CYCLING VIETNAM (2)
(1205km - 21days)
5 October Ban Dong, Lao – Dong Ha, Vietnam – 107 km
It was a short ride to the border where I crossed without any problems. The small village of Lao Bao was just down the road, and I made a quick detour into town to draw local currency (a whopping 3,000,000 dong – $1US = 22,000 dong) and to pick up a new SIM card for my phone.
From Lao Bao, it was a steady climb up the mountains with a lovely descent on the other side. I cycled past a few turn-offs to war-related sites but did not turn down them, as it did not sound very exciting and the hills made for a slow day on the road.
Once, I thought I spotted the famous Rockpile. The Rockpile is a karst rock outcropping south of the former Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). It was used by the United States Army as an observation post and artillery base from 1966 to 1969. It was, however, not the right one, as the real one was another 20 kilometres down the road. The area remained relatively rural, as in Lao, with people carrying their wares in woven baskets on their backs and women smoking long, thin pipes while selling banana hearts at stalls next to the road. I continued to Dong Ha, located on Highway 1, as there were a few things to see on my way north.
6 October Dong Ha – Dong Hoi – 105 km
I hemmed and hawed about whether to go or to stay since it was drizzling outside, and I was nice and cosy in my room. But I have ants in my pants, so I left in a drizzle that only got worse through the day.
Soon after leaving, I crossed the DMZ, now a peaceful area with rice fields and grazing buffaIo. I had my head down to such an extent that I missed the turn-off for the tunnels, and by the time I checked the map, I was way past and was not going to turn back in the rain. Although it was not cold and not bad for cycling, it made for a dreary day on the road. I could hardly take the camera out and missed (I thought) some excellent photo opportunities. LOL, I always say I'm never going to cycle in the rain again, but the next time I'll do it again! It's not all bad cycling in the rain; at times, it can be quite nice, but eventually, it only becomes about getting to your destination and not enjoying the day out.
In Dong Hoi, I took a room and was again annoyed by the rip-offs in Vietnam. One always needs to check one's money, change, and prices as the Vietnamese do not need any encouragement to do you in. It is one of the reasons I’m not crazy about Vietnam. They are not even embarrassed if you point it out to them; they just laugh and give you your money back. Fortunately, there were prices on the menu I ordered from, so I could point it out to the young lady serving me. The biggest problem is buying in a store as normally there are no prices on the items, and they take full advantage of the fact that foreigners do not know the prices. Arghh!!
7 October – Dong Hoi
During the Vietnam war, Dong Hoi was, unfortunately, located very close to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone; ironically, this is also where most of the fighting took place), and on February 11, 1965, American B-52s raised the city to the ground. After the attack, all that remained were a water tower, part of the city gate, part of the Catholic Church, and a single palm tree. I packed up and, on leaving, first cycled through the city to see if I could locate these places. I stopped for coffee and started talking to other travellers. In the end, it started drizzling again, and I decided to stay put. I spent the rest of the day exploring the city, doing laundry, eating, and watching TV as I found one English channel; fortunately, it was the Discovery Channel which was worth watching.
Interestingly enough, there are not a large amount of stray dogs in Vietnam. One often sees motorbikes with wire cages on the back, transporting dogs. Many Vietnamese have an appetite for dogs. They see the animals as food, a delicacy, to wash down with a bottle of rice wine. If slaughtered in a humane way (if there is such a thing), it’s no different to lamb or pork, or at least that is what I think.
8 October – Dong Hoi – Son Trach – 45 km
After a quick bite to eat, I was on my way to Phong Nha National Park. Now a Unesco World Heritage Site, it is a remarkable area that contains some of the oldest karst mountains in Asia and is riddled with hundreds of cave systems. It was a beautiful cycle with stunning scenery and the ever-present karst mountains in the distance.
Along the way, I came upon a gathering of sorts, a funeral I think, as a man in a brown robe was chanting in a monotone voice. Bystanders were all dressed in white robes and headbands. Plenty of offerings, in the form of both food and incense, where splayed out on the road, and paper offerings were burning high on the other side. I asked if I could take a picture, and they were happy with my request. On leaving, they called me back and proceeded to stuff my handlebar bag with food and fruit. I say “stuff” as it was so full I could hardly close the lid. I was unsure of what to do, so I made a very exaggerated puja/namaste by holding my palms together, touching my forehead and bowing numerous times. What a sight that must have been! On cycling away, I could hardly contain myself and nearly fell off the bike laughing, imagining just what that must have looked like.
On reaching Son Trach (with my bulging handlebar bag), I easily found a room as the main road in this small town is littered with guesthouses. I could not wait to go exploring, and first on the list was Phong Nha Cave, one of the world's longest cave systems. Visiting the cave involved, first, a boat ride up the Son Trach River to the gaping mouth of the cave. From the cave's mouth, we were rowed into the cave and were at the same time transported into the most wondrous world of stalagmites and stalactites—I was slack-jawed! It was by far the most incredible cave I have ever visited. I'm so inspired, I now want to see all the caves (LOL).
9 October – Son Trach and Paradise Cave
I was all packed up and ready to leave, but then I had a change of heart and reasoned that I’d (most likely) never be here again. So, why not look at some more caves? Off I went on the back of a motorbike to Paradise Cave.
The road wound past rice fields and karst peaks, deep into the national park. Once there, it was another two-kilometre walk to the mouth of the cave, and I was surprised that one of the longest cave systems in the world lay behind such a small opening. No wonder it was only discovered in 2005. The cave, I believe, extends for thirty-one kilometres! A wooden staircase leads down to this extensive system. The sheer size of the cave alone makes it breathtaking. I arrived at the same time as a very large tour group and thought it would spoil the whole experience. However, the cave is so large that I did not even know they were there. I have no words to describe what I saw, but to say it was spectacular! I am beyond pleased that I decided to stay another day. I took a whole host of pictures. However, none came even close to capturing the cave and its beauty.
10 October - Son Trach – Yang Hotel, Cam Xuyen – 127 km
My room rate included breakfast consisting of an omelette with Vietnamese baguette and Vietnamese ice coffee. The coffee is delicious but extremely strong if one does not add the ice. “Whe you go?” has become the norm as I'm packing up and when I reply, “China”, they look at me as if they have never heard of it. Even although I dearly wanted to do the Dark Cave as well, as it involves an abseil down into the cave, I left the park as it felt that I have already spent far too much money.
I cycled past the quintessential Vietnamese scenery of karst outcroppings and rice fields with grazing buffalo. People were ploughing their land with oxen or buffalo; others were put-putting upriver looking for something to catch.
I followed one of the old Ho Chi Ming trails, a route that was used by the Vietnamese during the war as a supply/support route. There were many of the paths/trails/routes, and I was, obviously, on one of the main ones. I loved how rural it was, but old graves along the way reminded that many of the Vietnamese lost their lives in this vicinity.
It was hot and I stopped for a sugar cane juice, something that remains a novelty, even though I have been in Southeast Asia for quite a while now. Somehow, I must have missed a turn as I landed on the main road again. It didn't matter, and I followed the road north together with ladies collecting recyclable items and past old men watching buffaloes. My greatest entertainment was watching two ladies herding geese and ducks. They did not wave their arms or make any exaggerated movements; they just walked slowly and guided them gently across the road. I continued until I spotted a comfortable-looking roadside hotel and as there was a restaurant right next door. I thought it was the perfect spot for the night.
11 October – Yang Hotel, Cam Xuyen – Dien Chau – 112 km
What a weird day this was, starting off with a message from an Australian lady telling me to take down the picture of the dogs being transported on the back of a motorbike. Then, a man said to me that it was easier for women to do cycle tours as they were stronger and men couldn't do that! He could have been trying to justify his using a motorised bicycle, though. At least I heard one “Welcome to Vietnam” along the way. Not much happened along the road as I was on the AH1, a busy highway. I may have to look for a better route in the morning. The most interesting part was watching a herd of buffaloes swim across a large river. I had no idea they were such good swimmers.
12 October – Dien Chau – Thanh Hoa 104 km
Gosh, so many weird things happened today. As I rounded a truck parked on the shoulder of the road, a lady on a motorbike popped out in front of me. They have a tendency to go against the traffic in Vietnam. She got such a fright on seeing me that she dropped the bike there and then and I went over it! Fortunately, I did not fall hard, and she thought that this was all very funny; they have a habit of laughing when someone falls!
Another strange thing I had encountered was that people would speak to you in any foreign language they know, and that may or may not be English. So far, I have heard German and French, and it’s no good telling them you don’t understand, as they just keep on talking! Today, I had someone pulling up next to me with a friendly “salaam alaikum”; I, in turn, responded with an equally friendly (or so I thought) “Alaikum salaam”, as it is the only Arabic expression I know (LOL). I do not think that I look very Arabic, but I could have the colouring of most Arabic people. That, unfortunately, was also the end of the conversation.
I was slowly edging my way closer to Hanoi, trying not to get flattened by trucks and busses and while dodging produce drying on the road. Again, I did not take many pictures as the scenery (beautiful as it is) is spoilt by wires, unsightly pylons, and frantic mining. Unfortunately, the mining scars are irreversible and will be there forever and a day. The area remains very rural and farmers were busy harvesting rice, and I shared the road with a multitude of friendly ladies, all of whom were on bicycles loaded to the hilt.
13 October - Thanh Hoa - Tam Coc - 60 km
I turned off the highway and headed to one of Vietnam’s top tourist destinations, Tam Coc. Although a very touristy area, it is very scenic, and one can get a boat heading upriver past jagged limestone cliff and rock formations that rise out of the paddy fields reminiscent of Ha Long Bay. Even the ever present air pollution could not detract from the beauty of this area. I did not take a boat as it looked like rain and I was unsure if it would be worth the money.
14/19 October Tam Coc – Hanoi – 110 km
I was up early as I wanted to see if I could get a boat upriver. Unfortunately, it was drizzling, and I had to make a decision whether to go upriver in the rain or head to Hanoi in the rain. I could not make up my mind so first had breakfast with a good cup of Vietnamese coffee. Haino won as I could not justify the money for a trip in the rain.
There were plenty of other interesting things in the area as I headed along a country road and past tiny rural villages where ladies were trading on haunches with wicker baskets and shoulder poles. I stopped at Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, circa 800 BC; all that remains today is a ruined pagoda.
Although it rained the entire day, it was a light drizzle and an enjoyable ride through the countryside. Eventually, I landed up on the AH1 again, a busy highway which turned into a narrow, potholed single-lane road!The last part of the day into Hanoi was most unpleasant, and it was nothing short of miraculous that I arrived at my destination unscathed. The road rules are either non-existent, or I don’t know them.
I arrived in Hanoi and was happy to find a room and get rid of my wet clothes. I spent the next few days in the old quarters of Hanoi, which is always a pleasant place in which to hang out for a while. I met up with Bret and his partner, Hayley, who has been living in Vietnam for a few years. They know the place like the back of their hand, and together with many of their friends, we met up nearly every night for a few good beers and a bite to eat.
Rumours of an approaching typhoon made me stay put, but the days came and went, and no storm made its appearance. Every morning, as I was about to leave, the weatherman would announce that today was the day, and I will pay for another day in my comfortable but pricey room. I wandered the narrow streets of the old quarters and loved it, and I ate from street-side restaurants where people sat on tiny plastic chairs and drank many cups of coffee at small cafes in narrow alleys.
20 October Hanoi – Roadside hotel - 115 km
I finally packed up and cycled out of Hanoi. Three times, I changed my mind in which direction I wanted to go, and in the process, I cycled through tiny villages lining the Duong River, all with typical Vietnamese straight-up houses that looked to me like matchboxes on their sides. The villages were mostly surrounded by rice fields and built around a church (how weird), and the red-roofed houses, strangely, reminded me of Eastern Europe.
I followed the river for most of the day, making for a rural and pleasant ride. I had the GPS on “walking”, something that always turns out loads of fun as it sent me through markets, down cobblestoned alleys, past temples, and through residential areas complete with buffalos, chickens, and pigs; all, of course, to the great amusement of the locals.
The area along the river looked fertile, and I passed large vegetable farming areas where farmers were hard at work weeding and watering the crops, all by hand. The narrow road was made even more so due to them using the tarmac for drying their produce; ladies were methodically spreading the rice with large racks, continuously turning it over so it could dry evenly. I know I said I was not going to do more people shots, but once I passed a man with not only his fishing gear dangling from the one end of his shoulder pole but his whole boat on the other end, I knew I had to take another shot.
21 October Roadside hotel - Halong City - 40 km
I was in no hurry as it was a short day to Halong City. It was a beautiful ride past stunning karst scenery. Halong City is a gateway to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, and I was unsure if I wanted to go to Cat Ba Island again.
I also discovered that I left my passport at the hotel in Hanoi; what a pain. The receptionist at the hotel in Halong City was kind enough to phone the hotel and arranged that the bus/minivan driver will collect it and drop it off at my hotel in Halong City. How sweet of her, I hoped it all would work out that way. With the free trade agreement in Vietnam, development and building work is in full swing. Halong City looked like one giant construction site, and with little else to do but take a boat out into the bay, I spent the rest of the day sorting out my panniers.
22 October Halong City
The pollution/haze/fog was so bad that I decided not to spend the money on a boat trip; quite sad really. There was not much to do while waiting for the passport to arrive but eat and drink. Not a bad alternative to cycling, I would say.
23 October Halong City – Dam Ha – 120 km
It's hard to describe the northern part of Vietnam, as it is so beautiful but so polluted. Once I turned away from the coast with all its mining, dust and smog, the visibility improved and the colours returned to nature. It was a hilly ride through the most beautiful scenery, especially now that the rice is ripening.
Old, dilapidated houses looked pretty against fields of yellowish-brown ripening rice. People here are humble and friendly, selling their meagre supplies at roadside stalls. Every time I stopped to fill up with water, I was invited to sit down and share a meal. Even the men sitting drinking at corner stalls waved me closer and offered to share their rice wine, which I thought better to avoid.
Once I reached Dam Ha, I kept an eye out for a guest house and soon spotted one with a very convenient restaurant across the road, although the choices were limited. These little eateries only have one choice and Bia Ha Noi (the local beer) on tap. Who am I to complain!? No English was spoken, but they understood that I wanted food, and no sooner a huge spread arrived but I could not even finish it all. Again it was not the ingredients that were so impressive as it was simple rice, tofu, some kind of sausage and greenery; but it was the individual taste that was so awesome. Each dish was flavoursome and unique. Delicious!
24 October Dam Ha – Mong Cai – 60 km
It was a short ride to Mong Cai on the Vietnam-China border. It was once again a very scenic ride, and I was more than happy to see that there were still people wearing tribal gear.
Mong Cai came as a bit of a surprise as it was a large, sprawling city with a multitude of markets. It appeared to be a popular cross-border trading post for both Chinese and Vietnamese. I only wanted to cross the border in the morning to allow me a full-day ride on the Chinese side. The Mong Cai border is a border crossing seldom used by foreigners. I say this as not only did I not see any other travellers, but I was also treated as a novelty, and I found it a bit disconcerting that people checked at my shopping to see what I bought. Having a bite to eat gave no more privacy as two ladies plonked themselves down right in front of me and watched me eat without once taking their eyes off me. Needless to say, I did not finish my food and rather opted for a takeaway from a different shop.
25 October – Mong Cai, Vietnam – Qinzhou, China – 100 km
I know that it may be difficult for some to understand the immense sense of freedom I get from the unknown and from heading for the hills; just me and the bicycle and my few possessions. Some days I can't believe my luck that I get to live this life! These were the random thoughts going through my mind as I headed for the border. It turned out to be one of those days that I thought I needed a film crew to document it.
As I said yesterday, it is a border crossing seldom used by foreigners, and I was, therefore, the main attraction. People crowded me; they looked in my handlebar bag and tried to peek at my phone to see what I was looking at; they wanted to know what the solar panel was for and if I could charge the bike with it. They pointed at my rings, and they wanted some of my bracelets, all making me feel like I wanted to get out of there in a hurry.
I used the passenger terminal and, therefore, had to push the bike along with just about the entire populations of Vietnam and China wanting to lend a hand. With that, I left Vietnam with its sad history and gazillion graves and entered China. The Chinese have a bit of a bigger personal space and, therefore, kept their distance. The immigration officers could either not read the Latin alphabet, or there was something wrong with my passport as he looked at me and looked at the passport, held it up to the light and looked at it from all sides. Maybe they have never seen someone from “Nanfei.” It took forever, but eventually he returned the passport and waved me through.
My first stop was the ATM, and there were many to choose from. I withdrew 4,000 Chinese Yuan and cycled down the road looking for a mobile phone place where I could buy a local SIM card. The first few I stopped at looked at me in utter amazement, all grabbing their phones to start translating. I got the message that I needed to go to the main office down the road. I was even escorted there by one of the ladies. It was 11h00 by the time I left with money in my wallet and a SIM card in my phone.
I headed in the direction of Qinzhou as it looked a fairly big place. Once I left the large and sprawling city of Dongxing, I turned off onto a smaller road, which was a delight to cycle. Although much slower-going, it was a pleasure to be in the countryside. Along the way, I cycled through some rather large cities that seemed to go on forever. The cities all looked daunting from a distance, but once I arrived, they were easy and simple to get through, as most of them were new and well-planned. The hour's time difference was welcomed, but it also meant that I arrived at six o'clock, instead of at five, and it was already getting dark because it was winter.
I opted for the first hotel that I saw and what a fancy place it was. I paid $17, nearly double of what I normally pay, but the place was so fancy that I lived like a queen. The first thing I did was to order food, which was delicious. I then tried to do my laundry in a wash handbasin, which was obviously not designed for doing laundry, but the fact that they had a drying rack right under the aircon unit, made up for it.