Our journey through Vietnam was full of firsts. The first time we tasted the salt from the ocean on our lips – very tasty. The first time we cycled in a cloud of scooters feeling like a fish in a swarm – very thrilling. The first time we had to ask for the price beforehand of everything we bought, consumed or spent money on, often then to haggle for a better price – very exhausting. The first time I was getting down and for a period of time lost the joy in traveling – very depressing, but fortunately only for a week or so. And the first time we left our bicycles behind and took off on a motorbike – very fun!
We spent exactly 30 days in Vietnam, using our visa to the fullest. But definitely not enough time for this large and fascinating country. The route took us from the northern hills bordering Laos to the low lying rice paddies surrounding Hanoi. We took a week off cycling to climb and relax on Cat Ba Island and then returned with regained energy to the hills of northern Vietnam.
The roads were of very different quality and especially in the mountains we often found ourselves cycling more on gravel and dirt than on asphalt. Coupled with the constant honking of motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks, it got very exhausting for body and mind!
The Vietnamese are very open and curious people. While cycling we were continuously accompanied by “Hello's” and “Where you go's” and when we stopped and sat down to eat or take a rest we quickly had curious strangers approach and asking us questions. Many would try to see what we were up to from very close, looking over our shoulders, trying to decipher the texts on our phones or of our notes. Distance and personal space have different meanings here, but I guess with one of the largest populations in the world, its normal to edge closer together. Interestingly, the Vietnamese were the first to start touching our bicycles and materials, inspecting breaks, tires, lights and bells. Some went to far as to try and mount the bicycles as well, something I wasn't very fond of after the first guy fell five seconds after taking off.
Such a large population puts stress on the natural resources, forests, and nature in general. The demand for agricultural products is immense, so every last piece of soil is used agriculturally. Being on small patches alongside and in between large roads, or in the mountains in terraced fields and between rocky landscapes. Surprisingly we saw just as much corn being cultivated as rice.
Not only the demand for agricultural products is high, but also the demand for wildlife and collected forest goods is ever rising. The sad result being empty forests and damaged ecosystems. A phenomenon we were a witness of in the Ba Be National Park, even though the park rangers there were trying to convince us of the opposite. Please Vietnam, stop eating and caging all your natural heritage!
Vietnam embraced us with open arms and we mostly enjoyed cycling through this country. But continuously needing to haggle for prices was exhausting. On several occasions the restaurant or shop owners eventually gave us the local price for food and accommodation, but usually only after we made a big effort to communicate with them and told stories about our journey and adventures.
Nonetheless, it was a fascinating country which we would have loved to spend more time in, especially to explore the south.
As we read on many billboards on the roadsides, "Thank you and see you again!"