March 24 – April 1, 2013 – Hoi An. Mhm. Bigger than we thought. Much more touristic than we expected. Most expensive Vietnamese place for us so far. And much less exciting as we had hoped. Despite the many tourists who come here for the colonial architecture and food we still liked it, especially at dark when all the Chinese lanterns are lit in the streets and trees as well as on and next to the river and the old town suddenly becomes a very mystique place. We found a nice hotel, of course above our budget, and a great restaurant serving deliciously prepared Hoi An specialties at reasonable prices such as cao lau, a bowlful of rice-flour noodles, bean sprouts and pork-rind croutons in a light soup flavored with mint and star anise, topped with thin slices of pork and served with grilled rice-flour crackers. Or banh bao (white rose), delicately flavored steamed manioc-flour parcels of finely diced crab or shrimp, with lemon, sugar and fish sauce, complemented by a crunchy onion-flake topping. A local variation of fried wontons using shrimp and crab meat instead of pork became our favorite dish. Yummy in my tummy!
We could have saved some money at the hotel by opting for the dorm, but when we arrived the lobby was full with backpacking teens and twens hanging around cooly in their even cooler outfits (meaning everyone – boys and girls – wearing close to nothing or hippie outfits) and half of them being injured from what we learned later nightly fights at the bar or motorbike accidents. We clearly noticed that we are too old to share a room with two handfuls of lads and chicks gone wild who could be our children. FAR TOO OLD! Did I already tell you that Johan turns 50 this year ;-))?
We stayed two lazy days in Hoi An, even went to the beach one late afternoon and surprisingly noticed that the water is really chilly, comparable with the North Sea in Europe, and as black. Hero Johan still went for a swim, wimp Baerbel enjoyed watching him from the sunbed. We also got ourselves new shorts sewn, within just a few hours the tailor made two exact copies of our old and worn out trousers for a few dollars. Fabulous!
Two lazy days were followed by another lazy day as we only cycled 30km to get to the next town, right before the pass which also happens to be the natural climate border in Vietnam with much cooler and wetter weather in the north (all we noticed so far is that it becomes more and more humid, as much that we are unable to get our clothes dried, which is a small disaster and we hope that our clothes don’t mold over the coming weeks). The pass wasn’t easy, we climbed the 10km for about 1.5 hours. Fortunately we could cycle all the way up, no pushing and walking as the climbs were around 10% and less. Still another sweaty affair and we were looking forward to the descent and lunch in the small town at the foot of the pass.
After lunch we climbed two more passes, this time much shorter and a piece of cake. By now we are by the way cycling on the infamous highway #1, which is known for its heavy traffic as it connects Saigon with Hanoi. So far traffic is OK and we have enough space as we ride on a wide shoulder, which we share with hundreds of cycling kids, cycling Vietnamese transporting everything from children, to chickens, to fish, to vegetables and whatever you can imagine; and of course with motorbikes, again transporting everything of all shapes and sizes. Sometimes we first see their huge tools (ladders or 20m long tubes) before there is a vehicle in sight. Funny and scary at the same time! And then we of course share the shoulder with the opposite traffic as you need to know that the only traffic rule that exists is that there are no rules. You just go with the flow, wherever you want, and don’t look where you ride, just honk all the time. People will hear you. Traffic is really mad! Not because there is too much traffic, but because everybody’s reckless behavior on the road. I am still trying to find out what the driver in front of me might do next, but there is even no rule to that. Yesterday I thought that they would always drive in the direction they are looking at as they never use their indicators. Failed! 100%! I just got cut by a woman on a motorbike who looked left but turned right in front of me…. By now I learned to give everyone on or in a vehicle a wide berth if I want to pass just to make sure I don’t get hit. This includes parked cars, a cyclist’s nightmare anyway, that a door just opens while you are riding next to it. Vietnam is reporting 12,000 casualties every year on the roads, which doesn’t really come as a surprise (to put this number into context: Germany reported just a bit more than 2,000 casualties last year). While this all sounds really scary, we learned our lessons in India, where there is much more traffic and cycling in Vietnam isn’t as bad as you would imagine now, as long as you just pay attention to everything that’s happening around you. And as we try to avoid busy highways anyway, secondary roads are almost empty with just a few other cyclists or motorbikes.
Some more pedaled kilometers north we again rested almost two full days in Hue to visit the old imperial city, beautiful garden houses and some famous tombs outside the city. A nice and lesser visited place, it seems that while we are going north the number of tourists decreases and Hue is one of the last stops for people taking a bus between Saigon and Hanoi. Leaving Hue we were able to also leave highway 1 and cycled through the countryside, the first day a pleasant and peaceful ride through rice paddies and farmland on perfect roads with hardly any traffic. Time to let our minds wander, for hours and hours and hours.
Same, same the second day, but then different. We slept in Dong Ha in a mini-hotel and had breakfast in a 3-star-hotel: our new strategy as breakfast in ‘star-hotels’ are usually good enough to satisfy our appetite until lunchtime and they are ridiculously cheap, usually between two and six dollars per person. That morning we even had a singer at breakfast (at about 6am), but I doubt he is famous. A Vietnamese guy, sitting with his earphones plugged into his smart phone and singing “Laindlops keep falling on my head”, at first relatively soft and I thought to myself he is maybe praying as it was Easter Sunday, but he became louder and louder and singing as wrong as you can imagine. Hilarious! He sung another song which we cannot remember. And it seemed that Johan and I were the only ones bemused about this singing. As you have to know we are in Karaoke land and every village has at least one Karaoke bar. So far we’ve been lucky and did not have to listen all night to wrong tunes.
Cycling was wonderful in the morning, we rode along the coast along sand dunes covered with pine forests. It felt like home, as the landscape was very similar to the North of the Netherlands. We took some pictures at the sea when we saw a crowd of about 100 people running on the beach and pointing to the sea. More and more people came from all sides and two men went into the sea to pull something out of it. As we were about 200m away we couldn’t see what it was and first thought it might be a huge stranded fish or a turtle, so we decided to leave our bikes and have a look as well. By the time we got closer the ‘thing’ was wrapped into a huge blanket and people walked away into the direction they came from. As a lot of people were laughing and talking all over the place we became even more curious and followed, when Johan suddenly said ‘this looks like human feet sticking out of the blanket’ as he caught a glimpse of ‘it’. And indeed, a very sad happening that morning, as we were told later. Three boys went swimming the other day and drowned and this morning they found the last missing corpse. We became very quiet for a while.
En route we visited a Vietnam war scenery, the famous Vinh Moc tunnels, an amazing complex of tunnels where over a thousand people sheltered, sometimes for weeks on end, during the worst American bombardments. For two years 250 people dug more than 2km of tunnel which housed villagers from 1967 until 1969. The tunnels were constructed on three levels at 10, 15 and 20-23m deep with good ventilation, freshwater wells and, eventually, a generator and lights. The underground village was also equipped with a school, clinics,and a maternity room where 54 children were born. Each family was allocated a tiny cavern, the four-person space being barely larger than a single bed. We couldn’t even stand upright in the tunnel as it was only about 160cm high. Lack of fresh air and sunlight was a major problem, especially for young children who would sit in the tunnel mouths whenever possible. In 1972 Villagers of Vinh Moc were finally able to abandon their underground existence and rebuild their homes.
When we left the tunnels to continue our journey it started to rain heavily, so we had to seek shelter once again, this time at a construction site with a few workers sitting under a roof. The downpours wouldn’t stop for more than an hour and we finally decided to look for accommodation as we were tired anyway and not in the mood to cycle in the rain. We checked into a ‘Nha Nhgi’, the Vietname word for guesthouse, at the sea and enjoyed our sea view and at night fell asleep with the sound of the waves. Wonderful!
As we could only get soup in the morning we cooked our own breakfast: porridge with honey and bananas. Delicious. And another nice thing about Hoi An where we bought kilos of muesli and oatmeal, which you cannot get anywhere here. We were once more in breakfast heaven. And that day would just continue as heavenly, a day that was as scenic, fantastic, exciting as the jungle day and on top much more adventurous. Because we would cycle on tracks that do not exist anywhere, not on our map nor on google maps. So we must have been cycling through heaven…… The first part continued as it ended the day before, pine forest and dunes on sealed roads. As we desperately wanted to continue cycling along the sea instead of going back to the highway, we ‘brachiated’ ourselves from village to village by asking villagers. We continued our journey on soft but relatively good roads and all went well until we hit a dead end. Some fishermen told us we could cycle along the beach and after about 30minutes of discussions with the fishermen and amongst ourselves we decided to go for the beach adventure. A great decision, as it went relatively well but slowly and after about 4km another fisherman told us the way to a normal street again. We continued our journey through small rivers, over small river if there was a bridge, around some bridges when they were broken, through eucalyptus, bamboo and pine forests and through many beautiful villages with surprised looking villagers as I doubt they’ve ever seen anyone like us. All day long just one small truck passed us, there were hardly any motorbikes and we really thought we were in heaven. Except that the restaurants were missing, and all we could buy were some dry cookies from a small kiosk. But that didn’t really matter. We spent another unforgettable and wonderful day in Vietnam.
26 March, Hoi An – Da Nang: 31km
27 March, Da Nang – Loc Dien: 88km (pass)
28 March, Loc Dien – Hue: 33km
29 March, rest day in Hue: 35km
30 March, Hue – Dong Ha: 85km
31 March, Dong Ha – Craun Toun: 54km (rain)
1 April, Craun Toun – Dong Hoi: 96km
Total distance cycled: 9165km of which 892km in Vietnam