Vietnam, the final episode

9 – 25 May, 2013 – After strenuous days in the mountains and as Johan had caught a cold we spent a lazy day in Ha Giang before moving on to our next destination Sapa with the highest mountains in Vietnam. It took us three uneventful days on ever undulating roads to get to Cao Lai, a town at the bottom of the mountain that leads to Sapa and a border crossing to China. We’ve never been closer to China than that day!

Leaving Ha Giang

Leaving Ha Giang

Never ending hellos and tea plantations in the background

Never ending hellos and tea plantations in the background

Fresh frogs for sale

Live frogs for sale

Beautifully dressed minority people

Beautifully dressed minority people

Despite the mountains we still prefer to cycle

Despite the mountains we still prefer to cycle

Border to China

Border to China

The next morning was my birthday and Johan organized a nice breakfast at a 3-star hotel next door. When we entered the breakfast room at 6am sharp our table was nicely decorated, ‘Happy birthday’ music was playing and a few minutes later I got a bunch of flowers and balloons! What a lovely surprise.

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By 7am we had filled our stomachs with yummy food, decorated my bike nicely and were ready for another challenge. 36km uphill to Sapa, while the first 6km started easy as the road was mainly flat with just a few very short climbs not even worth mentioning. The real challenge begun afterwards. To make the climbing more fun (as if it was fun at all!!!) we played a game: boot camp with Baerbel the drill master. One set consisting of three times 20 minutes climbing followed by a five-minute break. The last 20 minutes were followed by a 15-minute break. This worked quite well except for the very end where ascents became so steep that we had to stop almost every kilometer. But we managed all way up to 1,600m in 4.5 hours without pushing our bikes. The rest of the afternoon we relaxed and ate delicious food.

Leaving Cao Lai

Leaving Cao Lai

Still way to go...

Still way to go…

Somewhere in between, I know this doesn't look difficult...

Somewhere in between, I know this doesn’t look difficult…

Almost there, but still 5km to go!

Almost there, but still 5km to go!

We spent two more days in Sapa to recharge our batteries and while we didn’t really like the mountain resort itself as it is far too touristic for us we enjoyed the cool temperatures in the mid 20’s and the food and relaxed atmosphere of our hotel. We also had great views of the Fan Xi Pan, the highest mountain in Indochina with an altitude of over 3,143m.

Our beautiful hotel

Our beautiful hotel

The day of our departure was another challenging ride, even if only for the first part as we took Vietnam’s highest road leading over a 2,100m pass. We tackled the tough climb with mostly over 10% grades in about two hours and were rewarded with one of the most stunning views into the valley. From the top we could see the road winding down and were very much looking forward to a 30-kilometer downhill ride! A fantastic one with many stops to take pictures.

First viewpoint after Sapa

First viewpoint after Sapa

At 2,100m

At 2,100m

Stunning view

Stunning view

One of the many photo stops on the way down

One of the many photo stops on the way down

In the valley

In the valley

More valley scenery

More valley scenery

Room with a view

Room with a view

We were now on our way to Laos and we continued cycling on heavily undulating roads with at least one long pass to overcome per day. One afternoon, we were trying to cycle a longer distance. We rode with thunderstorms on our heels and decided to stop at around 3 pm at a small kiosk in the middle of the mountains and shortly before a peak to avoid getting struck by lightning. It took another hour until it would really rain and by then we got invited by the owner of the kiosk to stay the night at his house. We happily accepted as we didn’t know if we would be able to reach a town before dusk. In the meantime our host played cards with a few other men and our host’s wife and his three children came back with a few cows from the fields. We spent the afternoon updating our diaries, playing with the kids and observing, a very important task if there is no other way to communicate with the locals.

Johan sweating hearts :-)

Johan sweating hearts 🙂

Some nice guys from Singapore who paid us a cup of coffee each!

Some nice guys from Singapore who paid us a cup of coffee each!

Beautiful scenery

Beautiful scenery

Artful rice paddies

Artful rice paddies

On the infamous highway #279....

On the infamous highway #279 again….

...the road to nowhere!

…the road to nowhere!

Thankfully we still found the way around the lake

Thankfully we still found the way around the lake

As the men were playing for money we decided to give some money for the shelter to the wife so it won’t be lost in gambling. However, she immediately handed over the money to her husband and guess what he did with it: gamble! Later that evening we were invited to a simple but very tasty family dinner: sticky rice, river wheet and beef around a tiny table on the ground with a small self-made oil-lamp as there was no electricity at all in the house. And of course we had to drink the infamous rice wine: we killed a half liter bottle, just the four adults of us! At around 8pm we all went to bed tired. We had put up our inner tent in the house to protect ourselves from the mosquitos, a very entertaining happening for our hosts.

Our shelter after the rain, we slept in the right house

Our shelter after the rain, we slept in the left house

Favorite Vietnamese activity

Favorite Vietnamese activity

The kids of our hosts

The kids of our hosts

At around 11pm we woke for the first from a motorbike stopping and honking in front of the house. A man exchanged a few words with our host and left. Back to sleep again we woke once more about 30 minutes later from more motorbikes, more men and a lot of loud chatting outside. And suddenly our host opened the door and everybody came in, sat down just next to our tent and started playing cards! We were first scared as we thought they maybe came for us to do whatever with us, but all they would do all night long and until 4.30am was gambling, gambling, gambling and drinking rice wine in between. Playing cards is a very noisy affair and comes with a lot of shouting, laughing and talking which basically meant for us that we were unable to sleep all night. By the time the men were finally gone, the cockerel was awake carking every five minutes just underneath our bed, no way to fall back to sleep. At 6.30 am we decided to get up shattered, to leave this gambling place as early as possible. We cooked a noodle soup, had two coffees each and hoped to survive another day in the mountains.

Early morning view

Early morning view

Well, we found out that the next village with a guesthouse was just 12km away, we could have easily made it the day before, but we would have missed a really unique homestay opportunity. And by the way as there wasn’t a closeby well we weren’t able to wash ourselves, neither in the evening nor in the morning.

Second breakfast - our favorite, rice noodle pancakes

Second breakfast – our favorite, rice noodle pancakes

Cycling wasn’t fun that day and we stopped early after lunch, we were just too tired to continue through the mountains and the heat. In the afternoon, while looking for some food, we met a biology teacher who invited us to his house and when we left he gave us fruit and drinking water as he was so happy being able to practice his little English.

We once again left very early to tackle another long pass and continuous hills, had noodle soup in a small village where we this time successfully denied the rice wine attacks from the neighbouring tables and arrived in Tuan Giao in the early afternoon. We wanted to continue our journey the next morning but were both down with diarrhea later that day and decided to stay another day. A wise decision as I spent most part of the morning on the toilet! We anyway had a great room with a huge terrace in front of it, which was turned into a bar in the evening….. As it was very hot we slept with both doors open (our beds were facing the terrace). The first night Johan already slept while I was still reading when I heard people coming upstairs and sit right in front of our room. I was thankfully wearing a pyjama and got up to close the doors, Johan didn’t notice a thing. Quite embarrassing. The same happened the other nights, we were always hoping for nobody to show up, but it seemed to be a popular place!

A room with a view, but this time it's the other side enjoying it!

A room with a view, but this time it’s the other side enjoying it!

We needed another three days to get to the border crossing, rode over two more passes and squeezed in another rest day to do some grocery shopping and recharge batteries once more. As you can see the mountains combined with the heat have taken its toll and Johan already starts talking about our vacation on another Thai island, which is still weeks and months to go. Nevertheless we are glad we took the difficult route as we’ve seen the most scenic landscapes, most original villages and met wonderful people.

More undulating roads,...

More undulating roads,…

more artificial lakes,....

…more artificial lakes,….

...more rooms with a great view,...

…more rooms with a great view,…

more rain,...

…more rain…

...and one more border crossed.
…and one more border crossed.

In total we spent 69 days in beautiful Vietnam, cycled almost 3,700km and spent more than 240 hours in the saddle. Vietnam has become one of our favorite travel destinations as the landscapes are just stunning, people are lovely, food is great and traffic is much easier to handle as we thought. Despite the language barrier we got a good feel for the Vietnamese culture, we are both very good observers. People are very business-minded, which didn’t always come to our advantage (we paid too much for food as they weren’t really willing to give us much discount) or sometimes too communist-thinking (state-run guesthouses are dirty or completeley neglected and if they didn’t speak English they would rather not give us a room and just say no than making the effort of explaining things differently). We are sad to leave but curious to discover country number 15, Laos.

Distances cycled:
10 May, Ha Giang – Viet Quang: 60km
11 May, Viet Quang – Pho Rang: 68km
12 May, Pho Rang – Cao Lai: 76km
13 May, Cao Lai – Sapa: 36km
14/15 May, rest days
16 May, Sapa – Tan Uyen: 60km
17 May, Tan Uyen – Than Uyen: 40km
18 May, Than Uyen – Cap Na: 49km
19 May, Cap Na – Minh Giang: 45km
20 May, Minh Giang – Tuan Giao: 39km
21/22 May, rest days
23 May, Tuan Giao – Dien Bien Phu: 79km
24 May, rest day
25 May, Dien Bien Phu – Muang Khua (LAO): 102km
Total distance cycled: 11,866 of which 3,658km in Vietnam

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Six days, a myriad of passes and a love market

From 3 to 8 May we toured the northernmost province Ha Giang to gaze on the stunning scenery of the Dong Van Karst Plateau. An amazing and unforgettable journey and time to finally fall in love with Vietnam, it’s beautiful landscapes and friendly people.

The day before our departure we buy a licence from the immigration bureau as required for foreigners who want to visit this border area. When the officer asks us for our mode of transportation she only believes us when she sees the bikes standing in front of the office. As from then she can’t stop giggling and laughing and telling all her colleagues about these two crazy guys. We pay 10 Dollars each and happily leave the office within 10 minutes and a ‘licence to tour’. A few supermarket stops later to buy some heavy-calories snacks for the coming days we are back at the hotel to re-pack our luggage. We will travel light this time with only two half-empty panniers each as we will cycle a big circle of approximately 320km.

When we wake up early next morning it is heavily raining and the weather forecast isn’t much better. Rain every day and all day long for the coming week. However, by the time we are ready to leave it is dry again and we head off to new adventures.

From the moment we leave the city the landscape is wonderful. For about 20km we are following the Lo River valley which makes cycling easy. On both sides of the valley the cone-shaped mountains raise high and the valley is covered with rice paddies. As the road climbs into the hills a Hollywood-type sign announces that we are entering the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark. Mid-way to the top a western couple on two motorbikes passes us without greeting, while their guide, on a third bike gives us his thumb up! When we pass them later as they stop for a photo the woman looks at me and says: “Das ist aber anstrengend” (That’s exhausting), with an intonation on every single word. No smile, no hello, no good luck, just ‘das ist aber anstrengend’. I reply: “but rewarding” and continue without stopping thinking to myself what a strange couple. After a climb of about an hour and an altitude of now 800m we reach a small village where we have lunch, looking forward to rolling down into the town of Tam Son. Failed! We are just on a small plateau and after about 2km the road continues to climb. At 1,125m the long and winding road crosses Quan Ba Pass – »heaven’s gate« and we get to a viewpoint overlooking the town of Tam Son, patchwork fields and dramatic hills around it. Two perfectly rounded karst hills dubbed Fairy Bosom stand out, a typical example of the fancyful names Vietnamese like to give to natural phenomena. The view is phenomenal and all the hard and sweaty work to get here is forgotten. We roll into town, check into a great guesthouse and relax for the rest of the day. At dinner some locals offer Johan rice wine to my disappointment, as I am the spirit drinker in ‘our family’. The second glass is offered to me as well and only under big protest we are allowed to leave without drinking more. Prost!

At the beginning along the river

Leaving Ha Giang

Ethnic minority people in their colorful dresses

Ethnic minority people in their colorful dresses

Climbing our first pass

Climbing our first pass

Beautiful old houses in Tam Son

Beautiful old houses in Tam Son

Day two starts easy as we descend into another valley. The road now follows for about 20km an ocre-coloured stream with steep mountain flanks on both sides. After a long climb over treeless, terraced hills we descend into the town of Yen Minh. Easier than the previous day, but with still tired legs from yesterday’s hard work we arrive tired at the guesthouse next to the market. Too tired to go out for dinner we buy ourselves instant soups and go to bed early.

Rain outfit

Rain outfit

Along the river and before the long climb

Along the river and before the long climb

Some cuties

Some cuties

First these kids couldn't stop laughing about Johan's hairy legs and then they chased us up the hill

First these kids couldn’t stop laughing about Johan’s hairy legs and then they chased us up the hill

Minority fashion photo shoot

Minority fashion photo shoot

We wake up at around 5.30am on day three from the cacophony of voices outside the hotel. Today is the day of the weekly Sunday market, where hill tribe people dressed in their Sunday best come to buy and sell vegetables, traditional clothes and farming implements. After breakfast we spend an hour on the market to watch and photograph minority people from different ethnic groups, distinguished by the color of their dresses, haggling, buying, selling, chatting and laughing. It is clearly their highlight of the week.

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Later that day we learn that in a nearby village another highlight takes place as well: the love market. One local myth tells the story of a young couple from different tribes who fell in love with each other. The girl was so beautiful that her tribe did not want to let her get married with any man from another tribe. Consequently, violent conflict arose between the two tribes. To stop the blood shedding, the two lovers sorrowfully decided to part. However, they planned to meet once a year in Khau Vai, which thereafter became a meeting place for all those in love. Our travel guide  describes it as a wife-swapping ceremony that attracts busloads of domestic tourists. And indeed, the roads are much busier than expected and that evening most men we pass are drunk and the waitress in the restaurant is full with love bites, she clearly enjoyed the market.

Today’s cycling is tough again. We climb all day with small plateaus in between to rest our legs. We start our ascent at about 400m and finally cross the pass at 1,450m in the early afternoon just before we descend on a road lined with pine trees into Dong Van, the northernmost town in Vietnam. The ever changing scenery is superb with a road passing through rugged limestone landscapes and the scenery gradually getting wilder and more dramatic. The terrain is packed with nuggets of black rock and small fields of corn planted in between as well as on the steep hills which must make for extremely difficult farming. We pass a lot of locals stooped low under heavy burdens of wood and leaves and it is all too evident that life here is tough. When we check for a hotel we see the ‘nice’ German-speaking couple from day one again and Johan says “Hey, we know you!”. They just pass without even saying hello. Definitely weirdos!

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The next morning while looking for a place to have some decent breakfast we meet Canadian Antony who helps us finding a great place to eat and discover our now favorite Vietnamese breakfast: a clear soup with pork sausages served with minced meat wrapped in freshly prepared rice noodle pancakes. Very yummy. Antony has lived in Vietnam for five years and we had a nice chat with him during breakfast.

Breakfast thanks to Antony

Breakfast thanks to Antony

This day is described as the most spectacular part of the trip by our travel guide but also by a few other cyclists. And it is true. The road clings to the side of a massive canyon and crosses the Ma Phi Leng pass at around 1,500m. The views down to the turquoise river are dizzying and we stop every few hundred meters to take photos or to just take in the beauty of the landscape. The distance we cycle is only 22km and we arrive early and rest in the afternoon as the following day would become tough again.

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On the fifth day we start at 7am as we know we have to cover a long distance in the mountains. As most days we start climbing and cross a pass at around 1,205m before the road descends from the karst plateau to about 200m. We’re back in the valley and are now passing many Tay villages and cycle through bamboo forests on a road snaking its way south. The landscape is once more superb and I don’t know if my heart is beating so hard because of the cycling or my excitement. This trip is mind and body exhausting and I sometimes wish it would be less scenic to just relax a bit. My wish comes true after about 65km when we pass the town of Beo Lam and pedal along a river. The scenery becomes just normal, with trees and bushes along a winding river, for about 3km. Before I can really relax, we climb again for about 30 minutes and enjoy more dramatic views down to the river and steep gorges with a narrow road clinging to it. Four passes and 95km later, with undulating roads in between we arrive tired but happy at Bac Me.

Leaving Meo Vac with a truck on our heels

Leaving Meo Vac with a truck on our heels

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As the road to our final destination of Ha Giang, about 50 km west, mostly joins a stream on this last day of our round trip we assumed it would become an easy ride. We were so wrong. Shortly after Bac Me we start climbing once again, for about 50 minutes. The grades are very moderate and the climbing doesn’t feel too bad even though our legs are very tired from the previous days. We can tell we worked hard the last five days even though we didn’t always cover long distances. A few hours rest during an afternoon didn’t seem to be enough to fully recover. We again cycle through beautiful villages with thatched stilt houses and children playing on the streets. We share the empty roads with pigs, chickens, ducks, cows and buffalos and locals going on with their businesses. Despite getting closer to the city of Ha Giang, most people are still dressed in their beautiful traditional clothes, we are still cycling through a rural area with a lot of ethnic minorities.

Heavy thunderstorms during the night let the river rise and become a muddy stream and despite us cycling with the river we once again ascend and descend. Over time climbing becomes tougher with extremely steep grades of over 15 percent and it is now that I am fighting my own battle and try to overcome my inner temptation of getting off the bike and push. It feels like a never-ending ride today and we make hardly any progress. In a small village we stop to buy a pineapple and eat some cookies and we still think we’ll make it to Ha Giang before lunch. But we don’t, there are too many and too steep climbs to increase our average speed and in the next village we buy a bunch of bananas to complete our lunch. A few kilometers later we master our final and steepest pass ever – with me standing more often on the bike than sitting – and enjoy another fantastic view into the valley of Ha Giang. We have a drink to recover before we roll down for about 6km and pedal another 4km into town and to our hotel.

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Sweaty and happy at the top of the last hill on this trip

Sweaty and happy at the top of the last hill on this trip

The view

The view

It’s been an extremely rewarding trip from the very first to the very last moment. Despite it’s been the toughest part of our journey so far even with only little luggage the picturesque and ever-changing scenery and friendly people made it more than up for it. The weather was great as well, we had little rain and were lucky that the weather forecast proved to be wrong as always in this country.  Still little traveled this region is a jewel and should be high on each Vietnam traveler’s agenda. A motorbike is the best mode of transportation as the roads become really steep and narrow and less enjoyable if travelled by car (we saw people vomiting out of their cars!). For those cyclists who love the mountains, this is your place to go!

Tough, tougher, toughest

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!

This is how it all began

This is how it all began…

....and this is how it continued...

….and this is how it continued…

....and continued...

….and continued…

...and continued...

…and continued…

...and continued...

…and continued…

...and continued...

…and continued…

...and continued....

…and continued….

....and continued....

….and continued….

...and continued...

…and continued…

...and continues...

…and continued…

....and continued...

….and continued…

...and continued...

…and continued…

Our lunch!

…and even lunch wasn’t really appealing…

...and continued...

…and we continued pushing after lunch…

...or waited for a pusher...

…or waited for a pusher…

...and continued...

…and continued…

...and continued...

…and continued.

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.

Updating our diary together with our hosts

Updating our diary together with our hosts

Cooking porridge in the morning

Cooking porridge in the morning in front of our bed

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.

Ready to leave

Ready to leave

Hip hip hooray, tarmac!

Hip hip hooray, tarmac!

Beautiful scenery after the rain
Beautiful scenery after the rain

Arriving in Ha Nang

Arriving in Ha Nang

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.

Our 'favorite' road sign

Our ‘favorite’ road sign

A few puddles for a few hundred meters not knowing that our misery was about to begin

A few puddles for a few hundred meters not knowing that our misery was about to begin

And here is where the misery really begins

And here is where it really begins

Once more pushing....

Once more pushing….

...and some more pushing...

…and pushing…

...with a little mud on our wheels....

…with a little mud on our wheels.

On our way down we even had to carry our panniers separately

On our way down we even had to carry our panniers separately

Walking down

Walking down

Riding again
Riding again

Roadside traffic

Roadside traffic

It is about time now to write a bit about our communications and navigation issues. There are a few reasons for it:

  1. Nobody speaks English.
  2. Nobody can read a map and tell us where we are and how to continue.
  3. People always nod or say yes. Always.
  4. There are no accurate maps for Vietnam – neither online nor printed.
  5. 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.

Johan fixing my bike in front of a butcher's shop: a small part of the mudguard came loose and touched the wheel, making an awful lot of noise.

Johan fixing my bike in front of a butcher’s shop: a small part of the mudguard came loose and touched the wheel, making an awful lot of noise.

Distances cycled:

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

 

Up the hill, down the hill, up the hill….

18 – 26 April, 2013 – Sadly we said our goodbyes and left Hanoi, this time late as we sorted our luggage and weren’t really in a hurry. We had a last cappuccino at the Bicycle Collective and hit the road after 11am. We were heading in the direction of Cat Ba, the largest island in midst of Ha Long Bay and as we had booked a hotel for the next day only we cycled as far as we got along a heavy lorry traffic highway. Shortly before dusk we checked into a brand new hotel, which turned out to be a brothel. Johan noticed that at night, when he heard a lot of noise downstairs and started to worry about our bikes. He went down checking on the bikes only to find out that hookers were around, wandering from room to room to do their jobs :-). The next morning we also found condoms in the drawers of our bedside tables. This wouldn’t be the last brothel we would stay at without knowing!

Ornamental fish selling along the busy highway

Ornamental fish selling along the busy highway

We left early to catch a morning ferry to Cat Ba and to cycle about 30km to Cat Ba town, a fishing village which now starts to redefine itself as a tourist town. Cat Ba is beautiful. The island is largely unspoilt and mostly inaccessible, with just a handful of paved roads across a landscape of enclosed valleys and shaggily forested limestone peaks, occasionally descending to lush coastal plains.

We spent a day at our hotel to rest (once again) and went on a boat tour the next day to visit a fairyland of otherworldly limestone peaks, jutting from the water at sheer angles – Ha Long Bay, one of the most spectacular places in the whole of Vietnam as rough guide truly states. These limestone towers are by no means unique, but nowhere else are they found on such an impressive scale: an estimated 1969 islands pepper Ha Long Bay itself, with a further two thousand punctuating the coast towards China. Besides soaking in the stunning scenery of the bay we climbed into a huge cave, swam in the welcoming refreshing sea, saw more floating villages, kayaked across tranquil waters and visited monkey island. With just a few other tourists on our boat and not many other boats in the bay (it was the last day of a holiday weekend and most people toured the bay the day before) the boat trip was a wonderfully peaceful and relaxed experience.

Captain Ahoi!

Captain Ahoi!

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Not sure if this is funny or sad

Not sure if this is funny or sad

While preparing to leave Cat Ba the next day we met Aaron, another nice chap and touring cyclist from Australia who has been on the road since 15 months. We had a chat and noticed that we would take the same ferry in a couple of hours and arranged to meet there. He told us later that he would head north into the mountains as well after two days on another island and hopefully we’ll meet each other somewhere in the Vietnamese mountains. Once on the mainland again we said our goodbyes and left in different directions.

On the ferry with Aaron

On the ferry with Aaron

Some days ago when we were as usual cycling into the wind I thought I needed to write a letter to Petrus to complain about the injustice that wherever and whatever direction we cycle we would always cycle into the wind. During our seven touring months we had maybe one or two days of tailwinds, for the rest either no winds or headwinds. However, Petrus seems to be able to read my mind. We cycled two full days with the wind at a fantastic speed, even uphill. What a joy to ride effortless, we even didn’t mind too much about the mad traffic with trillions of honking busses, trucks, cars and motorbikes, extreme dust, no nature along the road but towns, towns and towns and industrial areas in between. We would anyway soon be in the mountains – flying into the mountains if the wind would continue.

The first night we checked into the next brothel, we noticed when we found condoms, this time under our dirty pillows. As we were too tired to complain (about the dirty bed) we just unpacked our own pillows and sleeping bags and ignored the rest. Cycling continued to be easy the following day despite undulating roads, as we went with the wind once more. The further we went northwest and as soon as we left busy highway #5 traffic lessened and the landscape improved. Still not exciting, but we started to see green again. On the third day after leaving Cat Ba we finally arrived in the mountains. Still not very high, but we started to cross passes, sometimes cycling sometimes walking, that steep it became. Even though we managed to ship home almost three kilos of luggage in Hanoi our bikes still seem to be too heavy. Admittedly we bought about 6 kg of oatmeal, muesli and other food to survive breakfast in remote areas so we actually added weight. After about 100km cycling in the mountains we arrived shattered at our planned destination Bang Lung, checked into a guesthouse, entertained the kids by letting them carry our luggage four stories up, showered, ate and went to bed really early.

Up the hill....

Up the hill….

On the fourth cycling day we arrived at our first mountain destination Ba Be lake. Snaking its way north the route passed through forests and villages. Right after leaving Bang Lung we climbed another steep hill with its peak at 500m to descend again to about 150m. The first hour we only cycled 9km but after the pass the road mainly descended along a river valley with the river flowing into Ba Be lake. Ba Be is described as region of astounding beauty, from lush vegetation mirrored in the lake’s still waters to towering limestone pinnacles that reach over 1,500m. The plan was to rest at the lake for 1.5 days and stay one night at a home-stay and the other in the more comfortable national park guesthouse on the other side of the lake. The home-stay was very basic and more expensive than usually as we had to pay extra for everything, even for hot tea water, which is everywhere and always included. When we asked for towels, they wanted to charge us an additional 2EUR per item, which we denied. To be honest, this was the least pleasant home-stay we stayed at. In the evening we wanted to watch our first ‘Tatort’ when suddenly a huge and for me very scary storm came up with lightning as bright as daylight and horizontal rains. We are slowly approaching the rainy season with torrential downpours almost every night and light rains in the morning.

Beautiful Ba Be lake

Beautiful Ba Be lake

Our spartan bedroom

Our spartan bedroom

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After that night we were looking forward to a mere 9km ride around the lake to the hotel, described as the most convenient and comfortable place to stay offering smart but pricey rooms, a restaurant and a swimming pool. Except for  the comfortable place and smart rooms, this guesthouse would offer all of the described, just not in a way as we would have expected: the hotel was dirty, completely run down and extremely depressive in a 1960 communist, state-owned style. There was no running water at the time of our arrival due to last night’s storm and the receptionist offered us to use the pool to wash ourselves (!!!). A pool by the way, that was half empty with dark green water, they were just about refilling it. We were shown two rooms, of which both had not been opened in weeks, you could tell from the moldy smell. Both bathrooms were dirty, very dirty, we were told also due to the storm, and they cleaned them on the spot, within one minute and without water….. Needless to say that we decided to continued our journey to the next town about 15km away. But first we had lunch at the hotel restaurant as we didn’t know if we could find anything to eat on the way, when we noticed after lunch that they cleaned the dishes in the guest toilets. What a shitty place!

By 3pm we arrived in Cho Ra, checked into a nice and clean guesthouse with WiFi, got our laundry washed and used the remaining few hours to contemplate about our lake experiences and to get mentally prepared for the mountains ahead. If we had known then what would come next, we would have listened to the advice of the hotel owner and police officer and would have changed plans once more. But more on this in our next post!

An in case you wonder why our photos suddenly became a little blurry, we have to take screen shots of them as the upload takes too long otherwise. High quality photos will be uploaded on Facebook shortly.

Distances cycled:

18 April, Hanoi – Lai Khe: 81km

19 April, Lai Khe – Cat Ba Town: 64km

20/21 April, rest days Cat Ba Town

22 April, Cat Ba Town – Sao Do: 100km

23 April, Sao Do – Thai Nguyen: 103km

24 April, Thai Nguyen – Bang Lung: 100km

25 April, Bang Lung – Ba Be Lake: 38km

26 April, Ba Be Lake – Cho Ra: 23km

Total distance cycled: 10,576km of which 2,487km in Vietnam