BackSociety » On Its 10th Anniversary, a Look Back at H2H Charity Ride's Hanoi-Saigon Journey

On Its 10th Anniversary, a Look Back at H2H Charity Ride's Hanoi-Saigon Journey

On April 26, the H2H charity bicycle ride completed its 10th edition. Short for Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, the endeavor has evolved from a ragtag group of friends to a much more organized operation over the last decade, though the focus has remained the same: raising money for local charities that work to improve the lives of disadvantaged children.

I’ve taken part in H2H, which covers the 1,200 miles between Hanoi and Saigon over the course of nearly a month, three times, including twice as a leader, and it is one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Rob Wilson was one of the original founders of the ride. He now lives in the US, but was a teacher at ILA at the time of its creation.

“It’s difficult to describe the original vision of the ride,” he told Saigoneer in an email. “All the initial conversations about H2H occurred when we were very inebriated.”

The first kernel of inspiration came to Wilson and some friends one morning in 2008 while they were watching the American presidential election results at Xu Bar.

“At some point we spoke to two American war veterans about a charity trek they did across some portion of southern Vietnam for Agent Orange victims,” Wilson explained. “Later we had a conversation about how we could replicate their idea with bicycles, except it would be more dramatic because we could go the whole length of the country.”

Riders stop to take photos along the Ho Chi Minh Highway in central Vietnam.

Initially, the group planned to ride from Saigon to Hanoi, but after a few months of discussion, they reversed the route since all of the organizers lived here and thought a celebratory homecoming would be better.

James Ortmann, who also now lives in the US, was another one of the co-founders.

“As I remember it, we weren’t certain the ride was even possible,” he said in an email. “We didn’t know if the atlas we used to plan our route was accurate, and no one had tested it out. We knew generally that people did something like our route on motorbikes, but we weren’t sure if you could do it on a bicycle. Also, on the first ride, no one had GPS or a smartphone.”

From the beginning, H2H’s route has largely skipped National Route 1A, the coast-hugging national highway that is the most direct route down the country, but also the most heavily trafficked. Instead, it focused on the interior Ho Chi Minh Highway, and today, after several route alterations over the years, riders completely avoid 1A.

Back in 2009 though, the riders didn’t even know if they could get through the Central Highlands without visitor permits.

The windswept Central Highlands.

They were able to, and the ride was ultimately an unmitigated success, with all 13 riders safely returning to Saigon and raising US$24,000, double their goal, along the way.

“When the team rendezvoused in front of the Saigon Zoo, that was one of the happiest moments of my life,” Ortmann recalled. “It was a moment of triumph. So many folks had come together and taken on such large physical, mental and emotional challenges; they got on board not knowing what to expect, or if this was even possible, and they made it happen for hundreds of children.”

H2H was then well and truly born, and over the last decade it has grown, though not without hiccups, including a few broken bones and one serious accident involving a rider who thankfully fully recovered. I can attest to the at-times brutal physicality of the ride, which involves a number of extremely challenging climbs along the border with Laos and in the Central Highlands, as well as unpredictable weather and road conditions, not to mention plenty of out-of-control bus drivers with no apparent concern for human life.

Such challenges are more than worth it, however, given H2H's aims of raising money for those that need it most.

Children at a kindergarten outside of Hanoi built in part with funds raised by H2H.

As of this writing, riders have raised US$338,747 for a range of charities from across Vietnam since 2009. The current charity partners are Saigon Children’s Charity (SCC); the ILA Community Network (ILACN); Know One, Teach One (KOTO); Live & Give; and Blue Dragon.

These organizations do their work throughout the country, and H2H participants are able to see the effect of their efforts first-hand. Each year, teams visit an orphanage outside of Pleiku funded by Live & Give where nuns care for ethnic minority children, as well as occupational classes in Saigon organized by SCC.

Children play soccer at an orphanage outside of Pleiku which H2H supports.

Speaking for myself, such visits are eye-opening experiences, especially given the bubble that many expats here live in, both socially and economically (the majority of H2H’s riders over the years have been foreign, though several Vietnamese riders have joined recently). Seeing the people that the money you raise through generous donations impact a person is a remarkable thing.

Damien Roberts, Executive Director of SCC, shared what H2H’s funds means to the charity in an email: “The H2H team is incredible. Because of their love for Vietnam, they have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Vietnamese children. It is so impressive that they have done this every year for ten years and with a great mix of people from around the world and around Vietnam.”

In addition to this deeply meaningful aspect of the ride, those who take part in H2H are also able to see parts of Vietnam many visitors never see, from the limestone karsts southwest of Hanoi to the formidable mountains west of Da Nang and the arid plains of Kon Tum and Gia Lai.

Scenery near Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park.

We’re also treated to the incredible hospitality of the people of Vietnam, one of the true highlights of the ride. There are countless examples, and Ortmann shared one from the inaugural ride: “A few of us were leading the pack on one of those days in the Central Highlands that’s really long because there just weren’t any towns close together. We’d been riding up mountains through the jungle for a few hours and we were out of snacks and water. The one van [H2H now uses two support vans] was nowhere near us, which didn’t matter anyway because we didn’t have cell reception to call back. We were starting to fall apart and needed to eat. Sometime later we came across a town that was little more than a few brown shacks. The people there didn’t speak English or Vietnamese. Although we didn’t think there would be a restaurant here, we gave it a shot, and luckily we found a family willing to feed us noodles and Bidrico soda. It was a glorious meal and a testament to the goodwill, hospitality and entrepreneurial spirit of that part of Vietnam.”

I’d like to share my own illustrative anecdote, from when I first did H2H in 2012. We had finished the day in a small town in north-central Vietnam where the main road was under construction, so we were covered in mud (it had been raining for a week).

A few of us decided to peek into a wedding tent, still wearing our dirty cycling lycra. The festivities were wrapping up, but within seconds a table full of food appeared and we were asked to sit down. The unbelievably loud music was turned back on, and several bottles of rice wine appeared. A middle-aged woman in a purple power suit from Saigon repeatedly cheered us individually, as we desperately tried to stuff food into our faces before the potent rice wine kicked in after cycling 80 kilometers.

Resistance was futile though, and we were soon completely drunk, dancing with a security guard to deafening Vinahouse. The best man eventually invited us to his nearby house, where he cracked open an expensive bottle of whiskey reserved for special occasions. I don’t remember returning to our hotel afterward, but we were all stunned by the hospitality granted to a collection of dirty cyclists who appeared out of nowhere (and the rice wine).

Children riding bikes of their own along somewhere on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.

From humble beginnings, H2H now draws up to 20 riders every year, and often approaches US$50,000 in annual fundraising, 100% of which goes to the beneficiary charities.

Chris Rolls, a teacher at the British International School who did H2H in 2010 and 2015 and manages the organization in between rides, offered a few reflections on the last decade.

"There have been lots of innovations over the years, but we still remain true to the original vision of the founders: supporting access to education for children in Vietnam," he said in an email. "H2H is essentially a 'thank you' ride. Our lives have been enriched so much by living and working in this beautiful country, and H2H is an opportunity to give back by helping those who most need our support. As well as the blood, sweat and tears, it's been a lot of fun, with many life-long friendships forged (and a few marriages too!). For us, the best way to see this incredible country and its people is still by bicycle!"

H2H will ride again in April 2020, with more info coming to their website.

Saigoneer is a media sponsor of H2H. The current team is fundraising until the end of May. If you would like to donate, you can do so through this link.

Related Articles:

- How Hemingway Inspired a Cyclist to Scale the Heights of Northern Vietnam

- [Video] Reflecting on a 2,000km Bicycle Ride From Hanoi to Saigon for Charity

- Vietnam's First Gran Fondo Cycling Event a Hit in Hue

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