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

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Making friends, leaving friends

13 – 17 April, 2013 – We finished our breakfast – two banana pancakes each – packed another 3 pancakes and left at around 8am in the direction of Hanoi. The first 55km we had to cycle back from where we came, which didn’t really bother us as the landscape was so beautiful and everything looks different anyway if you look at it from the other side.

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After around 30km I fell for the first time on this trip from my bike: a small girl of around 10 years approached me while cycling and I thought she wanted to say hello but instead she took my handlebar and pulled at it with both her hands. I couldn’t keep balance and fell in the middle of the street. As she immediately ran away I just left my bike where it was and tried to catch her to tell her off. As she fell I got her easily, held her with both hands and explained in English very angrily that what she did was extremely stupid. She was crying and screaming as if I was lynching her, she was clearly scared to death. I hope she will never ever do such a stupid thing. Only when I let her go I noticed that blood was running down my right lower leg, it seemed that my pedal went into my  shin. By then Johan had returned to the ‘scene’ together with a few locals and we cleaned and bandaged the wound to continue cycling. For the next few days I wasn’t really in the mood to return the many hellos from the children and always gave them a wide berth.

For the rest of the day it’s been an easy cycling day, with slightly improving weather on still quiet roads and we stopped at around 2.30pm at another home-stay, this time we had to share the huge sleeping room in the stilt-house with everyone: three other tourists and their tour guide who arrived shortly after us and the house-owner with his wife, mother and 6 children. When we woke early in the morning, people were sleeping everywhere, in every corner of the house.

A still foggy morning

A still foggy morning

Our second homestay in Vietnam

Our second home-stay

The view from our 'home'

The view from our ‘home’

A Vietnamese Johannes Vermeer

A Vietnamese Johannes Vermeer kitchen

Our little corner in the stilt-house

Our little corner in the stilt-house

The next day would become another exciting day as we would cycle into Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital with a population of around six million people. I wasn’t really looking forward to cycling into town, actually I was a bit scared knowing the mad traffic in Vietnam. The first 60km went easy as there was still not much traffic and we cycled on a good road with a wide shoulder. As soon as we decided to take a smaller and what we thought a more scenic road the nightmare began. Horrendous traffic, a bad and bumpy road, one industrial zone after the other, a lot of dust and no shoulder. Cycling wasn’t fun at all and we couldn’t wait to finally arrive in Hanoi. Despite it being a Sunday, everybody seemed to be as busy as any other day and truckloads of sand, stones and other building materials passed.

The closer we got to Hanoi the madder traffic became and the easier cycling went. Believe it or not. But streets became wider again and there was one wide lane for (motor)bikes. It actually was a great feeling going with the stream of thousands of motorbikes and the one or other bicycle. It felt more like diving into the city and Johan and I being a small fish within a school of fish. Right in front of Ho-Chi-Minh’s Mausoleum we achieved our first 10,000 km!

Finally in Hanoi and finally a sign telling us where we are!

Finally in Hanoi and finally a sign telling us where we are!

Traffic in Hanoi, not too bad, right?

Traffic in Hanoi, not too bad, right?

10,000km in front of Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum

10,000km in front of Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

We were supposed to meet with Sibylle, our Warm Shower host at the Bicycle Collective, a combination of a bike shop and café run by a Spanish guy. For those who don’t know Warm Showers: it is a global network of people who offer free accommodation to touring cyclists. And if you are lucky you end up with great people at a place like Sybille’s. We had our own bedroom, our own bathroom, a great view over the West Lake and could use her kitchen and washing machine. We fell asleep with the frogs’ singing and woke up with the nearby cockerel as anywhere else in Vietnam. From the first minute we felt at home and stayed four nights with our wonderful host Sybille. As she is German she even downloaded ‘Tatort’ series for us so we are now able again to end our weekends with watching Tatort on Sunday evenings (we might watch it a bit earlier though as we usually go to bed really early).

View from our home in Hanoi

View from our home in Hanoi

Together with Sibylle

Together with Sibylle

Johan testing new looks - this one didn't make it!

Johan testing new looks – this one didn’t pass!

We really enjoyed Hanoi as a city and it feels smaller than it really is. There are great places to visit and we went to see a performance of the water puppets,Vietnam’s unique charming contribution to the world of marionettes and a traditional art that is at least in Hanoi nowadays only shown to tourists.

We also visited a traditional shop-house also called tube-house. These houses, built in the 19th century, evolved from market stalls into narrow single-story shops, under gently curving, red-tiled roofs. Some are just two meters wide, the result of taxes levied o street frontages and of subdivision for inheritance, while behind stretches a succession of storerooms and living quarters up to 60m in length, interspersed with open courtyards to give them light and air.

At the entrance of a beautifully restored shop-house

At the entrance of a beautifully restored shop-house

A food stall in Hanoi's old town

A food stall in Hanoi’s old town

And we met more great people at the Bicycle Collective (another reason why we didn’t do as much sightseeing as we originally had planned; and our other great advantage, as we do what we want to do and change plans as often as we like ;)). First we met Guim, a Spaniard who cycled the world by e-bike, fell in love with a Vietnamese and founded the Bicycle Collective. Later we met Tony. A 71-year-old British guy who has traveled by bike for more than 35 years and now waited for his Chinese visa in Hanoi. He is such a lovely and inventive guy, with a lot of great and sometimes funny self-made gadgets for his bike such as a second handlebar for different riding positions, racks welded to his bike and an air saddle. The latter is made of an inner wheel tube wrapped around a normal saddle, then a cotton cloth sewn around it and finally pumped up. Hilarious but certainly comfy. He sang a self-written Laos song for us and we chatted almost all afternoon with him.

In front of the Hanoi Bicycle Collective

In front of the Hanoi Bicycle Collective

Tony and his wonderful bike

Tony and his fantastic bike

Goodbye Tony!

Goodbye Tony!

Later that day we met Katya and Mirko, a couple that has traveled the world together since 2000 and since 2002 on their bicycles. Katya is Slovenian and Mirko is Czech. Mirko started traveling as soon as the iron curtain fell and borders opened in 1989. They earn their living by making jewellery which they sell wherever they are. Great idea and a great and inspiring couple. They flew home to Prague the day after we met to visit families and friends, make some money and will continue their journey from Hanoi in September.

The downside of traveling the way we do is that we meet a lot of people, some of them become friends and as soon as we know each other a bit better, we have to depart again, mostly in opposite directions. On the other hand in today’s modern world we have the opportunity to stay connected through social media wherever we are we and still feel close to each other while being far away. We love it!

Distances cycled:

13 April, Ban Nua – An Nghia: 84km

14 April, An Nghia – Hanoi: 112km

15 – 17 April, Hanoi: 49km

Land of the lowland limestones

2 – 12 April, 2013 – Time flies, whatever we are doing. By now we are more than seven months on the road, cycled in fourteen different countries and passed the 10,000km mark. We met a lot of people, made new friends and believe it or not, we still like cycling. We’ve certainly had days getting bored of it, especially if the scenery isn’t really distracting us or if it is just too much traffic but we always really look forward to continuing our journey after our rest days. The longer we are away the more we think how lucky we are to be able to do what we do, a life where the sky is the limit (of course always within our budget, but this is not about money). Often we feel like living in a bubble dreaming about all the nice things we do, the wonderful people we meet and picturesque landscapes we see and we don’t want to wake up until we realize, this isn’t a dream, it’s our reality. How blessed we are, life is wonderful as world cyclists!

Life is beautiful :-)

Life is beautiful 🙂

The last days were a little frustrating though, as we had to cycle on highway 1 for longer than we liked it. The more North we go, the busier it gets and the many trucks, busses, motorbikes and now also cars are very tiresome. The continuous honking also gets on our nerves, as the trucks’ horns are so extremely loud that it hurts and we often flinch from the sudden and often unexpected noise. One day Johan got attacked twice: the first time a guy on the street just wanted to hit him, but missed and the second time a truck driver threw a half empty 1.5 l water bottle hitting his shoulder. About the latter we think it wasn’t meant to hurt him, but to give him water as it was a very hot day, but still. One night we spent at a hotel with our room and bathroom completely molded and when we woke up the next morning all our clothes were completely humid and smelly, disgusting! The owners were also complete weirdos. They sleep behind the reception and when I was checking something on my iPad in the lobby of the hotel (the only WiFi spot), a woman came watching me and she got closer and closer until she almost sat on top of me. When she left, an older man came doing the same thing, this time thankfully without touching me. The next morning Johan had a black bra hanging on his bike…. and the same woman was singing ‘Goodbye Hanoi, goodbye Hanoi’ after we told her where we were heading to. We could still hear her when we were again sitting on our bikes.

Another day we had lunch at a for us fancy restaurant with surprisingly moderate prices. We chose our meal from the menu and when we got the bill the amount was almost twice as high as indicated. When we asked for the reason we were told that the menu prices were just approximate prices…. LOL! Being the cheap Dutch and Swabian we of course only paid what was mentioned on the menu, which took us about 30 minutes as the owner (who is by the way driving a Porsche Cayenne) had to be called and he only gradually reduced the bill and we had him return about five times until he got it right.

Over the last week the weather changed as well. It has become very windy and one day we faced strong headwinds all day long. It’s also chilly now, with temperatures of around 20 degrees, a drop of about 20 degrees within a day. Believe it or not but I am getting goose bumps from the cold at 26 degrees now. We’ve become so adjusted to the high temperatures! But it’s great cycling and sleeping now.

Against the wind

Against the wind

Cathedral in Phat Diem

Cathedral in Phat Diem

Leaving Phat Diem

Leaving Phat Diem

"Roadkill"

“Roadkill”

On our way north we visited Ninh Binh, a little town we originally just wanted to bypass but put back on the schedule as we heard from other travelers that it is really worth visiting. The town is also called ‘Ha Long on land’ as it has limestone formations with huge caves in a small river merging with rice paddies. We did a two-hour boat trip on this river in the rain and it was stunningly beautiful. In a small canoe with a young woman effortlessly paddling in turn with her hands and her feet, it was a peaceful, enjoyable and very relaxing trip! And thanks to the rain our few photos didn’t get spoiled by other tourist boats. Ninh Binh is a gem in the area.

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And we selected the right hotel in Ninh Binh as the owner is a great tour guide who convinced us to change travel plans once more and instead of going directly to Ha Long Bay making a detour via the Pu Luong Nature Reserve, a little visited area about 150km west of Ninh Binh. He is usually taking tourists on motorbikes there but we told him that we had to cycle so he made a few arrangements for us and the next day we headed off on our bikes. The more we headed west, the more beautiful the landscape became. We stopped at a little town just about 40km before the nature reserve and continued early the following morning to meet with a local tour guide and our host for the coming two nights.

These pigs are still alive and this way(upside down) usually quiet with only a bit of grunting

These pigs are still alive and this way(upside down) usually quiet with only a bit of grunting

A dentist's practice on the countryside

A dentist’s practice on the countryside

Arriving at Cam Thuy

Arriving in Cam Thuy

Beautiful villages

Beautiful villages

Toilet break

Toilet break

Cycling with the school kids on their way home

Cycling with the school kids on their way home

Photo fun with the kids

Photo fun with the kids

The Pu Luong limestone landscape is an area of outstanding beauty. It is blessed with rich forest, limestone panoramas, magnificent rice terraces and breathtaking scenery. It is also home to some threatened species found only in this area such as the clouded leopard, the Owstnon’s civet and the Delacour’s langur. After our arrival at Minh’s house, a traditional wooden stilt-house, and the mandatory welcome tea we headed off with his wife for a walk through rice paddies, villages, forests, up and down the hills and clearly noticed after about 2.5 hours walking that by now we only have cycling muscles left in our legs! Still a wonderful walk. In the evening Minh cooked for us delicious food and we ate together with his family, drunk home-made rice spirit – 100% alcohol as he claimed 🙂 and went to bed early.

Our home for 1.5 days

Our home for 1.5 days

Admiring the stunning scenery

Admiring the stunning scenery

Waterwheel to pump water from the river into the rice paddies

Waterwheel to pump water from the river into the rice paddies

Yummy dinner!

Yummy dinner!

Cosy bedroom!

Cosy bedroom!

Preparing breakfast in a spartan kitchen

Preparing breakfast in a spartan kitchen

The next day would become even more challenging for us as we would walk all day long and about 20km. But it was a rewarding day and very nice to walk for a change (punishment would follow right away with extreme sore muscles the next days ;-0). The first kilometers we climbed a hill on a dirt road to a remote village where we took a turn and continued on hardly visible small paths winding through thick forest. All we could hear were the birds and insects in the trees, far away cows and buffalos. Every few kilometers we would pass even more remote houses and picturesque villages with villagers being busy walking their cows, repairing houses, cutting wood and whatever. At around lunch time we stopped at house to eat our lunch and to have a well-deserved nap before we continued the second part of our walk this time through rice paddies, more villages and more hills. We arrived in the late afternoon, tired but happy, as we spent another day enjoying wonderful Vietnamese landscapes.

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Beating rice

Beating rice

Distances cycled/walked:

2 April: Dong Hoi – Ky Anh: 99km

3 April: Ky Anh – Vinh: 110km

4 April: Rest day in Vinh

5 April: Vinh – Tinh Gia: 133km

6 April: Tinh Gia – Phat Diem: 105km (strong headwind)

7 April: Phat Diem – Ninh Binh: 31km

8/9 April: Rest days in Ninh Binh: 14km

10 April: Ninh Binh – Cam Thuy: 90km

11 April: Cam Thuy – Ban Nua: 59km

12 April: Ban Nua: 20km walking

Total distance cycled: 9,811km of which 1,733km in Vietnam

Cycling North

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!

Doesn't this look a bit like the South of France?

Doesn’t this look a bit like the South of France?

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!

Waiting for a cappuccino in my new shorts

Waiting for a cappuccino in my new shorts

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.

Leaving Da Nang

Leaving Da Nang

Early morning in Da Nang

Early morning in Da Nang

half way up

Half way up

Reaching the top of the hill

Reaching the top of the hill

After the peak comes lunch: this is the village where we....

After the peak comes lunch: this is the village where we….

...we ate this wonderful fish. Anyone knows this one?

… ate this wonderful fish. Anyone knows this one?

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 animal transport!

Some animal transport!

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.

Hue city

Hue city

Flag tower in front of the imperial city

Flag tower in front of the imperial city

At the imperial city

At the imperial city

A beautiful red dragonfly

A beautiful red dragonfly

Khai Dinh's Mausoleum

Khai Dinh’s Mausoleum

Mystique...

Mystique scenery en route

One of the many cathedrals/churches we pass, Portuguese missioners made this area a catholic enclave, where even now it is said that 95% of the people attend church regularly!

One of the many cathedrals/churches we pass, Portuguese missioners made this area a catholic enclave, where even nowadays 95% of the population attend church regularly!

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.

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This is not the Netherlands!

This is not Europe!

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.

A four-person-room in the caves

A four-person-room in the caves

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.

Asking for directions

Asking for directions

Chatting with locals, and no, I am not standing on anything, I am that much taller!

Chatting with locals, and no, I am not standing on anything, I am that much taller!

Keep pushing, darling!

Keep pushing, darling!

Fun on the beach

Fun on the beach

Fun on the beach

Fun on the beach

Headwind!

Headwind!

With a little help from a friend

With a little help from a friend

Fingers crossed this is not a dead end

Thankfully not a dead end road!

Distances cycled:

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