Paweł and Sumi tried their muscle on the Self-guided tour Ride the Vietnam Ocean Road. What follows is some personal mementos of the tour from Paweł, who got hooked so much, he is now our Self-guided Guru.
One particularly sunny October I went on a cycling tour — a self-guided ride of the Vietnamese coast, to be exact.
I have done some cycling in my life. My first “metric century” ride of 100km, or about 65 miles, was a riverside trip in southeast Poland along trails of medieval castles. I was 16 and the ride took me the whole day! Fast forward a few years, when I mounted a bike to explore Vietnam on a self-guided tour, afraid I would not conquer the Hai Van Pass — a steep climb, but one of the most picturesque rides I’d ever have in my life.
Luckily, I wasn’t alone on this uphill ride. I had tech and I had company! A hundred meters or so ahead of me was my amazing girlfriend, Sumi, taking in views of green hills and the South China Sea beyond. It’s no secret that Sumi always kicks my butt on tough climbs, but due to the many kilograms I have on her, she’s no match when racing downhill. With her there, my pride wouldn’t allow me to stop until she decided we had reached a high enough elevation for a break, even if I was gasping for air at times! Well, maybe not that bad.
In fact, with Grasshopper Self-Guided you get a top-quality cycling computer to monitor your elevation and distance and to plan sensible breather breaks. Wahoo is easy: it's like playing the "snake" game, but on a bicycle. Read more about Wahoo ELEMNT here.
Once we had pedaled up 500 meters to the pass, it didn’t feel so difficult. There, boasting stunning panoramas, was a roadside restaurant filled with tourists who had been driven up there on the back of motorbikes or in comfortable air-conditioned tour buses. The fatigue from the effort kicked in as we were sipping on cooled coconuts in our cycling jerseys. Everyone who saw us recognized that we conquered the hill with just muscle power. We were quiet after such exertion, but also in awe of the sight of the winding road we had pedaled up and a little nervous for the unlimited speed promised by the downhill ahead.
For lack of words (my first language is Polish), think of it this way: every meter up was worth it. All the way from the picturesque peak to the seashore roads of Da Nang..
As we started down, it was clear we would reach the foot of this hill at our own pace. Adrenaline kicked in as soon as I reached speeds I just HAD TO curb. It was startling, at first, how fast I could glide down the sloped roads. I met struggling cyclists pedaling the opposite way, just as we had done not long before. Initially, I greeted each one, but by mid-descent, as I grew accustomed to the pace, I could only lean into the handlebars and scream YEAAAAHHHH. At the bottom, stopping at a conveniently located coffee shop, hands shaking from the iron clasp I'd held on the grips, I jotted down in my trip notes:
Let’s introduce a choice of drop bar roadies for the tour, something faster than an MTB.
I also added the location of the coffee shop for the Self-guided App.
Central Vietnam is a remarkable place where mountain ranges tower over tiny fishing boats in the clear blue waters. It seemed as if for the fishing industry in Vietnam, time had stopped centuries ago.
Soon after the Hai Van Pass, the views from the many bridges of Da Nang display a radically different landscape. This city of over one million inhabitants features a modern skyline, bustling industries, large fishing vessels, traffic, nightlife, a plethora of modern eateries and contemporary housing.
Vietnam is a country of stark contrasts. Just a day before, we were sipping on traditional Vietnamese broth in a lagoon-front eatery that was only equipped with an old TV, a table and a couple of red plastic chairs. In Da Nang we dined at a lavish seafront restaurant, feasting on algae salads and sea creatures we never knew existed, surrounded by aquariums with even more bizarre specimens, wondering why it had never occurred to us to pack our travel bags with at least one set of classy cocktail attire.
Self-guided explorations come with a lot of freedom when choosing lunch and dinner eateries. It’s all up to you. Your only task, so to speak, is to make it to your hotel. If you don’t, it’s probably also fine, however, it will cause the Self-guided team to send scouts after you if they cannot reach you on the provided phone. Otherwise, you can venture off-route and choose to stop wherever you wish.
We went off-the-grid a couple of times, trailing away from the arrowheads marking the route on our Wahoo ELEMNTs, but we always found our way back. We treated ourselves to a strip of beach in Da Nang, forfeited a stretch of the coastal road and went a couple of kilometers inland, instead, to take selfies by the Marble Mountains. On the first day of the tour, we boarded a small boat north of Hue, the ancient Imperial Capital, as we had ridden a bit too far up the inviting alley along the Perfume River.
We could just retrace our path, but on the screen of the ELEMNT we saw there were roads on the other bank, so why ride back the same way? We were on our own and no one pressed us to go here or there. This is the grand idea behind Self-guided touring.
The seaport town of Hoi An opened up for us with lakes, a colonial downtown and a stream of unending restaurants, riverboats, riverboat ticket peddlers and boat paddlers. It was impossible not to take one, but easy enough to negotiate the ticket price down. One might think that bargaining is a national sport of Vietnam.
Despite the scores of tourists that pass through Hoi An, the night boat trip along the city’s main canal-way is meditative and the scare of hitting your head against many of the low-lying bridges is quite real. It’s a little game that your boat “captain” plays with you. Ours steered the boat down the canal, its woodwork gently pushing away countless floating lanterns. Suddenly, our paddler interrupted the romantic cruise by lying down flat only a second before drifting under an ancient bridge, laughing as we floated underneath.
Stepping out from the boat, leaving the crowds and venturing into one of the many alleys in Old Town, we saw Hoi An has it all and certainly deserves its reputation as one of the grandest relics of the colonial era. While at times the streets are loud with traditional Vietnamese music and stuffed with street-food carts, you’re never far from contemporary fusion restaurants. When planning this trip, try to pick a departure date that lands you in Hoi An on a full moon, when the monthly lantern festival takes place.
The first evening in Hoi An marked the midpoint of the trip. The rest of the journey had us riding further down the countryside roads, visiting the ruins of 9th century My Son. We pedaled south to spend a night on the tiny Tam Hai Islet and even further to the Memorial in Quang Ngai, before we were transferred back to Hoi An to complete the trip.
There we met with Loan, a representative of the Grasshopper Adventures team in Hoi An, for a chat and a coffee. Comparing my notes with her inside knowledge, I had to clarify one thing that bugged us throughout the tour.
Why were we constantly being honked at by other motorists? Are there traffic rules in Vietnam we were not aware of?
Loan wasn’t surprised by the question as it’s one often asked. Vietnamese driving style seems to follow a different logic than what we had been used to. She said that honking at cyclists is not because of a traffic rule, rather, a way of life and we shouldn’t be too bothered by this. In fact, she added, if we choose to ring our bike bells, the locals would appreciate it!
What a magical country, we thought, as we sipped a delicious Vietnamese coffee topped with an egg.