Catriona continues her journey cycling through one of her most favourite places ... Vietnam.
Cycling is a wonderful way to see the true Vietnam. Ride through rural communities and tiny villages, and as cycling is the main form of transport for locals, you can interact with them on a more personal level. There is something about waving to farmers in their paddy fields with their working buffalo and children playing along the roadside. Tour buses tend to zoom through many interesting areas on their way to main tourist centres.
World Expeditions has 15-day cycling tours starting in the capital, Hanoi, in the north and taking in a variety of landscapes to Ho Chi Minh in the south. You can pedal as much as you wish but there is always the option of travelling in the support vehicle if you need a break.
Tours begin in Hanoi with some sightseeing before boarding the Reunification Express train for the 600 kms overnight journey south to Hué in Central Vietnam. Each person is fitted to the right bike for them and given tips on how to deal with traffic. Twenty-one speed mountain bikes with steel frame and hand brakes are used, and riders need to have their own helmet and accessories.
From 1802 to 1945, Hué served as Vietnam's political capital under 13 emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty. It was an impressive imperial city, but power waned when the rulers signed a treaty with France. It has been one of the country's cultural, religious and educational centres and the UNESCO World Heritage site's main attractions are the Nguyen emperors' tombs, several notable pagodas and the remains of the citadel.
Construction of the moated citadel began in 1804. Its perimeter measures 10km and all official functions were carried out in the Imperial enclosure, a citadel within a citadel with a six metre high wall. Within the Imperial enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City which was reserved for the emperor's private life. Heavy bombing during the Vietnam War killed an estimated 10,000 locals and destroyed much of the Citadel while the allies were attempting to wrest Hué from the communist army. Severe flooding in 1999 didn't help the condition of the fortress, and two metres of water did much more destruction. It is slowly being restored.
The romantic sounding Perfume River straddles the city and it is a place where you will be glad to be on a bicycle. The citadel is spread over a wide area of the north bank and cycling there is easy.
Thien Mu Pagoda is one of Vietnam's most famous structures. The seven storey, 21m high tower overlooks the Perfume River from the west bank. Each storey is dedicated to a form of the Buddha.
Thanks to an eccentric emperor, Tu Duc (1848-83), Hué is known for its haute cuisine. He insisted that each day 50 servants present him with 50 dishes which were prepared by 50 cooks. His tea had to be made from morning dew collected from leaves. You can visit his extravagant mausoleum.
From Hué you head to the tiny fishing village of Lang Co. The attractive spit of sand has a tranquil lagoon on one side and endless beachfront and the South China Sea on the other.
It is a good place to rest up as the Hai Van Pass ahead can be hard work.
Looming over Lang Co is the 1172m peak of Ai Van Son with a spectacular stretch of road going over it via the Hai Van Pass. You head out of Lang Co over a lengthy bridge which spans the mouth of the lagoon and then it's uphill for almost 10km. It has plenty of hairpin bends, tempered by stunning views. At its summit is an old French fort, post office, souvenir and snack stalls.
The descent through pine forests is quite wonderful. There are cafés tucked amongst the trees where you can relax and enjoy the crisp air, and do keep a look out for the giant Buddha just beyond the outskirts of Danang.
The ride ends at the Cham Museum which is a must-see. It was founded in 1915 by the École Française d'Extrême Orient and houses the world's finest collection of Cham sculpture. The Chams created a civilisation which flourished on the coastal areas of what is now Vietnam. Settlements were scattered along riverine plains adjoining the sea.
The day's ride from Danang to Hoi An gives much evidence of the Chams on the landscape all the way to Phan Thiet. The ride winds through the suburbs to the legendary China Beach which is many kilometres long. From September to December it is excellent for surfing, and it's always a good place to stop for a rest.
The enormous Marble Mountains loom ahead and the five marble hillocks, which were once islands, are worth a stop. They contain a series of caves and shrines and are the source of some wonderful legends. The village of Ngu Hanh Son overflows with marble carvers.
From there to Hoi An, the ride is a gentle one, through the countryside to a world of calm and culture. It is a beautiful and enchanting place to spend time. Many scenes in The Quiet American were filmed there.
Hoi An was a port town visited by Chinese, Japanese and European merchants during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was the site of the first Chinese settlement in southern Vietnam and parts of it look just as they would have a century and a half ago. The World Heritage listed town has over 800 historically significant buildings and structures, including Chinese shophouses, temples, pagodas, bridges, tombs, wells and family chapels.
A covered Japanese bridge, built to link the Japanese community with the Chinese section of town, is another marvellous structure.
Sunrise is the best time to enjoy Hoi An the streets are quiet but the riverside is full of action. Wooden fishing boats jostle for space and women in small sampans row out to barter for the catch of the day. Later in the day, the fish will be served at the many restaurants overlooking the water.
Cars have been banned from many of its central streets leaving them for two and three wheeled vehicles. Shoppers enjoy its artwork, tourist bits and pieces and many tailors. You also have the chance to take part in a cooking class which is great fun, and you get to eat the fruits of your labour.
From Hoi An you cycle 121km to Quang Ngai which is flat and arable and a place which saw some of the war's heaviest fighting. It is close to the site of the notorious My Lai Massacre. For obvious reasons, most tourists aren't keen to visit the site.
As you head out of town along winding roads through attractive rice paddies, you will notice more cars appearing. The route passes through Nam Phuoc where the road to the country's most popular Cham temple, My Son, begins.
Sa Huynh is a somewhat dilapidated seaside town with a crescent beach surrounded by paddies and palms. There is not much to do there except eat, sleep and enjoy the beach.
Qui Nhon, the capital of Binh Dinh province, is a busy town of 200,000 people. Lots of tourists stay a night, and there are plenty of bike stands in the market place if you need running repairs. The Long Khanh Pagoda is the religious centre, and there is a 17m Buddha there.
Tuy Hoa is the liveliest place on the coast, and those itching for a night on the town let loose here. Its beach is usually deserted, and perched above it are more Cham towers, visited by few other than cyclists.
Nha Trang has one of Vietnam's best beaches and is a thriving city of 300,000. Its turquoise waters offer excellent fishing, snorkelling and scuba diving. Traffic is light so good for cyclists.
You can take it easy on the road to Ba Ngoi as it is a flat ride passing through several small towns. It offers little in the way of facilities, and most choose to head on to Phan Rang, the heartland of the Cham empire and home to thousands of Cham descendants. The semi-rural area grows excellent table grapes.
Ca Na was once a royal hunting ground for Cham princes. The village has a white-sand beach overshadowed by unusual giant rock formations.
The cycling part of your journey ends here and you transfer to the French inspired town of Dalat, which is quite rightly one of Vietnam's most popular tourist destinations for locals and international visitors. It is the country's most popular honeymoon spot with spectacular scenery, loads of parks, lakes, waterfalls, gardens and a comfortable temperate climate.
Because it misses the stifling heat and humidity of the Mekong Delta it is a centre of learning. Pre-air conditioning, it was one of the few places students could study comfortably. The climate also allows Dalat to grow vegetables and flowers which are sold all over the south of Vietnam.
From Dalat you are driven to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's largest city, once known as Saigon. Around 5 million people live there.
Ninety percent of Ho Chi Minh is rural, and the city, which was Vietnam's capital for 20 years, has a bustling and spirited atmosphere. As visitors would expect there are many attractions including pagodas, the neo-Romanesque Notre Dame Cathedral , temples, museums, the Reunification Palace, museums, gardens, parks and markets. Unfortunately, it also has Vietnam's most determined and adept pickpockets, so be very wary of even the most innocent-looking children and thieves on motorbikes. Cyclos are safe to take during the day, but not so at night. Travel in a metered taxi, and set the fare before you head off.