At 6am we were woken by a rendition of the Vietnamese national anthem, being played very loudly and distortedly out of set of loudspeakers mounted to a post outside our hotel. (At least, we assume it was distorted, we never actually hear this song ever played in any other way, and so it’s possible that that is just what it is supposed to sound like…) Noodle soup it turns out is as intrinsic to the culture of Vietnam as it is to that of Lao, and so that was what we had for breakfast.
It’s always a surprise when you cross a land boarder and find that on the other side of this invisible line things are actually very different. We had got used to the pace of life in your average Laotian town, which sat somewhere between slow and stationary, and only picked up when someone cracked open an urn of rice wine (normally at about 09:30 in the morning). Na Meow however was quite alive with activity, suggesting that here the people might actually have jobs! Sadly, another difference was that in Vietnam the roads weren’t funded by the Japanese, and so they were in fact markedly worse than they had been on the other side of the boarder. It was also pretty miserable weather and for the first time in nearly 4 months we came across quite large patches of mud.
Mud wouldn’t have been a problem had it not been Jess’s mud guards which, in their enthusiasm to help, would grab onto huge lumps of mud and wedge them firmly between itself and the wheel, where they would make an unpleasant scraping noise as she cycled along. Various plans were formulate to extract the offending clods, small stick were sent it to try and claw it out, in the manner of a bush-bady trying to catch ants, however this proved ineffective and unsatisfying. In the end Jess found a large and solid piece of bamboo (which she christened “The Whacking Stick”) and this was proved effective in not only beating both mud and mud guard into submission, but also providing an outlet for Jessica’s ever mounting aggression.
We’d sort of assumed that ones we got to Vietnam the hills would stop and it would all be mill pond flat. This was mostly thanks to the fact that our map didn’t have contour lines, and we are pair of wallys, because one things that both sides of the border have in common is that they are bloody hilly! These unexpected hills, combined with the mud and often rubbish roads were (despite the occasional mud bashing session) putting Jessica in a very bad mood indeed. This meant that she was not really in a fit state to entertain the 30 odd Vietnamese people (men, women and children) who crowded around us when we finally found somewhere to stop for lunch. This lunch stop was probably one of our strangest to date, where before our arrival the customers were mostly either playing pool or sitting around smocking giant pipes, made out of lengths of bamboo. The people were very friendly, although Jess’s mud induced rage meant that she was really getting very annoyed with the old woman, who was leaning in so close to watch Jess eat that she was almost obstructing Jess’s chopsticks from reaching her mouth.
The reason we had stopped in this rather remote lunch location was because there had been very little by way of urbanisation and this was the first likely looking eatery we had seen in a while. Unsurprisingly, 15 minutes after this rather abortive meal we passed through quite a large (by the standard of the last few weeks) town, with restaurants abound… but by then it was all to late. We did however stop briefly in this town, just long enough to break its only cash machine, something that became quite a hobby of ours, as we tried get out enough Dong to keep us going until Hanoi.
Interestingly the Vietnamese Dong is now (since the abolition of the Zimbabwe Dollar) the lowest valued currency in the world (according to Wikipedia). There are (or at least were while we were there) 30,000 VND to the pound, and the largest single denomination is the 100,000 VND note (or just over £3). It’s therefore not surprising that a lot of the hotels (especially those in tourist areas) resort to using American dollars simply as a space saving measure.
After the town the road followed along a river, and we were hoping that it would continue to do this all way out onto the river delta. Sadly however it had other ideas and after only a few k of nice flat terrain it started to climb again, taking us up onto a huge open plateau, covered in rice paddies and thatched cottages. We were sort of hoping that after this we would be allowed to go down back to the river, but were ones again disappointed and our climbing wasn’t done yet as we first rose up onto a second even higher plateau, and then, before being allowed to escape from these hidden lands had to scale the side of a huge ridge where the road zig zagged its way up with Alpine style hairpins.
Finally, after what felt like a very long climb we were allowed to roll the very long way down the hill into the town of Dong Tom. We were directed to quite a nice little hotel, which had all the mod cons including wifi in the bed room (ones you had asked the hotelier to plug the router in), and a giant semi erotic poster featuring a a scantily clad women being fed grapes by a pair of plastic doves, with the phrase “Get Well Soon!” splashed across the bottom.
The next day, after what felt like a very long time indeed, we finally arrived in civilisation! We could tell we had arrived there because we stopped in our first coffee shop, and had a brilliant percolated beverage, served with finesse and style (and a giant blob condensed milk in the bottom). After finishing our drinks the owner of the cafe, and his entire family all came outside to wave us off. We stopped in another town for lunch and broke another cash machine. The restaurant here was of a completely different scale to one from yesterday, and seemed to server a wide range of fascinating dishes. Sadly, we completely failed to convey the message that we would like one of these dishes, and so instead ended up with a plate of chicken and rise… (at least here (unlike in Lao) they went to the effort of flavouring the chicken with a dash of lemon.) At this restaurant no body came to wave us off, but we did draw quite a crowd when we tried to ask for directions.
Thanks to an interesting mix of European influence and Vietnamese nationalist pride, in 1918 Vietnamese officials decided that the language of the country should be written in Roman characters. However they didn’t chose to associate the letters with the same sounds as you might have expected. (We had already learnt this to our cost when we’d spent quite a long time trying simply to order a bowl of rise which we knew to be written “com”. We spent a very long time with the waiter, saying “com” in all the different tones, intonations and pitches we could think of, eventually writing the word down only for realisation to dawn on the chap and him exclaim “kerm”…) We were therefore aware that the town we were aiming for was probably not pronounced “Vihn Loc” but had no idea how it actually was pronounced… in the end we just pointed at the name on the map.
The appearance of civilisation had coisided with the disappeared of the mountains. There was one hill at the begging of the day, but pretty much the whole afternoon was spent cruising along perfectly flat roads, raised up above what appeared to be a never ending sea of paddy fields. In Lao pretty much all the paddy fields had been bare, the Laotians having clearly decided that they had enough rice, and so choosing to spend the rest of the year getting pissed. The Vietnamese however feel very differently about how much is good amount of rice, because the whole way along armies of people in conical hats were bent double, up their knees in mud, bevering away either planting seeds, or cutting… seeds… or doing other rice production based things. None of them though were too busy to look up and give us a cheery wave as we cycled past.
No patch of flat land was left unused either and the town of Vinh Loc (or “Vinh Loc City!” as the girl in the earlier restaurant had excitedly exclaimed) appeared like an island, the walls of the first house rising directly out of water covered fields. Once there we found a very nice hotel indeed, and later a very nice dinner at a place that was very far to right on the “restaurant”—-“someones sitting room” spectrum. To pay we had to interrupt the old man and his grandson from their martial arts film that they were watching in the next room.
The next day was more of the same, another brilliant cup of coffee, this time served in a garden full of banzi trees. We had been warned that the traffic in Vietnam was bad, and there is some truth in this, they seem to have developed a horn addiction, so it doesn’t take many actual cars to be on the road for the traffic to become infuriating. There are also a lot of lorries, and although the first time you see a “fun communist truck” you think its “fun” a few hours later you have been nearly run over by 10 of them and honked at violently by another 100 and the fun has very much warn off. The only time the roads we were really busy was at school letting out time, when they flooded with thousands of keen young comrades, all meandering along in huge bicycle riding packs, smartly dressed in their state prescribed school uniform.
We had a relatively assuming moment when Jess decided that she needed the loo and so we stopped in a petrol station to ask if they had such a facility. Sam thought he had learnt the word for “toilet” in Vietnams, but what ever the word he had learnt was it didn’t mean toilet to these people. We spent about 10 minutes trying to say this word in a way they might understand, as well as trying a few other words that the Lonely planet phrase book had to offer until one bright spark finally worked out what we wanted and in a breath of realisation went “oooohh… toilet?”.
We were aiming this evening for the Hanoi satellite town of Phu Ly (pronounced “Poo Lee”), which might (if anyone else took the time to make the comparison) be called “The Guilford of The East”. Before entering this monstrous sounding place we thought it prudent to stop for a cold drink. This started in the normal way, us signalling to the owner lady that we wanted a drink, and then her spending the next five minutes setting us up an assortment of child’s garden furniture in a vain attempt to make us comfortable. As is quite often the case, when we arrived the girl seemed to speak no English at all, but after a few minutes of us putting the effort in with hand gestures and funny noises some of the words that she had been taught at school or heard on TV started to float up to the top of mind, and within about 15 minutes we had almost forgotten that we didn’t speak the same language. Things then took a turn for the more unusual when this woman’s mother (possibly the smallest, oldest looking woman in the world) appeared excited brandishing an envelope, the contents of which turned out to be a happy new year message from none other than the Vietnamese President himself, hand signed and addressed personally this lively OAP! This was clearly quite a thing, and so we all had an apple to celebrate!
Phu Ly turned out to be a very exciting place, all bright lights and half price cloths shops. The traffic had warn away at us to enough of an extent to give us an excuse to splash out on a smart hotel, and after a drink in the bar we headed out to find some grub. After wandering for a while we found some street sellers, surrounded by a mass of locals sitting on miniature plastic furniture. We were tempted to play the sellers off against each other, but it turned out they were all doing different meals, all of which looked delicious, so in the end we got two plates from each of them, a snip at just 50,000 Dong…
Finally the big day came, and it was time for us to make one final push into Hanoi. We’d studied the maps long and hard, and were pretty sure we had found as good a way as was possible for this final strike. The road we were planning to use didn’t actually appear on our map, but Google suggested that there should be a delightful river road that would take us right into the heart of the city. We snuck out of Phu Ly in that vain, diving along narrow roads lined with stalls and periodically touching on the river bank. One very short hold up came when a women holding a huge plant stepped out in front of Jess, and received a Surley Long Haul Trucker to the arm as punishment for her carelessness. Fortunately no harm was done, and we can only hope that this lady learnt a valuable lesson…
The road we had found was pretty much ideal, taking us north along the river and into the city. We knew exactly where on the map we were and exactly which direction Han Noi was, and this proved to be lucky because everyone we asked seem to have absolutely no idea! The first person we asked told us that Ha Noi was 90k, this was very bad news because we had already done thirty and had calculated it being only an 80k total. The second person was convinced that Ha Noi was to the south of where we were, and put quite some effort into trying to convince us that that was the way we should go. We pressed on, but things then got really worrying when the next pair (who didn’t speak a word of English and were absolutely plastered) stopped and also tried very hard to make us head south… They were particularly troubling because they seemed to have nothing better to do than ride up and down our little road on their moped, and so when they came back the other way they stopped and seemed really quite offended that we should have chosen to ignore their insanely inaccurate advise. On balance they were not a helpful addition to the day. One guy was very very drunk, while his friend was only drunk, and first guy had a tendency of getting very close and shouting Vietnamese in our faces. The photo below somehow manages to make it look like Jess was happy in their company, but this is complete facade, because she was fuming! As if their presents wasn’t enough, the second time they accosted us they managed to do it right next to a giant pig abattoir, and so any gaps between the mans shouting we filled with the screams and squeals of hundreds of the poor creatures being forcibly introduced to their maker.
For a moment it looked like relations with the very very drunk man had deteriorated completely, and that things were about to kick off, fortunately his friend whispered a few consolatory nothings in his ear and this seemed to calm him to such a degree that as he (finally) left he came to Sam, gave him a big hug, and as if the alcohol had instilled in him one solitary English phrase uttered the words “I love you!”…
Our quiet back road took us all the way into what would probably be called zone 2 of Ha Noi, before becoming a giant 8 lane motor way. Cycling along this wasn’t too bad, because there were so many lanes that we almost had one to ourselves, crossing it however was a nightmare, and took a very long time.
We finally arrived in the Old Town of Ha Noi in time for lunch, having cycled 5800km over 113 days.
Na Meow to Dong Tam
Dong Tam to Vinh Loc City
Vinh Loc City to Phu Ly
Phu Ly to Ha Noi