A rest at Phong Nha to visit Paradise Cave
We had a well-deserved rest in Phong Nha, especially after completing our Strava February climbing challenge. We keep reading the life of a cycle tourist is slow and relaxed, but we just can’t help ourselves when a challenge arises – In the whole of February we climbed a total of 16,231m and got the Strava badge as a reward!
While we had the luxury of not having to strap our luggage to our bikes, we could not escape the lure to get back on our bikes and cycle to Paradise Cave. Over lunch the day before, a British couple (who had disposed of their jobs in order to travel), had shared some advice to visit the cave early in the morning, to avoid the crowds and have a less noisy experience. So, on our ‘day off’, the alarm was a rude awakening.
The cycle to the caves was also typical of our ‘day off’ – 25km of up and down through the mountainous terrain to make sure our legs and lungs had woken up.
After walking up many steps, the small opening of the cave entrance made me feel a little claustrophobic. However, the lights inside the cave revealed an enormous space; and we were able to walk 1km inside, with each corner introducing different scenes from a sci-fi film.
The shapes of the cave formations were magical and abstract: delicate flutes poised above you, thin leaves of rock curled around each other, great carvings protruded up and out, and statues of stalagmites stood tall like totems made of contorted faces. The colours and patterns of the rock also made it difficult to estimate the height and depth of the cave. Having seen nothing like this, and being inside something so huge and surreal, it really was breath-taking.
For Will, this was also a perfect opportunity for him to play with his new tripod. And while we took photos of what was around us, the Vietnamese holidayers were far more interested in selfies with us.
On the return loop back to Phong Nha, having just seen one of nature’s spectacles, we couldn’t quite believe or understand how someone from a tourist bus could be so blasé as to toss their plastic rubbish out of the window. I think it aggravated us today because it wasn’t the first (second, or third) time we have have witnessed this behaviour. Care for the environment (or the animals) doesn’t seem like a priority.
Phong Nha to Ky Anh
We cycled off into the mist the next morning and said goodbye to the dark silhouettes of the karsts. The Highway took us to our new destination, where we spiralled around the city countless times trying to get to a hotel we could see but not locate. We must have looked extremely puzzled when a fellow cycle tourist hollered us down. He had just started his journey down Vietnam from Hanoi. After speaking for some time, we were eager to freshen up and declined his offer to walk us in to a shop to show us precisely where, and on which shelf, breakfast oats could be found. I’m not sure Will or I even mentioned porridge. Cycle tourists are a peculiar breed.
Ky Anh to Vinh
It seemed like we spent the first half of our cycle in a cloud – so misty we could barely see the oncoming traffic. At our coffee and bread-jam break, I was complimented and spat on at the same time: “Beautiful”, spluttered the man. 75km turned into 100km when we decided dank and dirty rooms were not where we wanted to stay. Will’s descriptions included “prison”, “musty”, and “a place where, if you stayed there, you would question the direction your life was taking.” We pressed on.
Vinh, however, was a fancy little city. Quite the opposite to where we had just been, and with the price tag to prove it. It was, after all, where Ho Chi Minh was born.
Jingle bells, Auld Lang Syne, and a bit of Mozart entertained Will outside a shop before we stopped for dinner…at a restaurant – we call it a restaurant because it had normal-sized chairs and not plastic red ones that lift the bottom 6 inches from the floor. As we ate, the owners of the restaurant weighed our bikes, pulled on the brakes and squeezed the tyres – good to know they are being safety-checked.
Vinh to Hoang Mai
We took a detour towards the coast, through villages, and got talking (while pedalling) to a local schoolteacher who was on her moped. She was very kind and directed us towards the coast where she said the road was ‘very beautiful’.
We parted ways and, although following her suggested route did take us to see the sea, the scenery wasn’t anything special. We were a little disappointed as it had taken us off our path with lots of schoolchildren: their facial expressions of glee or pure disbelief were keeping us entertained.
Hoang Mai to Sam Son
Yesterday, we cycled through a fishing village and thought the smell was horrific. Today, all of our senses were horrified. The smell was so bad, we had to give each other a warning when a truck full of pigs passed us; as quickly as possible, we pulled our t-shirts over our mouths and held our breath. We spent most of our journey doing this.
Still, we were happy to be cycling away from the miserable old lady in the miserable old guesthouse we had just stayed in.
Sam Son to Ninh Binh
Although it’s great for mileage, riding along the highway is usually dullsville. Today, we kept each other amused by discussing some of the idiosyncrasies of Vietnam: the way their buildings are like tall, thin boxes, as if they’re built from lego; with trees in the balcony and on the roof. Sandals with the toe-end chopped off – sometimes fully chopped off, sometimes only a triangle segment chopped off. Carrying farm animals in plastic bags – even piglets which rolled out of the bag like a pack of oranges; their love of street sports – volleyball, badminton, hacky-sack and of course the good ol’ arm swing.
We also realised our criteria for where we like to stop for a coffee: I like somewhere where there isn’t a huge group of men (this narrows down our options quite a bit as places to stop for coffee are usually full of groups of men); Will likes to stop at places where the old angry women don’t hit him. Maybe we’re getting fussy.
Ninh Binh to Bo
With dramatic karsts looming in the background of the misty morning, we made our way to Bo…not much further…just round the corner…should be around here somewhere?! Wait, we’ve cycled past it? But we hadn’t seen our symbolic ‘Blue Sign’ to indicate the presence of a town. No worries though as a guesthouse was in sight, even a ‘tourist area’ with small winding lanes. The man at the guesthouse used Google translate when we arrived, and the words ‘family, funeral and home’ kept appearing. Despite this, we were welcomed warmly where his little 4-year-old daughter was desperate to help us carry our load (she carried our water bottles) when we had unpacked.
At dinner, we watched as a lady whispered her respects to a picture of Ho Chi Minh hanging on the wall, and then kneeled to offer gifts to the shrine (gifts – tasty snacks and counterfeit bank notes). As we cycled home, down a little lane in the dark, 3 dogs chased and barked at as, where Will amused himself by placing his legs over the top tube of the bike frame in a cross-legged position, well out of reach of the dogs. I, on the other hand, got a bit carried away and cycled straight past our guesthouse, meaning I had to yet again confront the aggressive beasts (ok, they were quite small but very yappy).
Bo to Hoa Binh
After being helped to load our bicycles in the morning by the helpful 4-year old (as helpful as they can get – she was insistent that Will had his bike helmet on while strapping my panniers to the bike!) – we set off on a longer loop as a little detour.
Up and into the mountains, ever nearer to clouds, which became ever nearer to rain, then wind. Then we were freezing, seeking shelter under the metal corrugated roof of a closed shop. Having warmed up a little, we were then greeted by the sun! The first time we had seen this mysterious ball of heat in a long time – it’s not always glorious weather in Asia!
Hoa Binh to Quang Oai
Trying to further our delay into Hanoi, we continued up alongside a river on quiet country roads. The sky was finally clear, the first time since arriving in Hue – but it still felt incredibly cold. Even the tips of our fingers were feeling a little numb.
Arriving in Quang Oai we had got tired of looking at grotty guesthouses so we didn’t even employ our sneaky trick of telling the owner that we would be back after finding some food. A quick glance said it all and we just left without a word. We then found a guesthouse with a sweet old lady who would not stop smiling and laughing. Unfortunately she called to a rather annoying little man who, when he realised I couldn’t understand him speaking Vietnamese, helpfully wrote it down for me instead …in Vietnamese.
He then continued to write down an awful lot of calculations and numbers before finally 10 minutes later I think I figured out what the cost of the room was. I wasn’t 100% sure, but I didn’t want to talk to this man any longer. Where was the sweet old lady?
Quang Oai to Hanoi
Our last day cycling in Asia! We’ve put it off long enough but now we had to head to the city. In true Vietnam style, we were cycling into a headwind, it was cold, and the bus drivers were on top form driving with their horns constantly sounding, and generally behaving like knob heads.
Still, we felt a sense of excitement to be finishing our 1st cycle leg. We had started in Bangkok, cycled down the east coast of Thailand, into Malaysia, then back up the west coast of Thailand back to Bangkok, through Cambodia and finishing over 6,000km later in the North of Vietnam.
And then in typical Asian city style, we cycled round in circles for 10 miles trying to find a good cheap guesthouse – to no avail. Cycling through SE Asia has been amazing; the scenery stunning and the people unbelievably friendly. Cycling seems to go without a hitch. Until we get to finding a guesthouse. That’s where the fun starts – and Hanoi was no different.
We thought we had been accepted into one hotel; we unpacked all our bags into the lobby. Then the young 20 something boy band wannabe simply looked away from me in some sort of prima donna act, and shook his hands at me whilst pouting and saying “no room, no open”. The Thais were all fantastic, not one of them was rude. Cambodians were wary, but usually got a smile out of them eventually. But the Vietnamese were different. It was 50/50 whether they would be helpful or not. And this little shit was most certainly not. They can sometimes be unbelievably rude. This riled me a little, and as we had to load up our bags again, I began a smiling tirade of insults aimed at every one of them stood looking at us, including the old lady with no teeth who was seemingly trying to fill the gaps with rice crackers. Our triumphant ride into Hanoi was let down slightly. A quick coffee stop was needed to refuel our energy, and to laugh about the ridiculous hair and vanity of the young boys and men of Asia!
Still, SE Asia by bike; tick!
We participated in some typical tourist activities in Hanoi, including being shuffled off the pavement by the stern guards at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and going for a couple of runs around the lake at Turtle Tower only to be amazed at the other activities on offer: badminton, volley ball, public exercise classes on the street, and even ballroom dancing in the park.
Best of all, however, was meeting up with our good friend, who lives in Vietnam, who treated us to coffees in the city overlooking the square (where we were entertained watching pedestrians cross streams of traffic with utter terror or complete nonchalance), coffees outside of the city, next to beautiful West Lake (where we witnessed the café owners frantically grabbing the chairs and tables on the street as a police car cruised by – apparently the police seize such furniture and hold it at ransom until a ‘fee’ is paid), and then burgers at Chops (where after a few weeks of the same meal each night made us appreciate this indulge even more).
Getting our bikes across the ocean
One task we did have to organise during our stay in Hanoi was getting our bicycles prepared for the flight to Australia. We had some previous communication with the Hanoi Bicycle Collective who kept 2 bike boxes, with some packaging, in storage. After a thorough clean, we nestled our beloved Surleys in the boxes among clothes and panniers and sorted a 7-seater taxi to ship us to the airport. It was easy peasy, with big thanks to Hanoi Bicycle Collective.
Posted by Lindsay and Will