Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly known as Saigon is an exciting and absorbing city where bicycles battle with lorries and temples stand defiantly alongside modern developments. Devastated by the Vietnam War, Saigon is now a bustling free market city where anything goes. The Ben Thanh Market and Notre Dame Cathedral are within easy walking distance from our hotel and are highly recommended.
This morning we drive out of the city, before riding to the Cu Chi Tunnels. This offers a great introduction to cycling in Vietnam and a chance to fine-tune the bikes. The tunnels were Vietcong sanctuaries, used by the guerrillas as living quarters and escape routes, the network covers 3 levels and approximately 240 kms of tunnels. Although originally very narrow, some parts have been widened for tourists, but even so it is still necessary to crawl on hands and knees. Claustrophobes may prefer to stay outside in the sunshine! If you prefer not to visit the tunnels you can have an unguided free day in Saigon. Places of interest include: the Emperor of Jade and Giac Lam pagodas, the former Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Hall), Ben Thanh market and the War Remnants Museum. Ride approx. 35 km.
After an early breakfast we head out of Saigon by bus and start our cycling towards Mui Ne on the coast. We spend approx 4-5 hours on the bus today. We hit the backroads and head through tropical fruit and rubber plantations, also passing some small fishing villages as we make our way closer to the coast. We finish the ride in Mui Ne, a tranquil white sand beach where we can enjoy a swim after the day's riding and witness our first sunset over the South China Sea. Ride approx. 50 km.
We cycle towards Dalat; the route is undulating with occasional climbs. Along the way we pass coffee and tea plantations, as well as flower gardens and pine forests as we reach higher altitude. We rejoin the bus before the road climbs steeply to the mountain town of Dalat. We spend approx 3.5 hours on the bus today. Dalat is a pleasant hill station, formerly known as Le Petit Paris, and has been described as the most beautiful town in Vietnam. It was favoured by the French for its climate, and is now a popular honeymoon resort for the Vietnamese. Ride approx. 60 km.
Today's ride is predominantly downhill through pine forests and paddy fields as we descend nearly 1,500m travelling through the Bidoup-Nui Ba National Park. This area is home to rare pine forests as well as small villages inhabited by the ethnic minority people of the central highlands. Once we arrive at the coast, we head by bus (approx 1.5 hours) to Nha Trang. This beachside town is idyllic, with swaying palms, golden sands and the beautiful deep blue water of the South China Sea. Ride up to 100km according to preference.
Having a rest from the bikes today, we take a boat trip around the islands offering a chance to swim and snorkel around the many reefs. This is a wonderful experience with stunning views of the mountainous coastline that lies to the north of Nha Trang and an opportunity to eat some of the freshest seafood available. Those not fancying the boat trip can relax on the beach, have a massage, go scuba diving or ride off to other nearby beaches such as Hon Chong, a fishing village lined with coconut palms, mango and banana plantations.
We set off early in the morning for the ride to the beautiful fishing village of Dai Lanh. A short transfer out of town past the Po Nagar Cham towers brings us to a high point and from here today's ride is predominantly flat. The beautiful beach at Dai Lanh is a perfect place to stop for a swim and lunch before continuing by bus around the spectacular coastal cliff road towards the town of Tuy Hoa and on to Quy Nhon. (Approx 4 hours in the bus today). Ride up to 90 km according to preference.
Another early start by bus until we get to Quang Ngai where we cycle to My Lai and the site of the infamous 1968 massacre. After a guided tour around the site and museum we return via bicycle to Quang Ngai. (c. 30km unsupported). On return we transfer for 2.5 hours to Dien Bang. If time permits, we will cycle the last 12 km once we turn off Highway 1 into Hoi An. Hoi An, the original European trading port in Vietnam dating back to the mid-sixteenth century is now a living museum, with attractive wooden merchant's houses and pagoda-style temples with Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European architectural influences. It is also a marvellous place to wander around and enjoy the thriving riverside market. We spend two nights in Hoi An which is also a fantastic place to buy local art or have some clothes tailor-made for you. Its best to bring a picture or a sample of what you want made. Approx 6 hour in the bus today.
This morning we take a guided walking tour of Hoi An to explore some of the structures of historical significance in the Old Town, including bridges, temples, wells and houses. Those less interested in architecture can cycle the 5km to the lovely Cua Dai beach or cycle to the Marble Mountains, which are 19 km from town. These five marble hills, formerly islands, contain many caves, some of which were used as Buddhist (and Vietcong) sanctuaries. Also nearby is China beach, a famous US R+R spot in the war, and Danang where there is a Cham Museum, which despite being in poor condition, is very interesting. It is also possible to visit My Son, one of the most important Cham temple sites in Vietnam, where Cham kings were buried as early as the fourth century. Although wartime bombing has destroyed much of the site, there are a number of interesting stone towers and sanctuaries.
Today we turn north again for the drive/cycle to Hue. The route passes over the spectacular Hai Van Pass the 'Pass of the Ocean Clouds'; the views are stunning though those who prefer to avoid the 580m climb can always take a lift in the support vehicle. Once at the top it will all seem worth it as you plummet back to the ocean, then continue through small villages and timeless rural scenes to the outskirts of Hue, from where we transfer to our city centre hotel. Approx 2.5 hours in the bus today. Ride approx. 80 km.
Hue claims to be the cultural and historic centre of Vietnam, and there is plenty to see. We take a guided tour of the city and surrounding tombs. The most memorable site is the citadel, with walls six miles in length: inside are the palaces and halls of the Mandarins, and the remains of the Forbidden Purple City, where only the emperor and his eunuchs and concubines were allowed. Then we take a boat along the Perfume River to the elaborate tombs of the Nguyen emperors, who ruled Vietnam from Hue. Tu Duc's Tomb is very elaborate and set in beautiful gardens, along the way we will visit the famous Thien Mu Pagoda. The pagoda was a centre for anti-government protest in the early 1960s and it houses the Austin car that transported a monk, Thich Quang Duc, to Saigon in 1963 where he burned himself as a protest against the president. The photograph of his self-immolation was printed in newspapers all around the world. In the afternoon we will board the Reunification Express for the overnight ride to Hanoi, 600km to the north. Ride approx. 25 km.
We usually arrive in Hanoi in the early morning and stop for a local breakfast and a stretch of the legs, before we are met by our bus for an approximately 4 hour drive to Halong Bay. This is one of the most stunningly beautiful sights in South East Asia with around 3000 limestone peaks rising directly from the clear emerald sea. We cruise amongst this amazing karst scenery, stopping to swim and kayak in the sea, allowing us to get to places inaccessible by boat (weather permitting) and enjoy a seafood lunch on board.
We continue to cruise around Halong Bay this morning before returning to port. We then drive back to Hanoi, and take a sightseeing tour of the city: this will include visits to the Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison and the Old Quarter of the city. This charming city contains many beautiful old buildings, and the atmosphere is completely different from that in Saigon in the south, mainly due to the much more conservative nature of the North Vietnamese. Also, unlike its industrial counterpart, the centre of Hanoi has a faded charm with broad tree-lined avenues dating from the French period as well as some attractive lakes and pagodas. In the evening there is the option to enjoy a performance of Hanoi's famous water puppets.
Free morning; depart afternoon.