by Hank Leukart
May 18, 2011
A Vietnamese Christmas Eve, sort of
Cycling up Vietnam’s Hai Van mountain pass toward an ancient Hindu temple complex.
Tourists explore the ancient My Son Temple Complex near Hoi An, Vietnam. (view all Hoi An, Vietnam photos)
OI AN, Vietnam — I’m using all the strength I can muster to power my bike through Vietnam’s Annamite Mountains, battling the suffocating fog and hairpin turns of the Hai Van mountain pass. My mom, who up until now has managed to endure the length and demanding terrain of our cycling trip across Vietnam, has retired to our chase car. I can’t blame her. Yellow signs next to the roadway tell me that I’m fighting against a ten percent grade. I feel more like I’m trying to force a bike up the vertical side of a skyscraper.
I’ve put my bike in a high gear, a strategy which has allowed me to pull ahead of the others in our cycling group, at the expense of my quadriceps. As I muscle my bike up steep switchbacks, leaving tire rubber tracks on the asphalt, Bill and Cliff, the most experienced cyclists in our group, are inching up the pass much more slowly, far behind me. They’re both about 25 years older than me, but I’m still feeling smug that I’m ahead of them.
Nevertheless, with every turn of the pedals, I feel my energy supply depleting. About a quarter of the way up the pass, my leg muscles fail. I’m sweating profusely, I’m totally exhausted, and my legs are immobile. As I sit in on my bike, trying to catch my breath and regain strength, Bill and Cliff catch up to me.
“It’s not easy, huh?” Cliff yells out as I wolf down a Vietnamese Twinkie snack cake rip-off that, in any other situation, I would dismiss as disgusting.
“I’m dead,” I mumble back, my mouth full of a Vietnamese substance meant to imitate the Twinkie ingredient that is meant to imitate whipped cream.
Cliff and Bill, both pedaling in their bikes’ lowest gear, seem to be moving uphill in slow motion — but, unlike me, they are moving. At the sluggish pace of the Hoan Kiem turtle, the two middle-aged men pedal by, leaving me on the side of the road.
“Try a lower gear,” Bill yells as he climbs another switchback above me. “You can make it.”
I rest for a few more minutes, then shift my bike into a low gear and begin pedaling again. In the new gear, I’m moving more slowly, but the pedaling is easier. I’m embarrassed to realize that I’ve just learned the lesson of the Tortoise and the Hare firsthand. The specter of the Golden Turtle God strikes again.
Eventually, I reach the souvenir vendors at the top of Hai Van only a few minutes behind Cliff and Bill, who are sipping tea with my mom. They congratulate me. When I tell them that I’ve learned my lesson, they laugh.
“You’ve learned my best cycling trick,” Bill jokes. “We won’t be beating you for long.”
A small hill nearby catches my eye, and I decide to take a quick hike to the top to get a better view of the blue waters of the East Sea (Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea). As I look down across the lush green valley toward the water, a gaggle of Vietnamese college girls on the hill catches sight of me. I brace myself.
For those unfamiliar with the Charisma Man phenomenon (and comic strip), it’s enough to say that even average-looking, blue-eyed white guys are often treated like supermodels by women in Asian countries. So, I’m not surprised when the group of girls eagerly runs over to me to ask me where I’m from. I tell them, intentionally vaguely, that I’m from the United States, but they continue to press me. Knowing what’s about to happen next, I reluctantly reveal that I live in California. Immediately, they’re clapping and cheering, and I watch them melt into a blob of awe in front of my eyes. Apparently, the sex appeal of being a California resident is, for Vietnamese girls, the equivalent of what being a professional football player moonlighting as an astronaut is for American girls. Guessing that I’m headed for a 10-minute photo shoot, I try to divert the girls by suggesting that we take a single group photo. Though they agree to the group photo at first, each then begs me for a photo of just the two of us. As I take photos with each of them, I assume that, somewhere on Facebook, I will be the American boyfriend featured in the profile picture of tens of Vietnamese college girls.
After managing to escape my Vietnamese fans, I join my mom and the rest of the cycling group for a luxurious six-mile ride straight down Hai Van Pass. The feeling of flying effortlessly downhill at nearly 30 miles per hour with wind in our faces almost makes up for the pain that we endured getting to the top. But, when we reach the bottom of the pass, Cliff manages to hit a patch of gravel and finds himself lying on the road, his body sliding across the asphalt. We’re all nervous, because earlier during the trip, my mom bruised and scraped her arm when she almost wiped out while cycling on a narrow bridge in Hue. Cliff puts on a brave face and a gallon of antibiotic cream, but, along with the large scrapes and bruises on his leg and arm, his grimace tells us that he’s in pain. It occurs to me to help his ego recover by finding the Vietnamese college girls and telling them that Cliff is a combination professional football player and astronaut living in California, but I am unwilling to cycle back up the steep pass.
Instead, Cliff recovers and gets back on his bike. As the six of us continue cycling toward Hoi An through the countryside, hoards of Vietnamese school children on the street yell, “Hello!” and “What’s your name?” Some of them even demand a “high five” as we speed by.
The next morning, which also happens to be the morning of Christmas Eve, we bike to My Son, a valley filled with 70 partially-ruined Hindu temples and tombs built by Champa Kings, who controlled southern and central Vietnam from the 7th century to 1832. Thankfully, despite his accident, Cliff still seems mobile, even without attention from Vietnamese college girls. As we wander through the My Son temple complex, Teng (our guide) tells us that the United States destroyed many of the temples with carpet bombing during the Vietnam War. Once again, we find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of seeing firsthand the repercussions of a complex war from America’s enemy’s point of view. None of us know exactly what to say to him or how to react.
After returning to our hotel, Cliff and Bill invite me to join them for a guy’s-afternoon-out in downtown Hoi An. I hope they’re inducting me into their secret Experienced Cyclists Club. I feel like we’re a parody of American tourists as we browse the shops: Cliff visits pharmacies trying to describe Ambien to Vietnamese pharmacists, Bill visits every suit tailor in a five-block radius looking for a golf-shirt pattern that he deems manly enough to wear, and I ignorantly talk with suit tailors about the logistics of buying a custom-tailored Vietnamese suit (which, admittedly, I have decided that I must do at my mom’s insistence). In the end, I’m the only one who ends up making a purchase — the Vietnamese haven’t heard of Ambien and don’t make many manly shirt patterns. After buying sweet treats from a vendor whose nonsensical sign reads “WHY NOT DONUT PANCAKE” (how could I resist?!), we spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying cocktails in a local bar.
In the evening, our hotel’s management excitedly invites us to the dining room for a Christmas Eve celebration. When we exit the hotel elevator — which is playing a Vietnamese Muzak version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” — into the lobby, we’re greeted by an awkward, mostly female hotel staff wearing Santa Claus hats, doing their best to get into the Christmas spirit. A Vietnamese Christmas-song cover band, complete with two acoustic guitars and a snare drum played like bongos, is playing “Autumn Leaves,” a jazz standard that isn’t remotely Christmasy. As we eat buffet roast beef in front of a city of enormous gingerbread houses, children bussed in from a Vietnamese middle school perform a nativity play and then dance and lip sync to a musical medley of Christmas classics. They do Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, and Jingle Bell Rock. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a ten-year-old Vietnamese boy lip sync Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer while wearing a Santa Suit with a Ho Chi Minh-inspired mustache.
As I watch, I realize that our Vietnamese hosts think they need to transplant an American Christmas to Vietnam to keep their visitors happy. It’s especially strange, considering that 85 percent of the Vietnamese population is Buddhist and very few celebrate Christmas. Ironically, American Christmas is exactly the thing my mom and I have traveled to Vietnam to try to escape during the first Christmas holiday without my late father. I think about how much he loved Christmas, and chuckle, imagining how much he would have hated the Vietnamese imitation version.
While we’re watching six-year-old Vietnamese girls dressed as angels dance around baby Jesus, a couple of women at a table nearby catch my eye. At first, I assume that they’re Vietnamese, but I notice that they’re also sitting with a guy speaking English, and they look as bewildered by the offbeat Christmas extravaganza as we are. When I introduce myself, they spend the next five minutes mocking the matching, skin-tight bike shirts they saw our group wearing earlier in the day. Then, the three (Helen, Grace, and Lee) tell me that they’re Australians, and they invite me to join them at the pool after the festivities.
After the Christmas pageant ends, next to the hotel pool reflecting the Christmas Eve moon, the Australians teach me how to play a traditional Vietnamese card game called Tien Len (also known as Thirteen). At first, I’m not very good at the card game. Every time I lose, Helen demands that I drink a Saigon Beer. While we play, she tells me that three of them are best friends from Melbourne who decided to take a holiday trip together. We play late into the night, until no one can bear to look at another Saigon Beer. Even despite the imported American kitsch, the night feels like an authentic Vietnamese Christmas Eve.
Paddle boats representing nearby towns race against each other on the Perfume River near Hue, Vietnam.
Vietnamese school children greet a passing cyclist near Hoi An, Vietnam.
Vietnamese children perform in a Christmas pageant in Hoi An, Vietnam.
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.