If asked which region we were looking forward to most then the answer would have to be South-East Asia. Beautiful weather, amazing beaches and cheap prices combined with a laid back atmosphere make for the perfect destination for a couple of cycle tourists. After combating the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in winter followed by the cultural difficulty of China it was with wide smiles as we crossed into Vietnam. We had purchased a thirty day visa in Kunming ($65, three day wait) to ensure we would not be rushed as our plan was to head to Hanoi, followed by a short cycle to Ha Long Bay before getting a boat over to Cat Ba Island for an enforced beach break. We would then head south aiming to cross over into Laos at the border close to Vientiane. Our first view of Vietnam was the border town of Loa Cai, where we decided to get a cheap hotel and look around. Lao Cai, is similar to most other border towns in the sense that it does not reflect the true nature of the country but we had a nice time walking down the busy streets after dark and celebrating our arrived with a beer Hanoi and a bahn mi sandwich. We also were beginning to discover just how cheap Vietnam would be, since this dinner of two beers and three sandwiches between us cost just £2.50. Bargain. Vietnam is the cheapest of all the South East Asian countries we visited and also takes over from Georgia from having the cheapest beer found on this trip so far. Local food is available everywhere and costs between 50-80p per dish and the range available is simply stunning especially after the same same noodles of China. My favourite is the bahn mi sandwich, freshly baked french bread combined with BBQ pork and homemade pate alongside picked carrot, cucumber, coriander and spicy sauce. Super Yummy!
After leaving Lao Cai, we departed towards Hanoi with about 250km to cover we aimed for 4-5 days since we did not want to have to rush during this cycle and with cheap beer, cheap food and sunny days there was no reason to. We cycled past village after village with each village directly adjoining the previous one. We had no idea how populous Vietnam was, and with a population of 90 million it was perhaps the busiest country we had been to after China! The cycling was fun as we rode between these villages, always someone to shout hello to and somewhere to stop for a rest or a sandwich! The downside to being so populous was that it made camping very difficult since there was nowhere quiet or free in which to camp. We often had to camp alongside the busy road and struggled to get to sleep as the trucks and cars passed by all night. The upside to this is that since Vietnam is so cheap we often found we could stay the night in a cheap guesthouse for between three or four pounds per night, meaning we could leave the tent in the bag every other night!
On our way to Hanoi we past many shops selling all sorts of soups. Pho or Bun is the Vietnamese word for noodle soup and this is combined with the select meat. Bo is beef, Ga is chicken, Ca is fish and Cho is dog! We had no wifi before we reached Hanoi so we were unsure what meat we were eating as we walked this tightrope of cultural difference. Dog is eaten everywhere in northern Vietnam and is found is most local restaurants, but this is something we wanted to avoid. On arrival into one noodle soup shop we ordered our Pho something and sat down to have a beer and wait for our food. Fin then had to go use the toilet out back and found to her surprise the chef cutting up a dog on the back patio! Once told I had to have a look and prepared myself before finding three dogs heads in a metal bowl beside the toilets. With horror I returned and we tried to gesture wildly to the lady that we really really wanted chicken but she just kept saying she did not understand. Had we just ordered dog soup? We finished our beers and our chicken looking soup arrived but we were too unsure as to what we had ordered that we could not eat any of the meat and only really picked at the noodles out of courtesy. We left feeling quite unwell but only out of cultural difference since whatever the meat was it was definitely cooked through. We decided to only eat vegetarian food until we got to Hanoi and could download a dictionary to help us out. In reflection I don't think it was dog that we were served and if we did not see the preparation out back we would have eaten our meal without worry. It is a different country, and they eat different food and we would often past restaurants advertising dog, cat or even snake. I am sure they all taste like chicken but it was a step too far for us!!
Once we reached Hanoi, we could not believe how busy it was, motorbikes and people were everywhere and turning left or right at a junction was a game of death! Once inside the old town we found a cheap hotel and booked ourselves in for three nights. We took time to explore this lively city and often found ourselves at the mercy of delicious street food. Finola found a guide online to all the best street food restaurants and we followed this perfectly eating Bun Cha, Bahn Mi, Bahn Cuon all for the average price of 60-80p per dish! I will post again shortly with a guide to the best of Vietnamese street food! We had so much fun in Hanoi we didn't want to leave, but the next destination was calling and that was the beach!
We had promised ourselves a real beach break on Cat Ba Island, where we would down tools and become real tourists as opposed to cycle tourists, walking around rather than cycling with the world on our racks! On leaving Hanoi the weather gods conspired against us, whilst Hanoi was a calm and lovely 20-25 degrees upon leaving we found the temperature drop to about 15 degrees combined with headwinds and light rain-typical British beach weather but not for South East Asia! Cat Ba Island ferry port was 120km cycle away and then a short one hour ferry to the island. We purchased the cheaper ferry ticket which is mostly used by locals since it drops you off about 25km away from the main Cat Ba town. With it getting dark we stopped at a local cafe for a few beers rather than cycling on, and decided to camp and cycle the remainder in the morning. It was beautiful scenery with dense forest covered limestone karsts rising up from the sea and small winding roads giving you insights into village life on the island.
Once you arrive into the main town it does get very touristy as expected for any beach destination but since this was off season it was very quiet. We were approached by a nice man on our arrival who promised us a room with sea views for £4 per night, we were hesitant but he showed us up to the 9th floor of his hotel and as promised we were greeted with sea views overlooking the harbour. We took five nights straight away. Unfortunately we were met with the same gloomy weather throughout our beach break, often we would have to go out in our winter clothing to battle the weather but we did manage to find a restaurant serving the cheapest beer found in the world so far. 30p for a 500ml bottle of Tiger! That's 7.5p cheaper than Georgia! We were sold and although it was windy and the sitting on the beach was out. Sitting in drinking cheap beer was definitely in! We enjoyed our short tourist break and it is important to spend time off the bike to relax and reminisce about the trip so far. It didn't matter than we could not swim in the sea we had a fun little time, even rented a motorbike and whizzed around the island and national park areas which was great fun and made such a change from pedalling. On the day we left the island the sun came out!
Our exploration of Northern Vietnam was coming to end, and we were now headed south towards the border with Laos. It was a pretty uneventful five days cycle to the border, with the highlight being an afternoon off in the town Nimh Binh which has a really nice lake which is worth going to see if you are in the area. Camping was again quite difficult due to the volume of people and traffic but we often found a small patch of land in between rice paddys and banana plantations. The rain continued unabated and reached its crescendo going over the 700m pass between Vietnam and Laos, the temperature dropped to about 8 degrees and we were both wet and freezing. Finola was very sick that day and had to stop every twenty minutes or so to go to the toilet behind a small bush! She was a battler though since she made it up to the top of the pass without a fuss and into Laos. I was very proud of her. We paid our money for our visa on arrival and reached Loas without a problem, but my brakes were not working, both our hands were beyond cold due to lack of gloves at this stage and with Finola still feeling sick we took a taxi downhill to the nearest guesthouse and both feel asleep exhausted. Vietnam was wonderful although a surprise cold snap made it harder work than it should have been but Loas was meant to be warmer and we were headed south so everything was looking up for us!
Tim and Fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.