Cycling Vietnam: Pu Luong Reserve
Marry's first travel experience was at the tender age of 16, when as a young British schoolgirl bravely headed off to Kiev, Russia.
Having been barred by parental concern from all the broken legs of Austrian ski trips, it seemed like just the thing to do. Venturing overland by bus, it was three weeks on a bus crammed to the gunnels with teenagers
The bus didn't stop much; so all experience was gained through the windows. Taking all that could be gleaned across that vast stretch of land, across Europe, including the incredible poverty of some regions was tiring but left a lasting impression.
A few months later, on a family friend's advice, she backpacked to Amsterdam. Parked up in a youth hostel, she found it not exactly the friendliest place for a teenager. But it was entirely thrilling, as it was the first independent move she had made.
Between college terms, full of European Studies, there were summers in Israel, and the rediscovery of the bicycle. Whenever there was time, she would set off with country conquering intentions.
But often what looked easy on the map would turn out to be gruelling cycling, collapsing each evening after inching up hill and down dale.
Lucky enough to receive her tax back on her uni education Rhona set off on a round the world trip, full of exhaust pipe burns in Thailand, cycling through South East Asia.
She wound up in Australia, where the obligatory working spell in McDonalds in Kings Cross, Sydney, saw her slyly giving free food to old homeless women.
The return to England revealed few jobs, but after a while a gig with STA travel came up. As a working stiff, the days were long and the half hour lunch breaks were hardly the stuff of adventure. She, like the legion of graduates, had good degree but worked dull job, saving what she could to get out and travel.
It seemed like the trap was set, until a friend who was into cycle touring turned out to be a fountain of inspiration. "She would set off on trips all around the place", Marry said, "She was going to Yugoslavia, and I watched her pack her stuff and set off."
So she went out and got a bike and a one way ticket to Nepal, then cycled thru Asia for nine months, through Nepal, flew to Bangkok, then on to Malaysia, Singapore, to Indonesia through Bali and Lombok.
She then flew to the United States and cycled halfway across the country. Being on the bike was a far cry from the drudgery of dogsbody work, and she started to contemplate a change of direction.
Before the trip, she had applied to train as a teacher, but was deferred for a year. She returned to complete the course, taught for locally for over two years, before returning to cycle across the US again. Her school granted her a sabbatical, as long as she sent postcards back to the kids.
Her return saw another year of teaching, but during that and a subsequent stint of teaching in Pakistan, she decided that the classroom wasn't where she wanted to be. Teaching is a now useful backup wherever she goes, but isn't what she wants to do every day she wakes up.
Moving into work as a cycling guide, she trained as a guide on two-week trips in Morocco with a "manic six foot five 23 year old, whiskey drinking, chain smoking supersonic fellow". Shortly after, she was in Vietnam for the first time as a guide, sharing her time with other tours through Morocco and Tanzania.
The year of 2002 found her working with HG travel, from which she was farmed out as a cycling guide to Active Travel Vietnam in Vietnam. There she met the marketing head, who had a new direction he wanted to head in with tours in Vietnam. An offer of a full time posting was made.
... the ways lead to new eco-site Pu Luong...
Prior to this, Rhona had led around 10 cycling tours in Vietnam, but these had been stuck along the tried and true route, which gave little feel of the real Vietnam, and interaction was limited to hotel stays and coconut purchases.
Now her tours run throughout the country, cycling through terrain away from the main highway, and with the country's improved infrastructure, tours take in more, including days off the bikes for relaxation. Options such as boating excursions around Nha Trang or chilling out in the moderate climate of Dalat are now more realistic for those with limited time, due to improved access and transport.
Developing more tours for Active Travel Vietnam, particularly designing group tours by request, she is excited about the new range of more ecologically sound tourism projects on offer. As new areas open up as models for responsible tourism business operations, and the promise of low impact tourism spells more work for local inhabitants through guide work and home stays, new options are becoming available.
A prime example is Pu Luong, a reserve area that lies a short distance South of popular tourist destination Mai Chau. Just North of Cuc Phuong National Park, it inhabits a 55km valley that stretches between towering peaks, inhabited by mountain villages. The opening of the valley gives rise to Marry's new ambition to trek all the way from Mai Chau to Cuc Phuong.
The reserve is all about sustainable tourism, a project set up to protect the local ecology by offering locals a different means of income rather than from the forest.
Essentially it's an untouched area, like being in the heart of Vn not just four easy hours from Hanoi. All the home stays have been built with help from Flora and Fauna International, and now you can trek from village to village.
... it's a Taylor-made tour that you can enjoy as well.
Marry has spent a great number of days checking out the trails and the villages, and speaks very highly of the project. The walks meander through the valley flat, or up onto the hilltops, where remote villagers have dwelled for centuries, but are only just becoming available for trekking.
"There's a home stay in every village, and they will be training local guides to take groups from one village to the next. It'll be managed by FFI for another year before it goes independent."
"Its an exciting for sustainable and ecologically responsible tourism on Vietnam. Small groups, who want to trek through untouched Vietnam, can find it just four hours from Hanoi. I could hardly believe it was that close, it felt like it was some really remote place."
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Active Travel Asia # 303, 3rd Floor, Building 30 Nguyen Du Street, Hanoi, Vietnam. Phone: +84 4 9446230, Fax: +84 4 9446231.
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