|In the mountains near Dumaguete|
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|
After catching up on some sleep we explored the Old Quarter, teeming with TET tourists.
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|
|Old shop houses|
|Tin Box Maker|
|Delicate shell tiles on pagoda roof|
North Vietnam Tour
|Cai Rong Harbour|
|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|
|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|
|Morning market, Quan Lan|
|Windswept beach, Quan Lan|
|Boat party Ninh Xuan|
|Riding the 'Inland Ha Long'|
|!,000yr old tree, Cuc Phuong|
|Prehistoric Cave, Cuc Phuong NP|
|Rescued monkeys, Cuc Phuong|
|Primate rehabilitation centre|
|Rescued tortoise, Cuc Phuong|
|Farmhouse on top of the mountain|
|Pig family at the home stay|
|Rice terraces ready for planting|
|Our home stay accommodation|
|Cooking dinner, Muong home stay|
|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.
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.
|Brightest thing we saw all day|
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|
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.
Hoa Binh to Mai Chou - 65km
|Black stemmed sugar cane|
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?|
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|
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.
|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|
|A beer with a view|
|Traditional circular pleated skirts|
|Home from school|
|How many towels can you get on a motorbike?|
Mai Chou to Canh Nang - 74km
|Road out of Mai Chau|
|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.
valley, bamboo from the mountain and sand from the river. All other trees have long since disappeared.
|Bamboo on river|
|Further down the 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|
|Who would ride a bike over a bridge like this?|
|More rice terraces, note the thick cloud|
|The tasty pasties|
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
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|
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|
|Last of the karst|
|Graves in among the rice|
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.
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|
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.
|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|
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|
|Carving wooden furniture|
|Pen of ducklings by the road|
|Dap Yen My Reservoir|
|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|
|Children checking out the bikes|
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|
|The sea wall road|
|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|
|Attacking the lau|
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|
|Round the corner it turned into this|
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|
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|
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.