This year's Ho Chi Minh Trail tour through the mountains of Central Vietnam was, to say the least, great fun. Including Phong and I in the count, there were six of us riding this somewhat undulating route from the nations hectic capital Hanoi to the beautiful riverside town of Hoi An, some thousand kilometres to the south.
The venerable General Arthur, and Kiwi David, both PaintedRoads regulars, were joined by Nicholas and Mark, two chums from the far north of the United Kingdom who’s determination to train for the tour through a bleak Scottish winter can be seen as nothing other than highly commendable.
Personally, I enjoyed the tour tremendously. With an overcast sky for 99% of the trip, we were treated to temperatures mostly in the low 20ºs, with the mercury nudging the 30ºs just once so far as I was aware, and even then for less than an hour. To complement the excellent climatic conditions we had a group of people with a similar approach to their cycling, meaning a relaxed bunch with the occasional turn to a light-hearted touch of competitiveness. And when the day’s ride was over, and the chilled beer emerged from the guesthouse fridge, the aprés ride atmosphere was every bit as good as the riding.
A fine tour then? I will leave the final word to bicycle tour newcomers Mark and Nicholas.
Mark Adams - (47) A portly middle-aged gentleman and recreational cyclist with a penchant for long weekend rides, the occasional Audax, and the odd Sportive.
"I don’t do package holidays and hate guided tours. It’s been 25 years since I did either and the memory still grates. My conundrum is I have a window of opportunity for an adventure, no time to plan and a finite window in which to complete it. With a very clear idea of what I want to do and more importantly what I don’t want to do. I take to the internet and find Painted Roads.
Point to point cycling in remote terrain travelling through a fascinating country, delivered with a great personal touch from a small independent company - who could ask for more? David, the owner of Painted Roads, cycled every inch of the ride with the group and managed the group in a very non-intrusive way. His light touch allowed the group and individuals to ride their own ride. This allowed the group dynamic to comfortably evolve. This relaxed approach was possible due to David’s extensive efforts in planning the trip, his excellent choice in the local guide and the many years’ experience gained cycle touring and delivering trips in SE Asia.
I’m a cyclist and primary goal is to maximise my time in the saddle. I set out with this objective; with no great desire to be ushered from one tourist attraction to the next. Travelling through remote and challenging terrain to roll into a small village allows you to unwittingly immerse yourself in the culture. The flip side is that this requires a degree of patience and expectation management in respect of accommodation. However, this is a compromise that pays back in dividends through the experience gained. The juxtaposition between the time spent on the trip and the post-trip R&R at one of the more popular tourist resorts was stark. This really highlighted the quality of the experience gained by travelling by bike in a small group through towns and villages which have been little impacted by tourism.
One of the very many lasting memories of the trip will be rounding a bend on a, particularly long descent to happen upon a troop of baboons crossing the road. My immediate thought was I know the protocol for unwanted attention from dogs, but don’t remember anything in the briefing relating to baboons. I stop, watch then make their way back into the jungle and feel blessed to have encountered them.
Having returned home I now long to create the opportunity to join David and Painted Roads on another great adventure. My confidence boosted by the trip down the HCM Trail I’m looking for something bigger, more challenging, more remote … Whatever my next adventure may be, I sincerely hope it is with Painted Roads".
Nicholas Croll - Scots man, newcomer to cycle touring, and not afraid of the occasional artic run.
"I undertook my first ever cycle 'holiday' with David Walker/Painted Roads by riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail tour in March 2018. I didn't really have a holiday, instead what I did get was an adventure that far exceeded my expectations and included magnificent scenery, fantastic cycling, great food and top class hospitality.
The highest praise I can offer is that the next time I am seeking a cycling 'adventure' my first point of contact will be Painted Roads. Forget the large tour operators for your next cycle tour - choose Painted Roads and you won't have any regrets. Your biggest problem will be deciding which one of the fantastic sounding tours you will take.......good luck!"
At 75 you would think he would have slowed down by now - General Arthur could just be the real-life Benjamin Button.
An old US airstrip north of the Seventeenth Parallel
Morning rush hour on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Exploring the path less travelled
Visiting a brick factory
Final dash to the tea break
A recent rummage through an old diary of thoughts and observations from a life on a bike, living on the road has inspired me to publish a tale and some old pics. Throwback Thursday I thought I would call it, and the plan is a tale and a few old photos, once a week, you can guess which day. First up, a chance encounter as Phong and I explored our rather super Northeast Vietnam tour.
Northeast Vietnam, 2011, summer, around lunchtime.
At lunchtime, we roll into the dusty main street of a one-horse town. A wooden lean-to fixed to the front of an eggshell blue house with wooden lattice shutters serves as the town diner. We lean our bikes beneath the shade of a banyan tree as a girl, hiding from the sun beneath a turquoise parasol, drives a small heard of cattle along the dusty main street. I pause to watch the girl use her parasol to urge one of the cows to stop eating an old ladies poinsettias, and by the time I enter the restaurant, Phong is already in deep conversation with the proprietor and his wife. I am not an expert in the Vietnamese language, but for all the world it appears that Phong is explaining how to fry noodles. Our hosts appear fascinated by this new learning from the wise city boy. They stand transfixed as Phong goes through the finer details of stir-frying, their concentration was only broken when they realise that standing in the doorway, framed by the bright light of day against the dark interior of their home, is an Englishman.
We exchange pleasantries and I take a seat. There is a little more conversation regarding the frying of noodles, and then three small glasses are plonked before me.
I am hot, thirsty, and very hungry, I know full well what the three small glasses mean, I am gripped by fear. I protest I ask, nay beg Phong to politely explain to this gracious man that as much as we would love to join in an afternoon of frivolity and merriment, needs must that we soon need be on our way - sober. Phong flicks me a glance, I know it well, it says "there will be no discussion, no negotiation, we are in Vietnam and we must honour the traditions and customs of this proud nation" (yes, he can convey all that in one glance, he would make a fine wife). Our host makes a small speech as he fills each glass with home-distilled rice liquor, Phong translates; â€œit is not often I have the honour of hosting a well-spoken city slicker from Hanoi, and a worldly travelled foreigner - friends, a toast!â€ We down our tots of fiery brew in one and our host pours three more glasses and commences on another speech, I can see where this is heading - and so it begins.
Each moment, each movement, every thought made by man and beast, and every incident of nature for the next hour is deemed worthy of a toast. Scattered around the room are bodies, clearly victims of previous toastings. In a dim corner sits a jovial looking fellow, his eyes roll slowly, and from time to time his tongue flops from his mouth only for him to look thoughtful for a few moments before returning his tongue to a more dignified position with a grimy finger. In the middle of the room is a large table where an elderly fellow in a straw hat wobbles precariously on a flimsy plastic chair, seemingly oblivious that one leg is on the very edge of a step and that he was on the brink of disaster.
One hour, a plate of fried noodles, and countless glasses of hooch later we emerge staggering, ever so slightly, and blinking weary eyes into the bright tropical daylight. Our host sways in the doorway as he bids us a thousand fond farewells, and we wobble through the dust narrowly missing several more victims of our host’s hospitality as they snooze quietly in the afternoon sun.
We cautiously mount our machines and gingerly pedal on to the top of the next pass where we stopped to catch our breath and rehydrate. The view is magical, mythical. As I sit sipping from my water bottle I am spellbound by a scene where I quite expected to see elves and goblins and Hobbits, and little green dragons that puff plumes of smoke instead of breathing flames. I turn to Phong, “I think I can stop now” I say. Phong looks puzzled. “Now I have seen this,” I say gesturing at the jungle-covered karst hills spreading out to the distance, “I think that I can find a home, and settle down”. “Oh yes,” says Phong, “I think you probably can”
The lovely village of Tam Son where we spend two nights which allows us to explore one of South East Asia's best-kept secrets.
Phong heads into a small Hmong village
Winding up to Heaven Gate Pass
Typical Northeast Vietnam scenery
It’s rest day here in Northeast Vietnam, so time to sit back with a coffee and post a few images from the tour so far.
As always seems to be the case we are once again blessed with a great group of people all possessing a fine sense of humour, good nature and enjoyable conversation. That they are a group of competent cyclists is the cherry on the top of the cake. Three Kiwis, an Italian, a Canadian and a Brit, along with Vietnamese Phong, and I makes for the sort of cosmopolitan group I love to share an adventure with. Rather than be categorised by our nationality I feel the world be to be a better place if we were categorised by our persona, and if this were the case we in this group would all hold the same passport.
As for the tour, well it’s been mentioned before, and will undoubtedly be stated again, that exploring this route reignited my passion for adventure cycling a few years ago, and since then I have not looked back. The route is stunning, with otherworldly scenery, quiet roads, satisfying climbs, descents that make the climbs more than worthwhile, ever friendly welcoming locals, interesting hill tribe people, and …… Well, I could wax lyrical at length regarding all that makes this tour great, but suffice to say that it is a firm favourite of mine.
We chose to run the tour during December this year in a bid to escape some of the hot days we have at other times of the year, and a tremendous success it has been. A couple of evenings it has dipped to a nippy 13º, but daytime we have pretty much perfect cycling weather with the mercury hovering around the mid to high 20s - never too hot on the climbs and never too cold on the descents, one could say ideal.
As is always the case with PaintedRoads tours (and this is one of our rather unique characteristics) the tour has evolved and improved over the years that we have been running in. Phong and I had a quick tot up over dinner last evening and concurred that this is the fifth incarnation of the tour. We have had three different start points, three route variations, two rest day venues, and of course the addition of the stunning and tantamount to secret loop ride near the small town of Tam Son.
I’m looking forward to tomorrow's ride already.
Phong makes a fuss about nothing - no change there then
It was the mid rain season 2011 that Phong and I set out on our bicycles to explore what, unbeknown to me at the time, was to become PaintedRoads’ very first tour. Before we explored the route I was glum, neigh, melancholy. Quite why I was melancholy I could not say - such is the nature of melancholy, but my passion for bicycle adventures was frayed, and I was feeling lost. But those two weeks in Northeast Vietnam changed all. I recovered, I perked up, I became non-melancholy, and I have never looked back. So beautiful did I find the region, so enamoured was I by the adventure and the sheer pleasure and privilege of exploring such a region, by bicycle, and with a close friend, that my zeal was reignited and has burned most brightly since.
Phong and I have since run the tour countless times and never do I tire of it. We have changed it, we have improved it, we have added sections and moved the rest day, you might like to say we obsess over it. And so it is with much excitement that I fly to Hanoi early next month to ride the wonderful tour with a group of like-minded cyclists from as far afield as the Antipodes, Europe, and the seemingly more sensible section of North America.
So with this tour on my mind, I have just been flicking through some images from last years wonderful Northeast Vietnam tour, some images I find inspirational, and hopefully, you will too.
Cheerio for now
The idea of a tour through Vietnam, Lao, and Thailand has been on my mind for years, and so I am delighted that the inaugural Tri-Nations tour was such a great success - so good in fact that Arthur, a veteran of no fewer than twelve Asian cycling tours, declared it his best tour to date, quite an accolade.
Make no mistake, the tour was no walk in the park. With an average daily distance of nigh on one hundred kilometres, days with over 2000 metres of climbing, and, in Thailand, gradients of up to 18% this was far from downhill all the way. But then again Paul is in his 60s, Arthur is in his 70s, and Caroline, although still youthful, is a relative newcomer to cycling and has never tackled anything quite like this before, and they all found it a most rewarding and enjoyable ride.
The group was boosted tremendously by the late (very) joining of Roman. We had transferred from Hanoi to the old French hill station of Sapa on a beautiful sunny day. As we prepared our bicycles for the journey ahead Roman wandered past by chance, and, after observing our antics for a wee while enquired as to what we were up to. We explained we were beginning our journey in the morning and riding from here to Chiang Rai in Thailand, via Lao. Roman could hardly believe his luck as it was just the tour he had been looking for. He joined us for dinner, we had a bike sent up from Hanoi overnight, and Roman became a valuable contributor to the fun of our Indo China adventure.
My long-held desire to run this tour comes not just from the beautiful cycling, but from the desire to show people the amazing contrast of these three neighbouring lands. All Buddhist, two allegedly communist, one allegedly democratic - but what a contrast, what a difference as we crossed borders. Vietnam with a population of nearly one hundred million people is dynamic and full of energy, it is a country developing so quickly one can see its evolution with the naked eye. Lao, with a mere six million inhabitants, is quiet, relaxed, laid back. And Thailand, the most developed of the three nations, is relaxed and charming with a population complexed, quiet and well mannered.
Which land did people like the most? There was no clear favourite, which I feel sums the tour up, a tour of contrasting lands, all beautiful and fascinating, and all populated by friendly welcoming people. As for me, I can’t wait to do it all again