While on a 2,000-kilometre cycle from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, Michael Tatarski finds fast friends courtesy of rice wine in between days of grueling cycling.
Four shots in and my throat is starting to burn. Rice wine is not a smooth liquor and, in my experience, the more you drink the harder it gets to keep the booze down. Another red-faced local official approaches with a shot glass and a bottle, and I know exactly what’s next: a cheers to my health, followed by a quick “Mot, hai, ba, dzo!” before downing the powerful brew.
We’re visiting a kindergarten in Cat Dang, a dusty village in Nam Dinh province just off the Hanoi-Ninh Binh Expressway. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, or H2H, has supported charity work in Cat Dang since 2009, and whenever we visit ahead of an annual ride, the local dignitaries bring out a huge spread of food and several bottles of rural Vietnam’s favourite beverage. Each year we ask them not to supply so much rice wine, as we begin a month-long ride the following morning, but there is no stopping it. Bottles are emptied, the kindergarteners are trotted out to give a performance and then the locals disperse, heading for home.
Three days later and the H2H team is in Yen Cat, a small town off the Ho Chi Minh Highway which has an unusually high concentration of hairdressers. After dinner a few of us stop into a typical quan for some beer and we quickly attract the attention of a table of young men who appear to be several pitchers deep. They wave us over and the cheers begin right away, as they command whether we are supposed to down a whole glass or only take 50 percent.
All of the men are wiry, and one of them lifts his shirt to reveal an impressive six pack, while two of our heavier riders show off their beer bellies, much to the delight of everyone at the table. After several rounds and a shared plate of some sort of meat product we inform that we need to go, as we have to get up early to cycle the following morning. They offer to pay for everything, an amazing display of generosity, but we convinced them to let us pay for our drinks.
After a few more days of riding we reach the area around Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a simply incredible part of the world, full of dramatic limestone karsts draped in lush jungle. At times I felt like I was riding through scenes from Jurassic Park, and made sure to keep an eye out for a stray T-Rex. The scenery is awe-inspiring, and I was happy to see that there is still a natural area in Vietnam that remains relatively untouched by human development.
At a lunch stop in Dong Le not far from the border of the park we drew a group of three schoolchildren, two girls and a boy, whose name was Khoa. In surprisingly good English, he discussed popular movies and music, sharing his distaste for Justin Bieber and One Direction, which got a round of applause from everyone. He also compared each of us to celebrities and said I look like Mr. Bean, which I found somewhat insulting.
After a rest day in Hue, it was time to hit the mountains west of the city along the border with Laos, a remote, beautiful area which is home to many minority groups. The ride out of Hue to the town of A Luoi was a beast, 72km long with two major climbs along the way. The views were worth the climbs though, as impenetrable forest draped across squat mountains as far as the eye could see.
Upon arriving at our hotel for the night the owner offered me a shot of soju which he, along with our support drivers and mechanic, claimed could get you drunk without any hangover the following morning. I was dubious but the sloshed group clearly wouldn’t take no for an answer. How could I turn down such kindness, anyway? Several shots later I was feeling pretty good, so good I almost forgot that I had to ride 105km and climb 4,600 metres the next day.
There is no better way to see Vietnam than on a bicycle, as it allows you to fully interact with the country and its people. Over the past two weeks I’ve been on the receiving end of more kind gestures than I could possibly recount in this story; suffice to say northern Vietnam has been very friendly to me.