10th February to 21st February 2016
“Goooood mooooooorning Vietnam!“. Kirsty would surely never get bored with me starting each day like this? As we leave the border behind our legs are spinning like a turbine. The freewheel just won’t budge anymore so we can’t stop pedalling. I feather the brakes to keep things comfortable as best I can while Kirsty holds on tight. There are flags out to herald our arrival. The gold star on a crimson background is interspersed with the hammer and sickle and they hang from just about every lamp post.
The border guards had ignored my hints that we would love to get more than our allocated 15 days of visa excemption in the country. Either they didn’t understand or they couldn’t be bothered to enter into bribery negotiations. So we have two weeks to get to Hanoi, sort out our visa for China, rescue a couple of parcels and get out again, which should be plenty as long as everything goes smoothly, which it surely will?!
In the first town we find an ATM and become Dong millionaires. There are 22,000 Dong to the US Dollar so the notes have huge denominations. Most shops are shut as the Tet Lunar New Year celebrations are still in full swing but we manage to find somewhere serving tasty ‘Pho’ noodles.
Scooters are the transportation method of choice here, outnumbering four wheeled vehicles by at least 20:1. As they buzz past we get plenty of shouts of “Hello!” and one chap chases after us to give us some oranges.
Temples seem to be tiny affairs, more a shrine than a building, so we may have reached the end of our temple touring days for now. The land is well used too with anything that doesn’t have a building on it generally being a rice field several centimetres deep in water. However the rear of an abandoned house provides enough dry land and enough seclusion to get the tent up unnoticed on our first night. A frog chorus croaks away all evening from the fields in front of us.
Through Vinh we have to weave round the mass of scooters. Cars have to beep constantly to try and battle their way through the melee making the whole experience quite intense. We stop for coffee to help calm things down and discover that we’ve just been playing with the idea of what good coffee should taste like up until now. Served in a tiny pot that sits on your cup and gently drips the dark brown contents down onto a bed of condensed milk, it’s not a drink that can be rushed. But patience is rewarded with an extraordinary flavour, almost like bitter chocolate that makes a Starbucks seem like a supermarket instant.
Out of Vinh we search for some peace on a minor road that takes us round some rice fields, through villages and on to the coast. The rocky shore is shrouded in mist and dotted with people picnicking and enjoying the New Year holidays. It then gives way to a long sandy beach which we’ve got to a few hours too early as it would have made a great place to camp if we’d arrived at the end of the day. Instead it’s lunch time so we console ourselves with some fresh squid from a beachside restaurant. I go to fill up my bottle from the water container which causes a huge commotion as several people run at me. The container is full of vodka and not water! That could have made the afternoon more entertaining.
We emerge onto Highway 1a at Cau Giat where the noise of the traffic mingles with propaganda announcements over the town’s PA system. There are huge socialist posters and angular statues everywhere and Ho Chi Minh’s image is ever present reminding us that he won ‘the American War’, as it’s known here.
We spend the next two days on the highway. It has a good sized hard shoulder and most of the traffic is small so it’s not such a bad road to ride. The main risk is from side roads as no-one looks before they pull out. It seems to be the way things are done here but we nearly get caught out a few times and we see two separate incidents with scooters on their side and a dazed rider sprawled sprawled alongside. Expect stupid actions and stay safe becomes my policy.
The amount of cake and biscuits being bought for the New Year celebrations is phenomenal. Some people overdo it though and we find a stash of cakes and sweets in the middle of the road that must have fallen off an overloaded scooter. There’s no-one else around to claim them so we take the ‘roadkill’ and make sure it is very secure on the back of our bike. It should help add a bit more variety to our diet of Pho noodles which are now becoming a bit dull having eaten them three times a day. We get presented with a complimentary dragon fruit and a puff on an enormous pipe when we buy oranges later in the day which expands the variety in our diet a bit further.
For most of the last few days the landscape has been mostly flat but then we turn away from the coast at Nam Dinh and plunge between tall limestone karst hills. Stopping to climb Lying Dragon Mountain we get great views down to the waterlogged farmland below. Every square metre is being used, right up to the edge of the cliffs. Almost all of the roads sit on raised causeways between the fields of rice. Hundreds of thousands of people work the land, 60% of the national workforce, spending all day stood in ankle deep mud, planting, rotavating, harvesting. It looks to be a tough way to make a living.
Weaving through the karst mountains, the view provides a good distraction from the headwind. This smaller road, away from the highway brings us into contact with more people who are intrigued by the tandem and its riders. In the bigger towns we had found a few people who could speak a little English but here in the countryside communication is a bit trickier. We manage to translate the frantic waving of a man who had sped past us on his scooter and stopped by a house though. We wants us to pull over, so we do and he sits us down to enjoy a beer and then sends us off with a huge parcel of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Vietnam feels much more friendly and forthcoming than it’s neighbours and already we know we’ll want to use all of that 15 day limit to explore as much as possible.
The towns get bigger and busier until we finally arrive in Hanoi itself. The mass of scooters swarm around us and I have to control the space around the bike as best I can to try and stop them catching a pannier. Train lines cut between cluttered streets and a few modern apartment block stand tall in amongst older, colonial style buildings.
We make our way to meet Quyn, who has offered to host us for a couple of days. After a warm shower and putting almost all our clothes into the washing machine we sit down for some dinner and listen to some of Quyn’s stories about life in this rapidly changing country. Although the communist regime has loosened off since the 1970’s Quyn thinks they are still 10 years behind China in terms of their political and economic development.
And it’s China we want to see next so in the morning, as a chilly wind whips round the city, we make our way to their embassy. We’re armed with a sheaf of booking confirmations for flights and hotels covering our entire ‘intended trip’. This is one of the farcical requirements for making a visa application and we’d cancelled all of them immediately after booking, counting on the fact that no-one would check.
Earlier in the year there had been a timely announcement that China and Britain had made a reciprocal arrangement to give each other’s citizens two year, multi entry visas. With this in mind we hand everything over to the lady behind the bullet proof glass and she immediately crosses everything out that we’d asked for. “I can only give you 30 days and two entries”. It’s clear this is non negotiable even with a big smile and an explanation that we want more time to enjoy their country and more entries so we can visit Hong Kong and Taiwan. She doesn’t go for it and tells us to come back in four days to collect our passports. Looks like our Plan A is on it’s way out the window.
Despondently we venture out to see a few of the cities sights. Walking round Hanoi is very difficult. The pavements are packed full of parked scooters and any space left is occupied by street stalls with tiny chairs and tables for their customers to perch on. It’s easier to walk in the road but then you run the risk of being run over. There is an elevated metro line being built and by the looks of things it’s long overdue.
The $20 rear wheel has done us proud by surviving the last 900km to deliver us here. It may have shed a few spokes along the way and not being able to stop pedalling wasn’t ideal but it kept spinning which is all we ever asked of it. I have a good mind to send a congratulatory message to the manufacturer for building such a fine wheel for such a low price. The new hub has cost us many times more and we’re keen to get our hands on it to get it built onto the old rim. But Vietnamese Customs have got it and we’re waiting to hear where we need to go and how much we’ll need to pay to release it.
To pass the time we catch the 6am train to Hai Phong and then a hydrophoil to Cat Ba island on the edge of Ha Long Bay. Cat Ba town is an ugly concrete strip of tall hotels but it sits amongst one of the most beautiful collection of islands in the world. We go to find some 2nd breakfast and investigate our options for getting around the bay. While perusing the menu in an all fresco seating area there’s an almighty crash and we’re showered with dust. A brick has fallen onto the canopy from high up on the building site next door and knocked a speaker off the wall a few millimetres from my right elbow. A very close shave resulting in a very embarrassed café owner and a free breakfast. Escaping serious injury never tasted so good.
None of the multitude of tour boats on offer appeal to us so instead we book something a bit different. The next day we’re out on the water learning to use Stand Up Paddle boards (SUP) instead. With instruction from Max from Asia Outdoors we move from sitting to kneeling to standing to swimming several times before we get the hang of it. Then it becomes a very tranquil way to move between the massive towers of limestone that jut out of the turquoise water.
We move away from the busier parts of the bay and it feels like we’ve got the place to ourselves. We’re being watched though. High up on one of the rocks we hear the calls from a troop of Cat Ba Langar monkeys. These are the most endangered primates in the world with only around 70 existing in the wild so to catch a glimpse is an extremely rare treat. Overlooking us are 7-8 of them, 10% of the worlds population.
It’s a short visit to Ha Long Bay and by late evening we’re back in Hanoi. Quyn has been a great host but we’ve also been helped out by Nick who provided an address for our parcels to be sent to. He has invited us to stay a night with him so we pack up and trundle across town to join him for lunch. He’s just got back from a trip that covered about 10 countries in 3 weeks, the route determined by finding the cheapest flights between the most interesting places. While we chat and munch an email pops up on my phone. It’s FedEx telling me that our parcel has cleared customs so we can collect it. The bad news is that bike parts are slammed with a 45% import tax so the bill is enormous. An already very expensive hub is now costing us a small fortune but we either pay up or go without. At the depot a large chunk of dong is reluctantly handed over and in return I’m handed a box containing a very shiny new hub.
We also take delivery of some smart new merino jerseys courtesy of Vulpine, a long overdue wardrobe refresh.
In the morning we drop the parts off at the Hanoi Bicycle Collective with instructions to turn them into a working rear wheel and then make our way to a boat house on the West Lake. I’d been in touch with Mr Hung, the coach for the Vietnam Rowing team who train here, and arranged for a paddle in one of their boats. Vietnam don’t feature strongly in the International rowing scene but they did qualify a double scull at the London Olympics and it’s the very boat that was used in 2012 that we take out.
Being on the water again feels great despite some very rusty technique and some chop from a gusty wind. It’s very different to the sedate stand up paddleboarding but also a fair bit faster. Afterwards Mr Hung tells us that the squad will be racing in South Korea in April to try and qualify for the Rio Olympics. With any luck we’ll be there at the same time so will see him again.
The wheel takes all day to be built so our plans to leave Hanoi that day are scuppered. Instead we make a call to Nick and he very kindly lets us come back to stay another night.
It then takes two days to get up to the Chinese border. Along the way I try to give the old wheel to several bike shops but they all turn it away, clearly not knowing a quality product when they see one. Eventually a bemused man takes it off my hands along with the few remaining spare spokes. As the killometres tick down we take the opportunity for a last few bowls of Pho noodles and savour a final, oh so tasty, coffee.
It’s fair to say that we are apprehensive about China. We’ve heard so many accounts from other cyclists who’ve hated it for various reasons. It’s just so big and our map is covered with massive towns and cities with no obvious scenic route between them. With the limited Visa, our plan B is to aim directly for Beijing so we’ve drawn an arbitrary line across the Eastern corner of the country to get us there. It’s over 3000km that we need to cover, similar to riding from London to Istanbul.
At Dongdang a huge imposing wall looms up in front of us and after clearing the border checks we take a deep breath and ride through into our 39th country. Nihao China.