Vietnam on Two Wheels: Part 6 - Into the Mountains

After two days of gorging on food in Hue, it was time to head into the mountains. Our route for the day was taking us more west than south, and by the end we would be right along the border with Laos in a town called A Luoi. The 75km cycle included two major climbs, set to be our biggest challenge yet. We had built up a lot of strength over the previous 11 days, but we were still rather nervous about the task ahead.

Ready for a descent on the way to P'rao.

Vietnam on Two Wheels: Part 5 - On the ‘Hue’ to Hue

After exiting Hue we joined QL49, which would take us to the Ho Chi Minh Highway and our destination. The first roughly 30kms were relatively flat, with a few small hills along the way. There isn’t much in the way of civilization once you leave the coast in this part of the country, and all we saw were a few ramshackle villages and hamlets.

Eventually we hit the first climb. It was short, but very steep, with a 10 percent gradient. I made it up first, covered in sweat thanks to the humid weather, and stopped to wait for the rest of the team. The mental aspect of cycling is even more important than the physical part, and it was great seeing everyone gather at the crest of the incline to cheer on the rest of the riders, giving them a much needed boost.

After another stretch of climbing I reached the first of the day’s two downhills, and it was terrifying. The brakes on our $200 Chinese-made road bikes were terrible, and I could barely slow down as I tore around corners. The road was rough, with plenty of potholes, and I never knew what was coming from the opposition direction thanks to all of the twists and turns.

Thankfully everyone made it down safely, and we stopped for lunch at a rundown restaurant, where the sight of 20 foreigners attracted a crowd of local children. It was obvious from the way they looked and spoke that they were from the area’s minority groups.

After lunch it was time to tackle the second climb, which was made all the more difficult because the road was simply gone. A new highway with several bridges is being built to span a valley, and the old road is now nothing more than dirt and sand. The bewildered looks from construction workers were amusing, but the sheer drops off the side of the road were not. It took a couple hours of sweat and effort to slog through the climb, and the descent at the end allowed us to blast into pleasant A Luoi, where we feasted on bun thit nuong for dinner.

The following day was even more challenging. We had a 105km cycle to P’rao, with a handful of tough climbs thrown in for good measure. The heat was becoming a factor as well, as the skies had finally cleared and we had no choice but to ride under the blazing sun.

One good thing about this stretch of the ride was the scenery, which is simply stunning. We were right along the Laos border, and mountains stretched to the horizon everywhere you looked. Another positive is the almost complete absence of traffic, which allowed us to use up all of the road if need be. Strangely, there are two tunnels on this part of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, engineering projects that I didn’t expect in such a remote part of the country.

After plenty of climbing there was a hairy descent, where hairpin turns took our bikes to the limit. It was exhilarating, but also rather scary. We all knew that if we lost control at 50kph we would be in serious trouble, and a long way from any medical help.

After the downhill the road curved right back up for another solid hour of climbing. I was out front with another rider, and storm clouds were beginning to move in. We finished the climb and raced back downhill, trying to beat the rain to the next village. After going 85km and seeing almost no buildings, we finally reached a town and stopped for food. As the rest of the team pulled in we learned that a severe thunderstorm had hit when they were in the middle of the last descent, which sounded awful. The storm then caught up to us, and we had to wait out the downpour in the restaurant.

Once the rain finally let up we got back on the road for the final 20km to P’rao. Everyone was exhausted by the time we reached town. It had been a tough day, full of blazing heat, intense rain, steep climbs and death-defying descents, but we had made it.