Vietnam Bike Tours is the product of a man’s vision to showcase his country – Vietnam – to the world, not through words or pictures, but through offering authentic experiences to eco-friendly travellers who want to see and understand the country, to support and give back to the local communities they visit. His vision is to offer them a chance to become immersed in the country from the saddle of a bicycle, the ultimate carbon-neutral way to get up close to a culture, by pedalling back roads and trails less-travelled in Vietnam and Indochina’s lush countryside and leaving nothing behind but fond memories and but tyre tracks in the dirt.
From a small office in the downtown area of Ho Chi Minh City, an intrepid young Vietnamese Ngo Trong Huy, together with his wife Kim Anh, has managed to make this vision a reality by launching the local tour operator Vietnam Bike Tours (VNBT) in 2010. Through VNBT, Huy showcases the serene beauty of the Vietnamese countryside to health- and eco-conscious tourists looking for a more sustainable way of immersing themselves in the country, from the cool northern mountains along the Chinese border to the balmy southern coast and everywhere in between. VNBT offer an array of personal services to their cycling guests, from designing tailor-made itineraries and organising visas, to local community homestays and orphanage visits.
The local tour operator now employs full-time local Vietnamese staffs, as well as bicycle guides in Vietnam and other operation offices of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and hosts around a thousand clients a year. VNBT’s guides are specially selected for their knowledge of the local history, culture and weather patterns, their English communication skills and enthusiasm for sustainable and responsible tourism. The guides are all experienced bike men and adventure aficionados, who are also trained in first-aid and bicycle mechanics. This has empowered them with the confidence and skills to give them a competitive advantage in the freelance tour guide industry. Take a glimpse at any of the numerous testimonials online and it is palpably apparent what a positive impact they leave on their customers in terms of being flexible and sensitive to the clients’ needs and level of cycling experience, and providing invaluable local insight into the complex Vietnamese culture and the diverse local fauna and flora.
A number of VNBT’s guides are also wildlife enthusiasts and their knowledge of the local animals and plants are astounding. In a country where wildlife conservation has never been number one on the agenda and wild animals are sadly more often found on the dinner plate than in their natural surroundings, these guides break the mould. For instance, a forest trail ride through Cuc Phuong National Park – Vietnam’s oldest and largest reserve – is narrated by our passionate and knowledgeable guide and includes a stop at the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre where visitors can learn about the admirable work being accomplished with the rescued langurs, macaques, lorises and gibbons. Then they jump back in the saddle for a canopied, tree-lined pedal through the forest, while your guide answers any questions about the wildlife that guests may have.
The Cham are an ethnic minority in Vietnam – remnants of the ancient Champa people – who still uphold their long-standing traditions…
As a local family-owned company, VNBT is also dedicated to supporting the smaller communities of the poorer countryside areas. In a country where around 15% of the population live below the poverty line (concentrated in rural areas), these journeys provide precious support to the rural regions. Cycling trips often include stop-offs at local schools and charities, providing much needed materials, food, resources and financial assistance to those less-privileged. An example of this is a typical cycling trip in the Mekong Delta, which stops off at a local Cham village near Chau Doc. The Cham are an ethnic minority in Vietnam – remnants of the ancient Champa people – who still uphold their long-standing traditions such as weaving and singing, and also their unique brand of Islam and VNBT guests can visit one of the local mosques and get a chance to teach some of the Cham children. Visits such as these also allow unique access to local ethnic cultures which most tourists would not have the opportunity to experience and, if they choose to do so, ensure that their donations reach their intended destinations, which is difficult to ensure when donating from abroad or through intermediaries.
On cycling trips, VNBT also make use of local products and services as much as possible. These include frequenting locally-owned and managed restaurants, hotels and other businesses, and using local transportation services such as boats and ferries. All fruit and water brought on tour is local and the reusing and recycling of water bottles are encouraged. Biking itineraries also sometimes include market visits so tourists can experience the truly exotic sights, sounds and smells of a Vietnamese market. For example, before an afternoon of cycling in the Mekong Delta, jump in a local rowboat for a morning visit to the teeming floating markets of Cai Rang in the rural provincial capital of Can Tho, where tourists can purchase local tropical fruit and souvenirs and also get a glimpse what life along the meandering Mekong is like for these villagers.
Supporting the local community is also evidenced by visits to cottage-industries, ranging from traditional food crafts such as tofu-making in Vinh Long, to the pottery artisans of Bat Trang and the traditional folk wood cut painting masters of Dong Ho. All of these visits allow travellers to glimpse age-old techniques in action and make small but significant contributions towards ensuring these traditional skills and products are conserved and continue to thrive in a developing country where the lure of mass-production and mechanisation is all too appealing.
VNBT also urges their customers to use homestay or locally-owned accommodation wherever possible. On a cycle through the misty Hoang Lien mountains of northern Vietnam, which are dotted with various ethnic hill tribe villages, tourists can get the opportunity to stay overnight in one of the traditional hill tribe stilt-house accommodations in Tam Duong village. This is but one of many examples of similar options available which provide significant financial support for the local region, and of course, give VNBT guests invaluable insights into their customs and everyday way of life. Where possible, VNBT also choose the most environmentally-friendly accommodation, such as the Topas Ecolodge in Sapa, who are committed to working with minority communities, sustainable environmental development and living, as well as combating waste and pollution in the area.
As bicycle tour operators, VNBT understand the importance of leaving as small a footprint as possible wherever you visit, and strictly follow the mantra of ‘leave nothing but positive memories and tracks in the dirt’. The operator strives to maintaining and preserving local ecosystems and leaving them the way we found them. We take all our waste with us in the support vehicle and pick up what we find along the way. As a registered member of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, VNBT have pledged their responsibility to ensuring the sustainability of the local environment and communities in any ways possible. Bicycles are of course also carbon-free and any trip using pedal power offsets the use of an alternative petrol-guzzling and CO²-producing vehicle. VNBT also choose suppliers that match their environmental values and their bike suppliers, Trek, also believe in the power of human-powered transportation in the fight against climate change, urban congestion and rising global obesity levels.
From the initial contact when the guide picks up the guests at the airport, through the cycling experience and to the often sad-to-say-goodbye drop-off for the flight back home, VNBT try to ensure guests experience Vietnam in a unique way. VNBT have established itself as a sustainable and responsible leader in the local tour operating industry and Huy’s vision of showcasing Vietnam’s hidden charms and rich culture is truly underway.