South East Asia part 8: Hanoi, VN – Da Nang, VN
Our last few weeks crossing Laos and entering Vietnam were super exciting. We were looking forward to seeing our old friends, but we were also looking forward to having a significant amount of time off the bikes and attempt to integrate ourselves into a slightly “normal” routine, albeit somewhat mildly. We had a lot to do in Hanoi; many things needed repairing such as my saddle, my backpack, my phone, my laptop screen, some of Josies clothes, the bikes etc. We also had many things to buy or replace and with over 8 million inhabitants, Hanoi was the ideal place to sort these things. We were also receiving a visit from my brother Alex who we hadn’t seen since Budapest. It was a fun filled month and we ended up really liking Hanoi as a city. There is so much you can do if you know the place (as our friends did) and also, many places outside the city to explore. I won’t go into great detail about what we did but our favourite aspects of Hanoi include: Bia Hoi’s, Pho, the train tracks and old quarter, cycling around Tay Ho lake and all the food.
We had our bikes serviced at a shop called Lam Velo near Tay Ho lake. We purchased new rear tires as ours were very badly worn, new handlebar tape (mine was starting to stink from all the sweat), new cables, new chains and a serious clean and service. The bikes felt like new and we were more than ready to get on the road again. We were a little bit itchy to get back on the road again our last week in Hanoi and it was very strange riding the bikes again after almost a month driving a motorised scooter around the city.
We decided we would get a bus the first 250 km south of Hanoi to a town called Vinh, very close to where Ho Chi Minh was born. We opted for this as we had already cycled 150 km of this road and it was very dull, flat, boring and full of industry. The cycle to the bus station in South Hanoi was absolute madness. The road ran parallel to the train tracks and every time the barriers went down the traffic would extend across the entire highway bringing everyone to a standstill. Luckily, as nimble as we are on 2 wheels, we are always able to weave in and out of the traffic and never have to wait too long. Finding the right bus was a bit of a challenge but once we found it we loaded our bikes underneath with ease and sat on one of the most comfortable busses I have ever been on. The seats are basically reclining beds, there is fast WiFi and the A/C is cranked up to full blast. It was bliss.
To our frustration, we were chucked out of the bus on the highway a few kms south of Vinh and had to backtrack a little to get on the road towards the beach. It was only 10 km to the coast and after picking up a few coconuts on the way, we finally made it to the beach for the first time in almost 10 months. I could smell it way before we even reached it and it was one of the best feelings in the world running into the ocean for the first time. That night we camped under an abandoned beachside shack but unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the warmest nights we have ever had in the tent. The future did not look good for Josephine and Trystan’s camping prospects along the Vietnam coast.
The next few days were scorching hot and Vietnams land gets very slim in the middle of the country leaving us with no option but to cycle on the highway for several hundred kilometres. We did take a few detours to the sea, but we always had to return back to the main road at some point. One of our detours took us to quite a nice sea side town called Cam Nhuong. We arrived at around 3 pm and the heat was so intense I was starting to feel a little bit delirious. A man pulled up claiming to be an English school teacher and offered to take us to his mother-in-laws guesthouse. We followed him but they wanted a ridiculously high price for a room which they wouldn’t budge on. Frustrated, we back tracked down the coast and found another guesthouse (guesthouses are called Nha Nghi in Vietnamese) only to be quoted the same ridiculous price. After a bit of haggling we managed to get a room for €11 and went down to the beach for some food and a swim. Luckily our month in Hanoi with Charlie and Jordyn armed us with some VERY useful and essential phrases when ordering food. This means we don’t even need to see a menu and can order some delicious cousine without too much confusion. The restaurant we went to had an array of seafood for sale still alive and swimming in the tanks. From squid to scallops, crabs to crayfish, they had it all. But the price was extortionate; €20 for a plate of shrimp?! We decided to save our sampling of seafood to another day and not in this expensive town.
It’s amazing what a night in A/C can do to you. We felt revitalised the next morning, zooming across the river and through the rice paddy fields back to the highway. To our dismay, the heat got us again as intense as ever around 9 am and by midday we were struggling with dehydration and some mild heat exhaustion. It’s odd, some days I am coping well with the heat and Josephine is struggling, and other days, its vice-versa. We were drinking upwards of 10 litres of water a day each AND rehydration salts and we were still finding ourselves doing only 1 wee a day. It was not an enjoyable period, and it was only going to get worse.
We stopped at a red light on a quiet road off the highway but standing around in the sun was slowly killing us, so we decided to skip the red light like 16% of Vietnamese drivers do anyway. We pulled into a petrol station and a policeman pulled up behind us telling us to stay put. He was not friendly at all and called his boss over who explained to us on google translate that we skipped the red light and had to follow them back to “their office”. I repeatedly asked them what they wanted form us and if we had to pay a fine and he shouted at me “No money, no money, no money.”. Taking this to mean that we wouldn’t need to pay them we followed them 100 meters back to their little squat on the roadside and I was shown a google translate message saying “Now we will work on you.”. A different, disturbingly serious officer asked for our ID’s which I foolishly handed over, expecting not to have to pay any money. Now, I have never been in this situation before and over the last year of cycling around the world, never once have we encountered genuinely evil or bad people. Until now. I handed over our passports which they immediately pocketed and said we need to pay a 500,000 Dong (£17) fine. Okay that wasn’t too bad, but I wanted a receipt. “No receipt”, they said. I explained I wanted official paperwork to make sure this wasn’t corruption. “1 million Dong”, they said. “Look, I just want a receipt officially stating the value of the fine I am paying”, I said getting more and more frustrated. “NO!”, they shouted, “2 million Dong”. It got more and more out of hand and after almost an hour I said to them that I had serious suspicions that they were trying to steal from us. They lost their shit. They threatened to put us in cuffs and take us to the station. They were clearly very, very offended I had suggested they were criminals (which they absolutely were).
To diffuse the situation, I agreed to pay them and got them down to 1 million Dong (£34) and got our passports back. It was not a pleasant experience and there were many things we should have done differently in hindsight. We should have given them photocopies of our passports rather than the real ones, we should have probably been more polite in the beginning and when it got really heated I should have started filming them and taken their names. Josie and I were fuming as everyone lost in this situation. We had our money stolen, the citizens have to live with corrupt, greedy, criminal law enforcement and the police who are so proud of their country are in fact destroying its justice system. How can you enforce the law of your country by breaking it? The whole robbery (I don’t care what anyone says, being intimidated and forced to bribe a policeman is robbery) episode left a sour taste in our already dehydrated, dry mouths for a few days after.
The next few days were very tough. The cycling was horrendously boring, the driving was retarded, dangerous and idiotic, the climate was unbearable, and the food was monotonous and tasteless. We put all our options on the table and considered that we would reconsider our trip and route after seeing Josephine’s family in Saigon at the end of August. We just simply were not enjoying ourselves. There was a silver lining though in the form of a middle-aged Dutchman called Eric.
We bumped into the cycling Dutchman Eric, 20 kms outside of Dong Hoi. He was on a solo world bike trip and said he hadn’t met a single cyclist on his trip so far! We teamed up for a few days and he was such an energetic and optimistic man. He really brought our mood up. We made our way to Dong Hoi and found a fairly new and cheap guesthouse near the beach. The owner used to work in Birmingham and had his mates round in the evening treating us to wine (I know, wine!), delicious seafood and a lot of funny antics. Food in Vietnam is cooked in a different way to how we cook in the west. They normally cook without any added flavour, which you, as the eater, add yourself at the table. For example, our host Huy had cooked several fish (guts and all) and put them on the table with a variety of flavoured salts, sauces, ginger, lime, chilli and other flavourings. It’s a nice way to eat and we had a nice evening with them and Eric. The next morning involved some more boring roads but we felt better that the struggle was shared with Eric. He was also finding the cycling and the climate a real challenge and expressed how happy he was that we were also struggling! Sounds strange but knowing other cyclists are also finding it tough makes you feel a little better.
One of the best things about Vietnam is the coffee. Most of the coffee produced in Vietnam is the coffee species robusta rather than what is normally consumed in The West, arabica. Robusta as a bean is less explored in terms of selectively bred flavours and is considered a little bitter when compared to the “more tasty” arabica. I love it though and Josie and I both have our favourite coffees which we drink at least once a day. Mine is called a Nâu Đá which translates to “brown ice”. Basically, a cold coffee with condensed sweetened milk. Josephine likes a Sữa Chua Cà Phê, translated to “milk sour coffee”, yoghurt coffee! A round of these would cost no more than £0.90 for both.
After 2 short days we waved goodbye to Eric as he headed in search of a guesthouse and we tacked down to the coast to assess the camping situation. After a swim in a warm ocean we sacked the camping and found a cheap guesthouse back on the main road. In the morning we crossed the old demilitarised zone which used to separate North and South Vietnam during the war and arrived in Dong Ha at a Warmshowers host, our first since India. We stayed one night with Tao and his family who made us delicious vegetarian food and gave us a room for the night. I also helped him out in the garden wheelbarrowing soil back and forth, which I strangely enjoyed. It was very hot in that house without aircon but after seeing the children and the granny sleeping on the tiled floor all night without pillows or bedding, I didn’t feel like I had had such a rough night. I am not sure why, but they do that in Asia. We saw it in Myanmar too. They sit on the floor and sleep on it. I guess comfort isn’t as important to them as to us, or maybe they are not phased by it at all.
The next few days were semi-interesting, cycling through rice paddies off the main highway. The majority of Vietnamese (at least what we have seen) or not Buddhist, but they rather follow their own folk religion which involves ancestor worship and offerings to multiple gods of air, water, earth etc. They bury the dead in elaborate tombs spread all around the countryside interspersed with temples and shrines. We attempted to read about it and understand it. We even asked our Warmshowers host Tao about it. But neither he, nor Wikipedia could really explain the complicated rituals and details of this religion. We decided to leave it as a “known unknown” in our chapter of Vietnam.
The final 2 nights before Da Nang we camped, and it wasn’t too bad with the heat. The first night on the beach we slept without the tent at all, in an effort to catch some of the sea breeze, which worked. However, Josephine suffered an armada of mosquito bites to our surprise. We haven’t seen any mosquitos since arriving at the coast but somehow they still manage to find Josephine in the night. The following night Josephine slept under the mosquito net and I in my hammock. We decided to buy 1 camp chair in Hanoi between 2 of us. I know, risky right? But so far it has worked great as 1) I like the floor and 2) my brother brought out my hammock, so most of the time we have a chair and a hammock on the go, and we can switch between them.
The night I slept in the hammock was an experience. We found an abandoned resort on an empty beach and set up our nest for the night. Then, 3 skinny old men turned up with 4 bottles of rice wine and some meat for dinner. They moved Josephine’s bike without asking and when I intervened one slapped my ass. They proceeded to get drunk through the night and started gambling which ended in shouting and a fist fight. One stumbled away alone into the darkness never to be seen again while the other two drove away but returned twice to look for something they left behind, apparently. It was annoying and kind of ruined our night, but they left at around 8 pm giving us enough time for some slumber. Looking back, I actually felt quite sorry for them.
In the morning we woke up at 0345 hours to get up the Hai Van pass and into Da Nang before the sun got us and turned us into a Brooks saddle. The climb (490 meters) was sweaty and a little dull but not too bad. My lower chain ring has worn and therefore I couldn’t use my lowest gear meaning I had to bulldoze up the hill at a minimum of 12 kph leaving Josephine in the dust. We were passed by a load of trucks carrying pigs to slaughter as well as a truck load of dogs. We had already seen a good number of dog trucks but never this close. They were packed in so tightly I was sure they couldn’t breathe. They were squealing, whining and the truck absolutely stank. I am sure they were likely on their way to the North to be slaughtered and eating in North Vietnam and China. The downhill into Da Nang was absolutely stunning. The road was perfect, the view was amazing, and the traffic was minimal. It made the Hai Van pass totally worth it and we arrived in Da Nang at our warmshowers host around midday.
The next few weeks look more promising. We have a few nice places of interest marked on the map and the cycling gets (apparently) more interesting regarding landscapes. We also can spend less and less time on the highway AND the climate is supposed to get a tiiiiiiny bit cooler. We are feeling a bit better now about our trip and at this moment are still planning on cycling all the way to Bali. Although the last 10 days have been tough, a lot of interesting and funny things have happened and as I write this and we look back on our experiences, we are still learning and still enjoying what we are doing, and that is the whole point isn’t it?