Saigon with the wind
I feel like Cadel Evans on a victory lap. Almost every house I ride past erupts with children yelling "Hello, hello" and waving like mad. They rush to the side of the road, many holding their hands up for high-fives.
My 14 companions and I are riding through villages on the back roads between the towns of Hue and Hoi An on the central coast of Vietnam.
We are two days into a nine-day cycling adventure down this sliver of land on the edge of south-east Asia. It's hot, dusty and very humid, but we can't wipe the grins from our faces.
We shout back to the kids in our best Vietnamese: "Xinchao". Our wonderful guide, Cuong Nguyen, has taught us a few key words including hello (pronounced "sin-chow", though tone is everything and you could just as easily be asking for more porridge).
It's great to see the momentary confusion, then delight as the children hear their own language from these weird, Lycra-clad foreigners.
At the start of the tour we were "introduced" to our Trek mountain bikes in Hue before Cuong, known mainly by his nickname, Hilly, took us on our first tentative foray into Vietnamese traffic.
As any visitor to this gloriously chaotic country knows, crossing the road has its challenges but to become part of the traffic adds greater complexity.
To keep us safe, Hilly tells us we should clump together, just like sticky rice. From now on, we are a "sticky rice family".
Our mixed bunch of Britons, Norwegians and Australians bonded well in our few days together before the cycling began. But those bonds are sealed on hitting the road. Fortunately our first ride is relatively short.
On our first full-day's riding, we mount our bikes and set out for Hoi An. After passing fishing villages and rice paddies, we stop for a cool drink and the local snacks Hilly is already renowned for providing.
We are in the village of Thanh Toan on market day and the traders allow us to wander through stalls that brim with everything from electronics to fish and freshly butchered meat.
A few of us inadvertently annoy one stallholder when we linger too long near her fish, obstructing genuine customers.
Then we cross an ornate covered bridge to learn more about rural Vietnam at the village's wonderful agricultural museum. Our cheeky 77-year-old guide takes us through the very hands-on exhibits, flirting outrageously with the men of our group as she displays traditional farming methods.
She then offers us a chance to try chewing betel leaves, a popular pastime, particularly for the country's women.
That afternoon, after about four hours on the bikes and some time in our support bus, we arrive in beautiful Hoi An. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and renowned for the beauty of its old town centre.
After a quick shower, we are off to explore on foot. Hilly outlines the city's history as he guides us through the streets, pointing out historic sites and snaffling freshly baked rolls for us from "the best baker in Hoi An".
Our third day on the bike has us again heading south. We catch a tiny ferry across the Thu Bon River and then ride through the communities of Binh Minh, Binh Dao and Binh Trieu. Almost everywhere we see weddings, with restaurants festooned with pink and blue bunting.
A highlight of our journey comes in dusty Binh Trieu.
One member of our party stops to take a quick photo of a wedding and soon, with Hilly interpreting, we are all invited in to join the party.
None of the guests speaks English but warm beers are thrust into our hands and multiple toasts are offered to us and to the happiness of the couple. Guests surge to say hello, hands are shaken and backs are clapped.
The bride seems a little put out by these interlopers but she, too, warms to us and soon she is posing for photographs aboard one of our bikes.
The warmth of the Vietnamese people is impressed on us again the next day. After a relatively easy start, we take on a 15-kilometre climb to the top of the 1600-metre-high Violac Pass.
This is our first big test in the hills and it hurts. We select our lowest gears and grind our way to the summit, where we pause for a team photo and to admire the stunning valley below.
Then Hilly tells us it is flat out to the bottom and we take him at his word. You can hear hoots of delight as we gather speed. The descent isn't too steep, but soon we have covered the 15 kilometres to the village of Dak Re, where we stop for a sweet Vietnamese coffee.
From the cafe we watch boys playing soccer. Soon a couple of them bolt across to invite us to join in. Of course we agree and our two youngest members, Ollie and Michael, lead the charge.
It's the locals versus foreigners and I'd like to say that it's just our tired legs that result in our thrashing, but our opponents are too young, too fast and just too good.
Our last day on the bike brings the biggest challenges of the trip. From the outskirts of the beautiful highland city of Dalat, we ride towards the Khanh Vinh pass. The first 10 kilometres include the toughest terrain we've dealt with yet - steep and long climbs that just don't seem to end.
At our first stop, Hilly gives us an option to take on an even tougher 10 kilometres, with gradients rumoured to be as steep as 20 per cent. This is where the pain really begins. The weather soon deteriorates as we climb and the ride becomes cold, windy and wet.
Ollie and Michael have surged ahead and when I reach our meeting point I find them sheltering behind a sign. We're feeling a bit miserable but pleased to have conquered a truly tough section of the trip.
Soon we are joined by a handful more riders before the support bus, which has shadowed us for our eight days on the bikes, arrives with the more sensible members of the group. We all ride the bus to the summit of Khanh Vinh before alighting for the long downhill run to Khanh Le.
The descent is a breathtaking and demanding - it's 38 kilometres long and very steep in parts. The varying skills of our group mean we descend in several bunches.
The first is led by Hilly and sets a cracking pace down the mountain.
Long straights of good bitumen give way to gravel patches on hairpin turns and Hilly ensures we don't get carried away. The fastest of us reach our lunch stop in just under an hour and within another 20 minutes or so, we're all back together.
After lunch we make our final ride, into the R&R paradise of Nha Trang.
We finish dusty and weary but very satisfied with our achievements and in love with Vietnam and its people.
Matt Collins travelled as a guest of World Expeditions and Vietnam Airlines.
Getting there Fly to Ho Chi Minh City then to Hanoi (2hr); see vietnamairlines.com. A visa is required for a stay of up to 30 days in Vietnam.
Touring there World Expeditions runs the 15-day Vietnam by Bike tour throughout the year. The $2995 tour (excluding airfares) includes almost all meals, all internal travel, bike hire and accommodation in quality hotels. See worldexpeditions.com.au.
Cycling there Tour participants should have a "good level" of fitness and some cycling experience. Riders should undertake at least 30 minutes to an hour of good cardiovascular exercise three or four times a week for about two or three months before your trip. On the tour a support bus follows riders for the duration of cycling days, allowing tired riders a break. It also transports participants across areas deemed unsuitable for riding.
OFF YOUR BIKE
There is plenty of time out of the saddle on the tour to savour some of Vietnam's physical and cultural wonders.
Central karsting Spend 24 hours among the magnificent islands of Halong Bay, one of the most photographed sites in the world.
Wet and wild The intriguing Thang Long water puppet theatre in Hanoi celebrates the history of Vietnam's working people in a unique show. It pays to not sit too near the front, though.
Imperial splendour The glories of the Nguyen dynasty can be glimpsed in Hue's citadel. The heart of the former capital is still magnificent despite the fact much of it was destroyed or damaged during the Tet Offensive in what the Vietnamese call the America War.
Grave concerns Grand, too, is the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, on the outskirts of the city.
Modern marvel An unexpected beauty is the art deco-style summer palace of King Bao Dai in the highland city of Dalat. It has seemingly been maintained just as the king left it after his abdication in 1945.
Sydney Morning Herald