Cycling Through Vietnam
Setting off from Hanoi
Feeling a little nervous but full of excitement we kitted up the bikes and left Hanoi to start our cycle tour on the morning of 24th March. We were heading out on route 5 towards the coast. We didn't want to be over ambitious for our first day so had thought we may take two days to reach the coast. However our first day energy along with a pancake flat road meant that we made it all the way out to the coast on the first day.
Post Author HattieThe good thing about starting a bike tour in Hanoi is that things can only get quieter. Hanoi is renowned for its hectic roads and it certainly didn't disappoint on this front. We were sharing the roads with a million and one vehicles as we weaved our way in and out of the sea of mopeds. One of the more positive things that this brings is a boost to the ego as many mopeds travel so slowly that our pedal power was faster than their engine power and we were managing to overtake them. The other resounding memory of the busy roads is the noise. Vietnam is an incredibly noisy place and the trucks, buses, pickups, vans, cars and mopeds that fill the roads have the noisiest horns that I have ever heard. They are also incredibly adept at using them at all times.
At the end of our busy first day we were excited that the long awaited cycle tour had begun and pleased to have reached the coast. We found some good food, a hotel which let us keep our prized bikes in the room, and got a few hours of sleep (the noise of Vietnam is a 24hour affair).
Cat Ba Island
The next morning it was over on the boat to Cat Ba Island in Lan Ha Bay (just South Vietnam's famed Halong Bay). It was so nice to see the sea again after 10 weeks of travelling overland. We spent a few days relaxing on Cat Ba which was really enjoyable.
Our first guesthouse (The Noble House) was rather disappointing (there was a rat cage in the room with splatterings of blood on the floor clearly from one that got away). The food wasn't much better either - yes we still ate there despite said rats/mice. Christina's banana pancake came minus the banana as 'there weren't any bananas anywhere on the island' (we saw some in the shop round the corner half an hour later) and service was really rather unfriendly. We sorted this by moving to a new and cheaper place just along the seafront. The next few days were brilliant.
We cycled round the beautiful island on amazingly quiet roads. Quite a contrast to route 5 on the mainland. The steep climbs were made even harder for Christina as her gears had the same problem as mine had in the rice terraces. We knew this was only a matter of cable stretch but couldn't quite fix it on the road and so Christina managed the whole ride and all the uphills on her toughest gears (glad it wasn't me).
The next day was our anniversary so we'd arranged a boat and kayaking trip around the bay. This was fantastic and paddling around the stunning karst limestone outcrops and deserted beaches was delightful. The day was topped off by a delicious meal at Green Mango (highly recommend this if anyones going to Cat Ba), where we indulged in wine and dessert.
We also had met a guy called Claude on Cat Ba. A fellow cyclist (although without his bike due to knee injury) who gave us lots of good tips. He waved us off as we headed back to the mainland to continue our journey the following day. (Claude if you read this see Christina's comment in reply to yours)
Heading South on Highway One
Back on the mainland we spent the following two days heading south towards Ninh Binh. The roads remained busy, particularly Highway One, but the gorgeously green rice fields that lined much of the route provided a more calming view. There were many small towns and villages along the route which meant we were never short of places to rest for food and drink. We also shared the roads with many children heading to/ from school and women heading to/from the rice fields all on their bikes. The kids on bikes and kids anywhere else for that matter would always come with a chorus of 'Hellos'. These were lovely and did a great job of lifting our spirits when the riding was a bit tougher. We must have said hello more than a hundred times a day!
We took a rest day in Ninh Binh to go and explore the Tam Coc area. This involved a short ride out amongst yet more beautiful karst limestone landscapes, this time on dry land. This also gave the legs and hands a welcome break, as Christina’s knee was playing up at the beginning of the ride and her fingers were going numb from the cycling until we adjusted her handlebars.
Towards Vietnam's Central Highlands
The next day we headed further inland towards Vietnam's Central Highlands. The clue is in the name really; the next few days got hillier and it was also starting to heat up a bit more. Until this point it had been relatively mild and good for cycling. We managed to hit the heat and the hills on the same day as we crossed over to the new(ish) Ho Chi Minh Highway which weaves its way through the Central Highlands. We were on our longest, hottest and hilliest day of the ride so far when we stumbled across a drinks hut selling ice cool drinks with hammocks outside. This was certainly a very welcome relief and powered us on for the last 20 miles of the day.
As we headed west and south the scenery was becoming more stunning and the roads quieter. The Ho Chi Minh Highway was a far cry from the hectic coastal route of Highway One. We were glad to be on more serene roads and it felt as though we were really getting into our stride.
We had another rest day in Thai Hoa. It was good timing as it was a rainy day anyway so wouldn’t have been much fun cycling. We also needed to pick up a new pump as I had worryingly lost our nice, expensive, compact hand pump the previous day (it was attached to my frame but must have come off on one of the fast downhills without me realising). The pump was replaced by a chunky Chinese floor pump which we picked up from the market with the help of a guy from our guesthouse. We also bumped into an English teacher who lived down the road from our guesthouse and were invited to hers for her to practice her English with native speakers.
All in all it was a relatively productive rest day, the remainder of which was spent watching Star World and eating Choco-Pies whilst it rained. Star World was my new guilty pleasure which I had become accustomed to at even the cheapest guesthouses. It's trashy American TV but great to crash out to after a long ride. Christina meanwhile had become addicted to Choco-Pies (like wagon wheels), which were available at almost every roadside stall, although sometimes only in packs of 12. Never mind, she always managed to munch her way through them.
Back on the road we now had only a few days to the border. We followed the Ho Chi Minh Highway until reaching route 8 which heads west to the border at Cau Treo.
To the Laos border
The final day of cycling in Vietnam (April 6th) was a tough one. We had a 20km climb up the Anamite mountain range which runs along the border between Vietnam and Laos. We climbed over 3000ft in the searing heat. The road just kept on winding its way up and up and up. I was getting very tired but the absolutely incredible views of the mountains which we had just climb and dense pristine forest kept me going (and lots of encouragement from Christina - there is no way I could have done it without her willing me on). When we finally reached the border check point at Cau Treo Mountain Pass we had an overwhelming sense of achievement. We'd cycled 400 miles through Vietnam. We were about to enter Laos and a whole new adventure (and lots more hills).
Our thoughts on Vietnam
Overall I can't say we fell in love with Vietnam. The food was rather monotonous, particularly for us veggies. We survived on fried egg baguettes, which were always chewy and nothing compared to a true French baguette, and instant noodles and very few vegetables. The country to us didn't seem to have a particularly welcoming feel and I wouldn't say that we really connected with it. Whilst being exhausted from cycling it was rather frustrating being charged way above the odds for water (although this didn’t happen all the time).
The noise of Vietnam is intense and never ending, even in the ‘quieter’ towns and villages. A cacophony of Cockerels throughout the night, loud speakers piping in music and news, construction noise from 5am, and karaoke at any time of day or night was sure to break any night’s sleep.
However despite this the cycling was absolutely fantastic and a great way to get around and see a country and we had thoroughly enjoyed it. We had got into the rhythm of cycling and both assumed our individual roles that help get us through the days. I've assumed the role of chief navigator. The geography degree and the Garmin come in useful here. Christina's role is chief water carrier (taking the extra weight) and lead rider. This means I get the luxury of sheltering in Christina's slip stream making it much easier for me! The fact that Christina did some training before we came away and has strong legs comes in useful. I most definitely have the easy deal here as navigation usually involves the following 'Yes, head South on this road for 50 miles'.
We are now in Laos and are loving it. The cycling keeps getting better and better, as does the food. Christina will post an update all about Laos once we have finished our journey here and before we head over to Thailand. Now we're off to go and enjoy Laos Pi Mai (New Year) celebrations which involves a mass three day water fight.