Michael Tatarski recounts close calls and crashes on an epic bicycle trip from Hanoi to Saigon.
Travelling in Vietnam never fails to generate good stories, and the more adventurous the trip the more tales you’ll return with. It’s hard to think of a more adventurous journey than riding a bicycle 2,000km from Hanoi to Saigon, which is exactly what I did with 18 other expats over the month of February in an event called H2H. There are people out there who would say cycling between Vietnam’s two biggest cities is idiotic, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. The country’s roads are notoriously dangerous thanks to poor maintenance and awful traffic, but this was H2H’s third year and no one had been seriously hurt before. Our ride got off to an inauspicious start though when a motorbike crashed into one of our support vans, shattering its rear window, before we had even gotten out of Hanoi’s sprawl.
The first week of the ride was muddy and constantly wet, and on one of these days the passenger on a motorbike in front of me signaled with her hand that they were going to be turning left. I didn’t want to brake so I moved left to go around them. I thought the woman was looking right at me but the moto kept edging left into my path, forcing me into a shrinking area of road. I ended up barely squeezing by on the left shoulder, my right leg mere inches from slamming into the moto’s front tire guard at 30kph.
A few days later a panicked cow bolted onto the highway right in front me just as I was reaching the bottom of a steep hill. I swerved left, simply hoping that the terrified beast wouldn’t run into me, a collision I would be sure to lose. Thankfully it scampered to the right, thus avoiding a serious bovine-bicycle embrace.
The day we left Hue I nearly killed a young boy riding a bicycle of his own when he speared all the way across the road without looking as I hurtled towards him at 40kph.
While these incidents were scary, the most terrifying close encounters came in the windswept, sun-drenched Central Highlands. We entered this region of Vietnam one day after seeing the aftermath of an accident on a slick mountain road that had left a car overturned in a ditch and a lorry lying on its side, blocking all traffic, debris scattered everywhere.
With that carnage fresh in our minds we began the often harrowing trek through the narrow, rough roads of the highlands. None of the highways had shoulders, so there was nowhere to go but into dirt or gravel when a truck or bus ran you off the road, which happened often on this stretch. I’m not sure what it was about that part of the country, but nearly every driver seemed to be out for the blood of cyclists. Tour buses would pass other tour buses around blind corners, taking up the entirety of the road and honking wildly, forcing us off the tarmac while giving the driver an impotent middle finger. One time the driver of a bus coming towards me moved completely into my lane, even though his was empty. I wondered what the hell he was doing as I rolled off onto the dirt, only to see him laughing at me as he careened by. After that all I wanted to do was hurl rocks through the front windows of every bus I saw.
Sadly it wasn’t all just close calls on the ride; we left plenty of skin and blood smeared across the roads of Vietnam. I happened to crash four times. The first was minor, but the second left me with a nasty gash below my left knee that came awfully close to getting infected. A few of us joined a wedding in a town called Do Luong, where we were treated to a flood of rice wine. After two hours of taking shots we tried to ride to our hotel, and I ended up falling over in the middle of the town’s main road, which was actually nothing but mud, and in my drunken stupor I did a poor job of cleaning the wound.
The day we entered the highlands was brutal, so it’s no surprise that I crashed during it. We thought the day’s ride was going to be 104km long, but after leaving Kham Duc under a steady rain the first distance marker said 116km to our next stop. The following marker said 122km, so I simply stopped caring what the actual distance was and resigned myself to a miserable day, which it certainly was.
A steep climb greeted us straight away, and the strengthening rain combined with the altitude meant it was freezing. Near the top of the climb a thick mist descended, reducing visibility to a few metres. This was hateful, and when my rear tire rolled over a patch of slick moss on the shoulder I went down in a heap, cutting open my right knee as a lorry lumbered past me in the dense fog. I honestly felt like crying. Fortunately the torture ended a few kilometres later when we descended the other side of the hill and were greeted by the sunny warmth of the highlands.
My last crash came as I blasted down a hill on a curving road. A guy on a moto had pulled up next to me and tried to initiate a conversation when a lorry suddenly came around the next corner in our lane. The moto cut me off to avoid a crash of his own and as I slammed on the brakes I realized I wasn’t going to stop in time, so I had no option but to ride off the road. Fortunately grass lined the highway at that point and I managed to avoid enduring any cuts, although I did bruise my right leg as my bike went down on top of me.
After 26 days of hard cycling, countless mechanical problems, and dangerous roads we entered Saigon, and nearly everyone had some sort of wound to vouch for the intensity of the journey. We had fought Vietnam’s pockmarked roads and erratic drivers and lived to tell the tale.