My Bicycling Adventure

Friday 7 March 2014

North Vietnam

Getting There

In the mountains near Dumaguete
We booked the morning flight out of Dumaguete. As the connecting flight to Hanoi did not leave till 10.30pm,  we planned to leave our luggage at the airport and spend the day in Manila. The plane arrived on time and everyone was queueing up for boarding but things looked ominous when first the ground staff removed the steps, then the flight crew came off with their bags and finally they started unloading all the luggage.

A problem with the plane meant a spare part had to be flown in from Manila on the next flight, so it was a long day sitting in uncomfortable airport seats. Six hours there and a further five at Manila. We landed in Hanoi at 12.15am and found a very big queue of people waiting to collect their 'visa on arrival'  meaning an hour's wait to get ours.

By the time we got to baggage collection they were switching off the lights and shutting down for the night. On the way into central Hanoi at 2am we passed many motorbikes laden with cut flowers, heading for the morning flower market. At the hotel we had to wake up the staff who were asleep on mats in the foyer.


Street card game
The hotel was in a great position, just at the edge of the Old Quarter but was missing one of the main facilities for which it was chosen, namely a car park. So the bikes had to stay in their bags in the foyer/breakfast room.

Chinese Lanterns

After catching up on some sleep we explored the Old Quarter, teeming with TET tourists.


Fruit seller

The narrow streets are full of life, colour and motorbikes, with each street having its own speciality: silk, tin-boxes, spices, paper lanterns, shoes, gravestones, rope, mirrors and toys to name just a few.

A crowded Hoc Bridge


There were liberal sprinklings of pagodas and markets and amazing street food and restaurants. We loved it.

Street scene

Old shop houses

Spice market

Vegetable market

Pagoda Gate

Tin Box Maker

Delicate shell tiles on pagoda roof

Making tea

North Vietnam Tour

Cai Rong Harbour
We decided to do the 'must sees' of North Vietnam on a short organised tour, rather than try to cover the large distances between them by bike.

Boarding the boat

The company we chose was 'Ethnic Travel' which specialises in small group tours  and is recommended by Lonely Planet.

Boats in the harbour
There is a huge number of tour companies in Hanoi and some very worrying stories about their poor performance.

Bai Tu Long Bay

Leaving the bikes and excess luggage at the hotel we did a seven day/six night tour including Bai Tu Long Bay, Ninh Binh, Tam Coc, Cuc Phuong National Park, Mai Chau and a couple of tiny mountain villages near the Black River, travelling by mini-bus.

Dining on board

The group size changed but was never more than seven people and except for us they were all 20-30's backpackers.

Typical island house
Three nights were home stays and the other three in guesthouses. It was very well organised with short cycle rides, kayaking and 10km walk most days.

Morning market, Quan Lan
The biggest problem is that we hadn't anticipated just how cold we would get. Despite our merino underwear, down waistcoats, fleeces, jackets, gloves and hats, the nights sleeping in the long houses in the mountains were long, cold and uncomfortable.

Windswept beach, Quan Lan

Boat party Ninh Xuan

Peaceful Canal

Riding the 'Inland Ha Long'

Mountain reflections

Fish trap

Planting rice

!,000yr old tree, Cuc Phuong

Prehistoric Cave, Cuc Phuong NP

Rescued monkeys, Cuc Phuong

Primate rehabilitation centre

Rescued tortoise, Cuc Phuong

Chopstick making

Collecting firewood

Farmhouse on top of the mountain

Pig family at the home stay

Rice terraces ready for planting
Our home stay accommodation

Village school

Cooking dinner, Muong home stay
Traditional toast

Black River Reservoir

The group with our guide and the host

Hanoi to Tan Linh - 71km

Getting out of a city is never the highlight of the journey , but leaving Hanoi was surprisingly painless. Traffic volumes in the morning are much less than later in the day, and the main roads are broad and well maintained. The weather was overcast and grey and we needed long tights, wind proofs and full gloves. Heading west on a local road, number 75, the flat route was uninspiring through endless rough suburbs. 

Hardwood stacks
It is depressing to travel past countless wood yards, all with massive stacks of ancient hardwood tree trunks, realising the thousands of years of growth that are being harvested to feed the huge demands for it.

An even worse sight followed as we came to the 'dog meat capital' with massive metal cages of live dogs  to 'pick your own', followed by stalls loaded with whole roasted dogs, complete with heads and tails. The stench was nauseating and the buildings and road surface were coated with a black greasy slick of deposits from the ovens.We couldn't even bear to take a photo of this.

Coffin maker
Further away from the city was more agriculture in the flat river valleys, with rice and market gardening. We followed a quiet country road but in the greyness there was nothing inspiring about the ride at all.

Paper decorations
Tan Linh was just a line of tourist shops and eateries interspersed with a few guest houses along the road which runs at the side of the Ba Vi national park.

Brightest thing we saw all day
We followed some signposts to consider staying at a 'Resort and Spa', with rooms at $75 a night and a heated swimming pool. Instead we booked into a small family run guesthouse at $10 a night including an evening meal.

Tan Linh to Hoa Binh - 55km

The weather was no better and the 800m Ba Vi mountain was still invisible. During the morning we rode around three sides of it and never saw it at all.

We headed west on the 87, a well surfaced, rolling road, towards the Black River valley. Dropping down to the river bank there was a minor road along this eastern bank marked on our map. But a local man signalled to us that we couldn't get through on that road and sent us back up the hill  onto another minor, unnumbered road along the upper part of the valley to Cho Moc. This eventually dropped back down to the Black River and we followed the river banks through a poor rice growing area, with many quarries and completely treeless.

Closer to Hoa Binh the riverside was prettier, with bamboo and shady trees although, with the weather, shade was not a requirement. The road was quiet with just motorbike traffic.

House boats in the mist
Arriving in the centre of Hoa Binh, which lies just below the massive Black River dam, we realised that the camera had not been out of the bag all day so took a quick misty photo from the river bridge.

The town seems destined for future expansion with a wide, hardly used, dual carriageway and half built tower blocks. It has several large, poor quality and rarely used hotels with musty, dirty bedrooms on the main road. We chose a newer one, less musty but still not wonderful.

Roadside Veg
In the evening we walked into the town in search of food. Up a side street we found a large Vietnamese restaurant. There were no other customers and the owners children peeked at us through the door while we ate our lonely meal. It was very good though.

Hoa Binh to Mai Chou - 65km

Black stemmed sugar cane
There was no changeinthe cold and misty weather the next day, and we still had to decide which route to take. We wanted to go via Mai Chau, but this was over a 800m pass and we knew we would be in the low cloud for much of the way. The alternative was to head back towards Cuc Phuong national park on the Ho Chi Minh road.

There was 30km before decision time, a nice warm up climb of about 200m on the busy and smooth highway 6, and a gentle descent on the other side to Muong Khen.

Anyone for chicken?
Now we were ready for the next climb and blow the weather. Eating places on the road were scarce and we were hungry. Seeing a couple of buses parked at a cafe, we figured that they should have a reasonable choice of freshly prepared food.

We ordered chicken and rice and got a platter of cold steamed rice, a potion of the rubberiest boiled chicken you've ever chewed, and a couple of tablespoons of peanuts.

Grass drying on the road
The climb started straight afterwards but there was no problem with overfull stomachs, most of it being still on the plate. It was a very gentle and easy climb  and from 600m we were shrouded in thick cloud.

Lorries laden with gravel chugged past us and it was tempting to grab hold of the back and get towed along, except the toxic exhaust fumes would have choked us.

Scruffy roadside stalls near the top were selling pork kebabs and bamboo shoots, still nothing to tempt us.

It's freezing up here!!

At  the top the cloud was so thick that we stopped and put on jackets and gloves, even switched on our lights expecting a cold and miserable descent.

Sun reflection in the valley
After only a couple of minutes the cloud cleared, above was blue sky, the temperature went up at least 10 degrees, and around us were beautiful tree clad slopes. It was difficult to decide whether to go slowly and appreciate the view or bomb down the lovely snaking descent.

A beer with a view
Halfway down was a small drink stall and viewing platform. The floor of the valley was a patchwork of rice paddies, all flooded ready for planting reflecting the misty  golden glow of the late afternoon sun.

Planting rice
After a reviving can of Hanoi beer the rosy tints increased and we arrived in Mai Chou with broad grins across our faces. Guys on motorbikes patrol the streets here, trying to tempt tourists to their 'home stay' longhouses but we ignored them and booked into a guesthouse.

Day Off

Team work
We spent the day cycling round the narrow lanes and paths across and round the paddy fields and up the tributary valleys.

Brick kiln
Mai Chau is the closest 'ethnic village' to Hanoi and so  is a popular tourist destination. It's two main products are rice and bricks.

Traditional circular pleated skirts
A lot of the traditional houses have been adapted to provide 'home stay' accommodation and the village women run craft shops, selling a mixture of locally produced products and imports.

Basket weaver
Even so it still retains much of its authentic rural identity and traditions.

Bike wash
The bikes were a muddy mess so we took them to the car wash.

Home from school
While waiting for the bikes to be spruced up we watched the crowds of children riding home from school on their bicycles......

How many towels can you get on a motorbike?
 ......and a motorbike linen seller.

Mai Chou to Canh Nang - 74km

Tapioca pile
It was back to grey and bleak weather this morning. We managed to get to the noodle stall just down the road today before they ran out of ' 'bun' noodles and had a delicious bowl of noodle soup.

Crossbow seller
Ten minutes out of town the rain started so the ponchos got their first airing of the trip. Ten minutes later we had to don  overshoes as well to stop our feet freezing.

Road out of Mai Chau
The road, QL 15A,  was narrow, slightly bumpy tarmac and very quiet. Ten kilometers of gentle climbing took us away from the wide rice paddies and into the upper Ma river valley.

Woven and thatched house

 The river was much wider and the valley deeper than we had expected with a road that varied greatly in quality. In places it was completely carved up by the heavy lorries, other stretches were in much better condition, and further down a new road was being constructed.

Chopstick making
There are only two natural resources in the upper
valley, bamboo from the mountain and sand from the river. All other trees have long since disappeared.

Bamboo on river
Most people seemed to be employed in chopstick making or transportation of bamboo, either by road or river.' Hallo' and high fives for everyone were exhausting.

Further down the valley
 Despite all the lorries almost blocking the roads through the upper villages there was hardly any traffic going down the river valley.

Even further down......

Down is a misleading description as there were a lot of short steep climbs and descents along the way, some of them very poorly surfaced. Around us the rocky mountain peaks and narrow, rice terraced side valleys kept the camera busy.

.......and even further
A narrow suspension bridge gave access to a small village on the other side of the river. Just wide enough for a motorbike, it had a wooden planked surface.

Who would ride a bike over a bridge like this?
Only every alternate plank was fixed in position with a metal bolt, the remainder were just loose boards  resting on the metal joists, and a lot  of the bolts had sheared from age. Crossing it on a heavily loaded bike was truly an act of faith.

More rice terraces, note the thick cloud
Turning onto QL 217, we continued down the river valley, and climbed the last hill into Canh Nang. At the brow of the hill a little lady was sitting frying pasties at the side of the road.

The tasty pasties
We ate three each and had some green tea to give us energy for the accommodation hunt. School children streamed past us, returning home on their bicycles. A ripple of excitement was caused by our presence, sitting quietly eating our snack. A group of eight boys, about ten years old accompanied us into town to 'help' us.

First try was a 'hotel'  which comprised of two blocks of rental rooms behind a large house. We looked at several rooms but in one the bathroom floor was collapsing and the others were musty and damp. One room had obviously been used the night before and the owner just quickly re-made the bed. When we asked for clean sheets she refused. So that was a no-go.

Down the road was an even worse place where not one of the rooms had a door which closed, let alone locked, and the 'massage' sign appeared to be code for 'brothel'. So the third place had to do. It was OK but the air-con cost extra and clothes had to be washed and dried before tomorrow. The local guesthouses here are OK but but if you have problems sleeping on bedding of questionable cleanliness and drying yourself with a tea towel it is a good idea to bring a silk sleeping bag, a towel and, in hot weather, a mosquito net.

To add insult to injury our attempts to get food that evening met with the first four places we tried turning us away. Thank goodness the fifth one didn't refuse because Steve would have thumped him. The food there was pretty good too. Medicinal beer was needed to lift our spirits in this depressing town but while we drank our ears were tortured by some of the worst karaoke yet.

Canh Nang to Vinh Loc - 71km

Morning reflections
The sun shining through the window woke us up. Warmer temperatures, with a few patches of blue sky cheered us up and a good noodle soup at the same place as dinner the night before fueled the legs

For the first time we were riding in t-shirts. We continued following the Ma valley, today  wider and flatter through lower hills. With no wind the flooded rice fields gave a perfect mirror image of the surrounding peaks.

By lunchtime we were at Cam Thuy where the 217 crosses the Ho Chi Minh road.

There was a popular restaurant, full of lively and noisy local tour groups and we were able to look at their food and chose what looked good. It was all fish and sea-food; eel soup, fried  fish and prawns and lots of cabbage and lettuce.

Ho Citadel, north gate and wall
South of the Ho Chi Minh road was a much poorer area, with subsistence level farming, just small traditional thatched and woven houses and most of the agriculture based on sugar cane. A lot of the fields were being prepared for planting so were just bare red soil and the rest had recently been burnt off.

South Gate
About 3km from Vinh Loc the road turns sharp left, while straight ahead is a massive stone block wall and arched gateway into the Ho Citadel. This 900m square structure was built in the 1400's and originally housed a town and castle.

Now all that remains are the walls and  four gates in the centre of each side.The inside of the walls are banked with soil and used by the locals for cattle grazing, while the flat central land is used for rice growing.

We were luckier with our accommodation search today, booking into the first place we tried. It was fairly new but already suffering from poor building standards, with plaster and paint falling off the walls in the bathroom. Across from our bedroom on the top floor was a large covered drying area with washing lines so we did a pile of washing and hung it out to dry before going off in search of food.

Just up the road from the guesthouse was what appeared to be the only place with food open in town. But what a place it was - a proper indoor restaurant, with smart wooden tables and chairs, wallpaper and lighting. It was owned by a Vietnamese couple who had emigrated to Canada after the war, but now returned home to care for his 99 year old mother. Once again we were the only customers and enjoyed a lovely meal.

Vinh Loc to Thanh Hoa - 47km

Vinh Loc Market
We returned to the same restaurant for our breakfast before setting off for the short ride to Thanh Hoa.

Last of the karst
After the first hour we left the karst rock hills behind and the valley was flat and wide, bounded by low hills. The roads started to get busier now.

Corn stalks
Most of the villages were growing corn and the corn heads were still drying, spread out over the ground in front of the houses. Along the sides of the roads and lanes, the corn stalks were also stacked to dry for animal fodder.

Graves in among the rice
The road condition changed constantly, sometimes a smooth dual carriageway then narrowing again and poorly surfaced. The surroundings were flat and featureless, lots of rice and corn and noisy traffic.

Thanh Hoa, like most North Vietnamese is a sprawling mass of concrete but it does have a large choice of places to stay. Using the Google map we set off on a tour of possible contenders for our custom. Five failed simply by their shabby facades, three passed muster externally but were awful inside so that left just one, a big new place called  'Quốc tế Thiên Ý.' It cost about twice as much as the others but it was worth it.

Over the road was a small pavement  bar serving snacks and beer. They were very proud of their English language menu. We laughed so much at some of the translations that we nearly fell off our little stools.

Thanh Hoa to Ben Sung - 59km

On the way out of town Steve spotted a popular noodle stall where we got the best 'bun' yet: lots of noodles, thick slices of cooked pork, small pork meatballs, quails eggs, vegetables and rich spicy stock. Like bacon, eggs, sausage, baked beans, toast and a cup of tea but in a bowl.

Statue in Thanh Hoa
From Thanh Hoa the obvious route south is down highway 1, but this road is legendary for its dangerous traffic, constant horn blowing buses and terrible exhaust fumes. So we headed slightly inland to avoid it. The map showed a reservoir and national park called Ben En. There was little information on-line about it except a report of its rich bio-diversity from 1997 and a suggestion that there was a guest house there.

We left the city, cycling past the huge square with a statue of xx, whoever he was, and followed QL45. There had been some heavy rain overnight so the sides of the road were a slick of thin mud which splattered everything.

Ox Cart
There wasn't much traffic and the going was pretty flat all the way to the outskirts of Ben Sung where we spotted a signpost to the national park. It was about 11km down a narrow but well surfaced road climbing up gently towards the dam.

The Ho Sung Muc reservoir

 The park offices are just beyond the dam, staffed by a few bored staff who spoke no English. The only way to access the park is by boat and as it was already 2pm in the afternoon it was a bit late.

Riding across the dam
The guesthouse was available, a very basic affair but we couldn't find out if there would be anything to eat. So we decided to head back to Ben Sung and stay there.

Ben Sung seemed to be over subscribed with guesthouse, there were at least four with each having about twenty rooms. However we appeared to be the only guests. As we carried the bags upstairs, the cleaner rushed around the room, mopping the floor. It was so cold and dank in there that it was still wet the following morning.

Ben Sung to Thai Hoa - 69km

Concrete grave ornaments
Today's was an amazing and memorable ride through some real back-country areas. It started well with a really good pho soup just down the road from the guesthouse. Not being sure quite what services there would be today we brought some fruit from a street stall before we left.

Bread baking
It was warmer and drier but still the thick, low cloud. We retraced yesterdays route for about 10km to Nong Kong and turned onto the TL505 towards the Dap Yen My reservoir.

Carving wooden furniture
 It was a smooth road with hardly any traffic and almost flat all the way to the reservoir. It is a poor area with a lot of houses of woven bamboo and thatch although there were a couple of reasonable guesthouses along the 505 and one on the side of the water.

Pen of ducklings by the road
 The rolling hills here are mostly bamboo and plantations of young trees for wood pulp. A lot of steep slopes are being cleared to plant sugar cane.

Dap Yen My Reservoir
As we rode along the banks of the reservoir the children were heading home for lunch on their bicycles. They were all carrying their own small red plastic stool in the handlebar basket. They stopped to have their photo taken with us on their mobiles.

The tarmac ends here

After the reservoir we took a left turn onto an unnumbered tarmac road. The tarmac ended at the head of a small valley and from there was a narrow dirt road for the next 10km.

Never looks steep on a photo
 The first section was a steep uphill but the motorbikes had created a relatively smooth path and, being dry, it was ok. It would be impossible in the rainy season. There were so few people or vehicles and it was a relief to not have to constantly shout 'hello'.

Typical views
It seemed we were miles from anywhere but we still found a good lunch and later a cup of coffee as we navigated our way through many small villages that were not even marked on the map.

Children checking out the bikes
The road was very rough and stoney  in places but got better as we neared Thai Hoa and crossed the Ho Chi Minh road again.

Thai Hoa is a busy town with lots of heavy traffic, many buses and lorries carrying building materials. We found a small, brand new  hotel, the first place that seemed to be built to western standards with comfy beds and clean sheets, such a treat. Nest door to the hotel was a cafe, and next door to that and next door to that.... every alternate place on both sides of the road served coffee. It took us thirty minutes to find anywhere that served food!

Thai Hoa to Den Chau - 57km

Now it was time to head back to the coast and south to Vinh, before turning back north west towards the Laos border. The morning traffic was still very heavy, lots of lorries carrying sand and gravel. As they drove down the road water dripped from their loads, covering the road surface with mud.The road is in a poor state of repair so it was a matter of keeping away from the lorries, steering round the potholes and avoiding the worst of the mud.

After 12km we took the left fork onto the TL537 which was quieter and had a better road surface. This crosses highway 1 at traffic lights and we headed down towards the coast.

So many fishing boats
Using the sat nav we turned onto a narrow lane, over a couple of bridges with colourful fishing boats moored on the banks.

The Ark?
We turned onto a lane running at the side of the second river and passed a boat yard where they appeared to be building the ark. When Steve stopped to take a photo the guy chased him off, must have thought we were trying to copy his design.

The sea wall road
The lane led down to a long, straight sea wall,  built about 500m from the beach. It has a smooth concrete roadway on top and the strip of land between the road and beach is planted with conifers.

The aliens are coming

With the tide was well out, the small fishermen's shelters standing on long bamboo stilts, shrouded in the low cloud, looked like the space creatures from the 'War of the Worlds' film.

Piles of rubbish on the beach
It  was peaceful and quiet, with  no other traffic, and could have been beautiful, but the roadsides and beach were just one mass of revolting stinking rubbish.

Rice paper
Closer to Den Chau we went through several small villages, just a narrow main street lined with houses. Everyone was working on some building project, with heaps of sand and gravel everywhere. There were glass noodles drying on poles and rice paper circles on wicker racks.

Attacking the lau
Eating places were thin on the ground in these poorer places so we arrived in Den Chau about 2pm, needing a good lunch. Our usual tactic is to search for somewhere with plenty of customers and there was a perfect place along the street serving lau, a type of Vietnamese hotpot. While we made short work of the delicious fish and vegetables.....

....... the waiter tried our bikes out for size.

Den Chau to Vinh - 53km

The buffet breakfast table had been stripped bare by the time we went down to breakfast at 8am. We scraped together the last bits of fruit and cold omelette.

The sky remained grey and it had rained a lot overnight. Outside the hotel highway 1 was heaving and noisy but we turned our backs to it as we headed towards the coast on QL7. The Google map only showed this road but when we got close to the beach we found there was another section of sea wall topped with a concrete road which runs parallel to the beach all the way to the end of the bay.

The road started promisingly enough
There was no-one around and of course it was flat all the way. The piles of rubbish along the roadsides were ugly and smelly, but not as bad as yesterday. Where the sea wall ends at the headland we continued on the minor road that follows the coast around a low, red sandstone headland.

Round the corner it turned into this
It started well with reasonable tarmac for a kilometer. After that there had been several minor landslides that had covered the road surface in thick red soil.The rain overnight had created a nice slick red mud which quickly covered the bikes and made forward progress more challenging as we skidded through the mess.

We weren't the only cyclists here. Crowds of local women had cycled down to clamber over the rocky shore, collecting shellfish. It seemed unlikely that anything living could evade their intense searching. 

Bai Lu Bay
Bai Lu bay has a lovely sandy beach and appears to be earmarked for tourist development with a new road  being built and several half finished and abandoned projects.

Neared to Cua Lo is a short section of dual carriageway that quickly reverts to a narrow lane.The many small houses hugging the sides of the lane will have to be demolished to complete the project.

Cua Lo is a strange beach resort about 10km from Vinh. It probably has a nice beach when the sun shines, but in the grey, miserable light it looked horrible and only the sand between low and high water levels was clear of rubbish. Along the beach road are many huge concrete government owned hotels.

We had lunch at one of the beach side seafood restaurants and as expected, were totally ripped off, but did have a good meal of prawns and calamari.

Vinh city gate
Vinh was one of the North Vietnamese cities that was almost totally destroyed in the war. In the 70's it's official population size was 0. There is nothing much special about it except a large park with a statue of Ho Chi Minh, who was born just down the road, and three of the original gates of the old citadel.

We now had seven days left on our visa and planned to have a day off then spent five days travelling north west on highway seven to cross the border into Laos at Nam Khan. It would be a difficult ride, about 230km from Vinh up the Ca river valley, culminating in a 1,200m climb to the border.

Then Karen's left knee, which had been sore for about a week, suddenly got really painful and she couldn't even walk. From experience she knew it needed at least seven days of complete rest. It was too late to extend the Vietnam visas so we had to get out of the country. 

Either we had to get a bus to Vientiane in Laos, at least ten hours on a questionable quality bus, or  fly, one hour and a guaranteed seat. Vietnam airlines has only just introduced this direct flight from Vinh to Vientiane. With flights booked for Monday, we had a weekend to waste in Vinh. Then Steve got a stomach bug and the change of plan seemed an even better idea.