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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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