Upcycling the senses: the BALANCE guide to Vietnam
Early morning beside the Perfume River, and four women are preparing to release fish. This Buddhist tradition – saving the lives of beings destined for slaughter – is believed to bring good karma. With their hands in prayer and incense rising from the ground, the women sing blessings upon the fi sh. As their voices fade, one woman picks up a silver bowl and, with a graceful arc, casts its contents into the water. I watch as the escapees gradually disperse into the river, like incense smoke vanishing in the air.
Moments earlier, I’d been cycling through this little village on the outskirts of Hue, central Vietnam. Previously the ancient capital of the Nguyen dynasty, it still boasts the remnants to prove it: a Citadel and Imperial Enclosure, royal tombs, temples and pagodas. Now it’s a vibrant city, its streets buzzing with scooters and students who study at the esteemed university.
It’s also the starting point of the Vietnam Heritage by Bicycle trip, a new guided experience from active holiday specialists BSpoke Tours. The six-night trip, run in partnership with Spice Roads, ends in Hoi An. Pedalling between 19 and 41 miles per day (with a support vehicle on hand to transport your bags), it covers some of central Vietnam’s most beautiful landscapes and cultural highlights.
BACKROADS TO BEAUTY
Our group of nine Brits, Americans and Australians, ages ranging from 27 to 57, meets in the lobby of ÊMM Hotel Hue, our base for the first few nights. Their reasons for embarking on the trip include relationship breakdowns, tasting Vietnam’s fine food and exploring its rich culture and history.
It’s not long before we get our first glimpse into the country’s devastating past, as we cycle to the Citadel. Built by Emperor Gia Long in 1804, the Citadel was modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City and features similarly elaborate gates, Chinese dragons and cauldrons.
Badly damaged during the Vietnam War, particularly by the Tet Offensive in 1968, as we walk through, we see crumbled walls and bullet scars in bronze urns. Thankfully, a peaceful antidote is around the corner.
We pedal away from the cacophonous mass of traffic and bus loads of selfie-snapping tourists, heading for Hue’s quiet backroads. Our local guides, Anh Co and Tibo, know the area like the back of their cycling gloves, navigating effortlessly so we simply cycle and take everything in, bumping along tracks lined with coconut trees. A man snoozes on a hammock slung between two trunks, while villagers make shoes and sip ca phe sua da (iced coffee with condensed milk) in roadside cafés.
We wind through narrow lanes, cross floating bridges and duck beneath trees. With no other tourists in sight, it feels as though we have this slice of countryside, with its verdant rice paddies, royal temples and lotus ponds, to ourselves.
THE FANTASTIC PHO
After a day in the saddle, restoration is delivered via food. Most meals are included, and I try everything from bowls of pho (noodle soup) to bun cha (pork with thin rice vermicelli). Anh Co shows us how to eat the dishes, like banh xeo. (crispy, folded pancakes), which you wrap in mustard leaves and dip in nuoc cham, a fish sauce and lime juice concoction.
Food is surprisingly healthy, in part thanks to the freshness of ingredients and en route, we hop off our bikes to wander through markets, where the smell of coriander and Asian basil hangs in the air.
LAST LINK IN THE CHAIN
After three days pedalling through Hue, we continue south towards the beach resort of Lang Co. As we near the coast, the landscape changes. We pass villages with shrimp lagoons, brightly-coloured graves and family temples, most of them final resting places for the Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), whose last wish was to be buried in their homeland.
When we reach the wooden bungalows and sugar-soft sand of Lang Co Beach Resort, I wade straight into the sea – fully clothed – and dive into the gently-lapping waves. Floating on my back, my eyes gaze towards the jungle-clad mountains and valleys we’ll cycle through tomorrow, my aching muscles and busy mind melting as the setting sun bathes the sea in gold.
Our final leg takes us from Lang Co to Hoi An, with its quaint riverside setting. The ride involves cycling along beautiful coastal roads, culminating in a gruelling seven-mile climb up the Hai Van Pass. It’s hard work, but when I round the final bend and reach the summit, the sea views make all the sweat and toil worth it.
Without the barrier of a window, I’m fully connected to my senses. I smell rice drying in the sun, feel the sun’s heat and hear sugarcane fields rustle in the breeze. When it rains – which it does just once – I splash through puddles and drink it all in.
Yes cycling is physically harder than, say, a bus tour, but being immersed in my surroundings makes me appreciate them so much more – and leaves me feeling thrillingly alive.