Riding in vietnam: the practical side (Guest post)

(Part two of Cate’s posts about cycling in Vietnam; see here for part 1).

My trip was a six day ride called Dragon’s Tail, from Dalat to Hoi An, with <a href=”http://www.ptv-vietnam.com”>Phat Tire Ventures</a>, at the end of December. They have a two person minimum and no one else wanted to do it at the time that worked for me, so I ended up paying for two, which bought me the rental of a decent Giant mountain bike, a guide who rode with me, a support driver/mechanic who followed us in a van, continual supplies of bottled water, five nights in hotels and all but two meals. It also included admission to some random touristy places along the way.

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Distances I rode were: 101 km, 56 km (the morning was a tour to a local village), 110 km, 113 km, 86 km (including a 15 km climb over a mountain pass) and a final half day of 60 km. The trip is designed so that you ride about 525 km of the roughly 700 km distance, mostly because of the distance between significant towns. (Some days would be 130 or 140 km without transfers). You can make choices about how far you want to ride, and the van is always there if the heat or exhaust is overwhelming. I didn’t actualy train for this — I relied on my base fitness and hadn’t ridden anything other than commuter distances since September.  I suspect it would have felt less of an effort if I’d been riding recently, but I found it very doable.

I’m a completist and wished I could have ridden the entire distance; the trip is designed so that the distances I rode are the usual maximum; one piece of advice for other riders is to have a conversation about your hopes for the ride with your guide early on — mine assumed at first I would want to avoid harder climbs.

The ride is mostly through rolling hills and windy flats, with some climbs and long descents. Some of it, especially the last two days, is rural and isolated, but the middle bit has a lot of traffic, including a constant stream of trucks and busses that pass very close while blasting horns and lots of motorbikes that just pull out in front of you, mistakenly thinking they’re faster. If you’re jumpy about traffic, this isn’t a good choice.

I brought my own saddle, helmet, pedals, cleats, gloves and water bottles, though they would supply any of those things but the cleats if I’d wanted.

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I was very grateful for the saddle and gloves, but the cleats were a bit dicier. I’m used to a road bike, not a bouncy mountain bike, and this one was a bit too big for me. I crashed and couldn’t unclip when I was testing the bike before we even left Dalat. I rode in running shoes for the first four days and found the uphills very slow, so switched the pedals for the long climb on day 5. It worked but I was quite fatigued on the last day and still nervous about stopping quickly in the traffic and on uphills, so went back to the running shoes for day 6.

I brought with me a little handlebar bag, which was invaluable for keeping a powerbar, an energy gel, my asthma inhaler, a tiny tube of 60 spf sunscreen, a bit of money and my phone-as-camera. Everything else went in the van. If I were doing this again, I’d also bring a bell.

Vietnam is hot during the day, even in the highlands in December, and I mainly wore bike shorts and a cycling tank top. I had a short sleeved jersey but only wore it in the early morning twice. I brought two pairs of shorts and switched them out every day; I washed the top and my bra twice and they dried quickly, though neither will ever be clean again. (Neither will the socks). It gets cool at night and after rain, so I was also grateful for my lightweight jacket. I never ended up riding in the rain for any length of time though a downpour started in the last two km of day 2.

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I brought a stash of powerbars and gels, but relied on them more at the beginning of the trip — I got used to eating less and found the food that worked for me, mostly sticky rice or noodles and baguettes and bananas for breakfast, baguettes and laughing cow cheese and cucumbers or peanut butter and bananas at lunch. (Baguettes are everywhere because of the French influence, but you have to buy them in the morning). I found one package of vega powder in my handlebar bag and saved it for the day of the long climb, and was grateful for it.

Sunblock, mosquito repellent, tampons, my asthma inhaler and ibuprofen were the most critical toiletries. I didn’t bring enough advil and was impressed with myself that I managed to buy some in Buon Ma Thuot. I developed some unpleasant chafing despite the decent shorts and keeping them clean, and wished I’d brought some sort of salve or vaseline.

I wore my somewhat elderly Garmin watch to keep track of the distance, and it worked well, though one night it didn’t fully charge and the battery died about 96 kilometers into the day. Phone-based apps aren’t really an option unless you’re able to buy a local sim card and a lot of data, and I suspect the battery life on my phone would have been challenged by hitting the satellite for 8 hours.

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Having the watch was a bit of an ambivalence for me — I don’t like riding or running without a sense of how far I’ve traveled or how far I have to go, but I did find myself a little too fixated on the watch and distances sometimes, especially when I was tired. The watch embodied the difference between just being where I was, on this extraordinary, historic road, eating local food, and the sort of performance-based riding that I do at home. In my imagination I’m the kind of person who can just ride playfully, without constantly measuring out distance ridden and to go, what I’ve eaten, how much water I’ve drunk, but this ride was arduous and I found I needed the scaffold of external measures that let me remind myself “I can do this.” A lot of the time I tried to click the watch just to the time and use the road markers to feel progress, which helped keep me in the moment — experiencing a country so intimately, turn by turn, feeling the force and gravity and dust and heat of the roads where people make their lives.

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