01 July 2009

CYCLING VIETNAM - Saigon to Tinh Gia

28 June 2009 - Saigon to Cia Ray - 72km

We cycled through the traffic for close to fifty km - the city just carried on and on. There was little to see besides highway and traffic. Fortunately there is a motorbike lane, which appears busier than the car lane. There are indeed more motorbikes than cars on the road, but at least one is out of the way of the trucks and busses.

The language remains a big problem, just as you thought you had figured out the word for hotel or vegetables; you discover that the same word also means something else. One word can mean up to five different things it all depends on how you pronounce it.

29 June 2009 - Cia Ray to Phan Thiet - 96 km

Another day of nothing spectacular on the road, there appears to be little of whatever I expected of Vietnam here. Although may children shout “hello”, we even had the occasional “F….k You” shouted at us. Along the way we stopped to enjoy some of the local green guava which they eat with salt and chilly.

We stopped in Phan Thiet so I could see if I could have my laptop fixed. It is, however, very difficult to explain what I want done if no one speaks English. Just to find out what number to dial in order to get the balance on my cell phone took about half an hour.

Phan Thiet is a rather smelly town, I understand that they produce some seventeen million litres of fish sauce per annum, no wonder there is a bit of a smell in the air. It has however quite a pretty river harbor with all the fishing boats.

30 June 2009 - Phan Thiet to Mui Ne Beach - 37 km

It was a short ride up the coast to the seaside village of Mui Ne. It is such a small place that we even overshot it and only discovered about 6km later that we have already past it. We turned around and found a room right on the beach.

I had my first swim in the South China Sea, and it was not as warm as expected.

2 July 2009 - Mui Ne Beach

We spent 2 days at Mui Ne Beach as we discovered a problem with the bottom bracket on my bike when we were about to leave. Ernest managed to do a makeshift job at fixing the problematic BB, but what’s needed is a new one. In the mean time I enjoyed the beach and the excellent Vietnamese coffee. Fortunately they serve it with extra hot water as traditionally they drink their coffee very strong with loads of condensed milk.

3 July 2009 - Mui Ne Beach to Ca Na - 134 km

We set off again, me on my ageing bike, and the road lay flat and wide in front of us. The bike squeaked and rattled and with every turn of the peddle there was a clacking sound. So all clacketing we went down the road. The climate was more arid around here, and much of the cultivated vegetation consisted of cactus type plants (devil fruit) - meaning less rain and more heat.

4 July 2009 - Ca Na to Nha Trang - 140km

It appears that people here sleep a lot especially during the heat of the day (siesta). Everywhere there are people sleeping in hammocks. Even in shops a person first has to wake up the shopkeeper to get any service. Another long day on the bike, my legs just went around and around, I was quite tired by the time we found a room. After Ernest had cooked, I just ate my noodles and went to bed.

5 July 2009 - Nha Trang

As there was quite a bit to see in Nha Trang we stayed another day and took a walk down the beach and had a swim. I walked to the historic Cham towers on a little outcrop just outside the centre of town, and also took a motorbike taxi to the White Buddha on top a little hill.

6 July 2009 - Nha Trang

I took the famous Mama Linh’s Boat Tours (more a party boat than anything else) to some of the nearby islands. The trip included, snorkeling, music, dancing and a floating bar, lunch and loads of fruit. Needless to say it was a good day out. That night I splashed out on a pizza, after months of instant noodles it went down very, very well.

7 July 2009 - Nha Trang to Tuy Hoa - 130 km

I felt strong after my pizza the previous night. The most beautiful and scenic day on the road so far in Vietnam. The road followed the coast for most of the day and it was a day of color with turquoise sea, blue mountains and a cloudless sky. The times when the road ran away from the coast, we cycled amongst emerald-green rice paddies tended by grass-hatted peasants. Now it felt that I was definitely in Vietnam.

8 July - Tuy Hoa to Quy Nhon - 102 km

A very hilly but stunning day again. These views definitely do not come without hard work, cycling up some very steep hills. It was incredibly hot and we sweated buckets. Past small villages, with people drying their rice, coconut, and cassava on the road, and past picturesque fishing harbours.

There were plenty of food stalls next to the road, with people sitting on kindergarden plastic chairs, eating their noodle soup. The people here are very tiny and these chairs are far too small for me, my knees come up past my ears when I try and sit on them.

With our arrival in Quy Nhon, we found that all budget accommodation was fully booked, due to university entrance exams taking place at this time – relating to fifty thousand additional people in the city. We ended up in a very fancy and expensive hotel, the smartest and most expense I have every stayed in on this trip. At least the price included a buffet breakfast, and that’s where they lost all their profit. Never ever give a cyclist a buffet breakfast, or for that matter any kind of buffet.

9 July 2009 - Quy Nhon to Sa Huynh - 118 km

The road left the coast and headed inland over the hills; it was a very, very hot day again and combined with an equally hot wind, it made the going rather tough. Many times on this trip I have been asked the question, “Why are you doing this?” Today I doubted my sanity again. Only mad dogs and two South Africans were out in the midday heat. Even the locals take shelter and rest in hammocks under the trees.

But we carried on, up and over the hills until in the gathering dusk we finally arrived at Sa Huynh where we found a room right on the beach. The room had seen better days but at the price it was a bargain, it even came with air con and a bathtub. The hot water system must have been faulty, as the water from the tap was so hot that it burned a huge blister on my arm.

Sa Huynh is a small village with a beautiful stretch of beach without any tourists, so it’s heaven.

10 July 2009 - Sa Huynh to My Khe Beach - 79km

I was up early to catch the sunrise over the South China Sea. Even at that early hour I could feel it was going to be another scorcher of a day. I was not wrong about that either, so what else is there to do, but do like the locals and rest in the shade in a hammock at a little roadside café.

Along the way Ernest bought himself a new saddle and was keen to get to the end of the day to fit it on the bike. His old saddle had done service for the duration of the trip, and was being held together by duct tape.

We turned off the highway at Quang Ngai to visit Son My Memorial site. This is the site where more than five hundred villagers were massacred by American GI’s on 16 March 1968 (known as the My Lai Massacre). The soldiers involved were sworn to secrecy, but the news eventually leaked out - after which the area was bombed and plowed over to erase the evidence. The event was photographed by a US military photographer, and some of these photos are now on display in a museum on site.

On a somber note we set off for the beach just 2km down the road and found an ageing wooden bungalow on stilts, just across the road from the beach. We found the sea water to be luke warm, and as it was a Friday evening there were thousands of locals at the beach, mostly from nearby Quang Ngai, enjoying the start of the weekend.

11 July 2009 - My Khe Beach to Vinh Dien - 125 km

A long hard day on the bike, again very, very hot, this time it was only two South Africans out in the midday heat - even the mad dogs took cover. If there was a thing like spontaneous combustion, I’m sure I would have burst into flames. We finally reached the town of Vinh Dien, the turnoff for Hoi An. We decided to sleep there and carry on to Hoi An in the morning as it was already getting dark. We found a little café with rooms at the back at a reasonable price (according to the motorcycle taxi who pointed the place out to us).

12/13/14 July 2009 - Hoi An

It was a short ride to Hoi An, but we found the price of accommodation had risen somewhat since our guide book was published. In the search for a cheap room Ernest and I lost each other in the chaos of tourists, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians in the narrow streets. About half of the distance this day was cycled in the search before we managed to get together again. Hoi An is mentioned as a “must visit” on a trip to Vietnam, and has a historic Old Town which is the major attraction. About 55 km away is the My Son ancient Cham ruins (the bit which was left was partly destroyed by the Americans during the war), but I decided not to go there. I was coming down with flu, so decided to rest for another day before heading North again.

Hoi An

My flu got worse and worse, so we stayed another day. I hate being in the same place for such a long time, but there was nothing to do but wait until I feel better. I spent the rest of the day in bed, watching the gecko’s running up and down the wall and listening to Vietnamese TV of which we don’t understand a single word.

Hoi An is incredibly touristy and one is constantly harrassed by touts, grabbing hold of you “come see my shop”, “special price for you”, “I make nice shirt for you”, “you buy something “, “very cheap manicure, pedicure, hair removal, foot massage” - it drives me crazy!

16 July 2009 - Hoi An to Phu Bai - 122km

I was eager to get out the room and on the road again, even although I still felt rotten from my cold, which I hoped would get better. Ha. Ha get better while cycling, no change. On a day I least needed it the road threw three mountain passes at us. I huffed and puffed and coughed up the passes and when the weather came in at around half past four we found a room instead of cycling the last km’s in the rain to Hue. At least the view up the Hai Van Pass was great.

Along the way the Vietnamese stare openly at us, even calling friends and family to come have a look at this spectacle. On more than one occasion local women has pointed at my arms and pulled up their noses in disgust for me not covering up. They think we craze for being out in the midday sun getting frazzled.

17 - 19 July 2009 - Phu Bai to Hue - 14km

We cycled the short distance into Hue. I have no idea how to pronounce it; none of the ways I’ve tried seems to be the correct one. We handed in our passports for our visa renewal which cost quite a bit of money but what must be done must be done.

While waiting for the visas, I spent the next day walking around the citadel where most of the interesting sights in Hue are located and half its population still lives within its 2 meter thick outside walls. Inside the citadel is the imperial enclosure as well as a 37 meter high flagpole, some beautiful temples and pagodas, which survived the American/Vietnamese war.

Hue is located on both banks of the Perfume River and just across the river from where I’m staying is Hue’s largest market, the Dong Ba Market. If you can’t find it here you won’t find it anywhere.

The Trang Tien Bridge over the river is quite spectacular at night as it is lit up with ever changing colorful lights. Dragonboat look-alikes are moored along the side, begging to take anyone with cash for a sightseeing tour along the river. Ernest also started suffering from flu here, so now there were two of us.

20 July 2009 - Hue to Dong Ha - 73km

Vietnam had so many wars, first the Chinese, then the French and then the Americans, with the result that even the smallest village has a war memorial. Dong Ha is situated on the border of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone - strip of land on each side of the river which was the border between North and South Vietnam). Ironically it became one of the most militarized areas in Vietnam during the American/Vietnamese war. There’s therefore no lack of war memorials and graveyards in this area. What a waste of lives.

Another sad part is that the local people, in spite of large warning signs, dig around the area for leftover metal to sell as scrap. The result being, that even now, 40 years later, people are still being killed by left over mines and unexploded bombs, etc.

21 July 2009 - Dong Ha to Dong Hoi - 97km

It was a boiling hot morning again as we left. The sun baked down on us and dried and shriveled our skins from above, while the black tarred road radiated heat upwards leaving us drenched in sweat.

We crossed the DMZ area, to Dong Hoi, which is situated on the northern side of the Zone. Today this is a peaceful area, with plenty of rice paddies. The area is littered with bomb craters which has now filled up with water and which the locals use as fish ponds. Hay, why not, make the best of what you have.

Along the way we stopped for a cup of coffee, which they serve in a glass, only about three quarters full, but as strong as hell and served with a bowl of ice and a straw.

Before midday the rain came down, and as there was still a long way to go, we decided to brave the rain and continue cycling instead of taking shelter. Luckily the showers were over in less than 2 hours, and some of the sweat was rinsed off us.

Dong Hoi is blessed with a great location right on the river, but even here one gets reminded of the war as you enter the town and see the ruins of a church, bombed by the Americans. We found a room right on the riverfront with beautiful views of the river for seven dollars. It only had a fan and even lying under the fan sweat was still running down me.

22 June 2009 - Dong Hoi to Ky Anh - 107km – day 847

I was up early to catch the sunrise over the river, what a sight. What a hard day it was, although fairly short the sun beat down relentlessly. Neither Ernest nor I had recovered from the flu and we felt weak and tired. The map and distance markers along the road varied and we could not figure out which the correct one was, until we discovered that a new tunnel had been built. To our relief we did not have to climb up and over the pass. We zooted the 500 m through the tunnel in no time and emerged on the other side where we could see the road, winding over the mountain. It did not only cut out the pass but cut about twelve km off the distance. Exhausted we arrived in Ky Anh and found a room, I felt weak and dizzy and had no energy so I just ate my noodles and went to bed.

Few people have a concept of cycling long distance, and mostly just glaze over when you tell them where you’re from and where you’re going. It truly baffles them that one can cycle from one country to the next. Why not take a bus or a motorbike, surely if you’re a foreigner you must have loads of money? I’ve given up trying to explain, I don’t have a decent answer for it anyhow.

Ice is a big business here, early morning one can see ice sellers on bicycles with huge slabs of ice going from business to business. The ice is then put in polystyrene cooler boxes and needless to say, one pays extra for everything coming out of that box.

July 23 - 24 2009 - Ky Anh to Vinh - 107km - day 848

The morning ritual is always the same, first some coffee and biscuits, pack the panniers and load the bikes up. My prized possession is the electric element for making a quick cup of coffee in the morning. At least it’s a lot less trouble than having Ernest start up his MSR stove.

Another boiling hot day on the road, with trucks blowing warm diesel fumes and road dust in our faces. If the going got tough all you had to do was look up and see the beautiful scenery.

I felt dizzy and nauseous all day, must have been the heat, but I stuck the ipod in my ears and battled on. Must have gone through the whole lot Creedence, Jimmy Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Queen, the works.

We decided to stay another day in Vinh and recover from our flue, so we stayed in bed and we spend the day eating. Ernest made a real great fruit salad for lunch as well as a good green salad for supper.

July 25 2009 - Vinh to Tinh Gia - 115km - day 849

I had a much better day on the road, I must be better from the flu, or it was not as hot as the previous days, what ever it was, it was a great and easy day on the road. Listened to more great music, Eric Clapton, Jeff Buckley, Pink Floyd and Bob Marley.

Although the road is not that busy with cars there was still a great number of trucks and busses, all hooting like crazy when they come up behind you, loud enough to blow you off the bike. They also seem to drive on, what is more commonly known as, the Egyptian brake, just hoot and go. Early morning we also witnessed a young lady on a bicycle killed by a truck, with her family sitting weeping around the body in the road. This put me in a very pensive mood, it’s so final, no take two, no replay, its game over.

It took a long time to find a suitable room at the right price in the small town of Tinh Gia - even turning off to the nearby beach in the process. The room which we eventually found came with the compulsory comb and toothbrushes.

Here one can buy “Bia Hoi”, draft beer; in a liter plastic bottle or 8000 dong - about 4 SA Rands (1USD is 18000 dong), not bad. The saying goes that if you can order a beer in the local lingo you’ve mastered the language. Well, in that case I’m doing just fine here.

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