(1 160km - 19days)
19/9 – 7/10/2017
Day 19 - 19 September - Ban Dong, Lao – Cho Cam Lo, Vietnam – 90 km
Breakfast was from a lady across the road, and then it was off in the direction of the Laos/Vietnam border. It was a short ride and, once in Vietnam, our first stop was in at Lao Bao, for new SIM cards and where the ATM spat out a whopping 3,000,000 Vietnamese dong!
Hardly out of Lao Bao, Tania’s bicycle chain snapped. Fortunately, it was downhill, and possible to free-wheel back into town to find a bike shop. The discovery that Tania's derailleur was cracked came as a bit of a shock. There wasn’t much one could do but nurse the bicycle along in the hope of finding a decent bicycle shop, in either Dong Ha or Dong Hoi.
Again, it was a beautiful and very rural part of Vietnam and a novelty watching people on motorbikes, loaded to the hilt with bananas. It’s quite astonishing what all one can load on a motorcycle. The scenery was sublime as our path led past the famous or infamous “Rockpile”, a karst rock outcropping used by the United States Army as an observation post and artillery base from 1966 to 1969.
It was a blistering hot day and the road hilly and the going slow. On reaching tiny Cho Cam Lo, we called it a day.
Day 20 - 20 September - Cho Cam Lo – Cửa Tùng – 67 km
After inquiring about a bicycle shop, one was located a short distance away. It was a tiny workshop in a very basic, corrugated iron shed who mostly catered for motorbikes. The owner was helpful enough and fitted Tania’s bike with a new derailleur, albeit a bottom of the range seven-speed one. Not in any position to complain, we were happy to pay 120,000 VID. Unfortunately, the new derailleur didn’t quite live up to expectations. The gears were slipping to such an extent cycling was no pleasure. I tried tuning it but knew little about adjusting gears, and it was better to return to the nearby town of Dong Ha. Enquiring about a bicycle shop in English wasn’t easy in Vietnam. Eventually, and by using Google Translate, a helpful chap understood our problem and escorted us to a bicycle shop. The shop was surprisingly well-stocked but also only had seven-speed derailleurs. They did, however, manage to tune the gears well enough for us to continue.
From Dong Ha, a rural road ran next to a river and continued along the coast to the Vinh Moc Tunnels. Business along the coast was mostly fishing, and we passed ladies in conical hats, covered from head to toe (to avoid the sun), collecting dried fish in large plastic bags. Shortly before reaching the tunnels, the typical Vietnamese beach village of Cua Tung looked too inviting to pass by, and with a guesthouse on the ocean, it was our kind of place. Our early arrival allowed us to do laundry and other chores.
Day 21 - 21 September Cửa Tùng – Dong Hoi – 90 km
A beautiful sunrise greeted us, and I’m always amazed by just how quickly light can change. Breakfast was a bowl of Pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup eaten at miniature plastic tables and even smaller plastic chairs. The route to Vinh Moc Tunnels followed the coast and once there, they were even more amazing in real life than on brochures. They were also much more extensive than expected and quite narrow and low. Navigating the tunnels required walking bent over, a good thing most Vietnamese are tiny. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live in those tunnels for an extended period. It, however, seemed they were well organised, as there were sleeping caves, hospital areas, bathrooms, a well-point, and many other demarcated areas. Still, it must have been terrifying living there and hearing enemy bombs dropping overhead. Again, I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like living in one's own country while the enemy dropped bomb after bomb, for years on end. It must be a desperate situation.
Then it was off to Dong Hoi, mostly via the highway, something that always made for a monotonous ride. Only towards the end of the day did we manage to find a smaller path with more interesting sights. Dong Hoi was a pleasant riverside town but during the war had the unfortunate location of being very close to the DMZ. The result was American bombs razed the city to the ground, leaving only part of a church, part of the old city wall, a water tower, and a single palm tree. All quite sad, really.
I always got the feeling I was being overcharged for things in Vietnam. If it was so, I guess, they thought it their right after suffering so much.
Locating a hotel was easy, after which we took a walk along the river, snapped a few pics, and then had supper at one of the local joints.
Day 22 - 22 September – Dong Hpi – Son Trach – 51 km
Visiting nearby Ke Bang National Park was an obvious choice, as it was home to the most extensive cave system (open to the general public) in the world. Son Trach, therefore, came with loads of accommodation and after dropping our panniers at the Paradise Hotel it was straight to the river from where boats headed to Phong Nha Cave. The caves were spectacular and were made even more so by being rowed into the cave with a small wooden boat. It is difficult to describe the share vastness of it all, and it was even more difficult to capture its beauty on camera.
Day 23 - 23 September - Son Trach – 50 km
After breakfast, it was off to Paradise Cave, an incredibly scenic ride. Once there, it was a short walk up to the tiny entrance. It was hard to believe such a small opening in the mountain hid such a vast treasure. Paradise cave was only discovered in 2005 and was then the most extensive cave system in the world. There are no words to describe the beauty of what we saw and all I can say is that, if ever you find yourself in Vietnam, these caves are a must-see.
Day 24 - 24 September - Son Trach – Dong Le – 80 km
All caved out, we headed out of Son Trach. Our path followed the river, and what a beautiful ride it was. The Song Gianh River led past quintessential Vietnamese scenery of rice fields, karst peaks, small villages, and grazing buffalo. Away from the highway, Vietnam was a very scenic country, despite the mining. Stopping for coffee was a must in Vietnam and slightly different from what I was used to. Ground beans were placed into a French drip filter (called a phin), a metal contraption placed on top of the cup. The coffee is weighed down with a thin lid, hot water was added and slowly trickled through into the cup. Coffee was always served with a side dish of ice. We sat sipping our coffee overlooking rice paddies, grinning at our fortune.
Our day was filled with scenes of salesmen on motorcycles, friendly kids bathing in the river, and produce drying in the sun, all while dodging cows, pigs and chickens.
The typical Vietnamese village of Dong Le was graced with red-tiled-roof houses, making it an easy choice to stay the night.
Day 25 - 25 September - Dong Le
Tania felt unusually tired, and our decision to take a rest day was made even easier by continuous rain. The day was spent doing laundry and other rest day chores, but mostly it was spent eating! Villagers found us a huge source of interest, a sure sign not many foreigners visited Dong Le. Ladies at the market stared openly and had no problem looking into our bags or touching us. I found eating in public challenging as they weren’t shy to join us, even if only to look at what and how we were eating.
Day 26 - 26 September – Dong Le – Duc Tho – 113 km
The next day one an old Ho Chi Minh trail let us out of tiny Dong Le. The Ho Chi Minh trails were a logistical system used during the war to provide support to troops. There were many of these trails; some ran through Laos and others through Cambodia. Nowadays, many of these trails are paved roads. It was an incredibly rural and scenic area where people still farmed in old-fashioned ways, ploughing with oxen and buffalo. Ladies traded from wooden shacks, selling their meagre produce or freshly-butchered meat. We watched in fascination as farmers transported logs down-river and then, with the help of buffalo, hauled the logs out the river to the roadside.
The road continued north past grapefruit plantations where large grapefruit were awkwardly hanging from branches. Grapefruit in Southeast Asia was much larger than elsewhere and the skin very thick. Once peeled away, one was left with rather large and somewhat dry wedges encased by a very tough skin.
Dark clouds loomed but, fortunately, it only rained once, allowing us to have a cup of coffee, something which was always a pleasure in Vietnam. Fuelled by caffeine, we rolled into Duc Tho which had a hotel right on the river. It was straight to the nearest eatery, even before having a shower. Again, people found us fascinating and communication was mostly via Google Translate. Most people wanted to know where we were from, what our names were, how old we were, and where we were going.
Day 27 - 27 September - Duc Tho – Roadside Hotel – 110 km
Leaving our hotel via a bumpy and muddy path, it eventually led us to a new road which was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. Unfortunately, it took us slightly off course. Once back on rural roads, it was surprising to come across small villages looking somewhat forlorn and half-forgotten. Even the coastal road that ran past these villages were washed away and in poor condition. Our path led us past deserted beaches and bays, with small wooden fishing boats and the rudimentary eateries on stilts over the water. It all looked rather basic but very idyllic. Eventually, there was no other choice but to get back onto busy Highway 1, which was hot, dusty, and noisy; phew! A roadside hotel lured us in, and it was a good enough place to take a break.
It was a beautiful morning, and we sat watching mist curl around limestone hills while sipping our first coffee for the day. Then it was on to Tam Coc, one of Vietnam's top tourist destinations. There was no other choice but to get on the highway, making for another rather dull, dusty, busy and noisy ride. There were, however, some rather interesting roadside stalls. Some sold beautiful pipes and others all kinds of birds and, of course, the well-known snake wine.
Lunch was again a bowl of noodle soup and, as always, it felt like we were the centre of attention. It was effortless cycling to Tam Coc and our $9 hotel room was considered a bargain in such a touristy place.
Day 29 - 29 September - Tam Coc
The following day was spent in Tam Coc, an exceptionally scenic area. A boat ride upriver wasn’t only picturesque but also revealed an extraordinary habit. People in that part of Vietnam didn’t row with their arms but instead, use their feet. They mostly use their hands for talking on their mobile phones, holding an umbrella or hauling in fishing nets.
Day 30 - 30 September - Tam Coc – Hanoi – 130 km
Our final day of riding arrived, and on leaving beautiful Tam Coc, we discovered an even more stunning area. It was a scenic ride along back roads through a very idyllic setting, despite it being overcast. Fortunately, the rain stayed away, and it was an enjoyable and relatively comfortable ride into Hanoi, all while encountering a multitude of interesting and unique things.
Not only did we encounter a roadside stall selling grilled dog, but also came across a lady pushing her bicycle along. Pushing the bike wasn’t all unusual, was it not for the bike being customised for pushing with one very long handlebar and no pedals. After turning off the road onto an even smaller and narrower road, biking was through Chinese-looking rural villages. Ladies traded on their haunches, and others sold live chickens, door to door, from a wire cage strapped on the back of a motorbike. We waved at women in conical hats, and men with T-shirts rolled up to under their armpits. Our chosen route ran through a valley with high limestone cliffs on both sides. The valley itself was planted with rice, by then in a variety of colours. Old men herded buffalo and younger men had the job of cutting rice and carrying it in baskets dangling from shoulder poles to wooden carts. Women herded goats in stark contrast with kids flying past on electric scooters on their way home from school.
Hoa Lu was an ancient Vietnamese capital city in the 10th and 11th centuries, and it made for an interesting detour. Although not much remained of the many buildings of the time, it was a beautiful area with narrow alleys, old temples and askew moss-covered walls. Although I tried my level best to avoid it, 20 kilometres from Hanoi, we landed ourselves back on the busy highway. Traffic was hectic, and by the end of the day, the light faded, and traffic increased, but we persevered and reached Hanoi without any problems or without losing each other. Accommodation in the old quarters provided us with a comfortable bed and a much-needed shower.
So came to an end Tania’s cycle ride of Bangkok to Hanoi and it was (as always) a pleasure to cycle with her.
Day 31 & 32 - 1–2 October - Hanoi
Tania extended her tour but I only had until 17 October to accompany her as my sister Amanda was planning to visit. Come hell or high water I had to be back in Pattaya by 17 October. Our plan was to take the train to Saigon and cycle from there South via the Mekong Delta and Coastal Cambodia to Thailand. We had one rather important thing to do along the way and that was getting our Thailand visas in Phnom Penh. I know from experience that we will need at least two or three days for obtaining the visas, plus a copy of a flight ticket out of Thailand and well as copies of bank statements. We, therefore, had to plan our route so that we did not arrive in Phnom Penh on a Friday.
I still had enough time in Hanoi to meet up with Bret and Heyley and, as always, they seem to pick the best restaurants.
Day 33 & 34 - 3–4 October – Hanoi – Saigon by train – 34 hours
We cycled off to the station and were told to pack all our panniers in one large bag which we obtained at a shop across the road. With that all done we filled in the forms and the helpful staff quickly did all the necessary, leaving us with just enough time to board the train.
We were in a cabin with four beds which made our trip very comfortable. The food cart came around for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a snack trolley delivered nibbles to keep us busy. Each berth came with its own reading light and an electrical point which turned out very handy for charging electronic devices as there was not much to do but play on the internet. We were under the impression that the train ride took 24 hours, but by 8h00 the next morning we were still very far from Saigon. The total time, in fact, turned out to be 34 hours, with the result that we arrived in Saigon after dark and with the baggage collection office already closed. We took a room at a hotel around the corner from the station to make collecting the bikes easy in the morning.
Day 35 - 5 October – Saigon
There was no point in being in Saigon and not spending the day there. We collected our bicycles from the station and was surprised at their professionalism. The bikes and panniers arrived intact and on time. There is surprisingly little to do or see in Saigon but in the same breath, it is a nice city to wander around. The traffic alone is something to witness.
Day 36 - 6 October - Saigon – Vinh Long – 123 km
We were keen to get going and we felt rather well rested and fed as we set off to face to notorious Saigon traffic. We joined a sea of motorbikes and scooters and cycled out of Saigon. It turned out to be a rather interesting day. Most of all, I was proud that we managed to make it out of Saigon unscathed! It is a rather large city and we were in the thick of it for the best part of the morning.
Once we reached My Tho, we could breathe a sigh of relief and was at last able to find a smaller road, running next to one of the fingers of the Mekong. We passed rather interesting roadside stalls, including birds, rats, snakes but most interesting was the barbeque stalls we passed. Small birds and rats were on offer and we just had to try it. Tania is rather adventures when it comes to eating and we ordered a grilled rat, right off the rotisserie. I must admit that it was rather tasty!
The small road that runs next to the river was fascinating with its small villages and we could smell the sweet smell of the coconut sweet, something the region is famous for.
I was relieved to find a ferry to take us across the river as I was not sure we would find one. Three times we had to take a ferry before arriving in Vinh Long.
What a magnificent day on the road it was. The delta is a very fertile place and we cycled past coconut plantations, banana trees, mangos, rambutan plantations, Jackfruit trees, to mention only a few. The road we took was a tiny road running next to one of the fingers of the Mekong and it was a busy one, with boats of all shapes and sizes moving up and down the river. It was fascinating to see people going about their daily tasks and they were equally surprised at our presence. We cycled past markets and farmers working in the fields, we saw traders selling their wares from mobiles shops and we crossed numerous rivers where houses were preciously balancing on stilts.
We were lucky with the weather and did not get rained on once! All day long we watched dark clouds in the distance and passed areas where it clearly rained just a short while ago. We drank coconut juice and sugar cane juice and stopped for coffee and by midday realized that we still had 75 kilometres to go and had to step on it a bit to reach Chau Doc before dark.
Once in Chau Doc our plans changed, yet again, and we decided on taking the river ferry up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The ticket was $15 plus $7 for the bicycle (each) and we were told that the boat leaves at 7h00.