and perhaps spend a couple of hours in the castle. Instead, we spent the entire afternoon: going on a castle tour, visiting the small museum, and eating at a tasty yet reasonable heritage restaurant. We learned that the area has been settled for thousands of years. Six thousand years ago there were stone-age farmers living in houses on piles in the marshes. The oldest wooden wheel ever discovered was found in this area. Exactly 2000 years before our visit, the Romans founded the city of Emona on the site of present-day Ljubljana. And we also learned that Slovenians love their ice cream – which is very good, and quite similar in style to the Italian gelato. We had our first of many in the castle.

Mural in Ljubljana Castle

A mural in the museum in Ljubljana Castle reminds us that, peasant or noble, we are all equal in death.

For the rest of the day, and the following morning, we simply wandered around the pedestrian streets along both sides of the river. The river is criss-crossed with foot bridges in the old town, and at the edge of those limits is Zmajski most , the famous Dragon Bridge. The town is a peaceful and attractive place to while away a day. With a population of less than 300,000, Ljubljana must be one of the smallest capital cities in Europe. It’s clean and comfortable, and offers many outdoor cafes and restaurants. And ice cream on every corner. On the riverside walk right outside our apartment was a wonderful cart offering homemade flavours such as black sesame, and pink grapefruit with fresh basil. I went back for seconds.

Triple Bridge (Tromostovje)

The Lower Bridge, designed in the Venetian style by Giovanni Picco, became the distinctive Triple Bridge when Ljubljana’s best-known architect Jože Plečnik added the two side bridges in 1929.

We found the people of the city friendly and helpful. The fact we knew only ten words of Slovene was no hindrance. Almost everyone we met spoke fluent English. The Slovenians liked to tell us that their home was a country of poets. Their streets are named after literary figures not generals, and the central Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg) is named after a 19th-century Romantic poet. The Slovenian poets were out in full force the morning we visited, gathered around the statue of France Prešeren for a “day of solidarity” for Edward Snowden. A placard quoted the poet and followed up with, “Hang in there, Edward, Slovenian poets are with you!”

Prešeren Square (Prešernov trg)

“Less fearful the long night of life’s denial than living beneath the sun in subjugation!” ~ France Prešeren

For the last day and a half of our stay, we elected to take a couple of day tours with a local company called Roundabout. The company offers several half and full-day tours out of Ljubljana, and is well regarded. Our first one was a long “half-day” tour which allowed us visit the famous Postojna Cave, where an electric train carried us several kilometres into the mountain. Nearby is Predjama Castle, where a 15th-century “robber baron” weathered the Holy Roman Emperor’s military siege for over a year by means of secret caves through the mountain behind the castle.

Predjama Castle

Predjama Castle is built into a cliffside cave. The baron met his end with a cannonball fired into the toilet on the far left.

We especially liked that each tour was limited to four people plus a guide. This allowed us a lot of flexibility on the various options along the way. On our second tour, we were all energetic enough that when offered a choice of a hike through Vintgar Gorge, or a boat ride to the Church of the Assumption on Bled Island, we opted for both – an excellent choice as it turned out. While the highlight of this day was a visit to Lake Bled with its hilltop castle and island church, the stops at the glacial lake of Bohinj and the medieval town of Skofja Loka were equally as interesting. Throughout both days, our personable guides were able to keep answering our questions and providing us with interesting historical detail.

Lake Bled with the Church of the Assumption

A sacred site since prehistoric times, the famous Church on Bled Island recently hosted its first gay marriage.

We enjoyed the pace of life in Ljubljana, and could easily have made a longer visit of it. Given its small size, so many of its attractions were within walking distance of our apartment on Mestni trg. We enjoyed walking down streets at random, and checking out anything that looked interesting. Returning from Tivoli Park one morning, we stopped at an open-air café near the Narodna galerija. A sign advertising evening jazz had us return after dinner for a drink and a little sax by candlelight. If you want to know where it is, we can’t help you. The place is only open in the summer, and had recently moved. Next year it may be somewhere else. So you’ll just have to go wandering and see what you find.

Ljubljana, Slovenia

View from the Castle toward Tivoli. Our apartment was on the river in the foreground, with the Triple Bridge to Prešeren Square on the right. The “square” is actually round. The open space near the left is part of Congress Square (Kongresni trg)

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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.

Learning Languages for Fun, Travel & the Fountain of Youth

Apart from his native English ability, Paul’s profile lists professional working proficiency in Portuguese and German, limited proficiency in Spanish, and elementary in French and Italian.  Here he hints at how he acquired these other languages and why he doesn’t intend to stop there. Do you speak a second language?  Why not? According to Science Daily, “The majority of people in the world learn to speak more than one language during their lifetime.”  However, I don’t think native-born North Americans are pulling their weight.

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary ...

English: A USSR stamp, 70th Birth Anniversary of Nelson Mandela. Date of issue: 18th July 1988. Designer: B. Ilyukhin. Michel catalogue number: 5853. 10 K. multicoloured. Portrait of Nelson Mandela (fighter for freedom of Africa). Русский: Марка СССР Н. Мандела (1988, ЦФА №5971). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning other languages – even just a nodding acquaintance – makes travel so much more rewarding.  Opening a conversation with a few words of the native language transforms us from tourist to traveler in the ears of the person we’re addressing.  According to a Czech proverb, “You live a new life for every new language you speak.”  Learning other languages may even be the key to peace and reconciliation.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.  If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart” – Nelson Mandela

At my age, I’m often tempted to say, “I’m too old for this.  Our sensitive period for language learning goes downhill after age seven!  On top of that, my hearing is going, and even understanding English is getting harder!”  You look at initiatives like “Fluent in 3 Months” or “Fluent Every Year” and say, “Yeah, but, those are young folks!” If that’s your excuse, perhaps it’s time to set it aside.  There may even be more at stake than getting around Paris, Venice, or Dubrovnik.

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Every year, new studies come out showing that learning a second language is one of the best ways known to reduce or postpone age-related cognitive decline – even Alzheimer’s.  A recent study in Toronto suggests that learning a second language can delay the symptoms of that brain-wasting disease for years.  Lead neuroscientist, Dr. Schweizer, said that a second language appears to delay the onset of symptoms by four or five years.  “This is fantastic,” he said, adding that no existing medicine is that effective.  Perhaps only social dancing has a stronger effect, but not every senior is able to take up dancing. There’s also good news on the other side of the equation.  New research in neuroplasticity is showing that the brain continues to develop throughout our entire lives.  Books like Norman Doidge’s “The Brain that Changes Itself” offer remarkable and inspirational stories about this phenomenon.  While we seniors may have to adapt the way we use our brains in order to learn new languages, such adaptation is possible, and science continues to understand it better.  This excellent if lengthy article, “Memory Problems in Seniors and Learning a New Language”, offers some surprising advice based on recent research.

“How a child learned this was from hearing and using the constructions thousands of times before ever beginning their formal education.  The child associates images with the words and phrases – he can use grammar correctly because he heard and repeated correct grammar over and over again!  What an adult does, most unfortunately, is not associate images with words and phrases in which correct grammar and vocabulary is learned, but rather tries to remember words and phrases in the foreign language as an association with words and phrases in his native language.  He is constantly, and erroneously, associating the foreign language with his native one.  This short-circuits the second language learning!

This emphasis on how children learn language is a key one, especially now that we know that we retain a considerable amount of the child’s neuroplasticity all our lives.  Not only does learning a second language keep us young, but also it may be necessary to “think young” in order to learn that language.

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

Practicing German with Swiss cyclists in Brisighella, Italy

I’ve taken that one step further.  From my own experience, I’ve concluded that to learn another language most efficiently, you need to become as much like a child as possible.  In a blog post a few years ago, I recounted my experience learning my first foreign language in my early twenties.  The principles I distilled pretty much sum up the way a young child comes at learning their first language.

  • Put something at stake that’s more important than looking good.
  • Cut off all escape routes.
  • Stop trying to translate everything.  Learn how to think in others’ terms.
  • Trust the “music of the language.”  Don’t let the words get in the way.
  • Unleash your natural mimic
  • Relax and have fun!  Enjoy the game!

Perhaps the reason we adults have trouble learning new languages has nothing to do with our ability to act like children.  Maybe it has more to do with our willingness.  It’s just not cool! Others are saying much the same thing.  A new initiative, called Velocity Language Learning, has adult participants wearing funny hats and playing silly games as part of their strategy for getting them back into that childlike state of wonder and learning.

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

The cofounder of Velocity Learning models a hat

There are so many Internet resources for learning languages, it’s overwhelming.  I listed a few in my earlier piece on “The Language Lab of Life.”  I’ll list a few more links at the end of this article.  My advice is to use those that give you the greatest freedom and incentive to free your inner child – and set her about learning that next language the way she learned her first.  She didn’t engage endless vocabulary drills, or consult translation dictionaries and grammar texts.  Instead, she was born into the pool, and it was sink or swim – and if she was lucky, the adults around her paid more attention to what she was trying to say than how many mistakes she made along the way. So, throw yourself in the pool.  Go join a Meetup for your target language, or try an ESL one or polyglot one where you may find others willing to trade their language for English conversation.  Leave a comment on this post and let us know what you’re doing, or what’s working for learning your new language.

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

Our AirBnB hosts in Paris helped our French!

My own project for the coming year is to move my Italian to the next level for a return trip to Italy.  Some elementary Croatian would also be helpful for the bike tour we’re doing out of Dubrovnik on that same trip.  Beyond that, who knows?  To paraphrase Sandra Martz, “When I am deaf, I shall learn Sign Language.” A few more resources:

I fear that projects like SIGMO or Google Translate will reduce the incentive to learn other languages.  What will keep us young then?