We finished the last web blast by saying that we felt that Vietnam had not yet really sold itself to us but that we felt things were about to get better. Well, they have. We have had a fantastic time since we left Hanoi and we have warmed to the country more every day.
Judging by some of the feedback we have had I think perhaps we painted an over gloomy picture of our first impressions of Vietnam. It was just that the quality of cycling hadn't been up to our usual standards so we were a bit disappointed but Halong Bay was beautiful and we really enjoyed Hanoi. Hanoi is a buzzing city with loads of life and a friendly atmoshpere. There are many parks and lakes as well as many small and bussling streets in it's old quarter. We managed to experience a mix of both and saw a few sights along the way.
After 4 days in Hanoi we managed to find a good route out, more by luck than judgement, amongst all the crazy Tet preparations with people driving around with their orange trees and blossom branches on the backs of their scooters and people crowding the markets buying food and flowers. After about 10kms outside Hanoi we stopped to check with the loacls if we were on the right route, as we often do. This time it was a woman with her young son who spoke pretty good English that offered us help. After the usual questions of "where were we from?" and "what was our name?" she invited us to her house for a drink which was only a km away. She was so nice and so enthusiastic about us going to visit her that we accepted. We had a lovely time and her English was good enough for us to have a petty good conversation and learn about her and her family. We met her sister and we all drank tea and ate a 'bang chung' which we learned is the traditional New Year's cake that they will all be eating over the new year festival. It's quite a bizarre sticky rice filled with pork and egg, so not the kind of cake we are used to. It is then wrapped in leaves and cooked for about 10hrs. It doesn't taste too bad although it's a bit heavy. As we were leaving they produced another cake and said it was a Vietnamese tradition to give the cakes as a gift and it would be very rude to refuse it. We were very touched and grateful but as it weighed a ton it was quite a thought to carry it on the bikes. Well I should say it was quite a thought for Nick to carry it on his bike!! but we did and headed off on our way again after a very positive experience with some lovely Vietnamese people - a good start to the next stage.
Every town that we cycled through was a buzz with people buying their Tet trees and flowers. Every market we passed was going off to the point where the road would often be blocked with people, scooters, trees and flower sellers. There was a great atmosphere and it was good to see it. For New Year's eve(16feb) we ended up in a small town with lots of people around the market area but nowhere else. We found a hotel where the owners were obviously frantically cooking and getting ready for a big family meal. We headed out in search of some action but found ourselves sitting alone in a wee street restaurant like nobby nae mates. We tried to ask around if there would be any party and we deduced that there would be fireworks at midnight. We assumed that everyone had gone home for a family meal and would come out later to party. So we headed back to the hotel determined to go back out and join in the celebrations later. Of course what happenend??........we fell asleep and were woken up at midnight by the sound of the fireworks, oops!! We did head back out but we had obviously missed the main event so called it a day. Quite funny really and not quite what we had hoped but there you go.
The next day we were up and off reasonably early and we realised that nobody does anything on New Year's day in Vietnam. Everywhere we went through was so quiet and the roads were empty, which was great for the cycling. We had loads of lovely shouts of Happy New Year and people just seemed relaxed and happy not to be working. We've never seen anywhere in Asia so quiet. There was no one in the fields and most of the shops and all the restaurants were closed. Thankfully there were enough shops open where we could buy essential items but it did mean we lived on biscuits and 2 minute noodles for a few days.
Our first main destination was BaBe National park, a big lake surrounded by lovely tree covered hills. The further north we cycled the hillier the terrain became and subsequently the less populated it became. Having said that there were many lovely wee traditionl villages scattered around with great wooden stilt houses with thatched rooves. We had heard that the best thing to do in the park was a boat trip. We were told we could take a boat up the lake with our bikes then walk for about 2kms along a path to catch anther boat up the river and out to the road. This sounded ideal and we felt quite smug as it meant that we would save about 70kms of riding and get a nice boat trip in to the bargain. We set off early and wheeled our fully loaded bikes on to the boat. It was a lovely morning with hazy cloud over the lake and the sun breaking through. It was just the 2 of us on the boat with the driver and we had a very pleasant hour just trundling our way up the lake and then in to a river with a few locals in their dug out canoes and water buffalo lazing around on the banks. There was a small village where we got off and the locals pointed us in the direction of a very rough looking walking track. Oh well, we were there now and we were told it wouldn't be for too long. It was rough and muddy but we were able to cycle little bits and make steady progress. We then reached the point where the other boats should depart on the river only to be told that the river was too low and we would have to walk/ride a further 7kms to the road. By this stage it was getting very hot. We then met other locals who seemed very concerned for us and gestured that the path ahead was mud up to your knees and was impassable. They gestured that the better path was on the other side of the river but with no obvious way to cross we decided that was a gamble we weren't prepared to take. Sure enough further on we came to a very muddy bit and had lots of laughs with another local man who tried to tell us it was impossible and gestured we should go back. We hadn't come this far to go back so we unloaded the bikes and carried everything across bit by bit. Thinking that was us over the worst we carried on only to find a side river to cross with equal amounts of mud as before and a stream of water. So this time it was unload the bikes take off the socks and shoes and carry everything again this time in bare feet! We then had to push the bikes one at a time up a very steep hill in what was now about 30 degrees heat to a small vllage. Thinking our adventures were over we had a brief drinks stop and headed for the road. Only to discover it was very rough and we were still about 50 kms from our destination!! So not quite the short cut we had hoped it would be but a great adventure and certainly different from the usual day on the bikes.
From there we headed further west and north to Sapa a lovely town in the hills at 1500m and a main tourist destination. The cycling across was great with quiet roads and a real taste of rural vietnam life. Fansipan, the highest mountain in Vietnam and Indo China (3143m) is situated above Sapa and is a popular walk offered by many of the tour companies. They advertise it as a 3 day walk or a 'very challenging' 2 day walk. We didn't have much time left on our visa so asked if we could do it as a one day walk. "Oh no, it's impossible" they said. We weren't so sure and this time determined to do things Nick and Vick style we decided to give it a go - without a guide and porter and all the other trimmings they insisted were required. The result was a very tiring but very rewarding day to the summit and back. Vietnam will catch up with the rest of the world when it comes to independent outdoor adventure one day but for the time being we were quite pleased to have been a bit rebellious and enjoyed doing things our way. Mind you we could hardly walk the next day our legs were so stiff and the day after was even worse back on the biies, but it was worth it!!
The next few days were tough but very rewarding cycling heading back south this time on the west of the country. This route is a popular cycling route mentioned in a few guide books so we met our first fellow cycling tourists along the way. It's always good to catch up with other cyclists and swap stories particularly as some of them had come through Loas and Cambodia so we were able to pick their brains.
The north of Vietnam is inhabited mainly by ethnic hill tribes. We passed through many different tribal areas all with their own styles of houses and their own fabulous traditional dress. The outfits are worn by most of the people but particularly the women and add a real colour and atmosphere to the villages. We have to say that some of them look pretty uncomfortable and very impractical for the weather and the work that they do but they certainly give them a strong sense of identity.
On our way to the Laos border we went through some very beautiful and peaceful country. Peaceful is not usually a word used to describe anywhere in Asia but it really was. There was hardly any traffic on the roads and the villages were small and spread out with just the sound of the crickets and the birds in the bamboo forest. It was also really hot so everyone seemed to be taking things easier than normal. Apart from, that is, the ladies volleyball teams. Yes, that's right the ladies volleyball teams! As we have been cycling through it is obvious that the Vietnamese love their Football, Badminton and Volleyball. There are courts and pitches (of a fashion) in loads of the wee villages on any spare piece of land they can find. There was a ladies volleyball tournament going on in one town with all the officials, PA system and a good crowd of supporters. Two days later we then came across a match with ladies wearing traditional skirts and all in bare feet playing to a good standard. Then another 20kms later there was another game going on but this time they gestured for us to join in. We didn't need to be asked twice and jumped at the chance. Once again all ladies apart from one guy and then Nick. Needless to say a small crowd gathered after our arrival and there was a great atmoshphere. No scoring and very relaxed rules but some good volleyball and great fun. It was obvious from my performance that I had not been near a volleyball court for some time but I'm pleased to say Nick did his profession proud and I think suitably imopressed the locals. Having said that I'm not sure if it was his volleyball they were impressed by or his height and hairy ginger arms and legs, which always seem to impress the ladies, and the men for that matter!!! As we tried to leave they insisted we stayed for some after match tea and cucumbers (makes a change from oranges!). It was the drink that was the most impressive. They sat us down by a big clay pot with 5 large bamboo straws and some pulp stuff at the top of the pot. A guy then poured in some liquid from a bucket and we were told to drink. Once again we were in a situation where we had no idea what we were letting our stomachs in for but drink we did, and it was lovely. Some kind of fruitty alcohol we think but very refreshing and very sociable. So after another fantastic moment of genuine local friedliness and kindness, not to mention some great activity (different from cycling) we headed on our way.
As we head further in to the spring the weather is getting hotter and hotter. As Robbin Williams said in Good Morning Vietnam, "it's hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut!!!". So as you can imagine our little fair skinned asses are getting a bit fried and we are finding it pretty tough cycling particularly in the middle of the day. We have to get up early and start cycling before it gets too hot. We then try to have a break in the middle of the day and continue a bit later. We're concerned that as we go further south we will get fried even more. We may have to re adjust our planned distances and possibly only cycle in the mornings. We'll wait and see.
Well we are now ready to leave Vietnam and head in to Laos. The time here has gone so fast but we are leaving another country with more great memories and experiences and are looking forward to the next.
As always we hope you are all well and send our very best wishes.
Vicky and Nick