12 Apr Vietnamride on
In collaboration with Voyageurs du Monde
10 April, 2017
What if, with a few changes, the bicycle was today the ideal way to explore the world of Vietnam. It’s a question of rhythm, discretion, and flexibility. It’s a question of state of mind too, and well-understood modern values.
Off we go then, to see Vietnam like a sportsman. At first glance, the country’s light vehicles are made up of small-displacement motorcycles or Vespas. In any case, they’re the most invasive, and signal themselves with a loud insistence sometimes bordering on incivility. It’s understandable: the young have a right to their wild rides, and the adults must get to their work and their responsibilities as soon as possible. And then, in the alleys of a quiet park, we meet a young person on a large vintage bike. She turns her heavy pedals without the cone of her “Non La” hat losing its place. It then becomes clear that the bicycle fits well in the country. We should remember that, in the days of the socialist economy, Vietnamese workers and students in Czechoslovakia sent thousands of Favorit brand bicycles home, as a sign that they had seen the world.
Render on to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s: Hanoi. The capital lends itself well to discovery by cyclists. Of course, you have to deal with traffic, but you soon learn to feel it and live with it. What’s more, an intersection often leads to a road that becomes suddenly calm and open; or a park filled with shade and peace. In this way, we slip into the “36 streets” of the old quarter, which makes up the traditional artisans’ neighborhood. With its tree-bordered avenues, small streets, and Third Republic-style facades, the former colonial sector is surprising by its feeling of a French Province on the Red River. If you wake up early and go cycling along the Lake of the Restored Sword – Hoan Kiêm, you will see the Taoist temple Ngoc Son, founded in the 15th century. As well as people of all ages practicing the slow movements of tai chi. Later, in the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, we greet the founder of modern Vietnam, who turned the bicycle into an instrument of liberation: in the temple of literature, we realize what the country owes to Confucianism, which is not unrelated to handlebars. Finally, having left our bicycle along a wall or at a nearby tree, we remove our helmets and sit in at a stall for some vivifying Pho soup. In principle, cyclists are well-versed in street food: the physical efforts they make permitting them to enjoy it without scruple, and to taste everything that allows them to leave without leaning on the houses.
Let’s leave the city now and return to the south of the capital, in Ninh Binh, the inland Halong Bay. The karstic landscapes of the Van Long nature reserve are admirable, with their high rocky peaks dressed in dark green. At the foot of these colossi, irrigation canals shine in their geometric patterns through mimosa-colored rice fields. The hydrographic is such that it is possible to get around in a boat, but to really enter into the intimacy of the countryside, nothing is worth a bike ride on roads and dikes. The birds are very numerous in these areas, and spotting a group taking flight over the water is an unforgettable spectacle.
The most prestigious sites are, like the others, bike-compatible. Hue, for example, the old Nguyen capital, is a marvel duly registered by UNESCO. The impressive citadel on the banks of the Perfume River contained the Forbidden Purple City, reserved for the Emperor. Severely damaged during the Tet offensive in 1968, it nevertheless retains a lot of its grandeur and a true imperial dignity. From another imperial spirit comes the Lycee Quoc Hoc, built in 1915 by the French and which is, still today, a reference. Three kilometers from the citadel, the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady (17th century) is one of the city’s symbols. Faster than pedestrians, slower than drivers, cyclists have the right speed to see everything and go on their way without missing a beat.
On the road to the “Deep South”, Hoi An is a historic silk and ceramic merchant town on the banks of the Thu Bon River. The diversity brought to it by Asian and European merchants has been well-preserved. Although its heyday is obviously past, business is still done in its shops, on the quays and in the sampans. Visitors can see the city at their leisure and begin to feel a bit Vietnamese. The old buildings have a charming patina: the Japanese pagoda bridge from the end of the 16th century is delightful. The village well-deserves its registration as a World Heritage Site. In the estuary, locals fish with plaices or sparrowhawks. The water crossed, it’s time to get back on two wheels. Rice fields, corn fields, bamboo groves and palm trees border the roads. Here, carpenters assemble sampans, while over there, craftsmen make mats or vegetable screens. At the end of the day, back in Hoi An, we stop on the old quay and watch the sunset over the river: quiet and golden.
Ho Chi Minh City is a challenge for cyclists. The Vespa reigns unopposed in the general congestion. The new Saigon bourgeoisie is not only petulant but also querulous. To find it in its hip lairs, motors become necessary. Night markets are hardly more favorable. And yet, in all this agitation, there remain a few subtle and stoic, generally elderly, cyclists. We are tempted to reach out to them to create a bridge between generations, between worlds. But immediately, a motorbike intrudes whirlwind-like and carries away any inclinations to fraternization. That said, if any wanderlust still remains, there is the Mekong Delta. From the water emerge a few spots of practicable ground. The sky is often gray and the heat is oppressive. What gives its flat region its depth is a true majesty. On both sides of the road are rice fields and orchards. Well-adapted to the spongy geography, the inhabitants take advantage of the water and the alluvial plains – cereal, vegetable crops and fruits all vie for our attention. Although they are not made up of stationary stalls, but rather of gatherings of boats, the markets are no less rich in diversity, boasting reticulated corossoliers, mangoes, grapefruits, and a rich variety of other products.
Beyond is the South China Sea. From Hanoi to the Mekong, Vietnam is favorable to cyclists. It offers them much, and suggests to them even more, whether they are true sportspeople or dilettantes on handlebars. Suddenly, by the sea, we hesitate: to return, to go to China, this legendary country with its clouds of bicycles, or perhaps, to Cambodia, to pedal in Angkor.