Northern Vietnam towards the Laos Border

Day 164: Van Phu to Duong Hue

19 Feb 2019

Another morning packing our panniers and getting onto the road at around 0900. As we left the hotel, we were surprised when we were charged 150,000 Dong, rather than the 180,000 Dong we were quoted yesterday. That makes our hotel room the grand cost of £5. Not too shabby. I slept long and hard, much needed as I acclimatise to the warmer weather.

Feeling much like a pack-horse carting all our panniers downstairs!

Breakfast was found in the first 30 minutes, a small roadside stall selling Banh Mi. Perfect! We do love Banh Mi. We ordered two egg sandwiches, which went down an absolute treat. In my opinion, the perfect way to start a day of cycling: basically an omelette with chives in a crispy, soft french baguette. This Banh Mi was particularly tasty, as she lightly toasted the sandwiches as well. As we sat enjoying our hot, bready breakfast, I watched a small boy brutally tugging around a poor kitten on a lead. The kitten very clearly did not want to be tugged around by his neck. At one time, as the boy sat on his Grandmother’s knee, the boy lifted the kitten by the lead, the kitten dangling like its head was in a noose: he nearly strangled the poor thing. I found it a bit distressing to watch actually! The Grandmother led the small boy across the road, presumably to their house, the kitten continuing to be dragged along, bouncing and bounding this way and that trying to escape…

Observing the locals whilst enjoying my egg banh mi

Adam patiently waiting for his breakfast!

Back on the bikes, we pretty much stayed on the same road all day. Although there were no quiet, peaceful backroad routes found today, the road we were on provided us with some of the most stunning views we have seen on the whole trip. At the beginning of the day, Adam said he thought today would be pretty – he was right!

Prior to the past few days, when we were researching routes and discussing which way to travel through Northern Vietnam, we had decided to bypass the touristy area of Nin Binh. The reason being the same as why we didn’t cycle in the Ha Long Bay area – busy roads full of tourist traffic. Nin Binh is popular for its stunning limestone karst landscapes. However, the road we pedalled along today, west of the Nin Binh area, had its own beautiful, jagged karst hills, covered with green vegetation, regally reaching skyward.

We cycled through absolutely stunning views for the majority of the day; sky blue, the blazing sun on our sweaty arms as we marvelled at the beauty around us. Emerald green rivers flowed gently beneath bridges we cycled over, water buffalo enjoying being cooled by the refreshing flow. Don’t get me wrong, some areas of Vietnam’s countryside is less than nice: litter appears to be a stinky problem in some areas. But many times today, I looked across at a vista and thought, ‘This view could be from a postcard… or a painting!’ Listening to some upbeat music as I pedalled through the beauty, a huge smile spread across my face and a rush of gratitude engulfed me as I thought, ‘I am one lucky lady right now!’

Stopping for lunch after pedalling just under 30km, we enjoyed the usual Vietnamese noodle soup. Back on the road, the sun and her scorching heat continued to blaze down on us. We stopped once more, taking refuge in a shaded area, enjoying our daily dose of dragonfruit.

A little while later, we entered the small town of Duong Hue, where we had planned to stop for the day as it was our minimum daily km target. It was about 1630, and we had the energy to go a little further, but we thought why not stop here. There was a hotel nestled next to a limestone cliff towering near a wide river, so we decided to investigate and check out the price.

Our hotel was to the right of this river

Upon initial investigations, it appeared no one was home at the hotel. Adam walked around, calling out a friendly, ‘Xin chao’ (Hello). The owner or anyone working there was nowhere to be found! Unrelentingly, Adam opened a closed door and came across the man working there, having a late afternoon snooze. The man was up like a shot, and through the power of our translate app, we managed to get ourselves a small, basic room for 180,000 Dong (£6).

The small sign indicating a ‘Nha Nghi’ hotel here.

After a much-needed shower after our hot and sticky day on the saddle, we ventured out into the small town whilst it was still daylight, which was nice. We found a place advertising ‘Bun Cha’ – our favourite meal from Hanoi. Unfortunately, we were served the usual Bun Pho / Pho Bo: beef noodle soup, the same as we had for lunch. We tried to get down to the river to watch the sunset, but the banks were too steep, so we ended up strolling down a narrow street between locals’ houses. Many dogs came out to investigate us, luckily none of them barking (I was glad to be on foot rather than on the bike!). We found a quiet temple overlooking the river which was pretty, before walking the short loop back round to our hotel, grateful to escape the mozzies.

The temple near our hotel.

An evening of route discussions unfolded… we’re continuously analysing which way to go and where we want to see within the parameters we have (at the moment, our flight out of Bangkok on the 26th April). But you’ll have to wait and see which way we will go… (as I don’t even know right now either!).

Day 165: Duong Hue to Xuan Hoa

20 Feb 2019

Grateful to leave our slightly cramped and mozzie infested hotel room, we cycled into the hazy, Vietnamese morning. As we were leaving the small town, we had our eyes peeled for ‘Bahn Mi’, unfortunately, it didn’t look like we were in luck, so we settled for more noodle soup. One of the reasons we were really looking forward to Vietnam was for the food we had heard great things about. The food we had in Hanoi was exceptionally tasty, but we’re finding it difficult in the rural areas to find anything other than ‘Pho’ – noodle soup. It’s tasty and definitely fills you up with all the soup and heaps of noodles, but when it’s already boiling hot outside, the scorching soup makes us sweat even more! And like they say…. variety is the spice of life… but there’s little variety on the food scene right now!

Despite the repetitive meals, our bellies were full for the grand total of £1.65, and we pedalled off. We were fairly quiet and contemplative today; with no navigating required as our planned route was down the Ho Chi Minh road for the next few days, we cycled one behind the other, each engrossed in the pure action of cycling, absorbing our surroundings and enjoying Podcasts or music.

The views were similar to yesterday for swathes of today: vibrant green paddy fields with many locals working hard, picking the seedlings ready for replantation (I think!). Karst limestone hills maintained their presence, along with the regal and magnificent water buffalo, seen bathing in rivers, munching green grass from far-reaching fields, pulling carts for farmers or simply resting in the shade of a shelter or trees.

We cycled through small towns and villages as busy local traffic zoomed past. However, we were also fortunate to have sections of down-time from the consistant flow of traffic, periods of time where the road was quiet, and we could enjoy gazing at the peaceful Vietnam countryside surrounding us.

A not too shabby 95km was cycled today, within which we stopped for a rest three times: once in the morning for a disappointing bread snack from a shop, although we enjoyed a lie down in their hammocks (we’ve seen many shops and cafes with hammocks outside as well as tables and chairs – a genius idea for weary travellers to be able to lie down in the shade); once for lunch for a mediocre egg Banh Mi (at least it wasn’t Pho! I think our expectations have gone too high after the food we had in Hanoi!); and once in the afternoon – after stocking up on water we sat on the curb of the shop whilst I enjoyed a delicious, juicy orange.

Sitting on the curb at 1530, we had reached about 70km. Our minimum daily distance required to get out of Vietnam in time is 67km. So technically, we could have stopped in that village, and there was a hotel just down the road. However, as we still had a few hours daylight left, we decided to push out another 20km or so, where we had seen another hotel (a ‘Nga Nghi’) marked on Google Maps, that was also listed as a restaurant too. On our final day in Vietnam we can expect some probably fairly brutal hills, so if we get more km out of the way now on these flat days, we will have a shorter day to cycle over the border, which means we can take more time up the hills (which I will need!). That being said, today wasn’t totally flat – we climbed nearly 890m over the course of our 95km, which isn’t flat! But the hills weren’t steep or too long and provided moments of challenge which adds variety to the day’s pedalling.

The final hour or so of cycling today was really special, as the sun was getting lower in the sky, the ferocity of the sun’s heat was taken down a notch and we seemed to be far away from any towns or villages. Cycling through quiet, peaceful countryside, rolling hills covered in a lush tropical forest behind our left shoulders, and interesting crops growing everywhere else, it almost felt magical.

Eventually, we reached the ‘Nga Nghi’ – Hotel, we had seen on Google Maps. Advertised as a ‘Cafe – Karaoke – Motel’ we were happy to be told we could have a room for 200,000 Dong (£6.60) and dinner for 70,000 Dong each (£2.30). The cost of the meal is more expensive than we’ve paid in rural areas in the past, but with no other option, we were fine with this, as it’s not extortionate, especially for what we were given. A huge portion of rice each, (again – not Pho! It was nice to have rice for a change!) flavoursome chicken, green veg and a fried egg. It definitely hit the spot after a long days ride.

The hotel has lovely views across the rolling countryside and our room is clean with a nice hot shower. Wifi isn’t great but never mind: after a 95km day, we just want a shower, food and bed! 

As we pushed out more km today, we have saved ourselves a few less km to have to do on the hilly border crossing day. Tomorrow we’ll aim to do something similar, hopefully around the 80km mark. Two tired but happy bicycle tourists here. 🙂

Day 166: Xuan Hoa to Tan Ky

21 Feb 2019

As is becoming commonplace in Vietnam, we were awoken at around 0630 by loud, ‘happy hardcore’ style ‘clubbing’ music, wafting over from the cafe attached to the hotel complex we stayed in. Disgruntled, Adam was straight up and starting to get ready for the day. After attending to some regular bike maintenance, we were on the road by 0830, slightly earlier than normal. I decided to pass on the temptation of a morning coffee from the cafe, purely as I couldn’t stand to listen to that music any longer.

Another warm but misty morning greeted us, as we pedalled through the quiet Vietnamese countryside. Keeping our eyes peeled for a Banh Mi stall, we were disappointed for a while, our stomachs grumbling in protest. We tried to find something for breakfast in a small shop, settling for a circular bread/cake type thing with what appeared to be chocolate swirls on top. It was OK – nothing mindblowing but it kept our stomachs quiet for the moment and gave us some energy.

Our first hour or so of cycling was thoroughly pleasant, through rolling countryside hills, past farmers attending to their lush green crops and past small woodland areas. The road was quiet which we were grateful for, only the odd truck full of sugarcane or a handful of scooters passing us.

After a little while we came to a small town, where I spotted a Banh Mi shop. Pulling up, we ordered two which cost 10,000 dong each – that’s a bargain price of 33p. I also popped across the road to buy us a dragon fruit each, which cost 15,000 dong each. On this occasion, the Banh Mis were particularly tasty – on par with the ones we had in Hanoi. We ate them while we cycled and were very happy. The way to our hearts is clearly through our stomachs!

We pedalled hard for the rest of the day really, just enjoying the stunning views, blue skies, warm sunshine and mostly fairly quiet roads. Without really realising, the kilometres just ticked up and up as we were enjoying the cycling so much. Throughout the day, we had a great mix of different views – similar to previous days: amazingly vibrant green paddy fields, rolling hills covered with a blanket of dark green tropical forests, flat harvested fields and quiet villages with their brightly coloured houses – beautiful flowers planted in the ground as well as in pots outside people’s homes.

Just as we were leaving one small town, we stopped in an area of shade next to a local shop, where Adam bought a snack of popcorn whilst I enjoyed a juicy orange. As we were sat enjoying the rest, a few people were coming and going around the area. A young boy, we would come to discover was 9 years old, came over and gifted me a small tub of popcorn! What a lovely, kind soul. A few minutes later, he kindly gave Adam a few small packets of what looked like raisins, but turned out to be some sort of small ‘green bean cake’… The lovely boy then spent a few minutes practising his English with Adam; he was very sweet and spoke good English for 9 years old!

After our breadroll breakfast followed by the tasty Bahn Mi and popcorn and fruit snacks, we didn’t end up stopping for lunch. Instead, at around 1430, after we had cycled about 65km, we took an hour or so to rest in the shade of a small wood down a dirt track. Adam pulled out the tent’s ground sheet and his roll mat and had a pleasant nap. I sat on my stool, calmly and peacefully watching the area around us: dragonflies flitting through the neighbouring paddy field, beautiful water buffalo ambling through the forest behind us and just taking in the delicate clear blue sky, the sounds and smells of this moment. It was quite special.

Getting ready to get back on the road after a nice afternoon nap.

With only another 10km or so to cycle, as we got back on the bikes after our rest we were looking forward to finding some tasty food and a, hopefully decent, hotel. As we arrived into the town of Tan Ky, we spotted the signpost for the official start of the Hồ Chí Minh Trail. The Hồ Chí Minh trail was built to provide support to the Viet Cong (the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam) during the Vietnam War. The logistical system ran from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) and also through Laos and Cambodia. We would only cycle along a small section of the trail in Northern Vietnam, but it was interesting to see where the route begins.

Obligatory pictures taken, we then set about finding some much needed food. As it neared 1600, the town grew busy and hectic, as we endeavoured to cycle slowly down the main street in search of somewhere to eat. Just when we fancied a bowl of ‘Pho’ – we couldn’t find one! We ended up in a local sort of knock off ‘KFC’ type cafe, where we decided to treat ourselves for a change, so we ordered a mango smoothie (for Adam) and a cold, sugary coffee (for me), as well as some chicken and fries. The drinks came: delicious. The fries came: fine. The first chicken dish came… we realised we must have ordered fried chicken feet by mistake!! Let’s just say Adam was rather annoyed with this mistake and we left rather sharpish to try to find some other, more edible (for us!) food.

Down the road we found a stall selling huge dumplings and we tried a plate of ‘Banh Beo’: A bánh bèo is a dish that comes from Hue, a city in Central Vietnam. The English translation for this dish is waterfern cakes. They are made from a combination of rice flour and tapioca flour. It is a popular street food in Vietnam. The ingredients include: rice cake, dried shrimps, crispy pork skin, scallion oil, and dipping sauce… It wasn’t amazing, but it was fairly tasty. Although I wouldn’t order it again in a hurry, it was a little slimy and hard to chew (!) but it’s nice to try different foods!

We headed across the road to the ‘KM 0’ hotel; slightly more expensive than normal at 300,000 Dong (£9.88), but it was nice to have a comfortable room with a bed that isn’t rock hard and towels that are bigger than tea towels! We have around 130km to the border between Vietnam and Laos, and three days to do that in. Plenty of time!

Day 167: Tan Ky to Thanh Thuy

22 Feb 2019

After a peaceful, deep nights sleep in our very comfortable bed at the ‘KM 0’ hotel in Tan Ky, we proceeded to get ourselves sorted for the day. After a few long days in the saddle, we had ‘earned’ ourselves a few days of less pressure to cycle far, so we were in no big hurry. Especially as the hotel was 3*, much fancier than we are used to, we weren’t in a huge rush to get out of a stinky, claustrophobic room!

Upon leaving the hotel, we were dismayed to realise that each small bottle of water from the hotel room cost 10,000 dong. We were pretty annoyed that hadn’t been made clear to us, but as our passports were held hostage until we coughed up, we paid the extra money and left, slightly disgruntled. (You can take the man out of Yorkshire…)

As we set off, the sky was murky and dense white in colour, seemingly ready to burst. We found some more large steamed dumplings for breakfast and a warm sandwhich to fuel us for the day ahead.
Adam deserves top marks, yet again, for finding us beautiful, quiet roads to cycle along today. The easy option would have been to head along the busy ‘QL15’, and follow it south all day. Instead, using Google Maps, he led us along the white minor roads that proved to be mostly smoothly tarmacked through more of those vibrant green paddy fields I go on and on about!

These backroads provide us with such a lovely, inspiring view of ‘normal’, rural life in Vietnam. Cycling past schools, hearing the local childrens’ jubilant shouts as they play; grazing water buffalo; women wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical hats working bare foot in the paddy fields and locals sitting along the roadside in the towns and villages, selling their colourful fruits and vegetables.

The pregnant sky didn’t burst her banks, but sent down a drizzle of hazy, fine rain to dance on our bikes and bodies for the duration of the day. It was enough rain that we needed to take our glasses off (!), but not enough rain that the cycling became unpleasant. In fact, it made a nice change to cycle through the cooler air and rest our arms and legs from the sun.

After two hours or so of pedalling through the peaceful country roads, we took advantage of a closed shop and its shelter from the spray to have a rest and enjoy a snack. As we were sat there, a man pulled up to his house opposite on his scooter. Several minutes later, he came over to us and, using sign language, invited us into his home for a drink. Grateful for this kind gesture, we followed him inside. We sat around the solid, hard, wooden table in their front room and firstly he gave us half a can of red bull each, which he poured into a glass for us. Although there was no verbal communication between us, we enjoyed sitting with this friendly man and smiled happily at his family: his wife and two daughters. He then offered us a shot of a very strong, presumably home brewed alcohol… we accepted and downed the shot – eee by gum it was strong!! Another, older man then joined us, and kept talking to me in Vietnamese. I smiled and nodded, but obviously did not understand a word he was saying! But he seemed very amiable. We were then offered some food – they seemed to be some sort of fried potatoe cake, but had rice in and appeared to be deep fried I think. Sounds strange but they were really tasty! Tea was also offered to us and we were feeling indebted to this lovely, kind family.

It came time to leave, and we bid our hospitable new friends a cheery farewell after thanking them profusely for the drinks and food. Cycling away, we were again smiling from ear to ear, marvelling at how each day on a cycle tour is a series of unknown events waiting to unfold, highlighting the kindness and goodness of local people.

More tranquil quiet roads awaited us in the afternoon, with spells of dirt tracks, bumpy unsealed roads as well as slightly busier main roads. Several times today we knew we were cycling in the vacinity of a school, as a myriad of teenagers scootered or cycled past us. Many called out a loud and excited, ‘HELLO!’ before proceeding to giggle or laugh emphatically. Not quite sure why they were laughing so intensely, we put it down to childishness or excitement. Several boys followed us for a while, so we stopped to see if they would pass. The pulled up next to us and asked for a selfie. We obliged and the smiling, excited teenagers turned back the way they came.

Our last section of road today took us down the Ho Chi Minh Road, and passed an area of lakes and tea plantations. Adam had been hoping to get the drone up and take some footage of the area, but unfortunately, the rain was coming down in a constant drizzle and the conditions forbade a flight. Resigned, we enjoyed the views from the road as we pedalled, taking in the precise, neat tea plantations with awe.

Arriving into the small village of Thanh Thuy at 1500, we decided to stop early for the day, as we had cycled 60km and we were rather wet and weathered. We knew from here we only had 80km to the border with 2 days in which to do it, so there was no need to push out any further. We found a small hotel, shook off the children that had followed us again and got out of the drizzle. Our first job was to clean our chains after the wet weather.

The room was cheap, 150,000 dong – that’s only £4.90. You pay for what you get though: as this was half the price of last nights room, it was also half the quality. No window, small but ‘cosy’ (let’s put a positive spin on it! ‘Cosy’ is better than ‘cramped’!) We ventured out for food after resting for a few hours. It wasn’t looking hopeful, but in the end we found a restaurant in one of the other hotels. We ordered chicken, rice and vegetables and were extremely happy with what we were given. Two tired and full cyclists headed back to their ‘cosy’ hotel room, with 80km between them and their return to country number 5 (again!) – Laos.

Day 168: Thanh Thuy to Tay Son

23 Feb 2019

I have decided to start writing less for these blog posts. At the moment, we finish a days cycling and I spend a good long while typing up a very detailed journal of our day. Although these supply us with a clear documentary of each day on our cycle tour and hopefully provide insight and entertainment to any readers, the current time and energy it takes are unsustainable. So going forward, I will write brief highlights for each day and ride, which I will publish on our ‘crazyguyonabike’ page, and then – on a rest day  – I will combine these together into an overview for a section of time or particular country/area. I will see how this set up goes, but I hope it will enable me to have some ‘breathing space’ whilst still presenting entertaining and maybe helpful information for readers, as at the moment it’s: cycle, eat, write, sleep, repeat – with little time for anything else!

SO. Today’s highlights:

  • The amazingly beautiful route Adam found to take us off the busier Ho Chi Minh Road. I wasn’t sure if it would be in good condition, as although it was a white minor road on Google Maps, the road didn’t exist at all on Maps.me! However, the first half of the route was a perfect, smooth tarmacked road, through dense tropical forests as the morning mist lingered over the treetops. Tea plantations in neat rows flowed up and down the hillsides. Silence surrounded us: no cars, trucks, lorries or vans. Only the very occasional scooter. Houses were infrequent; it was the most remote we’ve been in a long time and we loved it, soaking up the blissful tranquillity. We didn’t have any food as we left our hotel this morning, with karaoke music blasting out painfully loud, we cycled out of that small, dingy village as fast as we could. Instead, we enjoyed a peaceful bowl of porridge I cooked in the moist wilderness. I also made myself a coffee which was the perfect start to the morning.

Porridge and coffee – it felt great to cook for ourselves again.

  • The road through the green area on the map eventually turned into an unsealed track (after we took a wrong turn for a few km, but thankfully Adam noticed before we’d gone too far…), so we had a while of bumpy, often muddy riding with the odd pesky dog. But nothing too bad.
  • We had to join the busier road eventually, which led us to our final destination, only 30km from the Vietnam-Laos border. With only a small handful of hotels in this dreary border town, we decided to stay in the obvious ‘tourist’ hotel, the largest and most posh-looking hotel on the street. Slightly more than our usual budget at £11, it was a nice treat to have a comfortable, clean room with a window overlooking the noisy street with the lovely river and misty hills in the distance. You definitely get what you pay for (compared to last nights dive of a hotel). But we can’t be affording to stay in hotels like this often, so we made the most of it by having a few hours rest as we finished early for the day.
  • Tomorrow we have a grizzly hill climb to the border, but hopefully we will be rewarded with scenic views, before entering Laos! Very excited to cycle back into the land of friendly, ‘Sabaidees!’ and not forgetting, the infamous sticky rice. 
Leaving Hanoi by bicycle
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