The Road to Hanoi

Day 157: Đình Lập to Luc Nam

12 Feb 2019

I had set my alarm for 0545, much earlier than normal as we had said the previous evening we wanted to have an earlier start as we were planning to do a 100+km days cycle. As I switched off the alarm, I was surprised to hear loud happy hardcore music coming from the surrounding streets. Weird for that time of day! Thankfully we had slept through it. As usual, we didn’t rush; I made myself a coffee using the stove on the balcony outside and sipped it in bed whilst reading the news on my phone. Once we were packed and ready, we enjoyed the most delicious Vietnamese noodle soup in the hotel restaurant. The dish is known as Pho Ga. Rich, chicken broth with flat noodles, fresh strips of succulent chicken (and no bones! Hurrah!) and the dish is served with a bowl of salad leaves and herbs to share and add into your meal. We decided unanimously that this was the most delicious bowl of noodle soup I think we’ve had on the entire trip so far. Outstanding.

Pretty decorations outside our hotel.

Two very happy and satisfied cycle tourists cycled away from the hotel; within minutes we were cycling along a quiet road out of the town – the sound of song birds and friendly ‘hellos’ from locals enhanced our optimisim even further.

Our route this morning took us down some more beautiful, quiet Vietnamese country roads. The views were stunning and the road pretty peaceful from traffic. Only the odd vehicle and a constant trickle of scooters. As the route followed the river, it twisted and turned through the tapestry of the land: tropical forests and fields of tea plants. Relatively flat in places but mingled with stretches of both up and downhill: it was never boring.

After around 2 hours of cycling, we stopped for a quick break just on the side of the road on the edge of a thin wood. I devoured a juicy dragon fruit we bought yesterday – we absolutely love them! – whilst Adam enjoyed a lovely mango. Exotic fruits are the best. Back on the bikes, on we continued, the kilometres ticking up towards our 3-digit goal for the day. As we cycled through one rural village, we overtook three young girls each on a bicycle, cycling slowly up a hill. They smiled and said a nervous but excited, ‘Hello!’ at us. As the hill increased in steepness, the girls took great joy in overtaking us. As we continued, more children joined and we formed a joyful, smiley pelaton. As I overtook one girl, she pedalled faster, racing me. We both laughed as we raced each other, the road descending. It was a really joyful, memorable moment.

My head was in a better place in regards to fearing a dog chase whilst we cycled; we had a few moments today but nothing too dramatic and I practised the strategies we discussed yesterday. The locals continued to be overwhelmingly friendly and we soaked in the local environment: the rural, humble homes contrasting with the bigger, colourful buildings, all nestled into the bosom of the beautiful, green, lush landscape.

At around 1200, we cycled through a village that had a few more shops and a small cafe. We decided to take the opportunity to stop for a cooked meal, as up until this point, villages and towns were scarce. The man and woman working there welcomed us with friendly smiles, showed us to a table where there was a pot of rice that was already on the table, keeping warm in a special container. She said something to me in Vietnamese, I guess she was saying would we like whichever food with it, I just nodded and smiled, hoping for the best. She brought us a plate of succulent chicken, another plate of marble-like meat we weren’t sure what it was and a steaming bowl of greens in a broth. They also brought a variety of condiments and even gave us a glass each of their home-brewed alcohol which was incredibly strong, and a plate of bananas. The meal was tasty, warm and just what we needed.

On we continued, with bellies full to fuel us for a hard afternoon pedalling. We had cycled about 45km, so had around 55km left. Little by little, the road we were on got more and more busy with traffic, as the villages and towns sprawled one after another. We still caught glimpses of the rolling hillsides, but now behind a veil of houses from the dusty road. Eventually, we were cycling through town after town, past stalls selling vivid fruit and stalls selling raw meat, a mechanical rag swirling above the table to prevent flys.

These ladies were part of a progression line into some sort of local celebration.

Just a quick stop for Adam to inhale a dragonfruit!

The amount of traffic flowing past us increased ten-fold: buses, trucks, cars and scooters raced past us, their horns blaring. It wasn’t pleasant, as there was no hard shoulder, and the strip of road we cycled along was often potholed and uneven. However, we got used to it and began to feel a bit more comfortable, just flowing with the traffic.

The bus drivers are usually the worst!

As it neared 1700, it was obviously school finishing time, as – I’m not kidding – hundreds of teenagers scootered past us in the opposite direction. Most of them were wearing matching sports jackets, presumably part of their uniform. Some of them shouted ‘Hello’ to us, or waved with a peace sign. ✌ A few were heading in our direction, overtaking us with curious and excited facial expressions.

Finally, the Garmin ticked over 100km, and we were nearly at our end for the day. My bottom had been sore from around the 78km mark, and now my legs ached dully. We reached the small town we were aiming for, and Adam found a hotel on his maps on a road just off the main road. I was thankful for the location, as nights can be very noisy when in hotels on busy roads. (Point in case last night!) It was a quiet hotel – I think we were the only guests – located opposite an army base. We got a room for 200,000 dong, about £6. The wifi doesn’t work but to be honest, we’re so tired we won’t be going on the internet all that much, and we have data on our phones. I was exhausted after the 106km cycle, especially those last few hours through the busy traffic. Adam didn’t feel achey at all!

Feeling rather tired after the long day in the saddle!

Venturing out for food meant a few minutes walk back onto the main road. We found a small cafe and ordered ‘Bun Cha’ – as we haven’t tried it yet. Grilled pork in a rice noodle soup. One word: delicious. Need I say more?!

Bún chả

Day 158: Luc Nam to Hanoi

Roosters are rife in SE Asia and China. Every country we have been to, chickens and roosters have roamed the streets, often with a line of tiny, fluffy chicks in tow. Vietnam is no different. Often we are woken by the well meaning but annoying blighters, their dawn call cutting through the still, calm daybreak like a knife. This morning was no different. As we lay in our hotel room after a long 106km cycle the previous day, our poultry neighbours obviously thought that was plenty of sleep for us, and it was by time we got ourselves up and off for another day on the road. Luckily, we were in agreement, and got ready with excitement: today we were cycling into Hanoi. We knew the route would be busy and mentally prepared ourselves for likely not the prettiest or calmest days cycling, but with a very appealing ending.

Positive mind-set hat on for a day of cycling along a busy, hectic route.

Hanoi would be our first capital city of the trip, as we bypassed Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. After hearing great things about the vibrant city of Hanoi – especially about the food – we were so looking forward to spending some time in Vietnam’s capital. We packed quickly and were on the road for about 0830. As per usual, as we cycled out of the town we looked out for somewhere for breakfast. This morning we enjoyed a new Vietnamese speciality: Bánh cuốn. A dish from Northern Vietnam, consisting of rice batter, ground pork, mushrooms and shallots. It was definitely different but very tasty.

In addition, Adam couldn’t resist an egg Bánh Mi from a small stall. He inhaled it immediately, whereas I kept mine in my handlebar bag for later (I hate being hungry when I’m cycling, so I often hoard food so I always have emergency rations! No one likes hangry Lucia, especially me!).

2 egg Bánh mì

As we expected, the whole days cycling was along a bustling, lively road. There was no pretty scenery, rather a string of continuous energetic towns with normal Vietnamese going about their normal lives. So there’s not a whole lot to report about the actual cycling… in between the towns and dotted here and there were fields with locals farming and growing crops.

The traffic was the usual crazy Vietnam-style. I may have written this before, but the traffic in Vietnam is by far the most insane and reckless we’ve seen in SE Asia. So much so, that even Adam bought a hi-vis vest from a store we cycled past. That being said, we said it more than once on this day how glad we were that we chose this route, rather than the road from Ha Long Bay. Although our chosen route was still busy, I’m pretty sure it pales in insignificance compared to the hectic coastal road to and from that immensely popular tourist attraction.

Another purchase today was a pair of padded cycling shorts for Adam, as his 5-year-old pair had finally given up the ghost, as well as a gear cable and brake cable from a ‘Giant’ bike shop we coincidentally cycled past. They were lovely and friendly, oiling our chains for us and gifting the rest of the bottle to us. We also picked up two small Vietnamese flags! Flying the country’s flag we’re cycling through on our bikes is a real pleasure for us.

The only other stop of the day was for lunch, another delicious Pho (noodle soup).

Don’t forget your greens!

As we neared Hanoi, the traffic became denser. Crossing over a long, high bridge we saw our first sign for Hanoi: an old, authentic, battered sign. Huge grins spread across our faces as excitement coursed through us.

This isn’t the sign from the bridge as it was too busy to stop, but these old, peeling signs were dotted along our route.

Fields on the outskirts of the city.

Another bridge brought us across the Red River into the heart of the crazy, chaotic Old Quarter. Despite the bedlam, I immediately fell in love with the city. The sprawling, narrow streets were throbbing with scooters, cars and buses, all weaving and intertwining seamlessly around one another. Even though it was chockablocked and brimming with not only vehicles, but tourists and locals wandering straight across the busy traffic, it didn’t feel unsafe. We thrived in the commotion, becoming one with the craziness.

Adam navigated us to the hotel we’d booked the previous night. Predictably, it’s more expensive than normal at 360,000 dong a night – £12. This actually wouldn’t be a crazy-expensive hotel in other countries, e.g. China, but for Vietnam, it is on the more expensive side, for us anyway. We were really happy with our room though, enough space for the bikes, a window with a nice view of the pretty houses behind, quick internet, a hot shower and breakfast is included too.

We were so happy to have arrived in Hanoi and sincerely looked forward to a few days off the bikes to enjoy this vibrant city. As we fell in love with it almost instantaneously, we almost immediately started hatching our plans to stay for as long as possible, calculating how long we would need to cycle to the border with Laos. That’s another great thing about travelling by bike, the flexibility it often allows us to stay for as long or short a time, depending on how we’re feeling day to day.

A day cycling in beautiful Northern Vietnam (and my fear of dogs resurfaces)
Filming Gear for a Bike Tour - 2019

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