Vietnam: from coast to cave

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Hue to A Luoi

We enjoyed a couple of superb, sunny days in Hue: catching up with an old friend, being guided through the morning hubbub at a local village market, buying our very own Vietnamese coffee filter (from a local shop, for local people), and cooking two traditional Hue dishes (get ready to salivate): Nem Lui, Vietnamese lemongrass pork skewers covered with a peanut dipping sauce, and Banh Beo Chen, steamed water fern rice cakes topped with shrimp and pork crackling.

InnSideOut Cooking School, Vietnamese food

So leaving Hue today was a little sad. Moreover, wind, rain and grey sky didn’t give us much incentive to leave. However, after a warm coffee and feeling cosy in our rain jackets, we waved goodbye to fellow travellers – who weren’t too envious of us – and pedalled off into the puddles. Smiling and determined, we felt like heroes. For about 15 minutes.

We were recommended this road and we could understand why. It was a quiet lane pretty much most of the way, heading back onto the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Its mountainous nature was truly appreciated as we got nearer to A Luoi (‘Eh Louis!’ to Will and I).

A Luoi, Vietnam

Roads cut into the mountains above us, which meant we were under no illusion as to the climbs ahead, and the surrounding views were green and lush. Arriving on the plateau of A Luoi, we enquired at the first guesthouse (Nhà Nghỉ, though I recently found out this is a euphemism for ‘love hotel’). Will returned after inspecting the room, and stated, ‘Let’s find somewhere to eat’; we have since used this as our code of refusal when Will really means ‘We’re not staying here’.

This evening, we became re-acquainted with our full winter gear – the first time since Nepal!

Hue to A Luoi cycle route strava
Hue to A Luoi cycle route 68.9km

A Luoi to Ta Rut

Is it dark because it’s early or because there are too many clouds blocking the sunlight? Sadly, the wind and rain took the shine off what could have been a fantastic downhill ride, starting above the clouds, with overhangs and switchbacks and twists and turns. Instead, we were glad for any uphill to generate some body heat! It wasn’t until our coffee stop (a hot one this time) that we felt some warmth again.

A Luoi to Ta Rut cycle route
A Luoi to Ta Rut cycle route 42.1km

Ta Rut to Khe Sanh

We must have got used to this riding in the rain because today it felt quite snug and enjoyable in our wet weather gear, though I’ve noticed Wilson eyeing up my waterproof trousers with envy over the past couple of days. His bare knees have been exposed to the elements – only his hairy legs to keep the chill off! The clouds lingered mysteriously in the mountains, and the mist seeped up from the trees. It was quite ghostly.

Cycle in the rain

We stopped at a T-junction for a coffee, got ballsy by sticking to the stated price as given before we sat down (and not the inflated price given as we were leaving), and were delighted that we had only 14 km to cycle…14 km that took us nearly 2 hours. We had taken our break, it seems, at the base of a very big, very long hill.

During our usual search for dinner and tasty treats, we met some guys touring North Vietnam on motorcycles, who reminded us to be careful of the slippery roads after they had just come off!

Ta Rut to Khe Sanh cycle route
Ta Rut to Khe Sanh cycle route 64.7km

Khe San to Dong Ha

We started the day by re-tracing our route down the 14 km we slogged up yesterday, and unsurprisingly, it took us no time at all! After a poor night’s sleep (especially as the duvet wasn’t long enough to cover our chilly toes), the fresh mountain air kept us alert as we sailed along the flat land to Dong Ha.

Cycle touring

While Vietnamese law dictates that hotels must supply guests with a TV, fridge and paraphernalia for dental and hair hygiene, Will was able to put the toothbrush provided to good use by cleaning the gears and chains of our Surlys. In the meantime, I brewed us our own coffee from the bag we bought earlier today using our very own filter. The smell alone was worth it.

Khe Sanh to Dong Ha cycle route
Khe Sanh to Dong Ha cycle route 62.9km

Dong Ha to Kien Gieng

After a bit of a dull, flat, straight Highway Day, things perked up when we arrived at our family-run guesthouse, fully equipped for weddings, and more importantly, karaoke…

In the search for lunch, Will became a little grumpy at the difficulties in trying to find a simple meal in what seemed to be a town in the middle of nowhere. Luckily, our guesthouse stood up to the challenge and cooked a super noodle delight – and didn’t charge. Instead, they were all intrigued about our bikes and wanted to test them out. When the owner of the guesthouse, a typically short Vietnamese man, couldn’t quite get onto the bike, Will offered up a stool; much to the amusement of everyone else!

Cycle

They then entertained themselves cycling on these ‘strange steeds’. And then they wanted to race. Will was wearing his winter gear, hiking boots and all, and was enticed to race the others around a loop of the field. To boost his ego and keep his pride intact, Will won all the races, even when put on one of the “shitty local mountain bikes”, sized for a child and with flat tyres and gears that didn’t work.

Nah Nghi family

Later that evening, we received a formal invitation (in broken English) to join the family for dinner. We made each other laugh but barely understood each other, though from gestures and being shuffled around for photos, they seemed to be impressed/entertained by our height!

Dong Ha to Kien Giang cycle route
Dong Ha to Kien Giang cycle route 73.9km

Kien Gieng to Dong Hoi

Following our speedy cycle to Dong Hoi, we decided to drop off our bags at the guesthouse and explore the city on our bikes. After the misty morning start, and arguing with a Vietnamese lady about the price of lunch, the sun came out and transformed the day: it’s funny how easily pleased we are: a bit of sunshine, some hearty grub and a delicious smooth-chocolate-nutty cà phê đá made for a lovely, relaxing afternoon.

Vietnamese food

It was a bonus to find a large shopping centre standing alone at the end of a dusty cul-de-sac where we could stock up on jam and our ultimate favourite snack: Wonder Wheats (a chocolate digestive equivalent – they really are wonderful).

Kien Giang to Dong Hoi cycle route Strava
Kien Giang to Dong Hoi cycle route 38.6km

Dong Hoi to Phong Nha

Happy to be cycling along a quiet country road, we were heading towards the caves! It felt like springtime. And just as we were reminiscing about the beauty of spring in England and the surrounding scenery here, a huge lorry ran over a big mound of poo and almost splattered us.

Vietnam

Once over a hill, the landscape changed dramatically and was littered with huge rock karsts rising over the rice paddies.

Karsts

We got an amazing view from our balcony, only to be moved into the next room when the door lock was malfunctioning. Will was amused by the Vietnamese style of DIY and the refusal to accept that, no matter how many times they tried to lock the door, it wasn’t going to work properly. After checking and re-checking that the door lock definitely didn’t work, we eventually volunteered to move rooms while they fixed it: now we were off to Paradise Cave!

Phong cave

Dong Hoi to Phong Nha cycle route Strava
Dong Hoi to Phong Nha cycle route 42.8km

Posted by Lindsay

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