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You’re telling me Vietnam looks like this?

We awoke at the Liberty Hotel and made our way downstairs for breakfast. Getting coffee proved very difficult, and the resulting brew was manufactured before our eyes from some off-brand instant powder that looked like it had been manufactured around the time of reunification. Next, we headed out to a noodle restaurant for the morning’s sustenance.

The broth had been prepared with a tool for boiling beef bones and scooping noodles, almost identical to a Project K9 request we were about to ship off for our dear reader Laura.

Next we wheeled onward passing various vendors and fruit stalls.

Feeling much refreshed, we climbed on the cycles in search of more adventure. This day we decided to head north, in an attempt to get a perspective on the city not dissimilar from that we had gotten when we simply wheeled west in Saigon.

We took off heading north this time, working our way through the center of town up through an area that was filled with communist statues, large blocky headquarters, and Ho Chi Minh’s tomb (which by the way is rather similar to Lenin’s).  Onward, the architectural styles varied between communist-industrial, to modern, to French colonial in an enjoyable medley of colors under the overcast sky.

We kept working our way north, past a large cemetery, and into the suburban housing projects.

Suburbs don’t work in Hanoi exactly the same way they do in the west. What I’m talking about here is a sort of wasteland of giant concrete apartment complexes connected by giant highways. Like western suburbs, there is little in the way of pedestrian activity or small-scale corner stores. But unlike western suburbs, those around Hanoi are a little closer to the city center. No one has a yard, and the only real roads are giant highways. It was along the side of one of these giant highways that we were riding at the moment we saw a new construction project, which seemed to warrant further inspection. As far as we could tell it was another (slightly more posh) cluster of sky-scraping apartment buildings. This one was still heavily under construction, but it seems before they started any other part of the project, they had to first finish and polish off a giant central gate, which loomed in full monumental glory – something in between a communist monument and the Arc de Triomphe. Of course we were barred from entering, but it was certainly a worthy waypoint.

From there we did our best to keep heading north, though the roads seemed determined to keep siphoning us eastward. Finally, we found ourselves at another great bridge, across the same river that we had traversed the day before. At first we entertained the notion of skipping the bridge, and trying to head down the riverside back toward Hanoi’s city center. But this began to seem impossible as the road turned north once it reached the river rather than south. So we were met with a conundrum: should we…

  1. cross the river and head south on the other side in hopes of faplungeoning our way back to Hanoi, or
  2. head back south the way we’d come and experience that same ride in reverse

Option 1 seemed the obvious choice, but in order to execute that maneuver, we needed a little more coffee. This we were able to acquire in the form of a couple cans of Thai coffee from a large bulk dry goods shop along the road we were currently riding upon. Refueled by the coffee, we headed up and onto the bridge. This bridge had many large lanes for cars and trucks, and a separate smaller lane for bikes and motorcycles. This is the lane we took.

It was a hard, fast ride in the midst of swarming motorbikes. From time to time we would run up on another bicyclist, but he or she would be riding so slowly, on a cycle so laden down with vegetables or cement, that there was little opportunity for comradeship, and usually the situation necessitated a hair-raising pass during which Scott and I had to put our faith in our fellow drivers and our ability to accelerate into the region of the bridge one might call the fast lane.

On the other side, we pulled over to take a breather. We were badly in need of water, and a little shaken by the high voltage bridge crossing. Once we had caught our breath, we looked around. We were certainly in a new and interesting part of Vietnam. All the buildings here were very narrow and three or four stories tall. All took interesting architectural cues from both the French colonial influence and the blocky metal and concrete communist architecture of China and Russia.

We worked our way around the block, searching for a spot to buy water, and we found one right next to this strange metal device.

Speculation as to its purpose is heartily invited in the comments.

From there we began to wheel hard, right through this little city at the end of the bridge from the Hanoi suburbs and up onto another dike. It seemed so much like the dike that we had ridden on the day before that we thought it might in fact connect. So on we rode, into the wind, through a landscape that was ever-changing and so very different than I had imagined Vietnam to be. Take a look at these pictures and do your best to reconcile them with your views of Vietnam.

We wheeled on and on. The sun was beginning to hang low in the sky, and we were still yet to find that this dike was indeed the one we had wheeled on the day before. To complicate matters, it seemed that we had acquired a new river to our right, which had not been there before. We were now almost certainly separated from the city of Hanoi by two large rivers. We continued to head south hoping against hope that we might find ourselves near something that we recognized, but still all was unfamiliar.

Then we saw it… across the river, a large communist party building we knew we had passed the day before. So the good news was we were close to the road that we had ridden before. The bad news was that we were still separated from that road by a pretty large river, with no bridge in sight, and the spot we could see was still quite a way from Hanoi and our beloved Liberty Hotel.

The sun was sinking low… perhaps two hours left before it was too dark to ride. We pulled over to have a conference. We finished the last of a red bean and fig cake we had purchased at the water stand near the strange metal object.

We decided our only rational choice was to keep wheeling south in hopes of a bridge, and if it got dark before we found one, we’d need to come up with a new plan, most likely involving folding the bikes up and getting in a cab.

So we wheeled on hard, keeping our eyes peeled for a bridge. Not that much farther down the road, we passed a sign indicating that if we kept going forward we would reach Hanoi in 23 kilometers. This was a good sign, and it gave us renewed energy to pour into the Speed TRs. We started really pushing the pavement underneath us, as the road grew larger and more filled with traffic. Finally, this road T-ed into a larger road that almost certainly led to a bridge over the river. We pulled into the traffic and triumphantly rode over the bridge.

On the other end of the bridge, we found ourselves back in the place where we had turned around on the previous day’s wheel. The same woman was there packing up her stand after having sold all her crabs and ducks. We paused for a moment to catch our breath. We were on a giant busy street and staring down the option of taking this huge street directly into Hanoi, which would be faster and might even get us in before darkness had fallen completely, and taking the route we had taken the day before, which would have us on quieter roads, but would certainly have us riding at least half the ride in the dark.

Since our ill-fated misadventures with bearings in Cambodia, Scott was left without the use of his dynamo hub. This meant that he had no headlamp. And we had neglected to bring our Knog Gekko lights with us….

We decided to take the busier, but more direct street, and to do it at highway speeds. We exchanged one last glance and then raged downhill into traffic. Keeping to the right side at first, we pedaled hard along with the stream of motorcycles, joining the throngs and breathing the fumes of burning oil. We tore through the small city that we had encountered the day before, and followed the road onto a larger bridge than the one we had taken yesterday.

Now I was really thriving on the energy of the ride, feeling great, and flying along. I was passing the slower motor bikes, and ringing my bell like a maniac. Old men on motorcycles would turn to me and smile in approval.  If I came up on a cycle burning a lot of oil, I would just lay extra hard into the old Speed TR and pass it. It was amazing – like some kind of drug. I felt great flying along there, safer and more in control than normally. As I crossed the bridge, a motorcycle with two beautiful Vietnamese women on it pulled up alongside me. The one riding on the back turned to me and smiled, giving me a peace symbol, and yelling something in Vietnamese through the wind and engine noise. I felt like a character in Easy Rider, raging through the noise of motors, smiling and interacting with my fellow traffic. I was in a world without cars, where two-wheeled vehicles ruled the road. Ah, Hanoi, one of my favorite cities yet.

On the other side I pulled over to wait for Scott. He pulled up seconds later, looking similarly ecstatic. We were back in Hanoi. There was still light left; we’d made it and we knew where we were.

We wheeled back to our hotel taking only one wrong turn that put us onto this giant street full of even more motorcycles than before. Perhaps the immensity of it is best communicated using video and photography.

Once we finally made our way back to the Hotel Liberty, we decided to stop at a nearby place for a glass of Bia Hoi. It was the perfect beverage for the end of a wheel. Mellow and malty, cool, not too sweet, and not too alcoholic. As soon as we saw it, we knew the place. It was a grubby open-air curbside beer joint. There were about 20 men there already, all Vietnamese and between the ages of 35 and 65.

As soon as we sat down, we made friends with one of them, who insisted not only on buying our beers, but also in introducing us to his extended family, talking to us in English, Chinese, and Russian, and also leading me by the hand to the bathroom.

After finishing our beers and bidding our friend goodbye, we climbed back on the Speed TRs to look for a restaurant. Without needing to wheel too long we came upon a jam-packed restaurant that emitted the most delightful smells.

We sat down to a feast and took special pleasure in engaging in a fair bit of shtick with our surly but adorable waitress.


  1. laura | June 19th, 2010 | 3:21 pm

    WOW! I find myself always starting my responses with WOW but WOW indeed. What an amazing adventure! I LOVE my cooking tools, thank you so much! and I love the end to your day 🙂 CHEERS!

  2. John Norton | June 19th, 2010 | 3:37 pm

    I love this kind of story. I’m just glad it is not my son who is so gleefully hurtling into traffic…
    The pictures are fantastic. The metal box may be a kind of construction device, called a mule, that is used as a brace when digging trenches, but I am not sure.

  3. Diane Heditsian | June 19th, 2010 | 9:55 pm

    What was the woman harvesting and/or sorting?

  4. Mark/Dad | June 20th, 2010 | 6:24 pm

    A reappearance of the stenciled numbers from http://asiawheeling.com/?p=3574!

    The picture of the narrow road crowded with cattle could have been from the BBC version of “All Creatures Great and Small.”

  5. Henkes | June 21st, 2010 | 3:29 pm

    Vietnamese rocket ship.

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