A day cycling in beautiful Northern Vietnam (and my fear of dogs resurfaces)

Day 156: Đầm Hà to Đình Lập

11 Feb 2019

As I lay in a deep slumber, Adam briskly opened the curtains wide, letting the morning rays seep into the room and drenching my eyelids. “Wakey wakey!” he called brightly. Taking no prisoners, he also switched on the light: it very clearly was time to get up! As we were leaving the hotel, Adam noticed the owner was wearing a Hull City jumper. As a staunch Hull City fan, Adam had to get a selfie with the man who had no idea why Adam was so jovial or who indeed Hull City actually are.

Cycling out of the small town, a light rain began to patter on our shoulders. We were on the hunt for somewhere for breakfast to start the day, and luckily found a small cafe busy with locals. Heading inside, we sat on the only table available; friendly stares and calls of ‘Hello!’ welcomed us. We tried to order from a woman who was assembling the dishes. I say ‘assembling’ as it seemed to be an efficient assembly line set-up: one person spooned cooked noodles into bowls, another added a steaming hot broth containing meat and spring onions, another ferried the bowls to the many waiting diners. As it was so busy there was a flurry of activity, so as we received puzzled looks from the staff when we tried to order, we just sat down and hoped they would bring us a dish of something tasty. Our hopes were answered, as they brought us a most delicious bowl of Vietnamese beef noodles, I think called ‘Bun Pho’. It was an amazing way to fuel us for the day with plenty of delicate, thin rice noodles, strips of juicy beef (we could see a man slicing up a fresh piece of beef for the next batch of broth), spring onions and the hot, flavoursome broth. We slurped up every morsel.

The small but bustling cafe where we enjoyed breakfast.

Our scrummy breakfast consumed, we were on the road ‘proper’ for 0900 – not bad going at all.
Last night, we spent a little time discussing our route to Hanoi. Initially, I very much wanted to visit the infamous ‘Ha Long Bay’ and see the limestone karst rocks that beautifully litter that stretch of sea. After seeing so many Instagram posts and reading about the natural beauty of this area, it looked like an absolute must. However, with some research about that actual route and the roads around Ha Long, we realised that although we may see some stunning sights, we would have to endure days of horrible, horrible roads. Over 4 million tourists visit Ha Long Bay every year; it’s clear to see why, but unfortunately, this results in an extremely high amount of inconsiderate bus drivers ferrying tourists to and from Hanoi or Mong Cai, driving recklessly down the roads we were planning to cycle along. No hard shoulders to separate us from the dangerously fast hunks of steel. We had already felt considerably uneasy on the busy road from the Chinese border yesterday.

As we did some research together, we found one journal on ‘crazyguyonabike’ who wrote words to the effect of, ‘If you are reading this considering cycling on Route 18 from Ha Long Bay to Hanoi – Don’t do it!’ He explained how horrific the traffic was, how disgusting the fumes from nearby coal mines were and how miserable the whole experience was. So on reflection, we decided to bypass the stunning scenery of Ha Long Bay, as we don’t think cycling for days through horrible, miserable and most importantly dangerous roads is worth it.

Adam found an ever so slightly longer but much more likely quieter route from where we were to Hanoi, heading west, then north-west reaching a higher road to then take us west again, entering Hanoi from a different direction. We have high hopes that we will still have nice scenery and experience a different area of Vietnam away from the tourist buses.

We see signs like this frequently.

The first road of the day was similar to yesterday in views and also, unfortunately, in traffic. Keeping as close to the right as possible, large lorries and crazy bus drivers whizzed past us – some definitely too close for comfort. We endured 20km of this before Adam, thankfully, found us a quiet, alternative backroad route.

Looking across at the stunning river weaving its way through the landscape.

And what an absolute gem it turned out to be! Quiet. Peaceful. Tarmacked. Green fields and hills. A tranquil river. Brightly coloured Vietnamese houses dotted here and there, the occupiers always shouting out their joyful greetings. It really was the highlight of our day cycling along that route. Almost no vehicles passed us, save a handful of scooters over the course of a few hours.

Much better views than the busier route to/from Ha Long.

A local family sewing seeds in their field.

Hello lovely quiet rural road.

The only thing that nearly spoiled it for me was the odd pesky dog… My irrational fear of barking, chasing dogs hasn’t reared its ugly head since we left Thailand over two months ago. Dogs in Laos were too laid back to chase (for the one week we passed through on our way to China), and the dogs in China were either tied up, chained up, locked up or similarly to Laos, not bothered with us at all. So as we have, once again, began experiencing dogs barking and giving us a chase, I realise that my fear has not disappeared. It has only lain dormant whilst not being put in those situations.

Initially, the first few times today we experienced someone’s guard dog running after us, my adrenalin spiked furiously as I went into complete panic mode. As Adam was in front of me, I swerved into the road to overtake him in my effort to get away. Understandably, this scared and frustrated Adam, as I was putting myself in danger by moving into the centre of the road. We discussed my fear as we cycled along the quiet roads. Adam was extremely helpful in helping me analyse and decompartmentalise how I feel, and we talked at length about strategies I could implement to help me feel more relaxed whilst cycling in rural areas where it’s more likely local’s dogs may give chase, and what to do in those situations.

In short, I need to take each situation as it comes – calmly watching the chasing dog to assess whether it is one of those that will just stop at the border of its territory, or whether it will come after us down the street, and if so, will it come after us just barking and not trying to attack, or is it more serious and a dangerous dog and therefore a threat. If a dog is chasing us down the street and is not trying to attack, and we can tell it’s almost half-hearted and will stop the chase shortly, we will just keep cycling. If the dog (or dogs as is usually the case), is more threatening, we will stop cycling, put the bicycle between ourselves and the dog if possible, and wait until it’s calmed down. We’ll then get back on the bikes and pedal slowly away, firmly reprimanding the dog if necessary.

We were able to put this latter plan into practice, as two dogs that had just been playing together in a field below the bridge we were crossing spotted us, and sprinted across the field, up the slope and onto the bridge, barking furiously and menacingly at us. With their aggression high, we stopped and put our plan into action. Adam reassuring me; I was trying to control my breathing by taking deep breaths to reduce my anxiety and fear. We cycled away unscathed.

As I type this I may sound like I am being overly dramatic, and if someone were to watch this scenario they may think, ‘That doesn’t look like a scary situation,’ or ‘Those dogs aren’t even that aggressive or that huge,’ (they were sort of a small labrador size), but I don’t know exactly why or where this fear comes from, but it’s there and I do not want it to dictate our choice of routes or spoil our days ride. The peak of adrenelin and fear in these situations is not a switch I can just flick off, however, I can put strategies into place to help me manage my fear, and hopefully, with time (I have plenty of practice!) I will be in a calmer place.

So although I had some fearful moments today, we had a much needed and appreciated almost therapy session (!) whilst we cycled through the beautiful views on the quiet roads, with some opportunities to put strategies into practice!

Quiet roads often mean more dogs off-leash from people’s homes.

After about 10km on that rural backroad that was just so pleasant and really gave us an insight into ‘real’ Vietnam life in the sticks, we joined the 4B road for the final 30km or so to our destination of Đình Lập. Although this was a more major road, it was so much quieter than the road we had been on first thing that morning. I think only one tourist bus passed us the whole time, and almost no lorries and in fact very few vehicles at all, apart from the odd scooter, which became more the closer we got to Đình Lập. We were still treated to pleasant views of the tropical forest lined hills, and at times could cycle side by side, enjoying conversations.

We began to feel hungry and realised we hadn’t stopped for proper rest for about 4 hours of cycling. The only downside to choosing these quieter roads means there are fewer cafes and restaurants to find a meal. We spied what looked like a shop with some people sat around a table enjoying tea. There was a sign with food pictures on, so we stopped to ask if we could get some food (using the power of actions!). The locals were extremely friendly and indicated that they could provide us with some pot noodles basically. As they were so friendly and with no other option, we gladly and thankfully took them up on the offer. We quite like instant noodles anyway and would cook them for ourselves if needed as we carry a few packs for emergencies. Sitting with the locals, we tried to talk with them, through actions and our translate app. Adam showed them our route on his phone, they shared tea with us, took selfies and even gave us their baby for a cuddle (very dangerous for me!).

Adam showing this friendly man our route.

After a much needed and lovely 45 minutes, we got back on the road, only stopping again briefly to fly the drone, much to the delight of some people living nearby who took a curious and happy interest in it and us.

Lovely, friendly locals

We reached Đình Lập at a good time of around 1530, having cycled just under 67km. We found another hotel for 250,000 dong which is about £8. Similarly to yesterday’s room, it’s spacious, hot shower, western toilet etc. We ventured out for dinner, enjoying another delicious bowl of ‘Pho’ (noodle soup), this time with chicken. We picked up some fruit and our first Vietnamese bread rolls, which I have been excited to try (I love bread – I’m such a carbs girl!). I was not disappointed!

It’s about 190km to Hanoi from where we are (and crazily, only 35km from China! As we headed northwest to avoid the horrible roads around Ha Long we’ve cycled closer to China…!) so tomorrow we plan to get a 100km day in (we like to try to do one a month, just for a bit of a physical/fitness challenge!) and then if we can, a 90km day the following day. We’ll then enjoy at least one, preferably two days off in the capital city, which we’re thoroughly looking forward to.

Our hotel was just opposite this huge, French colonial style building that looked like it was in the middle of being built.

Entering Vietnam from China - The Return to SE Asia!
The Road to Hanoi

1 comment

Hi Lu, I’ve been messaging Adam, but have to make comment here back to you regarding the dog situation. I can empathise and totally sit in your camp. I have a massive fear too. Born from cycle touring around India last year. So, before leaving the UK for my ride around SE Asia I did some research on “actions on”. Basically, I learned as you have explained you have to have a plan. This did help, but it is still bloody frightening, fear and adrenalin running away with me I still reverted to what you shouldnt do and out cycle them. Stop, get off, use your bike as a barrier, stones work well, but I learnt a big stick is best, they respond well to the stick. I even invested in a Dazer, sends out a high pitch noise that only dogs can hear, they hate it. Emergency services use them, but they are only good at short range. I used it a lot, sometimes very effective and others not. The dog issue does spoil a good route.

Like you, I found Loas dogs laid back, much the same in Cambodia. Vietnam, I didn’t find too bad, 3 attacks I experienced. But Thailand was a nightmare. Stick with your actions on and stay close to Adam.

Good luck

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