Vietnam: A cycling tour around Hanoi's countryside

A cycle tour in the countryside is a picturesque and tranquil contrast to Hanoi's organised chaos.

There is a little-known clinical compulsion in Vietnam to photograph anyone in a non la, the conical palm leaf hat of ancient tradition. It's a form of OCD, like the need to say "beer" when asked if you want a drink.

This mania is evident in the aftermath of a two-hour bicycle ride in the countryside just outside central Hanoi. Pictures of workers wielding sickles in greener-than-green rice fields? Check. Elderly lady in startlingly lavender ao dai tunic? Check. Chap in field with buffalo? Check.

And what do they all have in common? That hat. It is as if its elegant cone shape and 3000-year-old history exert some primeval geometric pull that adds an added layer of authenticity to otherwise quotidian (for Vietnam) scenes.

On the 60-minute drive from our hotel on the edge of the West Lake (future American senator John McCain crashed and was captured here during the Vietnam War) our guide explains at one particularly busy intersection that just 15 years ago "all this was rice fields". This gives you some idea of the pace of progress in this endlessly vibrant city.

That said, anyone contemplating jumping on two wheels and joining the organised chaos (and, yes, there is a method hidden in the madness) that is Hanoi's bicycle, scooter and motorbike-packed streets had better be pretty experienced. This is a honking, hooting, bell-ringing, swerving, heart-stopping, nerve-wracking race-cum-roller derby of people and machines all engaged in a seemingly unceasing circuit of the city. What comes to mind as our bus manoeuvres through it is an image of a perpetual-motion machine, going round and round and on and on, a constant river of people rushing about with no beginning and no end.

Better to take to two wheels in the relative tranquility of the countryside – which is where we find ourselves taking possession of a fleet of mountain bikes for a gentle pedal through isolated villages and paddy fields.

Even here there's no escaping the plaintive, high-pitched complaint of the ubiquitous two-stroke engine but they are few and far between and it makes a welcome change from the frenetic pace of the city.

We follow our guide out on to a "main" road but soon turn off on to smaller and smaller streets until we find ourselves cycling on the ramped-up earthen pathways that separate the rice fields. Here, buffalo suffering what can only be described as life-threatening ennui look up at our passing as if they see a straggly gaggle of cyclists every day. There's a blank-eyed stare, a flick of the ears and it's back to eating.

Our guide stops occasionally to explain a little bit about the area, the people and the way of life while we waste many millions of pixels on people in conical hats. As is expected with a group of varying cycling experience, our little peloton gets strung out now and then but guides both back and front ensure nobody gets lost.

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We pass along the tops of dams, alongside rivers and canals where men in flat-bottomed boats glide past going God-knows where. The fields in this watery landscape are dotted with bored buffalo, the occasional ancestral gravestone and the elegant question-mark shape of white egrets. They are also almost dotted with the remains of one cyclist who, entranced by the scenery, almost runs up the bum of the person in front of him and narrowly misses toppling down a muddy bank.

We pass through hamlets possessed of an endless supply of sawmills (well, someone has to supply the furniture for all those new office buildings and rising condominiums we passed on the way here) and at points the air is laced with wood dust and the angry-insect whine of buzz saws.

This, though, soon gives way to snakes of school children who practise their English with shouts of "hello, how are you?" before bursting into giggles. In one small village we stop for a drinks break outside an incongruously large church and look on as various local women choose gobbets of meat laid out on a street stall and have it put through an old-fashioned hand-mincer.

The guide then takes us into the enclosed courtyard of a home and introduces us to the owner, who seems inordinately chuffed and happy to answer our questions, though I suspect we're not the first tourists to enter here.

Nonetheless, it's a great insight into the local life and economy, right down to the photographs of her children on the walls, the sparse furniture, the chooks in the outhouse and the gentle-eyed buffalo that her husband brings home in the middle of it all, settling it down in its dung-ridden stall like one of the family.

Back on the bikes and within minutes we're out the other side of the hamlet, gently traversing that flat, green, serene landscape. Before long we're back at the bus. Along the way, we pass a barefoot woman carrying her wares on a bamboo shoulder pole. And, yes, she's wearing that hat.

Keith Austin was a guest of Constellation Journeys.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/vietnam

constellationjourneys.com.au

STAY

The five-star Pan Pacific Hotel is within easy walking distance of Hanoi's famous West Lake. Rooms start from about $276 a night. See panpacific.com/en

TOUR

Constellation Journeys is one of Australia's newest travel companies and offers unique, all-inclusive itineraries aboard privately chartered aircraft and trains around the world. Another Constellation Journeys round-the-world Qantas 747 trip is in the early planning stages for late 2019. See constellationjourneys.com.au or call 1300 992 339.

EXO Travel runs rural cycling trips outside Hanoi. See exotravel.com

 

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