This post covers our journey across northern Vietnam in April, including a visit from family in Hanoi.
Vietnam is a fast-developing and extremely diverse country. Road conditions are rapidly improving, accommodation is readily available, and the cuisine is varied and (usually) delicious. It is a country that suits cycling with varied terrain and breath-taking green landscapes. The climate is particularly humid from May onwards, but expect colder temperatures in the higher parts of the north.
I'd been looking forward to Vietnam for some time. Since university I'd planned to cycle it from top to bottom. This plan never materialised as my ambition was bigger than my bank balance. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise as cut to 8 years later this plan grew to cycling the northern hemisphere instead, with some company.
Aside from the initial dusty, bumpy, Pamir-highway-esque descent from the Tay Trang border crossing, I could sense it was a country that wouldn't disappoint. The first impression is just what you get from photos- it's arrestingly green. The rice paddies and terraces are carved into every conceivable contour of the land, all immaculately maintained by manual labour alone. No heavy farm machinery here. As we made our way to Dien Bien Phu in the dusk light, the mist added to the fairytale aesthetic of the surrounding hills.
We had nearly two weeks to play with before my mum and step-dad came out to meet us in Hanoi. In hindsight this was more than enough time but the 6500m+ of ascent ahead of us made us nervous. We ploughed on, the image of a happy mum waiting at the airport in my mind.
Early progress was worryingly slow. Riding on one particularly hot day we chatted to a few local cyclist from Hanoi, riding $5k+ Pinarello road bikes. They informed us we were about to ride over the longest pass in Vietnam- Pha Din Pass - and that it should take about 4 hours on loaded bikes. Their prediction was correct.
This was pretty much the pattern of the next few days. Hot lower down, cold and misty passes through rice terraces higher up, through peaceful villages and wild camping in the forests where possible.
Our only real scheduled plan was to stop at Mai Chau before the final stint to Hanoi. Mai Chau is a collection of stilt houses set among rice paddies, supposedly offering tourists an authentic experience of rural Vietnam. It was pleasant but not to sound like a travel snob, I didn't really get it. Compared to what Beck and I had experienced on the bikes, it felt contrived, rather artificial. It really brought home that day-to-day bike touring offers a far more genuine (and cheaper) experience.
We made it to Hanoi T-minus 5 days until the arrival of visitors. Hanoi was one of my favourite cities to ride into. People are allergic to braking or indicating but that was the fun of it- just keep moving no matter what. Roundabouts existed in name only (R.I.N.O) - no one actually gives way or even goes the correct way round for that matter. The evening we arrived we sat and watched the crossroad traffic from a bar balcony, the flow is simply mesmerising.
We were lucky enough to be staying with a Warmshowers host in a beautiful art deco apartment block. Quynh explained how the whole apartment block had once been in his family before it was seized by the government and only returned part of it after the war. He kindly took the time out of his busy schedule to show us the ropes of the old quarter and where to eat before releasing us into the wild of the city.
By the time my parents arrived we felt we had the city sussed; don't step back when crossing the road, Bahn Mi's are great fuel for walking around the city, 'beer street' sells cheap beer and sitting on the street- which is so characteristic of the old quarter- is actually illegal so move when the police come. We checked into one of the smartest hotels of the trip with the all-important buffet breakfast, all gratis thanks to mother.
The next few days was a heady mix of strolling between the sights of Hanoi and despairing at my mother's inability to cross the busy roads. Keen to stay together for the majority of their two week stay we decided to put our bikes on a bus to Cat Ba and onto Ninh Binh, missing out some boring motorway miles in the north. The serene boat ride through the cliffs of Cat Ba and Halong Bay was very memorable and highly recommended. The Cat Ba trip is much less populated with tourists than Halong Bay - we barely saw another boat all day. Ninh Binh could basically be said to be an inland version of Cat Ba but one swaps the boat for a bike.
We decided to do a circular route through the limestone cliffs and rice paddies of Ninh Binh. This turned into a day of dead ends, rough tracks, extreme heat and lack of water, balanced with stunning views and friendly locals. This day couldn't have been more representative of an average day on the bike for us, so we were glad to share this with my parents. Kudos for their effort.
We parted ways with my mother and stepdad as they headed south to Hoi An while we went to ride a section of the Ho Chi Minh Road through Phong Nha national park. This was one of the highlights of Vietnam for me. The road was like a purpose made cycle track through the forest. Stunning scenery and a heavy sense of history- this area being so close to the DMZ it is one of the most bombed areas of Vietnam. During the war, the US dropped 19.3 million bombs on this narrow stretch of land alone.
We were slightly unprepared for the remoteness here but the national park guardhouses provided us with water and we stretched out the food we had. We soon realised we'd have to head back east to the main road for more food and for flatter terrain if we were to make it in time to Hue to meet my family for one last time.
The ancient city of Hue is more or less dead central in Vietnam. It was here we spent the last few days eating and drinking too much with the parents, interspersed with a little site seeing. Sadly they had to catch a flight back to Hanoi and then home. It had been a memorable time with them and a huge boost to our morale to get us to the finish. It's only when you have others around that there is time to reflect on the enormity of everything we'd experienced since leaving in June ‘18... M
Current Stats (as of 17.04.19)
Total days cycled: 208/317
Total rest days: 109
Total distance completed: 13,862 Km
Biggest fail: Letting go of the handlebars whilst ‘truck surfing’