Race Design Thread

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2020 has been a strange year.

It is a year I can’t wait to be over, it is a year I will look back on with absolutely zero fondness whatsoever - save for a small amount at the very start, where I spent some time in Östersund skiing and got to actually try my hand at biathlon, which was an experience I had been dreaming of for several years. But that’s just about the only thing I will look back on 2020 fondly for.

It has, however, had some unusual and unintended consequences. From March, the sporting calendar was pretty much completely grinding to a halt. Paris-Nice was raced hell for leather by a collection of riders who never knew when the race would be called off. The biathlon World Championships took place in Antholz (in retrospect a highly regrettable decision) but the season thereafter was behind closed doors; three-time crystal globe winner Kaisa Mäkäräinen retired on her home snow in Kontiolahti, but with nobody there to see her ride into the sunset. Football stadia were empty, the hockey season was called off (meaning some trades designed to provide injury cover became instantly very regrettable, Koronin probably will know immediately the one I’m thinking of), and hundreds of races that would have characterised our spring were replaced by an empty void that a bunch of short distance e-races with depleted pélotons and MarioKart power-ups that served as nothing more than an extended advertisement for Zwift just couldn’t fill for me. To sum up just how apocalyptically bad 2020 was, the proliferation of e-races led me to find common ground with my own personal bête noire, Peter Sagan, who concurred that these were awful and of no value.

At first I decided I would catch up on racing that had been able to take place in the first couple of months of the season using youtube and other streaming services, but there were limited amounts of it. The good thing about the Race Design Thread, however, is that it is fuelled by imagination and creativity, and of course geography. The need to find something to scratch that sporting itch meant that I could post a few things out of my backlog of races, although this has ground to a halt recently as once races have got back underway, a highly compressed calendar means there’s seldom any downtime in the sporting world at present, as important race after important race fills every weekend and most weekdays until the end of the Vuelta well into November. In the earlier times of lockdown, however, the thread was a good bit more active as contributors added race after race. Early in lockdown, I drew up a Vuelta a la Independencia Nacional, as this was one of the races I had watched to get my cycling fix in the early days of lockdown - the race took place in February and had coverage available, plus I knew nothing of what had happened as the 2020 edition was not a UCI race. It was ideal, and stoked an interest to me in seeing what the country was able to offer. After all, while I can still find plenty to wring some new ideas out of Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland… they’re kind of known commodities. I’ve gone further afield plenty of times, but there were whole areas of the globe I hadn’t even considered.

But then, we got some live racing back. It was an exciting fillip in negative and depressing times. We could watch some honest to god bike racing again, even if it was like stepping into a whole new world, which was like the bike racing we know but not quite the same. It was a three week cycling event with live coverage, helicam (actually drones), theme music, kings of mountains, teams in collusion and rivalries, it had drama and anticipation, it had completely bonkers imagery and racing, and it was in a stunningly beautiful backdrop that offered incredible choice for the traceur. This was the HTV Cycling Cup.



Words cannot express how much I love the HTV Cycling Cup. This must have been what it was like in Cold War times to accidentally stumble across coverage of one of the eastern bloc amateur races to somebody weaned on the Tour and the Giro. It was something completely recognisable and yet strangely different from what we were used to. It was long form stage racing, but on open highways decorated with socialist monuments, through tropical rainforest scenery, with a week 3 Team Time Trial (!?) and criterium stages interspersed in the middle of the race. With the lockdown having affected the race, none of the overseas riders that had frequented previous years’ racing were on hand, and only two outsiders were able to start - France’s Loïc Desriac and Spain’s Javier Sardá, both of whom are based in Vietnam and had been there when lockdown began (Colombian Jordan Parra, who also rides in Vietnam, was back at home when the spread of the virus became unstoppable, and so has not returned). I knew literally no Vietnamese, but the amateurish charm of the presentation (especially when they went all out on staging, road closures, barriers and podiums) won me over and despite a parcours that resulted in a large number of sprints, soon I was invested in the names involved and talking like I was an expert in a cycling scene I knew next to nothing of. After all, Vietnamese cycling is pretty obscure even by the standards of the UCI Asia Tour, with no UCI categorised races.

Oh, one more thing about the presentation: their TV host is The Man. No, really. That’s his name.



I knew straight away I wanted to ‘do’ the HTV Cup. The country was so ripe for discovery. It’s an established race, having been held since the 80s. Cycling fans, starved of real competition for months, were giving the race more prominence worldwide than it had ever had, just through lack of any opposition in the calendar; the race can be as long as you want (the longest edition, 2018, being 30 stages in length), and Vietnam offers geographical diversity as well as historical and cultural sites I really hadn’t investigated. I hadn’t really done any Asia Tour races to date, and though I went with Taiwan first, I had had a go at doing a more creative Tour de Langkawi which I may post at some point. But the HTV Cup had piqued my interest and once I’d abandoned an early attempt which sacrilegiously went south to north (the very point of it being the HTV Cup means it has to end in Ho Chi Minh City since HTV is the Ho Chi Minh City TV station, but the absolutely pan flat terrain around the Mekong Delta made it difficult to put together a route I was happy with), a route eventually came into place.

My hope is that the race can build on its unexpected, serendipitous higher profile and when it can hopefully return to including overseas riders next year, they can continue to develop it, making a tougher and more varied route with a bigger péloton so that we don’t see such a bogarting of the success by a small number of riders, since only 82 riders were able to start this year’s race across 12 teams. In previous years, however, they have seen teams from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand take part, as well as from further afield such as Korea and with riders like the infamous Mirsamad Pourseyedi turning up as mercenaries. Other Vietnamese races have seen teams from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia also take part and my thinking is that although not all of these teams will necessarily want to peak for a 3 week race in Vietnam and may not be able to bring some of the ringers they sign specifically for racing Langkawi, the improved worldwide recognition of Vietnamese cycling afforded by their running opposition-free in a post-Covid world might make the race somewhat more attractive to them. And that that, in turn, would encourage the organisers to make a more rounded parcours.

In a ‘normal’ year, you could rely on the same 12 Vietnamese teams that contested the race this year:


Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh - the team of 2019 and 2020 winner Javier Sardá, effectively the lead team of the race’s home area. Lê Văn Duẩn is also very strong and with a wealth of experience.
Hồ Chí Minh-MM Mega Market - sister team to the above, their kit is the same only orange instead of red. They are built around star sprinter Lê Nguyệt Minh, who with so many races ending in sprints is one of Vietnam’s most recognised riders.
Bikelife-Đồng Nai - the most international team, they race elsewhere in Southeast Asia often, and are led by French expat Loïc Désriac and Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, one of the better climbers in Vietnam and the nation’s most successful rider of recent years in international competition.
Ynghua Đồng Nai - sister team of Bikelife, quiet this year with Jordan Parra, their main name, stranded at home in Colombia.
Dược Domesco Đồng Tháp (DDT) - brightly coloured team led by Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, a versatile all-rounder with a strong sprint who finishes high in the GC, akin to a Vietnamese Cândido Barbosa, and who led most of the 2020 edition of the race en route to 2nd in the final GC. Perhaps more fairly compared to somebody like Wout van Aert or Edvald Boasson Hagen in skillset, though obviously not to their kind of level.
Dopagan Đồng Tháp - unfortunately named sister team to DDT, led by break specialist Trần Tuấn Kiệt, who won 3 stages of the 2020 edition. Their kits resemble Phonak.
Châu Thới Vĩnh Long - southern team whose kits resemble Groupama-FDJ, led by the best young prospect in Vietnam, Võ Thanh An.
Lộc Trời - smaller team with white and fluorescent green kits, who Pourseyedi subbed for as a mercenary.
Quân Khu 7 - a team with ties to the military I believe. Owners of the best kits in cycling. Truly glorious.
Quân đội - less distinguished team also with military ties, but fewer high profile riders and lamer kits.
Nhựa Bình Minh Bình Dương - fairly small team whose kits resemble Total-Direct Energie.
Hà Nội - the team of the capital, they wear yellow and black and have a small team that will likely be looking for a mercenary signing or two.

Now, although it’s less common nowadays, there have been plenty of overseas teams rock up at the HTV Cup in previous years, and if the race is going to grow, then they will probably want to entice a few more overseas teams to increase the international exposure. So I’ve taken a bit of a look at races in the same part of the world to consider who may reasonably be considered a plausible team to compete. Of course, however, the race does not pay bonanza UCI Asia Tour points, so we’re not going to see the kind of International slightly star-studded cast that rocks up to the Tour de Langkawi; the political position and role of Vietnam will mean you’re less likely to get the random US and European teams that turn up to the Tour of Taiwan; also, while there are some teams who are quite local to the Vietnamese border and could feasibly turn up, such as Yunnan Lvshan Landscape and Shenzhen Xidesheng, the current China-Vietnam relationship means it is unlikely that we will see Chinese teams with their Colombian and Ukrainian mercenaries on the startlist. Even so, there are a good few squads in South East Asia who can complement the national péloton.

I was thinking some of the following teams would potentially be interested:

7-Eleven-Cliqq-Air21 by Road Philippines - team led by Marcelo Felipe who has some good results across South East Asia in the last couple of years.
Go 4 Gold Philippines - team of younger development guys, a couple of whom went well in the Cambodia Bay Tour at the start of the year.


Cambodia Cycling Academy - some young Cambodians accompanied by some French expats and some Russians plying their trade in South East Asia, most notably Matvey Mamykin.


KFC Cycling Team - some useful riders, not least the rather impressive-looking Muhammad Abdurrohman.
Mula - A very strong team with both Aimen Cahyadi (TTs and lower gradient climbs) and Jamal Hibatullah (climbing specialist) who could be major players.


Team Sapura Cycling - most likely without their big money Euro acquisitions for Langkawi, still some useful Malaysian riders like Muhammad Nur Atman Zariff.
Terengganu Inc-TSG - a very good team including overseas acquisitions like Youcef Reguigui, Carlos Quintero and Metkel Eyob, though these may not ride a race like the HTV Cup. Mongolian star Maralerdene Batmunkh may, though - he’s ridden the race a few times in the past - as might Singapore’s best ever rider, Choon Huat Goh, and sprinter Muhammad Harif Saleh, who took some major scalps en route to two stages at Langkawi in February.


Thailand Continental Cycling - a very good team in the region with a number of strong riders, mostly from the home nation. Sarawut Sirironnachai looks the likely strongest.

Finally, I would expect a
Laotian national team, to be led by 2017 GC winner Alex Ariya Phounsavath, now that he and Thailand Continental have parted ways. He has moonlighted in the race for Vietnamese teams, but with the race now making occasional forays into Cambodia and Laos, a Laotian national team backing him could really add to the race, especially now CCN is no more. Of course, not all of these teams are likely to be interested, but just adding 3-4 of them would add a much stronger international flavour to the race, or at least a couple of notable names to come in as ringers like we have seen in the past.

Gong Hyo-Suk, of LX Cycling Team in South Korea, rocked up in 2019 after doing the race with his trade team in the early 2010s, and won the queen stage to Đà Lạt, while Colombia’s Vladimir López also entered for Ynghua that year; he was part of the reason Jordan Parra was tempted to go and race for the team in the latter part of 2019, so he may be willing to return. A couple of the Iranian extraterrestrials have raced here too, but with no Asia Tour points, I wouldn’t expect Foolad Mabarakeh or Tabriz. A few other riders who have moonlighted in smaller races in this part of the world are:
Valentin Midey, a 30 year old Frenchman whose career is almost entirely comprised of Thai races in the last couple of years;
Edgar Nohales Nieto, a 34 year old Spaniard who has been racing in Asia for eight seasons now, and who appeared as a mercenary in the HTV Cup in 2018;
Florian Hudry, a 25 year old Frenchman who has been racing in Japan for a few years and was briefly with Cambodia Cycling Academy;
Konstantin Fast, a 44 year old Russian veteran who has bounced around South East Asian racing for a number of years in his career twilight;
Amir Kolahdouzhagh, a 27 year old Iranian former motorbike who tends to bounce around early season before signing for a Chinese team to moonlight in races like Langkawi.

I have decided to produce something that is not like completely tearing up the fabric of the HTV Cup, but is also developing the race into something that looks more like a higher level race on the world calendar, with the range of geography and stage options that Vietnam offers, and allowing for finishes outside of major cities. There will still be the occasional criterium stage, as these happen within the HTV Cup, and stage lengths will vary significantly with a few real short stages mixed in with longer ones (the real race includes road stages of any length between 40km and 240km!), and aiming to showcase the full extent of what this beautiful and scenic country offers at the same time as also showing something that would not be unachievable for the race if it is able to continue the momentum its unexpected leap to prominence on the world scene has afforded it, so as to make itself into a race which can have the same kind of standing as, say, the Jelajah Malaysia or the Tour de Banyuwangi Ijen (I am not going to bite off more than I can chew and pretend it will become the Tour de Langkawi, besides that benefits from being outside of European cycling season, the HTV Cup traditionally finishes outside the Independence Palace on April 30). So here we have a 21-stage, normal Grand Tour sized race, within the confines of what might be realistically achievable in the short-to-mid-term for the race.

Stage 1: Hà Nội - Hà Nội, 59km





The HTV Cup typically has two route formats. Either it starts and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, or, given the geographical shape of Vietnam, essentially a long thing strip of land linking the Red River Delta at the north and the Mekong Delta at the south, it starts somewhere north and heads southwards in a point to point type style akin to, say, Paris-Nice. The last two editions began in Vinh, but ’twas not always thus. 2018’s longest-ever edition began its 30-stage odyssey in Lạng Sơn, on the northeasternmost border of the country, while 2012 started in Huế. In 2008, 2010, 2015, and 2016, the race effectively linked the second biggest city of Vietnam - its capital - with its biggest - the traditional finish of the race. And that is what we are going to do this time too, starting and finishing the first stage of the race in Hanoi.

The other thing that we are doing is starting the race with one of its beloved criterium stages - in recent years pretty much every HTV Cup has started in this format, with only a couple of exceptions. Prologue time trials have been used twice in the last 15 years - 2005 and 2018 - and 2007, 2009 and 2011 had full length road stages. But these were shorter editions, 12, 9 and 9 stages respectively, and those are anomalous in a race which typically veers between 16 and 20 stages in length. No king of the mountains points are there for the taking, therefore, but with jersey sponsors of less inherent value in a single party state where the race organisers are themselves a state organ, giving them airtime is perhaps of less paramount importance. Either way, traditionally - and especially in the last ten years - the first stage of the HTV Cup is a criterium, usually of between 40 and 60km. So of course, I’ve gone for the longest level of this.



Racing in a single-party state often means some deference to pageantry and ceremony where the party is concerned, as any recollections of the Peace Race can tell you. We aren’t going to be having all of our finishes in big city centres, so we can compensate with a very dramatic start to the race in the very heart of Hanoi, at Quảng trường Ba Đình, a major tourist site and pilgrimage site in the heart of the city.

Named for a royalist uprising against the French colonialists, it is a strange thing in that that history makes it a dual site of pilgrimage for those who reminisce about the old royal family and to those who wish to show deference to the most famous Vietnamese of them all worldwide, the Communist leader Hồ Chí Minh, whose body remains entombed in the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, likening him to other iconic Communist leaders, most notably Lenin. A number of important government and administrative buildings are located around the outside of the square, making this a perfect place to race around and enable the TV coverage to show the might and ceremonial majesty of Vietnam.

A recent race was set up to celebrate 1000 years of Hanoi, but the Vietnamese capital is in fact much older than that, tracing its origins to the citadel of Cổ Loa, the capital of an old Yue kingdom by the name of Âu Lạc in the 3rd Century BC. The kingdom was overthrown and annexed by the wider kingdom of Nányuè (meaning ‘southern Yue kingdom’), which encompassed most of modern southern China including Hong Kong and Macau, and which was rendered in the local tongue of Âu Lạc as “Nam Việt" - from which you can see where the modern country’s name comes. It was renamed first Tống Bình, then Đại La, under which name it became the capital, but upon this honour being bestowed upon it, in 1010 it took the name Thăng Long, which it would bear among others (such as briefly being named Dongguan under Chinese control, and “Đông Kinh” or “eastern Capital”, from which the obsolete European name for northern Vietnam, Tonkin, was taken) until the capital was moved in the early 19th Century to Huế. Not long after this the city inherited its present name, and it was restored as capital in the late 19th Century when the French colonised Indochina, and made Hanoi the capital of both the Vietnamese province and of French Indochina as a whole.

Hanoi was captured by the Japanese in 1940, and upon liberation the rebel Việt Minh movement declared independence, until the French reasserted their control in 1946. However, the first phase of the Vietnam War was ended in 1954 when the French conceded and North Vietnam became independent, setting up the more famous second phase. The aftermath of this left many investors sceptical of Vietnam, but following the 1986 implementation of Chính sách Đổi Mới, or “renovation policy” which saw the country rapidly develop and transition from a fully planned economy to a socialist-modelled state-controlled supply economy, the city has rapidly developed and with the economic advantages of the big cities and the shape of the country drawing people to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the population of Hanoi has trebled in the last 35 years, to its present 6,5 million.

My course is designed to showcase largely the governmental section and some of the developments, but also a bit more of traditional Hanoi, especially on the extension I have added to the crit course with the out and back along the edges of Hồ Tây, or Western Lake. Essentially the last part of the course is traversing this isthmus on Thanh Hien Road, which keeps the lake from the smaller counterpart Hồ Trúc Bạch. These lakes include the American War Monument, which commemorates the capture of future Presidential candidate John McCain, and also Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in the city and the oldest pagoda in the country. We also pass the Quán Thánh Temple, an 11th-Century Taoist temple which is one of Vietnam’s leading tourist attractions.





The stage is essentially 12 laps of a 4,9km circuit, which starts at Ba Đình Square and heads south, taking two right-angle lefts to head back up at the other side of the square, backing onto, on our right, the UNESCO-inscribed 11th-Century Citadel, effective enough to be used as a headquarters by the North Vietnamese army operations in the 1970s, and the adjoining former royal residence.



A left here onto Quán Thánh road, which takes us past the eponymous temple, then gives way to a 90º right, which takes us onto the road separating the lakes. A hairpin bend about a kilometre out gives way to a straight broken up about 400m from the line with a 75º left-hander, before a wider acceleration through a right-hander onto the final straight.

This stage should last barely over an hour and will probably be won by a sprinter, though in 2019 young rider Thanh Tùng Huỳnh of Quan Khu 7 escaped and won the crit in Vinh to hold the maillot jaune for the first 10 days of the race. And it will finish on the spot where the man who led North Vietnam through its growing pains first proclaimed its independence. I’m even tempted to make it an evening crit for the sake of the lighting and the atmosphere. It will no doubt only be showing the side of Vietnam that the state wants you to see. But at the same time, if you have these kind of cultural and historic resources and sites, why wouldn’t you show them off?

 
Libertine, I know that you mainly wanted to focus on the Asian riders, but you actually forgot Terengganu's most successful rider, the Sputnik Artem Ovechkin. He was won the Tor de Langkawi and Antalya for them and has podiumed in Lankawi and the Tour of Thailand for them.
Igor Frolov is one of the random guys who could also show up at this kind of race, this year he won the Doi Inthanon Challenge (and beat the old recorrd of the ascent by 6 min). He's mainly known for actually postingsome vintage Volta a Portugal level watts on Strava.
Given the fact that the countries have pretty decent relations it wouldn't surprise me to see Vino - Astana Motors in this kind of race.
 
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2020 has been a strange year.

It is a year I can’t wait to be over, it is a year I will look back on with absolutely zero fondness whatsoever - save for a small amount at the very start, where I spent some time in Östersund skiing and got to actually try my hand at biathlon, which was an experience I had been dreaming of for several years. But that’s just about the only thing I will look back on 2020 fondly for.

It has, however, had some unusual and unintended consequences. From March, the sporting calendar was pretty much completely grinding to a halt. Paris-Nice was raced hell for leather by a collection of riders who never knew when the race would be called off. The biathlon World Championships took place in Antholz (in retrospect a highly regrettable decision) but the season thereafter was behind closed doors; three-time crystal globe winner Kaisa Mäkäräinen retired on her home snow in Kontiolahti, but with nobody there to see her ride into the sunset. Football stadia were empty, the hockey season was called off (meaning some trades designed to provide injury cover became instantly very regrettable, Koronin probably will know immediately the one I’m thinking of), and hundreds of races that would have characterised our spring were replaced by an empty void that a bunch of short distance e-races with depleted pélotons and MarioKart power-ups that served as nothing more than an extended advertisement for Zwift just couldn’t fill for me. To sum up just how apocalyptically bad 2020 was, the proliferation of e-races led me to find common ground with my own personal bête noire, Peter Sagan, who concurred that these were awful and of no value.

At first I decided I would catch up on racing that had been able to take place in the first couple of months of the season using youtube and other streaming services, but there were limited amounts of it. The good thing about the Race Design Thread, however, is that it is fuelled by imagination and creativity, and of course geography. The need to find something to scratch that sporting itch meant that I could post a few things out of my backlog of races, although this has ground to a halt recently as once races have got back underway, a highly compressed calendar means there’s seldom any downtime in the sporting world at present, as important race after important race fills every weekend and most weekdays until the end of the Vuelta well into November. In the earlier times of lockdown, however, the thread was a good bit more active as contributors added race after race. Early in lockdown, I drew up a Vuelta a la Independencia Nacional, as this was one of the races I had watched to get my cycling fix in the early days of lockdown - the race took place in February and had coverage available, plus I knew nothing of what had happened as the 2020 edition was not a UCI race. It was ideal, and stoked an interest to me in seeing what the country was able to offer. After all, while I can still find plenty to wring some new ideas out of Spain, France, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland… they’re kind of known commodities. I’ve gone further afield plenty of times, but there were whole areas of the globe I hadn’t even considered.

But then, we got some live racing back. It was an exciting fillip in negative and depressing times. We could watch some honest to god bike racing again, even if it was like stepping into a whole new world, which was like the bike racing we know but not quite the same. It was a three week cycling event with live coverage, helicam (actually drones), theme music, kings of mountains, teams in collusion and rivalries, it had drama and anticipation, it had completely bonkers imagery and racing, and it was in a stunningly beautiful backdrop that offered incredible choice for the traceur. This was the HTV Cycling Cup.



Words cannot express how much I love the HTV Cycling Cup. This must have been what it was like in Cold War times to accidentally stumble across coverage of one of the eastern bloc amateur races to somebody weaned on the Tour and the Giro. It was something completely recognisable and yet strangely different from what we were used to. It was long form stage racing, but on open highways decorated with socialist monuments, through tropical rainforest scenery, with a week 3 Team Time Trial (!?) and criterium stages interspersed in the middle of the race. With the lockdown having affected the race, none of the overseas riders that had frequented previous years’ racing were on hand, and only two outsiders were able to start - France’s Loïc Desriac and Spain’s Javier Sardá, both of whom are based in Vietnam and had been there when lockdown began (Colombian Jordan Parra, who also rides in Vietnam, was back at home when the spread of the virus became unstoppable, and so has not returned). I knew literally no Vietnamese, but the amateurish charm of the presentation (especially when they went all out on staging, road closures, barriers and podiums) won me over and despite a parcours that resulted in a large number of sprints, soon I was invested in the names involved and talking like I was an expert in a cycling scene I knew next to nothing of. After all, Vietnamese cycling is pretty obscure even by the standards of the UCI Asia Tour, with no UCI categorised races.

Oh, one more thing about the presentation: their TV host is The Man. No, really. That’s his name.



I knew straight away I wanted to ‘do’ the HTV Cup. The country was so ripe for discovery. It’s an established race, having been held since the 80s. Cycling fans, starved of real competition for months, were giving the race more prominence worldwide than it had ever had, just through lack of any opposition in the calendar; the race can be as long as you want (the longest edition, 2018, being 30 stages in length), and Vietnam offers geographical diversity as well as historical and cultural sites I really hadn’t investigated. I hadn’t really done any Asia Tour races to date, and though I went with Taiwan first, I had had a go at doing a more creative Tour de Langkawi which I may post at some point. But the HTV Cup had piqued my interest and once I’d abandoned an early attempt which sacrilegiously went south to north (the very point of it being the HTV Cup means it has to end in Ho Chi Minh City since HTV is the Ho Chi Minh City TV station, but the absolutely pan flat terrain around the Mekong Delta made it difficult to put together a route I was happy with), a route eventually came into place.

My hope is that the race can build on its unexpected, serendipitous higher profile and when it can hopefully return to including overseas riders next year, they can continue to develop it, making a tougher and more varied route with a bigger péloton so that we don’t see such a bogarting of the success by a small number of riders, since only 82 riders were able to start this year’s race across 12 teams. In previous years, however, they have seen teams from neighbouring countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Thailand take part, as well as from further afield such as Korea and with riders like the infamous Mirsamad Pourseyedi turning up as mercenaries. Other Vietnamese races have seen teams from the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia also take part and my thinking is that although not all of these teams will necessarily want to peak for a 3 week race in Vietnam and may not be able to bring some of the ringers they sign specifically for racing Langkawi, the improved worldwide recognition of Vietnamese cycling afforded by their running opposition-free in a post-Covid world might make the race somewhat more attractive to them. And that that, in turn, would encourage the organisers to make a more rounded parcours.

In a ‘normal’ year, you could rely on the same 12 Vietnamese teams that contested the race this year:


Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh - the team of 2019 and 2020 winner Javier Sardá, effectively the lead team of the race’s home area. Lê Văn Duẩn is also very strong and with a wealth of experience.
Hồ Chí Minh-MM Mega Market - sister team to the above, their kit is the same only orange instead of red. They are built around star sprinter Lê Nguyệt Minh, who with so many races ending in sprints is one of Vietnam’s most recognised riders.
Bikelife-Đồng Nai - the most international team, they race elsewhere in Southeast Asia often, and are led by French expat Loïc Désriac and Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, one of the better climbers in Vietnam and the nation’s most successful rider of recent years in international competition.
Ynghua Đồng Nai - sister team of Bikelife, quiet this year with Jordan Parra, their main name, stranded at home in Colombia.
Dược Domesco Đồng Tháp (DDT) - brightly coloured team led by Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, a versatile all-rounder with a strong sprint who finishes high in the GC, akin to a Vietnamese Cândido Barbosa, and who led most of the 2020 edition of the race en route to 2nd in the final GC. Perhaps more fairly compared to somebody like Wout van Aert or Edvald Boasson Hagen in skillset, though obviously not to their kind of level.
Dopagan Đồng Tháp - unfortunately named sister team to DDT, led by break specialist Trần Tuấn Kiệt, who won 3 stages of the 2020 edition. Their kits resemble Phonak.
Châu Thới Vĩnh Long - southern team whose kits resemble Groupama-FDJ, led by the best young prospect in Vietnam, Võ Thanh An.
Lộc Trời - smaller team with white and fluorescent green kits, who Pourseyedi subbed for as a mercenary.
Quân Khu 7 - a team with ties to the military I believe. Owners of the best kits in cycling. Truly glorious.
Quân đội - less distinguished team also with military ties, but fewer high profile riders and lamer kits.
Nhựa Bình Minh Bình Dương - fairly small team whose kits resemble Total-Direct Energie.
Hà Nội - the team of the capital, they wear yellow and black and have a small team that will likely be looking for a mercenary signing or two.

Now, although it’s less common nowadays, there have been plenty of overseas teams rock up at the HTV Cup in previous years, and if the race is going to grow, then they will probably want to entice a few more overseas teams to increase the international exposure. So I’ve taken a bit of a look at races in the same part of the world to consider who may reasonably be considered a plausible team to compete. Of course, however, the race does not pay bonanza UCI Asia Tour points, so we’re not going to see the kind of International slightly star-studded cast that rocks up to the Tour de Langkawi; the political position and role of Vietnam will mean you’re less likely to get the random US and European teams that turn up to the Tour of Taiwan; also, while there are some teams who are quite local to the Vietnamese border and could feasibly turn up, such as Yunnan Lvshan Landscape and Shenzhen Xidesheng, the current China-Vietnam relationship means it is unlikely that we will see Chinese teams with their Colombian and Ukrainian mercenaries on the startlist. Even so, there are a good few squads in South East Asia who can complement the national péloton.

I was thinking some of the following teams would potentially be interested:

7-Eleven-Cliqq-Air21 by Road Philippines - team led by Marcelo Felipe who has some good results across South East Asia in the last couple of years.
Go 4 Gold Philippines - team of younger development guys, a couple of whom went well in the Cambodia Bay Tour at the start of the year.


Cambodia Cycling Academy - some young Cambodians accompanied by some French expats and some Russians plying their trade in South East Asia, most notably Matvey Mamykin.


KFC Cycling Team - some useful riders, not least the rather impressive-looking Muhammad Abdurrohman.
Mula - A very strong team with both Aimen Cahyadi (TTs and lower gradient climbs) and Jamal Hibatullah (climbing specialist) who could be major players.


Team Sapura Cycling - most likely without their big money Euro acquisitions for Langkawi, still some useful Malaysian riders like Muhammad Nur Atman Zariff.
Terengganu Inc-TSG - a very good team including overseas acquisitions like Youcef Reguigui, Carlos Quintero and Metkel Eyob, though these may not ride a race like the HTV Cup. Mongolian star Maralerdene Batmunkh may, though - he’s ridden the race a few times in the past - as might Singapore’s best ever rider, Choon Huat Goh, and sprinter Muhammad Harif Saleh, who took some major scalps en route to two stages at Langkawi in February.


Thailand Continental Cycling - a very good team in the region with a number of strong riders, mostly from the home nation. Sarawut Sirironnachai looks the likely strongest.

Finally, I would expect a
Laotian national team, to be led by 2017 GC winner Alex Ariya Phounsavath, now that he and Thailand Continental have parted ways. He has moonlighted in the race for Vietnamese teams, but with the race now making occasional forays into Cambodia and Laos, a Laotian national team backing him could really add to the race, especially now CCN is no more. Of course, not all of these teams are likely to be interested, but just adding 3-4 of them would add a much stronger international flavour to the race, or at least a couple of notable names to come in as ringers like we have seen in the past.

Gong Hyo-Suk, of LX Cycling Team in South Korea, rocked up in 2019 after doing the race with his trade team in the early 2010s, and won the queen stage to Đà Lạt, while Colombia’s Vladimir López also entered for Ynghua that year; he was part of the reason Jordan Parra was tempted to go and race for the team in the latter part of 2019, so he may be willing to return. A couple of the Iranian extraterrestrials have raced here too, but with no Asia Tour points, I wouldn’t expect Foolad Mabarakeh or Tabriz. A few other riders who have moonlighted in smaller races in this part of the world are:
Valentin Midey, a 30 year old Frenchman whose career is almost entirely comprised of Thai races in the last couple of years;
Edgar Nohales Nieto, a 34 year old Spaniard who has been racing in Asia for eight seasons now, and who appeared as a mercenary in the HTV Cup in 2018;
Florian Hudry, a 25 year old Frenchman who has been racing in Japan for a few years and was briefly with Cambodia Cycling Academy;
Konstantin Fast, a 44 year old Russian veteran who has bounced around South East Asian racing for a number of years in his career twilight;
Amir Kolahdouzhagh, a 27 year old Iranian former motorbike who tends to bounce around early season before signing for a Chinese team to moonlight in races like Langkawi.

I have decided to produce something that is not like completely tearing up the fabric of the HTV Cup, but is also developing the race into something that looks more like a higher level race on the world calendar, with the range of geography and stage options that Vietnam offers, and allowing for finishes outside of major cities. There will still be the occasional criterium stage, as these happen within the HTV Cup, and stage lengths will vary significantly with a few real short stages mixed in with longer ones (the real race includes road stages of any length between 40km and 240km!), and aiming to showcase the full extent of what this beautiful and scenic country offers at the same time as also showing something that would not be unachievable for the race if it is able to continue the momentum its unexpected leap to prominence on the world scene has afforded it, so as to make itself into a race which can have the same kind of standing as, say, the Jelajah Malaysia or the Tour de Banyuwangi Ijen (I am not going to bite off more than I can chew and pretend it will become the Tour de Langkawi, besides that benefits from being outside of European cycling season, the HTV Cup traditionally finishes outside the Independence Palace on April 30). So here we have a 21-stage, normal Grand Tour sized race, within the confines of what might be realistically achievable in the short-to-mid-term for the race.

Stage 1: Hà Nội - Hà Nội, 59km





The HTV Cup typically has two route formats. Either it starts and ends in Ho Chi Minh City, or, given the geographical shape of Vietnam, essentially a long thing strip of land linking the Red River Delta at the north and the Mekong Delta at the south, it starts somewhere north and heads southwards in a point to point type style akin to, say, Paris-Nice. The last two editions began in Vinh, but ’twas not always thus. 2018’s longest-ever edition began its 30-stage odyssey in Lạng Sơn, on the northeasternmost border of the country, while 2012 started in Huế. In 2008, 2010, 2015, and 2016, the race effectively linked the second biggest city of Vietnam - its capital - with its biggest - the traditional finish of the race. And that is what we are going to do this time too, starting and finishing the first stage of the race in Hanoi.

The other thing that we are doing is starting the race with one of its beloved criterium stages - in recent years pretty much every HTV Cup has started in this format, with only a couple of exceptions. Prologue time trials have been used twice in the last 15 years - 2005 and 2018 - and 2007, 2009 and 2011 had full length road stages. But these were shorter editions, 12, 9 and 9 stages respectively, and those are anomalous in a race which typically veers between 16 and 20 stages in length. No king of the mountains points are there for the taking, therefore, but with jersey sponsors of less inherent value in a single party state where the race organisers are themselves a state organ, giving them airtime is perhaps of less paramount importance. Either way, traditionally - and especially in the last ten years - the first stage of the HTV Cup is a criterium, usually of between 40 and 60km. So of course, I’ve gone for the longest level of this.



Racing in a single-party state often means some deference to pageantry and ceremony where the party is concerned, as any recollections of the Peace Race can tell you. We aren’t going to be having all of our finishes in big city centres, so we can compensate with a very dramatic start to the race in the very heart of Hanoi, at Quảng trường Ba Đình, a major tourist site and pilgrimage site in the heart of the city.

Named for a royalist uprising against the French colonialists, it is a strange thing in that that history makes it a dual site of pilgrimage for those who reminisce about the old royal family and to those who wish to show deference to the most famous Vietnamese of them all worldwide, the Communist leader Hồ Chí Minh, whose body remains entombed in the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum, likening him to other iconic Communist leaders, most notably Lenin. A number of important government and administrative buildings are located around the outside of the square, making this a perfect place to race around and enable the TV coverage to show the might and ceremonial majesty of Vietnam.

A recent race was set up to celebrate 1000 years of Hanoi, but the Vietnamese capital is in fact much older than that, tracing its origins to the citadel of Cổ Loa, the capital of an old Yue kingdom by the name of Âu Lạc in the 3rd Century BC. The kingdom was overthrown and annexed by the wider kingdom of Nányuè (meaning ‘southern Yue kingdom’), which encompassed most of modern southern China including Hong Kong and Macau, and which was rendered in the local tongue of Âu Lạc as “Nam Việt" - from which you can see where the modern country’s name comes. It was renamed first Tống Bình, then Đại La, under which name it became the capital, but upon this honour being bestowed upon it, in 1010 it took the name Thăng Long, which it would bear among others (such as briefly being named Dongguan under Chinese control, and “Đông Kinh” or “eastern Capital”, from which the obsolete European name for northern Vietnam, Tonkin, was taken) until the capital was moved in the early 19th Century to Huế. Not long after this the city inherited its present name, and it was restored as capital in the late 19th Century when the French colonised Indochina, and made Hanoi the capital of both the Vietnamese province and of French Indochina as a whole.

Hanoi was captured by the Japanese in 1940, and upon liberation the rebel Việt Minh movement declared independence, until the French reasserted their control in 1946. However, the first phase of the Vietnam War was ended in 1954 when the French conceded and North Vietnam became independent, setting up the more famous second phase. The aftermath of this left many investors sceptical of Vietnam, but following the 1986 implementation of Chính sách Đổi Mới, or “renovation policy” which saw the country rapidly develop and transition from a fully planned economy to a socialist-modelled state-controlled supply economy, the city has rapidly developed and with the economic advantages of the big cities and the shape of the country drawing people to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the population of Hanoi has trebled in the last 35 years, to its present 6,5 million.

My course is designed to showcase largely the governmental section and some of the developments, but also a bit more of traditional Hanoi, especially on the extension I have added to the crit course with the out and back along the edges of Hồ Tây, or Western Lake. Essentially the last part of the course is traversing this isthmus on Thanh Hien Road, which keeps the lake from the smaller counterpart Hồ Trúc Bạch. These lakes include the American War Monument, which commemorates the capture of future Presidential candidate John McCain, and also Trấn Quốc Pagoda, the oldest surviving Buddhist temple in the city and the oldest pagoda in the country. We also pass the Quán Thánh Temple, an 11th-Century Taoist temple which is one of Vietnam’s leading tourist attractions.





The stage is essentially 12 laps of a 4,9km circuit, which starts at Ba Đình Square and heads south, taking two right-angle lefts to head back up at the other side of the square, backing onto, on our right, the UNESCO-inscribed 11th-Century Citadel, effective enough to be used as a headquarters by the North Vietnamese army operations in the 1970s, and the adjoining former royal residence.



A left here onto Quán Thánh road, which takes us past the eponymous temple, then gives way to a 90º right, which takes us onto the road separating the lakes. A hairpin bend about a kilometre out gives way to a straight broken up about 400m from the line with a 75º left-hander, before a wider acceleration through a right-hander onto the final straight.

This stage should last barely over an hour and will probably be won by a sprinter, though in 2019 young rider Thanh Tùng Huỳnh of Quan Khu 7 escaped and won the crit in Vinh to hold the maillot jaune for the first 10 days of the race. And it will finish on the spot where the man who led North Vietnam through its growing pains first proclaimed its independence. I’m even tempted to make it an evening crit for the sake of the lighting and the atmosphere. It will no doubt only be showing the side of Vietnam that the state wants you to see. But at the same time, if you have these kind of cultural and historic resources and sites, why wouldn’t you show them off?

Nice first appetizer stage in a beautiful country, I really liked your (not-so)political description. Apart from making me regret I missed the HTV cup I also enjoyed your personal take on this year. :) Looking forward to the next stages.
 
Stage 2: Thái Nguyên - Thái Nguyên, 13,0km (TTT)





Yea, I know. I hate the Team Time Trial. So I’m keeping it short, to minimise its negative impact, but we do still have to acknowledge its presence, especially considering its importance to racing especially in countries where teamwork is stressed as hugely important due to political ideology. The Khanh Hoa TTT on stage 13 of 18 was key in 2020, putting the TP Ho Chi Minh squad in charge of the GC and able to control the jersey to set up Javier Sardá’s winning attack on Đèo Prenn two days later. In 2016 the TTT was in Nha Trang on stage 15 of 19. I feel it is fair to honour the tradition of the race and its ideology and therefore include the format - but I’m getting it out of the way as soon as possible with a shortish stage that will be of some value for setting up the GC battle but, at just 13km in length, is not going to completely overturn and ruin the race.





My CRE takes place in Thái Nguyên, a city of 420.000 inhabitants which is, by road, just over 60km from Hanoi, so a perfectly reasonable transfer to be handled after a 60km crit stage. Located on the Cầu River to the north of the nation’s capital, it is Vietnam’s ninth biggest city, but has not appeared in the HTV Cycling Cup at all as far as I can find, so unless it appeared at some point in the 90s (between 1993, when the race jumped from a one week race to its current length, and 2000 most likely, as these editions were all around 17 stages but I don’t have the records of where the race went) it is a new stage town. Part of that is likely the fact that it is a city which is expanding rapidly - really rapidly in fact, having increased in size by 33% since 2009.

Thái Nguyên has a strong role in Vietnamese independence, with a number of anti-colonial uprisings taking place in its streets, most notably in 1917 when protesters stormed the prison and the guards mutinied, freeing political prisoners and common criminals, took the local government office, executed French officials and Vietnamese collaborators, held the offices against bombardment for a week and precipitating an armed rebellion that took the French forces nearly six months to pacify. A very different way to go down in history for a hitherto relatively small town known almost entirely for its highly prized Tân Cương tea, immortalised in a sculpture of a teapot outside the famous factory.


The Tân Cương tea hill, outside Thái Nguyên

Following the independence of North Vietnam, however, as the country has sought to rapidly industrialise and develop a manufacturing economy, Thái Nguyên is no longer a city of idyllic tradition of luxury teas, nor of industrial action, but of industrial production; with the abundant resources of iron and coal in its nearby hills, Thái Nguyên is a city renowned in the same way as, say, Pittsburgh - this is Steel City Vietnam.



TISCO, an abbreviation for Thái Nguyên Iron and Steel Company, is a huge iron and steelworks and processing plant to the southeast of the town which was opened in 1959, and bringing in workers and their families to operate the works largely catalysed the immense growth of the city, especially with the need to provide weaponry, defence and other such products for the war effort. The immediate increase in population this caused it to be reclassified as a city almost immediately - in 1962 - and the steelworks came to dominate the city until it had grown to sufficient extent to become a genuine, multifaceted city in its own right. The steelworks were passed from state control to part-public part-private ownership in 2009 and began major exports overseas. However, in recent years it has become something of a sick plant, with the company spreading to other cities and the original home plant struggling on, racking up huge debts in the oft-delayed production of TISCO-phase 2, a complete renovation and rebuild of the plant to adapt to the changes in demand and industrial progress, especially after its position of prominence in the city was threatened by the construction of a Samsung phone factory in 2014. A Chinese joint venture was launched, but the original works continued to suffer and even endured bankruptcy after the main deal with Chinese state-owned enterprises fell through.

The actual course of the TTT is very, very simple. The course starts and finishes at the wide open parade grounds you can see at the start of this video, heads to the central fountain photographed above, where we turn right and head southeast out of town on the wide dual carriageway of the QL37, which runs parallel to the main Thái Nguyên-Hanoi expressway. It’s then a case of heading out of town on the QL37 until we reach the main gateway to the TISCO works, where we have a u-turn and return from whence we came. This is actually at the 6,6km mark rather than an exact halfway, simply because of the sheer size of the traffic island we are encircling!!!

Either way, this should set up a GC that isn’t just sprinters, but at only 13km should not isolate or distance people too much just yet, which is imperative as we have some interesting days to come.
 
Stage 3: Thái Nguyên - Yên Bái, 139km





GPM:
Đèo Khế (cat.4) 1,4km @ 6,9%

Stage 3 is the first ‘real’ road stage, a short flat stage through northern Vietnam which sets off from Thái Nguyên, yesterday’s stage town. The HTV Cup is much more likely to do the old fashioned “no transfer, start where you finished yesterday” style of race, for two reasons:
the race frequently finishes in large cities so there’s no problem with the apparatus of the race, and the aim is to bring the race to the populace rather than vice versa
With often an infrastructure that varies from top notch linking a lot of cities to some fairly sketchy back roads, and a national reputation for absolute chaos on the roads, long transfers can take longer than you might expect on the more established European road system.
I have got a few transfers in here, as the real race includes a good few, but it’s also good for me to save space with these zero-transfer stages, as I don’t need to tell you about the stage start host again!

Instead, we set off on what is largely a flat stage with a few little rolling stretches, and the first point of interest is Hồ Núi Cốc, a large lake with shoreline resort villages and several islands which is a popular spot for visitors in northern Vietnam.



Núi Cốc is actually the name of the mountain that overlooks this widening in the Công river, a tributary of the Red River. Legend says that Cốc was a boy from a poor family and Công a rich Mandarin girl who he loved; he would play songs to entice his love from her house, but she was forbidden to leave to see him. After his death he was transformed into a mountain by supernatural beings, who communicated his fate to Công; she then cried, literally, a river, which fed the lake that lies beneath her lover’s mountain. The tears are also said by mythology to have influenced the flavour of the local tea, and led to the high reputation and prestige of Tân Cương. In recent times, since 2007 especially, this has also been a centre for ecotourism, attaching attractions such as musical fountains to the existing carved figures, statues of the Buddha and boat tours.

We head along and over our first categorised climb of the race, a small and fairly unthreatening cat.4, around 100km from the line. Nobody should be having trouble here. The worst climbers among the sprinters may, however, have to go deep enough to compromise their form for the first intermediate sprint, just 10km later. The main urban stop off for the stage is the second intermediate sprint in Tuyên Quang, a former garrison town with a strong military history; it was one of the most celebrated garrisons in the French Foreign Legion’s history after they defended it for four straight months of siege during the Sino-French War, however in 1954 the legionnaires were rounded up and led to the monument celebrating this achievement to symbolically surrender to the Viet Minh on that specific spot.



The rest of the stage is a rolling route with no real climbing to be done, and which will favour the bunch, especially as they will want to make hay while the sun shines, since it’s not long until the race heads into terrain that will see them removed from the GC mix once and for all, not keeping them hanging on the way they often get to in the HTV Cup. We loop around Hồ Thác Bà, an artificial lake created in the 1960s by the damming of the Sông Chảy river to establish the Thác Bà hydroelectric plant. We take a slight extension of the route to pass the power plant, because this is a stage race through a single party state, so broadcasting their strength and development to the world is of importance to them, and with the stage being as it is, that isn’t going to create any difference to the action. And the drones (which replace helicams at the HTV Cup) will give us some beautiful aerial shots of the hundreds of islands which dot the lake.



The stage finishes with a series of rolling curves and then a long fast straight finish in the city of Yên Bái, capital of the eponymous province. There is a 30º right hand curve around 800m from the line, but it’s a wide road and an open, wide-radius curve in the road rather than an actual corner, so this is a very safe sprint if indeed that is the finish we see (which it is likely it will be). Yên Bái is a city of just under 100.000 which, due to its location at the far end of the country, has not seen HTV Cup action before. It is best known for the Tổng khởi-nghĩa Yên-bái, or Yên Bái Mutiny, in which 50 members of the 4th Regiment of the Tirailleurs Tonkinois, the French colonial forces in the region, assisted by 60 or so civilian independence fighters representing the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng (or VNQDD). The impact of the mutiny was relatively limited in the short term, but much stronger in the long term, and not in the way the VNQDD would have wanted.

Ultimately, the mutiny failed when it was unable to convince a larger contingent of the colonial forces to defect, and the majority remained loyal to the French colonists. The VNQDD had been blamed for the assassination of an unpopular French labour leader, and had gone into hiding and launched grass roots campaigns to stir up nationalist feeling. The Yên Bái garrison was targeted due to its advantageous position near the top of the Red River Delta, since the VNQDD was only strong in northern Vietnam, and this area was disproportionately represented among their supporters. However, the attack was hastened by the raiding on Christmas Day 1929 of their meeting to form a provisional government, thanks to an informant in their midst. This meant that the French were aware of a planned mutiny, albeit not knowing where, and took steps to mitigate it. The intention was for three attacks to take place simultaneously, however the messenger sent to instruct Nguyễn Khắc Nhu, the member responsible for Yên Bái, to instruct a new, later attack time due to unforeseen issues at other sites was intercepted, meaning he attacked at the original planned time, not knowing that he would then be facing a more prepared French force than originally expected.

While the VNQDD did manage to capture the armoury and raise their flag, killing 5 French soldiers en route, and it seemed the nationalists had overestimated the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of their propaganda, as around 90% of the Vietnamese colonial forces remained loyal to their commanders, resulting in a swift suppression of the mutiny. This was largely as the highest-level VNQDD supporter and distributor within the garrison had, unbeknownst to the civilian attackers, been removed from position due to ill health in the lead to the attack; the French had also instigated a widespread transfer of troops to minimise the impact of nationalist ideology, with a majority of the potentially nationalist-sympathising troops in the Yên Bái region transferred to more loyalist southern provinces and vice versa. As a result, with the French now being aware of the attacks, the subsequent mutinies at Sơn Dương were quashed almost as soon as they began. Nguyễn Thái Học, the charismatic 28-year-old leader of the VNQDD, was captured and executed, and further punitive retribution on the part of the French colonial forces would serve as a significant cause of resentment that aided in the aggressive overthrow of the colonists in the immediate aftermath of World War II. However, the public image of the VNQDD had been damaged by the fallout from the mutiny and they lost ground in oppositional stakes to the Đảng Cộng sản Đông Dương, or Indochinese Communist Party, with the failure and poor execution of the Yên Bái Mutiny being a key argument which led to Hồ Chí Minh, leader of the DCDD, becoming the central figure of opposition to colonialism in Vietnam. The VNQDD were the equivalent of, say, the Kuomintang, as a nationalist movement which had some left leanings but ill at ease with the Communists; however, with the execution of Nguyễn Thái Học they had no equivalent of Chiang Kai-shek to rally themselves around, and were never the force in post-colonial Vietnam that they had set out to be. Nguyễn Thái Học was a young, dynamic and intelligent leader that could have served as a genuine alternative to Uncle Ho, but the errors and omissions in the execution of the 1930 mutinies decimated the leadership of the VNQDD and paved the way for the Vietnam that we know today.



As a result, a stage finish in Yên Bái sort of commemorates a long dead nationalist movement that failed, but it also commemorates an important step in the anti-colonial struggles of Vietnam, and in the story of how Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam (the CPV, or Communist Party of Vietnam) came to rule the nation.
 
Stage 4: Yên Bái - Lào Cai, 167km





GPM:
Đèo Khe Lếch (cat.2) 5,0km @ 7,1%
Đèo Sơn Hà (cat.3) 2,2km @ 9,5%
Nam Tien (cat.4) 1,2km @ 6,9%

The uphills start to get a bit more serious here as we are, in fact, heading away from Ho Chi Minh City, all the way up to the very north of the country, right up against the border with China. This is also the first stage which is of what you would call typical pro length (although obviously short TTTs are hardly rare), being up in the 160-170km range. Once more, no transfer at all as we set off from the town we finished in yesterday. As mentioned on the previous stage, Yên Bái is on the Red River, and we will basically be following the path of the famous waterway up to the border with Yunnan Province. As mentioned before, Vietnam is essentially a long thin strip of land which connects two river deltas, the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south. As a result, reaching the Chinese border on the Red River means hitting the northernmost point we will reach in the HTV Cup.


The Red River, or Sông Hồng in Vietnamese (and 红河 in Chinese characters, Hóng Hé in Mandarin), near Yên Bái

Of course, the Red River has been the source of much trade, military action and other transportation of people and goods throughout history; “Viet”, as in “Vietnam”, is a Vietnamese-language reflection of “Yue”, or ‘southerly’ from Chinese, and “Nguyên”, that most archetypal of Vietnamese surnames - indeed something like 40% of the population share it - is a Vietnamese-language reflection of the Chinese “Yuan”. However, Chinese-Vietnamese relations are somewhat strained of late; despite being perhaps the two most recognised and successful Communist nations in the world here in the 21st Century (I contest that Vietnam is clearly doing better than Cuba at present in the second category, and is probably in a close-run battle with Cuba for second place in the former) - the long-standing territorial disagreements between the two nations recommenced after Vietnamese reunification in 1975, despite the Chinese support for North Vietnam’s war efforts. The Vietnamese remained skeptical of Chiang Kai-shek’s support for the ailing VNQDD, while the difficult history - including several colonisations and territorial captures and significant Han migration into the Red River Delta - between the two led the Vietnamese communists to be highly conflicted and concerned about the motives of the Chinese support for their war effort, a suspicion which ultimately led to them choosing in favour of the USSR in the Sino-Soviet split despite bribes from Deng Xiaoping should they come down on the Chinese side of the ideological battle.

China subsequently strengthened its position in Southeast Asia by allying itself with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, especially after reunified Vietnam formalised its alliance with the Lao PDR, following the combination of the Lao assistance in the war with the US/Reunification War, and the removal of the royalist leaders and the former king from Laos in 1975. China-Vietnam relations were therefore extremely strained by the war between Vietnam and Cambodia, precipitated by Cambodian aggression in the Mekong Delta, but ending with a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the deposition of Pol Pot. China attacked northern Vietnam along the Red River route in early 1979 but withdrew after two weeks of aggression; however the peace talks broke down and the route from Yên Bái to Lào Cai was heavily militarised, as were other border passes and river routes. In all, around one million troops were stationed at the border by the two countries, and frequent minor skirmishes would break out but no full scale conflicts. The turn of the political tide coinciding with the European Wende thawed the Sino-Vietnamese relations, with Vietnam agreeing to exit Kampuchea (which renamed itself Cambodia) and the dissolution of Vietnam’s China-baiting alliance the USSR after the latter folded. Major infrastructural projects were undertaken to improve communications between the two single-party states, and one of these was the improvement of the highway along the Red River, since the river itself had largely been used as the transitory route from Yunnan to Hanoi historically. Modern relations have cooled somewhat over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and this actually proved relatively useful for the Vietnamese in making it easier for them to shut the Chinese border early on in the 2020 pandemic. It also means that we are less likely to be interrupting too much trade traffic when we close part of that road for our stage route here.

Parallel roads flank the Red River northwest of Yên Bái; to the north of the river lies the DT162, to the south the DT163 and the newer, high-speed route of the CT05. We take the DT162 for the first 80km of our route, which are almost entirely rolling with one gradual - just false flat - ascent with a descent down to the riverside again. No threat to even Andrea Guardini, and I don’t think even the péloton of the HTV Cup has anybody who can climb much worse than that. We then reach the tranquil temple at Bảo Hà, a popular site of pilgrimage below the Cam Hill overlooking the Red River, where allegedly the Holy Prince Hoàng Bảy, from the Pantheon of Four Palaces (Đạo Mẫu, a Vietnamese folk religion involving the worship of Mother Goddesses), resided. Truthfully, this mythology arose because during the Lê Dynasty, General Nguyên Hoàng Bảy was sent to pacify this region against foreign incursions and invasions, in which by and large he succeeded; he was eventually killed in action while heavily outmatched, and the villagers built a temple to his namesake deity in his memory.



Crossing over to the southwestern side of the Red River, we immediately start a cat.2 ascent, the 5km at 7% of Đèo Khe Lếch. Mostly consistent, this climb is around 75km from the finish so unlikely to cause any incident, but there’s a meta volante at the base with bonus seconds - probably going to the break, but given the less controlled racing in this part of the world, offering the potential for somebody to get some time if they fancy attacking the climb or descent and then sitting up.

We then head back northwestwards, but are now in the floodplains of the Nậm Chăn, a tributary of the Red River, separated from the larger river by a mountain ridge. After 25-30km of rolling terrain, actually leaving the riverside as it heads east to join the Red River, it’s time for us to rejoin the larger flow, this time by taking the steep road over the ridge that takes us to Phố Lu, capital of the Bảo Thắng district. This climb is just over 2km in length but is genuinely steep - over 9% - and crests about 40km from home. A stage hunter might think about it, but more realistically the teams of durable riders who can sprint, like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, will use this to drill tempo and get rid of more power-oriented sprinters like Lê Nguyệt Minh.



No sooner have we reached the Red River, however, than we’re turning back onto the DT152, toward Tấng Loỏng, over a cat.4 ascent which is 1200m at 7% and crests 32km from the line. This should help enable any gaps created by the Đèo Sơn Hà climb that precedes it to be preserved and solidified, and make it harder for those dropped to instantly get back into the thick of it. Tấng Loỏng also hosts the final intermediate sprint of the day, again looking to incentivise a bit of pace on the climbs with the enticement of bonus seconds. Likewise this may expedite the chase of the breakaway, meaning the prospect of fresh attackers in the last 30km. However, most of the last 10km are absolutely ramrod straight, which obviously favours the chasers; eventually, after arriving in Lao Cài we have a long and sweeping turn around a huge roundabout at Vòng Xuyến, where we take almost a full 360º left-hander before two consecutive right-handers onto our finishing straight, the central thoroughfare of Hoàng Liên, just in front of Nhạc Sơn, an artificial lake with a temple pagoda built on an artificial island at its centre.



Lao Cài had a central role in the Chinese-Vietnamese border issues mentioned above, as you might imagine - it sits at the confluence of the Red River with the Nậm Thi, known to the Chinese as 南溪河, or Nanxi (the last symbol there is “hé”, which means “river”) where Hekou County, Yunnan meets Vietnam. The Nanxi forms the border between the two states to the northeast, while the Red River forms it for the next 50km or so northwest. Lao Cài is precisely on the border, commandeering the western side of the Red River and the southern side of the Nanxi, confining the neighbouring Chinese town of Hekouzhen to a quarter of the available terrain. Hekou Gao’s entire population for the county is just under half of the population of Lao Cài city itself, which totals a rapidly-expanding 173.000.

Lao Cài is largely a timber producing town, but also has a carbide processing plant. This has made it somewhat attractive for international trade, at least once the border was reopened. The Chinese had attacked the town in 1979 but been repelled, and with the Sino-Vietnamese relationship strained through the 80s, the border was closed until the early 90s. When it was opened, however, China implemented and developed the Hekou Border Economic Cooperation Zone, one of China’s designated specialist industrial areas where international trade and overseas investment is encouraged. The old colonial-era railway connecting Yunnan to Vietnam through Lao Cài to Hanoi and on to the port of Hải Phòng was reconnected and renovated, and further connecting Vietnam into southern China, with the terminus being Kunming, capital of Yunnan, through a newer, standard-gauge railway from Kunming to Hekouzhen. Having been a somewhat distant outpost for many years while China-Vietnam relations were poor, the city rapidly expanded once trade was reopened, and has doubled in size in the last 20 years as a result. It also has a role as a gateway to some tourist attractions, but that’s a story for another day…


Lao Cài, with Hekouzhen in the background on the far side of the river
 
Stage 5: Lao Cài - Lai Châu (Chùa Linh Ứng), 105km





GPM:
Pờ Sì Ngài (cat.2) 9,3km @ 6,3%
Đèo Ô Quy Hồ (HC) 40,0km @ 4,7%
Giàng Ma (cat.1) 11,5km @ 5,4%
Chùa Linh Ứng (cat.3) 4,7km @ 6,0%

Yea, things are getting hard early. Super short stage, but super difficult - so the riders will be glad to know that this is the third straight night where there’s no transfer whatsoever and they can rest up ahead of this one. Which they’re going to need because this is one of the hardest stages of the entire race, featuring the altitude ceiling that the race is going to reach as well - sure, that seems unlikely in a world of the Cima Coppi but it isn’t unknown - for example, the Vuelta has reached its highest point on stage 8 in 2008 (Port de la Bonaigua) and even stage 4 in 2011 (Pradollano, the ski resort of Sierra Nevada, by its oldest and most traditional side). Here, it’s more a result of Vietnamese geography, where essentially the entire country rises from shoreline in the east to mountains in the west, and the highest of these mountains are at the north of the country, protecting it from Chinese expansion.

To counter the impact of having such a brutal stage so early, however, it is at least pleasingly short, which means that it actually has more in common with the kind of mountain stages we see from Latin American cycling, with races like the Vuelta al Tachirá, Vuelta a Guatemala, Vuelta a Costa Rica and Vuelta al Ecuador all commonly featuring stages of around 100-120km in length with major altitude differences. This one is a really tough one, so we might have to take advantage of some of the idiosyncrasies of the HTV Cup - as the race is not a UCI event, they have in the past, due to relatively small size of péloton (especially this year, with no overseas involvement), operated a rule that allows riders missing the time cut to remain in the race, but at the expense of no longer being able to appear in the General Classification. Some of them might be grateful for such a rule existing, especially if some of the better climbing mercenaries or overseas interests compete (and especially if some of the overseas teams do bring riders they have signed for Langkawi) - if people like Carlos Quintero and Matvey Mamykin or some of the Iranians are going nuts, there could be some issues with the time cut. Gong Hyo-Suk has a 2nd on Genting Highlands (behind José Rujano) and on Mount Fuji (behind Sérgio Pardilla) in his palmarès. Hell, even if the guests and overseas teams don’t, if riders like Jamal Hibatullah and Javier Sardá - or indeed Vietnam’s best prospect for a home GC win on this parcours, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, are going great guns, this could still be a very difficult stage for a lot of riders; the gradients aren’t any tougher than anything they’ll be familiar with, but the length of time spent climbing might be.



Almost as soon as the stage begins, so the climbing does too, as we head into the Hoàng Liên Sơn range, which is a feature of the northwestern corner of the Red River Delta end of Vietnam. And, just for an added touch of evil, there’s an intermediate sprint in the middle of it - though that does have its reasons.

Đèo Ô Quy Hồ, sometimes just known as “Ho Mountain Pass” is one of the most famous roads in Vietnam, a tourist attraction in and of itself which ascends nearly 2000m in 40 kilometres of ribbon-like tarmac strewn across the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountains. This is a true behemoth, and finding comparable ascents is difficult. Its ascent consists of a number of smaller ascents, which makes it hard to find reasonable European equivalents. Perhaps the Alto da Torre, from the Seia side, is one of the more reasonable equivalents, Cálar Alto from Serón, Puerto de los Portillinos / Llano de las Ovejas from Ponferrada, or Val Thorens. This is a really, really difficult climb.



The climb itself is made up of several smaller climbs. The first one has even been categorised separately in order to encourage some early moves, seeing as, as we saw from the racing on Đèo Ngoạn Mục in the 2020 race, tempo is likely to rule the day, especially if somebody like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài holds the yellow jersey. The first part of the climb, to Pờ Sì Ngài, has been arguably under-categorised as a cat.2, as it could reasonably fit cat.1 status, but the distance from the finish meant the cat.2 points were decided upon - not least because it also counts as part of the overall ascent to Ô Quy Hồ.

Ô Quy Hồ in its totality comprises a number of sections of climb:
the initial ascent of 9,3km @ 6,3%, before a 2km respite of flat;
6,5km @ 7,2% from Trung Chải before another 2,5km or so of false flat and flat to Bản Sà Chua;
3,3km @ 6,5% from Bản Sà Chua to the entrance to Sa Pa, through which there’s another kilometre of flat ending with the aforementioned mid-climb intermediate sprint and the associated bonus seconds;
4,7km @ 4,6% from Sa Pa to the lookout point across to Phan Xi Păng, known in English as Fansipan, the highest mountain of the Indochinese peninsula;
A 6km plateau of barely 1% incline, where the Sa Pa - Ô Quy Hồ forks left to avoid heading over a lower pass and descending - via a second but smaller and lower incline - to Mống Xóa, and ending at the Silver Waterfall, known locally as Thác Bạc.
4km @ 5%, around 5,5% as far as Đèo Trạm Tôn and then a final kilometre of just 2-3% to our eventual summit.


Sa Pa, a scenic mountain resort and site of the intermediate sprint


Thác Bạc waterfall, one of Vietnam’s most renowned natural wonders

Sa Pa is a necessary intermediate sprint stop as one of the biggest towns we will pass through and a major tourist hub for northern Vietnam. Many ethnic minorities, long since confined to backwater and isolated areas of the country, live in this area, and Sa Pa is also a cultural centre for the nation’s Hmong community. Around 60.000 people live in Sa Pa, accessing the wider world only via two significant mountain roads - the one we are climbing, and one which heads at a shallower gradient down to the Red River around about the point of the last two climbs in the previous day’s stage. Home to stone carvings on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites, it was a backwater until the French discovered the spa town potential of the area, and Chapa (as the French called it, owing to the harsh pronunciation of the initial S- in Hmong) started to appear on the map. A military sanatorium was established in 1912, and then private villas swiftly followed for French colonial elites. Việt Minh sympathisers, and subsequently French anti-Việt Minh air raids, destroyed almost all of this colonial architecture in the post-WWII era, but its spa town opportunities meant it had strong tourist potential and it was reconstructed accordingly, although the industry really took off in the mid-90s, when tourists visiting Sa Pa increased thirtyfold (!). Trekking, hiking and absorbing the isolated Dao/Yao and Hmong cultures are popular pursuits that attract people to Sa Pa, as is the cool and less humid climate during the hotter and, yes, more humid season in Vietnam - Sa Pa is one of very few areas in the country which is susceptible in winter to snowfall, in fact. The area is also known for incredible variety in flora and fauna in the Hoàng Liên Nature Reserve, now a national park, plus the cable car access across a terrifying valley to access Phan Xi Păng.

Like yesterday’s lakes, Ô Quy Hồ’s name is rooted in legend; it is alleged to be the song of the phoenix, arisen from the ashes of a lover who died too young. It is known to some Anglophone sources as “heaven’s gate”, as it forms a spot which frequently stands above the clouds, out of which the mountains rise majestically, lending a supernatural feel. The summit of this monolithic climb comes with 60km still to go, however, so the chances of riders going all out on this one just yet are fairly limited. We will likely see a group of the elites here, with the likes of Gong, Sardá, Hibatullah, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, Désriac, Lê Văn Duẩn, Sirironnachai and maybe Nguyễn Tấn Hoài likely to be there with a thimbleful of domestiques each. Maybe Võ Thanh An - he is Vietnam’s most promising young rider and is well reputed when it comes to climbing, but crashed out of 2020’s HTV Cup before he had the chance to prove that. There is then a 30km descent that will enable riders to recoup as much of their strength as possible - again, similar kind of gradients, descending 1230m in the first 22km, so around 5,6%, then a flat, a second bit of descent and then a flat stretch into Cò Lá, which hosts the second intermediate sprint.





The descent is very sinuous, especially the first part, which is full of twists and turns and technical, although it opens out and is a faster route further down. After the meta volante, the road turns uphill again on a pass which has a village at its summit called Giàng Ma. This climb, which separates Cò Lá from Lai Châu, is a 11,5km @ 5,4% ascent which is mostly pretty consistent in gradient, although it has a couple of steeper kilometres at around 8%, most notably at the very bottom of the climb. This ascent crests with 17km remaining, and is a somewhat lopsided climb, so the descent is a good bit shorter before arriving in Lai Châu, which would be the de facto stage town here as well as providing the logistics for the race overnight. This video showcases a few highlights of the scenery of the second half of this stage, starting in Lai Châu and climbing over Giàng Ma and then continuing all the way to Ô Quy Hồ. Cò Lá is passed through at about the 11 minute mark, so before that is the Giàng Ma pass, then about the 16 minute mark we see the turning for Ô Quy Hồ, which then takes up the remainder of the video. If you like breathtaking scenery, it’s worth a watch.


Lai Châu, formerly Mường Lay (this name is preserved in a separate, smaller town to the west of Lai Châu), is the former capital of the White Tai people, an ethnic group that inhabits the borderlands between Vietnam, Laos and Yunnan Province, China, and whose autonomy was recognised by both the Chinese and the French during colonial times, largely thanks to the great respect commandeered by Cam Oum, known to Vietnamese as Đèo Văn Trị, who united the Sip Song Chau Tai, or union of White Tai communities, and was loyal to the Nguyễn Triều, the last royal dynasty of Vietnam. This is very much an outpost in Vietnam; inaccessible other than by difficult and often treacherous mountain passes, with no rail connection and unsafe to implement an airstrip, and isolated from major trade routes, Lai Châu has remained underdeveloped to the present day and largely dependent on agriculture and forestry, however as of 2000, when the province was found to be 93 times less productive than the richest provinces of Vietnam, a state-run program to improve the industrial capacity of the region was implemented, tripling the economic productivity of the region in seven years. The thawing of Sino-Vietnamese relations has enabled the city to be linked to Gejiu in China, albeit by similarly treacherous mountain passes as it is accessed by from other Vietnamese cities. These roads - many of which west of the provincial capital are unpaved - are undergoing rapid infrastructure development to bring the region up to speed with the rest of the country, and so showing off these improved roads is a key motivation to bring the race to these climes.



The final intermediate sprint takes place in Lai Châu city, before a short flat and our final uphill to the line, a simple cat.3 to the hilltop Chùa Linh Ứng temple, which overlooks the city. The climb is around 4-5km in length at a fairly unthreatening 6,1%, but after climbs like this, this is likely to be an absolute Aprica, no? There should be some big gaps now, just because going uphill again after a genuine, WT-level HC mountain like Ô Quy Hồ and then a perfectly reasonable cat.1, is likely to be enough to break things apart because I don’t see anybody having many teammates to hand by now.

This climb, like the main one of the day, is also built out of separate sections. The first kilometre is just 2,5%, but then it jumps up to 8km for the next kilometre. There’s then a flattening out, before 800m at 7%, 600m at 4%, and then a final 600m at 9% including our steepest gradients right near the top. This will hopefully be one of those situations where even if the best are together late on, those final few hundred metres are going to hurt and extend gaps from small to medium, and medium to big. You can see a video about the reconstruction of the temple here. Early contender for queen stage here - not the one I say would win the title - it is only 105km after all - but it’s a legit contender at least. After this we should know who is going to be contesting the GC, that’s for sure.

 
Stage 5: Lao Cài - Lai Châu (Chùa Linh Ứng), 105km





GPM:
Pờ Sì Ngài (cat.2) 9,3km @ 6,3%
Đèo Ô Quy Hồ (HC) 40,0km @ 4,7%
Giàng Ma (cat.1) 11,5km @ 5,4%
Chùa Linh Ứng (cat.3) 4,7km @ 6,0%

Yea, things are getting hard early. Super short stage, but super difficult - so the riders will be glad to know that this is the third straight night where there’s no transfer whatsoever and they can rest up ahead of this one. Which they’re going to need because this is one of the hardest stages of the entire race, featuring the altitude ceiling that the race is going to reach as well - sure, that seems unlikely in a world of the Cima Coppi but it isn’t unknown - for example, the Vuelta has reached its highest point on stage 8 in 2008 (Port de la Bonaigua) and even stage 4 in 2011 (Pradollano, the ski resort of Sierra Nevada, by its oldest and most traditional side). Here, it’s more a result of Vietnamese geography, where essentially the entire country rises from shoreline in the east to mountains in the west, and the highest of these mountains are at the north of the country, protecting it from Chinese expansion.

To counter the impact of having such a brutal stage so early, however, it is at least pleasingly short, which means that it actually has more in common with the kind of mountain stages we see from Latin American cycling, with races like the Vuelta al Tachirá, Vuelta a Guatemala, Vuelta a Costa Rica and Vuelta al Ecuador all commonly featuring stages of around 100-120km in length with major altitude differences. This one is a really tough one, so we might have to take advantage of some of the idiosyncrasies of the HTV Cup - as the race is not a UCI event, they have in the past, due to relatively small size of péloton (especially this year, with no overseas involvement), operated a rule that allows riders missing the time cut to remain in the race, but at the expense of no longer being able to appear in the General Classification. Some of them might be grateful for such a rule existing, especially if some of the better climbing mercenaries or overseas interests compete (and especially if some of the overseas teams do bring riders they have signed for Langkawi) - if people like Carlos Quintero and Matvey Mamykin or some of the Iranians are going nuts, there could be some issues with the time cut. Gong Hyo-Suk has a 2nd on Genting Highlands (behind José Rujano) and on Mount Fuji (behind Sérgio Pardilla) in his palmarès. Hell, even if the guests and overseas teams don’t, if riders like Jamal Hibatullah and Javier Sardá - or indeed Vietnam’s best prospect for a home GC win on this parcours, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, are going great guns, this could still be a very difficult stage for a lot of riders; the gradients aren’t any tougher than anything they’ll be familiar with, but the length of time spent climbing might be.



Almost as soon as the stage begins, so the climbing does too, as we head into the Hoàng Liên Sơn range, which is a feature of the northwestern corner of the Red River Delta end of Vietnam. And, just for an added touch of evil, there’s an intermediate sprint in the middle of it - though that does have its reasons.

Đèo Ô Quy Hồ, sometimes just known as “Ho Mountain Pass” is one of the most famous roads in Vietnam, a tourist attraction in and of itself which ascends nearly 2000m in 40 kilometres of ribbon-like tarmac strewn across the Hoàng Liên Sơn mountains. This is a true behemoth, and finding comparable ascents is difficult. Its ascent consists of a number of smaller ascents, which makes it hard to find reasonable European equivalents. Perhaps the Alto da Torre, from the Seia side, is one of the more reasonable equivalents, Cálar Alto from Serón, Puerto de los Portillinos / Llano de las Ovejas from Ponferrada, or Val Thorens. This is a really, really difficult climb.



The climb itself is made up of several smaller climbs. The first one has even been categorised separately in order to encourage some early moves, seeing as, as we saw from the racing on Đèo Ngoạn Mục in the 2020 race, tempo is likely to rule the day, especially if somebody like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài holds the yellow jersey. The first part of the climb, to Pờ Sì Ngài, has been arguably under-categorised as a cat.2, as it could reasonably fit cat.1 status, but the distance from the finish meant the cat.2 points were decided upon - not least because it also counts as part of the overall ascent to Ô Quy Hồ.

Ô Quy Hồ in its totality comprises a number of sections of climb:
the initial ascent of 9,3km @ 6,3%, before a 2km respite of flat;
6,5km @ 7,2% from Trung Chải before another 2,5km or so of false flat and flat to Bản Sà Chua;
3,3km @ 6,5% from Bản Sà Chua to the entrance to Sa Pa, through which there’s another kilometre of flat ending with the aforementioned mid-climb intermediate sprint and the associated bonus seconds;
4,7km @ 4,6% from Sa Pa to the lookout point across to Phan Xi Păng, known in English as Fansipan, the highest mountain of the Indochinese peninsula;
A 6km plateau of barely 1% incline, where the Sa Pa - Ô Quy Hồ forks left to avoid heading over a lower pass and descending - via a second but smaller and lower incline - to Mống Xóa, and ending at the Silver Waterfall, known locally as Thác Bạc.
4km @ 5%, around 5,5% as far as Đèo Trạm Tôn and then a final kilometre of just 2-3% to our eventual summit.


Sa Pa, a scenic mountain resort and site of the intermediate sprint


Thác Bạc waterfall, one of Vietnam’s most renowned natural wonders

Sa Pa is a necessary intermediate sprint stop as one of the biggest towns we will pass through and a major tourist hub for northern Vietnam. Many ethnic minorities, long since confined to backwater and isolated areas of the country, live in this area, and Sa Pa is also a cultural centre for the nation’s Hmong community. Around 60.000 people live in Sa Pa, accessing the wider world only via two significant mountain roads - the one we are climbing, and one which heads at a shallower gradient down to the Red River around about the point of the last two climbs in the previous day’s stage. Home to stone carvings on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage sites, it was a backwater until the French discovered the spa town potential of the area, and Chapa (as the French called it, owing to the harsh pronunciation of the initial S- in Hmong) started to appear on the map. A military sanatorium was established in 1912, and then private villas swiftly followed for French colonial elites. Việt Minh sympathisers, and subsequently French anti-Việt Minh air raids, destroyed almost all of this colonial architecture in the post-WWII era, but its spa town opportunities meant it had strong tourist potential and it was reconstructed accordingly, although the industry really took off in the mid-90s, when tourists visiting Sa Pa increased thirtyfold (!). Trekking, hiking and absorbing the isolated Dao/Yao and Hmong cultures are popular pursuits that attract people to Sa Pa, as is the cool and less humid climate during the hotter and, yes, more humid season in Vietnam - Sa Pa is one of very few areas in the country which is susceptible in winter to snowfall, in fact. The area is also known for incredible variety in flora and fauna in the Hoàng Liên Nature Reserve, now a national park, plus the cable car access across a terrifying valley to access Phan Xi Păng.

Like yesterday’s lakes, Ô Quy Hồ’s name is rooted in legend; it is alleged to be the song of the phoenix, arisen from the ashes of a lover who died too young. It is known to some Anglophone sources as “heaven’s gate”, as it forms a spot which frequently stands above the clouds, out of which the mountains rise majestically, lending a supernatural feel. The summit of this monolithic climb comes with 60km still to go, however, so the chances of riders going all out on this one just yet are fairly limited. We will likely see a group of the elites here, with the likes of Gong, Sardá, Hibatullah, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, Désriac, Lê Văn Duẩn, Sirironnachai and maybe Nguyễn Tấn Hoài likely to be there with a thimbleful of domestiques each. Maybe Võ Thanh An - he is Vietnam’s most promising young rider and is well reputed when it comes to climbing, but crashed out of 2020’s HTV Cup before he had the chance to prove that. There is then a 30km descent that will enable riders to recoup as much of their strength as possible - again, similar kind of gradients, descending 1230m in the first 22km, so around 5,6%, then a flat, a second bit of descent and then a flat stretch into Cò Lá, which hosts the second intermediate sprint.





The descent is very sinuous, especially the first part, which is full of twists and turns and technical, although it opens out and is a faster route further down. After the meta volante, the road turns uphill again on a pass which has a village at its summit called Giàng Ma. This climb, which separates Cò Lá from Lai Châu, is a 11,5km @ 5,4% ascent which is mostly pretty consistent in gradient, although it has a couple of steeper kilometres at around 8%, most notably at the very bottom of the climb. This ascent crests with 17km remaining, and is a somewhat lopsided climb, so the descent is a good bit shorter before arriving in Lai Châu, which would be the de facto stage town here as well as providing the logistics for the race overnight. This video showcases a few highlights of the scenery of the second half of this stage, starting in Lai Châu and climbing over Giàng Ma and then continuing all the way to Ô Quy Hồ. Cò Lá is passed through at about the 11 minute mark, so before that is the Giàng Ma pass, then about the 16 minute mark we see the turning for Ô Quy Hồ, which then takes up the remainder of the video. If you like breathtaking scenery, it’s worth a watch.


Lai Châu, formerly Mường Lay (this name is preserved in a separate, smaller town to the west of Lai Châu), is the former capital of the White Tai people, an ethnic group that inhabits the borderlands between Vietnam, Laos and Yunnan Province, China, and whose autonomy was recognised by both the Chinese and the French during colonial times, largely thanks to the great respect commandeered by Cam Oum, known to Vietnamese as Đèo Văn Trị, who united the Sip Song Chau Tai, or union of White Tai communities, and was loyal to the Nguyễn Triều, the last royal dynasty of Vietnam. This is very much an outpost in Vietnam; inaccessible other than by difficult and often treacherous mountain passes, with no rail connection and unsafe to implement an airstrip, and isolated from major trade routes, Lai Châu has remained underdeveloped to the present day and largely dependent on agriculture and forestry, however as of 2000, when the province was found to be 93 times less productive than the richest provinces of Vietnam, a state-run program to improve the industrial capacity of the region was implemented, tripling the economic productivity of the region in seven years. The thawing of Sino-Vietnamese relations has enabled the city to be linked to Gejiu in China, albeit by similarly treacherous mountain passes as it is accessed by from other Vietnamese cities. These roads - many of which west of the provincial capital are unpaved - are undergoing rapid infrastructure development to bring the region up to speed with the rest of the country, and so showing off these improved roads is a key motivation to bring the race to these climes.



The final intermediate sprint takes place in Lai Châu city, before a short flat and our final uphill to the line, a simple cat.3 to the hilltop Chùa Linh Ứng temple, which overlooks the city. The climb is around 4-5km in length at a fairly unthreatening 6,1%, but after climbs like this, this is likely to be an absolute Aprica, no? There should be some big gaps now, just because going uphill again after a genuine, WT-level HC mountain like Ô Quy Hồ and then a perfectly reasonable cat.1, is likely to be enough to break things apart because I don’t see anybody having many teammates to hand by now.

This climb, like the main one of the day, is also built out of separate sections. The first kilometre is just 2,5%, but then it jumps up to 8km for the next kilometre. There’s then a flattening out, before 800m at 7%, 600m at 4%, and then a final 600m at 9% including our steepest gradients right near the top. This will hopefully be one of those situations where even if the best are together late on, those final few hundred metres are going to hurt and extend gaps from small to medium, and medium to big. You can see a video about the reconstruction of the temple here. Early contender for queen stage here - not the one I say would win the title - it is only 105km after all - but it’s a legit contender at least. After this we should know who is going to be contesting the GC, that’s for sure.

That is one beautiful stage! A shame that it would be mostly no names, who'll battle for the win, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good show.

Has the Đèo Ô Quy Hồ ever been used in the HTV Cup or in any other race?
 
Not to my knowledge - it's well out of the way for the HTV Cup most years, it would need to be a year like 2018 when it starts at the very top of the country to include it. VTV's rival race seems to be in the centre of the country, so really we'd need either an independent race organiser or perhaps if H1 (Hanoi's equivalent of HTV) decided they wanted to organise a rival race in the Red River area (most of the biggest races in Vietnam seem to be organised by television companies in much the same way as the big European ones were started by newspapers) we might see it, but it's otherwise unlikely it seems. You know, unless the HTV Cup (which has a 30-year head start in terms of prestige) grows big enough and the level improves enough that a race like mine becomes feasible.

Stage 6: Lai Châu - Nghĩa Lộ, 221km





GPM:
Giàng Ma (cat.2) 7,8km @ 5,5%
Phiêng Phát (cat.3) 3,4km @ 6,4%
Long Thang (cat.4) 4,0km @ 3,8%
Đèo Khau Phạ (cat.2) 10,6km @ 4,2%
Mạ Tun (cat.4) 2,3km @ 6,3%
Nậm Búng (cat.4) 1,1km @ 7,7%
Thuyen Chai (cat.4) 1,1km @ 6,0%

Stage 6 is the final day before the first rest day. One helpful thing about the HTV Cup is that its finish being traditionally on the 30th of April regardless of the day of the week means that there is not the most straightforward of adherences to the formats that we’re used to with Grand Tours (9-6-6, 10-6-5 and 9-7-5 being the most common, at least now the three rest day format has come in and we aren’t seeing 3-9-9 as we have done a few times with overseas starts like in 2010 and 2012’s Giri). The second is that although Saturday and Sunday is, influenced by the time under French colonial control, still informally known as the weekend in Vietnam, the country in fact operates a labour practice of a standard working day of 7:30am - 4:30pm daily, with an hour’s lunch break, but a maximum working week of 48 hours. In effect, this means that workplaces can operate on a consistent basis 7 days a week, with staff mandated to have a day off, or equivalent, each week. As a result, the placement of rest days is less crucial to television audiences than it is in the western world; the race has held rest days on Saturdays and on Sundays in the recent past.

This 6th stage leads into the first rest day - a conventional Grand Tour format would see that rest day being on a Friday, but who knows what day it would fall on in whatever future year this race would be held. It is a very long stage - the longest of the race in fact, at 221km. This, you would say, is almost excessively long for the Southeast Asian calendar, only really the Tour de Langkawi might be expected to put this kind of length stage in (the most recent being in 2018, when Manuel Belletti won a 222km stage from Nilai to Muar, and that was the first 210km+ stage since 2014), and that attracts a more professional péloton than most of the other races in this part of the world. However, this only tells half the story. The Tour de Singkarak featured 4/9 stages in excess of 200km in 2019, although the race had only held one stage of that length before in its history - in 2018. The Tour of Siam in Thailand held a 220km stage in 2005 and 2006, while the Tour of Indonesia had a 220km mountain stage in 2009 which saw 5 of the top 6 riding for Tabriz Petrochemical Team, and the one interloper being an Iranian riding for Azad University (it wasn’t a total Iranian whitewash though, as Andrey Mizourov was riding for Tabriz at the time). In 2016 and 2018 the Tour of Thailand had a 230km flat stage, even. As far as I can see, stages from 180-200km are fairly common at the HTV Cup; stages in excess of 200km are rare, though there was a 220km stage from Pleiku to Tuy Hòa on stage 10 of the 2019 edition, and average stage length is increasing, so I don’t feel this one is too unreasonable, especially given there’s a rest day following it.



Again we are not going with a transfer - although it’s not a zero transfer per se, obviously yesterday’s stage finish was just above Lai Châu, and we’re starting from Lai Châu itself. As I mentioned with that stage, only around 20% of the roads in Lai Châu province are paved fully, and apart from Sơn La there aren’t really any other realistic stage hosts of sufficient size around the western part of this northern protuberance of Vietnam’s Red River Delta area; as a result the first part of this stage is retracing our steps from yesterday’s stage, going over the Giàng Ma pass to Cò Lá. As I mentioned previously it’s a lopsided pass, so from this northern side it’s only a cat.2 climb, since the length is reduced down to just under 8km. However, at the fork in the road after Cò Lá, we take the right-hand fork so as not to duplicate the climb over Ô Quy Hồ; instead we head southeastward, flanking the opposite side of Fansipan, through some rolling terrain with no real flat territory but no climbing of sufficient steepness to classify, at least at first. After an early intermediate sprint in Tân Uyên, a small town adjacent to the narrow northernmost finger of the Hồ Thúy điện Bản Chắt lake, we have two smaller categorised climbs, both fairly consistent and straightforward; firstly a cat.3 climb of 3km at 6,5% or so, and then after the descent from that, a 4km at 4% grind. There is then a second intermediate sprint at Thân Uyên - not to be confused with the host of the first one - the capital of a county of around 70.000 inhabitants, but with just under half of those resident in the town.


Mù Cang Chải

This gives way to the main meat and drink section of the stage for selectivity; the next 40km ascend around 650m, so only at an average of less than 2%, through the Mù Cang Chải valley, one of Vietnam’s more prized tourist attractions for those who wish to see a bit more of the country than Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City - however it does mean that when the riders hit the legitimate climbing part of this stretch, up to Đèo Khau Phạ, they will already have had a fairly significant and consistent level of struggle in their legs, which may enhance its selectivity. Several of these rice fields have been selected for preservation as intrinsic monuments to the cultural history of Vietnam by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and this is the original ‘rice terrace’ so to speak, as this was the area where the Hmong people first managed to harness the water sources and manufacture the terrace environment to maximise their crops using a series of locks and gates akin to European canal systems in order to prevent flooding of crops and to manage water flow between levels.

There is plenty of time to review the scenery for the riders, since it’s a bit of an endless grind of low gradient climbing, like a Big Bear Lake stage but without any actual expectations. It will look phenomenal on the drone shots, at least. And a bit like the Nha Trang stage of this year’s HTV Cup, the distance from the finish is likely to dissuade genuine moves on this climb, but it could see selectivity in terms of riders who suffered yesterday being put out of contention, or a strong break move being formed, with it cresting about 67km from the line. The last 4km of the ascent are the most serious, being at 6% of gradually steepening gradients, with the last 1500m at 8%.



This is followed by a long and twisty descent, not especially steep - 20km at a little under 5%, looks a bit more precipitous than it is on the stage profile thanks to the length of the stage. Nevertheless I’ve tried to incentivise pushing on if there are any moves being made here, with some more bonus seconds available in an intermediate sprint at the base of the descent. The downhill into the Tú Lệ valley is impossibly scenic, as this is an almost untouched natural beauty of Vietnam (of sorts, it’s also almost entirely man-made of course), with the hillside steeped in rigid steps of tea plantations and endless terraces of rice paddies, like gold and green contour lines draped across the mountains. The sticky rice here is particularly prized, and the local speciality, roasted pork with spices and sticky rice, is a prestige dish in northern Vietnam.



There is then 11km of undulating terrain including two categorised climbs, both cat.4. Some great opportunities for the drone cameras to show off a bit of Vietnam’s topography as we head through scenic forested terrain, as there are very few major communities in this neck of the woods, with most of them being on the other side of the mountains on the Red River shores and in its floodplain. This area is largely small agricultural and logging communities, with the occasional natural beauty - most notably the Suối Tiên waterfall - which we pass under (some way under, it’s up on the mountainside) when we are going over our final categorised ascent, which is more a double ascent really, around 750m at 7% followed by a short descent, a false flat kick up, a flat for a few hundred metres and then 1,1km at 6%, cresting 17km from the line. Is it particularly tough? Of course not. But if we have a péloton reduced by attrition, since many of these guys will not face 200km+ stages often, then this could be a surprisingly decisive stage. Especially as there’s a rest day to follow, and therefore they have every reason to go all out with whatever they have left in the tank. 1,1km at 6% isn’t really enough to open up separation in and of itself, but with so many riders likely to be feeling the effects of yesterday’s climbing and with plenty of up and down in the day’s riding already, we should have some small groups up here, either from a breakaway that is allowed to go, or from the favourites having whittled down the group with attrition.

There’s around 9km of vague sauntering downhill after the final ascent, and then we pass a junction on our left that takes us back on an unpaved road to the Red River; we instead continue straight on into the stage town of Nghĩa Lộ. It is the main urban centre in this mountainous area, and the municipality’s population has more than doubled in the last 20 years, with now around 68.000 in the municipality, a little over half of whom are in Nghĩa Lộ itself.


The road into Nghĩa Lộ, the closing stretches of today’s stage

The county of Nghĩa Lộ has an advantageous climate for agriculture, being significantly less humid than the floodplain areas that surround it to the east, and food crops, especially tea, and fruit trees are the most common economic commodity exported by the region, followed by timber. It is an area which has changed hands many times in history, and so the city to which it has been allocated economically in provincial life has varied over time. As a result, however, it has never grown a dependency on any one city, until the small market town of Nghĩa Lộ was inaugurated and upgraded to a city in its own right, in 1971. It has become a popular getaway for those in the extended Hanoi agglomeration, due to its potential as a spa town and, especially during the hot season, its comparatively temperate climate with far lower humidity than the neighbouring areas. It is sustained by a tributary of the Red River which springs from a nearby stream called Thia. In an echo of the previous myths and legends of Vietnamese geography, Thia is translated as “tears”, not in Vietnamese, but in the local language of the indigenous people of the area (I believe that this is a variety of Mường, but I am not an expert in the Mon-Khmer families!), and derives, as before, from a legend of lost love. Though this one isn’t the result of parental disapproval or tragic loss of life, instead it is simply that a boy from the affluent lowlands fell in love in the quiet mountains, and left his love to return to the hustle and bustle of city life.


Finishing straight through the centre of town

The city has also been immortalised in popular song, an oft-covered standard named Anh có vào Nghĩa Lộ với em không, or Would You Come To Nghĩa Lộ With Me? (this is something I do know about Vietnamese: the setting of the negative, không, which means “no” or “not”, as a question marker! The literal meaning is, “You come to Nghĩa Lộ with me, no?”) setting the poetry of lyricist Hoàng Hạnh to music, celebrating the natural atmosphere and climate of Nghĩa Lộ, seen as a tranquil dreamland away from a hectic life in the Red River Delta. For the riders, the question is more like Who will be the first to get to Nghĩa Lộ? Its tranquility was interrupted for a period in the early 1950s, when this backwater, isolated and tranquil region that had so often escaped unscathed from the conflicts between different Vietnamese dynasties, and in Chinese incursions from the north, as these would generally use the river as the direction of invasion, found itself embroiled in the First Indochina War, as the Viet Minh sought to liberate the nation from the French. The secluded nature of the province led to it being seen as an excellent place to assemble force without attracting too much attention, which led to a comparatively swift victory for the Communists. This will give them something to fête when the race heads into town at least!

The riders can then enjoy Nghĩa Lộ’s trademark tranquility for the first part of their rest day, before travelling in the afternoon down the QL37 and QL32 into the delta lowlands ready for week 2 to begin.
 
Reactions: Samu Cuenca
Stage 7: Việt Trì - Núi Ba Vì, 52km





GPM:
Núi Ba Vì (HC) 12,1km @ 8,5%

Some riders used to riding the HTV Cup, but who don’t look too deep into the parcours at first glance, might see a 52km stage coming straight off the first rest day and think ‘that’s nice, one of those criterium stages to ease our way back into competition’. After all, sub-60km stages at the race are pretty much invariably circuit races. But when they spot that the stage start and stage finish aren’t the same place, they might realise that this is, in fact, a road stage, despite the absurdly short length. And then they might see the destination as being Núi Ba Vì, and then they might start to quake with fear, and at least be thankful for the short distance that needs to be completed in this one, because this is going to be pretty tough.

This stage has been one that has actually been redesigned quite late in the day. I know, redesigning such a short stage? But actually, originally this stage headed the other direction, into the ridge of mountains we skirted the northeastern face of on stage 3, and up to Tam Đảo, a resort town for the elites constructed by the French in 1907. The issue with that one was that though the climb to the finish is similar to this one - a couple of kilometres shorter but at similar overall gradients - the climb was actually to the north of Hanoi, so it necessitated successive long transfers (the one from Nghĩa Lộ to Việt Trì poses no problems as it is on a rest day, besides it’s only about 140km by road, but due to the difficult roads involved it’s about a three hour journey according to Google); while the real race does include occasional sizeable transfers, finishing in Tam Đảo then necessitated both a lengthy transfer to the next stage start, but also a much longer and less realistic stage 8. I think the actual solution here is much more realistic and much more achievable.



The stage start, however, was always destined to be in Việt Trì. This was the town I had picked out among those on the Red River in Phú Thọ province, a region tied intrinsically to Vietnamese history through the Hồng Bàng period, where the state of Văn Lang, essentially a kingdom of the Red River Delta and a precursor to modern Vietnam (the Vietnamese ethnic group traces its origins to this end of the country and has expanded southwards along the coast to the Mekong over the centuries), was ruled by 18 related dynasties through a period of over 2500 years. Much of the history of this era has passed down primarily through myths and legends, and therefore the kings, queens, , princes, princesses, noblemen and warriors of this time have often seen their tales ascend to the ranks of myths themselves, and have been enshrined within the cultural and even religious history of the country. As a result, historians treat the Văn Lang state’s recorded history as ‘semi-mythical’, with many attributed feats which are physically impossible and have more in common with supernatural myths and legends of other cultures.

The Hồng Bàng dynasties were an absolute monarchy, ruled by the Hùng Vương, or “Hùng King” in western parlance, and centred around a capital at Phong Châu. Hùng Vương II, or to use the name we have come to recognise, Lạc Long Quân, is one of the most legendary of the Hùng Kings, and it is said that Phong Châu was chosen as the site where he and his wife Âu Cơ would settle, and their many children were born in the city, which rose to become the capital of Văn Lang. He was, according to legend, the son of the first Hùng King (Lộc Tục, the legitimate founder of the nation, in that prior to his establishment of a kingdom, Vietnam was an anarchic collection of unassociated villages) and a dragon goddess, who developed the isolated nation and slayed the Ngư Tinh, or fish spirit, a demonic aquatic monster that had prevented the Vietnamese from conquering the sea and harnessing its resources. He married Âu Cơ, an immortal mountain fairy, and they had 100 children. However, as dragon and fairy cannot live in harmony, as they represent fire and water respectively, they arrived at a pact to divide the children equally between them, with he controlling the coastal and lowland areas and her returning to the mountains. As a result, Âu Cơ is integral to the Vietnamese creation myth and regarded as the founder of Vietnamese civilisation. He is regarded as living for 300 years, dying in around 2525 BC.

Of course, realistically this is the stuff of myths and legends. 2524 BC is regarded as the start of the third dynasty in the Hồng Bàng lineage; as a result it is likely that simply Lạc Long Quân was succeeded by successive generations until that point where the direct lineage stopped and the next dynasty began, but record keeping and oral history has led to an interpretation that Lạc Long Quân lived out the period as though Vietnam was his own personal Macondo. Phong Châu was probably settled on as a capital because of its advantageous location at the confluence of three rivers of the Red River tributaries and delta offshoots, and the creation story is apocryphal, similar to that of Romulus and Remus in Europe, although Phong Châu was not so enduring as Rome, being sacked in 258BC, resulting in the capital moving away and the city being left in ruins. Either way, however, the reason the Hồng Bàng dynasties are regarded as “semi-mythical” is that Phong Châu most certainly existed; though its name has been conferred upon another town in Phú Thọ, the few existing remnants of the original city lay in Việt Trì. Unfortunately, however, the abundance of timber means that much of the city was constructed of wood, and so historic Vietnam does not have the same kind of iconic ruins as, say, Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Vat Phou in Laos. There are some, further south, but these are outside the historic territory of Vietnam, having been originally settled by various Khmer ethnicities and then added to Vietnamese territory during southward expansion later. Therefore the worship of the nation’s founders and the Vietnamese creation legend takes place at the reconstructed Hùng King Temple at the village of Cổ Tích, on the outskirts of Việt Trì.



Modern Việt Trì has a population of 260.000 and lies a little down from the confluence of the Red and Black rivers, where the Lô joins the two. It is a key industrial city for northern Vietnam, specialising in the manufacture of plant and engineering equipment. It is undergoing rapid reconstruction and infrastructure development, and is the centre of the Phú Thọ province. We set off here and cross the Red River immediately, before hugging its western shore until we get to Sơn Tây, a metropolis of over 200.000 inhabitants which has bizarrely been downgraded from a city to a town in recent years, after its own eponymous province was merged with that of Hà Đông to create Hà Tây, and then subsequently the extended urban sprawl of the national capital meant it was absorbed into Hanoi province. Sơn Tây is a modern town, but it is surrounded by villages which date back over 1000 years, and is perhaps most known as the hometown of South Vietnamese general Phạm Văn Đổng, who was exiled to America after a smear campaign run by President Thiệu of South Vietnam in 1974, to rid the nation of threats to his rule; as a popular and successful military figure, Đổng was seen as potential opposition to Thiệu’s power; he was marginalised and his power reduced, and then eventually during the Fall of Saigon he was exiled and offered asylum in the United States.



Sơn Tây also hosts an ancient citadel (picture above), which is its main attraction, and is more famous at least in the western world for a Viet Công prison camp until 1970, and then briefly in 1975 too. The US army launched at great expense Operation Ivory Coast, parachuting 56 paratroopers into the camp by helicopter, only to find that the 61 American prisoners of war they had thought to be present had been moved on already.

After the intermediate sprint (only two in this stage owing to its short length) we head southwestward to a second sprint at the entrance to the Ba Vì National Park, which introduces us to the scenic, though somewhat small, mountain range that holds sway over the western part of the Red River Delta.


Ba Vì mountains from a distance

It’s time, therefore, to begin climbing, and to begin climbing one of the hardest climbs of the race. There are a group of summits in the national park; the highest is Dình Vua, or “Emperors’ Peak”, at 1296m, but the most important is neighbouring Dình Tản Viên. Tản Viên is 15m lower in its summit than Emperors’ Peak, but it holds an important position in Vietnamese mythology, as Sơn Tinh, the God of the Mountains (also known as Tản Viên Sơn Thánh), one of the Four Immortals, is said to reside there. He features as a central character in one of the most enduring myths of the Hồng Bàng era, where he is pitted against Thủy Tinh, the Lord of the Water, in a competition for the hand in marriage of the beautiful princess Mỵ Nương, daughter of 18th Vùng King Hùng Vương. The myth states that with both beings equal in all competition, they were set challenges to return ever more fanciful objects as gifts. Sơn Tinh won by a few minutes and took his new bride back to the mountains with him, and Thủy Tinh, unable to accept defeat, used his powers to raise the seas and force her back; he was no match for the mountain God, who raised the level of the mountains (thus explaining the protuberance of the Ba Vì range) and filled the land with dykes and channels to prevent the Lord of the Water’s attacks from destroying the homes and lives of the people. Thủy Tinh’s anger subsided and he lowered the sea level back down, but he never forgave the Mountain God and every year he tries to attack the mountains with the power of water to spite his usurper. This legend is used to explain the coming of monsoon season and the defence of Vietnam against it.

With the site therefore having such spiritual and historic significance in Vietnamese mythology, therefore, it was of great controversy when plans were unveiled to a far newer figure in Vietnamese mythology - although uncharacteristically, the architectural style was kept in keeping with the earlier, more spiritual ambiance. This character, of course, being Hồ Chí Minh. No matter how beloved and revered
Uncle Hồ may be throughout the country… a lot of people really felt that Ba Vì is a sacred site and that Communist ideology had no place in it, not to mention that the elevation of the man to mythical and iconic status in that manner is at odds with the very idea of Communism (but of course, it’s not like the same hasn’t happened to Lenin or Che Guevara), so there was a lot of opinion espoused about the temple.

However, the construction and development of the temple meant the reconstruction of the road that ran up the mountainside to give access too the Tản Viên and Vua peaks. The summit of the road is at about 1100m and sits between the two summits, at a car park which is connected to a series of market stalls and tourist stands, with hiking trails for pilgrimage up to the mountain summits and the famous pagoda.


Remains of French cathedral


Đền Thượng temple complex, at the summit of Tản Viên, dedicated to Sơn Tinh



The actual climb that the riders take is a savage one. Cronoescalada has a slight glitch suggesting the climb finishes with 100m at 43,5% which obviously is not the case, but makes the profile a bit harder to read thanks to that anomaly - this is due to an odd placement of the final kilometre marking with the rounding up, I believe. It’s a climb that leads you on slowly, opening up with a kilometre at 3% and one at 6% before truly hitting its stride. The next 6,4km average a not inconsiderable 9,5%; this is mostly fairly consistent, with the steepest kilometre being just over 11%. A brief flattening out and some lower gradients follow before kicking up to a steepest overall kilometre, averaging nearly 14%, between 2 and 3km from the top. Things then settle down to around 5% for the last 2km before a final repecho which is steep but, of course, nothing like the preposterous gradient attributed to it by Cronoescalada. The overall total is 12km at 8%, putting this one in a similar kind of realm to Kandel in Germany, or Collada de la Gallina in Andorra. That might actually be its best analogue to a western audience, with that steeper first part.


Switchbacks and facets through the forest

You can see the full climb, unfortunately with some pretty dreadful soundtracking, here:


As you can see, perfectly well paved, perfectly wide, perfectly accessible, space at the top, susceptible to bad weather - it’s ripe for use by the HTV Cup if they find themselves in this neck of the woods, and trying to develop their reputation as a challenging race increasing in value and intrigue to the rest of the world outside of Vietnam. And of course, the fact that it can pretty much only be Unipuerto is less of an issue in these less developed cycling regions. Besides, with those 6km at 9,5% in the middle and a kilometre at nearly 14%? It’s plenty hard enough to produce gaps all its own. This is a super short stage at just over 50km in length, kind of like an HTV Cup equivalent of, say, the 2009 Giro Blockhaus stage, in that it’s a super short Unipuerto stage; obviously Ba Vì is not as long or as high a climb as Blockhaus, but then the stage is also scaled down by almost 50% to reflect that. This is the first day after the rest day, and the riders will have been in the saddle for barely an hour - possibly even less than an hour - when they arrive at the base of this one, so this will be a real power test. It could well be less than two hours in the saddle, but it could be a very significant two hours in the saddle. Let’s hope that we don’t see some proper 2014-5 era Tabriz Petrochemical Team carnage here…
 
Stage 8: Hòa Bình - Thanh Hóa, 170km





GPM:
Đèo Dốc Cun (cat.3) 5,2km @ 5,0%

Stage 8 is one I’ve redesigned a couple of times; the original stage followed the original design of stage 7, so ran from Vĩnh Yên down to Thanh Hóa. However, that was nearly 240km, which seemed a bit excessive, especially after 220km on stage 6, and not especially realistic (when I’m already pushing the boundaries with my mountain stages in a race which historically hasn’t had many real ones), and I therefore decided to make it a more palatable length by moving the start of the stage to Sơn Tây, which brought it down to about 215km. That meant a fairly sizeable transfer from Tam Đảo, however, which had me a bit uncertain about it. The discovery of the viability of a mountaintop finish at Ba Vì, however, made this more logical, seeing as Sơn Tây is so close to the Ba Vì range. It’s not much further, however, to turn right at the exit to the park after descending away from it, and driving about 30km down the road to Hòa Bình, which made my stage 8 parcours a much more palatable 170km in length, so this is the approach I have taken. After all, yesterday’s stage will have only taken a couple of hours, so little issue to be had with taking the riders for a short transfer at least.



Hòa Bình is a city which serves as the capital of an eponymous province, which is historically at least majority Mường in ethnic and cultural background. This was the reason the province was created in the first place, to create effectively a semi-autonomous Mường community within Tonkin, in 1886. The French colonial forces turned the Mường province into Hòa Bình, following their tendency to name each province after the city at its core for ease of understanding to the colonial elites, who frequently had little to no knowledge of Vietnamese languages and customs. The Mường still make up nearly 2/3 the population of the province, although with the expansion of Hòa Bình itself, the Kinh ethnicity (which is the one most westerners would recognise as Vietnamese) is making inroads and now makes up nearly a quarter. The city was given its name during Chinese colonial times - it was given the name of 和, meaning “peace”. This, in pinyin, is reflected as Hépíng in Mandarin, and Woping in Cantonese; Hòa Bình is the Vietnamese reflection of these syllables (note, unusually, the total inversion in tone - the Mandarin is all ascending tones, the Cantonese is all flat tones (flat tone tends to be high in Chinese languages, in Vietnamese this high flat tone is designated by there being no tonal marker in the orthography, since Vietnamese is written in the Latin alphabet), while the Vietnamese reflection of this features a pair of descending tones. The only Chinese variety which features two descending tones in these syllables is Hakka, which is less likely as a source tongue due to the initial [h]- becoming [f]- in the Hakka reading of these characters, Fò-Phìn). It seems that the Vietnamese borrowing likely comes from an earlier time as it more closely resembles the rendering of these characters into Middle Chinese.

Hòa Bình was the scene of a battle during the first Indochinese War; the Việt Minh suffered heavier losses than the French but ultimately wound up victorious after the French plan to lure the Communist forces out of the valley was unsuccessful. Following the Communist success, the city became the site of controversy when the Vietnamese were reunited in the mid-70s; the new government enlisted Soviet assistance in constructing the hydroelectric power plant which dammed the Black River at Hòa Bình, further angering the Chinese who felt they were being taken advantage of by the Vietnamese government, who were aligning themselves ever more with Moscow. The stage actually starts with a ride up to and along the edge of the dam, extending the route by a couple of kilometres… but ultimately this is a race in a single party state, therefore slightly self-aggrandising detours to show off how developed and forward thinking you are would be par for the course!



The only climb of the day also comes almost straight away, so if the King of the Mountains so wishes, he can just control some riders to ensure the break doesn’t get away until after the first 16km are done with, and then try to win the climb and get some points for cheap a bit like Benoît Cosnefroy managed in the stages with little breakaway action in this year’s Tour. This climb is followed by about 15km on a slightly elevated plateau before we descend back down to around 100m above sea level, and we spend pretty much the entirety of the rest of the day below that, on some flat floodplain roads. The most distinctive thing about the rest of this stage is that I have decided to try to incentivise bringing back the break early, by way of putting all three intermediate sprints in a very short period of time, starting with 43km to go. With a bunch of time available in bonuses plus points for the blue jersey competition (the points classification pays a blue jersey in the HTV Cup), will the teams of riders like Lê Nguyệt Minh and Jordan Parra get greedy in the hunt for points? Will Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, who lest we forget was 2nd on the queen stage in 2020, be close enough after stages 5 and 7 to feel it worth expending some domestiques to try to gain some time bonuses in the intermediates?

The first intermediate sprint comes in Vĩnh Lộc, 43km from home. This is a city largely known for its Citadel, constructed in the Hồ dynasty times and briefly - from 1401 to 1407 - the capital of Vietnam. Following extensive archaeological work to uncover the extent of the Citadel, it is now inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The next intermediate comes just 6km later at Chờ, the centre of the Yên Phong district. With two intermediate sprints with 43 and 37km to go and then a lull for 20km until the third, this could be a good time for a stage hunter - especially someone with a good eye for a breakaway and a good time trial, like multiple 2020 stage winner Trần Tuấn Kiệt, who managed to foil the sprinters a couple of times, or Thanh Tùng Huỳnh who managed to foil the sprinters on a wide open crit circuit in 2019 - to sneak away or to try to form a breakaway group while the sprinters’ teams are regrouping. The alternative is that of course the breakaway takes the sprints, but you can’t say we aren’t at least trying to make the bunch work to bring them back early and open up opportunities for lesser control late in the race!



The stage finish for today is Thanh Hóa, a rapidly expanding city that was upgraded from town status in 1994, and since a heavy redevelopment plan has come into effect in 2012. It was known as a stronghold for Lê Lợi and his Lê dynasty; Lê was born in Lam Sơn, a small town in the west of Thanh Hóa province. In 1407, the Chinese Ming Dynasty overthrew the short-lived reformist Hồ dynasty and captured Đại Việt, which was what passed for a Vietnamese state at the time. The Ming searched for a successor to the pre-1400 Trần Dynasty, much more pliable and less reformist than the Hồ, but, finding no suitable heir apparent, they instead chose an aggressive policy of colonisation and extending Chinese influence in the area, in order to re-establish Chinese supremacy in the region. Valuable artefacts and trinkets were confiscated and transported to China, while Vietnamese-language signage and literature was burnt. Lê Lợi personally saw the Chinese raze a Vietnamese village for failing to adhere to the rigid policy of adopting Han Chinese hairstyles and clothing (in the name of “civilising the Vietnamese barbarians”, a doctrine “justifying” the mistreatment of the colonised similar to that adopted in Africa, Latin America and all over the world by European colonisers centuries later), and was spurred into action. He recruited prominent elite and powerful families in Thanh Hóa, and the day after Tết in 1418, the campaign began. Initially the campaign was tolerated by the Chinese to an extent due to Lê having found a Trần pretender to the throne, but in time this supposed heir faded to the background as the legend of Lê Lợi grew, and he himself became the de facto leader of the Vietnamese. Initially greatly outnumbered in battle, he fought a guerrilla campaign centuries before that became common practice, and a rebel general, Lê Lai, even pulled the “I Am Spartacus” trick, launching a headlong charge disguised as Lê Lợi that served solely as a diversion through which the real Lê Lợi could escape. By 1427, Lê’s forces were dominant; in a last-ditch attempt to reassert their authority over the Red River Delta, Zhu Zhanji (the Xuande Emperor) sent a large conquering force.

It was a disaster for the Chinese. By this point, Lê was well versed in military strategy and an unconventional thinker. He lured General Liu Sheng to follow a false retreat after initially meeting the Ming head on in combat; this enabled him to capture and kill the General. He then sent false reports of dissent that tempted the Chinese to descend on Hanoi; as they arrived in the city they found it largely deserted, and the Vietnamese then fought and defeated their adversaries in a series of battles in and around the city. The Xuande Emperor accepted defeat, and Lê Lợi became the new king of a re-established Đại Việt; after an abortive and disastrous campaign of aggression in Guangxi, he ensured the Ming would not return by being magnanimous in his victory, providing ships and supplies to display mercy on his prisoners of war, sending them home to China. Although Lê did not live to enjoy many years of rule, the dynasty formed by him would last into the 18th Century.



In later years, Thanh Hóa became a Viet Minh stronghold; as a result it was heavily bombarded and largely destroyed by American forces during Operation Rolling Thunder, seeing it as a strategic target. Almost the entire infrastructure of the city was destroyed, rendering it a veritable ghost town by the end of the conflict. As a result, the city has been reconstructed almost from scratch to the design tastes of the Communists before extensive expansion and redevelopment in the last eight yeras, so the modern city - which is home to just over 600.000 people, a trebling of its population in just 11 years - bears practically no resemblance to the town of Lê Lợi’s time. He lives on, however, in the form of a covered avenue which bears his name, and also serves as our finishing straight. It is likely that the sprinters will have their day under the watchful eye of the great national hero.

Thanh Hóa has been a regular stop for the HTV Cup when the race has started in the north, frequently hosting the end of stage 2 when the race commences in Hanoi. Lê Nguyệt Minh won the last time the race arrived in the city, on stage 5 of 30; Nguyễn Thanh Tân won on stage 2 in 2016, and the race has also used Thanh Hóa to host the finish of stage 2 in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2015.

 
Stage 9: Thanh Hóa - Chùa Đại Tuệ, 172km





GPM:
Chùa Đại Tuệ (cat.2) 4,7km @ 7,6%

We’re back to the original ploy of starting in the place we finished the previous day’s stage, with a nice easy overnight in Thanh Hóa after yesterday’s exertions. Today we have a more tricky stage, though it may reasonably still be a sprint of sorts, just a different one, as we go Unipuerto. For the most part, however, this is a transitional stage, which remains almost rigidly pan flat as we travel through the coastal lowlands as we start to move southwards along the long, narrow spine of Vietnam, through the North Central Coast region.

Much of the stage takes place in the province of Nghệ An, which is Vietnam’s largest individual province by area. Stages departing from Thanh Hóa typically finish in the major cities of Nghệ An; typically this would be Vinh, as in 2013 and 2015, but the province’s namesake town also hosted in 2018 when Lê Nguyệt Minh was triumphant. Stages into Vinh have actually had some unexpectedly GC-significant winners, such as Nguyễn Hoàng Sang and Lê Văn Duẩn. We follow that typical pattern - a usual stage length is 137km into Vinh, my stage arrives in that town at 138km which suggests I’ve more or less pinpointed the exact route they take, give or take a bit of neutral zone; I’ve just appended a bit more on.



Apart from the first intermediate sprint, perhaps the first point of interest on the route is at Nghi Lộc, a coastal district which includes some notable beach resorts, particularly Bãi Lữ. It is a former fishing community which has grown into a hub of seafood, but also it is the home of the Cam Xã Đoài, a prized variety of orange which was derived from Spanish settlers travelling up to Taiwan and the Philippines, and named after the old-script name for one of the villages of Nghi Lộc, where they initially perfected the variety, to maintain the flavoursome and juicy nature of the Spanish oranges while maximising their adaptability to the Vietnamese climate. From here we head southwards into Vinh, the economic hub and administrative centre of North Central Vietnam, and the fifth city in Vietnam to be awarded Grade-I city status. With around 500.000 inhabitants it is the largest city in the region, and is one of the most service-dominated cities in the country, with over half of its population working in service sector industries. Originally known as Ke Van, the city has borne several names, mostly beginning with Vinh, until under European influence it simply became known by its present identity in the 18th Century. Coterminously it underwent considerable development under the Tây Sơn dynasty, which was then furthered by the French, who developed it as an industrial centre.

Much like Thanh Hóa, Vinh has been extensively damaged during conflicts - first by the French during the Indochinese War, and then by the Americans during the eponymous conflict. As a result, much of the historic city has been lost, and again the reconstruction was heavily influenced by Soviet ideas of architectural purity and strategy, so we have a lot of wide boulevards and concrete apartment blocks dotting the landscape. As a result, Vinh has only in recent times developed into a site of tourism; being much smaller than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and not having the historical sites of Đà Nẵng or the scenery of Đà Lạt, it has often been overlooked as a tourist destination within Vietnam; however it has easy access to the prestigious Cửa Lò beach, and now that the Soviet Union has fallen and Communism is a thing of the past in much of the Western World, there remains a certain fascination for this kind of town planning and iconography that can no longer see that itch scratched in Europe.



Vinh is a very common host for the HTV Cup and has in fact hosted the Grand Départ in both 2019 and 2020. It is easy to see why Vinh would be a site that the race organisers are attracted to in terms of willing hosts; Vietnam remains a single party state, and there is perhaps nowhere in Vietnam more intrinsically linked to opposition, resistance and revolution than Vinh. It was the hometown of Phan Bội Châu, an early nationalist figure from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, who formed the Việt Nam Quang Phục Hội, or Vietnamese Restoration League, and aimed to overthrow European colonial leadership. He allied with the Japanese in the early 1900s, after they defeated Russia, and also corresponded with Sun Yat-Sen in China and the then-exiled Hồ Chí Minh. However, although he had grown increasingly convinced by Socialism and influenced by Russia in the later period of Lenin’s life, Phan would not see the success that became of the germ of an idea he had had for an independent Vietnam all those years earlier; he was arrested and imprisoned in Hỏa Lò Prison, later known as “the Hanoi Hilton”, by the French in 1925, and, placed under house arrest due to failing health and fear of uprising in his name if he remained in prison, he spent the last 15 years of his life in a small three-part house in Huế. He had been travelling to meet Hồ Chí Minh in China when the French captured him, leading to a pervading theory that Hồ had double-crossed him; this theory is generally believed to have been anti-Communist propaganda, however, as Hồ was believed by Phan to be the most likely successor to him as a leader of anti-colonial resistance in Vietnam, and would have gladly collaborated with such a prominent anti-authority force as Phan especially with the latter becoming increasingly committed to socialism; it is more likely that the culprit was his secretary and charges-d’affaires, Nguyễn Thượng Huyền. Phan himself believed the latter to be the culprit, having had suspicions about him previously. He eventually died in 1940, shortly after Japan invaded North Vietnam.



Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai, another Vinh native, was less fortunate than Phan. She is, if you like, an Asian equivalent of Rosa Luxemburg, a strong young woman prominent in the communist movement, who died young and was martyred by the party as a result. She was a gifted and committed child who helped found the Tân Việt Cách mạng Đảng, or Revolutionary Party of the New Vietnam (usually just known as Tân Việt), when she was just 16 years old. The Tân Việt was a prominent voice in the early days of the Independence movement after the capture of Phan Bội Châu, the most well-known of all those who called for independence at the time, and swallowed several smaller separatist movements; this put her into the circle of Trần Phú. Trần would travel to the Soviet Union in 1927 and study at the KUTV in Moscow, which greatly influenced the future direction of the Tân Việt. In 1929 it went from being a leftist separatist group to an expressly Communist agenda, and then in 1930 it merged with two other regional Communist groups to form the Đảng Cộng sản Việt Nam, or Vietnamese Communist Party, which is the predecessor to today’s sole ruling party.

Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai at this stage went to Hong Kong, where she served as a secretary at the Comintern, in the office of Nguyễn Ái Quốc, who would later come to greater fame under his later name of Hồ Chí Minh. After a three year spell in a British colonial prison, she married fellow revolutionary Lê Hồng Phong - who had come to prominence in the party after becoming a professional revolutionary after losing his job in a match factory in Vinh for inciting workers against exploitative regulations - and returned to Vietnam where she was installed as the head of the CPV in Saigon. Her husband was captured by the French authorities in 1939, which forced her into hiding; upon her arrest in 1940, she was publicly trialled, and sentenced to death for her anti-authority and revolutionary activity. Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai faced the firing squad on August 28th, 1941, and has been hailed as a revolutionary martyr in Vietnam ever since. As a postscript, Lê Hồng Phong was sentenced to house arrest for six months, before being transferred to Côn Đảo prison, where he died in the infamous claustrophobic “tiger cages” on his fortieth birthday.


The Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg of the East, Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai and Lê Hồng Phong

Of course, Vinh has at its heart a history of revolution, tied to the legacy of the Vietnamese Communists, and at its heart there’s a square dedicated to the one name that stands above them all. I mean, all these years on, if I asked you to name a famous Vietnamese person, there’s a very high chance that the first name that comes to mind for, well, pretty much anyone, will be good old Uncle Ho. I mean, we are on a cycling forum so perhaps the occasional individual may think of Lotto-Soudal’s Nguyễn Thị Thật, or a few people might think of famous sportspeople or personalities from the Vietnamese diaspora. But for most people, Hồ Chí Minh is going to be the first name to come to mind.

But while the second intermediate sprint may take place at Hồ Chí Minh square, the third takes place closer to his heart - in his home town of Kim Liên. The most famous attraction of this small town is the Kim Liên Museum, which hosts artefacts of Communist lore and revolutionary history in the house in which the country’s dearest leader grew up. Nguyễn Sinh Cung was born in 1890, though at later times he chose multiple years within that decade to claim as his ‘real’ birth year. A gifted scholar who quickly mastered Chinese and grew up in the Confucianist tradition, he was renamed Nguyễn Tất Thành at age 10 by his father in accordance with said tradition. His father, a prominent scholar and teacher who imbued his son with a voracious appetite for learning, also imbued him with a sense of rebellion, after he turned down a post in the imperial bureaucracy so as not to serve the French. The young Hồ, not yet known by that monicker, was schooled at a lycée in Huế alongside several other major figures from Vietnamese modern history, including both prominent allies and rivals.

Hồ became a traveller in the 1910s, which he later falsely attributed to a role in the 1908 student revolts (aggrandising his revolutionary credentials, hardly a new thing!). Working on ships and taking stays of absence in many countries, this period of his life took him to New York, Paris and London. It was in Paris that, having fallen under the tutelage of the socialist Marcel Cachin and being united with fellow Vietnamese diaspora, that he became the figure that we know now, publishing articles as Nguyễn Ái Quốc, a fanciful name meaning “Nguyễn the patriot” which was originally a sort of assumed name used by the whole group but eventually became a nom de guerre for Nguyễn Tất Thành, i.e. Hồ, alone. The letter that brought infamy was to be presented at Versailles; it was originally written by fellow Communist Phan Văn Trường, but as Thành was the most gifted orator and most presentable face of their case, he became the public face of “Nguyễn Ái Quốc” and became associated with the name to the wider world. He became a founding member of the French Communist Party and his eloquence, charisma as an orator and the tone of his speeches led prominent Bolshevik Dmytro Manuilsky to sponsor his relocation to the Soviet Union, to be put to work in a prominent role in Comintern, especially due to his oratorial skill and his value in a variety of countries thanks to the many languages he had picked up due to his persistent travelling. He was posted to Guangzhou, China, where he worked under the assumed name Ly Thuy, and met - and wed - a Chinese midwife named Zeng Xueming, who was never legally divorced from the leader, but is not acknowledged to this day by the CPV - their alliance was short-lived after Quốc was forced to flee after Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-Communist coup in 1927. He was part of the meeting in Hong Kong which created the modern CPV, and was also captured there a year later, where he ran the risk of being sentenced to death, but he was saved by the intervention of a British socialist solicitor (!). After a period back in Moscow he returned to China to advise the Communist forces under the name Hồ Quang in 1938.

It was in the early 1940s that the history we know began. The Việt Minh needed a leader, and Quang was chosen. He started using the nom de guerre by which he has been known throughout the world, and advised or oversaw successful military operations against the French (well, Vichy French) colonial powers throughout World War II, especially after being freed from prison in 1943 by the Chinese Communists and returned to Indochina. He became Premier of the Provisional Government following the August Revolution in 1945, following the abdication of Bảo Đại, Vietnam’s last Emperor. Hồ Chí Minh made an agreement with Lu Han of the Republic of China to dissolve the Communist Party and hold an election to create a coalition government, since the provisional government had a broad mixture of nationalist and Communist elements. However, fighting broke out quickly after Chiang Kai-shek agreed concessions with the French to withdraw from Indochina, in return for French non-interference in Shanghai, and for Vietnam to be recognised as an independent state within the French Union and the Indochinese Federation. Both the French and the Việt Minh wanted to see the back of the Chinese forces, then subsequently joined forces to isolate and purge the Vietnamese Nationalists, and soon, unencumbered by other adversaries, resumed their quarrel. While the Communists suppressed all other parties, war with the French was unavoidable. On 19 December 1946, Hồ Chí Minh declared war on France, beginning the Indochina War, and beginning the lengthy conflict which began as a decolonisation war to end the French hegemony in Indochina, and ended as an ideological conflict which embroiled the major superpowers as a proxy war for the Cold War being played out on a former French colony’s narrow strip of land. The Indochinese War was concluded by the Geneva Accords, which recognised the Communist North Vietnam as a genuine independent state, while turning South Vietnam into a French Protectorate, which was formally dissolved the following year, tempting Bác Hồ to try to overthrow the South Vietnamese government; by 1959 he was requesting support from the Soviet Politburo for this cause and backing the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam, giving us the background for the conflict which gave us Apocalypse Now, along with a colossal human cost, and caused the pride of the US Army the most savage blow it had received since the Canadians sacked the White House.

Hồ, now ageing, relinquished his role as leader of the Communist Party to his hand-picked successor Lê Duẩn in 1960, but retained a key position of power in the Vietnamese Politburo and in an advisory capacity and he was instrumental in both the attempted adoption of the peace plan in 1963, and its circumvention once his southern adversary was ousted in a coup and executed, and he saw the opportunity to seize Saigon for the Communists. Obviously as we know, that conquest was still ongoing thanks to overseas intervention until after Uncle Hồ passed away of a heart attack on November 2nd, 1969, after a year beset with ill health and in which he seldom left Hanoi. Hồ had wished to be cremated, but the post-Hồ Chí Minh Vietnamese state went against that, embalming him and displaying his body in state in the same fashion as Lenin in Russia. Initially he was not replaced as President of North Vietnam, with the Politburo handling things to such an extent that when the tanks rolled into Saigon and ended the conflict, observers reported that the North Vietnamese forces were still led by.a man who had died more than five years earlier. The Party continues to venerate Hồ and cultivate his cult of personality to this day, so I can’t see the HTV Cup going through his hometown without some kind of pomp and circumstance to mark the occasion. He has also acquired all manner of other implications and associations within the populace, including some which have retrofitted him into popular mysticism and folk religion, where he has been seen by some as a manifestation of the Jade Emperor. However, for the most part the party line is quite literally the party line, and reflect only the “official” history of Hồ Chí Minh as he wished to present as leader - hence the writing out of history of his brief marriage (or long-lasting marriage in truth, since there was no official divorce, however he and Zeng never reconciled). And he lives on in the race’s name, in fact, since the sponsor and organiser is Hồ Chí Minh City Television, based in the former Saigon which was renamed in honour of the fallen leader almost as soon as the North Vietnamese flag was flown from the city hall and the reunification of the country proclaimed.



Seven paragraphs of Communist hagiography later, it’s time to get back to the bike race.

Союз нерушимый республик свободых,
Сплотила навеки Великая Русь,
Да здравствует созданный волей народов,
Единий, могучий Советский Союз!

…Sorry, where was I?

Oh yes, 19km from the line. Here we turn north into the hills which overlook Vinh from the northwest as we’re synthesising Vietnam’s old and its new, by following a lengthy period of veneration of Communist heroes and martyrs with a finish which is somewhere between a HTF and a MTF at a Buddhist temple complex, Chùa Đại Tuệ.


Chùa Đại Tuệ, car park on the left

The climb to Chùa Đại Tuệ is a little under 5km in length and is just over 7,5% in average gradient, although it’s not an especially consistent climb. It’s a bit like El Vivero, near Bilbao, for a reasonable comparison point, or a slightly easier Supergà. There are some severe gradients but overall it’s only a cat.2 ascent realistically. The first kilometre of ascent is at about 9%, then there’s a respite, before the steepest part of the climb, 1400m at 10%. This gives way to a steady 4,5% for a kilometre before it kicks back up to.a ramp of 13% and a final 1100m at 7,9%. Plenty of options to take some time, but it’s likely to be, at least where the elites are concerned, a sprint in that final kilometre. I see it as having the same kind of role in a race of this level as, say, Peña Cabarga has in a pro race. At 5,6km @ 9,4%, Peña Cabarga is a demonstrably tougher climb than Chùa Đại Tuệ, but it’s also in a race where there’s greater depth of péloton and quality of domestique. I foresee a lot of the big teams like TP Hồ Chí Minh and Bikelife drilling the tempo to burn off as many people as possible on the steep ramps at the bottom, then trusting their leaders to take it home in the final 1100m. Most of the climb is on a sort of hormigón too, those concrete slabs that make up some tough Spanish climbs like Bola del Mundo and San Miguel de Áralar, although these Vietnamese concrete roads are smoother, more like the concrete surfaces you see in Belgian one-dayers. The road quality also gets worse toward the top, but it’s perfectly ridable and would make a good finish I feel. It’s pure Unipuerto so everybody should be full power and charging up the climb as fast as they can. I’ve even looked to incentivise it with the coming days. This is the last real climbing for a few days, so no excuse not to go for it!

 
Stage 10: Vinh - Vinh, 51km





Yes, it’s a nice day to recover for the riders to a large extent, with one of the HTV Cup’s trademark crit stages. Stage 10 consists of simply 21 laps of a 2,43km long pentagon-shaped circuit which encircles Công Viên Trung Tâm, a public park and community hub which encircles Hồ Sỹ Huân, a small urban lake. The start/finish is on one of the shorter straights on the circuit, at the site known as Quảng trường Hồ Chí Minh, or Hồ Chí Minh Square in English.



Yes, we’re kind of accepting that cult of personality deal, holding a stage which starts and finishes on a huge open thoroughfare used for public parades and in front of a large parade ground, watched over by a gargantuan statue of Uncle Hồ. But there’s no need to go over that, really - I covered Vinh and its ties to the communist leaders in my previous stage’s post. Here, we’re just marvelling at the spectacular inner city created by the post-Vietnam War urban planning, as Vinh was heavily shelled, bombarded and much of its centre was destroyed, so these vast, expansive thoroughfares and urban green spaces were all part of the idealistic town planning of architects and town planners operating under the influence of Soviet ideology at the time.

You can see the entirety of our course from some drone footage here, which focuses on the start-finish area, but enables us to see the boulevards we will be using on our clockwise trek around the outside of the park.

And while it may seem a bit strange in 2020 to be holding a race directly in front of a great big statue of Uncle Hồ, and closing down a major city centre with thoroughfares that are dozens of lanes wide for a smallish race, but we ARE racing in Vietnam, and there is a very good reason why I think this course and this setting would be perfectly fine. And that’s that, crucially, they’ve done it before. This year in fact. And last year. Yes, in both 2019 and 2020, the HTV Cup’s Grand Départ was in Vinh, and the race started with this exact stage. Like, literally exactly the same. This is the epitome of laziness on my part, except for maybe when I literally C&Ped the 2005 final stage for the Tour in the Fantasy Doping Draft Tour route (at least the other stages I lifted wholesale, the St Etienne and Luxembourg time trials and the Floyd Landis Morzine stage, I mapped myself after researching the routes). But ultimately, with reduced péloton size and limited experience as well as being a couple of steps below the world class riders that populate the European pro races, the race organisers have recognised that if they want to have a legit 3 week race with full pro length stages, then they need to have a few shorter stages to balance that, and so these crit stages have become a staple of the HTV Cup, so it’s only reasonable that I should include a few. The last couple of editions have featured a ceremonial start underneath the watchful eyes of the statue, so this is a ready-made circuit with history and tradition on its side, as you can see from the opening stage of the 2019 edition:


This stage featured a slightly extended circuit that didn’t finish in the parade grounds, being 2,48km per lap rather than 2,43km but apart from that is identical. It consisted of 52km, as the race was 20 laps of the circuit preceded by a one-lap parade lap, akin to a formation lap in motorsport. It is bizarre for a first time viewer to watch the péloton rumbling down a 12 lane highway, but this is a fact of life for the HTV Cup in major cities, thanks to the Soviet town planning and the heavy destruction of many cities in the Reunification War, meaning many cities are characterised by these vast boulevards that seem incongruous for a bike race, especially to those of us weaned on narrow, twisty Spanish mountain passes, Italian hilltop towns and rural Belgian concrete and cobbled farm tracks. As you can see, a lack of serious control in the bunch (with it being the first stage so no team had the responsibility of the maillot jaune) meant that despite it being a 50km crit on wide open roads with a lack of technical challenges, Huỳnh Thanh Tùng managed to escape and take the victory with a margin that would enable him to hold the lead for a week. The same mistake would not be repeated in 2020.


Despite a number of attempts to replicate the previous year’s escape, just as the Women’s Tour opening flat stages in the east are now carefully controlled to prevent an unexpected escape like Niewiadoma’s in 2017, the sprinters’ teams made sure that their fast men got their chance on stage 1 in the HTV Cup this time - plus it being the first race post Coronavirus lockdown meant it was a chance to show off to a bigger than usual audience of course. A wild sprint across all four lanes of the road ensued, with Nguyễn Tấn Hoài victorious to start collecting the time bonuses that would bring him all the way up to 2nd on GC.

In my stage, of course, there will not be the yellow jersey on the line. We are 10 days into the race and have had multiple GC-decisive stages, so for a lot of riders, stage hunting will be their only chance to get something from the race, while the points jersey might be alive and well with pure sprinters feuding with GC men (and hybrids like Nguyễn Tấn Hoài) over it. This will be barely over an hour’s racing, but it could be frenetic, especially if the hunt for stage wins is ON.
 
Stage 11: Hà Tĩnh - Đồng Hới, 156km





GPM:
Đèo Ngang (cat.4) 2,0km @ 5,4%

At the mid-point of the race, we arrive at that most rare of occasions: an occasion where the real life organisers go harder on the race than me. As I mentioned above, the 2019 and 2020 editions of the HTV Cup have started with a criterium race in Vinh; both have then followed that up with a 199km stage along the coast from Vinh to the city of Đồng Hới. Having already included a couple of 200km+ stages, and bearing in mind this is stage 11, not stage 2, so there are likely to be some much more tired legs in this race, however, I have decided to play nice, and so I have moved the start of the stage across to Hà Tĩnh, which hosted the first intermediate sprint in those stages.

An identical stage was included in 2015 and 2016 as stage 5, in editions which commenced in Hanoi, while in 2008 and 2010 a slightly shorter, 190km route was used. I believe that route turned left immediately after crossing the Gianh river and avoided the undulating, slightly hillier terrain in the latter part of the stage. It looks like these stages usually end in a sprint finish - indeed 2019’s stage was won by Lê Nguyệt Minh - but in 2020 the bunch sprint was outfoxed after the péloton broke up, and the small size of the coronavirus-shrunken péloton relative to the pretty large breakaway that had got away made it too hard to control, and the reduced group was beaten home by young sensation Võ Thanh An, at 20 years of age probably the best prospect in Vietnamese cycling, and who went solo in the short uphills around 40km to go and held on by a short few seconds.


Being deep into week 2, however, I’m not going to give the riders a 5+ hour period in the saddle today, even though they got an easy day yesterday. Tomorrow will be a significant one so this stage is liable to go to the bunch. Therefore, no point in overdoing things on the length, when it’s not liable to be of any consequence, and also the further south we go the hotter things are likely to get; the average daily high in this part of the world in April is over 28ºC, so the more hours spent out in the sun the more the riders are going to pay for it. Temperatures regularly got above 40ºC in this year’s late-run post-quarantine edition, so riders will be glad to be back in the normal timeslot! As a result we have a 45km transfer across to Hà Tĩnh in order to start a more medium-length transitional stage.



Hà Tĩnh is a city of around 200.000 which is presently being earmarked for expansion with the investment of Taiwanese money to bankroll the FHTS Corporation, a steel conglomerate (FHTS stands for Formosa & Hà Tĩnh Steel) seeking to use the city as a manufacturing hub. It is a very new enterprise, however, and has only been producing steel since 2017, with a second blast furnace added in 2018 and a third one planned for 2020, but postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has been a troubled investment, however; plagued by mismanagement and some rather dubious corner-cutting practices, it has been attacked by anti-Chinese protesters in 2014, leading to 4 deaths and 3.000 workers relocating; a scaffold collapse killed 16 workers a year later; and in 2016 a leaking pipe led to huge amounts of dead fish in the South China Sea close to the city, with the subsequent investigation finding numerous tax and regulatory irregularities.

This is a relatively benign transitional stage; it is almost completely flat in the coastal lowlands, and apart from the intermediate sprint in Kỳ Anh there are no features whatsoever to the first half of the stage. The midway point comes at the base of the only categorised climb of the day, Đèo Ngang, a short and low crest which travels over a small hillside adjoining the low-lying mountain range separating Hà Tĩnh province from Quảng Bình, which eventually further inland transitions into the Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, one of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the location of the Sơn Đoòng Cave, believed to be the world’s largest. The pass has now been superseded by a tunnel as Vietnam rapidly improves infrastructure, but historically it was a divider between the traditionally Vietnamese-dominated Đại Việt, and the Champa kingdoms that made up most of the southern Vietnamese territory of today and were largely dominated by Khmer and Khmer-related, or Malayo-Polynesian, ethnicities and cultures. As the northernmost part of Champa, Quảng Bình had a significant Vietnamese population and, as a former province of Văn Lang during the Hồng Bàng period, was a province of some contention.



This contentious location meant after Vietnamese southward expansion, it was used as something of a buffer by Đàng Trong (known to Europeans as Cochinchina) to defend their interests against the hegemony of the northern Đàng Ngoài (known to Europeans as Annam), and the city of Đồng Hới, today’s stage finish, was constructed as a fortress from which to manage such military manoeuvres. It passed between hands a few times and, when the Indochinese War broke out, it was part of French Annam. This eventually manifested itself, of course, in a similarly central role when Vietnam was divided literally in the post-colonial era, and it was a frontier area during the Vietnam war, resulting in it coming under heavy bombardment from the US military. In fact, no region suffered more the consequences of aerial bombing than Quảng Bình. As a result, as with a few cities we’ve already been through, the city was reconstructed to socialist-realist ideals, influenced by Soviet ideas of town planning, and the amount of destruction created to poor areas resulting in an even more pronounced urban/rural divide than elsewhere in Vietnam, with some 90% of the province’s population living in a small number of major towns.

After crossing the Gianh river, we head up into some hilly areas which may give the prospect of a breakaway, but most likely the riders who have made the race hard in the real race in 2020 won’t be in the same position to profit in a stage which is over 20% shorter. There are a few ramps of up to 5-6%, but overall this is just a few kilometres of going up and down at around 3%, not even enough to drop Andrea Guardini you would venture. And even if it is, Andrea would have best part of 40km to catch up again and you’d expect that with a more normally-sized péloton the chance for a repeat of Võ Thanh An’s success in 2020 would be slim, especially on such wide open boulevards in the run-in.



With 120.000 inhabitants, Đồng Hới is the capital of Quảng Bình, and notable for its long, scenic sandy beaches, with over 10km of them available. It was, as previously mentioned, set up as a fortress to protect the interests of the Champa kingdom after acquiring it as part of the dowry on a politically arranged marriage. The Gianh River provided the border between Đàng Trong and Đàng Ngoài, which meant that, while not really a frontier town, the city became an important military base for the Nguyễn lords and its walls were seen as the protection that kept the regime alive.

This military strategic position made it a base that the French used to assault the Việt Minh and, concurrently, the Pathet Lao, who allied themselves with the Việt Minh. However, it was taken by Hồ Chí Minh’s men in the Indochinese War, which placed it north of the DMZ during the Reunification War; this made it the softest target for American air raids, and the city was largely destroyed. Some monuments remain, such as the bellower of Tam Tòa church, the last remnant of Catholic France in the city, which has been left standing untouched, like the Hiroshima gate or the ghost town of Belchite, as a silent relic of the war.

In the post-war times, however, this has helped Đồng Hới to rebuild itself; its location has become very convenient for tourism purposes. While the city itself, largely reconstructed in the Soviet model after the fall of Saigon, may not be of the most immediate interest, its proximity to such pristine beaches attracts tourists seeking sun, sand and surf, while its role as the nearest city to Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park attracts adventure tourists and nature-lovers, and its proximity to the demilitarised zone and position of prominence in the Vietnam War conflicts has rendered it an important site for historians and tourists seeking to view the battlefields and scars of the conflict. The government is also undergoing a project to develop the city as a deep water port and use it as a hub of import/export, which will further attract people to the city. And as a result it has become a regular stop-off on the route of the HTV Cup, in order to flex their infrastructural muscles and show off their development. So who am I to argue with that?
 
Stage 12: Đông Hà - Đông Hà, 31,3km (ITT)





Stage 12 is the lone ITT of the race. Individual Time Trials are a comparative rarity in the HTV Cup, whereas a TTT takes place every year. I kind of get it, I understand that in a Communist-led country the importance of teamwork is prioritised to a greater extent than in capitalist countries. I mean, in the Peace Race, the teams classification was actually of paramount importance, second only to the individual general classification. And a Team Time Trial was therefore an extremely important discipline both in establishing a team’s position in that classification, and also in ensuring every rider played their role in the individual victor so every victor would have a debt of gratitude to their teammates. I understand that.

However, the ITT is the Race of Truth, and how can you have a three week race without one? Spoiler: you can’t. So here’s my ITT, the only one of the race, but an important GC day, especially bearing in mind how few in number feature length time trials are in this neck of the woods.


Loïc Désriac en route to victory in the 2018 ITT in Lang Sơn

In the 2019 UCI Asia Tour (I’m not using 2020 due to how heavily affected by the Covid lockdown it has been), this is the full list of individual time trials:
22nd March 2019: Tour de Tochigi, prologue (3,0km)
19th May 2019: Tour of Japan, prologue (2,6km)
30th May 2019: Tour of Kumano, prologue (0,7km)
20th July 2019: Tour of Qinghai Lake, stage 7 (42km)
8th September 2019: Tour of China I, stage 2 (7km)
16th September 2019: Tour of China II, prologue (5,2km)
9th October 2019: Tour of Taihu Lake, prologue (5,5km)

2018 was similar; only one time trial over 11km in length - the 21km time trial in the Tour of China II - and that 11km one was in the UAE Tour, where it was largely World Tour pros taking part anyway. Otherwise, it’s all prologues save for the national championships and periodic regional championships like the Asian Games, the Southeast Asian Games and so on.

However, the national championships in Vietnam are often up around the 40km mark, and so the riders do get to try themselves out against the clock once in a while. It doesn’t look like the championships were held in 2019, which means the reigning champion remains Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, who won the title by completing the 40km course around Hanoi in 50’56, to take the title by 1’20 over Mai Nguyễn Hưng, with the bronze going to outgoing champion Trịnh Đức Tâm. Trịnh is an interesting one to note as he is generally speaking Vietnam’s best time triallist, and even spent a year in Switzerland at the UCI’s World Cycling Centre back in 2014. In each year’s championship since 2013, he has finished 2nd, 1st, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 3rd. Mai, on the other hand, is the classic nearly-man of the chrono, having never taken the title but amassed 8 podiums across a 10 year period beginning in 2009 - three silvers and five bronzes. The other prominent continual medallist in recent years has been Huỳnh Thanh Tùng, of the Quân Khu 7 team, who has only once (in 2016) taken the national title but has managed a full collection of the medal colours. 20-year-old Phan Hoáng Thài was, somewhat perplexingly, Vietnam’s representative in the ITT at the 2018 Asian Games, and the country hasn’t entered a rider in the ITT at the Asian Cycling Championships since 2017, when Trịnh Đức Tâm finished 12th. He has been 7th in 2015 and 2016, however, only around 3 minutes behind winners Cheung King-lok and Hossein Askari over 45km, so perhaps there is something there. The Vietnamese have, understandably, more success at the Southeast Asian Games, against lesser competition and not having to face the occasional World Tour moonlighter like Dmitry Gruzdev and Daniil Fominykh that comes to race the Asian Championships for Kazakhstan. They’ve even managed a gold medal, all the way back in 2005, from Mai Công Hiếu, probably Vietnam’s best ever cyclist. He has also picked up two bronzes, from 2007 and 2009, and Trịnh Đức Tâm also got a bronze in 2015. In the most recent championships, however, Trịnh was a long way from the man he once was, finishing 8th, but over seven minutes down on Indonesian winner Aimen Cahyadi - though there was an issue with food poisoning affecting cyclists at the course in the Philippines so he may have an excuse. Other riders who may be potentially on hand in the HTV Cup from that race would be the two other medallists, Thailand’s Thanakhan Chaiyasombat, and Singapore’s Choon Huat Goh. The Filipinos, Ronald Oranza and Mark Galedo, are outside possibilities, but 5th placed Laotian star Alex Ariya Phounsavath is a good bet to either lead a national team or moonlight in the race, having won it outright in 2017.


ITT at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games

The last time the HTV Cup had an ITT, it was the 6,4km prologue in the 2018 edition, an effective out-and-back similar to what I did with the stage 2 Team Time Trial. This seems to be a popular method in Vietnamese cycling for setting up time trials, as the Nha Trang TTTs use a similar format. The long-established imports of Vietnamese cycling, Loïc Désriac and Javier Sardá, took 1st and 2nd, ahead of a who’s who of the best contre-le-montre riders in the country - Mai Nguyễn Hưng, Trịnh Đức Tâm, Huỳnh Thanh Tùng and Nguyễn Tấn Hoài were the next four fastest in order. The overseas riders still seemed to hold something of an advantage, however, with Ali Ghazemi in 8th and Edgar Nohales Nieto in 12th. Before that it looks like we’re going all the way back to 2009 for the last ITT before that, with Mai Công Hiếu winning the 25km test around Nha Trang ahead of Korean long-time veteran of the race (either with Korean national teams, his trade team, or as a mercenary) Gong Hyo-Suk. An on form Mai Nguyễn Hưng or Trịnh Đức Tâm ought to be able to do well though, or at least give a good account of themselves - especially as they are more likely to be in form here, seeing as they will target it - even up against riders like Cahyadi, Phounsavath and Maralerdene Batmunkh.

Highlights of the 2018 HTV Cup ITT

My ITT takes place around the city of Đông Hà, starting and finishing in the centre of town. I am going to follow the all-too familiar design plan of time trials in this part of the world, taking advantage of those wide open multi-lane dual carriageways by launching a lengthy out-and-back, albeit with a difference. The first 9km are on an out and back, so the last 9km also follows this same route. The middle part, around 13km in length, is a loop which takes in the city of Quảng Trị, which gives the province through which we are riding its name.



Đông Hà is around 100km southeast of Đồng Hới, so this is one of our longer transfers - another reason for the shortened stage yesterday. As such, much as Đồng Hới was one of the southernmost cities in North Vietnam, Đông Hà is one of the northernmost cities in South Vietnam, and so it was also subjected to heavy bombardment during the conflict. It has been reconstructed as so many cities have and is now home to 90.000 people; its role has vastly increased since the late 90s, when the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC) development program for trade between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam was commenced; the Lao Bảo border crossing is the Vietnamese entry point for goods travelling on the main axis of the trade route (which effectively forms a stylised cross), which means that Đông Hà is the first major city through which goods will travel in Vietnam.

Đông Hà is known outside of Vietnam largely for Đông Hà Combat Base, also known as Camp Spillman, a US marine and army corps base taking advantage of its northerly location within South Vietnam, just 10km south of the demilitarised zone. It was frequently raided, bombed or ambushed by the PAVN, sometimes with assistance from the Việt Cộng, from 1968 onwards in particular, and eventually the city fell on 31st March, before the combat base finally followed suit on 28th April 1972. Its tourist industry is relatively underdeveloped, but there is a lot of interest on the part of ex-military and those interested in the Vietnam War, as Đông Hà is often used as a base from which to visit the DMZ. In Vietnam and amid the Vietnamese diaspora, it is perhaps known most as the hometown and birthplace of Như Quỳnh, a rising singing star who emigrated to the United States in her early 20s and was picked up by Asia Entertainment Inc., under whose tutelage and promotion she carved a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Vietnamese popular music, and has become a major figure with the Vietnamese diaspora, blending traditional with the contemporary, performing ballads always dressed in the traditional áo dài.

The area we are travelling through was a major battleground in 1972, and the Battles of Quảng Trị comprise two parts: north Vietnamese advances as part of the Easter Offensive, and south Vietnamese rebuttals in the following autumn. The point at which our route deviates from a standard out-and-back is when we reach Ái Tử Combat Base, sometimes simply known as Quảng Trị from a military perspective. This was a second combat base that was conceived after it was decided that Đông Hà was too exposed to artillery fire due to its proximity to the DMZ. Now, the camp has been turned over to farmland, with a road running right over the former runway. On the outbound journey we continue on the highway past Ái Tử, and turn left a few kilometres later into Quảng Trị city, the only South Vietnamese provincial capital to fall in the Easter Offensive.



Quảng Trị is a city known primarily for its 19th Century, French-influenced citadel, a scenic Vauban fortress which served as a de facto headquarters for the US forces in the area after they were forced out of Ái Tử, and serves as the site of the mid-stage time check for our time trial. We continue out of town on the DT580, before a left hand bend takes us back toward Ái Tử, crossing first the Thạch Hãn River - which served as the de facto border between North and South Vietnam between January 1973 and reunification, after the southern riposte to the Easter Offensive was halted at Quảng Trị - and then the old Ái Tử Combat Base airfield, before rejoining the QL1A and retracing our steps back to Đông Hà via the same 9km route we took to get here.

At just over 30km, this is hardly a super long ITT, but then again the mountain stages in this race are going to be somewhat anaemic in comparison to those of a European Grand Tour because of the nature of the péloton; in addition to this, the paucity of decent length ITTs undertaken by these riders means that I would anticipate some serious gaps here. The 40km nationals routes tend to see some decent sized gaps, and while I wouldn’t expect, say, Huỳnh Thanh Tùng or Trịnh Đức Tâm to be contesting the GC here, so they would more likely be stagehunting, the likes of Loïc Désriac, Javier Sardá and Nguyễn Tấn Hoài likely will be contesting the GC - and if those international names are going to turn up, Aimen Cahyadi, Gong Hyo-Suk and Alex Ariya Phounsavath could all be in the GC mix here, plus there’s also the wildcards of wondering how climbing specialists like Jamal Hibatullah or all-rounders who are somewhat untested in this format like Nguyễn Hoàng Sang will get on. This will be a key GC day at the top end.
 
Stage 13: Huế - Huế, 42km





A second relatively lengthy transfer in a row - just over 70km from Đông Hà to Huế - leads us to our second criterium stage of the second week, as we undertake 20 laps of a 2,1km circuit. And unlike the Hanoi criterium, this is a very basic circuit, more like a classic American-style four-corner criterium than the technical ones you often see at kermesses and in Northern Europe where road furniture is prominent. However, the roads are more like normal-sized two-way roads than the vast, expansive boulevards of the Vinh criterium earlier in the week.


Essentially, you can see the whole course here. Home straight at the bottom, crossing the bridge nearest the camera, then heading away from camera and returning via the next bridge

Huế is a historic city with great tradition and romantic associations for many Vietnamese. Its very location seemed like idyllic serendipity, being established on the banks of Sông Hương, known in English as Perfume River, as every autumn, leaves from many aromatic plants in orchards upriver fill the river and lend it a pleasing, fragrant aroma much at odds with most inland rivers, especially since heavy industry and manufacturing became such a part of Vietnamese economic expansion.

It was the Champa that first established a city here; the earliest ruins are from a city in the 4th century AD, and then there are more established a few hundred years later, with little clue as to whether there was continuous inhabitance or if there was a break in continuity of urban population in the area. The area passed into the hands of the Vietnamese in the early 14th Century, when a Cham king offered the two provinces that merged to become Thuận Hóa in exchange for the hand of Vietnamese Emperor Trần Anh Tông’s daughter in marriage. Thuận Hóa is a historic central Vietnamese region which corresponds to the modern provinces of Quảng Bình, Quảng Trị and Thừa Thiên-Huế (so effectively all of Vietnam between Đèo Ngang and Đèo Hải Vân). During the 16th Century, Đại Việt split in terms of its rule, after the Civil War broke out. The Mạc dynasty managed to secure the control of the country and establish itself as a new imperial dynasty in 1527, but lost control of the southern provinces just six years later, thanks to many government officials and military figures being Lê family loyalists, believing them to have been usurped as the rightful rulers of the country. Nguyễn and Trịnh armies captured the terrain west of the Red River and extending down the spine of the country. The Mạc were forced to concede to the Chinese and allow Vietnam to be run as two separate kingdoms. The Nguyễn and Trịnh, however, saw no reason to acquiesce to the Chinese demands, as they were not the ones in a position of weakness, nor did they recognise Mạc Đăng Dung’s authority to make that deal. Nguyễn Kim, the figurehead of the oppositional loyalist forces, reinstalled the Lê as rulers, but under his ultimate guidance; Mạc loyalists felt that Kim was making the Lê into puppet rulers and being no less a despot than they were accusing Mạc Đăng Dung of being, and one of their number successfully poisoned Nguyễn Kim, leading to a power vacuum as the Nguyễn and Trịnh fought amongst themselves for the succession. Trịnh Kiểm, son-in-law of Kim, was installed as ruler, and Kim’s legitimate son was assassinated by Trịnh supporters to establish Kiểm as the sole legitimate ruler. Nguyễn Hoàng, the younger son of Kim, petitioned Trịnh Kiểm to be allowed to rule the southernmost, i.e. most out of the way, province, in order to minimise the risk of suffering the same fate as his brother. He was handed Thuận Hóa province and left to his own devices while Kiểm dealt with the remaining Mạc opposition.


Nguyễn Hoàng swiftly despatched the Mạc from his new charges’ lands, and set to work consolidating his territory. He was an important - probably the most important - catalyst for Vietnam’s southern expansion, capturing important territories in northern Champa territory that would eventually lead to the extension of the Vietnamese empire to the Mekong. Hoàng, by this time an elderly ruler, assisted Trịnh Tòng, the son of Kiểm, with troops and resources to finally extinguish the last flames of Mạc rebellion in Hanoi in 1592, but he refused to accept the authority of the new Lê emperor, Lê Kinh Tông, and establishing the southern territories as quasi-independent, passing down authority over them to his son Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên upon his death. With these territories being loyal to the Nguyễn lords that had turned them into prosperous and successful provinces, they then rose up against the Trịnh and established a second civil war. In 1687, the Nguyễn lords began constructing a citadel in their family seat, the Thừa Thiên province, which was called Phu Xuân.

In the late 18th Century, however, the upstart pretender dynasty Tây Sơn rose up and challenged the Nguyễn, necessitating a large part of the Nguyễn military resources being sent south of Hải Vân to deal with it. The Trịnh didn’t need a second invitation, and quickly overwhelmed the limited forces remaining at Phu Xuân. They then made a deal with the rebellion, and enabled Tây Sơn to take Phu Xuân after a Trịnh retreat, thus making it harder for the Nguyễn to fight back into the main heartlands. However, now that the country extended to the Mekong, the southernmost provinces had far more resources than they historically had done, and Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, one of the three main Nguyễn regional rulers of the time, established a foothold from his dominions in the south, and pressed northwards until he recaptured Phu Xuân, by then treated as the Tây Sơn capital. In 1802, he managed to pacify the Trịnh in the north and establish what are effectively the boundaries of modern Vietnam; he completely rebuilt Phu Xuân into a modern city with a more effective and prominent citadel, renamed it Huế, and proclaimed it the Imperial capital of Vietnam, a title it would retain, at least ceremonially, until 1945 when Bảo Đại abdicated and Hồ Chí Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, which was to be based around Hanoi. When the French attempted to counter this and reinstate the Emperor, their proposed state was centred around Saigon. Huế, with its central location, was seen as too small, and its location a potential liability.


Imperial city of Huế

Huế’s imperial centre may now be protected thanks to UNESCO status, but it has had a rough ride of recent history. Perhaps nowhere is quite as symbolic of the Vietnam War as the old imperial city of Huế. Neither side can claim any real kind of moral superiority in the destruction of the city, which became a key battleground from the Tết Offensive onward, as both were responsible for some atrocities in the fight for Huế, which began with the North Vietnamese occupation of the city in late January 1968, and lasted a month of heavy aggression on both sides. When the North Vietnamese held historic buildings, the Americans bombed sites of great cultural and historic significance for the very people they were allegedly fighting on behalf of; Việt Cộng and PAVN forces one-upped them by conducting a brutal purge of the population of the city, especially focusing on those with sympathies with the American forces. Various mass graves were found in and around Huế after the war, with estimated death tolls between 2.800 and 6.000 split between prisoners of war and civilians, many of whom exhibiting signs of torture. South Vietnamese sources released a list of just over 4.000 people listed as missing or murdered, though there was also rampant speculation that the number was inflated by a series of revenge killings conducted by vigilante actions of South Vietnamese upon the liberation of the city from the North Vietnamese occupation - of course, however, with the North Vietnamese having ultimately been successful in reuniting the country in their image, such statements which serve to lessen the negative connotations towards the PAVN and increase those in respect of the Republic of Vietnam forces must be taken with a grain of salt. Various revisionist theories have been posited on both sides to either absolve the PAVN of responsibility (or at least make them seem less ruthless and brutal) or to paint them in as negative a light as possible, depending on the theorists’ point of view. It’s likely that as with most war atrocities we will never know the full extent. Here is a History Channel documentary about the battle, obviously painted from a slightly jingoistic American point of view.


After the conclusion of the war in 1975, the victorious Communists neglected to restore the city of Huế, which they justified with the explanation that they did not want to glorify the “feudal and reactionary” Nguyễn dynasty and rally support for a return of the Emperor. Although the tourist potential of the citadel and the old city has since been recognised and steps taken to rebuild and renovate the site to bring it back to its former glories, as recently as 2008, when the British entertainment show Top Gear filmed an episode with a road trip through Vietnam, the city’s most famous sight was still a bullet hole-ridden shrine to the horrors of war.

Huế’s royal history has led it to exert a certain level of influence on Vietnamese culture. The traditional dress, the áo dài, originates in the court clothing of Huế, while many of the country’s culinary specialities descend from dishes produced for the Lords in the city; in particular, hot and spicy savoury dishes, and sweet and exotic desserts, proliferate in central Vietnamese cuisine under the influence of the royal courts in Huế. It is also a stronghold of Buddhism in Vietnam. It is one of Vietnam’s most treasured tourist attractions as a city, being easily accessible from Đà Nẵng, and containing both Imperial historic tradition and Vietnam War legacy attractions, two of the main things that incentivise tourism in the country. And, of course, it has become a regular stop-off for the HTV Cycling Cup.



Almost every year that the race heads this far north, the HTV Cup passes through Huế. And pretty much every time that it travels into Huế, a criterium will ensue. Stages beginning and ending in Huế with sub-60km distances have been part of the route in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Frequently, a stage finish will be held in the city on the previous day, travelling south from somewhere like Đông Hà or, as in the last couple of years, Đồng Hới, and then a short criterium stage will ensue in order to attract crowds to the race. On recent occasions this has been a simple, square four corner crit crossing the Perfume River and heading to the corner of the famous citadel on the opposite side of the course from the stage finish. 20 laps of this 2,1km circuit has been the standard since 2012, before which a variety of courses were used, so I am going to carry on with that tradition.

As you can imagine, therefore, most victories in Huế have been taken by sprinters. In the last decade two riders have been dominant in the city; Lê Văn Duẩn won the Huế criterium in 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016, and since then the city has been almost the exclusive dominion of Vietnam’s best current sprinter, Lê Nguyệt Minh, who won the criterium stage in 2018, 2019 and 2020 back to back, as well as also taking the preceding road stage into the city in 2019. This year the road stage was won by Nguyễn Tấn Hoài, but Minh took his revenge to reclaim his dominance in the city the following day. Typically the stages around Huế fall early in the race, so coming on stage 13 here will be something of a new experience (the latest it has been previously is stage 9 in 2018’s mammoth length edition, though had they just travelled down to the race’s hometown it would have just been 22 stages, they added eight completely flat stages around the Mekong Delta to give those towns a chance to host, since they used to be supportive in the early days of the race when it covered south Vietnam only), and perhaps recovery will come into it. Lê Nguyệt Minh won the 30th stage back then, however, and stage 17 of this year’s race, so I suspect he will still be the man to beat. This is how he did it in 2020.

 
Stage 14: Huế - Đỉnh Bà Nà, 131km





GPM:
Đèo Phước Tượng (cat.4) 1,1km @ 4,5%
Đèo Phú Gia (cat.4) 0,8km @ 8,0%
Đèo Hải Vân (cat.2) 9,6km @ 4,6%
Đỉnh Bà Nà (HC) 15,5km @ 9,0%

The final day before the second rest day, this one is a short stage, but it’s going to be a very significant one for the final GC, with the single hardest climb of the race. Yes, the second rest day comes after stage 14, which on a conventional race would mean it takes place at the weekend. But as I explained before the first rest day, the idiosyncrasies of the Vietnamese working week meaning that though Saturday and Sunday are considered ‘the weekend’ there is no true actual period where the majority of people share the day off, and the fact the race traditionally ends on April 30th regardless of what day of the week it falls on, means that there’s a bit more flexibility in where you put the rest day, besides the real race has put rest days on Saturdays and Sundays recently! In 2021, April 30th falls on a Friday, so the second rest day based on the race as I have it would be on a Friday also. So no harm done.

This is a key stage as we move from north central into south central Vietnam (not to be confused with South Central, LA, for you hip hop fans out there) over one of Vietnam’s most iconic - if not most iconic outright - roads, the Hải Vân pass. Traditionally, stages of southbound editions of the HTV Cup will follow the Huế criterium with a short stage over the pass into Đà Nẵng. This stage has often been placed in such a way as to tell us who the most likely names to be contesting the GC will be, with the climb being positioned in such a way as to generate selectivity, but with around 30-35km to the line meaning it often gets settled between small groups. 2020’s edition saw eventual GC winner Javier Sardá Pérez escape on the pass to try to manoeuvre himself into the lead, and take the lead of the king of the mountains classification which he would hold all the way to the finish, but on the descent he was caught by a select group, from which a counter-move of 5 riders got away to contest the finish, which was won by Nguyễn Hoàng Giang, while Nguyễn Thắng also gained the 9 seconds that resulted in his eventual podium ahead of teammate Nguyễn Trường Tài.


My stage obviously extends a bit beyond the traditional Đà Nẵng finish, as I have something altogether more extreme in mind. But we ease the riders into the stage, at least once they get the super-early first meta volante out of the way - placing that just 8,5km into the stage should ensure a high pace from the word go as the sprinters’ teams seek to manoeuvre the likes of Lê Nguyệt Minh and Jordan Parra into place to contest the blue jersey. There are a couple of smaller climbs in the first part of the stage, but these are just category 4, and unlikely to be of any real consequence. The stage really turns around and starts to get serious after passing through the beach resort town of Lăng Cô. That is when we make a beeline for Hải Vân pass, a 2nd category climb which is steeped in history.



Hải Vân translates as “ocean cloud”, and refers to the mists which rise from the sea in the area, as this spur of the Annamite Mountains extends all the way to the coast, meaning it was historically required to traverse the range, with the Hải Vân pass being the preferred route by which to cross the threshold. The difficulty of the trek over the col meant for many years it functioned as the de facto boundary between Champa and Đại Việt, after the transfer of the three provinces that now make up north central coastal Vietnam. It has forever held strategic importance due to this status as the bridge between north and south, and also served as the boundary for the southernmost point reached by the Han Chinese empire, when Ma Yuan pacified Northern Vietnam and expanded south, with Hải Vân serving as the block to further progress.

The importance of the pass has been significantly eroded in recent times, however, as from 2000 until its opening in 2005 work was undertaken to bypass the infamous pass; with a united, larger Vietnamese polity, the need to traverse this tricky mountain pass, which often resulted in slow traffic with a high incidence of accidents thanks to poor visibility and lax and confused traffic laws, became an impediment to the nation rather than the benefit it once was in protection from invasion and as a strategic outpost. Now it was a fairly central pass that slowed down the transport of goods and services. As a result, a tunnel was constructed to bypass the road, extending for 6,3km which means it is officially regarded as the longest tunnel in Asia. This has had the benefit of heavily reducing traffic on Hải Vân pass itself, which had previously suffered from considerably congestion, and can now be appreciated more for its scenic beauty, described as one of the greatest coast roads in the world and attracting tourists to its summit for the views. The road is 21km in length, with a short stretch from the departure from the new tunnel road and then the climb and descent itself. My routing on this makes it 9,6km @ 4,6%, which begins with some false flat and then 1400m at 8%. Things then settle down with 3km at around 4%, then up to almost 7% for 1300m before 600m dead flat, 600m at 8% then a crest and slight descent, 500m at 6%, 500m back down at a similar level before a final 750m at 8,3% to take us to the summit. This crests at 56km from home, and is then followed by a twisty and similarly inconsistent descent which will enable those caught behind to work their way back on. It’s similarly scenic and notorious from this side - please see this video showcasing the north-to-south route over Đèo Hải Vân to see how this will look mid-race.


In a normal race, that would be it for the climbing. The HTV Cup would ordinarily continue on to finish in Đà Nẵng, while the rival upstart VTV Cup, set up by Vietnam Television, originally intended to run a similar stage from Huế to Hội An, but was forced by inclement weather to shorten the stage to effectively a mountaintop finish after just 75km - identical to my first 75km - to finish at Đèo Hải Vân. Nguyễn Quốc Bảo of the Dược Domesco Đồng Tháp surprised everybody by attacking at the base and staying away, while Loïc Désriac defended his GC lead from Javier Sardá, the two extranjeros as ever being prominent near the head of the field. Bikelife put 3 riders other than Désriac into the top 6 - Nguyễn Phạm Quốc Khang, Trần Lê Minh Tuấn and, more predictably, Nguyễn Hoàng Sang. 9 riders finished within 30 seconds, so the level isn’t such that this climb will annihilate the field.

Which is a good thing, because we have a subsequent climb that will.

After the descent, we then have a very straight stretch along the coast road to arrive in Đà Nẵng, however unlike the normal stage which will continue on into the heart of Vietnam’s third city, here in fact we will have our final intermediate sprint in the outlying Thanh Khê district, to the north of the city’s airport, and then we will turn westwards. This is a very fast and straight rolling stretch of road which leads us to the base of our final climb of the day, and this is one where the riders are going to be thanking their lucky stars there’s a rest day tomorrow. Because they’re going to feel like they need one after this, I’m sure.



When the HTV Cup was about to take place, and there was therefore a bit of attention paid by reporters on the cycling sites, long starved of any races to cover, to the race, one of the things that they came up against was that the audience would know nothing of these riders or races, so hastily we saw both the race organisers attempting to get their coverage out there to take advantage of the unexpected global attention being paid to their event, and also the cycling media trying to learn enough about the Vietnamese cycling scene to be able to report on it, including the idiosyncrasy of allowing riders coming in hors delais to stay in the race but be removed from the General Classification, the riders and their strengths, and what other race results could be used as any kind of guidance to make tips and predictions. Naturally, the two European riders were gravitated toward by most of the press; Loïc Désriac and Javier Sardá have French and Spanish as their native languages respectively, and both speak good English, as this is the language they are typically interviewed in during races in Vietnam, and so they fronted a lot of the responsibility for the promotion of the race outside of its home region. In the case of Sardá, the videos posted online by Lê Nguyệt Minh on his youtube channel (Minh Cycling Lee, for anybody interested in an insight into bike racing in Vietnam) suggest that the team largely communicate with Sardá in English also, as his Vietnamese appears to be a case of ‘enough to get by day to day’. Désriac is married to a Vietnamese woman and so he may be better at the local tongue, I’m not sure.

Either way, one section of Cycling Weekly’s preview of the HTV Cup featured an interview with Sardá which piqued my interest. The Spaniard told of a special attraction race called the Coupe de Huế, which had featured a stage with a 15km mountain time trial, at an average gradient of 8,3%. It seems that the Coupe de Huế is something akin to a Gran Fondo, but the edition in 2019 saw a lot of the national professionals taking part, alongside some names better known to us westerners who are more used to the top professional scene. One of them was former BMC, Champion System, Israel Cycling Academy and Caja Rural stalwart Chris Butler… and the other was some Australian guy you might have heard of, called Cadel Evans. Either way, obviously Cuddles is now in his 40s and has been retired a few years, but with cycling increasing in popularity in Vietnam and the intrinsic name value that he carries, the idea of riding with a former Tour de France winner was a major selling point for the event. Sardá recounted with pride that he won the event, but it makes sense that the combination of local knowledge and being an active pro would benefit him in the circumstances!

Either way, however, I wanted to find this climb. I was a bit sceptical at first, given the article also stated that Đèo Ngoạn Mục was 20km in length at an average gradient of 9% and with an altitude of 980m, which obviously anybody with any understanding of mathematics can tell isn’t going to be right as to average 9% over 20km you would have to ascend 1800m, and there is nowhere on the surface of the earth that is at -820m from sea level. However, knowing there was likely to be some involvement of Đèo Hải Vân in the race, I hunted around for the smaller roads on satellite view to find one that was paved… hunting through the Trường Sơn mountains, and when I saw there was a tarmac access road up to the Bà Nà Hills resort, I knew I’d found it.

Except… it wasn’t the one. When I finally found an Anglophone source for the race’s promotion, it told me that, actually, the 15km climb was to Bạch Mã Peak, on the northern side of Đèo Hải Vân, on a road which I had not isolated as a possibility because it was partly concreted and looked like it had dirt sections from satellite images, but apparently these are somewhat obsolete and it has been repaved to allow access to the Phong Lan villa and the mountain retreat. Nevertheless its condition is poor. It crested at 1260m, beginning at almost exactly sea level, over 15,2km, which perfectly hit the 8,3% average that Sardá had mentioned. Seems like Javi is a reliable source, or at least is a better mathematician than the journalist who wrote the article (and also insists on calling Sardá by his maternal surname throughout, although the Vietnamese commentators seem to do the same a lot of the time so hard to criticise that). Looks like I had got it wrong. However, serendipity was on my side this time. The Bà Nà Hills resort has much more space at the summit - enough to host a full race operation, which Bạch Mã looks like it may lack unless the restaurant’s parking has been extended - a cable car system that will enable people to access the resort even if the road is closed off for racing and also to ferry logistics for the race; and crucially, it’s an even harder climb.



It’s no wonder the majority of people access Đỉnh Bà Nà via the cable car. This is an absolute killer; if I had my time again to post the ‘150 climbs better than Alpe d’Huez’ I would put this one in there. There are quite a few contentious climbs in that list and a lot that I just threw together as well as my having discovered a range of new climbs in the intervening period in areas of cycling that I hadn’t hitherto discovered, such as Wuling Pass and Ovit Geçidi, and having omitted a few obvious ones like Genting Highlands. Just look at those statistics, though. 15,5km at a nice round 9%. It’s an absolute monstrosity. How many climbs sustain those kind of gradients for that long in World Tour level cycling? Not many. The last 17km of Stelvio from Prato are at 8,4%; that’s perhaps a comparison point. Großglockner north, if you take out the kilometre or two of flat early on, might match it. Gamoniteiro from Pola de Lena is 15,1km @ 9,7%. Passo di Pennes is 13,5km at 9,2% after the initial false flat ramps. Monte Crostis east is 14,5km @ 8,7%. That is the kind of pantheon of climbs we’re joining here. That. For the riders more used to the South East Asian calendar, the Ijen Crater is probably the most relevant point of comparison, 12,6km @ 9,6%, though in reality it is longer, the race just breaks up the single multi-stepped ascent into multiple ascents to give out more KOM points.

The climb starts in benign enough fashion, with 2,2km at an average of 6,5%. A short descent leads in to a horrible ramp of 15% for 750m, before it eases off again to another 2km averaging 6,3%. The problem is, that’s the end of any respite that the riders may have been enjoying, because now things get super serious. The next 7,9km average 11,4%. Yes, that’s right, average 11,4%. We’re getting into the realm of the Zoncolans of this world with this bit. It’s similar to the Kitzbüheler Horn climb up to the Alpenhaus where the Österreichrundfahrt usually puts the finish (that makes it 7,4km @ 11,7%). The Jelajah Malaysia’s key climb, Gunung Jerai, is 8km at 10% so that is also a worthwhile point of comparison, especially as it’s more likely to be raced by some of the people one might see in this event. The final 2km are back down at a more manageable 6,5% once more, but after everything that’s gone before, don’t underestimate the capacity of those kilometres to hurt in and of themselves. How often do we see the key moves being made not on the toughest ramps, but immediately following them? Mind you, for the Southeast Asian péloton I think 8km at 11% will be more than enough to be decisive in and of itself.



The Bà Nà Hills mountain station was the brainchild of French colonists, and was constructed in 1919, after construction was authorised in 1913 and subsequently postponed due to World War I. It marketed itself as being akin to Đà Lạt, a southern Vietnamese mountain city which was very popular with the colonial elites. The intention in the construction of Đỉnh Bà Nà was to have a luxury resort complex to attract French tourists to the colonies. The idea was that the combination of the spectacular views down to the sea and across the Annamese mountain range would create dramatic ambiance, while the altitude - nearly 1500m above sea level - would ensure a more cool and temperate climate that the European visitors not normally resident in Vietnam would be better able to acclimatise to. After 1945, however, the French gradually abandoned the resort during decolonisation and conflict in the region, and it became used as a strategic vantage point by the Americans in the Vietnam War; to make room for the military equipment required, they had to destroy much of the remaining French ghost town, and the heavily damaged access route required re-routing; the need for a purely military access road resulted in the steep and angular road of the present day. After the Reunification of Vietnam, the outpost was abandoned.

In 1997, however, the Vietnamese government decided to develop Bà Nà into an ecotourism complex. Hotels, restaurants and environmental complexes were constructed and the road was paved to provide access for these. A colonial-era French town was introduced as a theme in a nod to the area’s past, and in 2000 the town was reopened for business. After initial intrigue faded, however, it seemed like something was needed to maintain the attraction for Bà Nà. It was seen as an expensive day out from Đà Nẵng considering the number of attractions already in the area, so the initial excitement faded away, until 2007 when entertainment moguls Sun Group Vietnam took over the management of the resort. The difficult and unpopular access road was supplanted with the cable car, one of the longest in the world at a full 5km up and 6km down, and even constructed to meet safety standards of the European Union (!). Over the ensuing decade, Bà Nà Hills went from being an ecotourist hotspot to a ginormous theme park, with rollercoasters, a rack railway, a full scale faux French village, water features, and a range of markets, stalls, shops, restaurants and so forth. A “Magic Castle” attraction was scheduled for opening during 2020, and its most famous attraction is the “Golden Bridge”, a bizarre structure held up by two gigantic concrete hands which links the cable car station to the resort-central viewing station looking out over the dramatic waterfalls that overlook the station.



For the most part, people don’t drive to Bà Nà anymore. Cars and bikes will be left at the car park at the base station of the cable car, meaning that they don’t need to take the risk of the old 15km at 9% mountain road. But it’s still there, and it would be almost perfect for a bike race. So why not use it, hey? After all… if the Vietnamese are keen to develop the tourist potential of the Bà Nà Hills resort, showing off its scenic location and its visual attractions, then what better way than to get a bunch of helicam and drone footage showcasing it while people sit down to watch a climb that could take an hour plus for riders to complete in the country’s biggest national bike race, on one of the biggest television channels in the country?

It’s a win-win-win. We as the audience get to see a phenomenally difficult climb that will blow the GC to smithereens and see riders coming in in ones and twos for minutes; the race organisers get a spectacular spectacle to sell to their audience and to create a key-note climb for the race in a location close to a major city and where cycling fans can actually access the finish just by taking the cable car up; and the stage host gets the attraction of bringing more people up on that cable car who can be tempted to spend more on the resort’s attractions once there, and more exposure for their resort on a major television channel (plus the potential spike in overseas viewership after the unexpected fillip of 2020). Everybody benefits. Except the cyclists themselves. They suffer, because climbing the road up to Đỉnh Bà Nà will be a horrible experience for which they will be thankful that I have followed this stage with a rest day. But everybody else? We win.
 
Stage 15: Đà Nẵng - Quảng Ngãi, 173km





GPM:
Đèo Chim Hút (cat.3) 1,6km @ 8,8%

The péloton are able to enjoy a rest day a week before the end of the race, off the back of its most brutal mountaintop finish, in Vietnam’s third city, the 1,1 million people metropolis of Đà Nẵng. One of just five cities to be centrally administered not as part of a province but as a city-province in its own right, the city is an important economic hub, being located in the estuary of the Hàn River, and serving as the largest mid-station in the country’s north-south axis. Long lying in the Kingdom of Champa and other Cham-led polities, its name is believed to be derived from a Vietic reading of the Cham word danak, meaning “river mouth”. The competing etymology, a Raglai (another Malayo-Polynesian group living in Champa) word danang meaning “river source”, is believed to be unlikely due to the Raglai homelands being a good few hundred kilometres to the south. To the Đại Việt population the city was a Cham holding called Cửa Hàn, to specify which river it was at the mouth of. The French called it “Tourane”, and briefly during Communist uprisings in 1945 it was named Thái Phiên, in honour of one of the rebels who resisted the French in the 1916 uprisings, before reverting to its Cham-origin name shortly afterward.



Đà Nẵng is at the heart of Vietnam’s attempts to rebrand itself as a tourist destination, and it is one of the central hubs of this. The accessibility of places we’ve already visited, such as the old imperial city of Huế, the historic and scenic Đèo Hải Vân and the Bà Nà Hills resort with its dramatic cable car ride and its theme park attractions are all a part of this. But Đà Nẵng is also Vietnam’s main tourist gateway to its oldest and most iconic ruins; as mentioned early on, unfortunately a lot of Vietnam’s ancient kingdoms constructed their buildings, temples and cities of wood, and this has not stood the test of time through centuries of political tumult, meaning they don’t have an equivalent to legendary tourist destinations like Angkor Wat in neighbouring states. The nearest they have are not Vietnamese ruins at all, but the ruins of the now lost Cham kingdoms that inhabited Vietnam south of Đèo Hải Vân; the modern village of Đồng Dương sits on what was once the site of Indrapura, capital of the Cham kingdom for more than a millennium, which was sadly largely destroyed by bombing raids during the war; what remained was looted for materials by desperate Vietnamese civilians whose towns, villages and livelihoods had been destroyed, for whom the need to protect these ancient monuments for posterity had ultimately to come secondary to the need to put a roof over their heads and food on their tables. Trà Kiệu also houses a lot of ruins, believed to be the city of Singhapura, but the most important are the Mỹ Sơn ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just under an hour outside Đà Nẵng, a large Hindu temple complex which also served as a burial site for royalty and nobility not unlike the Valley of the Kings; unfortunately a week of solid bombing from the USAF has destroyed a lot of its architecture but it remains remarkably intact compared to similar sites, especially considering how close to the main war zones it stands.



The Cham abandoned Indrapura in around 1000AD, finding its northerly location so close to the border with Đại Việt made it vulnerable, and eventually, no longer obstructed by Cham nobility and guard, Vietnamese peasants expanded southward into the Cham kingdom, culminating in the dominant population of the entire coastline down to the Mekong being of Vietnamese ethnicity. The area was discovered by the Portuguese, and European traders - particularly from France and Spain - began to call in at Hội An, another port city close to Đà Nẵng. However, after a long period of conflict, the Emperor forbade Hội An from accepting further European vessels, which shifted trade attention up the coast to Đà Nẵng, and with its easy access inland and sheltered bay, it quickly grew to dominate its neighbour. This trading history meant that under French control it was treated as one of the country’s five major cities, and it has retained that position as one of the pre-eminent cities in the region ever since. The port has also adapted to incorporate a schedule including many cruise ships, as the city has become a ‘hot’ destination especially within Southeast Asia, and tourist numbers are increasing at almost 20% a year in recent history.

The other main attraction nearby is the Marble Mountains, an outcrop of limestone just south of the city, which was originally inhabited by Cham settlers, before the Nguyễn dynasty built pagodas in the caves and made them holy sanctuaries.



For the most part, this stage is a transitional stage southwards; we bypass the historic port city of Hội An - also a UNESCO World Heritage Site - early on, but we have our first intermediate sprint in Tam Kỳ, which inherited the title of capital of Quảng Nam from Đà Nẵng in 1997, when the latter was split off to become a city-province. It is known as the home of Mì Quảng, a nationally-recognised and revered dish. We continue southward in an almost ramrod-straight line for almost 100km, and it is only when we reach Bình Sơn, the home of the cultivated Vietnamese variety of the mandarin, that we deviate from this. We could have indeed taken the highway straight to today’s stage host of Quảng Ngãi, and had we done so, the stage distance would have been around 130km. Stages from Đà Nẵng to Quảng Ngãi are comparatively common in the race, occurring in 2006 (128km), 2010 (132km), 2012 (128km), 2013 (131km), 2015 (133km), 2016 (133km), 2018 (133km) and 2019 (133km). In 2020’s HTV Cup, however, the transitional stage was replaced; instead a hilly stage finishing in Tam Kỳ was followed by a criterium in Tam Kỳ (which took place on a day the riders thought would be a rest day), before the stage from there to Quảng Ngãi was annulled and they restarted in Quảng Ngãi the next day instead. As a result, the last time the city hosted a finish was in 2019’s race, when Vô Thanh An escaped to a solo win after surprising the bunch with his tenacity to hold on in a pan-flat stage.

I’m not going for such a straightforward route, though. Instead, in Bình Sơn we depart the QL1a, and head inland, to cross the Trà Khúc river some way to the west of Quảng Ngãi. This enables us to then trace the river’s route eastward for several kilometres before turning south on the hilly road over Đèo Chim Hút. This short but steep climb - averaging around 9% - crests with 22km remaining, so there’s definitely the opportunity to try something here for the riders in this péloton. Another interesting thing about this pass is that it follows the route of Southeast Asia’s longest monument, the 127km stretch of ramparts and fortified walls, four metres high and two and a half metres wide, that make up Trường Lũy, known in the west as the Long Wall of Vietnam.

This wall was constructed, most scholars agree, to protect Quảng Ngãi from Đá Vách, the Vietnamese term for the H’re people, a Khmer group living in southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia close to the region. However, there is much dispute about when it was constructed. It is believed that some of the sections, especially in the mountains, date back hundreds of years, but the earliest attributed evidence is from the 16th Century, as we have ceramic fragments that prove the wall was in place by this point. The wall is often attributed to Lê Văn Duyệt, a high-ranking official who helped set the Nguyễn dynasty in place, in order to protect against rebels, though it is now believed this is less a case of Lê having created the wall, but his having developed it and strengthened, rebuilt its fortifications and extended its range of defence in order to secure the region. It was used as a means by which to transport arms and supplies, both medical and culinary, during the Vietnam War, but it was not until 2011 that it was declared a national monument; its geographic location and the fact Quảng Ngãi is so little heralded as a tourist destination makes it difficult for the government to promote for touristic purposes, and so it remains something of a hidden gem.



The run-in after this is very straightforward; we arrive at the usual finish in Quảng Ngãi, just arriving from the opposite direction, so looping around a little to arrive at the parade grounds, because if there’s one thing the HTV Cup loves, it’s a good wide open finish at a parade ground.



Quảng Ngãi is home to just over 250.000 people, and has been very much off the beaten track to tourists. It is notorious for being about as monolingual a province as it gets in Vietnam, at least in terms of western or touristic languages (in this part of the world, the latter definition would include Cantonese, Mandarin, Hakka, Japanese or Korean of course). The heavy typhoon risk in the autumn is a clear influence on this, and it has historically been a trading town, which has expanded a bit due to industry. I mean, its tourist potential is seen as so low that it doesn’t even have a wikitravel page. However, it is rejuvenating itself owing to redevelopment as an oil-producing town. Refineries and fossil fuel industries have led to the city’s population increasing tenfold during the last 15 years and an extensive urban regeneration plan, which is obviously key to the frequent stages in the HTV Cup, as it’s an opportunity to show off the development of the city and portray its economic boom in as positive a light as possible. I’ve watched races held in oil states and I’ve watched races held in single-party states. Let’s face it, that matters to them.

Luckily, we don’t have to sacrifice the racing for it this time, because for a péloton like this, over 2 weeks into the race, fresh off a rest day, a steep climb just over 20km from home is a byword for trouble for some of the heavier and less durable sprinters. Let’s see how they do - the run-in favours them, but they’re going to have to make it to the finish to contest it. If they get there, they deserve the chance to sprint it out. After all, that’s what we want from a sprint stage, right?
 
Stage 16: Quảng Ngãi - Quy Nhơn, 202km





GPM:
Đèo Lộ Diêu (cat.4) 2,1km @ 6,6%
Đèo Phú Thứ (cat.4) 1,8km @ 7,0%
Đèo Quy Hòa (cat.4) 1,1km @ 7,8%
Đèo Quy Hòa (cat.4) 1,1km @ 7,8%

Another long stage that could be for the sprinters, however while the straight and open run-in after Đèo Chim Hút may have given the fast men the upper hand in chasing back on, today’s stage has a lesser climb, but positioned such that the favour should be with the punchier riders today.

We’re back for the first time in a while with the “zero transfer” policy, which the riders will be thankful for, though you could most certainly argue that the Vinh and Đà Nẵng starts were, in effect, zero transfer stages, while obviously there was no transfer after the Huế criterium. They’ll be especially happy to see no transfer as there’s, you know, over 200km in today’s stage, matching up with the longest kind of stages that they ever face. For the second day in a row, I’m taking on a fairly common route in the race, but modifying it a little to make it a little longer and more difficult - so exactly the kind of step you might expect to see from the race if it looks to develop itself to the next level. Quảng Ngãi to Quy Nhơn stages have been seen in 2008 (175km), 2010 (182km), 2012 (179km), 2013 (181km), 2015 (181km), 2016 (179km), 2017 (179km), 2018 (179km), 2019 (179km) and 2020 (185km). Therefore as you can see, the extension is not so extreme as yesterday, with us only adding 15-20 kilometres’ distance onto the typical stage on this route. The undoubted, undisputed king of Quy Nhơn in the HTV Cup is Lê Văn Duẩn, who has won in the city on no fewer than five occasions (2008, 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2019). Here he is winning the stage in 2013:



The 2020 stage was pan-flat, ignoring the hilly promontories on the coast that I take advantage of in the same way as the capi of Milano-Sanremo. With points classification leader Nguyễn Tấn Hoài more interested in defending the yellow jersey he also held than contesting the intermediate sprints, a ten-man break got up the road to contest the win, which was taken in the sprint of the group by Nguyễn Dương Hồ Vũ. My intention is to create something a bit less, well, flat, seeing as we’re transitioning down the coast here, and so this stage can stand to include something to make the GC guys think a bit.

Essentially the stage consists of two stretches of 100km, which are pan-flat and end with two back to back cat.4 climbs. The first half of the stage is punctuated by an early intermediate sprint - after less than an hours’ racing - in Đức Phổ, a city of 150.000 which formerly housed a US Army base and airstrip called LZ Montezuma. We essentially follow the route of a typical Quảng Ngãi to Quy Nhơn stage until reaching Tam Quan, our gateway to Bình Định province, where we spend the rest of the day. This was the site of a 1967 battle, after guerrilla attacks were conducted along highway 1 by the PAVN, who had taken up spots in the hills to the south of the city. After several days, they were located by the Americans’ helicopters, and a five day battle ensued, causing heavy losses for the Communists. The PAVN tried to escape assault from the Republic’s troops by withdrawing to the south, but were ambushed in their retreat by the Americans. Combined ARVN and US losses were 88 dead and 321 wounded - with the North Vietnamese forces losing 650 men and a further 31 captured. We pass by the battlegrounds, crossing the river where the PAVN forces were intercepted, and continue into the hills to the south of that which they were trying to escape to - this gives us the opportunity to take a couple of short climbs. I got this picture of the first climb of the day from blogger Nguyễn Thị Bình An, whose website is chocked full of pictures and images of the beauty that this country has to offer - I’m afraid I can’t read the articles to comment on their relative merits.



After these two climbs down by the coast, we rejoin the traditional highway route down toward Quy Nhơn, including our second meta volante at Ngô Mây, 60km from the line. We pass through An Nhơn, bordering on the Tây Sơn district from which the rebel dynasty sprung up, and then head directly for the coast via Hồ Phú Hòa, a lake which is currently undergoing redevelopment. This then brings us into Quy Nhơn where we enter and undertake two and a half laps of a 10,2km circuit. Yes, quite a short circuit for week 3, but since we can play hard and fast with the exclusion rules in a non-UCI race, we, well, will.

Traditionally a fishing town, Quy Nhơn is another city enjoying a major boom in the post-reunification era, with an ever-expanding focus in the city’s economy on service industries and tourism. The town of “Quy Nhơn” is a fairly new thing, but there have been successive towns on this location for centuries, as due to its valuable port location both the Chinese and the Portuguese have set up short lived colonial towns here (the Portuguese Jesuits set up an outpost and called it Pulo Cambi), but it is more renowned since the 18th Century setting up of the post-southward expansion Vietnamese city for being the birthplace of Emperor Quang Trung, also known as Nguyễn Huệ, one of the country’s most successful ever military commanders and the second ruler of the Tây Sơn dynasty, whose death heralded the end of the supremacy of that dynasty and paved the way for its overthrow just ten years later. Descended from rural stock, his family had grown to trader status when they revolted against oppressive rule from the north. The Lê dynasty revivalist Trương Văn Hiến had fled south and became the teacher of Huệ’s family, and encouraged the revolt. Under the slogan “công bằng, không tham nhũng, và chỉ cướp của của người giàu, giúp người nghèo” (“fairness, egality, no corruption, loot only the rich, help only the poor”) the rebellion gathered momentum, and swiftly overran the central part of the southern half of the country. They profited from a succession struggle among the Nguyễn Lords, but were pegged back in 1774; however the North Vietnamese leader Trịnh Sâm then sent his own forces in order to fight for the Nguyễn Lords against the power-hungry Trương Phúc Loan, creating an untenable fight on two fronts. Trịnh Sâm’s men then continued their long charge southwards after Loan was captured, under the premise of helping quash the Tây Sơn rebellion, which they met at the Hải Vân Pass and forced into retreat. Nguyễn Nhạc, the eldest of the Tây Sơn brothers, then arranged a truce with the Trịnh forces that they would help them battle the Nguyễn Lords - who, ostensibly, both sides had entered conflict to help - in exchange for the Tây Sơn being recognised as an official territory-holding state and army. Nguyễn Nhạc retreated and retrained his army, while being recognised as an official of the Trịnh army.

With his enemies in both the north and south pacified, Tống Phước Hiệp, the Nguyễn lords’ leader, tried to consolidate, but Nhạc sent Nguyễn Huệ with forces to attack his holdings. Huệ swiftly overpowered the underprepared Hiệp. Knowing that the Tây Sơn had greater familiarity with the south, the Trịnh, at peace with the rebels, moved northwards to cede the region to their collaborators. Gaining large tracts of fertile land effectively for free, however, strengthened the rebel forces, and they swiftly overthrew the Lords, took Saigon, reinforced Đồ Bàn, and saw Nguyễn Nhạc declare himself king of Tây Sơn. Nguyễn supporters enlisted aid from Thailand, with Siamese forces then enlisting support of Cambodian forces, and taking many of the southernmost provinces of the Tây Sơn holdings. Able to hold strategic cities but unable to repel the enemy, reinforcements were demanded from Quy Nhơn, who sent Nguyễn Huệ.

In Tây Sơn Vietnam, that had the same kind of pacifying effect that you see in Pulp Fiction when Marcellus Wallace offers to send Winston Wolf in to solve Jules & Vince’s problem after Vince shoots Marvin in the back of the car. He showed enough weakness to lure the Thais in, and then routed them at the Battle of Rạch Gầm-Xoài Mút, destroying all of the ships of the Thai navy. Nguyễn Huệ then led an expedition north in 1786, after the Trịnh dynasty had fallen into disorganisation. They took Phú Xuân (Huế), after which point Nguyễn Nhạc was sated and aimed to stop his brother from marching north and breaking the agreement he had with the Trịnh lords. Nguyễn Huệ saw an opportunity, however, and was gone by the time the message got to him. He was received well by Lê Hiển Tông, the Lê emperor of the duelling dynasties, and married his daughter Lê Thị Ngọc Hân shortly before the elderly emperor’s death. Nhạc declared himself the Emperor upon the end of the Lê dynasty, and awarded his brother the lands north of Hải Vân Pass, which he had never intended to conquer, as a fiefdom. It wasn’t a peace that lasted long, and in the ensuing fratricidal civil war, Nguyễn Huệ emerged from a truce in the battles to the south to find Lê Chiêu Thống, the final Lê emperor, and his former collaborator Nguyễn Hữu Chỉnh, had ruled the area in his absence in such a way as to result in uprisings. Quang Trung sent Vũ Văn Nhậm to find them and quell the uprisings. This is what led to the Qing Chinese invasions that I discussed in the stages in the very north of the country. As Lê Chiêu Thống had precipitated the invasion of Vietnam by Chinese forces, Nguyễn Huệ had him decried as a traitor and proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung, ending the Lê dynasty. In power, he engaged a huge program of reform, many of which remained intrinsic to Vietnamese society until the French came along (such as the adoption of Chữ Nôm script instead of Chinese writing), and others until the Communist victories over 150 years later. Late in his life he was even threatening to take large parts of southern China, making unreasonable demands solely for the purpose of precipitating war, but after a short illness he passed away; much of the work he had done to modernise Vietnam (including a nascent ID card system well in advance of the modern form) was either not continued or outright walked back by his successor Nguyễn Quang Toản, and the dynasty of Tây Sơn disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.



The circuit of Quy Nhơn is fairly basic; it’s basically parallelogram-shaped with two long straight axes - one on the wide Nguyễn Thái Học boulevard, and the other on the seafront corniche.

Effectively we enter the circuit on the boulevard, and then take a sharp right-hander - fortunately on a wide open street - onto Nguyễn Tất Thành avenue, named for one of Hồ Chí Minh’s other pseudonyms, with wide open park spaces and parade grounds.



After this, it’s a gentle right to the finish which comes soon after the corner onto the seafront (it’s a gentle 30º or so right-hander on a four-lane road, so really no issue for safety), before a long straight along the corniche. This is where the stages usually finish when the HTV Cup arrives in the city. You can see the hills in the background though…



We now have the ascent that comes at the end of the corniche, when the coast curves round eastwards to our left, and we pass to the right of the summit of Núi Xuân Vân, the hill that overlooks the city from its south and serves as the Hausberg



There’s even a short video of part of the ascent, the lower part which is well tarmacked at least, so you can see a bit of it. It’s only 1100m in length, and it averages around 8% which looks to be fairly consistent. Nevertheless, climbing this twice - emerging at the junction photographed above at Đèo Quy Hòa - will hopefully give puncheurs and baroudeurs enough options, given there are 17 and 7 kilometres remaining at the two summits. The descent, much like yesterday’s, is very straight, but at least it’s not super wide until we get back into town. The last 4-5 kilometres, however, are on open avenues which favour the chase. A double dose of the climb and a 200km stage distance, however, makes this one far more appealing for a bit of GC action, and I’d be hopeful that we’ll get some movement in the last 20km of this one to try to manoeuvre a gap. Especially with the final intermediate sprint at the penultimate crossing of the line for additional bonus second action!!!
 
Stage 17: Tuy Hòa - Nha Trang, 130km





GPM:
Đèo Cả (cat.4) 3,0km @ 4,5%

As we head southwards in week 3, we have another short, flat transitional stage of amateur/espoir kind of length as we move toward the final spate of GC-settling battles. We have a bit of a transfer this time, however, as our stage départ, Tuy Hòa, is around 90km south of Quy Nhơn, so we’ll have a slightly earlier start to travel south I would guess, because it’s probably easier to travel before the 130km flat stage than immediately off the back of a hilly 200km stage!

We’re now in Phú Yên province, the easternmost of all Vietnamese provinces, or at least the province which includes Vietnam’s easternmost point. Tuy Hòa is a city of just over 200.000 that serves as an attractive getaway town thanks to scenic beaches, and calm sea as it meets with the estuary of the Đà Rằng river; the city is largely constructed on the alluvial plain to the north of the estuary, bounded by two mountains. Núi Chóp Chài is by far the larger, sitting watch over the city with a guardtower, while Núi Nhạn is a much smaller hill that sits in the centre of town and topped by a former Champa tower fortress.


Hilltop Champa tower on Núi Nhạn


Núi Chóp Chài looking down over Tuy Hòa

Tuy Hòa last saw HTV Cup action in 2019, when it was the host of the finish of the longest stage of the race, a 220km stage from Pleiku, on the inland plateau, down to the coast. Nguyễn Thành Tám won the sprint, before the city held the TTT the following day, which was won by the race’s home team, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, allowing Nguyễn Trường Tài to take the yellow jersey, as he did at the same point in the race this year too. This was then followed by a stage which is almost identical to mine here, slightly shorter because of omitting a couple of coastal roads, over 120km, which was also won by Nguyễn Thành Tám. The city is being developed as a regional tourist destination due to its high quality beaches, but it remains fairly off-the-beaten-track for international and long distance tourists.

The only real obstacle in the race is Đèo Cả, sometimes called Đèo Cả Phú Yên to differentiate itself from other passes with the same name, or more occasionally Đèo Cục Kịch. Historically it has been a border, after the Nguyễn lords captured the land south of Hải Vân, and from 1611 it was the southern boundary of Vietnamese rule after Phú Yên was added to their dominions, although by this stage Vietnamese settlers had taken control of coastal land all the way down to the Mekong, constituting the majority in almost all of the provinces that are now part of their state. By the time the French came to control Indochina, this was all Vietnamese territory, with the southern side of the pass being part of Khánh Hòa province; the French gave the pass the name “Col Babonneau”, so if ASO ever want to try to develop the HTV Cup or produce some kind of rival Tour de Vietnam, then you know what it’s being marked as on the map, if Tour de Yorkshire farces like the “Côte de Blubberhouses” are anything to go by. The climb is 100km from the finish and is more notable for its scenic curves than for any great difficulty; modern engineering and, well, peace has rendered this once treacherous pass a mere bump in the road, averaging less than 5%, though the gradient is at least sustained for a full 3km, enough to make Andrea Guardini give up his hopes of glory on this day. Oh, and that it’s now semi-deserted when it comes to freight and long-distance traffic, since a tunnel has been built through it now.


I’ve tried to encourage a stronger break going on this climb by putting an intermediate immediately after it; the other possibility is that if there is a points jersey battle going on, a sprinter who can get over some hills is likely to push the pace because they will hope a heavier, less durable sprinter will not be able to get back on and recover enough to win the sprint so soon afterward. We then head along coastal flatlands with mostly fishing villages and occasional tourist spas to break up the stage until we arrive in Ninh Hòa, a city of 200.000 that sits around 40km from the stripe. Just south of here we pass the Ba Ho waterfalls, a group of three waterfalls which overlook a crystal clear lake; these are a popular tourist attraction with cliff jumping a comparatively safe thrill sport on the site.



The rest of my stage is simply hugging the coast road until we get to Nha Trang, which hosts the stage finish which I would expect to be a sprint on the corniche. Nha Trang is a logical city to host the race, with a population of around half a million and a location on the corner of the country, as the capital of Khánh Hòa, and as a regularly supportive host of the HTV Cup. Tourism is extremely important to the economy of Nha Trang and it has become one of Vietnam’s premier tourist hotspots, as well as being promoted by the government to the outside world as a destination city, and today it hosts a continuous stream of backpackers and domestic tourists with an increasing influx of more affluent western and supra-regional visitors as the tourist infrastructure in the city develops; the city is famed for its scenic bay, and is often regarded as one of the most beautiful in Asia.

The city was originally founded by the Champa, and was known as Kauthara. One of its most famous cultural attractions is the Po Nagar towers, a Cham-era temple dedicated to Yan Po Nagar, the mythological founder of the Cham tradition and whose story was retrofitted to dovetail with Hindu mythology. There is no definitive record of its construction but it must predate 781 AD, as we have a stele dating from that year in which the temple is recorded as already existing. Situated on Cù Lao mountain, the complex overlooks the city and this has helped it survive in much the same way as the tower in Tuy Hòa. The town appears to have been abandoned by the 17th Century, however, and the temple complex is the main remnant of this era. The modern town was constructed under instructions of the French, to create a capital for the Khánh Hòa province ostensibly, but just as likely to create a coastal kurort for imperial officials seeking a beach retreat. It was downgraded after the Indochinese War to a rural commune, but reinstated as a town after decree of the Republic of Vietnam; after its capture by the Việt Cộng, its administrative districts were merged to create a city.


Stage finishing straight. Neat, huh?

Being a relatively modern city save for the Po Nagar Towers, most of Nha Trang’s landmarks are new, such as Trầm Hương Tower and the Indochinese Pasteur Institute - now the Pasteur Institute of Nha Trang - where Alexandre Yersin spent the second half of his life. He is most famous for discovering - and giving his name to - the bacterium responsible for bubonic plague, Yersinia Pestis, and an outbreak in the Nha Trang area four years after his discovery gave him great experimental opportunity. He eventually stayed in the area and lived out the final 50 years of his life in Vietnam. He attempted to adapt the quinine tree to Indochinese climate, helped establish the spa facilities and resort status of the town of Đà Lạt, cultivated rubber trees in the peninsula for the first time, and the laboratory that he worked in, which later became the Pasteur Institute, developed and distributed antibodies and treatments for various tropical ailments common in the region. His tomb has become a shrine and was honoured with a pagoda for his contributions to the region’s prosperity during the colonial period, and he is one of the few Europeans of this era whose honours in street names, halls, statues etc. have been allowed to continue and even proliferate in post-colonial Vietnam; whereas many of the colonial Europeans were seen as invaders, seeking to subjugate and rule separately from the Vietnamese, effectively falling foul of that common colonists’ trap of effectively housing a French society on Vietnamese soil and picking and choosing what they wanted from the colonists’ cultures and ways of life, Yersin adopted Nha Trang as his home and that his work contributed greatly to the public health and the prosperity of the city meant he was treated much more affectionately by the Vietnamese people in general, with his life and work being respected by the Republic of Vietnam, and his legacy being untouched by the Communists too. The city also houses the Nha Trang Oceanographic Institute, an important centre for marine research in tropical climates, incorporating the Marine Animal Museum which features over 20.000 animal exhibits.

There are a number of major resort complexes in Nha Trang to cater for the influx of both short-haul and long-haul tourists, and the most prominent, Vinpearl, even entails access via gondola lift to an offshore island. The area is also known for high quality seafood, and lobster fishing is an important economic contributor in the bay; fish paddies are a popular addition to noodle dishes here, and squid and even jellyfish are major food items sold by street vendors across the city. Work is being undertaken to develop a new cargo port between Nha Trang and neighbouring Cam Ranh, after which the Nha Trang bay will be better served for tourists, and the existing port will be used exclusively for tourist traffic and for fishing, which the Vietnamese government hope will extend the tourist potential and the status of the city as a destination.



Of course, we’re now into real HTV Cup heartlands, because this is the part of the country that can appear on the route regardless of whether it’s doing a point-to-point route or a start-and-finish in Hồ Chí Minh City. In fact, 2007 was the last year that Nha Trang didn’t appear on the route, and it frequently hosts two or even three stages - not just being a stage finish and départ of the subsequent stage, but sometimes hosting either a criterium or a TTT in the city between them too. Tống Thanh Tuyền won the 2020 stage from the break, before the TTT was won, as the one in Tuy Hòa a year earlier had been, by Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. Nguyễn Thành Tám is the recent king in Nha Trang, though - he won here in 2019, and won both the crit and the road stage in the city in 2018. He’s not alone in having multiple wins on site in the resort city, however; Nguyễn Trường Tài has won the crit in Nha Trang in 2014, and then been part of TTT winning teams in 2015, 2016 and 2020; while Lê Văn Duẩn has won criteriums here in 2012 and 2014. All three are likely to be on the startlist to contest this one, which could be the sprinters’ last chance until the final day’s traditional run-in to the line (and quite often that stage goes to the break too, so this might be the sprinters’ last chance outright!). This is likely to go to the fast men as a result, but we’ll see if anybody can stop them.
 
Stage 18: Cam Ranh - Đình Lâm Viên, 143km





GPM:
Đèo Bác Ái (cat.3) 5,1km @ 3,7%
Đèo Ngoạn Mục (cat.1) 17,0km @ 4,6%
Đèo D’Ran (cat.1) 10,0km @ 5,6%
Xuân Thọ (cat.3) 6,5km @ 2,9%
Đình Lâm Viên (cat.1) 4,8km @ 9,0%

Now we’re on the hit for home, stage 18 - the final stage in 2020’s edition - is the queen stage, as we head up into the high plateau of Lâm Đồng province and the mountainous Tây Nguyên region, known as the Central Highlands or sometimes Western Highlands in the UK. With five categorised climbs in the stage, three of which are cat.1 (although two could theoretically be considered part of one super long climb I guess, I think the gap between them is sufficient to rate separately, à la Télégraphe and Galibier or Wolfgangpass and Flüelapass.

There is a short transfer between the end of stage 17 and the start of stage 18; Cam Ranh is around 30km south of Nha Trang, but it is well known to visitors of the latter because it will be their main entry point, since Nha Trang is served by Cam Ranh airport, the fourth busiest airport in Vietnam and unique among airports in the country in that it handles more foreign traffic than domestic, thanks to the tourist targeting that the government has undertaken with regards to selling Nha Trang as a tourist destination; international visitors account for more than 2/3 its footfall. Not bad for a former USAF base which was handed over to the South Vietnamese, then leased out to the USSR after the reunification of Vietnam, and has therefore only been a civilian airport since 2004, and only an international airport since 2007.

Cam Ranh is a city of 120.000 inhabitants which is sat on Vietnam’s most suitable deep water bay; as a result it is being developed as a commercial port as it can handle significant heavy freight; it has also been used as a place for military ocean-going vessels for a lot of the time since the French colonisation period. The Imperial Russian Navy used it as a staging port en route to Japan for the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 ,and the Japanese in turn used it for the same purpose in their invasion of the British Malay provinces (modern Malaysia) in 1942. The bay was abandoned for this purpose after WWII, but the Americans redeveloped it to handle more modern warships in the 1960s, opening for shipments of armaments in January 1970. Due to its logistical importance, the American forces retained use of the bay long after the rest of the withdrawals from the Vietnam War; it was chosen as a safe haven for retreating South Vietnamese in 1975 when the Communists plunged southwards to take Saigon, but was itself overrun by April 3rd with the refugees taken on to Phú Quốc, an island in the Gulf of Siam about as far removed from Hanoi as is possible on Vietnamese territory. After four years of consolidation following the reunification at North Vietnamese hands, the almost totally intact military installations in the bay were handed over to Soviet control. From here they acted out mock attacks in the directions of the Philippines and Guam, though it is believed the main Vietnamese intention in having the Soviet base there would be to deter China; the Soviets were succeeded by the Russians, but after their withdrawal in 2002, the site was made available to international warships as of 2010 - the withdrawal of the Russians coincided with a significant buildup of Chinese naval strength in the South China Sea, to Vietnamese governmental eyes confirming their suspicions and justifications for providing the USSR with access in the first place. Leon Panetta visited the site to discuss US use of the facilities in 2012, which marked the first symbolic incursion of a US Cabinet Official onto Vietnamese soil since 1975.



The first part of the stage is, to be honest, easy enough. There’s some undulating terrain and then a cat.3 climb, more about its length than its real difficulty since the average is under 4%. There’s a slightly elevated plateau that we descend to around Bác Ái, but it’s still only 100-150m above sea level, and includes our first of two (instead of the common three) intermediate sprints for the day. Just before the halfway point in the day’s racing we pass the Ða Nhim hydroelectric plant in Sông Pha, and that sees us onto one of Vietnam’s most iconic sights, the Ngoạn Mục Pass.

Officially topping out at 980m, unofficially continuing past the 1000m mark en route to the town of D’Ran after the summit, Đèo Ngoạn Mục was the single toughest climb in the 2020 HTV Cycling Cup, and is frequently the toughest climb of the race in fact, albeit in my race it has to take at best fourth billing, after Đỉnh Bà Nà, Đèo Ô Quy Hồ and Núi Ba Vì. Although the road had been used for centuries by Cham settlers to link the highlands to the trading towns of the lowlands, it was rediscovered by the French after the establishment of Đà Lạt as an exclusive retreat thanks to its favourable climate for Europeans unused to the humidity of Southeast Asia. On a clear day, you can see all the way down to the South China Sea - over 50km as the crow flies - from the viewpoint at the summit, and it was for this reason that the French gave it the name of Col Bellevue. Which if anything underplays it - “Ngoạn Mục” translates from the Vietnamese as “spectacular”, a billing it does what it can to live up to!



Searching for Ngoạn Mục online will swiftly give you a link to sites talking about the World’s Most Dangerous Roads - as pointed out by Cycling Weekly in their article about the HTV Cup that I mentioned in an earlier stage, where they over-state the average gradient accidentally (more like the maximum gradient being 9%, as the average is somewhat less) - although it is far less treacherous than it once was, thanks to massive infrastructural investment by the Vietnamese government to repave and widen the route, especially as the pipes for the hydroelectric power plant need to travel down this hillside from the reservoir at the summit, and the road therefore frequently criss-crosses them. From a cycle racing point of view, however, it’s a less dangerous road than many, as though it is plenty tough enough in sustaining climbing for nearly 20 kilometres, a rare beast for the national péloton in this neck of the woods, it is mostly consistent, hovering in the 4-6% range. As such, the most realistic analogues for it in Europe would be climbs like the Puerto de Mijáres or the Puerto de Serranillos in the Sierra de Ávila, Montevergine di Mercogliano or the Petit Saint Bernard pass - steady, not rocking the boat too much, long enough that you really feel it but not decisive climbs in and of themselves most of the time. Here’s a video to show you what the riders will be facing.


Of course, since the queen stages of the HTV Cup generally tend to finish in Đà Lạt, Đèo Ngoạn Mục doesn’t need to be totally decisive in and of itself; it will ordinarily be the thinning out process that gets rid of the helpers and tells us who the people playing for victory on the decisive climb that follows will be. Typically that will entail around a flat 25-30 kilometre run to the basis of Đèo Prenn, which is often the decisive climb at the end of the HTV Cup and fulfilled that role again this year (when they approach Đà Lạt via Đèo Khánh Lê like in 2019, it pushes the final climb further from the finish, whereas coming from Ngoạn Mục you can either have Prenn crest just 2km from the line, or you can do what I’m doing here, putting the final ‘real’ summit 25km from the line, but having a harder climb). I, instead, am curtailing that flat period because I don’t want to see the effects of the sustained ascent negated if the péloton is not active enough and allows some domestiques back into the fold. On my route, there’s not much recovery time at all - a mere 6,5km of flat to rolling terrain through the quiet town of D’Ran - before we start climbing once more on our way to the mountain pass of the same name.

Đèo D’Ran is not the toughest climb you are ever going to see, but halfway through week 3 and with almost no recovery time following on from a 17km ascent in this type of péloton, it ought to be more than enough to put the cat amongst the pigeons and leave us with very few riders remaining at the summit. It’s 10km almost on the money, and averages 5,6%, the most important part being 3km at 7,5% in the middle of the ascent. There’s basically a short climb, then a brief flat, then 5,7km at 6,6% culminating in that 3km at 7,5% that I mention, then another short flat before the last 2km at 5,5%. You can see some footage of the climb (in terrible weather) here. At the top of the climb, there is the Cầu Đất tea hill and plantation, a popular tourist attraction where tourists can view the growing tea and coffee and sample these exclusive, high-prestige varieties in the Café in the Clouds. Established in 1927, it is Vietnam’s oldest specialist tea farm, in fact the oldest in Southeast Asia as a whole, and renowned for its high quality Oolong tea, as well as green teas and a smaller, but equally highly-rated, yield of coffee beans.



After cresting the ascent, there is some downhill sauntering through outlying districts around the route into Đà Lạt, before this gives way to a cat.3 climb, again like the earlier one earning this more for its duration than its difficulty, averaging only around 3% for just over 6km. This means that the 25km from Đèo D’Ran to Đà Lạt are far from easy, in fact they’re fairly uncomfortable for riders who’ve just had about 30km of near constant climbing. Although there are no tough gradients there, there’s virtually no flat and it’s not an easy stretch to get into a rhythm on.

Also working against them is that unlike the queen stages of most editions of the HTV Cycling Cup, we don’t stop when we get to the popular mountain resort town of Đà Lạt. Oh no. I have something a bit nastier in mind.


View down towards Đà Lạt from Lang Biang, the mountain overlooking it from the north, also called Đình - or Núi - Lâm Viên

Yep - we pass through Đà Lạt, but when we do there are still 17 kilometres remaining, so it is worth an intermediate sprint only (at the spot usually used as a finish). We then continue on through the town, then in a brief descent into Lang Biang, and then for a final coup de gras, a short, nasty… very nasty in fact… bastard of a ramp up to the viewing platform on Lang Biang mountain. It’s not an especially long climb - short enough that I dithered over cat.1 or cat.2 status - but it is steep enough to average 9% even including a short descent in the middle of it, and as the mountaintop finish of stage 18 after so much other climbing I decided first category was earned.

There’s really no sugarcoating of this one either - it wears its toughest gradients at the bottom and hits the riders directly in the face with gradients that rocket up almost immediately, including a 600m stretch averaging over 15%, and a 400m stretch including several stretches of 18-19% not long afterward. The first 3,4km of this ascent average - that’s average - 10,8%, before 500m of descent and flat, and a final 900m averaging 7,5%. That puts it somewhere above Mende, but below Xorret del Catí, in the overall brutality stakes. It sits somewhere around the kind of mark of Puig Lllorença/Cumbre del Sol which we saw in the Vuelta in 2015 and 2019, or Civiglio from the side climbed by the modern Giro di Lombardia (as compared to the old version like climbed in the late 2000s). Its closest European analogue in terms of pure stats would be the Basilica di Supergà from Milano-Torino (4,9km, 9,1%), but it’s less consistent than that is, wearing tougher gradients in the lower slopes and giving the riders a bit of respite in the middle. The last 5km of the Tour de France’s most unlikely HC mountain, La Ruchère-en-Chartreuse, is also a potential analogue, as is the new side of Lagunas de Neila unveiled this year in the Vuelta a Burgos. But this is narrow, tree-lined, steep, inconsistent, and it is nasty.

The viewpoint is actually on the shoulder of the mountain, which rises to 2100m, with vehicular access restricted to reaching the lookout station at a little over 1900m. The mountain is named Lang Biang and is one of the few locations to have retained its pre-Vietic name after the southward expansion of the Vietnamese people; however especially since reunification under the current single-party state the nativized Lâm Viên is gaining currency. Lang Biang is also the name given to the entire plateau area encircled by this mountain along with those we have already been climbing today, so the whole altiplano around Đà Lạt, as well as the name of the small town that serves as a base station for this climb; there are a number of native species unique to, or primarily found in, this plateau, such as the Langbian Plateau Frog, as well as restricted regional species. It is particularly renowned for its avian life, considered an Endemic Bird Area by BirdLife International, and also a national park to the north of the Lâm Viên mountain is home to vast numbers of threatened mammals, especially species of bat and treeshrews.

Having mentioned that vehicular access to the mountain is restricted to travel to the lookout station, I should also mention that, ordinarily, access to the viewpoint is also quite heavily restricted, with the majority of travel undertaken in jeep transfers by official tour groups. There is a sizeable car park at the top for these to shuttle back and forth, so there’s plenty of room at the top, and you can see the ascent in this video:


And here’s the profile:



This isn’t the end of the GC, but it’s the last mountaintop finish, so riders had better make the most of it. The style of climbing for the final 5km is also completely different to that of the preceding two cat.1 climbs entirely, which are about tempo, so this should be an interesting contrast. Big time gaps are possible here. Let’s see how the riders react.
 
Stage 19: Đà Lạt - Đà Lạt, 109km





GPM:
Đèo Prenn (cat.2) 7,0km @ 5,1%
Đèo Prenn (cat.2) 7,0km @ 5,1%
Đèo Prenn (cat.2) 7,0km @ 5,1%
Đèo Prenn (cat.2) 7,0km @ 5,1%
Đèo Prenn (cat.2) 7,0km @ 5,1%

While Đà Lạt has hosted the finish of the queen stage in several of the recent editions of the HTV Cup, the day after the queen stage has been a short stage which both begins and ends in Đà Lạt. This format has been adhered to in every edition since 2011, and on each occasion this happened with just two stages left after the circuit race, except for 2018, and that was because there was the additional set of stages in the Mekong Delta that year, as the format of having the queen stage being followed by a Đà Lạt circuit race was still used. Most years, the queen stage will pass over Đèo Ngoạn Mục and Đèo Prenn with the latter cresting shortly before the finish, and the circuit race will be a relatively flat affair circling Hồ Xuân Hương, the scenic lake at the centre of Đà Lạt.

I am going to retain the concept of the Đà Lạt circuit race three days from the finish of the race, but seeing as the city didn’t get to host the finish of yesterday’s stage thanks to the mountaintop finish, I’m going to give them something rather more potentially decisive than the typical 51km circuit race.





As long as European settlers had been setting up colonies in far-flung (for them) parts of the globe, European settlers uncomfortable with hot or humid conditions and unused to the seasons in the parts of the world they were now taking under their control led to their gravitating toward more comfortable, temperate climates akin to those they were familiar with - not least because these would better serve the cultivation of familiar crops and foods. Hill stations could be set up for the purposes of serving as sanatoria, as exclusive retreats that natives were unable to access, as isolated communities not part of the colonial elite seeking a trouble-free existence with their peers (examples include the German towns in Argentina and Brazil, or Esquível, an Argentine town with a largely Welsh origin), or simply as genuine inclusive farming and cultivating communities to enable the European colonisers to best use their experience and produce more familiar products. These were particularly popular in Asia, as in Latin America you already had a high proportion of the population that lived in countries with the terrain to suit hill stations living on the altiplano anyway; however in Asia, vast lowlands in tropical areas with high humidity meant hill stations were particularly popular with the colonial elites. The British set up literally hundreds all over India during the Raj (across all three successor states to British India), and even ran a policy of moving their central administrative functions to the Himachal Pradesh highland town of Shimla every summer; Malaysia, Hong Kong, Myanmar (Burma) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon) were also dotted with hill stations under British rule, while the Dutch constructed hill stations in Indonesia (ironic since the Dutch had little experience of hills of any kind of course), the Spanish did so in the Philippines, and the French did so in Indochina.

Of course, when decolonisation took place, administration of these locations fell to locals with varying results. With those states that acquired an interest in cycling from their former colonial masters, these hill stations are of value from a racing point of view, and indeed some of these former hill stations have been used to enliven bicycle racing in these former colonies. Bokor Hill in the Tour of Cambodia Bay, Fraser’s Hill and Cameron Highlands in Malaysia (as part of the Tour de Langkawi; Genting Highlands and Gunung Jerai, the trademark climb of the Jelajah Malaysia, were both latter additions post-decolonisation) and, outside of Asia, Campos do Jordão in the Volta ao Estado de São Paulo, are all examples of this. And in the HTV Cup? There’s Đà Lạt.


Javier Sardá Pérez takes the stage and acquires the lead of the 2020 HTV Cup in Đà Lạt

As far back as I can find records for, Đà Lạt has hosted the HTV Cup, and usually with its most decisive stage, as you can probably imagine for a city of over 400.000 which is located in the highlands and close to mountain passes. Generally speaking, the route of choice to arrive in Đà Lạt is to climb Đèo Ngoạn Mục, then ease westwards for 20-25km of flat before you climb Đèo Prenn shortly before the finish. As a result you will usually see stages begin from Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm and head to Đà Lạt via this route; in my original (sacrilegious) south-to-north version of the route I actually had a version of this coming up from Phan Thiết via a different penultimate climb. The Phan Rang route has been used going over Đèo Ngoạn Mục and Đèo D’Ran in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and then over Đèo Ngoạn Mục and Đèo Prenn in 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2020. In 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2019, the race arrived in Đà Lạt from Nha Trang, and used the Đèo Khánh Lê approach from the east, meaning the climbs were further from the finish. Winners in Đà Lạt include Gong Hyo-Suk, who won on the Phan Rang route in 2009 and the Nha Trang route in 2019, Mongolian multi-discipline dominator Tuguldur Tuulkhangai in 2010; Nguyễn Thành Tám in 2011, 2013 and 2015; Lê Văn Duẩn in 2012; Nguyễn Trường Tài in 2014; Nguyễn Tấn Hoài in 2017, and Javier Sardá in 2020. In 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2020 the victory in Đà Lạt underpinned a GC victory, while further overall titles have been decided from the small group that inevitably contests these stages - Sardá’s 2019 title came from making a three man group with Gong Hyo-Suk and Mirsamad Pourseyedi to battle out the Đà Lạt stage, for example, and Nguyễn Tấn Hoài outsprinted a small group that enabled Alex Ariya Phounsavath to move into the lead of the General Classification.

All this is well and good, I hear you say, but here we’re talking about not the queen stage into Đà Lạt, not the ensuing circuit race. Well, yes. But I’ve decided to instigate a much more interesting circuit race, in order to keep Đà Lạt at the heart of the race but enable us to take on the Langbiang mountaintop finish on the previous day. So the results of those stages, particularly those over Đèo Prenn, are in fact far more relevant than the results of the flat circuit race, which benefits more from being a high altitude flat stage different to everything else in the HTV Cup than anything else.


Central Đà Lạt

The city of Đà Lạt was established in the early 20th Century, following searches in the 1890s from European colonials to locate a resort centre in the inland highlands of French Cochinchina, as a retreat and sanatorium for colonial Europeans to acclimatise to the tropical environment. Among the expedition was Alexandre Yersin, native of Nha Trang. The original spot chosen was the site of present-day Dankia, around 15km from Đà Lạt, which was then selected following the advices of urban planner and infrastructure advisor Étienne Tardif, who had been part of the road construction expedition of the late 1890s. The first hotels were opened in 1907 and Đà Lạt was born. The Latin motto given was Dat Aliis Laetitiam Aliis Temperiem (“It gives pleasure to some and freshness to others”), and it is sometimes erroneously believed that this is where the city name came from; instead the motto was formed specifically because it created an acronym of the name, which comes from the native tongue of the area.

As the climate of the Langbiang plateau is far more temperate than that of the coast, at around 1500m altitude, and the landscape is dotted with pine forests and flowers much more reminiscent of Europe than many of the tropical flora and fauna found at sea level in this part of the world, the new city was constructed in an Alpine style, with heavy Swiss influence. The consistent temperature of 14-23ºC made it ideal for the Europeans and their species either introduced or popularised because of their greater familiarity to the colonists - for example, the plateau is responsible for an absolute majority of Vietnam’s cabbage, artichoke and cauliflower crops; agriculture became a key use of the surrounding land, and viticulture and botany was developed to bring a touch of French class. Health complexes, spas, parks, schools and artificial lakes were constructed for the town, and it was kept free of industry in order to preserve its clean air; its isolated location, defensible from all sides at the mountain passes, made it a clear choice for the temporary capital of French Indochina during World War II, plus it was an oasis of calm without the heavy industry churning out weapons for the war effort or coming under Japanese bombardment. A number of boarding schools were set up to teach children of French colonials and Vietnamese elites, and as a result the French expatriate community made up a large proportion of Đà Lạt’s population well after French Indochina had become a thing of the past - in fact they still made up the majority when the city saw its only violent action, 10 days of fighting during the Tết Offensive, during which the US-backed South Vietnamese forces repelled the Việt Cộng.

As a result, for the most part the city is designed in a French colonial style, reflecting fin-de-siècle imagery and beauty norms, though a few later buildings like the railway station reflect Art Deco thinking. However, expansion has, as ever, impacted this, though the fact much of the city has been untouched by war has meant there is nothing like the wholesale reconstruction of the city that has been seen in much of central Vietnam, so we don’t see the massive socialist-realist boulevards and concrete blocks that characterise those places here. There’s even the occasional revolutionary idea, such as Biệt thự Hằng Nga, a guesthouse known affectionately as “The Crazy House”, which was designed by local architect Đặng Việt Nga under influence of surrealist painters and avant-garde architects like António Gaudí. Opened in 1990, it has become a tourist attraction in and of itself.



Đà Lạt’s scenic location, pleasing atmosphere and relatively untouched colonial architecture in tranquil settings has made it a tourist favourite, and one of the ‘must see’ places of travellers’ itineraries in the country. Around 1,5 million domestic and 300.000 international tourists pass through the city annually, and it is cited as the #1 honeymoon destination for Vietnamese couples - including those in the diaspora. European style boulangeries and cafes predominate in the downtown area, and the relative ease of access to otherwise isolated highland getaways is an attraction to the city, which serves as a sort of Southeast Asian counterpart to popular lake resort towns in Europe, such as Lausanne, Annecy, Como or Bled.

My circuit around Đà Lạt is 21,8km in length, and the riders will take on 5 laps of it for a total distance of 109km. Longer than the average micro-stage like the criterium stages you see in the HTV Cup, but shorter than a standard road stage (albeit some of this kind of length have been seen in the race before). The key point, however, is that this is very much as mountain circuit, taking a few cues from the Innsbruck World Championships or similar; it has a genuine cat.2 mountain in it, so undertaking this five times for the péloton will make up for and override the lack of distance for sure, especially coming with just two days remaining until the end of the race.


Đèo Prenn

I have located the start/finish on the lakefront, so the same finish as used in the circuit stage rather than that in the queen stage typically. Again, large open parade grounds - one of the things that the Communists have introduced to this colonial city - are the order of the day. The riders will arrive from the bottom left of this shot; in the typical queen stages, the finish occurs by passing that 135º right hander and placing the finish shortly after that junction. In the circuit stage they finish in front of the parade grounds. We shall therefore take that sharp right hander - and place the finish at the widening at the near side of the camera shot, at the end of the square. This puts the tight corner around 450-500m from the line which is fine given we should not have anything more than a small group contesting this finish.



The first 1700m of the circuit are a gradual uphill - only around 2% - before what is effectively a gradual, 10km or so descent, one short steeper part but by and large mostly at easy gradients on a nice wide road known as ‘Mimosa’ to the Europeans for its scenic flower fields. In fact, this road is known as Đèo Mimosa, with its overhanging trees and colourful blossoms. At the base of this descent, the road becomes a highway, because it effectively splits in two on the way to Đà Lạt, either heading into the French quarter of town via Đèo Mimosa, or over the top of Đèo Prenn and into the western part of the city. Below here it is the CT14 highway, which links the city to Liên Khương Airport, the main entry point to the city (rebuilt to handle larger aircraft and increased international tourist traffic in 2009), and further afield to Phan Thiết and Bảo Lộc. Close to the convergence of these two mountainous routes is Thác Prenn, a scenic waterfall which comes over an overhang in the rock, enabling tourists to walk around the back of the waterfall and view the pool at its base from inside, kind of like European audiences may be familiar with from Seljalandsfoss in Iceland. A cable car takes visitors over the top of the waterfall, while other tourist attractions in the area include elephant rides.



When we arrive at the park that surrounds the waterfall, we turn right - sharp right, onto the main climb that is Đèo Prenn; this is a cat.2 ascent and it is far from the hardest climb that you will ever see in a bike race, but it is enough to open gaps of 30 seconds to a minute in a normal edition of the HTV Cup after Đèo Ngoạn Mục, so climbing it five times ought to be enough to create some time gaps, especially as there are a lot of reasons to start hard charging here, since this is going to be coming after a much harder HTV Cup than usual and with only a couple of days to go to the finish, making it a very late opportunity to make a difference to the overall classification.

The overall statistics of the climb shouldn’t seem that threatening - 7 kilometres at only a little over 5% - but it is worth noting that it isn’t a consistent climb; my calculations render it broken down as follows:

2,3km at 4%
1,3km at 9,3%
600m flat
2,8km at 4,5%

As you can see, there is a really obvious place to make your moves, and that is in that section of the climb that matches up statistically to the Mur de Huy. Except even that short steep section is divided into shorter sections - 600m at 12%, 300m at 5,5%, 400m at 8,5%. This last section was where Javier Sardá made his decisive move in the 2020 HTV Cup that enabled the king of the mountains and defending champion to reacquire the leader’s jersey from his teammate Nguyễn Trường Tài just three days from the finish; the 12% ramp broke it from a selection of the best riders to a very small group of the elites, after a slight recovery, when the gradients went up again, he knew that these steeper gradients suited a climber such as himself more than the more power-oriented riders like the team’s main GC rival Nguyễn Tấn Hoài (who would hold the advantage if they came to the line as a group and could take bonus seconds as a result), and so he took the opportunity to put the power down when the Dược Domesco Đồng Tháp rider was near the back of the group, made his attack, dropped the two Bikelife-Dong Nai riders (Désriac and Nguyễn Hoàng Sang) who were making the pace, and away he went. The live chat that followed this on the HTV youtube stream felt this had been inevitable given how strong he had looked on Đèo Hải Vân, and some felt he ought not be racing an event like the HTV Cup as he was clearly the class of the field in the climbs would be better served racing in the ‘real’ Grand Tours, which offered more to an escalador than the mainly flat-to-rolling domestic calendar of Vietnam. Sardá of course for his part is more relaxed about the whole matter; he was a middling amateur in the Spanish scene who went over to race in Asia like many veteran Spanish amateurs do, and while some like Edu Prades and Ion Aberasturi have done a strong job on their return to Europe, others like José Vicente Toribio, Edgar Nohales and Benjamí Prades are aware of their limitations and happy with that as a niche, and would likely be pack fodder at a higher level, and it seems Sardá would fall into a similar category. Either way, it was a strong move that opened up a gap that he was able to maintain with his tempo once the gradient evened out to a more manageable level, and led to the quiet and relatively unassuming Cantabrian taking his second consecutive HTV Cup overall triumph.


Climb profile

Relive Javi’s triumph and race-settling performance here:


The summit of Đèo Prenn is a mere 2,4km from the line - slightly more than in the normal stages due to my relocating the finish for the circuit route - but that is a mere drop in the ocean moving the climb 400m further away from the finish when it means we can undertake that same ascent no fewer than five times in the stage. This means that there is obviously more than one platform to use for attacking, or rather more than one occasion to use that platform for attacking since obviously it’s the same climb each time. The top of the climb is also marked by a waterfall, Thác Datanla which is the centrepiece of the Đà Lạt Waterfalls Tour which takes in a number of the natural beauty spots of the area surrounding the city. Rappelling and canyoneering are offered as adventure pursuits at Thác Datanla, adding to the adventure tourist’s itinerary.

Đèo Prenn crests at 2, 24, 46, 68 and 90 kilometres from home, so this strikes me as being actually potentially offering opportunities almost from the halfway point in the stage. Offering time bonuses at intermediate sprints at each crossing of the finishing line may be an added incentive to riders who are a bit further down on time also; after all, if you don’t have the time gap you want, you can just stay away until the sprint and then retreat back into the bunch to try again the next time up the climb, persisting with an attack that you’ve secretly given up on, a bit like how you’ll see in points races or a Madison in track cycling when a rider who has almost gained a lap will suddenly slow down when a sprint is approaching, in order to take the 5 points for the sprint before they are adjudged to have gained the lap, rather than gaining the lap before the sprint and giving the option to the opposition to gain some of those points back immediately.

And, with the GC likely on the line, there’s really no reason not to go all out on this one. And then we can have the scenery. Oh, the scenery. Đà Lạt is almost universally recognised as the beauty spot of Vietnam, and that is going up against competition because the scenery of Vietnam, as you’ll have seen, can be pretty spectacular. The mists rolling in on the highlands in the evening are a true sight to behold, and will give us a pretty impressive sight if the stage begins to overrun! The riders will surely be able to enjoy an evening to recover from the last two days’ exertions, staying in the same hotel a second night running and enjoying the night market and the relaxed lakeside atmosphere in Vietnam’s naturalist epicentre.

 
Stage 20: Bảo Lộc - Vũng Tàu (Hải Đăng), 198km





GPM:
Hải Đăng (Núi Nhỏ)(cat.3) 2,5km @ 5,3%

We’re into the penultimate stage of the HTV Cup, and we’re transitioning back off the high plateau to the lowlands of the Mekong Delta. In normal routes (except like in 2018 with the extension around the delta) this effectively fulfils the role of the final stage as that heads from Bảo Lộc directly to the finish in Hồ Chí Minh City, but we’re going to mix things up a bit here with a stage down to the coastal city of Vũng Tàu. Traditionally the penultimate stage is a super short stage - around 100km, possibly even less - from Đà Lạt to Bảo Lộc, but I decided to instead make that a transfer and offer something different - just in case the GC mix is still unsettled and also because although I’ve had a good few climbers’ stages, there hasn’t been a true puncheur finish. Stage 9 was closest, but was still around 4km long; we have had a couple of stages with short, punchy hills placed in such a role as to be potentially decisive, most notably stage 16 to Quy Nhơn, but this is the only stage finish designed for the puncheur.



But before the puncheurs can play their games with each other, they have to get to that finish first, and this is one of the longest stages of the race, kept until late. The stage start is in the city of Bảo Lộc, the “other” city on the highlands around Đà Lạt, with a population of 170.000. Its name comes from B’Lao, the name in the language of the Lam, a Khmer people that populated this area before Vietnamese southward expansion, and that name lives on in the city’s most famous export, a prestige variety of tea.

Bảo Lộc is renowned for many scenic waterfalls in its vicinity and in the eponymous district it lies at the centre of, and is also aiming to become a nuclear city in the near future. However, it is perhaps most well-known for the Bát Nhã Temple, one of the oldest buildings in the area, but one which has a controversial recent history. The veteran prominent Thiền Buddhist monk (Thiền is the Vietnamese pronunciation of the character represented by ‘Chan’ Buddhism in China, and in the Western world is more associated with its Japanese interpretation, ‘Zen’) and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, born in Huế, had lived in America in the 1960s and had been a prominent opposer of the Vietnam War in America, as well as communicating with - and receiving a Nobel Peace Prize nomination from - Martin Luther King, inspiring the latter to deliver his earliest anti-war speeches. He was also an advisor and confidante of the oppositional monk Thích Trí Quang, who led Buddhist uprisings in South Vietnam. He became a peace delegate but was denied access to his homeland after the Communists successfully reunited the country under their belief system in 1975. He had established the Tiếp Hiện order, or “The Order of Interbeing” as it is often translated, which has become a well-known Buddhist group in the west in the absence of his being able to access his homeland to spread teachings in Vietnam. He was also helping ferry refugees to safety through 1976 and 1977 until the governments of Thailand and Singapore forced him to stop.

It was 30 years before the wound had healed enough for the government to be willing to allow Thích Nhất Hạnh to visit his “root temple”. His followers took this visit, and the freedom to disseminate beliefs granted to the monk, as a relaxation of the strict restrictions on religious freedom exerted by the Communists, and returned to the Bát Nhã temple, and spent over $1m renovating and developing the monastery into a centre for teaching. Many observers believed that the negotiations undertaken and the attention paid to Nhất Hạnh’s visit, however, were diversionary, to get the country off the blacklist with the USA for their religious intolerance, and improve their trade positions. This cynicism was given credence when Nhất Hạnh was rebuked by the government for interference when he requested a review of the law on religious freedom. Following Chinese pressure (after Nhất Hạnh made comments about the Dalai Lama found inflammatory to them by the Chinese government), pressure was put on the Plum Village tradition (as Nhất Hạnh’s followers call themselves, from the name of his home order in France) to vacate the temple, which they refused. The Vietnamese government cut the electricity to Bát Nhã, but the order would not leave. Eventually the monks and nuns were evicted by mob force in late September 2009 in a violent manner, seeking refuge in a nearby monastery under police guard, leaving one of Vietnam’s most storied temples in a state of ruin and the million-dollar renovations reversed in a matter of hours. Thích Nhất Hạnh would not return to Vietnam until nine years later, when the now 92-year-old monk, having spent three years rehabilitating from a brain hæmorrhage, was allowed to return to his “root temple” in Huế to live out his final days in accordance with tradition.



This is one of those stages that effectively starts on the highlands and quickly transitions to the floodplains, so we descend very early in the stage, which will make making an escape and establishing a breakaway a tricky proposition. The shape of the plateau means that we are beginning at considerably lower altitude than yesterday’s finish, however, as we are only at around the 800m mark here - the descent of around 580m in 13km shows that it’s therefore not that extreme, only averaging around 4,5%, however there are some technical corners so it remains to be seen how racy the péloton is likely to be on day 20 of 21, as we move down to sea level and into Bình Thuận Province, a coastal region which is renowned for its beaches and for archaeological sites of pre-Vietnamese provenance.

For the most part, though, the area that we are passing through is more one of windswept land and relatively peaceful townships. Places like Gia Ray are, on the surface, little more than small outpost towns that have grown with the rapid swelling of the Vietnamese population - it was only granted town status in 1993 but now houses 23.000 inhabitants, for example - as by the time they reached this far south in the Reunification War, the Communists were meeting little resistance from the rapidly retreating South Vietnamese as they headed for the sanctuary of Saigon. With one exception though - we are travelling through the Xuân Lộc district (Gia Ray is its capital), the site of the last significant battle of the War, where the ARVN threw all of their reserves onto the battlefield in one last ditch attempt to quell the rapid advancement of the PAVN, with literally the overwhelming majority of the southern Vietnamese mobile forces taking to the conflict which lasted 13 days in April 1975. Thiệu had ordered that, due to its central location in a north-south supply line protecting Saigon, that Xuân Lộc was to be defended at all costs; the men stationed in the township were Lê Minh Đảo’s 18th Division, known as the “Super Men”. However, even they were no match for the creeping terror the South saw advancing upon them; by the 19th of April they had been isolated and cut off from their connecting lines to the north and south, and Đảo was forced to retreat; when the town fell for good two days later, Thiệu resigned, and to all intents and purposes capitulated. The increasingly desperate and paranoid Thiệu knew his days were numbered; his country was disintegrating around him, he had survived at least two known assassination attempts, and following the discovery that a senior RVNAF pilot had been collaborating with the Việt Cộng for six years and one of the assassination attempts coming from an ARVN officer, he had grown mistrustful of his military command and fired several of them. He had alienated his support from the United States by accusing them of selling the South Vietnamese out; Thiệu’s attempt to hold Xuân Lộc was his gambling his career - and potentially his life - on holding off the Communists; he had sent his best men, he had instructed them to defend the town with their lives, and they had done everything that could be asked of them, and it hadn’t been enough. Nine days later, South Vietnam fell and the tanks rolled into Saigon to decisively end the conflict. Nguyễn Văn Thiệu gave a rousing farewell speech announcing “I resign, but I do not desert”. Five days later, he proved his own words hollow, and escaped to Taiwan before settling first in London, and then in Massachusetts, where he lived, shunning media attention due to believing he would be perceived negatively by South Vietnamese and oppositional Vietnamese in diaspora who believed him to have failed them, until his death in 2001.


Monument to the victory of the ARVN in Xuân Lộc

We’re 3/4 of the way through the stage before we reach any particularly notable cities, however, which we finally do when we arrive in Bà Rịa, which has usurped Vũng Tàu as the de jure capital of the region as of 2012. With 200.000 inhabitants it is a rapidly growing town which was split off from the decentralised settlement of Châu Thành in 1994 due to its rapid growth as a commuter town, being located 90km from Hồ Chí Minh City and 20km from Vũng Tàu. It was subsequently upgraded to a Third-Class City in 2007 and to Second-Class just five years later. Here, it’s the home to the second intermediate sprint.

The distance to the urban settlement of Vũng Tàu from Bà Rịa is fairly minimal - just crossing the Cỏ May Bridge upon leaving the latter leaves you heading into the suburbs of Vũng Tàu almost immediately - but the city covers a large area along a peninsula jutting into the East Vietnam Sea at its cape with the South China Sea. This cape was for many centuries a swampland, but during the initial Age of Exploration in Europe, ships from European trading nations would often stop by here, using the shelter aside the cape as a staging post on their way to the East Indies and further up the coast. This is why the urban settlement that sprang up to trade with these ships was given the original name of Tam Thắng - Three Boats - before settling on its modern name of Vũng Tàu - which is Vietnamese for Anchorage. During Nguyễn Ánh’s premiership in the late 18th Century, Malay pirates established a base here, until Anh sent the army to crack down on it, awarding them land in the area and setting up a fortress known as Phước Thắng for their troubles. The French took the cape as part of their campaign to colonise Cochinchina, and renamed the town which had sprung up around the fort Cap Saint-Jacques, which survives just as the original name of Tam Thắng does in the name of a district, in the Vietnamese reading of Cap Xanh Giac.

The port at Cap Saint-Jacques was expanded under French control in the aim of making it a port to serve Saigon, though that never came about. It did, however, increase traffic to the city, which grew and also became home to the governor of Cochinchina. It was also the major exit point for the “boat people”, the humanitarian crisis of South Vietnamese fleeing the Communists escaping in small boats, fishing vessels and makeshift rafts, although the term has often grown to be used to refer to all Vietnamese who fled into the diaspora between 1975 and 1995. The main reason, however, that Vũng Tàu has swollen to its current size of just over half a million inhabitants, is that it has access to natural gas and offshore oil reserves that have led to it becoming the heartbeat of Vietnamese industry, as the only petroleum base the nation has. This dominates the budget of the city and has made it one of the most important to the nation’s economy. The Vietnamese government has, however, done a remarkable job of utilising the resource of land on the peninsula for the purpose of separating the industrial side of the city from the side facing out to sea, which has been developed for the purposes of tourism, with leafy hills and sandy beaches unspoilt by unsightly factories. Many millions of dollars are being invested in resorts, aquaria and hotels to turn the tourist side of Vũng Tàu into the kind of chic “just down the coast from the metropolis” getaway for the people of Hồ Chí Minh City that would be comparable to, say, Punta del Este for Montevideo, Valparaíso for Santiago de Chile, Estoril for Lisboa or Sorrento for Napoli.



The colonial history is perhaps more obvious here than in many other cities, largely due to the rather difficult-to-ignore presence of a 30m-high statue of Jesus Christ on Núi Nhỏ, a mountain overlooking the city. There remains an active Catholic presence in the city, as well as also a prominent Russian Orthodox minority, thanks to a community which was established in the late 1970s with the establishment of VietSovPetro, a joint venture between Vietnam and the USSR to enable the former to take advantage of the experience and expertise of the latter in extraction and processing of fossil fuels. The Russian community, reduced in number following the dissolution of the Soviet Union but now largely into second and third generations, lives in its own part of town which has its own newspapers, uses Cyrillic and worships at its own churches built in the Russian style. The statue of Jesus is actually modern and attributed to the Russians, rather than the French community, but it is a reminder of the city’s indebtedness to European traders for its very existence let alone prominence.


Not what you’d describe as a typical sight of Vietnam

The last 30km of my stage snake their way around Vũng Tàu; first following along the north side of the peninsula, then sweeping around the coastal road for several kilometres with the hills to our left. At this point, the finish is dead in front of us, but instead we hang a left back into town for the final intermediate sprint, 10km from the line, before turning right again to head to Bãi Sau Beach, shown in the first image of the city above. We then hug the coast once more, encircling Núi Nhỏ mountain and passing underneath the iconic statue of Christ before heading around all the way back to Bãi Trước, where we turn inland and climb once more, for the very final time in the race, to a categorised mountain summit, which this time will serve as the stage finish.

The climb to Hải Đăng, at the summit of Núi Nhỏ, is a pretty unthreatening looking climb, but it’s extremely inconsistent. The first 750m average 7,5% but with a maximum on the inside of a hairpin which is around 20%, and a steepest 100m averaging 16%, although I think this might be a bit exaggerated by cronoescalada with a slight difference in co-ordinates between OSM and Google Maps. At this point things flatten out and even go briefly downhill to join the road which goes up to the summit from the middle of town, which leads us into a second steeper ramp, this time 400m at 12,2%. We then have 300m at just a couple of percent to the diversion between the road to the Hải Đăng Hotel, which is where we will park all the media, team cars etc., and the road up to the lighthouse at the summit which hosts the finale. This last stretch is 350m averaging 8% so an uphill sprint is possible if the earlier ramps haven’t broken thing apart too much.

This video shows the route to the top. We follow the route she takes around the coast road, then the actual climb appears from 2:50 onward. The most selective bit begins at about 7 minutes in.


Summit

I can’t imagine that we still have just mere seconds to play for in the GC by this stage after Đèo Ô Quy Hồ, Núi Ba Vì, Chùa Đại Tuệ, Đèo Hải Vân, Đỉnh Bà Nà, Đèo Ngoạn Mục, Đèo D’Ran, Đình Lâm Viên and five climbs of Đèo Prenn. But just in case we have, this is the last chance. It’s going to be a climb none of the péloton know; Vũng Tàu has only appeared sporadically in the HTV Cup, when it has started and finished in the south; it hasn’t been seen in the race since 2014; in 2011 and 2014 it was the end of stage 1 and both times it was a flat stage, so no final ascent for consideration. We’ll see who still has their finishing kick handy after three weeks of racing…
 
Stage 21: Vũng Tàu - Hồ Chí Minh City, 117km





And so we come to this, our final stage, a short and flat ceremonial rumble into the city whose broadcast corporation created the race. Probably less than 3 hours in the saddle, not one categorised climb, and zero pre-stage transfer, so the riders will be glad that this one is coming to an end and can rest well in advance of the traditional finish on April 30th, unless, heaven forfend, we get another year like 2020. A lot of stage races have traditional finishes, often patterned after the most iconic of them all of course, the Champs Elysées sprint in the Tour de France - the Volta a Catalunya in Parc Montjuïc, Paris-Nice on the Promenade des Anglais (or the Col d’Èze ITT of course), the Peace Race in one of its three host cities’ most prominent athletics stadia, the Vuelta a Burgos on Lagunas de Neila, the cobbled Zagreb circuit in the Tour of Croatia, Geraardsbergen in the Binck Bank Tour, and so on. A lot of stage races have taken to flat finishes in iconic locations to lend a Tour de France atmosphere to their race, such as the Tour of Japan’s final circuit stage in Tokyo, the Tour of Britain utilising a flat loop around Westminster, the Vuelta a Venezuela finishing with a circuit of old town Caracas, the old Kraków circuit in the Tour de Pologne, the final Adelaide stage in the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Beijing finishing at the Olympic Stadium, and so on. The HTV Cup is no different, and every year on April 30th, the riders set off on their final days’ racing to arrive in the country’s largest city and cross the line on the road leading into Dinh Độc Lập, known to western audiences as the Independence Palace, to finish in front of it, so the spoils of victory can be taken with the iconic building in the background. No circuits, no climbs, nothing convoluted - just riding into town and finishing in the centre.


What the riders see as they run toward the line


What the TV shows as they run toward the line

You may notice from that image of Lê Ngọc Sơn taking the final stage win of the 2020 HTV Cup that, in contrast to most traditional finishes to long form stage races, this isn’t a bunch gallop, despite being a pan flat final day. Although there are occasions when the expected does happen, such as Lê Nguyệt Minh winning the sprint in 2018, by and large we see breakaways settling the stage in Hồ Chí Minh City. In 2016, 19-year-old Quảng Văn Cường won outsmarting his eight breakaway companions with the bunch, containing GC winner Nguyễn Trường Tài, nearly three minutes back; in 2017 Huỳnh Thanh Tùng won a sprint of six with the péloton 43 seconds behind, and in 2013 Bùi Minh Thúy won solo, 22” ahead of the bunch.

I have a couple of thoughts on why that might be, because in an ordinary long form stage race, be it at the World Tour kind of level like the Tour de France or the Vuelta, which has its own traditional finish, albeit less well established with the race traditionally finishing in the Basque Country until the late 70s, or at a lower level like the Caracas stages in Venezuela or the Tour of Britain’s London circuit, the final finish, in a big city, is a prestige game for sprinters. They’re winning in front of the biggest audience, and with GC action effectively at a truce, the big guns are largely happy to turn it over to the sprinters’ teams to contest - plus of course the carrot of a final day almost nailed-on bunch gallop is an incentive to sprinters to stay in the race. In a race like the HTV Cup, you will have the comparable situation of the GC leaders being happy to let un-threatening breaks go, and only worry about their own GC aims, but that is compounded by a couple of additional factors that mean a sprint is less heavily incentivised. Firstly, you have the simple fact that this péloton is not as strong as the one you’re going to see in the Tour de France. For some of the rouleurs, just making it three weeks to ride the whole event is going to be achievement enough, they are going to be running on empty and not want to kill themselves on the final day on the off-chance that the strongest sprinter at the end of three weeks is theirs. Secondly, you have the concentration of talents into a few strong teams that will limit the amount of scope sprinters’ teams have to work on chasing the breaks for the sprinters when they may themselves also be a GC team and have a rider high up in the GC that they need to protect more than they need to gamble that position on a possible stage win.

Whatever those reasons may be, however, I’m here to investigate them, as we have our final stage, a sub-120km flat stage to complete the race in traditional style. The first part of the stage is just retracing some of our steps out of the peninsula on which Vũng Tàu stands, and indeed we do basically go back as far as Bà Rịa on the same route as yesterday’s stage, but in the opposite direction. We then head northwards, into Phú Mỹ, which serves as southern Vietnam’s main deep water port (the former Saigon Port relocating to the city) and also from its power plant complex, which converts the natural resources from Vũng Tàu into 35% of Vietnam’s total electricity output. Again: race in a single-party state, keen to show off its development to the world.



From here we head into Đồng Nai province, which borders Hồ Chí Minh City and is the home of the BikeLife squad (and its sister team, Ynghua), which is one of the most important in Vietnam and the most international of the teams, entering races in Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines in addition to the national calendar, with the team built around French import Loïc Désriac and all-round Vietnamese talent Nguyễn Hoàng Sang, who is the country’s most successful rider of the current crop in international races and frequently the Vietnamese presence in events like the Asian Cycling Championships or the Southeast Asian Games. One of the first places we pass through in the province is Long Thành, which is the site of a planned International Airport to service Hồ Chí Minh City to deal with its rapid expansion and also to reduce the pressure on the city’s urban airport, Tân Sơn Nhất, which will continue to deal with services within Vietnam; Long Thành will, with the aid of a new urban expressway, be the future means by which to connect international travellers to Vietnam’s largest city. Tân Sơn Nhất has the capacity for 25 million passengers, but with the rapid expansion of the city since reunification and the increase in international tourism as Vietnam emerges from the international sidelines, it is now being asked to deal with around 50% more than that capacity, which results in heavy congestion and delays, necessitating an urgent construction of an alternative in order to alleviate the problem. Phase I’s budget and construction plan was approved on November 11th, 2020, and the intention is for the new airport to be operational by 2025.

The Đồng Nai river, which gives the province its name, is Vietnam’s largest internal waterway, since it is a country built around connecting two major waterway deltas that have their sources well beyond the borders of the country. Biosphere reserves and busy canals are the order of the day, although despite relatively large areas of low population due to this, the extended urban sprawl of Hồ Chí Minh City and the preponderance of commuter towns mean that with 2,8 million people, Đồng Nai is the fifth most populous province of Vietnam. It is also the largest aquaculture provider outside of the Mekong delta, and the urban areas have seen numerous large brands move in for manufacturing purposes, including some decidedly, well, you know, capitalist ones, like PepsiCo and Nestlé as well as heavy industry firms such as POSCO and Toshiba. This means that in addition to having large natural reserves, the province is also one of the most polluted in the country, an accolade HTV will be perhaps less keen to draw attention to. This is a reputation that the area is all too aware of - in recent years no fewer than 89 new industrial projects in the regional capital, Biên Hòa, have been cancelled, and there is an ongoing project to turn the Biên Hòa-1 Industrial complex into a green development.



Home to, including its full urban sprawl, one and a quarter million people, Biên Hòa is effectively in the process of being swallowed up by Hồ Chí Minh City; since the end of French rule, its history has effectively been subsumed to that of its larger neighbour, although before that it was the site of a key battle in the Cochinchina Campaign, which enabled the French to establish their colonial imposition in the region. Many nationalists and non-Communists who fled North Vietnam after the First Indochinese War settled in Biên Hòa, as part of the US-backed propaganda campaign to repatriate Vietnamese in capitalist South Vietnam. This meant the town had a high proportion of royalists and anti-Communists and became home to pockets of resistance following reunification in 1975. Đổi Mới policy, however, has greatly benefited the city and this has resulted in a heavy reduction in resistance in the area, although it does remain home to the Biên Hòa Military Cemetery, which honours the fallen of the Republic and ARVN, one of the few that has remained after reunification and the imposition of socialistic iconography and interpretation of past events - although at some cost; it is neglected by the regime and parts have been constructed over, causing widespread consternation. It is also known for Văn Miếu Trấn Biên (Trấn Biên Literature Temple), a Confucian landmark that has recently been restored after being destroyed by the French during the colonial period. This is home to our final intermediate sprint, 32km from the line, before we cross the Đồng Nai river, and head into the race’s final destination: Vietnam’s largest city, its de facto capital (Hanoi is the official one of course) and the one which most of the world still knows as Saigon.



The population of Hồ Chí Minh City has probably topped 9 million in the time between my beginning to post this race and the end of it (it was only 7000 inhabitants short of that milestone when I began on this journey), and its metropolitan sprawl more than doubles that, hitting 21 million, making it Vietnam’s biggest metropolis and one of the biggest in the entire Southeast Asian region.

The city has gone by many names, and its most enduring name, Sài Gòn, still perseveres and is preserved in many respects, being used to describe the inner colonial city even since the post-reunification name change, and also in common parlance for the diaspora, as well as in the city’s demonym in many countries. The earliest settlers here were Cham peoples, who established the outpost of Baigaur, which was then overrun by the Khmer in the 11th Century and renamed Prey Nokor, and it was a southeastern outpost of the Khmer Empire for many centuries unperturbed by other regional identities, until the southward expansion of the Kinh people (the modern Vietnamese) reached this part of the world, where the sea meets the Mekong, in the early 17th Century. This gradually isolated the Mekong Delta Khmer from the Cambodian majority until in 1623, Cambodia and Thailand were at war; Vietnam was also locked in conflict, as this was during the height of the Trịnh lords and Nguyễn lords’ warring, and King Chey Chettha II allowed Vietnamese refugees to be settled in Prey Nokor; the Khmer were unprepared for the length and ferocity of the conflict, however, and unable to stem the tide of Vietnamese escapees to the city due to the need to defend their possessions against the Thais in the north. This gradually resulted in the Vietnamese becoming a majority, seizing control of the ports, and effectively cutting the Cambodians off from access to the East Sea.

The Nguyễn lords sent General Nguyễn Hữu Cảnh southward to establish Vietnamese control and administrative functions in the area in 1698, and he made Prey Nokor, known by its calqued translation name of Sài Gòn to the Vietnamese population that now constituted the majority in the city, the centre of what he established as Vietnam’s southern provinces. He established a number of other military forts in and around the Mekong Delta to protect Vietnamese interests in the area, and establish these provinces as loyal to the Nguyễn lords, as well as establishing a garrison in Sài Gòn and contributing heavily to its infrastructure, turning it into a modern city of the time. The garrison was stationed in a French-style citadel known as Gia Định, which became the city’s name for a period until Sài Gòn was reinstated in the mid-18th Century. The French arrived in 1859 and made it the administrative centre of the region of Saïgon-Cholon, from which we derive the modern English name of Saigon as one word - the two had been independent but neighbouring cities, rather akin to, say, the Bay Area, or Tokyo and Yokohama, and so on, but eventually the two effectively became too clearly intertwined with one another and were merged into the single city of Saigon.

When the Indochinese Wars saw Vietnam partitioned in 1949, Emperor Bảo Đại made Saigon the capital, and when the official partition was set five years later, the next phase of the city’s history was set. A year later Bảo Đại was deposed and replaced by Ngô Đình Diệm as South Vietnam became a Republic. This was when Saigon and Cholon were merged into an administrative district called Đô Thành Sài Gòn, or “Capital City Saigon”. Decorated with colonial era architecture and bustling with a multicultural population including a large Chinese workforce and lingering remnants of the European colonists, Saigon became a bustling city iconic to the capitalist dream, and even home to a burgeoning rock and roll scene. But of course… that’s not what westerners know Saigon for.



In 1968, the Tết Offensive became the most famous assault of the Vietnam War. The Việt Cộng, a Communist-sympathising National Liberation Front in South Vietnam allied with the northern rulers, unleashed a systematic assault on a number of US-held and South Vietnamese positions across the country. Although holding Saigon was hugely unlikely and potentially even undesirable given the ease with which they could be surrounded by South Vietnamese forces, it was the main target of the offensive, with a hearts-and-minds and strategic offensive posts gameplan targeting six major sites in the city to capture and defend. 35 battalions were unleashed at Vietnamese New Year, with the general pandemonium and fireworks obscuring the gunfire and rampaging, attempting to capture sites like the Presidential Palace and the American Embassy. By early February, however, progress had been stifled and success limited. Indeed, the most notable thing for posterity to arise from these battles in Sài Gòn was the iconic image, taken by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams, of (warning: graphic and potentially unsettling content, though this is such an iconic photograph that most of you will almost undoubtedly have seen it anyway) the summary execution of VC member Nguyễn Văn Lém by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Loan escaped to the US in 1975 when Saigon fell, to prevent recriminations for the photograph, although he had to rely on the intervention of President Jimmy Carter to prevent his being deported to be tried for war crimes a few years later. Parts of town which were taken by the Việt Cộng were hit by retaliatory air strikes by the USAF, with Cholon being especially badly affected. Việt Cộng attacks would have greater success in May 1968, but by and large the fighting was moved away from the city other than sometime guerrilla moves following the American withdrawal. However, when the North Vietnamese reignited the conflict in the battle for reunification of the country under a Communist flag, they swiftly advanced southwards, Vietnam’s rather simplistic geography proving an advantage, and eventually the fall of Saigon saw South Vietnam bow out rather with a whimper more than a bang, as Văn Tiến Dũng’s forces heavily bombarded ARVN posts, and found that, thanks to Operation Frequent Wind, the city had essentially already been purged of almost all American presence, and the majority of those responsible for the South Vietnamese regime had fled with them, essentially leaving General Nguyễn Văn Toàn defending almost nothing. Realising his plight, he convinced his fellow commanders that he was flying into Command Headquarters in Saigon to plead for reinforcements and re-channel defence of the city to its east, and instead fled the country, being taken via intermediate stops to the United States - however, it is worth noting that Toàn is the man believed to have carried out President Thiệu’s command to assassinate Nguyễn Văn Hiếu, the military leader who had exposed corruption in the regime and highlighted the need to resolve this to be able to protect the country against the Communists; if true, by killing one of South Vietnam’s best remaining military minds and somebody seen as a potential leader for the country had it survived, he may have sealed his own fate.

Fear of reprisals from the Communists - especially given the public platform given to the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, and given the mass graves unearthed at Huế - led to a drastic reduction in the population of Saigon beginning in late March 1975, and increased throughout April until finally the PAVN tanks arrived. The Defense Attaché Office flew thousands of document-less Vietnamese who were friends, family and colleagues of American forces to Clark Air Base in the Philippines, and well over 100.000 South Vietnamese escaped from Saigon in the dying days of the war with American assistance through this and other means, plus thousands of others undocumented or via, ahem, “interesting” papers, routes, methods and so on. Dương Văn Minh was handed control of South Vietnam on April 28th, just one day before the Communist advance on the capital began. Hanoi instructed their forces to allow evacuation to be completed, in the aim of preventing any further American intervention. At 10:24am local time on April 30th, Minh announced his unconditional surrender and invited the Provisional Revolutionary Government to partake in a peaceful transition of power. Colonel Bùi Tín arrived in a tank with his forces at the Independence Palace at noon, and found Dương Văn Minh sitting with his advisors on the palace steps awaiting them. Minh went on the radio one final time to announce that the government of Saigon was dissolved, before he was summoned back by the Communists and permitted to return to his villa. Uniquely among South Vietnamese high level and high ranking officials, Minh was allowed to live a quiet life; he had opposed President Thiệu and not actively denounced the Communists, instead advocating a ‘third way’, and this likely spared him the retributions or extensive re-education programs enforced upon his colleagues. He emigrated to France with the blessing of the regime in 1983, and later re-settled in the USA. He never wrote a memoir and never talked about his involvement in the war; as a result, he remains rather negatively perceived by the Vietnamese diaspora of the time for being seen as the man who gave up on South Vietnam, while historians largely see him as a middle-ground figure in the war who opposed the highly corrupt and self-sabotaging government of Thiệu and was handed an untenable position at the very end of the war.


One of the most important and iconic moments of the 20th Century

Sài Gòn was almost immediately rechristened Hồ Chí Minh City, although this name only existed officially at first, and launched a far-reaching program to reduce its population; hundreds of thousands had fled fighting in their homelands and found their way to the city, and the Communists had captured millions of acres of land that needed farming. ARVN soldiers were placed into re-education programs that incentivised their moving into farming, and handouts of rice to the poor were tied to pledges to re-settle as farmers. Over a million left Hồ Chí Minh City in the first two years of Communist control, around a fifth of which entered gruelling re-education programs, and April 30th became a national holiday commemorating the reunification, though this is symbolic rather than historically accurate, as the official reunification didn’t take place until July 1976 - however this would be no different to if the Germans had chosen the day of Mauerfall to represent the Tag der Deutschen Einheit rather than the official date of it taking place - few would have argued that the day the Wall fell didn’t have the right to commemoration. Sài Gòn is still used in informal settings, especially in diaspora, but the official name has taken on currency and is now widely accepted as the generation that fought at the time grow old and the population comes to be dominated by those who have never known anything other than a Communist Vietnam.


Dinh Độc Lập, known officially as Reunification Palace, or Reunification Convention Hall, but generally still known as Independence Palace

Following that program of reducing the population, however, the city has regrown back to well in excess of what it had been before the war, in fact, as Đổi Mới has led to enormous investment and urbanisation which has been felt in Hồ Chí Minh City more than anywhere else in the country. A fifth of Vietnam’s GDP and just over a quarter of its industrial output comes from the city, and the population continues to balloon with workers attracted by its GDP being nearly three times the national average. A third of all foreign direct investment in Vietnam is in the city, and this is growing as technological parks and innovation centres are developed by the government to stimulate further investment, and Bình Thạnh District, just northeast of the historic colonial centre, has been reborn as a Vietnamese Manhattan, full of mixed use skyscrapers and corporations, the pinnacle of which is the rather science-fiction “Landmark 81”, a super-tall skyscraper which is the 15th tallest building in the world, and almost doubling the country’s previous record, held by the very Communist-sounding Bitexco Financial Tower.



As we arrive in Hồ Chí Minh City, we pass a number of landmarks on our way to the finish line. Examples are the Công viên Lê Văn Tám, a public park built on the bulldozed remains of Mạc Đĩnh Chi Cemetery, a French colonial cemetery memorialising those killed in the battle for the Gia Định Citadel in 1859, and with places reserved for the highest ranking elites of the colonial times, later expanded out to prominent members of South Vietnamese society, with Ngô Đình Diệm interred there after his assassination along with his brother. In 1983 the Communists decreed it a corrupt remnant of the past and gave families two months to claim their loved ones for alternative interment, before they began the construction of the park. We turn left here, and then head down the road as far as the Nhà thờ Đức Bà Sài Gòn, a particularly vibrant and well preserved remnant of colonial times, known to westerners as Basilique-Cathédrale Nôtre-Dame de Saigon.


A little Vietnamese reminder that three week bike races with ceremonial finishes in front of historic monuments began in France

Constructed between 1863 and 1880, l’Eglise de Saigon as it was then was actually the second Christian church constructed in Saigon; the increased French presence as colonial power extended had rendered the original one too small, while the Vietnamese pagoda on the site of the present day cathedral had fallen into disuse and disrepair. All building materials were brought from France, hence the rather uncharacteristic red brick construction which stands out a mile in the streets of Cochinchina. A statue of French priest Pigneau de Béhaine, who had helped create the Nguyễn dynasty, leading Vietnamese royal Nguyễn Phúc Cảnh by the hand, was removed in 1945, but reinstated in 1959, shortly before Pope Giovanni XXIII elevated the status of the building to cathedral-basilica and created three dioceses in Vietnam. It was damaged during conflict, but unlike many of the other buildings in the city that served as paeans to bygone ages, the Communists were happy enough to restore the cathedral and there were even efforts undertaken locally to match the style of the damaged portions of the building using local materials, quite at odds with the usual adversarial relationship that characterises the totalitarian view of religion. We also head right just before arriving at the Parkson Saigon Tourist Plaza department store, like a Vietnamese version of Macy’s or Harrods, and the 700m pedestrianised Nguyễn Huệ Walking Street.



This pedestrianised shopping street is filled with expensive stores, street food, cafes and the like, and is the centre for chic Saigon, It also hosted the first stage of the HTV Cup in 2017.


At the northwest end of the street is the city hall, but we turn right before reaching this to achieve the traditional finish in front of the Independence Palace. The HTV Cup always finishes in front of the Independence Palace on April 30th, except for this year when, as I mentioned back at stage 1, the coronavirus rather got in the way. Without it, I’d never have discovered the race, but if that’s all I have to thank the virus for in comparison to the numerous ways it has inconvenienced me, it’s small consolation.

I do love the HTV Cup, though, and this was my love letter to the only live racing we got in months, and something that served as a welcome, and somewhat exciting, distraction in a world of frustration and boredom during lockdown. Vietnam has a lot of natural beauty and charming cities to discover, and I hope the race can use its unexpected moment in the spotlight to really develop. Sardá and Désriac have both mentioned that bike racing has really developed an infrastructure in Vietnam in the last few years, and though they certainly lag behind their neighbours in Malaysia and Indonesia from the point of view of professional racing, there is most certainly no less potential there. I’ve tried to create something that shows a bit of what the race could be, with enough limitations to accept what it can be, and that could see a bit more international notice given to the race both in terms of the teams and riders it attracts, and to bring Vietnamese cycling up to the next level to encourage its teams to have a presence beyond the national borders as well.
 
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