A Travellerspoint blog

March 2011

Phan Thiet to Chau Doc in one gear

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"Over 5,000 km cycled on these bikes and nothing has gone wrong - not even a puncture!" A well worn phrase that Rob and I proudly sprout to anyone who expresses even the mildest interest in our cycle tour. Sadly for my sturdy two wheeled beast sand, salty water and bumpy roads proved to be a toxic combination, and on our last day on Phu Quy my rear derailleur gave up the ghost leaving me with one functioning gear. Rob made numerous valliant attempts to fix it by tightening the cable and adjusting the limiter screws but no dice.

So after 16 days on idyllic Phu Quy essential bike maintenance beckoned us back to the mainland of Phan Thiet. Perhaps over-optimistically we hoped that a thorough clean would wash away the mechanical problems so we set about searching for a 'Rua Xe' - a motorbike wash shop. These are as ubiquitous as corner shops as motorbikes are the most valued possession of the vietnamese of all generations, however not all of them are willing to wash lowly bicycles! After being turned at a few rua xe with the now familiar tamborine shaking hand signifying a firm 'no!' we were welcomed in by a lovely man called Kim who, after escorting us to his favourite cafe for a 'caphe sua nong', pulled up small plastic chairs in the entrance of his garage so that we could monitor how much love and attention our bikes were getting and then proceeded to invite his entire family including his grandchildren to converse with us while he pored over our map of Vietnam and the photos of where we had been. We were charged a paltry 25p per bike and when it turned out that we didn't have enough small change he flat out refused to take more than we had (about 10p) despite our protests that we could change larger notes elsewhere. This exuberance, warmth and generosity is consistent with the vast majority of our experiences so far in Vietnam - and almost always when we are trying to pay for a service provided to us that has been invaluable. This played out again not ten minutes later when we cycled off on thoroughly clean bikes (but sadly mine was still malfunctioning!) to find a bike mechanic. We spotted a hole in the wall with about twenty bikes (all single speed) stashed in it and approached slowly to check it out. We were greeted enthusiastically by 3 bike mechanics who, although no one seems to ride bikes with gears in Vietnam, immediately identified the problem area. Sadly after half an hour of grafting in oppressive heat they weren't able to fix it. As Rob moved towards his wallet just to pay them for their time they jumped back, almost as if scalded, and shook their heads and invisible tamborines vehemently. As well as being warm the Vietnamese we have met are also very proud. Perhaps the refusal to accept money for a problem they weren't able to fix is indicative of this. Rather than perceiving these episodes as chores or neccessary evils of cycle touring, these little encounters have given us opportunities, albeit fleeting ones, to meet and interact with locals in a way that we would never experience if we were travelling by bus/train/plane. Our bicycles are a really special vehicle (no pun intended) for this.

However the fact remained that I still only had one gear. Originally our plan was to cycle along the coast to Vung tau and then through the Mekong skirting round Saigon/HCM city in an attempt to avoid the chaos of negotiating the traffic system of a sprawling city by bike. However by the time we got to Vung tau 170km later and still in one gear it was starting to look like a trip up to Saigon was going to be necessary as there would not be another chance to get to a city with a bike shop till Phnom Pehn in Cambodia. Mercifully the cycle to Vung tau was almost completely flat and a mixture of some absolutely stunning cycling through rural Vietnam around the lighthouse south of Phan Thiet - but depressingly most of it was a massive construction site of soon to be super hotels and resorts rendering tens of kilometres of beautiful beach inaccessible.
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Vung tau itself is an odd little place which was quite disappointing as we were looking forward to a last stint on the beach as it would be our last coastal stop until Thailand. It is quite industrial with a very skinny strip of beach catering to Russian tourism en masse and a sizable community of aussie ex-pats as there used to be an Australian army base in Vung tau during the war. The only thing Vung tau really had going for it was an impressively capable bike mechanic who miraculously sorted out my derailleur (the problem was in the cable housing) so I had all my gears back meaning a trip up to Saigon was no longer necessary, hurray! Or so we thought.... It turns out that there are no boats at all linking Vung tau with the Mekong. The only way is to go all the way up into Saigon and then all the way back down. With precious few days left on our Vietnam visa (despite a month extension) we packed the bikes on the ferry up the estuary to arrive in Saigon that evening. Trying to get our bikes on other forms of transport (ferries, busses, trains, planes) is without doubt the most or possibly the only stressful part of cycle touring. It is also the time when you are wide open to getting ripped off which is what happened to us this time. We were charged about double the cost of a passenger ticket to take the bikes on the ferry - a figure plucked out the air by an officious and aggressive sounding ferry operator. Despite the fact that we had been told that we could take the bikes on board we were blocked entry until we had lined his pocket. Cajoling got us nowhere. Neither did shouting. So eventually grudgingly we paid. This is the other side of Vietnam that we have had little experience of but heard widely recounted by other travellers, leaving a bitter taste in our mouths as we wove up the river into Saigon.

Saigon was just a pit stop in the end as we were chomping at the bit to cycle the Mekong having heard from another cyclist that it was their highlight of all of Vietnam. We took a bus out the next morning which was equally if not more stressful than our episode with the ferry - and again we got fleeced for taking the bikes on board. However the delights of cycling through the Mekong quickly dissolved our anxiety. Cycling along the Mekong truly was an assault on all the senses. Categorically my favourite part of the trip through Vietnam - and possibly the trip so far. There was so much to see and experience that I felt I was having to slow down as much as I could to take it all in. From carpets of chilli drying in the sun to the smell of incense that was being produced on the side of the road and the hustle and bustle of the villages on stilts hovering precariously above fields of watery lillies this was a fitting end to our cycle touring in this amazing country. We spent the night in Chau Doc on the border preparing to cross into Cambodia the next day.
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Posted by mrs lewis 05:35 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Kitesurfing in phu quy

sunny 26 °C

We arrived in Phan Thiet for lunch after cycling 100km from the central highlands down to the coast, with a spectacular 1200m descent. Phan Thiet is a bustling fishing town, famous for its fish sauce and the pungent aroma of this staple Vietnamese ingredient wafts through its streets. We found a lovely little restuarant on the waterfront and gorged on fabulously fresh seafood. One dish of raw fish marinated in lime and chilli, wrapped into pankakes, was particularly good. Reenergised we headed north to Mui Ne, kitesurfing capital of Asia, where we planned to build on the lessons we had in Auckland. 10km out of Phan Thiet the streets became lines with hotels, golf courses and resorts, a real contrast to the highlands we had spent the previous 10 days in. We managed to find a nice little bungalow right on the seafront for $20 dollars a night as well as a kiteschool recommended by Mei Mei, a girl we had met in China and bumped into again here.

The next day brought us good wind and we managed a few hours of lessons. However, the next couple of days, the wind dropped and the touristy, charmless feel of Mui Ne was wearing us down. People who aren't into watersports still seem to come here but i'm not sure why. There is little to do apart from eating seafood and pizzas and the beach is pretty mediocre. With little to do we rented a motorbike and headed out to the sand dunes which were very beautiful.
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Our new favourite website, www.Windguru.com , was forecasting no wind for a few more days so we asked our instructor Matt if there was anywhere we could go untill things picked up. "Try Phu Quy, a peaceful little island 100km off the mainland" Why not we though so the next morning at 7.30 we hopped on the "fast boat" Three hours later we arrived, soaked through and feeling seasick after a pretty scary journey through massive swells and into a brutal headwind.

Coming to Phu Quy has turned out to be a real highlight of Vietnam and 11 days after arriving we are still here as I write this blog entry. The island itself is full of beautiful sandy beaches, pagodas and temple, and the people here are as warm as the weather. Tourists only started coming to the island last year (the island has seen under 400 tourists in total) and so the only tourist infrastructure is a couple of little guesthouses and many parts of the island are totally undeveloped. Its yet to get in the lonely planet but you get the feeling that its only a matter of time before it becomes overrun so we feel privileged to be here at this moment in time.
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Turns out this place is also a bit of a paradise of kitesurfing and when we met an instructor called Zak on our first day here it made perfect sense to continue our lessons (note the very red back!).
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We also met someone willing to sell us some second hand gear so we are now the proud owners of a kite and board! Its put a bit of a dent in the travelling budget but i tell Mariana its an investment. In what i am not totally sure. We have met a great crew of people here including some really interesting characters including the four English guys we came out on the boat with (Adrian, Fraser, Andy and Dave, ) an Aussie called Geoff who first started coming here and bringing fellow kitesurfers last year, 2 young Germans (Patrick and Flo) who are awesome kitesurfers, a crazy Dutchman called Andre and aspiring extreme sports coach to the rich and famous, David. We also found a great restaurant where the owner Hua looks after us cooking us hearty dishes after a day out on the water. The wind gets extremely strong here so we have still been limited in the number of days we could get out on the water so we are still learning the ropes. However, i have now mastered the Jesus walk - here is some footage that Mariana took of me earlier today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvT1xaVkZ7M

Ok, that's not me but we have become very skilled at getting up on the board now before hurtling along for about 10 seconds before spectacularly wiping out. This is me shortly before doing just that.
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Its a lot more difficult than it looks but we are determined to get half decent before returning to the UK. The plan now is to stay a few more days (the wind guru has sucked us in with promises of perfect wind for the next few days) before heading across Vietnam and then down through Thailand.

Posted by roblewis 03:38 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

cycling the central highlands of Vietnam

sunny 28 °C

Stuffed with pastries we left Hoi An following the route used by a Danish cycle blogger called Peter Jacobsen. Rob thinks I am a bit obsessed with him. PS has been doing a similar route to us through China and Vietnam so every time we make it to an internet cafe I check out where he has got to and read about his cycling experiences. On this occasion Rob had to grudgingly admit that my poring over his blog entries had paid off as PS had written in great detail about a backroute he found, avoiding all main roads, going through some tiny villages on smooth roads to a little wooden pier where we could take a boat across the estuary and cycle on quiet roads for the next 20 km along the coast.

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Shortly after heading inland on the QL14e we started to climb. Roads started to deteriorate as we went through small villages nestled in lush vegetation. Most houses were built out of wood with thatched or corrogated iron roofs on burnt orange soil. You would be hard pressed to find any of these houses without a satellite dish clinging to the side of it. The weather was closing in, first mist, drizzle and then rain, drenching our clothes that were already wet with sweat. We had 90 km in our legs before we finally stopped for our afternoon vietnamese coffee (these are jetblack shots of adrenaline with the consistency of watery mud, served with a generous shot of sweet condensed milk). This was served to us by a Vietnamese woman wearing pyjamas (a common site as we later discovered). We set off half an hour later for the final 20 km which, unbeknownst to us would be the hardest of the day. The rain was bouncing now and we sloshed painfully slowly through milky tea coloured puddles on a 10% incline. Even though we have been in Asia for over a month I always forget that it gets dark really early compared to what we were used to in New Zealand - it is completely dark by about 6.10pm although it is still blazing hot at 4pm. In the last couple of hours the sun just drops out the sky so the race was on the make it to Phuoc Son (or Kham Duc - confusingly Vietnamese towns seem to have more than one name and more often than not the name on our map is not the name on the road signs so a lot of guesswork is required!) before dark. We made it at about two minutes to six soaking, muddy and exhausted. Phuoc Son is a small town with 2 guesthouses and one main eaterie and a couple of residential streets. The guesthouse owner Tinh (which also means love he was quick to inform us) was very friendly and enthusiastic to hear about our cycle. He produced his guestbook with a flourish to show us that only 5 days earlier 12 Belgian cyclists had passed through Phuoc Son and stayed at his guesthouse. We spent the evening munching on our dwindling chocolate stash that I had brought over from England while we shared travel tales. Tinh passionately spoke about his trips by motorbike through Vietnam. He spoke with such pride about his own country and its beauty, displaying faded family photos that were almost identical to each other- all by the roadside infront of their motorbikes and different roadsigns across the country charting their route. His in depth knowledge of Vietnam and all of its contours was a great help to us as he sat down and drew us and elevation map of the next 100 kms which proved to be incredibly accurate. The next day - still raining - we put on our still wet clothes that clung uncomfortably to our skin. We set off down the QL14 - the old Ho Chi Minh highway which we would be following for at least the next 500 km to Buon Ma Thuot. For the next 36 km we climbed, reaching a height of 1,100 metres (just as Tinh's elevation chart said!). The descent was glorious and amazingly despite a whole morning cycling in the rain and mist all the clouds lifted on the other side of the mountain and we raced hungrily towards Dac Glei for lunch. Our map showed the distances between Phuouc Son and Dac Glei as 52 km but our GPS clocked us in at 58km. The extra 6 km felt very long, especially on grumbling stomachs. The change in landscape from one side of the mountain range to the other was quite incredible. It suddenly switched from very lush and dense jungle to dry and dusty red soil, rolling hills and rice fields. We really felt the extra km in our legs by the time we rolled into Plei Can, having done 223 km in 2 days with climbs over 1,000 metres.

cycling in the mist

cycling in the mist

Plei Can is quite unremarkable, made even less remarkable by the lack of running water in our bathroom and lack of window in our room. We have been slowly discovering that a window in the room is quite a rare thing in Vietnam - or at least in the highlands we have found that to be the case. Even rarer to get a window in the room WITH a double bed as well. When we request a room with a window the response is more often than not the tamborine shaking 'no' gesture. On the few occasions that we have had a room with a window we realised why they built the hotels without them. The Uncle Ho's communist manifesto blares its propaganda through the streets via tannoi at around 5am in the morning. Coupled with the rattling of the window frames as trucks thunder past honking their horns persistently (even in the dead of night) rooms with windows make for a poor nights sleep. In the hotel in Plei Can they went for a compromise - our room had a window, complete with curtains, but with a vista onto the communal corridor!

After the past couple of 100km plus days we decided to take it a little bit easier and the next couple of days to Kontum and then Chu se were shorter and easier. Arriving in Chu Se we were a bit worried that we would struggle to find accomodation as we don't have a guide book and we are gauging the services that a town might have by the size of the dot on the map - Chu Se had quite a small dot but it was getting dark and there was no way we would make it to the next town. What we ended up with surpassed all of our expectations and is one of Rob's highlights of the trip so far. As the map predicted Chu Se is pretty small - it has a lovely market but otherwise there is not too much there other than this glittering gleaming hotel that looks as out of place as a space ship. We bagged a room on the top floor With TWO windows and a balcony for 300,000 VND (about 9 pounds). Rob was in raptures and went to explore. He came back 10 minutes later beaming and excitedly reported that you could get a massage in the hotel. Naturally we booked ourselves in - for a VIP massage whatever that means.... we soon found out. The VIP bit means that you get a bath as well as a massage. So we both (separately) were plonked naked in a bath by vietnamese girls that looked about half our age and scrubbed.... everywhere. I don't think I have experienced anything quite like it - at least not since I was about six or how ever old I was when I could have a bath on my own. But the massage bit was nice...

our amazing hotel in Chu Se

our amazing hotel in Chu Se

So re-energised and with layers of dirt lifted we continued our cycle through the rolling mountains of the highands as the scenery became more and more spectucular. From Chu Se to Lien Son, Dinh Van ,Dilinh and finally Phan Thiet we soared through pine forests, pristine villages nestled in mountains and rice fields, waterfalls and a breathtaking 1,200 metre descent to meet the sea at Phan Thiet. Even though we have been in the mountains the heat has been on the rise and so we have had to adapt our cycling routine. Chocolate has been substituted with mia da (sugar cane juice) sold on the roadside in shacks with childsize plastic chairs and tables and hammocks swinging between the trees. The heat between about 11am and 3pm is pretty brutal so we stop for a swing in the hammocks and this delicious sweet drink at least twice in this time. Luckily the Vietnamese seem to have a sweet tooth too, selling these delicious sticky glutinous rice concotions that are bright green (I think it is from green tea) and stuffed with coconut.

hammock and sugar cane break

hammock and sugar cane break

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In stark contrast to so many of the experiences we have heard from other travellers about 'pushy tourism' we found the Vietnamese in the central highlands to be warm and hospitable. Meeting Vietnamese on the road they often whoop and give us big thumbs up pointing at our bikes and we also experienced simple kindnesses like free fruit given to us in the heat of the day when we stopped, parched, to catch our breath. There were a few places where we did inevitably experience attempts to rip us off (some of which were successful) particularly in Lak Lake where tourism is starting to take hold, but these were few and far between and certainly not significant enough to taint our perception of this beautiful and fascinating country.

So after 1,079 km over 11 days through the highlands (with one rest day) this is one of the most punishing, rewarding and spectacular legs of the entire trip so far. We are now in Mui Ne, kitesurfing capital of south east asia (apparently) so while we 'rest' from the bike and wait for our visa extension to come through (now that we are definitely not going back into China we thought we might as well get a month extension!) we are going to attempt to learn how to kitesurf. Rob is already talking about the aerodynamics of strapping board and kite to the back of the bike so watch this space!

Posted by mrs lewis 21:07 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Rob on bicycle-cam in the highlands

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Sweat, bumpy roads and beautiful views as we go over another mountain pass in the central highlands of Vietnam. Enjoy!

Rob on bicycle-cam

Posted by roblewis 21:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Should we cycle north or south?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted by mrs lewis 21:06 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

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