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03.07.2022, 08:00

Rides In Nature: A Photo Essay Of Our Cycling Journey To Mai Châu

Our yearning for movement and nature immersion has never been stronger coming off the last two years. We found ourselves struggling in the confinement of the concrete city buildings. Now, more than ever, we have come to realize how our well-being is innately linked to movement and nature exposure.

Riding a bike in nature seems to remedy the many malaises of our modern urban lives. Empty roads with nothing but rolling hills and greens in sight. Tranquil air with just birds singing, insects chirping and leaves swaying. The mind empties as the brain switches to auto-pilot mode with a trance-like focus on the cyclic rhythm of the clockwise pedal strokes. A state of flow where anxious thoughts all seem to dissipate. No wonder why cyclists are such a happy bunch.

As we ride our bikes into the tree-covered back roads, we put ourselves in a polar opposite condition to city life. In the city, our senses are constantly stimulated while we remain mostly sedentary and completely removed from nature.

Our evolutionary tendency to seek connection with nature, summarised by the biophilia hypothesis, makes it hard for us to be well in such urban conditions. We are seeing a rapid rise in mental health disorders and non-communicable diseases in urban centers worldwide.

Medical professionals are also picking up on the critical role nature exposure and exercise play in maintaining health. Clinicians worldwide are adding ‘time exercising in nature as part of the prescriptions to treat chronic diseases. They essentially mean that maybe all we need is just a few hours per week wandering under the trees to heal.

On a personal level, no one understands the benefits of riding a bicycle in nature more than Nguyen Hoang Sang.

As one of the 80-or-so full-time cyclists in Vietnam, Sang logs up to 1000 hours on his bike annually. However, Sang’s relationship with the bicycle has not always been easy. Having been recruited since 15 and restricted to the traditional monotonous training routines, Sang struggled to keep up both psychologically and physically with the demands of the sport.

Sang considered retirement at 23 due to an overuse knee injury and psychological burn-out. Yet, he managed to rekindle his passion, reset his routine, and persist with training to become a leading local cyclist. He consecutively ranked first among the local riders at the HTV Cup - Vietnam’s biggest annual cycling race. He also impressed with a brave attempt for the Gold medal as he represented Vietnam at the 2022 Hanoi SEA Games.

From burnt-out to being one of the best in his country, Sang credited the turn-around to a simple factor: he started cruising his bike in nature along less-traveled roads. Instead of sticking to tedious speed training on well-paved roads, Sang began riding his bike into the back roads around his hometown Vinh Long all by himself. The soothing nature of solitude blurred the lines between work and play for Sang.

The ‘Rides in Nature’ Series

Through a series of photography and films, we follow Sang’s wheels around the back roads of Vietnam to understand how cruising our bicycles in nature can have therapeutic effects on our mental and physical wellbeing. We might even be inspired enough to start cycling to these empty roads in pursuit of our well-being.

Our journey to Mai Chau

Our last journey to Mai Chau in May came timely for Sang. He had been away from home since the middle of February in preparation for the SEA Games. Twenty hours of high-intensity training a week for months on end wears down even the hardiest.

In planning this trip, Sang asked us to schedule the departure for Mai Chau the next day following his SEA Games Road Race to decompress. An interesting way to unwind, considering that our plan involved him riding alone for 100km over a big mountain pass and many hills along the way.

One day before the journey - Racing at the Hanoi SEA Games

We arrived on race day to watch the SEA Games road race. This was perhaps the most critical race day in Sang’s career until this point - a SEA Games on home soil in the best form of his life. Sang was aiming for the Gold. The race was fun, even for the most casual spectators—dynamic racing with plenty of actions. The weather added to the fun as well. It rained all day, adding mud and uncertainty into the mix. Sketchy wet roads meant it was safest racing in front. And that was what Sang did. He raced in the front group all day long. Unfortunately, he missed out on the medals in the end. Hundreds of training hours on the saddle away from home to have the medals within grasp just to lose it.

Sang rode in front by himself for almost 70km of the SEA Games’ road race.
Post-race disappointment as he failed to secure a medal.

The journey from Hoa Bình to Mai Chau

Leaving Hoa Bình for the Đa Trắng Pass

The following day, we met at the team’s hotel at 9 am to prepare for departure from Hoa Binh to Mai Chau. We could sense his disappointment lingering from yesterday’s defeat. The

Grey, wet and cold weather did not help either. Yet, Sang was already geared up and waiting for us. A bit mind-boggling to see how eager he was to ride his bike again in such conditions following the heartbreak.

It was raining when we left the hotel, where Sang had been stationed with the national team for the last four weeks.
The downpour was relentless. Fog also appeared as we approached the hills outside of Hoa Binh.
A quick breather and some snacks before climbing the Đa Trắng pass.
A beautiful 10km climb with plenty of greens and gradual slopes. We were fortunate that there was very little traffic in the rain. Sang was just in his zone, enjoying the views and his own breathing tempo.

Quick lunch before descending into Mai Chau

We stopped for a quick lunch after getting to the top of the mountain pass. Sang looked oddly fresh for someone who had spent three hours riding uphill in the rain. He was noticeably better than in the morning. Perhaps this is the remedial effect.
When we ride, our attention shifts between different foci: sensing the muscles of the legs as we pedal, feeling the movement of lungs as we breath, perceiving the rolling road beneath the bikes as we glide along the tarmac, then outwards to noting the sounds of the moving trees. Sang entered a meditative flow state as he toggled between these foci. It is like a long mindfulness meditation session, Sang shared, but on a bike. No self-reproach for past events. No future plans. Just pedal stroke after pedal stroke and contentment.

Smiles and jokes after three hours of riding in the rain
Grilled corn never tasted better.

Into the calmness of Mai Chau

The weather miraculously cleared up as we descended in the Mai Chau valley. It was like a different day. Sang shed his rain jacket to enjoy the warm sun.
Cay Thị Xóm Mỏ, a 700-year-old heritage tree, greeted us as we entered the Mai Chau town center.
Rolling along the back roads of Mai Chau. Still a fair bit of road to ride before reaching our destination - a mountain retreat.
A moment to take it all in.

Avana Retreat - a beautiful hidden retreat deep in the forest

We came across a lovely elder woman of the Thai ethnic group just as we made our final turn for our destination. She waved us in to say hello.
Checking in to our accommodation for the night.
It was our first time enjoying a pool with a waterfall view.

The next day - enjoying the back roads around Avana Retreat before traveling home.
We had another full day before returning home. We planned to roam the back roads surrounding Avana Retreat. Before we set off for the road, Sang was already enjoying his morning yoga and meditation session.

He shared that meditation and breathwork have taught him to get into the flow state while riding his bike. He learned to regulate his body better, focusing his attention on pushing his muscles to work a bit harder in competition or consciously downregulating his nervous system for recovery between rides.

We spent the rest of that day roaming with no destination in mind.

Avana Retreat’s yoga facility is a platform in the middle of a waterfall surrounded by the forest.
It was an exhausting journey, yes. But we found ourselves craving for more.
Breathtaking views emerged behind every hill and corner.

'Rides in Nature' is a new bi-weekly series produced by Đạp&Đạp.

Đạp&Đạp comprises creatives and professionals as well as full-time cyclists like Sang. We come together to share our love for cycling and nature immersion. We are always looking for like-minded collaborators to ride with us. Reach out at hello@nourii.studio.