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.

9/2/15: Mai Chau to Hoa Binh

67km, av. 15.6km/hr, max 47.9km/hr, time on bikes: 4hr 17 mins

Today’s ride is perhaps one of the most uneventful and, because of the dense low cloud that hangs around all day, one of the least scenic – even though we happen to pass over a spectacular mountain pass with amazing views down to Mai Chau, on a clear day at least.

Out of Mai Chau on Route 15 it’s flat for the first few km, before we hang a right onto Route 16, and start going up… and up… and up. It’s pretty relentless, for around 8 or 9 km, and there’s not much to look at other than all the entertainingly over-loaded motorbikes just about managing to overtake us. Tet is fast approaching so lots of people are heading home, and taking most of their furniture with them, including the kitchen sink, by the looks of it.

We stop at a roadside cafe and ‘viewing point’ to admire the fog, where we meet a very nice lad who introduces us to the saccharine charms of ‘One One’ sweet ricecakes, which we devour eagerly.

The road is near perfect and there are quite a few trucks using it. On the way down the other side, one huge American-style truck is having to take it really slowly (probably less than 20km/hr) – overtaking it as we speed down the mountain at 47km/hr is perhaps the most thrilling/scary moment of cycling so far! The amazing stretch of downhill goes on for about 10km and, when we stop for a pause to ‘re-calibrate’ our bones and bikes, the lorry (pictured) eventually passes by and gives us a honk on its horn. It’s like we’re in a friendly re-make of the Spielberg classic, Duel.

After that, there are no more mountain passes and the rest of the day flies by without much in the way of incident. Hoa Binh is similar to Mai Chau only bigger, and with plenty of accommodation options. We manage to find a room and bargain it down to 170,000. I feel bad haggling with a man who has his foot in bandages (from a motorbike accident, naturally), but he quickly makes up the mark-down in beer sales, so everyone’s a winner.

Woman standing on a muddy road

8/2/15: Quan Hoa to Mai Chau

44km, av 13.6km/hr, max 38.7km/hr, time on bikes: 3hr 14 mins (but total time taken: about 5hrs!)

After yesterday’s ride on Route ‘under construction’ 217, we thought today would be relatively plain sailing; an easy 45km to Mai Chau. We’ve not come across anyone warning us about this stretch of road, either online or on our travels so far, so assumed it to be OK. We even have the luxury of a lie in and don’t get going until after midday, thinking it would only take 3 hours or so.

Today’s road, Route 15, makes the 217 look like a ride in the park. After just a couple of km’s out of Quan Hoa / Hoi Xuan, the dreaded roadworks sign appears and we fear the worst.

It’s not clear today whether the road is being widened or they’re just quarrying the hillside for fun, but for 30km we face it all – mud, sand, gravel, scree, puddles, aggressive dogs, pushing up steep slopes, clouds of dust, caterpillar trucks and, of course, lots of people smiling and waving as we struggle on through.

At one point when we come across a lorry spraying the road with water followed at the next turn by a huge, slow-moving truck carrying a bouncing load of bamboo poles, it feels like we’re on the Krypton Factor or something. Is that the best you can throw at us, Vietnam?!?

Eventually, after around 30km of us cursing “this road is a joke”, the road finally flattens out, the roadworks cease and we can make up some of the lost time, gliding along towards Mai Chau with rice fields on either side.

Up until this point the ‘road’ follows the River Ma along what would have been a beautiful valley until the road expansion project got under way, illustrating what a messy business road-building is. You pity the people living alongside the road, choking in all the dust, although you suspect they will probably feel the benefits when the upgrade is eventually finished – some time around 2020 maybe…

Mai Chau itself seems like a lively place, and there are plenty of accommodation options. We skip the possibility of a homestay in a nearby village, figuring we’ve seen plenty of village life on our travels so far already (and there will be other chances to homestay when it’s a bit warmer), and settle on a nice guesthouse/hotel, which has rooms for 500,000 VND, but to be honest they’re only a little bit plusher than the room we eventually go for at the bargained-down price of 180,000 VND.

After paying a girl 20,000 VND to give our bikes a power hose-down to get rid of all the mud and grit, we eat dinner for 100,000 (rice, pork, veg) at a restaurant where there’s much excitement at the installation of their huge Tet Mai tree – a symbol of spring. Tet is fast approaching and almost every vehicle we see (including buses) has a huge branch attached to the roofrack or is being carried precariously on the back of a motorbike. It’s a happy accident that we’re going to be in the country for the Tet (New Year) celebrations.

Man in bike on a muddy road

6-7/2/15: Na Meo to Quan Hoa

Bus to Quan Son, then 52.8km, 4hr 5 mins, av 12.9km/hr, max 39.3km/hr

After waking to the sound, this time, of pigs (there is a pig sty behind the hotel restaurant), we make our decision. Or rather, Rach’s inability to get out of bed before 8 makes our decision… bus it is.

A combination of fear of the unknown, traveller tales of thick mud, apprehension of a possible alternative route (the TL 520, described by one motorbike rider as a ‘goat track littered with dead animals’!) make the bus the most attractive option by far, despite the hefty price tag.

We’ve read warnings about the over-charging on this route, and then what do ya know, it goes and happens to us! The driver, pointing at our bikes and the roof-rack, wants 700,000 VND each, which is clearly ridiculous. We manage to get it down to a cool million in total, which is still way too much but what can you do in such situations?

The journey takes about 2.5 hrs and the road is bad – really bad, but certainly not impassible by bike. Perhaps if there’d been recent rain it would be a different matter but, from what we saw, you could definitely do this stretch on  a touring bike. It appears that the single carriageway road is being widened but, rather than do this a stretch at a time, it seems that the entire 100km or so is being worked on (or rather, not worked on very much) all at the same time.

Quan Son is a little better and nicer than Na Meo but once again we have a  bit of a ‘mare ordering food and then getting charged way more than we were expecting for food we weren’t expecting (150,000 VND for meat, rice and an omelette). Finally, for our evening meal, by being disciplined and really clear, we manage to get two bowls of noodle soup for 20,000 VND – our cheapest meal so far! We stay at a ‘Motel’ for 180,000, haggled down from 200,000 via Google Translate and a (true-ish) sob story about how the bus ripped us off and now we don’t have enough money to eat…

Next day, an early start and the ride to Quan Hoa, aka Hoi Xuan. We thought the roadworks might improve after Quan Son but if anything, they get worse. Huge stretched of road are just dirt tracks but somehow, we manage to pass through OK, with no major incidents or accidents. The hills aren’t too bad and occasionally the road is good enough to enjoy the downs. The scenery, beneath the mist and cloud that lingers all day, looks like it could be spectacular, and all day we hear constant ‘hellooo’s from people in houses, fields, and even on scooters. Everyone here has a friendly face and a welcoming smile. After a bit of a sketchy start, we’re starting to like this place!

The 50km ride is, overall, pretty great and it feels good to be riding in a new country with such friendly people, even if their approach to road construction is completely baffling. (The last few km on route 15 up to Quan Hoa are, mercifully, smooth and roadworks free.)

Quan Hoa itself, stretched out along the main road for a good couple of km, feels like a lively place. We secure lodgings at a lovely little place with private courtyard, wifi and a SOFA (bargained down from 180 to 150,000 VND just by asking nicely) and eat well, (ie: no Thit Cho, or ‘dog’ as it’s also known) at a popular local restaurant for 60,000 VND. Finally, we’re getting the hang of eating out in Vietnam!

Person on bike near a border crossing

5/2/15: Vieng Xai to Na Meo

57.5km, 4hr 10 mins, av 13.8km/hr, max 42.4km/hr

We leave our little cabin at Naxay I to the din of what sound like headless chickens squarking themselves to death. There are chickens everywhere in Laos, but there seems to be a particularly high concentration hanging out behind, and under, our cabin.

After stocking up on doughnut-based goodies at the market, we start the 57.5km ride to the Laos/Vietnam border. Skies are cloudy but rain holds off until a small mountain pass takes us up to cloud/mist level and we get drizzled on a little. The climb isn’t too arduous, but the descent feels much steeper. The road on the descent is also in poor condition which means we have to go much slower than we’d like. On the way down, we meet another cycle tourist, Ernst from Germany, who warns us of treacherous road conditions ahead in Vietnam, as well as giving us a name and number of a friend in Hanoi who might be able to put us up. Nice guy!

On the other side of the hills the landscape morphs once more into wide, flat-bottomed valleys with rice paddies. This is the first time we’ve seen such scenery; the fields, the space, the flat road, the smiling children, it’s like some kind of cycling paradise. Definitely the most fun we’ve had on two wheels so far.

We reach the border just after lunch. From the hillside before the border you can see both the Lao and Vietnam checkpoints, with flags raised. In-between, a kind of no-man’s land and a bridge over a river, which presumably marks the border.

Getting out of Laos and into Vietnam is absolutely fine, with no delays or fees to pay, just lots of friendly smiles and waves of the hand. With the minimum of fuss, we’re in Vietnam!

The whole concept of international borders is kind of strange, and here it feels really odd to walk a few hundred yards and suddenly be in a different nation, with a different language, culture and history. It also looks markedly different, straight away. Not to mince words, Na Meo is a bit of a dump. It feels messy and busy and although we get a few friendly greetings, it definitely feels like we’re being watched more. We stop at the first guesthouse we come across (maybe not the best move but sometimes the easy option is the one to go for), it’s on the right as you cycle from the border, and has a ‘hotel’ sign out front. We pay 200,000 dong for an OK room with hot water and wifi. We don’t even think to haggle.

Our first dining experience in Vietnam isn’t great. There are language barriers for sure, but we also haven’t got the hang of a) being really specific about what we want, b) making double sure we’ve been understood, and c) confirming the price before the meal, rather than after. In the end we get a plate of mystery meat, rice, 4 boiled eggs, and a bowl of cabbage. Not quite what we were after. The only consolation is that, in the general confusion caused by the mix up and us then leaving the restaurant early, we don’t end up paying for any of it.

While eating we meet another cycle tourist; he’s had a long day in the saddle coming in the other direction (on Route 217). He tells of a 10 hour day, with thick mud and lots of pushing. Route 217 is currently being widened and rebuilt and is, by all accounts, a muddy quagmire right now (he’s not the first person to tell us this – Ernst’s bike was caked in mud too, and we even heard warnings about the road when we were in Phonsovan.) This leave us with a decision to make tomorrow – risk the mud, miles and dust, or risk being ripped off by the notorious Na Meo bus drivers…