Good Night China, Good Morning Vietnam!
14 Feb 2007
|After 6 days off the bike in Kunming it was back on the road aiming to cross into Vietnam on Feb 3rd when our visa kicked in. Our route to the border took us south and east from Kunming to Pingxian. It was a real unknown as we could find little info about this quiet corner of China and spoke to no one who had been there. As it turned out we could not have had a better cycle, it was fantastic!! We covered 961 km in the 12 days much of which followed the China Vietnam border and in that time the weather, countryside, local way of life was forever changing.
A huge highlight of the ride came out of the blue riding between Quibei and Yanshan (for those following on the map), still in Yunnan province. We spotted some locals in traditional dress walking along the road in a procession with some 10ft tall coloured paper lanterns, some people carrying offerings of food and others banging instruments. After watching them walk past we were persuaded to get off the bikes and join them, which resulted in us riding off 2 hours later with our heads spinning....... not only from the magic of what we had just been part of but from the bowls of very potent rice wine they had plyed us with!!! and to this day we have no idea what was going on or why!! We walked with the procession for about a km off the main road along a dirt track up to and through their village. We stopped outside a shut up house where the food was left and fire crackers were let off.(All over china at weddings, random events and who knows what other reason they let off huge numbers of very loud fire crackers). The ladies, all in traditional dress, sang and entered the house. Soon they were back out again and continued to dance and sing for another 15 or so mins accompanied by a man on a two stringed violin style instrument. Just when we thought it was all over we were told to abandon our bikes in the middle of the village and follow on to get some food. So we duly followed the group into this house/farm building and sat down at the primary school height seats around a small table spread with food. The ladies were at one end of the room, youth in the middle with the men plus Vicky(an honorary man)at the other end. Before we (at the men's table) started to eat our rice, bowls were filled with a clear liquid poured from a kettle. Just to remind you at this point we still have no idea of what is going on, not one of them spoke a word of English and our very limited Chinese had long been exhausted. Vick and I were thinking "how can we get round this?". We didn't fancy a whole bowl of possibly suspect local water. Maybe they are just washing the bowls we thought?(and boy did they need it!) There was what seemed a long pause when we were waiting to take our lead from one of them and we got the feeling they were being polite and waiting for us to make the first move. Not sure what came over me but I had a wee notion that this was not drinking water sitting in front of all 8 of us. Taking a small sniff and sip followed by a wince and sharp intake of breath and a burning sensation developing in my chest, I realised this was to be drunk and contained enough alcohol to kill any bugs that may be in, around or even close too it. Unfortunately our eating bowl and drinkig bowl were one and the same so you had to drink it all down before you could tuck into some booze absorbing rice, veg, fatty pork and peanuts. We knew it was pork because we had walked past alot of blood outside a house and had seen the 'butcher' hard at work on a complete pig carcass whilst the dancing had been going on. Not to mention the pigs head that was hanging up across the room from where we were sitting!! So fed 'watered' and entertained we weaved back to the main road to continue on our now very merry way.
During the whole experience we had to keep pinching ourselves to think we were fortunate enough to be invited to join these locals in something obviously special to them that they wanted to share with us, not to mention the free food and drink!! It's times like these that remind us why we do it, particularly on a bike as we don't think you would get these experiences from a bus or train....... not that we need reminding!
Just so you don't think it's all blue sky and sunshine out here on the road, of late most mornings have been cloudy and some days it has not lifted. On some of the higher bits of the route early morning visability was about 100m. We have also had rain!! Not much it has to be said but one day was particularly unpleasant. Full waterproofs on all day, cold enough again for hats under helmets and two pairs of gloves. What was so nice on that day was the road was pretty busy with trucks spraying us with huge quantities of gunk off the road!!!! We, and our bikes, were in need of some TLC after that one which we got when we had a day off in a town called Jinxi. The bikes got their clean up as 21 pence buys you a full bike clean. Whilst being done we just sat watching from a street stall across the road having some fried noodles for lunch. How decedant, getting 3 people scurrying about cleaning your bike for you.......we could get used to it!
Throughout our whole time in China, almost without fail, every day we saw something that either required a double take, dropped our jaw, stopped us in our tracks or on occasion all 3. Be it simple things like the ways of farming that we would have seen in the UK 100 years ago to the outlandish loads they carry on the back of bikes. Then to the more extreme of a whole cow being butchered on the street to a bag of live frogs for sale on the meat market. Our trip through this country has surpassed our highest expectations and given us so many special memories. So when we finally left we had mixed emotions as we have had such a brill time. It was obviously exciting heading off into the unknown again but we were starting to get kind of comfy if that makes sense!
Crossing into Tibet from Nepal had been an epic but China to Vietnam could not have been easier. We ended up on a new road for the last 15km that eventually will be 'the' access to the friendship pass. At the the moment it only has taxis and buses taking foot passengers - and us. So no trucks and no hassle. The actual crossing point on the Chinese side had been newly landscaped and felt more like an ornamental park complete with fancy fountain. The only problem was that it was for foot traffic and not designed for bikes. So carrying our not too light bikes down some pretty long flights of stairs was required. We then just ticked some forms, handed over some money to get a medical check, that consisted of handing over some money and the boy behind the desk ticking a box, and we were in Vietnam.
So far we have had only 5 days riding in Vietnam with the rest of the time split between Hanoi and a boat trip in the world heritage listed Halong Bay. We are now in Hanoi, the capital. Not only the capital of the country but also the scooter riding capital of the world. We have never seen so many folk on scooters and motor bikes! The roads in Hanoi are thick with them. One or two cars, the odd bus, a few push bikes but thousands(and that is not an exaggeration)of scooters. Crossing the road is a different experience and a test of nerve and your trust in fellow man. To cross the road you just walk across slowly and hope you don't get hit. By the time you are in the middle of the road you have bikes zooming behind and in front, some closer than others but you just keep going until you get across. Looking is optional........kind of strange but it works.
As I said we have only done a few days of riding so far and sadly we not overly excited. For two reasons: one, there is a lot of traffic, yes, motorbikes but also trucks and lots of buses driving very fast and very close with very loud horns. Two, the north east corner that we have seen so far is very built up with little open space. The villages and towns seem to go on for miles. For example between two towns, Cam Phu and Halong city there should, according to the map, have been some space. We never saw it. So that meant 50ish km of riding with buildings on either side of the road and noisey traffic zipping or trundling by. It was not much fun. Between Halong City and Hanoi there was a little more open country with paddy fields that are in various stages of planting. It was interesting to see the locals preparing the fields in knee deep water with buff pulled harrows or beat up looking rotivator style machines. The planting looks back breaking work. Again knee deep water bent double planting each wee rice seedling into the mud by hand - suprise suprise it is mostly the women that do the planting!!
We had a great boat trip out into Halong Bay. The bay if full of islands made from the same Karsts we had ridden through in China. We had wanted to see the bay 'Nick and Vick' style rather than a 'follow the leader' tour, but that was not really an option. So it was a 3 day 2 night boat trip. It turned out to be good but we left the bay feeling that we had not really done it justice. A sea kayak tip on our own would have been brilliant but instead we did just a one hour kayak trip with many other people as part of our tour.
We spent one night on the boat which was good and one in a seaside resort on Cat Ba island. From the boat we got to visit some huge caves that had been lit up for the tourists with various coloured lights with a few man made water features to spice things up abit. It was hard to really appreciate the beauty and splendor of what was a magnificent cave with the style of lighting and the fact you are following the snake of dozens of other folk from the huge floatillers of tour boats that ply these waters. We had a swim off the boat which was fun. First time we had swum since October. Good job we had not forgotten as we got into the sea by jumping the 25' off the top of the boat, it was a long way down!
We have done a few sights in Hanoi. Yesterday we went to see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. An odd thing to choose to do and an equally odd thing to see. He had wanted a simple cremation when he died in 1969 but others thought better and he's now inbalmed and lies in a glass case for all to see. To be honest he could easily have been an exibit in Madame Tusaudes in London but don't tell the Vietnamese we said so!!
Vietnam used to be a French colony and they have left their mark. You see french style buildings, old and new, all over the place, plus............ of more interest to us, you can get french style bread and some cracking baking. Not that we think of our stomachs all the time!! One thing the Chinese had no idea how to do was baking, so Vietnam wins that contest hands down.
We head off back North again tomorrow towards Bab Be national park then swing west to the town of Sapa. Not sure where we will be on 16th but that is the start of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Hanoi is going off at the moment with people buying gifts as we would for Christmas. There are happy new year signs all over the place and folk are buying either orange trees or wee trees with pretty pink blossom on. Apparently midnight on the 16th is when it all starts with fireworks and music. We had thought we might be better to stay in Hanoi and enjoy what the capital has to offer but have chosen to get going instead. So we have no idea what it will be like wherever we end up but looking forward to it all the same!
So our first impressions are that we have yet to be lit up by Vietnam. So far we are not sure if is the quality of the biking, the lack of open space or the lack of really nice food. The response we have had from local people so far has also been very mixed. In the main they are friendly and we get many cheery cries of "hello" as we pass by. I even joined in with a local football match on our way through one of the villages, much to their delight, and ours. However, we have also had people asking for money or over charging us by large amounts because we are tourists - something we really don't take kindly to. So we are hoping that we will continue to meet more of the friendly genuine ones on our next stage. We are pretty sure we will and that by the next web blast this country will have got under our skin, you can almost sense it's just around the corner.
So until the next one take care and Happy Tet.
Nick and Vick
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