Karam Nwilati, a 25-year-old photographer and videographer from Montreal, spent two months bikepacking some 1,250 miles across Vietnam with his friend Chris Reffin. Before the trip the longest Nwilati had ever biked was 19 miles. He and Reffin picked up mountain bikes (which turned out to be the wrong choice) for $200 and hit the road from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. He documented his trip for ROAM along the way, and upon returning home he was able to reflect on the experience as a whole.
Where are you from and what do you do?
Both of my parents are Syrian and I lived in Damascus until I was 12 before we moved to Canada. I studied physiology at McGill University in Montreal and then started another degree in nutrition. But two months into the program I got the opportunity to travel and work with Nas Daly, a travel blogger, and ended up going to Morocco (and then Japan and Puerto Rico) to work with him. When I’m not biking through Vietnam I work as a freelance photographer and videographer, but I keep my photography un-monetized right now in order to keep that creative freedom. Right now I’m editing a documentary about our journey in Vietnam.
Why’d you decide to do this trip, and why did you choose Vietnam?
I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a bike tour for a long time. It seemed like a good, sustainable way of traveling. It’s environmentally friendly, and also seemed like a nice pace and a good way to interact with locals. I found a video on Youtube of a guy who did a bike tour, and I’d seen that my friend Chris had done one so I sent it to him because I thought he’d appreciate it. We got talking and we were like ‘Hey, let’s ride together!’ We decided to do Vietnam because it’s cheap and neither of us had been there. We wanted to go somewhere rich in culture and really immerse ourselves.
How do you know Chris and how’d you decide you’d be good partners for this kind of trip?
In 2013 Chris and I both worked at a summer camp in Alberta for adults and children living with disabilities and serious illnesses. He and I became good friends, but then we fell out of touch. I had him on social media so when he did his bicycle tour through Europe two years ago I saw that, and it stayed in the back of my mind. When we decided to tour together we kind of both took a risk on each other because we hadn’t seen each other for six years. But we both loved the idea, wanted to do the tour, and felt we’d probably get along because we both like this sort of traveling. It turned out to be a fantastic partnership and now we’re very close.
Have you done any bike touring in the past?
I’d literally done zero bicycle touring before Vietnam. The longest I’d ever cycled before was probably a 19-mile stretch in Montreal, which is a fairly flat city. And that’s with no weight on the bike so it was very different. I’d been toying with the idea of doing a bicycle tour so mentally I was sort of prepared, at least I knew it was something I wanted to explore. It was daunting but I knew it was doable. After finishing the trip I was hooked, and I think it’s the best mode of transportation and traveling.
What were the biggest surprises along the way?
Going into it I was a worried about my body and questioning whether I was going to be able to handle it physically. I realized after a few days on the bike that it actually wasn’t as hard as people think it is. The body is very quick to adapt, but it’s the mind that gives up first. If you go into it with the right mindset and have the freedom to take your time then you can set a comfortable pace. On our third day riding we got up into these mountains and arrived in a remote village that probably doesn’t see many tourists. Everybody was so happy to see us, and so welcoming, and pretty surprised to see us rolling in on bicycles. In town they have a football field and everyone was there watching a match and looked at us like ‘Holy crap, what are these guys doing?’ And then they were all inviting us in and telling us to sit down. That kind of interaction was frequent, and really nice.
What did you enjoy most?
Chris and I both enjoyed people’s hospitality. The Vietnamese people were the kindest, most inviting people I’ve encountered. They always invited us in to have a drink, to give us food or rest, and they were always very interested in what we were doing. One time, we’d just taken a wrong turn and were retracing our path when we passed this house in the middle of nowhere with loud music coming from inside. There was a guy outside and he immediately invited us in. Inside a group of guys was just there doing karaoke. As soon as we came in they gave us a few drinks and handed us a phone with the Vietnamese lyrics to the song and we just started singing to them. That was just such a lovely interaction, and it really filled my heart with joy interacting like that with the locals. It’s not something you can do as easily on any other mode of transportation. On a bike you’re not zooming past so you don’t miss these types of interactions simply because you’re moving at a slower pace.
Did anything go wrong for you two?
For the most part it was a really smooth trip. We didn’t have any serious injuries or anything, just some sort of mild food poisoning at the end of the trip. The thing that went most “wrong” was our choice of bikes. We both agree that we didn’t choose the best for bicycles for our tour. We found two mountain bikes that were smaller than what we are used to riding. We lost too much efficiency on the roads especially with that front suspension and we could have covered a lot more ground if we’d had road bikes or hybrids. We didn’t have any front panniers so all our weight was distributed on the back tires. Chris had about 11 or 12 broken spokes throughout the trip, I got 5 flat tires, and we each broke a rack.
Tell us about the camera gear that you brought.
I took a Sony a7R II and four lenses, my favorite lens being the 50mm f/1.8 because it’s very compact and good with low light and portraits. I had two Rode mics, one was on the camera and one was for interviews. I also had a DJI Mavic Pro 2 drone, a GorillaPod tripod, my laptop, hard drives, and other accessories. My camera equipment weighed over 30 pounds, which was a lot to carry on a bike in addition to my other gear. I also had the Peak Design Capture Pro, which is a clip you can put onto the strap of your backpack or belt and I can slide in my camera and it clicks and locks. I believe the best camera is the one that you have on you, and the clip means I have my camera on me constantly.
What did you do for lodging along the way?
We didn’t camp much. It was just so cheap to get a hotel room, maybe $4 each per night, and that made more sense because I always had camera gear to charge. We did camp in the Central Highlands where there was more space between towns. It was nice to have the freedom to camp, and the camping gear to do so, because it gave us flexibility in case we didn’t get to the town that we were aiming for. Also, you’re not supposed to camp outside of established campgrounds in Vietnam, so that’s a limiting factor.
Did you listen to music or anything while riding, and if so what?
We didn’t listen to music until like a week in, and started to because when we got to Highway 1 there was very heavy traffic. It was both boring and mentally challenging and we were cycling on the shoulder of the highway with trucks zooming by. Every single vehicle that passed us would honk at us, and after a while it really got to us. We started going crazy with traffic and dust and loudness, so we just sat down and made a playlist together and then pressed play at the same time so we’d go thru the same songs. We sang along to songs like Dancing Queen; Take Me Home, Country Road; some Queen; and Girls Just Want To Have Fun. That was kind of our mood booster, and riding on the highway instantly became so much more fun.
What kind of reception did you get from the locals?
Our hearts were very full rolling into any city, village, or town and hearing all the hellos. Everybody was always saying hello to us, the children were typically excited to see us, and some of them would run onto the street and wave and high five us. One day we were battling up a hill and a group of locals was having some kind of party in the front of a house. They yelled to us to come in and as soon as we got off our bikes someone cracked open two beers for us. We sat down and literally we never filled our own beers or plates. It was great, and we were able to use Google Translate in order to have actual conversations with people.
How long did the ride take you?
It took us 42 days to get from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, and I think we were averaging about 43-50 miles a day. But we also took some breaks in different places along the way to explore more, or to avoid high temperatures. Overall we gained 34,500 feet of elevation.
What have been the most beautiful things or places that you’ve seen?
Chris and I both agree that it was Pu Luong Nature Reserve.
What was the hardest day you had on the bike or your biggest challenge?
The hardest day, for me, was the day we tackled Hai Van Pass, a mountain pass we used to get to the city of Da Nang. It was very beautiful, a thick jungle, and it goes up by the coast and has beautiful views. It was actually physically easier than we expected––we didn’t have to get off our bikes and push them and were able to ride the whole time. But it was challenging because I’d taken on this personal challenge to tell a story on this trip and felt an obligation to capture all these moments and struggles and beauty along the way. On that day I did more shooting than I was anticipating and it became a kind of obsession; I needed to be capturing more and more. By the end of the day I was completely exhausted and didn’t have a good balance between riding and shooting. And every time I’d stop to shoot Chris would have to stop too, which was frustrating. It was a challenge to balance it all.
How’d you plan your route?
We never woke up knowing where we were going, we’d just have a general direction, look at maps, look at terrain, read blogs, and get local tips. Some locals, for example, told us Da Nang was a cool place to explore and we should spend more time there rather than in Hoi An like we’d planned.
Was the trip what you expected? What have you learned about the place, or about yourself, that you didn’t know?
I went into this trip with very few expectations and I think that’s important because often your experience won’t match your expectations and that makes it harder to be satisfied.
I’d read up on the history of Vietnam before I went and that helped me connect with the locals on a deeper level. I didn’t know anything about Vietnamese food and found it to be absolutely amazing––the street food there is delicious, cheap, and there’s a lot of variety.
The biggest thing I took away from this trip was that your mindset is one of the most important things when it comes to determining and shaping your experience. You know, nothing major happened but there were some tough days, and I had some camera trouble and my phone broke and then my camera broke. And I could’ve spent time being in a bad mood and blaming myself, but I chose to focus on the fact that I was cycling through Vietnam, and healthy, and there was nowhere else I’d rather be.
And for people who might be considering a bicycle tour, just absolutely go and do it. This was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s a lot more doable than you might think. Don’t let your mind stop you.