Having taken part in H2H twice, I feel that it is a unique experience that has deepened my understanding of Việt Nam, which I have called home for over two years.
I have had the opportunity to see parts of the country I would’ve never visited otherwise and get a more ‘real’ experience than is often available in highly developed, westernized Hồ Chí Minh City (HCMC).
Not to mention the trip takes place on a bicycle, not the usual motorbike.
I think the story of the ride is worth sharing, and I will be covering H2H 2013 in 10 parts over the next five weeks.
I hope you enjoy it, and if you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me at
Another year means another H2H ride.
The loosely organized, all-volunteer group first cycled from Hà Nội to HCMC (hence the H2H name) in 2009, when a group of teachers from ILA decided that they wanted to do something different.
Not only is H2H an amazing adventure, but it is also linked to charity.
Through online fundraising and events held here in HCMC participants raise money for selected organizations that work with poor, disadvantaged children in Việt Nam.
H2H rode in 2010, 2012, and again this past April, and has raised well over US$100,000 for charity.
H2H’s route from north to south covers just over 2,000km, and this year we would be departing Hà Nội on April 3 and returning to HCMC on April 29.
I was doing the ride for the second time, and I couldn’t wait.
Most people assume we take the usual Highway 1 coastal route through places like Đà Nẵng and Nha Trang.
But the people who first organized H2H did a great job of plotting a course that largely keeps us in the country’s interior, where traffic is less intense and there is less tourism.
As a result we get to see parts of the country that most foreigners never visit, as evidenced by the hysterical reactions of locals along the way.
The team of 20 riders, most of whom had never ridden a road bicycle before training for the journey began a few months ago, convened in Hà Nội on April 1 for final preparations.
We are all expats who live in HCMC and enjoyed the cool spring weather up north.
The following day we visited the Cát Đằng community, about two hours outside of Hà Nội.
Since its creation H2H has worked with an organization that is improving education facilities in the area, and now we would have the chance to see where our money was going in person.
A new kindergarten and library were already in place, and this year’s funds would help build a new community kitchen.
After touring the area we were treated to lunch and rice wine shots with local Community Party officials, one of whom was very excited to get to know our female riders.
It was time to leave the next morning.
We loaded our belongings into two support vans and set off just in time to get caught in a downpour.
Fortunately the rain didn’t last long, but clearing the ugly expanse of Hà Nội’s ever-growing sprawl took a couple of hours.
By the time we turned onto a more rural highway, the sun had come out, and we were in for a beautiful afternoon.
Our first destination was Hòa Bình, 75km from Hà Nội.
When I rode in February last year the weather on this day had been hideous, but with clear skies now I was able to realize just how gorgeous the scenery is in this part of the country.
Limestone karsts erupted out of rice paddies, and there was even a random golf course thrown in for good measure.
We rolled into Hòa Bình sometime in the afternoon, and H2H 2013 was off to a good start.
Into the countryside
Day two of H2H 2013 got off to a warm, humid start.
We stretched as a group at Hòa Bình’s stadium before setting off under an overcast sky.
The day’s ride was shorter than the first, at 60km, but it included the first significant hill as well – a 260 meter ascent over 5.5 kilometers.
As amateur cyclists we were all nervous, though I knew what to expect.
I made it to the top drenched in sweat, but I felt good.
A common sight – curious children
I had struggled on this hill in 2012, but there were no such problems this time, with the exception of the honking trucks and buses.
Those of us who made it up first waited at the top to cheer on everyone else, and it was great seeing everyone smile as they conquered the biggest challenge we would face until the mountains south of Huế.
We rocketed down the other side of the hill and rolled through beautiful countryside on our way to Vũ Bản.
The road to Vũ Bản
The sun eventually burned through the overcast, the roads were smooth and the traffic light.
It was a great day for cycling.
Sadly the smooth riding ended about 15 kilometers outside of Vũ Bản.
On our cheap road bikes, which had no suspension, the unpaved, rocky road was torture.
At least it was better than the previous year, when thick mud had obscured huge potholes.
After an hour or so of bone-rattling riding we lurched into Vũ Bản, a tiny town that reminded us Sài Gòn-dwellers that there are still parts of the country without paved roads, regular electricity or even restaurants.
Day three was an 80 km trek from Vũ Bản to Quan Lao.
We would be hitting the amazing Hồ Chí Minh Highway today, but the first stretch was on the awful road out of Vũ Bản.
Children ran to the road and shouted ‘hello!’ while waving at us, but I couldn’t even wave back since the bumpy road forced you to keep both hands on the handlebars at all times.
Incredibly all 20 riders made it out of the mess without puncturing a single tire, and we rolled onto the mercifully smooth highway.
This part of the route skirted Cúc Phương National Park, regarded as one of the most beautiful areas of Việt Nam, and for good reason.
Karsts draped in green stretched as far as the eye could see.
We stopped for lunch in a town called Cẩm Thụy, situated on an intersection between the Hồ Chí Minh Highway and the smaller road we were turning onto.
The Hồ Chí Minh Highway
This was where we really started to notice what would go on to become on the most frustrating aspects of the ride:
The need seemingly every driver in Việt Nam sees to lay on their horn whenever they approach another road.
Of course, living in Sài Gòn the sound of traffic is relentless, but it seems worse in the countryside.
As we sat at a nước mía shop on the side of the road our eardrums were nearly ripped open as countless trucks and buses blasted away for no apparent reason.
Many of them seemed to find it funny, judging by their faces.
The rest of the day’s ride was hot but flat, and the local schools were letting out as I rolled into Quan Lao.
Chàos ensued, as hundreds of students tried to shout, “hello!” and “what your name?!” while steering their bikes.
Conquering day two’s hill
I pulled into our guest house and waited for the rest of the team to arrive.
It had been a great first three days of riding.