We have peddled-out two thousand kilometres in six weeks and have seen more of Vietnam than most Vietnamese. The vast majority know only their home town and their parent’s home town. The rest is beyond their means. A few have travelled more widely, and we found their perspectives fascinating.
Our overall impressions are of a noisy, self-confident nation with boisterous cheer. The people are industrious early-risers. Their homes are very often their workplaces too; a food stall out front or a brick yard, a guesthouse or a motorbike repair shop. They pinch time to rest and relax around their customers. Some were not sure what to make of two ‘snails’ (the local word for a western traveller) on bicycles so we were often greeted with curious glances. Once or twice the locals out-foxed us, but most helped us to understand their country before pointing us in the right direction. With a few exceptions everyone returned a smile.
Here, gender roles vary from north to south according to practical needs, rather than pre-defined ideas about who should do what. Many women from the minority population looked more capable with a spade than their husbands. There are few special arrangements for children; when not at school they inhabit iced-tea shops or pick-up the family trade. They cycle or cruise around on their electric bikes. Toddlers are left by the roadside to play. Trucks roar by and scooters weave past in lethal proximity to everything else.
A gentle socialist hand rests on the nation’s shoulder. Fences are rare. People look-out for their neighbours more than they envy their possessions. Everyone sweeps their drive in the morning, leaving the debris on the roadside where it blows back overnight. There is only one box to tick on the election card. Propaganda is broadcast by loudspeaker in all northern towns at 06.00 and 16.30. You can’t buy a western biography of Ho Chi Minh, the nation’s father, but there are plenty of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey in English or Vietnamese. Facebook and WordPress are frequently blocked.
The food chain is local, universally manual and dirty. A network of a thousand unwashed hands and overloaded scooters. There are no fridges so live chickens stand next to their plucked cousins in the market. Remarkably, the produce is usually fresh, wholesome and delicious.
The wars with America and France have left roads through otherwise impassable jungle and ruins where there were once imperial palaces. We saw few people old enough to have grey hair. The younger generation were keen to tell their country’s history. However, they are busy looking forward, usually through the lens of their smartphone.
It has been a fantastic adventure, writing the guidebook for our journey as we’ve travelled. We’ve planned, found ourselves stuck, re-planned, made mistakes and stumbled upon unexpected excitements. We have grown closer together with each shared meal, mile and mountain and have truly tired ourselves-out. We’re very happy to be returning home for a break and we’re looking forward to planning the rest of our lives together, including more adventures on two wheels.