Vietnam at its very best: by bicycle

Sunday Times
Published: 26th October 2014

My first two experiences of cycling in Vietnam could not have been more different.

On a sultry evening in Hanoi, I hopped on a trishaw — a tricycle with a chair for a passenger at the front, dating from the French colonial period — for a tour of the old quarter. We headed off towards a crossroads, and straight into a manic stream of motor scooters, paying no heed to the traffic lights. The traffic must have parted, since I was alive when I reopened my eyes, but nerves were frayed.

All was forgotten the following morning, however, as I embarked on the first ride of my trip under my own steam. The West Lake of Hanoi (Tay Ho) is a vast expanse of water in the centre of the city, with a 10-mile stretch of shoreline that’s ideal for cycling. Early-morning sunlight danced off the surface of the lake, which is dotted with lotus flowers. The pathway was quiet except for birdsong, and deserted save for the odd group gathered around the temples we passed.

Our party stopped at a stall selling votive offerings — brightly coloured paper replicas that are burnt as gifts to ancestors — including imitations of iPads and iPhones. When our guide suggested his deceased grandfather wouldn’t know how to use an iPad, the seller responded that the late Apple supremo Steve Jobs would be there to help him. It was a joke — but only up to a point. People here believe that no one really dies; they are always around — in the houses, in the temples. This, perhaps, explains their gaiety. So, too, the kamikaze urban traffic.

I was in Vietnam to sample one of Abercrombie & Kent’s new tours combining cycle rides through some of the country’s loveliest spots with stays in fine hotels, such as the splendid Metropole, in Hanoi’s French Quarter. Distances are modest (no more than 15 miles on most days) and the pace gentle.

Our itinerary followed a route south along the full meandering length of Vietnam. Hanoi offered an insight into the past of Indochina (frenetic traffic notwithstanding). In the old quarter people sat on crates, scooping noodles into their mouths, playing backgammon and selling their wares on narrow, humid streets.

Here, in the shaded courtyard of Nha Hang Ngon restaurant, a waiter showed me how to roll a Vietnamese pancake, carefully wrapping noodles, herbs and a crepe in rice paper. Every meal I had in Vietnam was delicate, complex and full of surprises — an interactive game of rolling and folding.


Further south, we cycled past limestone mountains and through paddy fields lit by a golden light, breathing in the smell of the hay spread out to dry and stopping to watch storks languidly taking flight. We rode through clouds of butterflies and seldom saw another tourist. And we were greeted by everyone we passed; villagers asked us our ages, offered us food and showed us how to catch snails and eels.

Hoi An was particularly lovely. The beachfront town has narrow roads dotted with tailors’ shops and restaurants where you can take cookery lessons and feast like an emperor for a few pounds (try the Morning Glory restaurant and school). It was just as well we were biking off the calories.

At night, Hoi An is decked in red paper lanterns and candles floating on the river on paper boats. We rode out into the surrounding fields from our gorgeous hotel, the Nam Hai, the South China Sea thrashing in front of us.

The mood darkened slightly in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), with its War Remnants Museum about the “American war” and the nearby Cu Chi Tunnels, but we didn’t encounter a single person who treated us with anything less than exceptional warmth — though they might have thought we were Americans.

So many vignettes stand out: a round-faced baby in a red jacket waving from the front of a motor-scooter; a fisherman neck-deep in the water in the Mekong delta; an old lady fiercely chopping firewood; schoolchildren with billowing white shirts speeding by on their bikes.

Cycling is such a fine way to get to know a country and for the country to get to know you, and this goes double for Vietnam. As cyclists, you’re part of the landscape, part of the stillness — participating, not just observing. The problem is, now, I just can’t imagine travelling anywhere by any other means.

Need to Know

Sally Emerson travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, which offers nine-day luxury biking tours from £2,995pp, including excursions, accommodation in the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi, the Nam Hai in Hoi An and the Park Hyatt Saigon, and return flights (01242