March 19 – 23, 2013 – After a nice afternoon in the best hotel in town and some fights at the breakfast buffet the next morning with a tour group of French retirees who couldn’t stop talking French to everybody we left relaxed knowing we only had about 50km to cycle. (I overheard a French conversation about the butter that was just finished. One of the ladies complained to one of her ‘colleagues’ that she told the waitress about the butter, but she would only speak Chinese or some other strange language….Good, morning, Vietnam!).
The landscape on the Ho-Chi-Minh highway didn’t really improve, we were still cycling through deforested undulating area on awful streets as the full 50km were under construction, hence another dust-swallowing ride next to trucks, buses and motorbikes. Besides we passed a lot of pubescent teenagers either walking or cycling to or from school, the girls giggling as soon as they saw us and the boys playing the cool ones by throwing stones at me or having much fun by first smiling nicely and as soon as I am next to them yelling ‘hello’ that I almost fall from my bike. Extremely funny!
Just before lunch time we arrived in Kon Tum, another laid-back town with not much to see other than two old wooden churches and some minority villages and we decided to stay two nights as the room would be two Dollars cheaper🙂. Are we getting lazy?!? The guesthouse we stayed at was a nice relaxed place in the city center with a pleasant garden and a bitch of an owner. We were told we would get breakfast, but the next morning the staff didn’t turn up and there wasn’t any breakfast. Which would not have been a big deal as we were allowed to bring in our own food. But when we saw that the bitch of an owner spoon-fed her three little dogs we first couldn’t believe our eyes and then got really annoyed.
Later that morning we cycled through some of the minority villages, which have at their centre a longhouse known as a rong. Built on sturdy stilts with a platform and entrance at either end, or sometimes in the middle, the interior is generally made of split bamboo and protected by a towering thatched roof, usually about 15m high. The rong is used as a venue for festivals and village meetings and as a village court at which anyone found guilty of a tribal offence has to ritually kill a pig and a chicken, and must apologize in front of the village.
After the refuelling-stops in Pleiku and Kon Tum we were ready and keen again to go on a longer and more challenging trip. We actually never really know how far we will cycle as the maps (both our paper map and google maps) are extremely inaccurate and there are discrepancies of as much as 60km in just one day! Today’s route had been really scenic on hilly roads (we were still in the central highlands) with an ever-changing landscape, scary suspension bridges we thankfully did not have to use, low traffic, nice villages with nice people and RAIN, just three kilometers before we arrived! It would pour down so heavily that we sought shelter at a small shop selling drinks and some other necessities. Our bikes were parked in some kind of a shed and we – dripping-wet – were offered hot tea and the usual mini-chairs inside. While sitting there and waiting for the rain to stop a few men were busy in the back of the house with some pigs, which made an awful lot of noise. We first thought they might slaughter them and hoped for not having to witness the process when two men suddenly passed, shouldering a huge pink pig upside down in an iron cage which didn’t give the poor pig any room to move. It was placed behind a motorbike and shortly after we left about 15 minutes later the motorbike passed with two huge pigs on the back, still alive but as silent as the moon, as we would say in German. At chilly temperatures of only slightly above 20 degrees we found a nice and clean guesthouse in Dak Glei, took a real shower – this time with soap – ate the usual rice with meat and vegetables and went to bed shattered as we had cycled 117km on heavily undulating roads.
And we didn’t know that the real challenge was yet to come. The further we went into the central highlands, the more deserted, the more scenic and beautiful the landscape became. While still a lot of buses overtook us the day before, there were almost none the following day: The day we passed two passes of more than 1,000m altitude. Holy Moly, what a ride! At times the roads were so steep that we didn’t manage to cycle, but had to push the bikes. I can tell you that’s no fun at all. The sweat dripped from our bodies as if we had just come out of the shower and more than once I had to tell myself: ‘We chose cycling over backpacking, we chose the difficult ‘off the beaten track route’ so don’t complain and enjoy the scenery’. I’ve been also thinking a lot about how we could reduce the weight we are carrying on our bikes as we currently don’t need our tent nor our cooking stuff, which is a lot of weight, but so far we haven’t come to a solution and just keep on carrying.
Two kilometers before arriving in the next village and after having mastered the two passes just before lunch my back wheel suddenly made strange noises. Click – clack – click – clack, but I couldn’t see anything when I stopped the first time. So I went on, but the noise got louder and I had a feeling already. So I checked a second time to confirm my thoughts, one of my spokes broke. Shute. This meant we would not be able to continue after lunch. So we just cycled into the village, ate, looked for a guesthouse and while handyman Johan repaired my bike in no time, I did some laundry and grocery shopping to be able to leave early the next morning.
We had a long day ahead, that’s the only thing we knew. We had to cycle far beyond 100km, as per our different map guesses about 120km. We did not know how many ascents and descents we had to overcome, we did not know how many times we had to stop for taking pictures and we had no clue about the road condition. But it turned out to become another fabulous day on the road. The first 60km we rode through the jungle, real jungle with huge trees, ferns and Tarzan-like liana all around us. Not only did we smell the jungle, we could hear it as well: birds and insects competing with each other in deafening concerts. The area was deserted with hardly any villages for about 60km and we were glad we had enough water with us. We passed waterfalls, cycled along gorgeous gorges and a river at times several hundred meters below the road and admired 2,000m high mountains covered in clouds and mystique fog.
Can you hear the jungle?
The afternoon continued less scenic as we started our descent eastwards to reach Hoi An at the sea. And as always after lunch, we had to climb. Thirty. Sweaty. Boiling. Minutes. With the sun at its peak, no shade, and a full tummy. And an immediate reward: as we were now cycling through pineapple plantations and it is pineapple season, and every 50 meters women sold the sweet fruits, we allowed ourselves a desert: one pineapple each, fresh from the field, and nicely cleaned and ready to eat.
And in theory the second part of the day might have been a piece of cake as we from now on only rode downwards, BUT the wind picked up, and guess what, Petrus decided to let the wind blow from the east for a change. Yeah! Right into our faces so our sweat would immediately dry! Double yeah! And on top we rode through Death Valley, with hardly any villages but one after the other cemetery. I lost count of it, but without exaggerating there were no two kilometers without one. For about 40km.
Despite the mountains and the elements we happily arrived before dusk at Hoi An. That day we cycled 133km with almost eight hours in the saddle. We were looking forward to some relaxing days on the beach and great food, as we read that Hoi An is the place to get the best Vietnamese food.
For those who are interested in seeing more photos of our trip, we’ve created our own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/BaerbelandJohan) where you’ll find more recent status updates and many more pictures.