15.02.2011 - 19.02.2011
To head north back towards China or chase the warmth further south in Vietnam? That was the question. At this stage we were still clinging to our indecipherable maps, currency, mandarin phrasebook and a fading hope of giving cycling in China another go. When we were mapping out our route before we left the UK our initial plan was to spend at least 2 months in China but we left after a mere 2 weeks. After having gone on about how epic our cycle in China was going to be I felt like I had wimped out. This felt all the more acute after meeting one of the only cycle tourers we have met so far in Vietnam - Rob from Blackpool who we met in Halong Bay. Rob is in his sixties and enthusiastically shared his experiences of cycling in China with us. It turned out he was there at a similar time to us, but he was in Sichuan which is MUCH colder, he was also camping and cycling over 4.000 metre mountain passes in the snow. Clearly we just aren't that hard core. (My) Rob and I have quite different philosophies when it comes to cycle touring which have become more and more apparent over the course of the trip - particularly since we left New Zealand. Rob is much more pragmatic than me and sees the cycling as something to be enjoyed and not endured. This translates into - if it is cold we should leave to go somewhere warmer and if the cycling is boring then why not take a bus or train to where it is more interesting.? Yes all very logical and sensible - two things that I am not - so this is where we differ. I see the 'boring' bits as 'challenges' and like the idea of saying that we cycled all the way from A to B - even if the cycling was unenjoyable.... Yes I know that this doesn't make much sense!
So realistically if we were to have another stab at cycling in China we would need to head north from Hanoi but the lure of the balmy weather that Rob had experienced south of Hanoi while I was back in England invoked reluctance in both of us to go back to taping plastic bags over our feet in China so we decided to head south and explore more of Vietnam.
We decided to head to Hue; the old imperial capital of Vietnam and the site of one of the most fierce and bloody battles in the Vietnam War. During the 1968 Tet offensive, the city was virtually destroyed and 5,000 civilians were brutally killed including intellectuals, merchants, Buddhist Monks, Catholic Priests and Vietnamese who sympathized with the Americans. Doing some research on the route to Hue and reading cyclists' blogs on www.crazyguyonabike.com it seemed as though the cycling was pretty boring as it is all very flat and quite depressing cycling through the demiliterised zone. So inkeeping with Rob's approach to keeping cycling enjoyable we decided to take the overnight train. This was the first time we had put our bikes on the train in Asia and was very straightforward although slightly nerve wracking as we had to send the bikes ahead on a different train without us for the princely sum of 60,000 VND (less than 2 pounds). The train ride was quite reminiscent inter-railing after A-levels in a cramped sleeper carriage with the heaviest snorer on the train. When we finally found the buffet carriage at about 7am it was thick with cigarette smoke and an overpowering smell of beef. The boys in the kitchen were cooking (which in itself is more than you get on a train in England) pho bo; a beef dish with noodles in broth in a massive cauldron and chain smoking while they were doing it. We were starving hungry but bits of tongue and intestine were a bit too much for us to handle at 7 in the morning so we gingerly picked them out and gobbled down the noodles.
We chugged into Hue at midday - delighted to find out that our bikes had made it there too. We enjoyed Hue alot - it felt very calm and peaceful after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and the deep scars of the war were not overtly visible. The highlight was cycling through garden houses, which are privately owned wooden houses surrounded by flower gardens and orchards with narrow paths lined with green trees connecting them. We stopped to explore one and were invited in for green tea with an elderly Vietnamese man called Bam who patiently listened to us try and stutter out our very limited set phrases in Vietnamese as we attempted conversation.
As we meandered through these lush beautiful gardens it gave us a chance to decided on what route 'south' were were going to take. There are basically two main routes down towards Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) which is over 1,000 km away. Option one - the most popular and commonly travelled route - is down the coast the whole way. This goes down state highway 1 which is very busy but very flat. Option two is to cut inland after Hoi An and go through the central highlands on the old Ho Chi Minh Highway. We opted for option two.
We were up early the next morning keen to get going on the bike (with my trip back to the UK it has been almost 2 weeks since I was on the bike). After what is becoming our staple breakfast of baguette (legacy of the french occupation of Vietnam) with an omelette we were on the road. As we were riding close to the coast we expected to see the beach on the way down but what we have discovered, depressingly, it that most sections of coast are only accessible through resorts. We stopped at one of these for lunch in Lang co - just to get sight of the sea. It was enormous and almost completely empty with a beach strewn with litter. Who stays here?? With 90 kms in our legs we set off to face the Hoi Van pass - a 500 metre climb. The climb was about 9 km and only 1 km in and we were enveloped in mist. Although the view is meant to be spectacular we couldn't see more than 2 metres in front of us on the ascent - although on the plus side it meant we were blissfully unaware of how far we had to go. When we finally reached the top - marked by an old french fort - we were greeted with a cacophany of screeches of "cafe cafe!! buy something!! buy souvenir!!" People raced towards us beckoning palm downwards as we reached the summit. We plodded on. The descent into Danang was glorious as the mist miraculously lifted completely about 1 km from the peak and we cycled the final 12 km to Danang with the sun on our faces.
We weren't expecting too much of Danang - in our minds it was just a pit stop on the way to Hoi An, but as we staggered out after a quick shower on the search for a hearty dinner we ended up having one of the best evenings of our time in Vietnam so far. The restaurant that we had eyed up for dinner was heaving with people, always a good sign with bubbling delicious smelling fish hotpots fragrant with tamarind and ginger emerging second by second from the kitchen. The waitress walked towards us waving her hand as if playing an invisible tamborine. We gestured to indicate that we'd like to eat by miming shovelling food in our mouths. She waved her hand again. We looked at each other... I think the tamborine sign is Vietnamese for No. While we hovered uncertainly we were approached by two youngish (younger than us!) lads at a nearby table with great enthusiasm but limited English. They chattered in Vietnamese and pulled us by the arm to where they were sitting.... The more extravert of the two introduced himself as Wiz and insisted on sharing their dinner and beer with us. Every sentence was followed with 'oh yes' - 'drink more beer, oh yes, eat more food, oh yes!'. Before long Wiz had phoned his friends and his uncle who all joined us at the table for some food - but mainly beer. After three beers (which is more than I have drunk since Hong Kong!) we attempted to make a wobbly exit back to our hotel but Wiz had phoned his old university lecturer(???) who lived 'just down the road!' who wanted to meet us. So we tipped up at his house, where he greeted us in his pyjamas and with a bottle of rice wine and enthusiastic questions about our time in Vietnam. When we told them how much we were enjoying our time here they looked as though they could burst with pride.
A short cycle the following day took us to Hoi An - an ancient town only 40 km from Danang - and absolutely oversaturated by tourism. It was a completely different side to Vietnam to the experience we had just a short cycle up the coast. Here western tourists are walking ATM machines and an infrastructure has been set up to relieve tourists of their money in as pushy a way as possible. Hoi An certainly is beautiful architecturally but the cries of 'come into my shop! you like to buy something?' at 5 second intervals along street lined with tat to sell to tourists was quite wearing. Actually - that is not completely fair. Hoi An is famed for it's tailored clothes and the quality of the work and the speed with which they can produce it is quite amazing. Rob and I had a shirt/dress made respectively for a wedding we are going to in Malaysia in April - both were completed within 5 hours. But a day was enough and with our new clothes we peddaled out of the madding crowd but not without stocking up on pastries first. Panniers were loaded with 2 pain au chocolat and 4 croissants before we hit the road the next morning heading for the spectacular mountain vistas in the central highlands.