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…