by Hank Leukart
May 10, 2011
Cycling through Golden Turtle God country
Encountering magical turtles and afterlife-destined motorcycles on a bicycle trip in Vietnam and Cambodia.
A bicycle sits on the edge of the road in Da Lat, Vietnam.
ANOI, Vietnam — According to an ancient legend from the 15th century, Vietnamese Emperor Le Loi, the founder of Vietnam’s Le Dynasty, encountered a holy turtle on a boat cruise across Hanoi’s Luc Thuy (Green Lake). The magical talking turtle demanded that the Emperor return a sword that he had taken from Kim Qui, the Golden Turtle God, to help defeat Chinese invaders. The Emperor — likely terrified by the threat of a talking turtle — unsheathed the sword, threw it into the lake to the turtle, and renamed the lake Hoan Kiem (The Lake of the Returned Sword).
I’m unaware of this ancient legend when my mom (yes, the Extreme one) asks me if I would like to bicycle across Vietnam and Cambodia during Christmas vacation. I’m a little surprised by this request, but, because my father passed away this year, I know that neither of us are excited to celebrate Christmas at home in our traditional way. Escaping the country on a bike seems like a great way to get through the holiday. A week before Christmas, I leave India to meet my mom in Hanoi and check into the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi. The fantastic hotel was featured in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a classic novel about a journalist living in Vietnam during the French Indochina War. After two weeks in Indian budget hotels, I feel like I’ve become a Slumdog Millionaire overnight.
It becomes clear quickly why Greene liked the hotel so much; my mom and I spend the night by the pool, listening to a talented French-Vietnamese singer with a silky voice entertain the bar with standards from the 1950s. In the morning, we decide to go shopping in Hanoi’s Old Quarter to find gear for me for our bicycling trip. (Because I have come directly from backpacking through Nepal and India, I only have hiking boots with me — definitely a liability on a bike.) We walk down narrow Old Quarter streets, each conveniently organized by product: there’s a clothing street, a flowers street, a hardware street, and, thankfully, a shoes street. Unfortunately, finding a pair of sneakers in size 11 in Vietnam — a country where the average height is five feet, five inches — is not easy. We visit a handful of shoe stores, all of which carry low-quality, counterfeit brand name shoes made in China. At each store, a female, five-foot tall shopkeeper laughs when I point at my feet and then usually points to a single pair of shoes that almost — but don’t — fit. I feel like I’ve been cast in a new sitcom titled Gulliver’s Travels: The Communist Years.
The ugly shoes that I find finally for US $50 look like they will last me two weeks before falling apart; fortunately, that’s as long as I need them. After we visit a few more stores to find some athletic socks (yes, on a socks street), we walk back toward the Metropole along the shore of Hanoi’s Luc Thuy.
A large group of Vietnamese families gathered along the shore catches our eye, and we stroll by them to see what we’re missing. At first, they appear mesmerized only by Green Lake. But, when we look more closely at the water, we catch sight of the Hoan Kiem Turtle, popping out from beneath the surface. This is an unbelievable event, because the Turtle is seen so rarely that it was once classified as cryptozoological — pseudoscientific, like the Loch Ness Monster. But, in 1998, a photographer caught the animal on video, proving its existence. We watch the turtle and the awed gawkers for a while and then head back to our hotel. When we arrive, we meet our cycling group: Stew, Shelley, Cliff, Bill, and Teng — our bicycle trip leader. I notice that I’m the youngest cyclist on the trip by at least 20 years. Excitedly, my mom and I tell everyone that we saw the Hoan Kiem Turtle in the Lake. Teng is stunned.
“I’ve lived in Hanoi for my whole life, and I’ve never seen the turtle,” he explains, disappointed. He tells us that the turtle is thought to be centuries old and says that university students rub the heads of stone statues of the turtle to help ensure that they pass their exams. “The fact that you saw the turtle… wow. That’s very good luck.”
It’s an auspicious beginning to our bicycle journey across Vietnam, and my mom and I start pedaling through Hanoi buoyed with feelings of optimism and confidence. In a year filled with bad news for our family, it’s a much needed reprieve.
Teng and a local professor of Vietnamese history take our cycling group to Hanoi’s historic Long Bien Bridge, which connects Hanoi to port Haiphong across the Red River. The professor explains that Americans bombed the bridge repeatedly with the world’s first laser-guided bombs during The American War (the Vietnamese name for the Vietnam War), but Vietnamese workers repaired the bridge with whatever decidedly low-tech supplies they could find: rocks, steel ties, and lumber. The professor also tells us that the Bridge illustrates the resourcefulness and steadfastness of the Vietnamese people defending their homeland during the War. He doesn’t mention the South Vietnamese army, instead preferring to frame the war as a conflict between the “Vietnamese people” and Americans. I’m a bit shocked to hear this description, considering the way the conflict is painted in American history books, but it’s an eye-opening perspective.
We make quick stops at Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (a tomb in which tourists can see Ho Chi Minh’s cryogenically frozen body), the Ma May museum in the Old Quarter (a restored, traditional Vietnamese house), and the Temple of Literature (the country’s first university). As Teng predicted, inside the university gates, my mom and I see a young girl rubbing the heads of stone statues of the Hoan Kiem turtle for good luck. I want to tell the girl that she should rush directly to Green Lake to see the turtle and share in our good luck, but I don’t speak Vietnamese.
On our second day in Hanoi, we pedal to nearby Dong Ho, a village known for its traditional Vietnamese woodblock prints. Teng takes us into a shop selling the beautiful designs, and we watch a woman working tirelessly, making traditional Vietnamese paper. Afterward, Teng leads us through the rest of the village, where we catch a glimpse of a warehouse filled to the brim with shoes — except, strangely, they’re fake shoes, made of paper.
“They’re votives,” Teng explains to us. “Vietnamese people honor the dead on the first day of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, by burning paper products. You can burn anything that you want to send to deceased relatives for use in the afterlife.”
We continue down the street, and I see workers working tirelessly on a myriad of goods, all made of paper: dishes, shoes, hats, wardrobes, stereo systems, laptops, counterfeit money, and motorcycles.
As we get back on our bicycles, I look at my mom.
“Silly, huh?” I ask. “I can’t believe people really believe that works.”
“Yes, it doesn’t really make any sense,” she says. Then, she pauses. “But, maybe we should burn some paper golf clubs to send to your dad. You know, in case he wants to play golf.”
As we pedal back toward Hanoi, I think about whether burning paper golf clubs might give my dad a chance to play a round in the afterlife. It seems unlikely. But, I tell myself, maybe it’s just as unlikely as seeing the incarnation of the Golden Turtle God during your first visit to Vietnam.
Read the next essay in this series about bicycling through Indochina, in which I’m overwhelmed by female Vietnamese college students, and I see a Santa Claus with a Ho Chi Minh mustache.
Traffic and a mural pass under Hanoi's historic Long Bien Bridge. (view all Hanoi, Vietnam photos)
How to Take a Cycling Trip through Vietnam and Cambodia
- OVERVIEW: Vietnam is a great destination for a cycling adventure, but keep in mind that the Vietnam of 40 years ago is gone: in cities, you’ll be navigating through seas of cars and motorcycles, and in the countryside you’ll be traveling on mostly-paved suburban roads.
- LOGISTICS: Though arranging a cycling trip in Vietnam on your own is possible, we booked our trip through bicycle vacation company Ciclismo Classico. The company arranged a cycling guide, bicycles, a chase van, luxury hotel accommodations, meals, and the route for us. Using a company like Ciclismo Classico is a great choice if the idea of planning a cycling trip in Southeast Asia on your own seems too daunting. Joining a group cycling trip greatly simplifies logistics, but, keep in mind, you’ll be traveling with a group of about six strangers. During our trip, we ran into other cyclists who had arranged contiguous bicycling routes through Vietnam without a chase car; plan carefully if you try this — adequate accommodations can’t be found everywhere.
- ROUTE: We divided our trip into five legs. First, we started by cycling around Hanoi. Second, we took a flight to Hue and cycled around it, Da Nang, and Hoi An. Third, we took a flight to Nha Trang and cycled around it and Da Lat. Fourth, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City. Finally, we flew to Siam Riep, Cambodia and finished the trip by cycling around Angkor’s ancient temples. View our route and download the Without Baggage Cycling Vietnam and Cambodia GPS track in GPX or KML format.