Exhausted and alone, a well-worn mountain bike between my legs, I stood marvelling at the vastness of the Vietnamese countryside.
From this nauseating height, I could see the country’s iconic terraced fields extending far into the distance, broken only by the occasional sight of a winding dirt road – some were sections I had already traversed, others were eagerly awaiting my tracks.
I waited there for a few minutes in perfect silence, catching my breath from the steep and relentless ascent, and vaguely wondered where the other cyclists in my group had gone.
Later, I would find out they stopped for food some way back, accidentally enabling my solitary adventure.
Had she known, my mother may have been slightly worried to find out I was suddenly separated from the safety of my pack, deep in the northern mountains of Vietnam, but I was unconcerned. I wasn’t lost – there was only one road up and down the mountain – and I wasn’t afraid. This was only my fourth day in the country, but already the people had put me at ease.
It may sound like a dramatisation, but ever since my arrival, every person I met showed me the warmth of a thousand suns.
Less so, admittedly, in the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, where locals are relatively used to western faces, but way up here, in the remote Ha Giang, Quan Ba, Yen Minh and Dong Van regions, and later Meo Vac and Bao Lac, some residents go years without seeing a Caucasian. Some have never seen one.
But instead of fearing the unknown, the Vietnamese people seem to embrace it. Without fail, villagers would stop their chores to smile at our group of cyclists as we passed, bare foot children would shout Xin chao at us in greeting, and would wave us both hello and goodbye with beaming, gap tooth faces.
On more than one occasion we had to stop and eat with locals who invited us to their houses (it would have been considered rude not to accept these invitations) and we also accompanied locals into markets and to special night time performances of dancing, singing and playing odd looking musical instruments.
Out of all of the 19 countries I have been lucky enough to visit, the Vietnamese are, hands down, the friendliest nation of people I have ever encountered.
I originally found myself in their mountains, just north of Hanoi and, at points, roughly 3km from China, having agreed to a 250km charity cycle in aid of Plan International Ireland – a worldwide organisation which works on improving facilities and education in developing countries.
For almost a week, our group of 13 participants could be seen trudging up mountains in first gear, and speeding down them in fifth with joyous abandon.
The first day of it, we attempted to conquer a mountain three times the size of Carrauntoohill in 40 degree heat and high humidity.
Over the following days, fuelled by blood, sweat and tears, the cycle alternated between excruciating uphill slogs and exhilarating downhill freewheels, all set to the backdrop of a stunning Vietnamese countryside. It was breathtaking, in more ways than one.
I told myself I was a machine, repeating it over and over again in my head, and sometimes out loud when I thought nobody was around, convincing myself I didn’t really feel the pain seeping through my legs and arms and hands and groin. The mantra may seem odd, but it was strangely comforting.
While it was a gruelling trek, the awe-inspiring landscapes more than made up for it. This, coupled with the intense sense of achievement when, at the end of each day, we made it to the next village, made it one of the best experiences of my entire life.
Others visiting Vietnam may opt for a cycle adventure, of which there are many, complete with extremely friendly and competent guides who cycle with you and ensure you get to where you’re supposed to go, or they may opt for a less exerting holiday experiencing the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
Whichever the case, the most daunting aspect of such a trip can often be the cost of flights, the long haul flight time, and the number of connections.
I left from Dublin and flew to London, Bangkok, and then on to Hanoi.
Depending on the airline and the time of year you fly, flights can cost upwards of €600 return. It is worth noting, however, that you will not spend much money, or Vietnamese Dong, while on the trip as the cost of living is extremely low.
Even if you buy a suitcase full of souvenirs, and tip the locals exorbitantly, you’ll still come home with more money than you ever thought you would.
In terms of food, however, you should be prepared to pack your iron stomach if you’re going anywhere off the beaten track.
Hanoi has a number of amazing restaurants where you can get both Western and Asian cuisine, but as you get further from the capital the pickings get slimmer.
At the start of my trip, I would ask what certain food items were, and I would be careful of eating anything that might have been washed in the local water such as lettuce or other vegetables.
I would avoid drinks with ice cubes in them, and steer clear of the mystery meat we were occasionally served.
As the trip went on, however, and the cycle became tougher, I began shovelling pretty much everything into my mouth. If it was placed in front of me and I thought it was edible, it went in.
And you know what? I was fine. I had no tummy upsets, no sickly feelings the next day. Granted, not everything tasted amazing, and the mystery meat is disturbing if you think too long on it, but it wasn’t inedible, and I even discovered a love of spring rolls.
Chopsticks were a challenge, of course. Towards the end of the trip, just when I thought I was getting a handle on how to use the damned utensils, a Vietnamese girl laughed at my poor efforts and told me I held chopsticks like her baby brother who can’t even walk or talk yet.
Needless to say, upon my return to the Emerald Isle I went back to forks with a new found appreciation. Should I ever find myself in Asia again, and I certainly hope I do, a packet of plastic utensils is definitely the first thing I’ll pack.
All said and done, while it can be costly, and tiring, to get to Vietnam, more travellers should consider the country when searching for their next holiday destination.
The landscape is amazing, the culture is eye-opening, the locals are incredibly friendly, there’s no shortage of adventures to be had… And, while you might not always be sure what kind of meat you’re eating, you can be sure about one thing – it’s one trip like no other you’ve ever taken, and one you’ll never, ever forget.
* A version of this article also appeared in the Irish Examiner's Travel 2017 supplement.
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