17 August 2009

CYCLING VIETNAM - Hanoi to Lao Bao via Ha Long Bay

5 August 2009 - Hanoi – Hai Phong - 109 km - day 860

At last we were on our way again, well fed and well rested. It was not a very scenic day as we stuck to the main road to the coast. Nearly the entire way the area was built up with loads of traffic. Most of the way there was a cycle track alongside the highway, but this part of the road was sometimes used as a market, and was clogged by local loaded bicycles and various other forms of transport. At least there were many fruit stalls (mostly peaches) along the way, which again they eat here unripe and sprinkled with a mixture of salt and chillie-powder.

6 - 7 August 2009 - Hai Phong – Cat Ba Island - By ferry (cycled 14 km) - day 862

After a little tour d’Hai Phong, we cycled to the pier to catch a ferry to Cat Ba Island. We were totally ripped off and were charged and astronomical amount for the ferry. The ferry turned out to be a real rust bucket and not a car ferry at all (which we were led to believe). It was a local ferry where our bikes had to go on the roof with bags of rice, crates of noodles, and casks of the local Bia Hoi (draught beer – certainly the cheapest in the world, sometimes less than 2 SA Rand per glass). What can I say Communism is truly dead, long live Capitalism!

The 2hr ferry trip to Cat Ba Island was however spectacular. Cat Ba Island is a nature reserve with a craggy and rocky coastline. The island is sparsely populated with just a few small villages. We found a room in the main town for 8 dollars overlooking the “hotel strip” and fishing harbour - what a view it was! We also stayed the following day as it was a raining - and storming complete with a display of thunder and lighting.

This place is popular with local and international tourists, and as is the case at other holiday venues in Vietnam, Kareoke and Massage is advertised everywhere (also known as “singing and sex”). Every time Ernest went out on his own the “girls” were trying to drag him into some place for “massage boom-boom”.

8 August 2009 - Cat Ba Island – Ha Long City - By ferry (cycled 37 km) - day 863

It was a hilly and very scenic 22 km ride from Cat Ba town to the harbour at the Northern end of the island. We were lucky to be just in time for the car ferry which took us across Ha Long Bay to Ha Long City. Words cannot describe the scenery and photographs cannot capture the beauty of the rocky island cliffs and absurd rock pinnacles jutting out of the sea.

After cycling from the ferry port to “hotel alley”, we found a room in Ha Long City for the night, and went to the market to find some vegetables to eat with our noodles. I also found some freshly grilled tofu to add into the pot.

Then it was time to do the dreaded laundry (again!) which I did in the bathroom waste-bin. If there is one thing that going to get me down it’s the laundry thing!

9 August 2009 - Ha Long City – Bieu Nghi - 27km - day 864

We hardly left the city when we spotted a small roadside hotel with rooms on the ground floor. This is not something you see every day in Vietnam, as most of the buildings here are long, narrow and straight up, like matchboxes on their side.

We immediately pulled in as this was the best place we’d seen yet where Ernest could do some necessary work on my bike and fit the new parts which I’d ordered. I don’t think the people at this establishment have ever had a foreign visitor before, and Ernest had a constant audience as well as willing helpers.

10 August 2009 - Bieu Nghi – Nam Dinh - 127km - day 865

My bike was running like a dream with all the new parts installed. Although hot, it was an easy day on the road and we reached Nam Dinh earlier that expected. To find a room was, however, more difficult. This is not a touristy place and we could only find a house of ill repute and one expensive hotel. There was not even an ATM. With me being out of money, the only option was to stay in the expensive hotel where we could pay with a credit card.

It was a very nice hotel with all the mod cons (even a bath tub) so we made good use of it. We soaked in the bath, used their shampoo and soap and like any good budget traveler, I nicked the toilet paper.

11 August 2009 - Nam Dinh – Tinh Gia - 135km - day 866

When we took off on this morning it was already raining, and the rain intensified by the minute. By mid-morning the sky was so dark it seemed like dusk. It was clear that one of the feared off-shore typhoons (gloomily advertised on the TV weather report) had crept ashore. We’d already started to figure out how to use our tents as spinnakers if the real winds arrived – luckily the wind was mostly from behind! Our Vietnam visas were valid only for a few more days, and we were pushing for the Laos border – we had to proceed, regardless. The relentless rain accompanied by thunder and lightning, complicated by the heavy traffic, road works, and flooded roads didn’t make the task any easier. Just for good measure Ernest hit a flooded pothole, puncturing his front tyre – lots of fun unpacking tools and doing repairs in those conditions.

Somehow, by 5 pm we’d arrived at our target destination. After a shower and a hot cup of soup I was happy again. It was quite a task cycling 135km under those conditions – what can I say, give me that dog that digs up the garden any day!

12 August 2009 - Tinh Gia – Vinh - 102km - day 867

No storms or flat tyres today. Back tracking is never much fun but at least it was a fairly short day. Only another 3 days of backtracking and then we can turn off for the Laos boarder. Had plenty time to talk to the locals and enjoy their version of Red Bull. We also did the necessary shopping at the market before finding a room, bread, noodles, salad and veg. Watching one of the 3 Vietnamese channels on TV, or rather just staring at it, we don’t understand a word.

Finding a bush to use as a toilet is really hard in this country. The total land area of Vietnam is 329,569 sq km, and the population 84 million, compared to South Africa with 1,219,912 sq km, and (I think) about 50 million people. There’s just no private place to go without being watched, but when you have to go you have to go!!

13 August 2009 - Vinh - Ky Anh - 103km - day 868

Backtracking is never much fun; I could not find my rhythm, my legs felt weak and my backside was sore. This, I’m sure, is all mental, or maybe it’s the fact that I went to bed so late or that instant noodles is maybe just not enough to see me through the day. I had to dig deep and had to call in the help of the i-Pod. Even here I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel (Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles). We arrived in Ky Anh early, found a room and called it a day. Only in Vietnam do you have a village around a rice paddy.

Ernest, as usual, went to the market to get some food stuff and I did my long overdue laundry (I wonder just how many days one can cycle in the same clothes)

14 August 2009 - Ky Anh – Dong Hoi - 94km - day 869

Another flat tyre (this time my bike – which thankfully Ernest repaired in the presence of infatuated spectators). I can’t believe this, one can go for months and months without so much as a little leak and then suddenly its one flat tyre after the other. We battled into the wind all day long (at least we wern’t the only ones battling into the wind) but eventually reached Dong Hoi at around 15h00, leaving plenty time for the shopping etc.

I was p-d off with the room as the air-con did not work and there was no Wi-Fi, (all this after we had already paid and that we were assured there was both). It’s just not a good day, but neither was it for the pig (she’s suffering in the heat while the driver guzzles cold beer – and then it only gets worse –slaugher!)

15 August 2009 - Dong Hai to Dong Ha - 97km - day 870

Still we back tracked, back across the DMZ with its old bomb craters and on to Dong Ha. At least there’s the ever present sugarcane juice to be had along the road, served with lemon juice and salt over ice, just what a weary cyclist needs. Fortunately this was our last day of backtracking; tomorrow we head West into the hills for the border.

16 August 2009 - Dong Ha - Lao Bao - 83km - day 871

At last we turned off for the Laos border. We followed the road West past many war time relics including Camp Carroll and the well known Khe Sanh Combat base, crossed numerous paths all known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We climbed and climbed up hills and over passes with beautiful valleys and fields. The hill tribes are quite different from the Vietnamese we have seen so far, they seem to live in bamboo woven huts on stilts and even dress differently in a sarong like skirt and carry their goods in woven baskets on their backs (instead of the bamboo pole with the 2 baskets dangling form each end).

Eventually we reached the border town of Lao Bao and decided to stay for the night and cross the border in the morning. It was Sunday and at least the banks would be open the following day in case we needed to change money for the visas.

Ernest went off to the market again and returned just in time before another storm broke.

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