I was clearly the race leader, the Lance Armstrong of the ''Tour de Vietnam," a bicycle trip I took not long ago. My competitors? Well, there was my wife -- only a minor threat -- and the locals. They mostly rode ancient, rusty, single-speed bikes, usually carrying 100-pound sacks of rice. Barring an accident, I was sure to ride into Ho Chi Minh City in triumph.
As we started in Hanoi, an accident seemed a distinct possibility. The roads clogged with motor scooters made cycling in Kathmandu or Cairo seem positively tame. Most of the world drives on the right. The English and Japanese drive on the left. The Vietnamese drive in the middle -- and also on the sidewalk, the wrong side of the road, and mostly with their horns.
The traffic conditions are so chaotic and there are so few traffic lights that they actually give tourists lessons for crossing the street. I'm not making this up. They tell you that as a beginner, you put one arm out straight in front of yourself and then just walk at a steady pace -- no running or stopping and no looking at the traffic. The idea is the motor scooters will judge your speed and just miss you. I had trouble with this. I felt most of the drivers were recently released homicidal maniacs and I couldn't keep from looking, frantically running, clutching at my wife, and stopping, not to mention screaming, frequently.
This was a plush trip, a race only in my fantasies. Ho Chi Minh may have walked south on a trail eating rice balls and sleeping under straw mats, but the country is now covered with four- and five-star hotels, extraordinarily beautiful, modern, and overstaffed. While cycling, we were followed by an air-conditioned van carrying our gear along with ice water and cold towels. This was very plush indeed and not terribly expensive.
Breakfasts were Western-style buffets at the top hotels. Lunches, usually six-course affairs at tourist-oriented restaurants (meaning clean, sit-down toilets), were deadly before an afternoon sometimes involving 3,000 feet of steep climbing. We tried to limit ourselves to vegetables and rice to avoid a total gastric upheaval on the hard hills. Dinners were in fine restaurants with local specialties. Early in the trip, I informed our guide that while I was very interested in the local foods, there were limits to my curiosity when it came to dog and snake delicacies.
There are many ways to see a country. I've always felt touring in a bus or car insulates a person too much from the atmosphere of a land: the smells, feel, and throb of the place. Walking brings you wonderfully in touch but limits the amount of ground you can cover. For me, a bicycle can't be beat, giving you mobility and endless chances to interact with the people -- especially since much of Vietnam moves by bicycle.
While little English is spoken outside tourist areas, everyone we passed called out a greeting, usually in the limited vocabulary of ''Hello" or ''Where you from?" They were amazed that Western tourists would be riding a bicycle when certainly they could afford a motor scooter. Returning ''hellos" from practically everyone in a country of 80 million people is no easy feat. Some evenings, we hardly had a voice left. I finally learned to say ''hello" in Vietnamese and rode the length of the country calling out ''sin chow."
Vietnamese is, however, a tonal language, and toward the end of our trip, a friendly guide explained that because I was not properly dropping my tone on the ''chow," what I actually was saying was, ''Bring me some soup."
That was almost as embarrassing as the day I seasoned my lunch with the interesting fine powder I found in a little bowl on the table. It turned out to be the ashtray.
The countryside showed few of the ravages of the war that ended 30 years ago, and I was surprised at the lack of rancor among Vietnamese. They love American tourists, who rank fifth in numbers after Chinese, Japanese, French, and Australian. The lowlands were green, warm, and beautiful, with rice growing on every flat surface. Some places had as many as five crops a year. Anything wet sported fishnets, traps, or shrimp farms. Markets were teeming with vegetables, fish, exotic fruits, and inexpensive household items. Hilly areas were scenic, cool, and covered with vegetables, coffee, and tea. But enough of the beautiful countryside -- back to the tour.
A final challenge came toward the end, in the Mekong Delta. A 12- or 13-year-old pulled alongside in his squeaky single speed. Standing on the pedals, which he couldn't reach from a sitting position, he struggled to pull ahead. I kicked it up a notch and we raced along, perspiring, side by side. Then, taking a cue from the gracious Lance Armstrong, I dropped back and let him win the stage. His smile lit up all Vietnam.
Herb Kavet is a freelance writer in Wayland.