Biking Through Northern Vietnam
After a spectacular and dramatic three-week solo bicycle vacation in northern Vietnam last summer, Alison Stankrauff, IU South Bend associate librarian and archivist, is eager to return. “The beauty of the landscape, and the friendliness of the people was incredible,” she said. “Vietnam was unlike any other place that I’ve been in my life.”
After arriving in Hanoi in mid-July and touring the city, Stankrauff took an overnight train north to Lo Cai, located on the Chinese-Vietnam border, where she met her guide, Nguyen Thang, and her driver, Hung Nguyen Phi. Cycling six-to-seven hours a day with temperatures in the mid-90s and high humidity through the mountains and valleys, Stankrauff concluded her bicycle adventure in Ba Be National Park, home to Vietnam’s largest natural lake.
Throughout her three-week bicycle adventure, Stankrauff made frequent stops in small villages, immersing herself in the local culture, eating new foods such as jack fruit, an entire grilled quail, including the head, and fresh sugarcane juice; shopping in bustling, vibrant outdoor markets where vendors displayed colorful produce and wares alongside live chickens, ducks, pigs and pet birds; and, interacting with lively, friendly villagers from many distinct ethnic groups. “In every village, I was a real anomaly,” she explained. “For the first time in my life, I was the unusual person. We were in amazement of each other.”
Between mountain villages, Stankrauff cycled through the lush, mountain terrain of northern Vietnam. Even as an experienced biker in the mountains of Europe, Stankrauff found the high mountainous slopes of northern Vietnam a challenge. “I’ve never biked in mountains this high,” she explained. “My ears kept popping.” In the Dong Van Karst Geopark Plateau, nearly all limestone, she was astonished by the unusual shapes of the mountains.
As a Midwesterner, who is accustomed to acres of flat farmland planted with rows and rows of corn and soybeans, Stankrauff was amazed by the terraced fields of rice and corn on the sides of very steep hills. “I was just in constant awe at their phenomenal resourceful agriculture,” said Stankrauff.
In the final days of her trip in Ba Be National Park, Stankrauff enjoyed boating on the Ba Be Lake, exploring islands, and climbing around in caves. Staying at a homestay that overlooked rice fields with water buffalo and chicken grazing in them, Stankraff also enjoyed a homemade meal with salted fish fresh from the lake, chicken she chose from a nearby farmyard, purple beans, pork with chilies, and bananas picked fresh from the yard for dessert.
As she reflected on her adventure, she felt both humbled and awed by the warmth of the people, whose lives are very difficult as they struggle to make a living, and the beauty of northern Vietnam. “Spending time in a developing country was eye-opening for me,” she said. “It makes one more aware and empathetic.”