Monthly Archives: February 2023

Day 55.  Tuesday 28th February. Da Nang to My Son and on to Hoi An: 78km

There are sometimes disadvantages to cheap hotels. Last night was the loud arguing along the corrider until at least 2am. I slept through it but David had a disturbed night. We were not quite sure where the noise came from but a large pile of discarded beer cans outside an adjoining room might be a clue.

However, we were still up early as usual, cooked up our porridge in the courtyard outside and were off into another grey drizzly day.  We have learned our lesson about not cooking in the room!

Our plan to get a bus south for better weather seems to have backfired.   It is slightly warmer here but seems to be rainy everywhere at the moment. However, part of that plan was to see some more interesting things and, in that respect, the day excelled.

We cycled through fairly uninteresting terrain for 40km.  At least, it might have been more interesting if we could see more but it was misty and visibilty was poor. The weather alternated between light misty drizzle and patches of slightly heavier rain. Highlights were finding a good bakery and a good coffee shop.

Around 11.30 we reached the historical site of My Son – an ancient site of the Cham kingdom that dominateed the region for centuaries.  There is evidence that this valley was treatedas being a sacred place from from the 4th Centuary onwards, and that Cham kings were buried at the site. There is also evidence of widespread trading with India and China and significant influence of the Hindu religion, which was largely adopted by the Cham kings. Most of the site was built between 7th and 13th centuraries with mutiple temples set in a lush jungle setting, surrounded by mountains. The ruins were discovered by French archeologists in the late 19th centuary, and restoratino works began. Sadly many of the temples were badly damaged or destroyed by US  bombing during the Vietnam war (or American war as they call it here).  There are bomb craters scattered through the site.  Renovations continue.

The rain held off for most of our visit but cloud swirled around the surrounding mountains making the site feel very atmospheric. The site was impresive and those parts that had been renovated gave a real feel of how it must have been.  Flashes of amazing stone work and decoration were visible and several examples of stone tablets etched with Sanskrit script. It was fairly busy but not heaving with tour groups (as the guide book indicated it can be) and we met a nice Danish family who we chatted to. 

Just to prove we were there together!

We enjoyed strolling round the ruins for a couple of hours then back on the bikes for the next section to Hoi An (the day being a triangle between North of Da Nang, My Son and Hoi An). The route was a ‘Kamoot special’ which routed us way off the main roads and through some pretty tiny ones. At one point we crossed a railway bridge across a river with a narrow track next to it for motor bikes, which was ionly just wide enough for the trikes.  The whole bridge seemed to bounce as we cycled across. 

Careful navigation needed!

Then down a precipitous path and a small track took us through a cemetary.  Here we noted that some of the tombs had continuous music playing – so a person can have their favourite playlist for eternity.  The track then turned into a muddy path that we had to negotiate to get back to the road!

We took a very back way into Hoi An along tiny roads across fields and beside the river, but we were suddenly in the heart of the busy old town which is only for pedestrians and cycles. However, there were so many people it was hard to battle through with the trikes without running over wayward tourists. In spite of our efforts, we did not hit anyone.

Rain soaked roads into Hoi An – ducks just visible in the road ahead

Our hotel was on an island in the Thu Bon river.  We had decided to splash out on somewhere a bit more upmarket this time and knowing that Hoi An can be very busy.  Our chosen one was described very quiet and with rave reviews. Mostly hotels don’t live up to their photos on reviews but this one did. The location is central but very quiet, the room huge and very comfortable. A splash of luxury on contrast to last night!

The day rounded off with a pleasant meal of Hoi An specialities sitting looking over the river as garishly lit up boats chugged past. 

Day 54:  Monday 27 February: Hue to just north of Da Nang:  112km and 650m of climbing

Any cycling day where the main 500m climb starts after 85km is suggestive of bad planning – but that was how the cookie crumbled for us today.  The alternative would have been a 12km tunnel (where bikes were prohibited) and that was not a pleasant prospect.  And it was raining for most of the day – our first day of rain in the entire trip.  At least that meant that the raingear was used properly for the first time, and so Bernie did not feel she had carried it for nothing.

We breakfasted at the hotel (good omlettes but dodgy coffee) and so felt full when we left about 8am.  The rain was a misty drizzle rather than full on pelting down, but enough to make the roads wet and slippery.  The road was flat, took us out via suburbs and was mostly tarmac – even if it lost it in places. We then went along a long peninsular for about 40km, to the South East of Hue.  There is a substantial lagoon called Dam Cau Hai, which extends for 70km and is the largest lagoon system in South East Asia.    It is 22,000 hectares (54,000 acres in old money) but only has a depth of between 1m and 3m (and only a maximum depth of 11m at it mouth).  

The peninsular runs between the sea and the lagoon, so we had the sea on our left and the lagoon on our right for 40km – but the area is sufficiently built up that we could not see either for most of the time.  

Wet and slippery roads

From the outskirts of Hue and long the peninsula there were very large numbers of tombs by the roadside. Many were very elaborate in the style of the Imperial palace we saw yesterday (although on a much smaller scale). I could not find any explanation for these or why there were so many.

At the southern end of the lagoon the hills came down to meet the water with the road winding along by the water.   Although still misty and raining it was very picturesque.

Then we were back on our “friend” the QL1 and even had a 400m tunnel to navigate.  We ignored a sign which said no bikes because (a) we had good lights, (b) there was no alternative route and (c) there was no one around to enforce the “no bikes” rule.  In true Blue Peter style we should say that, for anyone doing this at home, that is not an example we encourage you to follow.  It was only a short tunnel but the noise from trucks was deafening.

After only a few km we turned off the QL1 and were back on very quiet roads. We passed a series of derelict and half completed buildings on our left – i.e between the road and the sea.  This area must have been designated for high quality tourism development and had wide roads, but it has not worked out.  We passed a deserted and derelict “Movenpick” Resort which had clearly been developed in the last few years and abandoned – possibly a victim of the pandemic.  I later googled this and came across a website that is still trying to sell the units as part of a thriving resort – it was described as one of the most beautiful bays in the world, and had photos giving the impression holiday makers were there now.  Someone (probably a group of investors) will have invested millions into the project and lost everything.  

The town of Lang Co seemed to be doing better but by now the rain was coming down in stair-rods and even the large group of Chinese being decanted from their bus to the seafront hotel must have had second thoughts as to whether they were making the right holiday choices.

At the foot of the climb

We plodded on and started the climb the 500m ascent over 10km to the Hai Van Pass at about 2.15pm,one of the most well known cycle climbs in Vietnam.  My sister, Kate, later sent me a photo of her doing this climb in the summer and saying how hot it was.  Our pictures are of swirling clouds and rain soaked jungle.  But it was a lovely climb – the surface was pretty good, the traffic low and the gradient of between 5% and 10% all the way meant we gained height quickly without it being too steep.  There were some magnificent views down to sea, but it was tough doing this so late in the day.

We reckon to climb about 250m per hour, and it was about 4.15pm when we got to the top.  There were a series of cafes and gift shops at the top and the women who ran them got all excited when we turned up because surely we needed a break, and so would given them some custom.  However, this part of Vietnam is very far East and, because there is a common time zone across South East Asia, the sun sets here very early.  It is dark by 6pm and so we put on extra layers and began the glorious descent.  My sister later messaged to encourage us to look out for the massive Buddha during the descent.  Neither of us saw that but we did enjoy swinging the trikes at speed around the corners (not too much speed) and learning into the curve to keep the 3 wheels stable.  2 hours up but 20 minutes was all it took to descend 500m down to the coast.  Probably our best descent ever on the trikes – good surface, not too steep and great views.

Our view from near the top
What the climb looks like in summer!

We noted that it was dry on this side of the mountain – indeed this part of the coast is supposed to be the dividing line between the part of Vietnam that has 4 seasons and the part that has just 2 – a wet and dry season.  Nothing is that fixed but we could feel a difference in the weather.

Then a last few km to a hotel arriviiiiing about 4.30 after what felt like a long day. It had a manager who spoke excellent English, and we got a room for 200,000 dong for the night – about £7.  We followed the locals to an outdoor (but covered) cafe for a lovely supper of egg fried rice and stir fried seafood with noodles, and then collapsed.  

This was the longest distance we have covered so far this trip, and it felt like it, but it was the mega climb up to the Hai Van Pass at the end of the day that will live long in the memory.

Day 53: Sunday 26th February: Day off in Hue.

Sunday a day of rest and we had a day off in the old Imperial capital of Vietnam. As usual we woke around 6 but were able to get up leisurely and had breakfast at the hotel. We then ventured out to explore the citadel, which consists of 3 concentric enclosures – a square of huge outer walls enclose the old city.  Within this is the walled Imperial City and within that the royal Forbidden Purple city.

The site of the Imperial City is vast.  Most dated from around 1805 in the reign of Emperor Gia Long. However much of the site had been severely damaged during 20th century wars. Old photos showed the state of disrepair of most of the buildings. In 1993 Unesco listed the city as a World Heritage site and money started to come in to renovate the numerous pavilion and temple buildings. Some parts had been beautifully renovated but other areas had a long way to go.  Just maintaining the buildings that are there must be a mammoth task. However, there was enough there to show the beautiful architecture, the grand gateways and give a feel of the hierarchical court system and how the Emperors (and their mothers) lived. Emperors seemed to come and go pretty frequently, and often lived for decades after ceasing to be the Emperor. All were venerated as gods after death unless they had voluntarily stepped down.  Some visitors were still paying their respects to the alters of the emperors.  The final emperor abdicated in 1945 and Hue ceased to be the capital of Vietnam.

In the afternoon we changed tack and visited the Ho Chi Minh museum. Many cities have a HCM museum but we had not been to one yet and, as the man himself grew up and went to school in Hue, we thought we would try this one. I would say the museum was of marginal interest. There were some interesting old photographs and some interesting facts (I didn’t know that he had been to London and worked in the kitchens at the Carlton Hotel) but big chunks of time seemed to be missing and of course ‘Uncle Ho’ was venerated throughout, which lost any sense of objective history.

In the  evening we had a great meal out in a small back street restaurant that was extremely busy and did set menus of a variety of Vietnamese/Hue specialities. It will set is up well to get back on the trikes tomorrow and continue heading south.

Day 52:  26 February :  Cua Lo to Vinh – 20km then bus to Hue

We were probably the only people staying in our hotel and so, as we woke, the challenge was to find someone to open up at 7am so we could get our trikes out!  This may not be a common problem at the Dorchester but is something we confront from time to time.  Eventually someone appeared and, in very good grace (since we may have dragged him out of bed prematurely), opened up so we could get on the road.  We had decided to cycle the short distance to Vinh and then get a train or bus for the next 350km to Hue because the next section did not look too interesting and we did not have time before our flight home to cycle all the way to Ho Chi Minh city. 

It was overcast but not rainy and the day was getting going, with hundreds of motorbikes taking locals to school or work.  We wove around them and got onto the dual carriageway to Vinh.  This is already a dual lane road but there are roadworks to create a 6 lane highway in the middle between the two lanes, along with piles of sand and gravel that must have been 30m high.  The only explanation is that they are developing a deep water port here and anticipate a huge increase in truck traffic – or it is someone’s vanity project!

We arrived in Vinh at rush hour and negotiated our way to the station to see if we could experience Vietnam Railways for the trip to the former imperial capital, Hue.  The answer was that we could get the train but there was no freight car today so the trikes would have to follow tomorrow.  Being separated from the trikes was not really an option so we decided to explore bus options.  

The bus station had moved from the location in the guidebook, but a combination of googletranslate and googlemaps got us to the right place, and we found a “sleeper” bus was leaving for Hue at 11.30, arriving at 6.30.  So, at 7 hours, it was due to be faster than the train, more comfortable and cheaper – overall a bit of a result.  We packed up the trikes (getting good at this now) and paid the man – with the inevitable luggage surcharge!

Lovely greens!

That left us a couple of hours to get breakfast, food for the journey and top up our the caffeine levels.  We had cycled through a market on the way to the bus station, so we walked back that way to get supplies.  Markets in Vietnam are female dominated spaces – and tough women at that.  They have a vibrancy, continual banter, jokes and arguments, noise from motorbikes passing through the alleys and general hubbub which makes them special places.  There are no health and safety inspectors allowed or animal welfare or hygiene standards.  

Blow your mouth open chillis
Any fish you want here

We wandered around picking up supplies and taking photos – wondering at the range of things on offer.  Live chickens, live fish, non-refrigerated meat in huge blocks, wonderfully ranges of vegetables and numerous stalls selling plants and flowers, as well as every type of household good you could need for a Vietnam house.  The pictures tell the story.

Chicken for dinner?

Then it was time to return to the bus, survive the journey – which went quickly as we each had our own couchette and could sleep, read and watch the world go by and, as we got nearer Hue – the rain come down.  We were offloaded at a pull in near the centre of Hue, thanked the bus crew, rebuild the trikes and cycled the few km to our hotel.  It was all remarkably straightforward and uneventful – except for the car that drove into the back of a tour bus as we waited at a red traffic light.  More damage to the car than the bus – but the bus was stationary and the car driver was on the phone at the time.  We pulled around and peddaled off, anxious not to become part of the ensuing discussions!

Our hotel is fine and Hue is packed with Western and Chinese visitors, as it is a tourist hot spot.  We are looking forward to the cultural sights for a day after a few days of rural Vietnam when we saw no tourists at all, and then will make our way down the coast with lots of interesting stuff – at least according to the guidebooks.

Day 33. February 6th. Nasiengby to Nong Khiaw. 45km.

We woke and went through our usual routine of cooking porridge and filtering water as we readied ourselves for the road.  And a crazy road it was to start off.  The town was teeming with motorbikes, lorries, cars, school children, all wrapped in the thick fog of the morning. For 3 or 4 km we dodged and weaved through the traffic and around deep pot holes and disintigrating bits of road.  We were glad of our front lights and flashing back lights  in the fog –  although most of the traffic could not be bothered with such things, even if they had lights they did not turn them on.

As we left the last houses of the town the traffic abruptly halted.  What made this town particularly busy at 7.30 in the morning was not clear but it was all local and soon we were in beautiful country side.  Emerald green paddy fields and swirling mist on the mountains as the sun burnt off the clouds. 

We stopped to take photos and were passed by 2 touring cyclists, Joisen (from Holland) and Franklin (from Brazil), who previously lived in Switzerland and were on the way to a new life in New Zealand.  There is something about European people we have met which has struck us – how many have chosen to live and offer their talents to a different country from their birth.  We have met French people living in Germany, Italians living in France and Germans living in Holland. Maybe it is that free movement is a living thing – spreading talent across the continent or maybe people who have the courage and openness to live in another country also have a mindset to travel.  

Joisen and Franklin were the first cyclists we met in Laos and only the third in our whole trip so far. They only had 2 weeks so were traveling light on gravel bikes and going off road into far more adventurous territory than us. It was good to chat and exchange tales.  They were heading for the same town as us but would arrive much quicker.  

After about 15km we reached the town of Pak Mong where we turned off Highway 13.  Now we were leaving the territory we had covered in the bus (but had not seen) and were on Highway 1C. Given Highway 13 is the main artery from Vientiane and Luang Prabang up to the  Chinese border it could hardly be called busy (this morning excepted). The new road though was blissful. 

We had a fantastic 30km ride along a valley with beautiful tropical vegetation and increasingly spectacular mountains coming into the view. The road was gently undulating along the Nam Bak river. We knew we had a short day so we went at ambling speed, just absorbing the scenery and thoroughly enjoying the cycling.  Passing through pretty towns and villages it was easy to return the smiles and waves we were getting. This is what it’s all about! For the thousandth time we felt so lucky that we enjoy doing this together, storing memories to share for our dotage.

We gently rolled into Nong Khiaw as the Nam Bak joins the Nam Ou river.  We had left the Nam Ou yesterday afternoon as it took a course carving through roadless gorges until we  rejoined it at the most spectacular setting of mountains and cliff faces.

We booked into a simple guest house at the south end of the bridge over the Ou.  Simple but with a balcony overlooking the river and mountains, complete with hammocks. The other good thing about simple guest houses is there is no issue with using our little wisperlite stove to brew up so we sorted ourselves out with coffee and sandwiches (this part of Laos at least has decent baguette type rolls). We strolled into town to sort ourselves out with a trip to do tomorrow then spent a very lazy afternoon reading, rocking in our hammocks, listening to Dire Straights on our portable speaker, drinking tea and generally feeling very laid back.

In the evening we hooked up with Joisen and Franklin again.  They are real athletes and it was fascinating to hear about their endurance racing exploits. Tomorrow they have a big day of climbing so were loading up with carbs with burgers and pizza.  I just had to remember that we will be swanning about on the river tomorrow and didn’t need to be eating quite so much! One of the great things about this trip is the number of different people we have met from all round the world. 

Day 51.  Friday 24th February. Camping Hai Linh to Cua Lo. 108km

Today is the first anniversary of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia. A whole year of this terrible war.  It therefore seems frivolous to be talking about our travels today. I will record the day but our thoughts are with all Ukrainians and a hope for peace.

We woke to the sound of the waves and soon were in the rhythm of packing up our camp.  It was cool and cloudy and remained so for most of the day. Our first 6km were through the small rural lanes but then we had a 25km stretch on QL1. Unfortunately today there were no river ferries so it was back to having to cross some rivers on the main roads. It wasn’t quite as bad first thing in the morning compared to yesterday afternoon but was still pretty unpleasant.  However, needs must and ploughed on at a pace.  At one point it started raining and for the first time on the trip we put on our rain jackets – although it only lasted a few minutes.

A stop to buy oranges.

At last we turned off the main road and were back on small roads passing through small villages.  However, the road surface was pretty bad for much of the time so it was hard work on the legs and slow going at times. The scenery was not very inspiring and we were finding the usual yelling by school children had become annoying rather than charming! All in all I was feeling tired and a little gloomy!

David – very briefly – in his rain jacket for the first time!

We had done about 70km by 1ish so we weren’t doing badly. I spotted a sign for tea/coffee and we decided we were in need of a proper stop and sit down. We laughed as we entered as it turned out to be the side entrance to the  lobby of the Diamond Palace hotel – which we had seen on the map earlier and laughed at the time that we could stay there. It was something of a monstrosity with lots of fake marble. Tea?  No tea.  Cappuccino?  No Cappuccino.  In spite of the extensive menu they only had plain coffee. We decided to risk it, even though the coffee we had had in the last couple of days was almost undrinkable.  Here though the Diamond Palace came good and the coffee was delicious.  Not only that it packed an incredible caffeine punch which had us whizzing along and in much better spirits when we set off again! Suddenly the scenery seemed more interesting and life on a trike seemed better again.

One of the amazing things about Vietnam – or at least what we have seen so far – is how populated it is and how every available space is cultivated. Even small patches of ground in front of houses is often planted with a few vegetables, lettuces and herbs. We passed a huge variety of vegetable fields, lots of rice as always, and a number of fish farms.  We were often running along side the sea but could rarely see it as there were banks holding it at bay.  The glimpses on this cloudy day were of slate grey seas, more reminiscent of the UK!  It felt like time for some sunshine again.

Traditional Vietnam meets modern Vietnam – unaccompanied bullocks on a brand new road bridge!

There was a small range of hills before the final bay of our destination. Our small road wound around the edge of the hills, by the sea, and we were spared climbing.  However, the road was in the process of being widened. Luckily it was reasonably far advanced so although there was no paving yet and some parts were very bumpy, most of it was smooth and hard packed.  In fact the rollers were out rolling the road and we could ride where they had just flattened.  In the developed world, the road would have been closed, but here the traffic was allowed to navigate the half completed road.  To be fair, it was only a handful of motorbikes and us!  We just weaved around the road works and the tractors and no one seemed too fussed.

One final short section of the QL1 to cross a bridge and we were turning to the seaside resort of Cua Lo. This was also somewhat of a dissapointment. It was a large concrete town that was very much out of season and mostly closed.  The hotel we had booked had done a good job on its photos (and probably fake reviews) as it was gloomy and rather grimy.  But after 108km we were too tired to try and find somewhere else.  At least it turned out to have a great hot shower. 

Fishing boats awash with colour

So not every day on a lengthy trip can be a fantastic day and I would say that this one was not one of our best – but not the worst and at least we found out that the Diamond Palace hotel does great coffee.  We need something like that regularly peppering our route and we will be happy!

Day 50:Thursday 23rd February.  Phat Diem to a coastal campsite 50km south of Thanh Hoa: 98km.  Flat. 

Today was a day with many parts, all of them good except for cycling along the Vietmanese equivalent of the hard shoulder of the M1 – but more of that later.

We woke in our very nice hotel room – with a kettle – and sipped tea in bed.  We had both slept pretty solidly (the effect of 100km cycling the previous day) and did not feel like rushing.  There is an imperative to leave as early as possible when it is hot, but the weather here is cloudy and it is overcast all day, so the afternoons are fine.  All that meant we struggled to get out of bed, get our breakfast (last of the muesli bought in Nong Khiaw, Laos) and get on the bikes.  Being a posh(ish) hotel, they did not “get” cycling.  As Bernie checked out the woman at the desk asked where she was going today and, on being told we were heading for somewhere south of Thanh Hoe, offered to call for a taxi for her!  The idea that we might voluntarily wish to cycle that distance was utterly alien to her (and to lots of people we suspect – perhaps even a few readers of this blog).  Anyway the offer was politely declined and we got on our way on our trikes.

The road out of the cathedral town was flat and busy with local traffic, but not too bad.  We picked up the pace with a bit of a following wind and ambled through a series of towns and villages on the road between Phat Diem and Thanh Hoa.  The route took us off the main road, and past a series of recently constructed houses.  The dates are often prominently stated on the external brickwork and so we could see that many were built in the last decade and others were under construction.  This area appears to be a mixed agricultural area with smaller scale commercial factories, and it is clear that the economy is doing well – at least for some.  

We have developed some very informal (amd totally unevidenced) indicators of health and wellness (financial and otherwise) in an area.  The first is whether there are lots of people riding motorbikes without helmets.  More helmets indicates looking after oneself better, better education and greater prosperity (because, for those who know and understand, it is an insane choice to ride at 60mph without one). In this area, there was a low level of helmetless on bikes.  Perhaps – we feel – where people have a choice, wearing a helmet indicates a degree of solidity consistent with a sound economy.

The second indicator is the number of babies being looked after by older children, which indicates that parents need to work gets a higher priority than nurturing the next generation.  Very common in Laos and nearly unseen here.  

The third indicator is the state of the major roads.  Better roads in an area indicates a better economy – or a local authority with the money to fix potholes and put down decent surfaces.  That is a slightly dodgy indicator because, if applied in the UK, Shropshire would be an area of great poverty (and not just relative and often rural poverty in pockets – which of course it is).  Here the state of the roads does seem to be an indicator of the wealth of an area where all the major roads are in good condition.

Proceeding on good roads took us to NGa Thanh after about 35km and it was time for a bakery and coffee.  The town delivered with a wonderful bakery where we got doughnuts, small pizzas for lunch and baggettes.  Coffee was disappointing, but that is down to how they make coffee here and the fact that it is almost all drunk cold with ice cubes.  The doughnuts were the best part of that stop!

After another 15km we reached the QL1, the dual carriageway which runs from Hanoi city to Ho Chi Minh city – Vietnam’s M1 and M6 rolled in together.  Bikes are not barred from most of the route (only selected parts) and so we joined the hard shoulder to cross the massive Nam Ma River – just before it flows into the South China Sea.  It was strange being back on the fringes of Thanh Hoa because (as avid readers will recall) this is where the bus from Laos ended up and where we spent a night before getting another bus to Hanoi – just a few short weeks ago.  Getting back to Thanh Hoa – but this time on our trikes – felt like a small achievement.  We headed for “Big C”, the only Vietnamese hypermarket.  We had a shopping list of specific items (oats for breakfast, small scissors, instant coffee ..) all of which we had failed to find so far in Vietnam.  We found them all in 20 minutes, paid up and were back on our trikes.  I take back all my complaints about Walmart and LeClerc in France – there are times when having everything under one roof is great.

Typical street scene

We cycled another 15km or so and then it was 12.30 and so time for a lunch break.  Trouble was that for km after km there was nowhere to sit which would not get instantly surrounded by inquisitive (and deeply irritating) school children constantly asking “What is your name” – they know the question but not how to deal with the answer so just the question again!  Eventually we found a side road with a wall we could sit on and no children in sight.  The pizzas from the bakery were devine but the absence of school children lasted about 30 seconds.  They just seem to appear from nowhere – but this lot were strangely reticent and just looked – more accurately stared with open mouths – and then went round teh corner, only to reappear a few seconds later.  But we had the cynicism taken out of us when one young chap appeared with two bottles of cold mint tea with lemon – thrust them into our hands and ran off.  He later reappeared and offered us a place out of the sun in his restaurant, but we were just packing up then.  He got a selfie with us – lots of smiles as the iced tea was really refreshing and we will look out for it in future.

Fishing boats – moored during the day and they fish at night

Soon after that we hit the QL1 for about 20km.  The noise perhaps got to us most – constant lorries all of whom feel it necesary to sound very loud horns to let us know they were overtaking us – when the lorries were almost invariably in the outside lane and we were on the hard shoulder.  There was, of course, the constant flow of motorbikes coming the wrong way along the hard shoulder towards us.  Convention seems to be that the bike going the right way moves to the right into the carriageway to create space – but not when there is a massive truck coming up behind us in that lane!  The only near accident was when a woman with a child on the back of her motorbike joined the QL1 from a side road without looking.  Accident narrowly avoided, words exchanged but she seemed genuinely surprised that anyone else could possibly be on the road = so why look (or at least that was my interpretation of her words)!

We left the QL1 just south of the Song Yen river bridge and crossed into a different world.  There was a network of tiny streets (bikes but no cars), villages and coastal frontages so close to the motorway but totally untouched by it.  The river flows into the sea and creates an estuary which is a natural harbour for fishing boats, and the inland section is timeless.  We passed paddy fields with rice more mature than further north and a woman leading a bullock whilst her husband operated the wooden plough behind it.  It was idyllic, especially after the hard shoulder of the QL1.

After 15km we rolled up to a seaside “campsite” – as marked on googlemaps.  It was a basic area with some limited facilites.  At first the people we spoke to, who spoke some English, suggested charging us 200,000Dong to camp for the night – about £15.  Bernie just laughed and said that was ridiculously expensive and to our astonishment they agreed, and said we could camp for nothing!  So I am writing this with a beer – purchased in lieu of a camping fee. 

The beach is undeveloped and stretches for miles in each direction.  It is totally unspoilt but does not appear in any guidebook.  It is supposed to be the best beach in the region – and we could see why.  It gets very busy with Vietnamese in the summer but this is mid-week in winter and so visitors are thin on the ground.  It suits us well and is a great place to end a fascinating day of many contrasts.

We got back into the swing of camping again. We lugg around all our camping equipment, mainly as an insurance in case we end up not getting somewhere with a guesthouse or hotel. So we have not used it much but on every trip our camping days are often some of our best days. Strolling along the vast empty beach with a cuppa brewed on our (new) stove was wonderful.  Cooking up our simple meal looking out over the waves produced a meal that seemed more delicious than its simple ingredients alone. Soon we will be cuddled into sleeping bags lulled to sleep by the sea. Every day different with its own character. We will see what tomorrow brings.

The homeward journey

Day 49. Wednesday 22nd February.  Dem Dien to Phat Diem. 100km.  Flat. 

Today was a complete contrast to yesterday.  Apart from cycling off Cat Ba island, all of yesterday was through urban areas.  Today was all rural or small towns and villages. 

We were heading South West across the Red River delta but this time we clocked that there were some ferry crossings across some of the large rivers.  This meant we did not have to have a route dictated by bridges and main roads.  The ferries were small boats for local traffic, with fewer lorries or buses.  The brilliant Kamoot app plotted us a route between the ferries (but couldn’t cope with the ferry crossings themselves so David divided the route up.)

From the off we were cycling on tiny roads. The area is a mass of rivers and canals so most of the day we were cycling by water. Venice has nothing on this web of waterways (apart from the fantastic buildings and a bit more of a chequered history – and more money of course). Sometimes we were on tiny tracks weaving through paddy fields, sometimes passing through small towns and villages.  Judging by the reactions of those we passed, foreigners were not often seen in these parts and perhaps never on trikes.

The one disadvantage of being so rural was the lack of coffee shops! We have found it impossible to find instant coffee, only the 3 in 1 mixes, so although we had a kettle in our room we had to stick to tea.  After an hour and a half I was gasping for a cup of coffee and miraculously as we passed through a slightly larger town, David spotted a coffee shop.  Truth be told, the coffee was not very nice but it gave us the caffeine boost we craved!

In one village we created a bit of a stir when we stopped to buy tomatoes and some fresh mint from a tiny shop.  Soon people were gathered round admiring the trikes, smiling and laughing.  David invited a young man to sit on the trike for a photo, and his smile was as wide as the street.  We like to think we spread a bit of joy as we go along.

We reached the first ferry and were relieved that it did exist. The ferry was loading with a couple of cars and a small lorry as we arrived, and we bumped straight on up the ramp. A few moments later we were bumping off. Cost – less than 50p for both of us.

The ferry was powered by a boat straight out of the war in the 19960s and 1970s – probably ex US army issue.

We came across few coffee shops and very few open restaurants but today we were prepared on the food front.  I can confirm that cheese triangles (the nearest we found to real cheese) with tomatoes and fresh mint in a baguette are delicious. We had these for second breakfast alongside one canal and also for lunch,along with a lovely orange.  The oranges here are very tasty – easy to peel and full of flavour.  Not the same as at home.

Impromptu lunch seats

As we set off after lunch streams of teenagers appeared on bikes and motorbikes (some electric, some petrol) making their way to afternoon school.  Teenagers the world over see the world differently to everyone else.  They can, on occasion, be delightful but they have the capacity to be a touch irritating and this remains the same in Vietnam. Groups of motorbikes hung on our shoulder while teenagers giggled and laughed and cut in front and behind us calling ‘hello’ and ‘what is your name’. We tried to remain smiley but eventually, after one group of girls almost ploughed into me, I jammed on the brakes and waved them away.  In fairness, they did all then move on! 

The road wove between large waterways and, on one stretch, we saw rusted ship after rusted ship.  This was a ship cemetery – or a breakers yard to be more exact.  There must be access to the sea and this is where ships end up after their final voyage.  The sound of hulls being broken up filled the air – this is difficult and dangerous work, with a high possibly of releasing pollutants and so it only happens in the developing world.

Ships ready for breaking and a church in the background

Legs were beginning to tire as the afternoon wore on but we were also blessed that there was a fair wind behind us much of the time. We crossed one river on an enormous bridge that seemed to go straight up then straight down (fun going down the other side) and soon after that we came to our second river ferry.  Again we arrived just as it was setting off and this time there was no charge (or maybe they just let us off because we weren’t a car or a motorbike). This one disgorged onto a road that was barely paved so was definitely just for local traffic!

It was then just 7.5km to Phat Diem. We had read in the guidebook about a large cathedral here. This whole area of coastal northern vietnam is something of a Christian enclave, as a result of the Portuguese who came here in the C17.  98% of the population here is said to be Christian, and to be regular attenders at church.   All day we had seen huge churches sprouting above the paddy fields. The cathedral at Phat Diem is meant to be the pinnacle of them all so we decided it should be worth seeing – we weren’t disappointed. It was an amazing building. To the front was a large stone bell tower in Vietnamese style, which in turn was in front of a lake – much more like a temple than a church.  Behind this the cathedral proper through huge wooden doors.  The nave had huge wooden pillars and an ornately carved wooden ceiling.  There was a glittering altarpiece at the far end of the nave, and the priests were just setting up for mass. Wooden doors opened up the length of the walls to allow cool air to circulate in the summer months. It was stunningly beautiful and unlike any cathedral we’ve ever seen. 

We then set out to find somewhere to stay.  Not being a tourist area there was not much choice but in a toss up between a grotty but reasonably priced hotel and an expensive hotel with nice rooms we opted for the latter. For dinner we found a ‘buffet’  – here you sat on the floor with a low table where there was a round heated plate on which to cook a variety of meats, topped off with a large bowl of salad. We probably ate more meat this evening than we have in total for the last month! Good to have topped up our protein quotient!

Day 48: Tuesday 21st  February:  Cat Ba to Dem Dien: 95km and 300m of climbing

So what happened today?  Well quite a lot really, starting with 20km going north on Cat Ba Island to get to the ferry across to the mainland.  It was a lovely cycle along the island coastal road, with lots of small hills (some quite steep) and sweeping descents on good roads where we picked up speed.  We arrived not knowing when the next ferry would arrive but there was one within about 15 minutes.

Children arriving for school – all on motorbikes

We met up with a multi-national group on an adventure holiday (kayaking, walking, cycling and generally having a good time).  There were Brits, Aussies and an American.  We worked hard to try not to give the impression that their highly organised and managed adventures were any less exciting than our totally disorganised and unpredictable adventures, but they were clearly slightly amazed, a little worried and a touch in awe that we could set off not having booked accommodation in advance, or that we just made up our own routes for cycling. Having done this for so many years we are perhaps immune to the way our trips seem to others.  They have a point of course, and it was made very gently, but since we have often been the only guest occupying a room in a hotel, having nowhere to stay seems low down on the list of our problems.  One of the party was an Australian OT who specialised in burns, and could not resist asking if she could give me some advice about my burns, and it was very good advice indeed.  She also said they were healing very, very well and that I must have a strong immune system.  I agreed saying that I was indeed immune to most human emotions.

The port was not the mainland but another island, which had a deep water port for massive container ships.  There are a series of container ports in the Haiphong area, hence all the lorries carrying containers we have seen in recent weeks.   There was also a series of yards where containers were stored, presumably ready for the next ship to Rotterdam, Harwich or wherever or empty and waiting to go to a factory to be filled with more stuff “Made in Vietnam”.  The lines of containers went on for mile after mile.  

There was a massive bridge from Dao Cat Hai (Hai Island) to the mainland, and also a cable car running all the way from the mainland to Cat Ba island.  This was not working today but it must be at least 100m high and we were told that it was a very popular attraction in the summer, with views across to Halong Bay.  The road then took us in a loop to the north of Haiphong city – which is the third largest city in Vietnam, with a population of over 2 million.  It was busy, dusty and had the usual jumble of motorbikes, cycles, cars and lorries as well as polluted air.  Having said that, the city had a pleasant feel to it and was not as frantic as Hanoi.

We stopped for coffee and the young woman who served us made a huge fuss – we were her only customers at that point.  Sadly, the coffee was not quite up to the welcome but was still drinkable.  We then posed for pictures outside on our trikes (no doubt for a Facebook page) and bid our farewells – as if we had stayed with her for weeks.

Urban roads

We then struck South – and will carry on going South until we give up and get a bus to the airport on 12 March.  Being a delta area, it was flat but our route was dictated by the presence of non-motorway bridges which we could use to get across the rivers.  

The road was busy and mostly urban, so one part felt like another.  At one point a young man on a motorbike followed us closely and rode beside us, filming us on his phone.  That is not too unusual but he kept going for a long time and caused traffic chaos.  Trucks overtook him (and us) and were forced onto the other side of the road causing motorbikes coming the other way to cling to the side of the road.  We were very worried that a combination of our presence and his response would lead to an accident but eventually he waved and rode off.  We breathed a sigh of relief and pulled in for a rest beside a strange looking building that could have been a church, a hotel or a setting for a gothic horror show.  It was boarded up so you can make up your own mind what it is – my vote is for the last option.

French C19 style but what was it built for?

But then the young man arrived again – he had gone to buy bottled drinking water for us.  We had plenty but accepted his gifts.  He spoke no English and we spoke no Vietnamese – so we exchanged smiles, he took selfies and off he went.  Just another small encounter in the day.

We had toyed with going further but stopped at the town of Dem Dien, found a hotel and arranged a room for less than £10 for the night.  Then out to a lovely supper of fried rice, beef and vegetables and back to the room to read (and write this blog).  It feels good to be back on the trikes.

Day 47. Monday 20th February.  Boat Trip Lan Ha Bay and Ha Long Bay.

We woke to our first clear skies since being in Vietnam and the beautiful view over the harbour from our floor to ceiling hotel window. After breakfasting at the hotel we were picked up to take us to the ‘tourist harbour’ for our boat trip.  On the way the driver picked up a young British couple who had recently graduated and were teaching English in Haiphong for a couple of months.  Haiphong is one of the main cities just onto the mainland.  It was so sweet as they explained that they had only met 2 weeks ago when they were 2 out of 3 new “teachers” on this scheme, but were now (or so it seemed) taking tentative steps as a couple.

As we know, we are not always good with organised tours (due to adverse reactions to being shepherded about), but mostly today was fine because nothing could detract from the amazing landscape.  The boat held about 30 people and was comfortable with plenty of shade, although with the exception of one other grizzly Canadian (who only seemed to speak about the cost of things and his lack of money) we were 30 years older than anyone else.  We felt a bit as if we were gatecrashing the youngsters party boat, but no one seemed to mind.  Soon we were weaving past the enormous kaste rocks rearing vertically upwards out of the sea.  The boat took us past a ‘floating village’ – wooden structures built on to pontoons made from barrels – housed 500 families.  We were told that a daily boat delivers fresh water and picks up the children for school on the island.

After an hour or so we turned into a bay and we all transferred into kayaks.  Here we saw the youngsters who could paddle and those with no sense of direction.  There were a young German couple who just did not get it – really, really did not get it, and veered one way and then the other as they paddled along.  It was hard work for them but amusing for us as we just ambled along in a more or less straight line.

We paddled for about an hour under natural arches in the rocks, through tunnels and in and out of beautiful bays.  It wasn’t exactly getting away from it all, as there were several other tour boats following exactly the same itinerary, so there were hundreds of yellow kayaks in the bay.  But there was no other way of seeing this unique landscape. 

Back on the boat we compared notes on our kayaking skills.  A young Israeli couple, who were on honeymoon, did not seem enamored with the experience.  The woman, who to be fair did not look like a natural athlete, said it was all too much hard work for a “lady on honeymoon”.  That comment left everything to the imagination (and of course we did not inquire further).

I think this was the setting for part of a James Bond film – if anyone knows which one, please let us know via a comment!

The boat then chugged off to moor in a sandy bay where a delicious lunch was served on board and we chatted to the British couple we had met in the taxi and to the Israeli couple. Then it was swim time – we duly jumped off the boat straight into the water without knowing how cold it was –  David from the top of the boat and me from the lowest possible part!  As we landed in the briney, we discovered that the water was pretty cold so we didn’t swim for long.

We then started to wend our way back and had a bizarre stop at a ‘fish farm’ – a floating shed with pens of different fish who jumped about when fed. Again we coincided with about 4 other tour boats so it was all a bit chaotic and we never gathered the point of it…..but they weren’t trying to sell us anything so presumably they thought it was of genuine tourist interest. 

Late afternoon sun

The last section back was lovely in the late afternoon sun and we were even provided with tea and biscuits.  A great day to see a really unique place.

The sun setting – from our hotel room

We were tired by the time we got back but our thoughts have turned to getting back on the bikes to continue our journey.   David fiddled with his gears, got the hooters working again (our first line defence against dogs) and I did washing, filtered water for our water bottles and some sorting.  Between us we think we are ready for the next stage but will only know when we get on the bikes tomorrow.

Day 46:  19th February: Tuan Chau Island, Ha Long Bay to Cat Ba, Cat Ba island: 23km.

We woke, packed up quickly, and made our way the few hundred metres to the ferry terminal to take the public ferry to Cat Ba island- the cheapskates way of getting a boat through this magical area.  The ferry left at 8.30am and hence more or less on time – this was not Laos.  It was a tiny RoRo car ferry which was similar to the ferries that cross between Scottish islands.  There were some other cyclists (locals I think but no common language so we could not do more than thumbs up), lots of motor bikes (of course, a few cars and enough room for a bus in the middle.  The route took us between the uninhabited karst islands – lumps of rock emerging from the sea with vegetation clinging to the sides and on top.

We met two free spirit women who were originally from Liverpool – a social worker and a yoga teacher – who were travelling together in Vietnam and Cambodia to celebrate their 60th birthdays.  Husbands did not fancy the rucksack life so, good to them, they were off for adventures on their own, and having a great time.  There were also a group of well dressed Chinese young women – posing for group photos and selfies and behaving just as we would expect.  We must seem so scruffy to them!

The boat slipped through channels between the amazing Karst structures, giving us all a great views in the emerging morning light.  It was overcast but not raining, as we watched numerous other with unidentified cargos boats negotiating passages through the narrow channels.  It had rained overnight but we have still not got our raingear out of the panniers.  We might get through this whole trip without using it – what a waste of effort that would have been to carry it!

We arrived at the northern port of Cat Ba island after an hour and cycled off the ferry.  Navigation from here was not a challenge as there was only one road, but in reasonable condition.  The karst structures that dominated the seascape equally dominated the landscape, coming up from the valleys. This was all a national park and the vegetation was thick and undisturbed, starting at the edge of the road and going up at precipitous angles to the top of the mountains.  We had 22 km to cycle and enjoyed the ride.

Half way along we stopped to visit some caves.  These were created when the sea level was higher and tidal flows pushed vast quantities of water into and out of the stone structures on a daily basis, finding small gaps and then expanding them.   A 300m path had been created through the cave structure, with the ceiling being so low at some points that Bernie had to duck.  I was not quite on my hands and knees but almost so. We saw the usual cave features – stalactites and stalagmites – and some evidence that bats were present in the caves, but no bats.

The final 10km into the town involved a few hills and it was starting to get warm, so that produced a veneer of sweat as we struggled up the steep slopes.  Then we swept down into the inhabited areas, starting with a place called “Hospital Cave” which we did not visit but understand that caves were used to develop a complete subterranean hospital service during the war.  

The Cat Ba town sits at the southern end of the island, with a westerly facing bay.  It is famed for its sunsets but not on overcast days like today.  Like Tuan Chau Island, it has had huge amounts of investment in recent years to develop a tourist infrastructure. It has not been done in too unsympathetic a way, albeit large hotels are never that beautiful.  It could have been Cornwall, except that the temperature was high enough in the winter not to need a jumper.

We checked into our hotel and decided that a combination of the need for another day’s recuperation and the beautiful surroundings meant that we were not looking to rush away from here.  That means we could book a full day’s boat tour for tomorrow and not need to rush to experience the wider bay area today.

Later in the afternoon we walked along the bay, across a headland and saw the town’s beaches – imaginatively called Cat Co 1, Cat Co 2 and (you will be knocked over to learn) Cat Co 3.  There was a delightful cliff walk between Cat Co 1 and Cat Co 2, but again this was not Cornwall.  The path was fully paved with steps where needed all along the 2 mile stretch.  It had lovely views across the bay and was a very civilised stroll.  There was a glimpse of the sun but no sunset – maybe tomorrow.

We met up with our scousers for a drink in the evening (by chance – this is a small place) and retired to the room by about 8.30.  Although there are places which accommodate the need for Western tourists to party all night, the Vietnamese eat early and appear to retire early, and to start the following day early.  That suits us fine as it gives time to read, recover and prepare for the next day.

Day 45.  18th February.  Hai Duong to Tuan Chau Island, Ha Long Bay. 95km.

We didn’t seem to have too many ill effects after cycling yesterday – 11 hours in bed may have helped! We set off through Hai Duong and found a prettier part of town as we made our way towards the bridge over the river.  We successfully found an ATM but were less successful in finding a large supermarket that might sell instant coffee (as opposed to the mixed packets of coffee, creamer and sugar that are ubiquitous here but to our taste disgusting).

At the bridge we had to filter on to the AH14 highway – a busy motorway-type road but with a wide shoulder and good road surface.  In fact we were on this for the next 20km. We were crossing the Red River delta heading eastwards so our route was defined by bridges over numerous rivers. We sped along the motorway, which wasn’t too busy, and ate up the Kms at a rate of about 20km an hour – fast for us and definitely much faster than when we started last month in Bangkok.

At last we turned off the motorway but we were still in industrial heartland, passing numerous belching factories along the river tributaries. The air quality was pretty unpleasant.  This is just as much ‘real’ Vietnam as the quaint alleyways of yesterday – every country has its industrial areas. When we buy something in the UK which is marked “Made in Vietnam”, these are the type of factories that are producing the goods.

Made in Vietnam

Towards the end of the morning we crossed the last river then turned South East along the side of some hills. It was still a main road but more of an ‘A’ road size, passing through towns.  In fact virtually the whole day was continuously inhabited as one town merged into the next.

After 60km we  reached Uong Bi where we sought out the Vietnam-Sweden friendship community hospital. There we found a small Emergency Department to ask if they could take out the sutures on my forehead as the 7 days were up.  We walked straight in (no problem with 4 hour waiting targets here) and it took David some explaining using google translate (and despite looking at his healing burns, we convinced them that no, he didn’t need a full check up). They wanted my passport, date of birth and numerous details about our trip including a permanent place of residence in Vietnam.  However, once they realised was that all we wanted was suture removal, I was whisked into a clinical room and they quickly removed the sutures in a sterile environment.  

There was no question of a formal “bill”.  We were told the cost was 500,00 VND (about £17.50).  The nurse insisted we pay him before leaving the room and he tucked the notes into his pocket before ushering us out of the department forthwith!  I suspect our visit remained unregistered and I hope the money was put towards their christmas party fund (or equivalent)! We really didn’t mind.  I was just very happy that it looked as if the nurses in Laos had done a good job with the suturing.

I have made an interesting observation which I think is a new symptom post-concussion.  I am thinking of writing it up as a case study for the Lancet with a cohort of one.  This is the symptom of Pizzaphilia – the urge to want to eat Pizza (and nothing else will quite do).  Neither of us have had much appetite since the accident but Pizza seems to have hit the spot.  Therefore, after the hospital visit, we found a Pizza place and had good cheesy Pizza.  It seems a scandal when the food in Vietnam is so fabulous.  There must be something about wanting home comfort food in times of stress.  Hopefully now we are almost fully recovered we will ditch Pizza and move on to Pho.

We had 30km to cover after lunch.  The road was tedious and we were tired and finding it hard going.  However, our fitness kicked in and kept our legs turning even when the rest of the body and mind wanted to stop.  The last section towards Halong Bay city turned into a 6 lane highway but at last we turned onto the bridge to Tuan Chau island, where we hope to get a ferry across Halong Bay to Cat Ba island tomorrow. 

We chugged the last few Kms across the island to check on the ferry times then found ourselves a small hotel – basic but clean. There seems to have been an explosion of building here in the last few years, but at the moment hardly any tourists.  We are off season for this part of Vietnam (as it is largely cloudy and relatively cool) but read that it gets packed in the summer. 

When we went out later to find something to eat there were virtually no restaurants open.  There was one large posh hotel doing and expensive buffet but we felt neither dressed for the occasion or that hungry. We walked to the end of the road and were pausing to turn round when suddenly I felt an arm round my shoulder pulling me away.  Luckily I did not karate chop my assailant – he was just pulling me away from standing under a coconut tree full of coconuts.  This is apparently a very dangerous thing to do with more people being killed each year by being hit by falling coconuts than being killed sharks.  I was jolly glad from being saved from that eventuality having just had my sutures removed!

As we wandered back wondering what we could find to eat, we passed a small  place that had filled with (local) people since we first passed it. They had put on a different buffet – a tin tray and selection of 6 or so dishes with a large dollop of steamed rice.  Perfect – just what we wanted for a 10th of the price! We could end the day replete after all. 

Day 44:  17 February :  Hanoi to Hai Duong:  65km and naff all climbing

We decided to leave Hanoi on Friday 17 February as we both felt we wanted to be back cycling after a week off the bikes. Bernie woke feeling a little out of sorts, but still wanted to get going so we agreed to try a shorter day as we rode towards Halong Bay.  It was overcast and getting out of the city was a challenge – but then getting out of all major cities on a bike is a challenge!  At one point our Kamoot route took us along a narrow walkway next to an elevated railway track for about 3km.  This was just wide enough for 2 motorbikes and they streamed past us, not clipping our wheels but often not far away.  Eventually we got the other end – great relief.  However, we would never have found it without Kamoot and it got us out of the main city and across the Red River very quickly.

Small streets on the way out of Hanoi

We then followed the route through the “suburbs” but these were not rows of semi-detached houses.  We went past factories, motorways, universities and an area full of heavy goods vehicles.  After about 20km we stopped for coffee at “Bobby’s Coffee Shop” which was a modern (and packed)  coffee establishment in the heart of an industrial estate.  The coffee was excellent of course.  

And then we came across this lovely coffee shop in urban wasteland

The route then took us along back roads (and on one occasion a track that was not a road) past paddy fields, factories, little towns and rubbish heaps.  This area is a delta and every square metre is either built upon or farmed.  At one point we joined a road that seemed to have an endless stream of articulated lorries carrying containers, no doubt heading for a sea port.  We were pleased to get onto a smaller road and then stopped at a bakery to get stuff for lunch.

The only bit of the route with no tarmac – not a long section

We stopped at the edge of the village to eat our lunch and, of course, were joined by children. Western tourists seem pretty rare here – Western tourists on bikes are rarer and I suspect they had never seen trikes before.  They played around us, enjoying the novelty of us being there but not knowing how to communicate – and short of googletranslate there probably was no way of communicating.  But we were pleased to see them and they seemed pleased by the distraction we provided – and that is enough.

A final 15km and then into the town of Hai Duong.  Not in any guidebook but half a million people live here.  It is a functional town – not pretty but not ugly.  It feels as if virtually all of the town was built in the period since the war ended in 1975.  This is not an affluent place but there is also little evidence of poverty.  It is a Vietnamese Milton Keynes.

We found a hotel and went out for a vegetarian – cook it yourself on the table – dinner.  It was great and we are in bed by 7.30pm.  We are both pretty tired as we are asking our 60+ year old bodies to cycle long distances and keep healing.  There are times when our bodies are not quite up to our ambitions but they do their best and we respect them for that!  We shall have to see if we can do the 90km to Halong Bay tomorrow.

Days 42 and 43:  15th and 16th February: Hanoi

It was great to wake early but then snuggle back down and emerge again at a lazy pace. Eventually we stirred ourselves enough to take some washing to the laundry round the corner.  The apartment is in the heart of the Old Quarter so we strolled some of the streets until we came across a bakery for breakfast with good coffee and delicious fresh croissants which we could see baking on the premises. 

Back at the apartment I rested while David went to a bike shop to sort out some things. Then off for a longer stroll through the small streets of the Old Quarter.  It was pretty touristy in some parts but there were also a myriad of small businesses spilling on to the street.

We found a good pizza restaurant with the pizzas made and cooked in front of us and struck up conversation with a British couple next to us. Turned out we were politically like minded so we were soon putting the world to rights!

An uneventful day – but that was the point. Rest and recovery still the order of the day.

The next day we still didn’t feel in the mood for formal sightseeing but we still  had some shopping to do before leaving Hanoi so we did our own alternative bike tour of Hanoi. We left the lovely apartment on our trikes in the middle of the morning after Bernie had done some filming for Bien, extolling the virtues of the place.  I hope it means he can rent it out more although the criteria set by AirBnB for the filming appeared very strict and we are not sure that her contributions will be able to be used.

We needed camping stuff, notably a stove, to replace the stuff lost when the stove did its exploding trick. There was a Decathlon in the suburbs so we headed for it.  The route took us along a series of tiny roads, twisting our way through the back streets of Hanoi and showing us the under-belly of the city.  We passed numerous workshops all spilling into the street, tiny furniture stores, fresh meat on sale with no refrigeration (and lots of flies), laundries and shops selling things we could not identify.  Motorbikes were everywhere and there were virtually no cars.  There is a complete network of narrow backstreets that, in practice, cars cannot use and hence the motorbike is king.  

Eventually we joined a main road which took us to a modern shopping mall.  This was just like every other shopping mall across the world and we could have been in the Bull Ring in Birmingham (except the shoppers were perfectly dressed – apart from us of course).  Decathlon was hopeless as, in reality, it only sold clothes.  Bernie got a new swimsuit but the “camping” section had no stoves.  Vietnamese campers must go hungry.

So we consulted Mr Google and found a specialist shop supplying camping equipment who not only sold us a new stove and pots, but also had a pair of trousers that fitted Bernie- she is of course standard size here at 1m 50cm, and not treated as a midget by those who only seem to produce clothes for Amazonian goddesses.

Next we found somewhere selling pizza and filled up with one between us, and then went back to the apartment via the Ho Hoan Kiem lake, which is in a large park in the centre of the city.

That evening we were due to eat with Bien and his wife but they had gone to the hospital with their son, which was worrying and far more important.  So we ventured out and visited a “sky bar” where we had beer and wonderful spring rolls whilst looking out over the lights of the city.  Hanoi has a long history and we didn’t make the most of the visitor attractions but got a  feel of the hubbub or the old city.  Perhaps we will come back another time.

Days 38- 41 12th-15th February

Sitting down to write about the last few days, so much seems to have happened.  Looking back at the last entry seems an age away as so much has happened. I’m sitting in a friend, Colin Macfarlane’s, lovely apartment in Hanoi feeling very lucky that we have a great place to recuperate.

So to back track. The last blog was written before the evening of 11th. We went round the market in Sam Nuea in the late afternoon to stock up provisions for the next couple of days.  Fresh fruit and veg – avoiding the rats, mice, frogs and goodness know what other unmentionables that were on offer. We went out to eat for our final meal in Laos and bumped into some other tourists and we all joined together for a meal – a German couple we had met on the bus, an Israeli political scientist and a Belgium family with their 2 children.  However the evening felt uncomfortable and rather negative and after eating we made our excuses and left.

Returning to the room we started to pack up for the next day and David went to boil up the eggs as we usually do. We had an incident with the petrol stove that we think became faulty after bumping around on the bus. Bernie got a knock to the head that required some stitches at the local small hospital and we both had minor burns.  

The next day we were not sure that Bernie was 100% right and was a bit concussed so we sorted things out in Sam Neua and decided to take a few days off the trikes and move to Hanoi.  Our unease in staying Sam Neua was compounded by the fact that the whole situation at the hotel was extremely odd. There seemed to be a whole family of children there sleeping on a bed and sofas downstairs with no sign of any adults. The oldest child, maybe aged 16 (at most), was in charge and conveyed messages.  We were the only guests.  Goodness knows what was really going on.

Bernie did not feel up to cycling to the bus station (up a steep hill), so took a taxi to the bus station (with all the panniers) and David towed her trike the 2km and 70m climb up to the bus station.  The taxi driver thought this was highly amusing and chortled with laughter all the way.  One of the lovely things about Laos is how much the people laugh so although with half her brain she felt irritated that this was no laughing matter, the other half of her brain knew this was a cultural response and the taxi driver was very kind.

We arrived at 7.15, having been told to be there 7.30am and ready for an 8.30 bus.  David folded the bikes and brought the tickets. We met an American woman, Miran, who ran a business buying hand woven silk fabric and running weaving tours. 8.30am came and went but about an hour later the bus rolled in and the trikes were loaded onto the roof. It was a few stops later in the town before we were properly on our way an hour and a half late. The bus is not just for people but was clearly also for deliveries as we picked up various boxes and packages.

The bus made its way slowly to Vieng Xai – the place of the hideout caves of the Pathet Lao.  The was the centre of operations for the Lao fighters who took on and beat the might of the USA forces in the period up to 1975.  We stopped at a hotel and reversed round to the back for the next packages to pick up….. which included a live pig, all trussed up in a sack.  Even in our predicament we could not help laughing as the pig was winched up onto to the roof, squealing at top volume (sorry animal welfare enthusiasts, I know we should have not found it amusing and it must have been objectively awful for the pig).

We reached the border about 12.30, but this was such a small border crossing that it closes between noon and 1.30 for lunch. We were highly anxious about the border crossing because when we came to print out our visas we saw the David’s stated that he was female rather than male. Objectively the visa had been issued but he was objectively male!  We were terrified that a border official might highlight on this issue and object to his entry into the country – perhaps he should have worn a dress. It seemed to take an age for our passports to be stamped. At last the poker faced official gave the last stamps and handed over the passports and we were on our way.  The relief on David’s face as we sped into Vietnam will stay with Bernie for a long time.

The transformation into Vietnam was instantaneous. We realised we had become inured to the poverty of Laos but suddenly the road was good, the houses were proper houses, everything was vibrant and colourful, even the trees seemed greener. 

Suddenly the bus seemed much jollier. Our fellow passengers were chatty and laughing – only the American lady was a little irritated as, entirely understandably, we were running on “Lao time”, namely very late, and she wanted to get to Hanoi that night.  We had already decided that this would be too much for us and we would stop in Thanh Hoa.

Deliveries started to be dropped off when we came to the place where ‘Mrs Pig’ was being dropped off.  Mrs Pig was actually a very smartly dressed, slight woman with a young child. Just before her stop she leapt off the bus and picked up a wicker tube.  It soon became apparent that this was for the pig, which was not getting off at this stop. Amidst further squealing the bus guy tried to get the pig into the basket without success so Mrs Pig kicked off her flip flops, rolled up her sleeves, climbed onto the roof of the bus and worked with the bus boy to wrestle the pig into the basket….she’s clearly done this before. And this was all done without disturbing her lovely attire.  Oh that we had that skill!

The bus journey droned on and although it got very tedious, the good news was that Bernie was feeling somewhat better.  At last about 7pm, 12 hours after starting our journey in Sam Nuea, we arrived in Thanh Hoa. We checked into the nearest hotel opposite the bus station, got something to eat and collapsed in bed. 

The following day David slept in and was woken by Bernie at 8am – an almost unknown occurrence in our long marriage.  We then battled to get a new sim card for the phone so that it would work in Vietnam, and made our way to the northern bus station that served buses for Hanoi. That was about 8 km out of town and, when we arrived, it was very confusing as to how we worked out what was the right bus to Hanoi, whether it would take the trikes and how much it would cost.  Eventually we found a bus that claimed to be going to Hanoi and said they would take the trikes and us for the exorbitant fee of 1.2M dong – about £32.  We should have haggled but did not have the energy and so just agreed.  

Once on the bus, we realised it was a “sleeper” bus with sleeping seats.  These were pretty comfortable and made up for the fact the bus went mega slowly, looking out for passengers to pick up all the time and avoiding the toll roads.  It took about 4.5 hours to get to Hanoi and, once there, the bus drove around the outskirts rather than going into the centre (as Bernie had been promised).  No one else seemed to be getting off at Hanoi and we were “dumped” at an unscheduled stop on the outskirts with the trike and all our panniers on the side of what felt like a motorway.  We had 8km to cycle to the city centre and this was the nearest we were going to get to being dropped in central Hanoi.  

Needs must and so we loaded up the panniers and went out into the traffic.  At first it seemed complete chaos – but we began to learn it was organised chaos which, after a fashion, worked.  The cars and motor bikes streamed past us (on both sides) and traffic on the main road gave way to traffic coming in from the right.  Hence, those joining the main road never looked to see if there was a gap in the traffic – there never was – so they just drove onto the main road and expected the existing traffic to give way (which it did in its own manner).  

After 8km we reached Hang Bong Street and met Bien and his wife, Lan, and their two children.  who are our hosts.  They have a sick son at the moment and so were wonderful to host us as well.  Bien provided supper to us and we learned what a lovely chap he is.  The apartment is owned by an Australian friend, Colin, with who we worked in the Walk for Life charity (providing services to correct club foot babies in Bangladesh).  We spoke to Colin in India on the phone – and then finished supper.

To say we were relieved to be in Hanoi was an understatement.  Travelling is different from normal life at home, and there is far more opportunity for things to go wrong.  The stove incident was an unexpected event  and we were hugely conscious that the outcome was not too serious for us.  It interrupted rather than ended our trip and we feel we will  back on the trikes in a few days.  We also got through the border without incident when, with a stricter border guard, it could have been far more difficult.  

Our first impressions of Hanoi are that it is a city in South East Asia with rich and poor.  There are plenty of well dressed people and plenty of people scratching a living on the sidewalk.  All life happens here – good and bad – and there are some things for the tourist, but this is not New Delhi or even Bangkok.  It is a crazy, humming, functional metropolis where there are tourists and there are facilities for us, but tourism is at the margins, not in the centre of what defines the city.  And in many ways we feel far more comfortable being in a city like that.  

It will be a great place to recuperate for a few days, to regroup and start again.  We went to bed expecting to sleep and were not disappointed.