27 April – 1 May, 2013 – In retrospect you’re always wiser but honestly, we are both glad that we chose the tough way, even though we think these last days were the toughest of our whole trip. But we are richer of new experiences and the landscapes we saw were second to none. But let me start from the beginning.
On 26 April we left our guesthouse in a good temper as we had a good night’s rest, the weather was nice and we were looking forward to another beautiful day in the mountains. The first 10km went easy on moderately undulating roads with hardly any traffic and nice scenery. Then we started to climb our first pass for the day in about 70 minutes with many steep climbs but as we were well rested, we managed to keep pedaling all the way up instead of pushing. We still remembered that the hotel owner told us about a very bad road and here we thought he meant the hills. We could not have been more wrong!
Right after the peak the road construction began, first with freshly rolled gravel, then loose gravel to be followed by rocky paths and dirt tracks. We almost cycled/walked slower downhill than uphill. After a strenuous way down we reached a small village at the foot of the mountain with a kiosk but didn’t buy any food or water as we thought we would soon reach another village. This was a big mistake, as there weren’t any more villages until the end of the day, we only passed the workers’ camps and a few people coming from or going to their fields. We spent a very lonely afternoon, caught a few bewildered glimpses from locals and workers along the way and for the rest were very busy with ourselves: we ascended all afternoon! Mostly we pushed our bikes as the terrain was far too steep to be cycled, often we didn’t even manage to push up our bikes alone and ended up pushing up the first bike together, then walk down again to get the other bike. And this went on and on and on and on…. We even had to walk through an excavation pit with the digger still working on the top and shortly interrupting work for letting us walk through the hole!
The landscape was terrific though which was the reason the tough going couldn’t spoil our mood. All we worried about was water and decided to ask at the next house or camp to get a refill of our bottles.
The more we walked the more it became clear to us that we wouldn’t be able to reach the next village to find a place to sleep. Once more we were glad we still had our camping gear with us and had resisted the temptation to leave it somewhere. After each turn we hoped that we had finally reached the top, but each time we were badly disappointed. We had to continue climbing, climbing, climbing and climbing. Hence we were making only very little progress. At an altitude of about 750 meters and by 4.30pm we passed a few houses and asked if we could pitch our tent next to them and they offered us to sleep in their house. How lucky we were once again with this very generous offer as it would start raining that night and we would have never managed to get our tent dry again. We sparsely washed ourselves in front of the house and watched by the whole family, cooked dinner, some simple pasta with garlic and pepper fried in olive oil and went to bed at 7pm, shattered, with aching bodies, glad to have arrived someplace but anxious about what to expect the following day. That day we only cycled 32km with a difference in altitude of 1,400 meters.
As it had rained at night we were a bit worried the next morning as we feared that the dirt path might have turned into an impassable sticky clay track. But luckily the rain wasn’t strong enough and other than a few puddles here and there and some small water streams the dirt road was as firm as before. And even better, after the next turn we finally descended and another two kilometers further the tarmac was back. We couldn’t believe our eyes, we were out of it! Lucky us! Despite the good road the going was tough, very tough. We crossed another two long passes with steep ascents of more than 10 percent and while we were usually able to cycle most of these hills, it was impossible today. We again walked often as our muscles didn’t want to move as we liked them to. Johan’s crank arm now also started to make strange noises, another sign that we even asked too much out of Rudi and Smokey. On top we didn’t eat enough the day before to compensate the energy loss. Thankfully with the road being a road again, villages were back as well and we were able to have proper lunch with rice, chicken, eggs and vegetables. By 3pm we arrived in Na Hang, found a place to sleep and once more went to bed on time, as tired as the day before.
With half a day of rest we left Na Hang by 9am almost fully recovered. This day we wanted to catch up a bit as we had already lost two days due to the non-existing road just to discover that after about 16km the nightmare was back. Another road construction. For another 10km, as we were told by the workers. And mainly uphill. Wonderful. What are we going to do now? That was the tricky question. As we really don’t like to give up that easily we decided to continue and to once more push our bikes. Until we reached the sticky clay mud. So sticky, that we were able to push our bikes for about five meters before the wheels were completely blocked. We still didn’t want to give up and continued for about one hour, five meters walking, cleaning the bikes, five meters walking, cleaning, walking…. 400 meters and one hour later we decided to turn, go back to where we came from and choose another route. A wise decision.
It is about time now to write a bit about our communications and navigation issues. There are a few reasons for it:
- Nobody speaks English.
- Nobody can read a map and tell us where we are and how to continue.
- People always nod or say yes. Always.
- There are no accurate maps for Vietnam – neither online nor printed.
- Most of the towns and villages in the North have been renamed some years ago and the names on the signs (if there are signs at all) usually don’t match with the names on our map as the signs still feature the old names and the map the new ones. Sigh!
While reading the above you might have thought ‘why did they choose a road that doesn’t even exist yet?’ Well, the road we chose exists on our map, on google maps and on apple maps. It is a yellow road, the second largest category and it is connecting two major towns. Who could have known that such a road is actually only existing virtually and might take many more years to be completed? And there comes our second problem, the language. It is really hard to find out the condition of a road in advance as we really don’t know how to make ourselves understandable. If there is WiFi we usually use google translate, but there is no such thing on the road and while people try to tell us something we often only understand afterwards and too late what they meant. Often they would also explain things to us from the perspective of a motorbike. And they always say yes. If we ask ‘Do we have to turn left?’ they would nod and if we ask ‘Do we have to turn right?’ they would nod as well. By now we can tell from the look of their faces if they understand us or if they just want to please us by confirming what we are saying.
And sometimes we come across some very inane people who would just not understand anything even if Johan is doing his nice pantomimes imitating a thief or barking like a dog, or carking like a cockerel. We even have a wonderful little book with more than 500 drawings in it and showed it once to a guesthouse owner to ask for where to buy bananas and all she would do is laugh at us as she thought we wanted to show her nice pictures. There was no way to make her understand anything.
Enough about communication problems and back to cycling. We decided to take a 200km detour by first going south and then entering the main road from Hanoi to Ha Giang to cycle once more north. Despite undulating roads with 16 hills the first day we arrived in Ha Giang after two days with a total delay of six days. This leaves us with little room to maneuver as our visas will expire by the end of May and we still have many more mountains to climb.
27 April, Cho Ra – middle of nowhere: 32km
28 April, Middle of nowhere – Na Hang: 56km
29 April, Na Hang – Na Hang: 36km
30 April, Na Hang – Tan Yen: 84km
1 May, Tan Yen – Ha Giang: 111km
Total distance cycled: 10,886km of which 2806 in Vietnam