Epilogue

We have peddled-out two thousand kilometres in six weeks and have seen more of Vietnam than most Vietnamese. The vast majority know only their home town and their parent’s home town. The rest is beyond their means. A few have travelled more widely, and we found their perspectives fascinating.
  
Our overall impressions are of a noisy, self-confident nation with boisterous cheer. The people are industrious early-risers. Their homes are very often their workplaces too; a food stall out front or a brick yard, a guesthouse or a motorbike repair shop. They pinch time to rest and relax around their customers. Some were not sure what to make of two ‘snails’ (the local word for a western traveller) on bicycles so we were often greeted with curious glances. Once or twice the locals out-foxed us, but most helped us to understand their country before pointing us in the right direction. With a few exceptions everyone returned a smile. 
Here, gender roles vary from north to south according to practical needs, rather than pre-defined ideas about who should do what. Many women from the minority population looked more capable with a spade than their husbands. There are few special arrangements for children; when not at school they inhabit iced-tea shops or pick-up the family trade. They cycle or cruise around on their electric bikes. Toddlers are left by the roadside to play. Trucks roar by and scooters weave past in lethal proximity to everything else. 
A gentle socialist hand rests on the nation’s shoulder. Fences are rare. People look-out for their neighbours more than they envy their possessions. Everyone sweeps their drive in the morning, leaving the debris on the roadside where it blows back overnight. There is only one box to tick on the election card. Propaganda is broadcast by loudspeaker in all northern towns at 06.00 and 16.30. You can’t buy a western biography of Ho Chi Minh, the nation’s father, but there are plenty of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey in English or Vietnamese. Facebook and WordPress are frequently blocked. 

The food chain is local, universally manual and dirty. A network of a thousand unwashed hands and overloaded scooters. There are no fridges so live chickens stand next to their plucked cousins in the market. Remarkably, the produce is usually fresh, wholesome and delicious.

The wars with America and France have left roads through otherwise impassable jungle and ruins where there were once imperial palaces. We saw few people old enough to have grey hair. The younger generation were keen to tell their country’s history. However, they are busy looking forward, usually through the lens of their smartphone. 

It has been a fantastic adventure, writing the guidebook for our journey as we’ve travelled. We’ve planned, found ourselves stuck, re-planned, made mistakes and stumbled upon unexpected excitements. We have grown closer together with each shared meal, mile and mountain and have truly tired ourselves-out. We’re very happy to be returning home for a break and we’re looking forward to planning the rest of our lives together, including more adventures on two wheels. 

Advertisements

The Next Adventure…

Thursday 31 March. Ha Long Bay (Descending Dragon Bay).  

We spent our final three days on a smart boat trip around Bai Tu Long (Baby Dragon Bay), just east of the more famous and therefore busier, Ha Long Bay. We cruised and kayaked into lagoons and bays enclosed by towering limestone karsks. Lush green forests were balanced on top and below, great arches showed the way into hidden, tranquil corners. We glimpsed phoenix birds, eagles, and hawks circling as they looked for fish. It was the relaxation we deserved after the last few weeks of hard cycling. I am so glad I booked this trip in advance as I think Alex would have had us cycling to the airport!

  

Alex made me the happiest girl in Vietnam by asking me to marry him on a little beach during a kayaking trip. I said yes, happy to know I had passed the final cycling test! Last night we had a enjoyed a romantic dinner in a cave lit with candles and served on tables scattered with rose petals. The perfect way to end our trip.

    

Success!

Day 27: Sunday 80 km.  The final leg into the capital Hanoi. 

There was no evidence of Easter here but that wasn’t surprising. It was a nerve-racking final cycle through the city suburbs, a continuous road of markets, houses, people and buses which began as soon as we left Hoa Binh. The standard of driving fell steadily and was the worst we have encountered. I had no patience with it after being up in the night with a vomiting bug. On any other day we would have taken a rest but we had a target to meet so we soldiered on. It was a relief to arrive in one piece and fall into bed.  

   
We have found an NGO that donates bicycles to poor school children so our bikes will go to a good cause. My sore bottom is not sorry to see them go but I do feel a little nostalgic that the routine is broken. No new roads to explore today.  It will take some time for the achievement to sink in. Before our trip I hadn’t spent two days in a row on a bicycle. Now we’ve covered 2,000 km. In the meantime I want pizza and sleep!

   
The real holiday starts now with a 3 day boat cruise around Halong Bay before we fly home on Friday.

Green tea and yogurt

Day 25: Friday 25 March 

65km;  600m up then a glorious 1,000m down

  
The rain had cleared the air overnight so we saw the landscape without the usual haze. On Friday we cycled past tea plantations and white & black dairy cows. It could have been a bizarre alternate-reality England. We stopped for tea to realise it was green tea. Not as we’d imagined. This is the dairy producing part of the country so fresh yogurt was on the menu in every shop. However, by the next town there was no fresh yogurt to be seen. It still surprises us how locally produce is sold. Later we cycled past at least ten roadside stalls within a kilometre and all sold something wrapped in banana leaves. We stopped and found a black, sticky sort of cake inside. Good cycling fuel, we thought. We haven’t seen another similar stall since!    
It was a lovely run-in to Mai Chau, a little town nestled in a sunny valley. It was warm, sunny and welcoming. We booked a hotel, took a stroll, and chatted with another couple of keen cyclists over dinner. Perfect.

Day 26: Saturday 26 March
65km, 600m climb straight after breakfast – our last big hill of the trip!

We were well rested again after an afternoon off yesterday so the big hill I was fearing wasn’t as bad as expected. We have definitely got stronger since starting out six weeks ago. Super-smooth roads helped us descend in record time. We stopped on the way to say hello to the Hanoi Harley Davidson club who were out enjoying their weekend. These city-dwellers with time and money to spare were very different to the locals living in the places we’re just left behind. 

  
We arrived in Hoa Bin at 13:30 – officially after lunchtime. All the restaurants were sold out so we ate a variety of deep-fried snacks. All we could find. This fuelled our exploration of Hoa Binh’s only attraction, a huge hydro-electric dam in the middle of town. We were joined by a few unenthusiastic bus tours, bored teenagers and fishermen. The dam was big, and Soviet, and felt like an empty film set. We picked our final hostel based on the cafe next door. This cafe is excellent, probably the best in Vietnam. It has a *real* sofa, fresh juice, English books and beer. Ahhh.

Mud, hills, cold and other justifications for bakeries

Wednesday 23 March – 87km
  

The route started with a 900m climb over 25km. Luckily I played my only veto card of the trip and we caught a bus for £4. I would have payed ten times that! The bus driver played wailing local music very loudly and the woman in front asked us to top-up her phone as her eyesight was bad. Some cheap glasses would probably sort her out but she didn’t have any.We got to Son La city, our initial destination, by lunchtime. We were wet and filthy. It is only the second time we have seen rain and it turned the road brown with mud. 

The mile posts started counting down to Hanoi, 300km. Alex pointed out that we have four cycling days left so…. After a pregnant pause I did the maths and realised it was possible to make it all the way on the bikes. Our relaxed plan to finish with shorter distances went out of the window. We both enjoy a challenge too much and re-planned over lunch. We added a pleasant 25km to our afternoon and enjoyed a tailwind. 

  

We have got rather used to turning up in small towns and finding a guesthouse room for less than a tenner. We’ve also learned that every restaurant, cafe and street food stall specialises in one thing. Breakfast, coffee, main meals or desert; its impossible to get two in one place! The latest craze for teenagers here is tea cafes, they sit around all evening chatting and sipping cold, flavoured sweet teas. Perhaps because the central government has made tea a ‘major industry’ here in order to promote it. Still, much nicer than the bar culture in the UK.

Thursday 24 March – 90km, 900m up.

We haven’t spoken English to anyone since we left Sapa eight days ago. This means we have only spoken to each other. We are still firmly on speaking terms so that’s a bit of luck!

Thursday was a hard day with the hills in all the wrong places. The first was right after breakfast. The second made up the final 25km as the road wound-up to the side of a wide, dead-end valley. Rain, mud and a stiff headwind added to the elevation to make a long, long day on the bikes. We were glad to make it to Moc Chau, another non-descript town we’ll remember because it was cold. A chilly 12 degrees (not sure how we will cope back in the U.K. next week!).

  

We discovered a busy bakery. Sitting by the bread oven was the only warm place in town so we stayed for an hour watching the local shop keepers buy their stock. We munched through samples of freshly baked bread and cakes as they came out of the oven. 

We finished the evening with a whole roast chicken between us. The chicken was skinnier than UK ones so not as bad as it sounds! Delicious. We gathered that Vietnam beat China 2-1 at football because the commentary was on at 90 decibels while we ate (everything is so loud here!). 

  

On Rice Wine and Cycling Performance

Day 22:  75km Dien Bien Phu to Tuan Giao

Today we made a slower start than normal after beer and rice wine the night before. On the way to dinner we found the first pub we’d seen in Vietnam. Actually, it was a street corner warehouse full of tables and chairs. Men sat drinking jugs of draft beer while they chatted happily and noisily. Someone ordered us some bar snacks; pepperami-style meat to be wrapped in tough, bitter leaves and dipped in spicy sauce. I prefer peanuts!  

  
Later we picked an ethnic Thai restaurant for dinner (the Thai are a minority group here and not to be confused with Thais from Thailand). We sat on the floor once again to eat sticky ribs, beef and rice from small tables. We drank too much rice wine because the locals insisted on toasting this, that and everything. After every cheers they thank everyone and shake hands. Laborious! Bed by 10.30, a late night by Vietnamese standards. 

We have discovered Xoi for breakfast, a sticky rice topped with unknown crispy things and slices of unknown meat. It’s filling and makes a nice change from noodle soup. We took some steamed buns (we think filled with mushrooms and quails eggs) and a couple of Banh-Mi baguettes from our favourite supplier with us for the road. We had made a special trip to her stall for lunch yesterday to find it closed. Sandwiches are for breakfast and evening snacks here, and not the lunchtime staple we craved. Almost everywhere else was closed too, so we joined the locals in a siesta. 

 
 The road today was one of the best yet. We wound 500m up through the hills on quiet roads before plunging back to the river around sweeping bends. A great, edge of your seat sort of descent! The rest of the journey passed through wide valleys scattered with wooden houses and paddy fields. The locals have invented many ways to transport water to the correct paddies. We saw concrete aqueducts and weirs for the first time. Also water wheels where the river current lifted water a metre or so into a bamboo pipe. Finally, 75m long pipe bridges suspended over the road using steel cables.  

  
Only local produce is available in Vietnam – food and drink doesn’t usually travel far. It can be hard to find coffee in the north as it doesn’t grow here. We’ve stopped several times at a Ca Phé sign only to receive confused looks. Ca Phé seems to mean ‘some drinks, maybe’ and not coffee as you might expect! Still, we found the best coffee of the tour so far today. It’s made by balancing a metal filter pot on top of a mug. Once the coffee has dripped through its time to stir in condensed milk then ice. Today the waiter came and titivated our coffee several times before we were allowed to drink it. The coffee is always served with green tea in a separate glass.

  
Our destination was Tuan Giao, a one street town. We found a recommendation for a small hotel on travelfish.com (tips on the smallest places in Asia, even where Trip Advisor fails). We communicated with the elderly proprietor in French. Much better than the primitive sign language that we needed last week. We whiled away the hot afternoon drinking iced smoothies. 

Dien Bien Phu

Mon 21 March – Dien Bien Phu rest day. 
Dien Bien Phu is the provincial capital and it seemed lively after days on the back roads. Back in 1954 it was the site of a major military defeat for the French and not much has happened here since. We arrived yesterday afternoon and braved the heat to tour the re-constructed bunkers and a rather one-sided museum celebrating the Viet-Cong victory and the end of colonialism. Again, we felt like celebrities when random locals grabbed us to be in their selfies!  

  
Later we met with Zugi, a friendly guy who had helped us translate when we were in Muong Cha the day before. He had invited us for dinner with his colleagues so that they could practice their English. We were unsure about travelling out of town but were very glad that did. We arrived at a small warehouse selling roofing. He and his colleagues lived in a series of small rooms at the back of the warehouse. Two women, seven men, all between 25 and 30 years old and excited to meet us. Some had learned good English but had never spoken to a Westerner and were keen to practice. We shared a delicious meal of traditional home-cooked food sitting on the floor of their small kitchen. Alex had to drink a lot of beer with them but I was only offered Coke! We laughed a lot comparing our lives and showing photos of our tour so-far. We felt honoured by their generosity, it is moments like these when travelling that are the most memorable, not ticking off the seven wonders of the world.

  
Tomorrow we begin the final leg of our cycling journey, 5 days back to Hanoi. Not sure yet if I will feel relieved or nostalgic to have finished!

  

The Northwest Mountains

Days 18 to 21: 270 km through the mountainous northwest highlands. Sapa to Dien Bien Phu
Alex a.k.a. The Hill Fiend caught wind of a route recommended for motorcyclists through the ‘Badlands’ of the Tonkin Alps. We looped north from Sapa until we were close to the Chinese boarder and then south to Dien Bien Phu. It was a single road connecting a string of small towns set in deep valleys. The path often clung to the side of river wall with short-sharp ascents and descents. Each turn away from the water meant a long climb to leave one valley and enter the next. Sometimes the road was so steep that breathing precluded talking. 
 
In many places the road had been stripped-back to rock and dust while it was re-built after a landslide. Diggers hacked away at the ground while the traffic dodged past. We also saw construction work on new hydro-electric dams and bridges. The local tribes carried on living in the traditional way immediately adjacent to all of this modernity. The women’s colourful tribal clothes brightened every corner. Their timber and bamboo screened houses were well-built with a single storey living platform on stilts. Buffalo, chickens, dogs and pigs roamed freely below. We saw rice in terraced paddies at lower altitudes and higher we caught the occasional sniff of growing tea. Opium used to be the main crop up here until the government banned it. It may explain why only here every coffee house has a communal bamboo trunk smoker bong thing! Smoking, collecting firewood, fishing in the rivers and selling pineapples seemed to keep the villagers busy, in addition to helping each other build their houses. Female builders or labourers are common.

  
Our appetites and stomachs expanded to meet the physical challenge. On one typical long day we each ate: a bowl of Pho, two Banh Mi baguettes, two yogurts, two sweet breads, bananas, mouthfuls of honey rice crackers and peanut brittle, a lunch of rice, beef and vegetables, dried mango, three locally brewed beers and more noodles with pork for dinner.

   
We stayed in small towns with very basic accommodation organised using sign language. Power cuts were common. Dinner options were limited to pointing, and our basic Vietnamese words. We made the mistake of opening a saucepan lid on a road-side cart to ask what was inside. Two large mouthfuls on leaves were handed over. It was chewy and did not taste like any meat I recognised. In response to our confused faces they pointed at one of the dogs running past…I nearly threw up but managed to walk down the street and spit it out when they weren’t looking. The worst experience of the trip so far. I still feel sick when I think about it. 

 
Over four days we rode 280km of beautiful, challenging roads. We climbed a total of 10km vertically and we exhausted ourselves. Our reward has been a new perspective on a little-visited province of Vietnam. It was all worth it to see the landscape and people up-close from the saddle.
  

Sapa

Wednesday 16 March: a hike around Sapa
There are five ethnic tribes living in the mountains around Sapa. We met a lady from the H’mong tribe today to learn about the tribal cultures and her way of life. She took us for a walk through the rice paddies to two villages home to different tribes. It is still winter here in the north so the terraced paddies aren’t yet filled with lush green rice plants. They get only one rice harvest per year here compared to three around Saigon in the south. Still, the valleys are vast and the mountains are high, making for impressive scenery.


We covered a lot of subjects on our walk and it was fascinating to compare life here with life in the UK. Schooling is relatively new, especially for girls. Our guide was 26 and missed school because only boys were sent at that time. She’s since taught herself to speak very good English which impressed us a lot. Some here are Catholic after the French influence but others follow Shamanic principles. Having too many sons causes difficulty as the family land must be split. Daughters are easier as the husband’s family pays a dowry and takes responsibility for them after marriage. The youngest child inherits the family house in exchange for looking after the parents for longer. We feel very privileged to have access to the NHS at home as in most parts of Vietnam people have to pay for healthcare for themselves.


Before we met our guide we were concerned that tourism could be taking advantage of the locals, or distorting their way of life. However, our guide was happy to show tourists around as she appreciates the extra income to support her family and improve their quality of life. In fact she wished she did more guiding to save for some extra land or high school for her children.

We found a local place for a hotpot tonight. They bring a large pan of vegetables and stock which is placed on a camp stove. Next a plate of raw pork and black chicken (skin, bones, everything black) for us to cook in the stock and eat in small bowls. Tasty! Alex shared one too many shots of rice wine with a boisterous group from Hanoi on a boys’ weekend. A fun end to a fun day

The sun is shining on us again and we have had three days off the bikes. We feel refreshed and plan to set-off again tomorrow into more remote areas. It will be exciting to see where we end up each night!

The North

Tuesday 14 March: 1km train station to hotel. 
We arrived in the capital Hanoi bleary eyed at 4AM. We were so exhausted from the long cycle the day before that we slept surprisingly well in reclining seats on the train. The streets were eerily quiet as we cycled to our hotel. There was a vast contrast when we stepped-out a few hours later and the normal chaos had returned. We took a morning stroll around the central lake where the locals were busy playing badminton, taking group aerobics and dance lessons, and practicing tai chi. It was great to see even the very old swinging their hips and it would definitely help the lonely older generation we hear about in the UK. 

 All our sleepy heads could manage for the rest of the day was to wander around the old quarter. Hanoi is a nice city except for the street hawkers. One lady threw her basket yoke onto my shoulder and her pointed hat onto my head so Alex could take a picture. We knew we were expected to buy some bananas and we were happy to do but not at ten times the going rate as demanded. She took the notes we offered but then snatched back half the bananas from my hands! There was a bit of a tussle and I managed to grab the notes back from her and return the bananas. Unbelievable!

  
The final leg of our cycling continues in on Northern edge of the country, near the strictly controlled Chinese border. There are the highest mountains up there so we are lightening our load by leaving s bag in Hanoi and slimming down to one rucksack. A strictly monitored packing session, the only luxury item allowed was a toothbrush each. A 6AM bus to take us there, I am looking forward to a lie-in when we get back home!

Vietnam blocked WordPress blog site on 26 February this year which explains why we have had some issues uploading. If you are reading this it is still working!