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.