Same same, but different. It's a saying the Vietnamese use to describe the way they do things, how they live, what they're selling, almost anything. It boils down to how their way of life is essentially the same as Westerners, but actually very, very different!
Such is my experience of cycling in Vietnam. I had booked the wife and I into a new hotel on the beach in Hoi An that boasted free bikes for guest use. So in essence a main course of romantic getaway with a cheeky side of cycling. On arrival and seeing the fleet I knew this was going to be a challenge. I may have been riding a bike, but it was going to be very different to what I was used to!
No carbon, drop bars or fancy electric derailleurs here, just a solid 30kg of steel single speed utility bike. Same same, but different! But hey, all miles are good miles, right?
If you've ever been to Vietnam you'll know that it's hot. I mean already 30 degrees Celsius by 8am hot. Most mornings I'd be out the hotel door before 6am for a pre-breakfast ride in order to beat the heat.
Our hotel "bike boy" who's job it was to note down your room number and pump up the tyres was usually still fast asleep next to the bikes, so I'd quietly wheel one down the ramp and slip away onto the crazy Vietnamese streets for a blast. I'd get an hour's ride along the beach road or looping through the Ancient City, racing school kids on eBikes and dodging scooter traffic before returning drenched in sweat and re-racking the bike to the surprised expression of all the staff. What a way to build an appetite for a hearty Vietnamese breakfast!
Along with these morning solo jaunts I also did quite a few hours of extra wheel time with the wife sat on the rear rack. I covered many more miles exploring the ancient town and local roads, wife perched happily behind me. Most people at the hotel took the free shuttle bus but I preferred to pedal everywhere. Got to earn that delicious Vietnamese food somehow!
The hotel staff were amazed that we only ever took one bike between us. I am more confident negotiating the sometimes crazy and seemingly rule-devoid Vietnamese traffic than April so it's safer and totally romantic. That said, hauling an extra 50kg up any slight incline was hard work (read: good training) but using the one bike as opposed to April on her own bike is still faster and also made a few women we passed on the way a little envious.
Even when pedalling into town with April on the back, if I saw another bicycle up the road I'd instinctively give chase. I guess I just can't shake my roadie attitude! Once I was cheekily drafting a scooter loaded with an entire family. The mother got a little annoyed and waved me off, so I promptly dug deep and overtook them. I can't help it!
On one of my early morning rides I decided to throw in a cheeky Vietnamese 10 mile time trial. After a short warm-up from the hotel I stomped on the pedals. Forearms resting on the bars, hands gripping basket for extra aero points I panted away in the 30+ degree morning heat. I chased down kids riding to school on their eBikes and the occasional scooter. A couple of locals riding a moped pulled up alongside me and cheered, yelling "faster, faster!" in their best broken English. I obliged by putting the hammer down, legs spinning madly on the single speed. "35k!" He shouted, then "40k!" Bring it!
Judging what I thought was half way I pulled a u-turn and accelerated that Titanic hunk of iron back up to speed. Back past the hotel and a little extra for good measure. Checking the stats afterwards I'd managed the 10-mile section at a 17.5mph average speed. Fairly respectable on the rusty shopper!
By day three I was getting sick of the poorly maintained fleet. From what I could garner from various staff, the bikes were sourced second hand from China. Add to that the hotel bike maintenance boys' skills were limited to barely pumping up a tyre and it was safe to say that many of the bikes had seen much better days - some were actually unsafe.
Rusted chains, bent metal, under-inflated tyres, missing bolts, you name it. So with some borrowed tools I fettled away for a couple of hours until I was happy. The job was made much more enjoyable as I was surrounded by beautiful Vietnamese women totally enamoured by my pro-level handyman skills. Those pretty young girls kept telling April how lucky she was! And yes, I am still milking that one!
A few adjustments to stop cranks rubbing on chain guards, 50psi in the tyres, scrape the dry rust off the chain and lube up with motor oil, whatever I could manage with limited resources. I worked my way through around eight of their bikes, after my magic touch they were like a different fleet! Team Sky would have been proud. Sure they were still tanks, but at least they were safe, silent and slightly more efficient tanks. Marginal gains shopper bike style!
By the end of the trip I'd racked up a decent amount of cycling time, seen the sights, spent quality time with the wife, taught the "bike boys" some proper maintenance skills and made great friends with the lovely hotel staff. It may not be everyone's idea of the perfect relaxing or romantic holiday - or perfect cycling holiday - but I loved my time in Hoi An and will treasure the time I spent there.
So like I said - Same same, but different! :-)
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