3/3/15: Ngoc Hoi (Plei Can), Vietnam to Attapeu, Laos

So, the plan today is to get into Laos. We only have three days left on our visa, so we’re really hoping the plan works.

Once again, the border crossing we’ve chosen is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, especially on the Laos side, where there’s 50km of national park before you hit anything remotely resembling civilisation. Our research has uncovered little in the way of people cycling this stretch, and to cycle right through to Attapeu (120km west) looks very ambitious indeed, especially given the remoteness and hilly terrain in the national park.

So instead, we opt for transport. We’re ready and waiting, as instructed, at 8am, for the ‘minibus’ to turn up. Instead of an official minibus, which would have costed 400,000 VND, we are getting on a Ford Transit van doing a border crossing run to take supplies of petrol, liquid gas and other goods into Laos.

When we climb in and get moving, at about 9.45am (the driver clearly operates on Laos time) we have the van to ourselves, but we feel sure it won’t last. We’re right… by the time we finally leave Ngoc Hoi there are no less than 17 people crammed into the front three rows of seats (the rest of the space taken up by cargo), including five guys squeezed into the driver’s seating area alone! It’s a minor miracle the van even moves, but move it does, all the way to the border.

Crossing into Laos is just fine. We have to pay our visa fee (35 US dollars each) all over again, and a small ‘tourist’ fee of about 12,000 Kip, which seems cheeky, but what can you do? It takes about 15 minutes, and thankfully our 15 travelling companions wait for us patiently.

We then bump our way through the national park to the sound of Vietpop (with some distinctly Pet Shop Boys and Abba influences) blaring out, as the driver chain smokes and chucks his fag ends into the tinder-dry forest. He has an unnerving habit of taking blind corners on the wrong side of the road, but thankfully we don’t meet any of the huge timber-carrying juggernauts coming the other way. It’s sad to see all the timber waiting at the border to cross into Vietnam; you can only hope Laos’ forests are being well managed and corruption/lure of the dollar isn’t getting the better of those in charge of protecting it.

At the edge of the protected area, maybe 50km into Laos, there’s a small frontier settlement, not marked on any maps. If you’re thinking of cycling this way, there is a small guesthouse here (and another, about 20km further on towards Attapeu), and there are also a couple of small food shops inside the protected area itself.

This is where all the Vietnamese guys get off. We assume they must be in the logging business. The van then parks up and the driver signals for us to get out and wait in a shaded area with some mats to sit on. This we obediantly do, while the van then drives into a nearby courtyard, and a gate is shut and locked behind it. We then wait, and wait, and wait a bit more while bemused locals gawp at us, although to be fair, they’re all friendly. After around two hours, the van emerges, with most of its old cargo now gone and replaced with new cargo to take back to Vietnam.  After a quick lunch in a small Vietnamese style eat shop (rice with food on top), we’re finally on our way again.

Without his heavy load of passengers and petrol, the driver puts his foot down, and we bomb along the mostly empty roads. It’s hard to know what speed we’re going at, but it definitely feels too fast given the likelihood of cows, dogs and other animals wandering onto the road. The van then stops again in a small place we assume to be Attapeu but, according to our GPS and maps.me app, we’re still 13km away. It turns out this is as far as the van is going, and we have to cycle the rest. We’re hardly surprised (welcome back to Laos!) and, given the dangerous speed he was going at, we’re kind of relieved to be able to cycle the last bit. It’s dead flat and only takes us around half an hour, meaning we finally role into Attapeu at about 4pm – just a little bit later than expected!

It’s a bigger town than we expected and, after checking out some of the accommodation options near the river, we head back to the main road and take a room in a small, family-run guesthouse opposite the not-quite-finished shopping centre for 60,000 Kip, with no internet and, as it turns out, no hot water either, but it’s now so hot this isn’t such an issue. Our bikes are stored in the family’s front room so, for once, we don’t feel the need to lock them together.

For some reason we both feel knackered, despite only cycling 13km. The main thing is that we’ve made it back into Laos, and it’s just as we remember it; friendly, a little quieter than Vietnam, and with better food than it’s given credit for. We’ve missed you, Laos (and yes, we were two-timing you with Vietnam!)

2/3/15: Dak Glei to Ngoc Hoi (Plei Kan)

52.7km, av 15.5km/hr, max 46.1km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 23 mins

The next stretch, through the Central Highlands, looks (on Google maps at least) a little kinder on the legs, but we’re not taking anything for granted. We’ve seen on some blogs that people have cycled right through from Kham Duc to Ngoc Hoi (over 100km, up and down all the way) but we’re of the opinion that these people are mentalists. Why kill yourself rushing it?!

Today is also, if everything goes as planned, our last day of cycling in Vietnam, so we want to take it slowly and savour it.

After leaving our friendly little guesthouse, Gia Hung, we have breakfast a few doors down. As well as the standard noodle soup, we are showered with almost more complimentary confectionary than we can carry. It’s the first of many acts of random kindness today, and it sets us up for a great day. We love you, Vietnam!

The terrain is, as they, say, “undulating” all the way. There are loads of downhills and sometimes, when you’re lucky, the momentum carries you all the way up the next bit of Up. It doesn’t get much better when that happens! There are plenty of other times, of course, when momentum only gets you so far, and then you’re back to peddling uphill, going nowhere fast.

The road, in fantastic condition, follows the winding Dak Po Ko river, which is crossed by several rickety Indiana Jones style bridges. We don’t dare cycle across them, even though the locals think nothing of crossing by motorbike. Apart from the odd coach, the road is pretty quiet too, and we enjoy a morning whizzing through this beautiful countryside, stopping only for photos and lollies!

Some time before lunch, we call in at a small market village to stock up on fresh produce but, after some good natured haggling over the cost of some citrus fruits, the shop keeper suddenly becomes very friendly and asks us to take her photo. Then, before we know what’s happening, we’ve been whisked into their living room and are enjoying a vodka toast and a snack of sesame seeds and other miscellaneous sweet treats.

Communication isn’t easy but hopefully we just about manage to express our gratitude, even if a vodka shot before lunch isn’t exactly what a hot, sweaty cyclist needs (oh, to see a nice cold can of coke instead..!)

We bid a hasty farewell before a second round can be poured, and then lunch (Laughing Cow, crackers, random fruit) in a rubber plantation just off the main road. The plantation is kind of weird in that the forest feels totally dead, with almost nothing on the forest floor, and a really flimsy single layer of canopy. It’s sad to think of the virgin forest that has been felled to make way for the plantation, but no different to what we did to our country many centuries ago. That’s economics for you.

All day we hear friendly yells of encouragement and greeting from the Vietnamese people; sometimes it’s hard to know where the yell has come from so we just respond with a ding of the bell and an equally loud ‘helloooo’. We’ll miss this.

Into Ngoc Hoi nice and early, we do our usual thing of cycling around for ages in the afternoon heat trying to find a nice, cheap place to stay. We eventually settle on the Hong Dong Hotel (we think – forgot to write it down!) on the main drag, opposite the market, where a cute little room with shared bathroom costs 150,000 VND.

After sourcing some local bargain baguettes, we enlist the help of the receptionist to find us someone to drive us into Laos tomorrow, and to change some currency. She delivers on both, with Laos kip and US dollars exchanged at an honest rate, and a lift to Attapeu fixed for 300,000 VND (including bikes) at 8am tomorrow. Result!

Then, as if our last day in Vietnam couldn’t get any better, we enjoy a seriously tasty meal in a local restaurant, with beer, for 70,000 VND (less than 3 UK pounds).

All in all, we’ve loved the sights (spectacular!), sounds (karaoke!) and smells (all sorts!) of Vietnam more than we ever expected but, more than anything, the kindness and friendliness of the people (once out of Na Meo, at least) is what we’ll remember most fondly.

Thanks Vietnam, you’ve been super good to us, and thanks for not killing us on your often crazy roads 🙂

1/3/15: Kham Duc to Dak Glei

58km, av 12.7km, max 56.2km/hr, time on bikes: 4hr 33 mins

From what we’ve read about this section, today is going to be a hard old slog through the Central Highlands, so we set the alarm *really* early for us (6am!!) and are on the road by 8.15am, after a breakfast of champions: omelette, laughing cow cheese on bread, coffee, and, er, a weird tasting glow in the dark strawberry milkshake.

The first 20km or so aren’t too bad, with lots of up and down, but nothing out of the ordinary. The road is good, so good in fact that coaches seem to enjoy putting their foot down. They take those corners so fast… maybe too fast: somewhere along the way we see the charred remains of a completely burnt out double-decker just sat there on the road. There are no clues as to what happened (engine fire? arson?) or how long ago, but you just hope everyone on board got out alive.

At about 20km we stop for a banana break. Only the bananas we bought in the dark the night before (actually, she gave us them for free, after trying to persuade us not to take them at all!) turn out not to be bananas, or at least completely unripe. Schoolboy error, and a crushing roadside disappointment.

The next 14km or so are hard. Those pesky 10% inclines just keep on coming, some of them for 500m or more at a time, and in between it feels like there are even steeper bits that they’ve just not had the heart to sign-post. The heat is tough but, thankfully, as we’re higher up and in the mountains, there’s more cloud cover and a fresh breeze. The payoff is the spectacular mountain scenery and fresh air. Hanoi this is not.

Salvation arrives at 1pm in the form of a roadside cafe (the first we’ve seen since leaving Kham Duc) strategically located opposite another impressive, although sadly inaccessible, waterfall, around 34km into our day, at around 1,100 metres altitude.

We lunch on Pho and coke, plus some oranges donated by a kind man who also asks us to pose in a photo with him. This has happened a few times in Vietnam now, our favourite being yesterday when a group of teenagers on mopeds stopped us as we slogged our way up another hill for a red-faced picture with them, before speeding off laughing!

After lunch it’s a little easier; there’s a bit more Up to contend with, aided by The Stone Roses (“she’s a waterfall…”) and Teleman (“I’m not in control…”) but thankfully, the last 10 to 12km are all downhill, and what a downhill it is; with a good road and some decent straight bits, I accidentally smash the 50km/hr mark, recording a maximum of 56.2km/hr. (Don’t worry mum, I tested my breaks and had a helmet on!) It is quite amazing/scary/fun how quickly you accelerate down a 10% hill with a fully loaded bike.

We arrive in Dak Glei around 4pm, so not too shabby, although that early start came in useful. There are about four guesthouses in town and, while we debate the pros and cons of each, the woman at the last one we see reduces her price from 150,000 to 100,000 VND. Who needs to haggle when you can just procrastinate?!

Overall, the day was tough, but not impossible. We sweated buckets, we drank loads, we gained about 1,000m in height (and then lost it again), but we managed it. If you’re going this way too, enjoy!

two people ina waterfall

28/2/15: Thanh My to Kham Duc

60km, av. 15.2km/hr, max 48.8km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 57 mins

As the heat intensifies, our starts are getting earlier… but still not that early. Today we’re on the road by about 9.15am. The sun breaks through the low cloud around 9.35, so at least we beat it by 20 minutes!

The heat today is hard work, but the roads and scenery are fantastic. The first 35km or so are some of the finest we’ve rode so far, with a beautiful, well built, undulating road (Route 14, the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail) following the river valley as it twists and turns, with barely a house to be seen, just a valley filled with lush tropical vegetation and the sound of birdsong. There’s even a moment when there isn’t a single electricity pylon in sight!

We lunch (crackers and a pineapple found on the road yesterday) at a beautiful roadside waterfall – not sure if it has a name but you can’t miss it – where the temptation is too great to not stand under its cooling waters. It’s soooo refreshing!

The remaining 25km are much harder, as the heat and the gradient increases. It’s not killer, but there are several 10% stretches, and the 30c heat is pretty intense (although we know it’s gonna get hotter!) We take it easy, with plenty of rest, rehydration and shade breaks, and arrive in the town of Khan Duc at about 4pm.

Khan Duc is also bigger than we expected (maybe all these hills are making us think we are still in Laos?!?) and there are loads of guesthouses, although the rooms we see aren’t great. Obviously, word gets out that there are two frazzled-looking cyclists looking for a place to stay, as a glamorous looking woman from the big Be Chau Giang hotel rides up on a moped and asks us to follow her. They have cheap rooms for 150,000 VND which are a cut above what we’ve had for this price previously, so we go for it. There’s even shower gel and shampoo, and towels that are bigger than face cloths! Plus, the mattress is *almost* comfy… we’ll sleep well tonight and we need to – tomorrow is the Big One…

** PS. Today was also our first (and last) anniversary as a couple together. I forgot it, Rachel didn’t, and I was in the dog-house all of the following day if I remember rightly; so there are some good memories mixed with some not-so-good memories on this day and 1st March 2015. I’ll always be sorry about this. **

two men making the peace sign

27/2/15: Hoi An to Thanh My

63.9km, av 18.6km, max 47.4km, time on bikes: 3hr 25 mins

As we’re having breakfast at a street cafe near our hotel, we witness our first accident. Two motorbikes going in the same direction collide and both drivers fall off.

They aren’t going especially fast but it still looks pretty nasty, although the two people involved are able to get up and brush themselves down with only grazes and, no doubt, bruises. Given the speed and randomness of the driving here, the only surprise is that we haven’t seen anything like this sooner. Since motorbikes regularly carry two adults and two kids, all with no helmets on, there must be many much worse accidents.

So it’s not the best start to the day, for them or for us, but by 10.15 am we’re loaded with freshly made baguettes and are on our way out of Hoi An.

Due to a lack of information about the route to Kham Duc (Phuoc Son) via Ha Lam and Route 14e, specifically the accommodation options en-route, we decide to take the more travelled Route 608, 609, 14b, via Ai Nghia and Thuong Duc, overnighting at Thanh My.

The ride out of Hoi An is fantastic, with flat roads through rice fields, passing under Route 1 along the way. At this stage we’re averaging over 20km/hr for the first time (20.1km/hr, to be precise!) and making great progress, despite the heat.

We eat our baguette and crisps lunch down a seemingly deserted dirt track off the main road, but within minutes these two guys (pictured) have appeared.  As you can see, they are fascinated by our bikes and cycle helmets. It’s all good fun though!

Our speedy progress can’t last but, even as we begin to slow in the heat after lunch, and as a few small hills begin to appear, we still make it to our overnight stop at Thanh My in good time.

Thanh My is bigger than we expected, with at least 7 or 8 guesthouses to choose from. Once we’ve woken up the teenager at the front desk from his afternoon nap, we take a very clean but minimal room (ie: no furniture apart from a bed!) for 150,000 VND in the newest looking guesthouse in town. The bed is as hard as a piece of wood, but we’re tired enough not to care.

Finding food in this town is a bit more challenging though… it involves a walk along the main drag in darkness, as dogs bark and people cook food but as usual it’s often hard to tell if it’s a restaurant or just someone’s front room. We eventually find something to eat; it’s not the greatest meal in the world, but tonight, it will do.

six people outside a temple

Haggling in Hoi An

Despite the expensive prices, we spend four nights and three days in Hoi An. On the first day we check out the old town for a bit and then cycle a fun 5km or so to the beach.

Cua Dai is where everyone goes, but when we get there the tide is in and there’s very little beach at all – we later learn that it’s being washed away by rising sea levels. Yes really, climate change sceptics!

We cycle a bit further north past a few restaurants boasting private beaches and soon find a stretch of public sand. We’ve left it late in the day though and there’s a strong sea breeze, so it’s not the most successful seaside trip, although we do still manage a quick dip in the choppy waters. After a good ten minutes of haggling, we also end up buying a small Year of the Goat trinket from a beach seller who explains how tough her life is. She say’s we’re lucky to be able to travel, and she’s dead right. It’s easy to forget that a lot of people here are only just scraping by.

Next day we wander around the old town a little more, this time by bike. Learning our lesson from Hue, we decide against paying to go into any of the historical buildings, and instead just soak up the atmosphere of this chocolate box pretty place.

We also get some jeans turned into jean-shorts (it’s hot here!), check out a veggie cooking course but don’t actually do it, and eat a fantastic veggie dinner at the same place – Karma Waters. It’s as vegan chic as it sounds, but the food is the freshest and healthiest we’ve had in Asia so far.

On our last full day in town, we sign up for a half day ‘Free Hanoi Cycle Tour’, led by a couple of very sweet university students, most of whom have taught themselves English from TV and films, and do the tours for free to improve their language skills. This is a fantastic morning tour in a group of just four people, by bike and ferry to Kim Bong Island, and includes a look at boat making and family temples, and some hands-on practice at making rice paper and weaving a floor mat, plus a rather random but fun game of charades (you try acting out the word ‘Fairy’..!)

We make a small contribution to the community, and a donation to the guides at the end; the Lucky Money we received at New Year on the train. It’s the best thing we’ve done in Hoi An by far. Recommended – and not just because it’s a bike tour!

man jumping

22-23/2/15: From Hue to Hoi An, via Lang Co and Hai Van pass

85.9km (5.9km looking for accommodation!), av 16.4, max 47.1km, time on bikes: 5hrs 13 mins

And so it begins, again. After yesterday’s 39km warm-up ride to Thuan An beach, on Sunday we set off south, heading towards Hoi An.

We’re a little apprehensive about cycling on the infamous 2,000km Route 1, but there’s no way around it. The previous evening, at Cafe on Thu Wheels, we met a Swiss guy who says the trains south are booked up until March (Tet returnees), and we’d really hate to do this leg of the trip by bus, so instead we decide to go for it.

We plan the day’s route via the coast as much as possible, via Route 10A and 10B to Vinh Thanh, and then along the perninsular and over a vast bridge on Route 577 until it eventually, inevitably, joins with Route 1A.

The first part of the journey is really great cycling, firstly through rice fields, and then through a bizarre landscape of ‘dunes and tombs’ (as Lonely Planet describes it) – mile upon mile of family tombs. It’s mostly flat, the road is paved, and it’s always interesting. Although close to the sea, we don’t catch a glimpse of it today until the majestic, empty bridge crossing over to the more hilly Other Side.

We then start to see km marker stones counting down to the dreaded ROUTE 1. After waiting for a train to cross the level crossing (while eating what we joke may be our last meal, a whole packet of Crema-O biscuits – what a send off!) we don our helmets then hang a left and join the highway. Immediately, it starts climbing and the hard shoulder deserts us, but the traffic isn’t *too* bad and pretty soon we’re feeling OK about the whole thing.

As usual, there’s everything from kids on bicycles to juggernauts and kamakazee coaches on the road, so we feel at least like we’re not an oddity or danger on the road, as we definitely would if you attempted to cycle on, say, the M25.

After about 20km of this, mostly against a stiff headwind, we make it in one piece to Lang Co, a small but usefully located coastal strip of a town just before the Hai Van pass, with a pretty lake on one side, and a golden beach on the other. In other words, a perfect place to overnight.

There are lots of accommodation options and, predictably, we go for the cheapest we can find – essentially, a room in someone’s house, for 150,000 VND. The guy (a photographer) is very friendly though, and gives us each a face mask for the next leg of our journey…

We have a (for us) relatively early start and, after a peppery bowl of Pho (noodle soup) for breakfast, we’re on our way by about 10am. The Hai Van pass is said to mark the climatic border between North and South Vietnam, and also has a military history. More recently, Top Gear apparently labelled the coastal hill pass one of the most scenic in Vietnam, if not the world. There’s a spectacular railway pass too, but sadly no-one in Vietnam’s tourism department has yet had the idea of running tourist trains between Hue and Danang to make the most of it. Happily, there’s now a road tunnel too, which takes most of the traffic, leaving just scooters, mad cyclists and tourist buses on the pass itself.

The climb out of Lang Co is steady but not too steep. There are sections of 8% inclines, along with some flatter bits and, although it is hard work, it’s not impossible and we don’t have to walk any of it, despite the heat. As we go up, the view of Lang Co bay unfolds spectacularly, as motorbikes go whizzing past, many riders yelling ‘hello’ or giving the peace symbol which the kids just can’t get enough of here.

A tactical coke break just before the summit allows us to arrive at the top looking relatively fresh-faced. We even have enough water on board not to have to buy any from the expensive vendors stationed there. The view from the top is pretty good, but improves still further as we head away from all the tourist buses and down the other side. It really is spectacular, especially on this cloud-free day, stretching all the way to Da Nang. The descent, at times marked 10%, is fantastic.

Before we know it we are riding alongside a white sandy beach, just ahead of Da Nang, and the temptation to take a dip is too great to resist. We park up our bikes beneath a bemused lifeguard and run into the calm, azure sea in our cycling gear! Too good!!

Apart from a quick pause for lunch, we cruise through Da Nang, which looks very modern and plush, but without too much in the way of soul. It’s a fast growing city and is establishing itself as a luxury beach resort destination, which means a lot of the coastline is off limits to commoners like us.

We also cruise past Marble Mountain (pausing only for a quick photo of the marble monstrosities on sale), apparently a popular tourist attraction. Where we do pause for much longer is a super-cute bike cafe we chance upon on the Trurong Sa road, called Le Velo. It’s front terrace is adorned with bikes and even tables made out of bike wheels, so we have to stop! We get chatting to the owner, Hue Le, who shares her ‘cycling manifesto’ with us – to get more people, especially women, cycling in Vietnam. We’re hugely impressed, plus the smoothies are great too! Hue interviews us about our travels, so it will be fun, or probably cringeworthy, to see how that turns out on YouTube…

From Le Velo, it’s about another 10km of flat, straight road to Hoi An, and it’s starting to get dark (thanks to all the unplanned stops!) We head into town and are shocked at the accommodation prices offered to us, and in US dollars all of a sudden. $20 for a dingy room, sir?!? No way are we paying that! We eventually take a room above a cafe for $10. The hot water’s broken but we’re so hot, and the room’s so hot, that we don’t even care, because it’s been such a great day’s cycling.

girl looking foolish

Oh, Hue!

For the next leg of our journey, we opt to take the train to Hue. It’s several hundred km, and as far as we can learn, much of this would probably have to be on Route 1 – the principle North-South trunk road – with little to see along the way.

We book a sleeper service in advance, unaware that we’ve booked it on Vietnamese New Year’s Eve, which is kind of annoying that we miss out the fireworks in Hanoi, but in the end works out OK.

The day starts early (and hungover) taking our bikes to the station at 8am to check them in. They won’t be travelling on the same train as us but, with payment made and receipt in hand, we feel relatively confident they will be there waiting for us in Hue.

We spend our last day in Hanoi wandering the French district, observing last minute Tet preparations and seeing families out for a walk by the lake, wearing their Sunday best. The carnival atmosphere is building, and it’s a shame to be leaving.

Before heading to the station we eat (a big theme of the day!) really well at a couple of street-food places, and then drink free beer at the rooftop bar of Flipside Hostel.

Our train departs at 10pm. This time our sleeper cabin has 6 beds in it, and we’re on the very top bunks. It takes a LOT of effort (and coordination) to haul yourself up and then, once you’re up there, it’s very difficult to do anything other than lie down. Since it’s so uncomfortable, we head to a seating carriage to read for a bit. Then, at midnight, we check out the buffet carriage, which also seems to double as staff hangout area. We visited earlier on and were invited to come back later so when we do (on the stroke of midnight) they’re massively happy to see us! We are given a heady mix of wine, vodka and some other unidentified spirit to toast the new year – Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

The rest of the journey is spent sweating out the booze in a coffin-sized bunk with little in the way of air and a steadily rising temperature. It’s not the most comfortable night’s sleep but we wake up in good time and OK shape to disembark at Hue.

Retrieving the bikes is complicated by the fact it’s New Year’s Day and there only appears to be one person on duty in the entire station. When, after about an hour, the queue at the ticket office finally clears, the man scoots off to retrieve the bikes, which have made it safely, as we knew they would. Excited to be re-united, we cycle into town to see what Hue has to offer…

As it turns out, lots. We love the wide, flat streets, perfect for exploring by bike. We also do a day trip to the nearby Thuan An beach (around 30km round trip), and a quick trip to the Thap Phuoc Doyen Pagoda, about 5km out of town, and better by bike than paying for a taxi or dragonboat to take you there. The citadel, while impressive and a nice place to go, is perhaps not the greatest way to spend 105,000 dong, but you kind of have to do these things…

Accommodation tip: we stay at a place called Imagination for $10, in a lovely room overlooking the courtyard and outdoor pool. Very pleasant indeed! Then, when we’re bored of the pool, we stay at a place opposite for $7 which is much more basic but sometimes that’s all you need. At Imagination, we meet a couple with two kids who are cycling, with the kids on the bikes, one in a trailer, one in a bike seat. Wow!

As for food, we eat a lot of meals at Cafe on Thu Wheels, which does great omelettes for breakfast. Take, a Japanese place, is also good, and Rose2 is good for veggie options. Indeed, we fuel up at Thu Wheels before we get back on the bikes, ready to take on Route 1…

Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

On our first full day in Hanoi we barely leave the hotel room, and no it’s not what you’re thinking… I’m exhausted after yesterday’s stress, fumes and exertions on the roads (or perhaps it’s the culmination of days on the road since we entered Vietnam) and it seems the only cure is rest. As it happens, it rains for much of the day so it’s no great loss.

The next day, guidebook in hand, we check out some of the famous tourist attractions, starting at… Bookworm Bookshop, obviously. It’s a cute little English language shop stocking a great range of new and secondhand books, ranging from Booker winners and the Classics to a decent section by SE Asian authors. We accidentally spend two hours in here (which speaks volumes about how much we’ve been missing the written word) and walk out with no less than five books – just what our panniers need! To my relief (as no doubt I’d be carrying it) we resist the tatty charms of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist – all 800 pages of it – the digital version will have to do.

Other than that we cycle around a bit more, take ages trying to find a recommended restaurant (we find it eventually, after eating somewhere else), and then spend the rest of daylight hours queueing at the train station. It’s busy because of Tet, and it’s chaotic because the ticketing system for the queue has malfunctioned. Eventually, with the help of a nice young guy, I manage to purchase tickets for the sleeper to Hue, but am told that we have to return at 8am on the day of travel to check in the bikes. Sounds like fun.

On our second tourism day we’re a little more successful, checking out both the Women’s Museum and the Temple of Literature. The former is interesting and well thought out, although a little more on the transition to a market economy, and the role of modern women now, would have been good, rather than a whole floor dedicated to women’s fashion. A short film about some of the women street vendors of Hanoi, many of whom lead very difficult double lives earning a pittance trying to support families back home in their villages and with no State support, is the thing that really grabs us most, and makes us think that we should try and support a few more vendors where we can.

The Temple of Literature isn’t as “tranquil” as some have suggested (it’s basically a large traffic island), but its age and tradition is impressive; as a temple of learning, Hanoi dates back to the 12th century. The guy on TripAdvisor who said “very nice place but there’s not a whole lot to see” pretty much nailed it though!

The next day we’re ready to make a break for the fresh air and turquoise waters of Cat Ba Island. We take a pre-booked 9am train to Haiphong (the bikes go in a separate carriage, no problem) but on arrival torrential rain greets us, so we sit out the worst of it at a station cafe.

We then head to the quayside to try and make sense of the ferry system. As usual, it’s all rather confusing, but we learn that there’s a bus/boat/bus combo on offer for 150,000 VND (bus to a different port, then a boat, then a bus across the island) or, for 220,000 VND per person, a direct, fast (45mins) boat. The 3pm sailing is about to depart so we make a quick decision to go for it and follow the ticket seller down to the boat. At this point she attempts to charge us a further 440,000 VND for the bikes! We refuse and make to walk away and then, miraculously, she backs down and lets them on for free. A good result! We hop on just as the engines are revving up and then, because the boat is already full, take a seat at the top of the roof hatch, where we sit for the whole journey with the wind in our hair, taking in our first views of this spectacular landscape.

The road across Cat Ba is around 25km, but there’s a 35km loop you can do around the southern half of the island that takes in the national park, mangroves, sandy bays and fishing villages, which is exactly what we do the next day.

And what a great day it is, cycling along open, empty roads among beautiful scenery, then walking through thick forest to Ngur Lam lookout post for an incredible view across the bizarre “egg box” landscape, while also on the look out for rare Langer monkeys. The only thing there isn’t time for was a swim!

On the cycle back to town, we learn that even Cat Ba is not immune to the ubiquitous Vietnam roadworks plague. Around 10km of the road is currently being worked on, but fortunately the disruption this time is not enough to cause any serious problems to two experienced cycle pros such as ourselves (er, really?!)

Day two on the island is spent mostly on water, as we join a guided kayaking tour with Asia Outdoors to get a closer look at the spectacular coastal scenery. We have two long sessions in the boats, paddling our zig-zag way through secret bays, past floating fisheries and, at the end, a beautiful, huge cove, entered through a natural archway, and a full 360 degree circle once inside. It truly is an incredible place to visit, accessible only by kayak at low tide, so we are pretty lucky to be there and have it to ourselves.

It’s strange to think that this landscape has looked like this for thousands of years, only subtly changing as the limestone is attacked from above (acidification from rainwater and plants) and below (by molluscs and shellfish), eventually causing collapse.

There’s a surreal moment when our guide, Gabby, comes across a dead ‘baby whale’ in some shallow water. We spend a long time speculating what it might be, how it died, etc. By whale standards, it’s tiny (3 feet long) and it doesn’t appear to have any eyes, so the most popular theory (put forward by a guy who studied marine environments) is that it was aborted by its mother who was stressed in some way. Gabby dumps it onshore for the park ranger to collect later to examine. The sight of her paddling to shore with a miniature whale slumped across the back of her boat is a little unexpected, to say the least.

Overall, it’s a mentally relaxing, physically tiring day, with a fantastic fresh fish lunch in the middle and sunny weather almost all day (some sea mist rolls in at one point, but isn’t thick enough to cause any major issues). The other people on the tour with us, from the US, Canada, Sweden and the UK, are a nice bunch and the Asia Outdoors crew are as friendly and laid back as you like.

And so, farewell to Cat Ba Island. It’s low season right now, especially with Tet fast approaching, so we perhaps saw her at her best (and cheapest) – rooms for $6, empty streets, no traffic, not too hot, few tourists… the perfect tonic to Hanoi, then!

10/2/15: Hoah Binh to Hanoi

74km, av 18.4km/hr, max 40.4km/hr, time on bikes: 4hrs

Today is the day we’ve both been fearing/secretly looking forward to – the ride into Hanoi. The distance, 70km, is perfectly doable and the terrain is mostly flat. The great unknown is just how bad/mad the traffic will be and whether we feel safe enough to ride into the city. (Back in London planning the trip 6 months ago, we casually assumed we’d probably just “jump on a bus” at this point.)

We manage the first 60km with relative ease, cruising at an average of 20km/hr and not having any really hairy moments. There are more roadworks, of course, which makes it even dustier than normal, and this also makes for slightly more unpredictable traffic, as huge trucks and speeding buses look to avoid the temporary potholes etc, but it’s nothing too scary.

As we approach Hanoi the volume of traffic grows steadily and the million horns have by now blended into one continuous ‘hoooooooonk’. Suddenly, we’re on a 6 lane carriageway on the city limits, and we’ve been joined by approximately all of the scooters in Asia. But, weirdly, it’s not that scary once you get used to it – there’s even a dedicated cycle lane!

The trick, it seems, is to go with the flow, keep moving and always assume the most unexpected thing that looks like is about to happen, will indeed happen. The audacity of some of the scooter drivers is incredible and you can’t help but admire it.

As we approach the city centre, things get even more intense as the streets get narrower. At traffic lights there are literally hundreds of mopeds criss-crossing each other’s paths with inches to spare; add music and it would be like some beautifully choreographed Hollywood dance routine. Even though the fumes are enough to give you a headache, the general ‘order in chaos’ is truly something to witness – but even more fun to be a part of! It’s exhilarating, yes, but we actually feel less in danger here than on London’s roads, mainly due to lack of lorries and lower overall speeds.

After a good 30 minutes of the most white-knuckle city cycling we’ve ever experienced, we arrive at our Old Quarter guesthouse tired, a little overwhelmed by what just happened, but also kind of pleased that we took on the infamous Hanoi traffic and lived to tell the tale.