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.
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.
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.