Wed 17 July. Do Son to Tien Hai. 73km.
We are now on the road heading south towards Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) although we aren’t sure yet if we will make it that far – it all depends on how often and how long we stop on the route there. The joys of flexible touring! We booked our flights from Singapore to Perth last night, which means we have exactly 3 months to get to Singapore and although that sounds like loads of time, it still puts a bit of a deadline in our heads.
So back to today. Our accommodation included breakfast to be served at 7am, and although we did contemplate it we decided to give it a miss and stick to our usual routine of breakfast in our room and on the road at 6am. It’s still hot enough to cook eggs on the side of the road so the earlier we are on the road the better! But as we were packing the bikes, Nigel noticed he had a puncture (only the second one of our trip) so our early morning departure was scuppered. But things often happen for a reason and just as Nigel was fixing his bike (under cover) the heavens absolutely opened and we had a torrential downpour for about 30 minutes – which we nicely avoided thanks to the puncture timing! Managed to leave at 7am when it had eased off and within an hour we were cycling in brilliant sunshine.
Once we got out of Do Son, the start of our journey took us on some lovely country roads through lots of bustling little country villages that all seemed to join on to each other. Very picturesque and different to anything else we have seen here so far. At one stage we joined a busier road but apart from a few roadworks it gradually got quieter and quieter and we were soon right in the middle of the paddy fields.
Unusually there were quite a lot of churches and temples on this country route, the one below being the biggest and most impressive….
We have been told that religious worship in Vietnam generally happens at home and we have seen lots of Christian and Buddhist statues in various shops and restaurants that double up as homes and businesses. To be honest, for a communist country we have been surprised to see as much religious worship as we have, and coming across huge churches in the middle of the countryside is a real surprise. We’ve also been told that there is a local “Vietnamese religion”, that runs alongside Christianity or Buddhism, where people worship their ancestors.
The heat was pretty intense so around 12.30 we found a place to stay. A bit of a dump really, but as we are both dying from prickly heat at the moment (which feels like thousands of needles under our skin), the fact that it had air-conditioning was good enough for us so we didn’t really care. And later in the evening we did get to see this amazing sunset from outside …..
Thursday 18 July. Tien Hai to Ninh Binh. 89km.
Another lovely ride today through rural Vietnam, which also involved two different ferries, neither of which asked us to pay! Both were small 10-minute river crossing with few other passengers and they were easy for us to just “push on/push off” our bikes so it was all absolutely drama-free.
Nigel did a brilliant job on route-planning for the day as the cycling was mostly on quiet roads with little or no traffic. And a lot of this…
But it was interspersed with lots of paddy fields and churches….
…and some nice river scenery…
Arrived in Ninh Binh in baking heat around 12.30 so we were glad we had accommodation pre-booked. Houses and hotels in Vietnam tend to be tall and thin and as usual our room was at the top, which unfortunately after a hot, sweaty morning meant hauling our luggage up endless stairs. Oh we do miss the little army of helpers we had in every hotel in Myanmar!
After our usual afternoon routine of wash and snooze we went out to explore the town as it is quite a busy tourist destination…but after something to eat we were both pretty knackered so we abandoned that idea and returned to base for an early night. The heat is definitely taking its toll.
Friday 19 July. Ninh Binh to Sam Son. 95km.
Our lovely homestay landlady got up early to make us breakfast before we left, so suitably fuelled with omelettes and bread we set off at 5.45 – and it was already hot! Nigel isn’t struggling as much as me with the heat but at the moment it’s absolutely killing me. We have cycled in much hotter temperatures before so I don’t know why this is affecting me as badly as it is. By 8am it’s boiling and it just seems to get hotter and hotter. My prickly heat is now a 24-hour thing so I’m struggling to get to sleep at night, and when cycling it’s just a constant need to scratch…EVERYWHERE. I am also struggling with sore feet…likely to be from gripping my pedals with sweaty sandals. I have a rolling massage ball to try to ease that, but it’s not having much an effect as of yet!
Anyway off we went into the blast furnace and apart from the first part of the journey taking us passed some craggy outcrops ….
..and over a nice river…
…the rest of the cycling was pretty dull. Mind you we did pass this live bird of prey in a shop window, which isn’t something you see every day!
We also got shouted at by a little old lady for parking our bikes outside her pharmacy when we stopped to have a cold drink at the shop next door!
We stopped at my favourite supermarket 15km before our destination – a coastal town called Sam Son – and while the break was very welcome, getting back on the bikes to cycle the last bit was hell for me. I absolutely struggled in the heat…..the sun was right above us and we had no shade so every part of me was sweating and itching. Arrived at our pre-booked accommodation around 12.30 and spent a frustrating 10 minutes trying to get the hotel owner to understand that we didn’t want to leave our bikes on the pavement outside the hotel overnight! Eventually he relented to allow us to lock them to a tree until nighttime when we could then take them inside.
Yet again our room was at the top of the hotel on the 5th floor – in fact he couldn’t have given us a room any further away from the front door! So like 2 sweaty pack horses, we hoofed our luggage upstairs to a very muggy bedroom. Although it had air-conditioning there was only wooden shutters on the window (no glass!) so even though it was running full blast, the air-conditioning and 2 fans didn’t have much of an effect. Even the water in the shower was hot. NOT what we needed after the heat of our ride. But after a lazy afternoon avoiding the searing heat we recovered enough to venture out to get dinner, and in the process discovered that Sam Son is another wealthy Vietnamese seaside resort – and we were definitely back to being the only westerners in town!
The beach area was nice with lots of fishing boats on the sand, intermingled with holiday swimmers…
It even had a bit of a Vegas feel to it with lots of big brightly-lit hotels along the sea front…
…it had nice long promenade with lots of families out and about so great people-watching! Surprisingly though for what is supposed to be high season, a lot of the restaurants were completely empty…there definitely seemed to more accommodation and restaurants than there were people, which made us wonder how they survive.
Back to the hotel to negotiate getting our bikes inside for the night in what was quite obviously one of the worst hotels in Sam Son, and once that was accomplished it was another shower and an early night.
Saturday 20th July. Sam Son to Giat. 87km.
After 3 runs of 87 steps to get our luggage to the front door we packed our bikes and were on the road for 5.45. Interesting to see that after telling us that our bikes would be safe outside overnight, the hotel owner had wheeled his own scooter inside for the night…! We have seen this nearly every where we have stayed, which makes us wonder about night-time scooter theft.
We thought the resort would be quiet on our way through but how wrong we were. The beach and promenade were already heaving with swimmers and beach-goers, with everyone obviously try to make the most of the cooler morning temperature as possible!
The first 90 minutes of our journey was lovely cycling alongside the sea front and through country villages with plenty of shade on the road. Then unfortunately we had to join the main highway, which runs from Hanoi to Hoi Chi Minh City, for the rest of the day. We had been told by various other cyclists that this was an awful road to cycle, but it wasn’t quite as bad as we feared. Yes there was lots of trucks, buses and moronic scooter drivers cutting us up and the cycling was pretty dull, but it wasn’t too busy and we had a hard shoulder to cycle on so it was more than manageable, despite the lack of shade and the rising temperatures.
But apart from one water stop we were straight through to our end destination by 11.15. We hadn’t booked anything but made our way to a guesthouse we had earmarked on Google to find that they had rooms available. So we were checked in and sorted by 11.30am and only had 4 flights to stairs to climb to our room!
The rest of our day was spent in the room, only venturing out for dinner when we had to.
Sunday 21st July. Giat to Vinh. 68km.
A relatively short day all of which was on on the AH1 Highway, which had only one quite scenic part.
The road was much busier than yesterday and I had one heart-stopping moment when a big truck nearly clipped my rear wheel as it was over-taking another truck to avoid parked traffic on the hard shoulder…beeping hard like mad as it was whizzing right beside my left elbow. Unfortunately we will have to travel on this road quite a lot over the next few weeks as it’s the most direct route south, so we will just have to get used to the traffic.
I think I am still suffering from the heat and and by the time we reached Vinh, the fairly non-descript capital city of Central Vietnam, I was shattered and felt like I had enough of the country, the Vietnamese drivers and the people in general. But when we got to our accommodation, the lady there was lovely and so was our room so all was well in the world again…until we went to the supermarket a few hours later and when security told me I had to put my cycling helmet into a locker I burst into tears. All of a sudden it all just seemed like too much! Spent the rest of the day in bed and thankfully we have tomorrow off so I can hopefully catch up on more sleep and recover.
We are just over 3 weeks here so a few observations and experiences to share…….
ALL drivers are pretty horrendous….not quite as bad as India but definitely second on our ‘bad drivers scale’. Regardless of whether they are driving a car, bus or scooter it’s like they are blinkered so that they can only look ahead. They completely disregard every other road user and just beep/hoot/honk to let you know they are coming through and to get out of their way. In fairness if you don’t/can’t, they will generally slow down behind you, but it’s just the attitude that we find amazing. If they are tuning right, although they indicate they don’t believe in having to stop before they make the turn, so it’s up to us to stop or risk being hit! For such friendly people it’s like they develop a completely new persona when they get behind a wheel. And there is no point in getting mad or shouting like we did in India when it all got too much (maybe we have learned from our time there) – this is their norm and we just have to accept that. So that means being alert at all times. I did shout “watch out” a few times as I don’t have a horn on my bike and honestly one girl on her scooter looked at me like I was completely deranged. Nigel had a similar experience – shouted “woah” to a guy that was inches from knocking him off his bike and the guy just laughed. Hard to get to grips with!
The “sex hotel” industry is pretty common although you wouldn’t know it to look at the hotels or guesthouses as they don’t have a seedy appearance to them. Most offer rooms by the hour, which means that we are generally asked how long we want to stay for when we check in at around lunch time! There might be some truck drivers who use them during the day to break up their journey, but from what we have observed it’s generally couples…and it’s the cleaning staff we feel sorry for as they seem to work non-stop cleaning the rooms. Most overnighters seem to check-in quite late in the day so we are a real anomaly by checking in early and staying overnight – and I am sure they don’t know what to think when we check in for more than 1 night!
As well as prickly heat and mosquito bites returning with a vengeance, we have also become gravel magnets. Every piece of dirt or gravel on the road seems to attach itself to us. I noticed a few weeks back that my feet looked dirtier than normal at the end of the day, but now after a shower (and regardless of how many showers a day we have) it’s like we have just come off a building site….little piles of grit all over the bathroom…!
But now for a nice story….we have had really lovely interactions with lots of (non-driving!) locals – most of all kids. In both Hanoi and Cat Ba we had kids come over to ask if they could speak English to us. In Hanoi the 8 year old boy’s mother hovered nearby, but let him get on with it. In Cat Ba the mother came too so it was a 3-way conversation between us, the 9-year old girl and her mother, with the 9-year old acting as translator with her phenomenal English. But what a brilliant idea to expose your children to English speakers to practice what they learn in school??!