Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 16, 2017

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A fine balance

Hopping on two wheels is the best way to take in bike-friendly Vietnam

Sucking in a deep breath, I launched myself into one of the most exhilarating and terrifying adrenalin sports I had ever undertaken — riding a bicycle in Vietnam. Joining traffic was like swimming amid a massive school of motorized fish. A wave of wheels — cars, trucks, mopeds, bicycles, dragon fruit vendors and buffalo-drawn carts — moved at a steady pace through broad boulevards where green and red traffic lights were mere ornaments.

Off my left handlebar, so close I could smell her perfume, a lovely schoolgirl perched on a scooter in a flowing white áo dài (the long fitted dress which is the national costume), with matching elbow-length gloves. To my right a family of five balanced atop a dirt bike. There was a sense that if anyone swerved unexpectedly a domino effect of tumbling transport would be felt halfway to Hanoi. But somehow, magically, it all worked and when a pedestrian stepped off the curb, the stream flowed around them as if Moses were directing traffic.

I figured that visiting Vietnam without bicycling would be like going to the Arctic and not dogsledding or doing the Sahara without straddling a camel. But I hadn’t taken into account that this is a country where simply crossing the street is an adrenalin sport and for the first few hours bicycling ranked in the white-knuckled realm of white-water kayaking.

Cycling in Vietnam is a great way to get a feel for the tempo of the country. You don’t get any closer to the culture than wheeling atop levees between rice paddies, teetering dead slow through chaotic fish and vegetable markets and swerving around steaming speed bumps left behind by the herds of cattle and buffalo that create frequent rural traffic jams.

Most group cycling tour operators offer trips of a week or more that take in the most interesting and scenic regions along the length of this skinny, 1600-kilometre-long, S-shaped country between Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) — more commonly referred to by its old name of Saigon — in the south, and Hanoi in the north. Depending on the outfitter, your bikes are stashed in mini-vans or planes for hops to the next cycling destination. Some also tack on a tour of the temples Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia.

A hilly start

I met my group in Saigon and we headed straight to the northeast, to Da Lat in the Central Highlands, a relaxing mountain enclave developed by the French to give their colonial bigwigs a cool retreat from the topical heat. We cycled through hilly pine and bamboo forests where couples in full wedding regalia posed for photos leaning against guardrails on precipitous curves. The highland air was refreshingly brisk and dry and we shared the winding country roads with mopeds stacked ridiculously high with bales of freshly cut roses and gladioli. But Da Lat is also at 1525 metres and, by the time we pulled into a farmhouse along the way for lunch, we were all gasping to catch our breath.

Vietnam has a sophisticated culinary tradition and the dishes we tasted were varied, including many items rarely or never seen on the menus of Vietnamese restaurants in North America. Lunch in the Da Lat hills that day was — as it would be most days — simple but delicious with ingredients fresh from the morning market: squares of fried tofu stuffed with minced lemongrass, morsels of beef wrapped and grilled in local lot leaves, venison skewered onto spears of sugarcane and barbecued tuna wrapped in banana leaves.

The overwhelming favourite was a traditional side dish of garlic-sautéed morning glory, a water-grown vegetable resembling spinach. It was during that first lunch that I learned my first Vietnamese number, three, pronounced ba. Thereafter, when calling for the popular local 333 beer, we all sounded more like stranded sheep than thirsty cyclists. This would be followed by a resounding yo, Vietnamese for “cheers!”

The following day exercised our braking technique as we tackled 30 kilometres of downhill switchbacks. When the grade steepened from six to 10 percent, the number of tiny roadside shrines to those who zigged when they should have zagged increased exponentially. We descended into the hot, humid coastal climate where we would spend the rest of our trip.

Coffee buzz and communism

We lounged for two days near Nha Trang on the area’s famous beaches then flew from nearby Cam Ranh Bay airport, the domain of the Russian military until 2001. We flew to Danang, stopping in the rain at the pounding surf of China Beach. We stayed 40 kilometres to the south, in the charming World Heritage city of Hoi An, famous for its low, tiled-roof, wooden architecture and narrow streets where 6000 tailors can whip up anything from made-to-measure suits to silk cocktail dresses in 12 hours or less.

The French left a strong legacy and their cultural influence can especially be seen in the cuisine in baguette sandwiches at roadside shops and croissants for breakfast. And then there is the coffee. Hoi An, like everywhere in Vietnam, has sidewalk cafés where you can while away hours people watching. I have a long-standing addiction to café sua da, a distinctly Vietnamese version of café au lait. High octane black coffee slowly drips through a small tin filter onto a dollop of super—sweetened condensed milk which is then stirred furiously, poured over ice and injected into the neurological system via a straw.

Fuelled on caffeine and sugar, I surged into my first roundabout where everyone jostled to merge or exit at various spokes on the asphalt wheel. It was nerve-wracking and exhilarating and reminded me of the “Crossing the Road” section in my Footprints Travel Guide in which they speculated that abandoning responsibility for your own life and placing it in the hands of the masses “is the closest Vietnam has ever come to true Communism.”

Imperial road

Northwards, in the old imperial city of Hue, we toured the Forbidden City which was once the home to Vietnamese royalty. Then we loaded our bikes onto small wooden boats across the Perfume River and cycled to elaborate tombs of emperors who had the time and stamina to entertain 500 concubines. We tackled a stretch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that was once the Viet Cong’s much-bombed supply route from the north, passing the 1975 Martyrs’ Cemetery dedicated to North Vietnamese soldiers. The trail is now a 1600 kilometre-long paved highway.

Each day’s cycling began in the relative cool of morning and covered an easy to moderate 25 to 60 kilometres. Sometimes there were stops at a family-sized tofu or silk factory. The going was not difficult, but it was important to stay alert given that coffee beans and rice kernels are sometimes laid out to dry on tarps in the middle of the road. One woman skidded on a muddy dike and careened unhurt and laughing into a flooded rice paddy; another cyclist had a close encounter with a market flower stall that sent all the cone-hatted ladies fleeing.

The unabashed friendliness of the Vietnamese surprised everyone, especially the Americans on the trip, many of whom had apprehensions about their reception in a country whose very name means war to them. One Californian told stories about being stationed in Saigon in the late 1960s and that this was his first visit since he had been an office-bound air force captain. “I really wanted to come. I got the posting in Vietnam in exchange for my entire collection of ’60s Playboy magazines,” he confessed.

But Americans are just one in a long list of combatants in Vietnam’s troubled history — much more bitterness is directed at the legacy of defoliant Agent Orange that, generations later, continues to inflict on Vietnam one of the world’s highest rates of birth defects.

The talk of the town

Riding through rural villages everyone shouted “Hello!” as we passed through. Entire elementary schools and daycare centres emptied onto the roadside to wave. Our pod-like like helmets and Lycra shorts drew titters and stares, but it was the way we mutilated the Vietnamese hello, xin chao (“sin chow”) that sent them into hysterics. Vietnamese is a difficult tonal language. To say hello, our tone had to inflect upwards at the end of chao. “If your tone goes down,” our guide Anh revealed, “you are asking for a bowl of soup.”

Anh and I cycled alongside one another on a roadway lined with hedges of sunflowers in bloom. He spoke of his six years in St. Petersburg studying automotive engineering and learning to speak fluent Russian and Mandarin. “In Vietnam there is no free medical care and parents must pay for their children’s education after primary school,” he explained. Vietnam’s meager social safety net makes Canada look downright communist.

“Where’s the socialism?” I asked about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He diplomatically shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. The country — with 50 percent of its population under 25 — is currently riding an economic boom. According to the World Bank, it has one of the best performing economies in the developing world.

We finished up our trip in the northern capital of Hanoi. While the pace in the modern economic engine of Saigon is feverish, Hanoi is laid back, elegant and Old World. Rich with culture and tradition, the downtown encircles Hoan Kien Lake.

We toured the old quarter by letting someone else do the pedaling for us in a three-wheeled cyclo. We saw the sites at a shopping pace — the Museum of Natural History, Ho Chi Minh’s study at his former home and the Mausoleum where his body now lies, fresh from a recent Moscow makeover by a renowned Russian embalmer.

By our last day we had all become experts at navigating the Vietnamese countryside and its myriad obstacles. We had been immersed in culture, food and even ventured to sample a disgusting pick-me-up elixir made from geckos and seahorses, but the most enduring memories were those of cycling through villages unchanged in centuries, waving and shouting out to locals to “Give me a bowl of soup!”

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