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Sustainable traveller Lourdes Gala Santos cycled solo from Vietnam’s Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City – that’s over 1,440 kilometres (900 miles) from North to South in six weeks. From fishing trips with local families to biking phenomenal mountain landscapes, she tells Culture Trip how completing her adventure on two wheels made it all the more satisfying.
Standing beside a road in capital city Hanoi as hundreds of scooters whizzed past, Lourdes clutched her bike and wondered how she would survive cycling the chaotic streets of Vietnam for six weeks, all by herself.
It was day one. She took a deep breath and peddled into the traffic. As she rode, a sound met her ears: cheering. She looked up and saw locals clapping and whooping, celebrating with her for passing the first test on her adventure.
Lourdes’s spirit soared and she thought, “If this is what the people of Vietnam are like, I’ll be just fine.”
Lourdes Gala Santos, 35, lives in Glasgow and has been cycling the Scottish countryside for seven years. A book by touring cyclist Anne Mustoe inspired her to go further afield.
“Mustoe wrote about historical routes she’d cycled across countries,” Lourdes says. ‘I’d always dreamed of travelling the world and, working in the renewable energy industry, I care about the environment and my carbon footprint. With travel, I aim for sustainability, as I am a great believer that you owe respect to the places you visit. I wasn’t an athlete. Mustoe wasn’t, either. But I was passionate like her, so I thought, if she can do it, so can I.”
“I wanted to experience a completely different culture with the simple freedom of just me and my bike – back to basics,” Lourdes says.
With six weeks’ annual holiday saved up at work, Lourdes opted for Vietnam, where the typical backpacker route is a line, from North to South, of cities and countryside. Although most travel by train, bus or plane, Lourdes committed to cycling the whole distance.
“I didn’t train because it wasn’t about cycling long distances. The point was to enjoy myself, experience places and meet people. I planned no more than 20 kilometres [12 miles] per day with rest days in between, which I think most people could manage.
“I planned my route with a loose time frame to allow freedom. I ensured I was familiar with my camping gear – inexpensive stuff does the job – and cycling basics, like changing a tyre. I packed a bag of essentials, and off I went!”
Lourdes got to know Hanoi and then, with the encouragement of locals, she began her journey south.
“I ended up staying in hotels rather than camping, as nice private rooms were just £5 a night. Generally, I set off cycling at 7am and stopped along the way for coffees with beautiful views, which always resulted in me being introduced to the owner’s entire family, answering their questions about England and reading books to their kids. I then arrived in my destination at lunchtime for a day of exploring. It felt great to be decluttered and free of any time restraints. If I had clean clothes, a beer and people to chat to, I was happy.”
Ha Long Bay was Lourdes’s second stop, where she took a boat trip to see the limestone cliffs and floating fishing villages. Then it was on to Ninh Binh.
“One of my favourite moments was cycling through the Ninh Binh mountains,” she says. “I saw them emerging through the mist. It was like a Chinese painting; I couldn’t believe the world actually looked like that. Being on a bike meant I could slow down or stop, enjoy it at my own pace. In Trang An, Ninh Binh, I went on a river tour in a boat rowed by a local woman through a series of caves. That was incredible.”
The route also included Dong Hoi, Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Binh Thuan. Over six weeks, she woke up in the jungle, trekked to waterfalls, relaxed on beaches, visited temples and relished the food.
“Best of all was the kindness of the locals,” she said. “And I believe I had that chance because of my bike.”
Lourdes says, “Locals know the difference between someone making the effort to be part of their town and culture, and someone who’s just there to take. Arriving on a bike, it removes the barrier of foreignness. It instantly shows locals that you’re taking an interest in their home town, visiting sustainably to have a positive impact or at least no impact. They’ll welcome you, and your experience will be much more enriching. People will give you their time, show you around, with passion for their place. There’s a human element to travelling by bike and I found it was always appreciated.”
Lourdes had unique and wonderful experiences with locals. She met a teenage girl by the roadside who asked her to their family’s Christmas Day within 10 minutes.
Another time, a family in the Mekong Delta invited her on a fishing trip. They sailed out, caught fish with hand nets, taught Lourdes to slice open a coconut with a machete and feasted together on a beach.
Throughout six weeks of vibrant cities, beautiful beaches, exciting boat trips and riding through spectacular scenery, there’s one memory that Lourdes holds dearest – and it’s when things went really, really wrong.
“I ended up stranded in a thunderstorm in the middle of nowhere, as it got dark. I had to hitchhike. Two men in a lorry offered to drive me. It could have been dangerous and I was scared. They didn’t speak English but understood I needed to get to Dalat. The journey took three hours and when we arrived, they wouldn’t accept payment – other than a Choco Pie dessert, which made them so happy. They rescued me, purely through kindness.
“That, to me, represents Vietnam. Its people will go out of their way for others. They always smile. They’ll always help. I met some who hadn’t much more than the clothes on their back, but they insisted on giving me a coffee. There’s stunning scenery all over the world but it’s not everywhere that you’ll find such wonderful people. You can’t buy experiences like the ones I had with locals. On a bike, taking in a place with freedom and respect, those unique, authentic moments will come to you.”
Follow Lourdes’s further cycle trips on Instagram at @lukimikocycling.