Before we arrived in Vietnam we’d heard mixed reports about it from other travellers we’d met and blogs we’d read. Some people love it here; others can’t wait to leave. We’ve tried really hard to keep an open mind and form our own opinions. I think I’m liking it more than Keith is….but there’ve certainly been moments when I’ve lost my temper with bus and lorry drivers too.
As mentioned in the last blog we crossed from Laos at Na Meo, and then made our way along route 217 to join route 15 at Quan Hoa and then on to the Ho Chi Minh Highway (also route 15) at Ngoc Lac, where we finally found an ATM! This part of the route had felt quite remote. Towns and villages were small and relatively few and far between.
The main industry, particularly along the mountainous route 217, is chopping bamboo. Along the roadside men and women were engaged sawing huge bamboo poles into metre lengths, which they then quartered lengthwise and bundled up onto lorries to be taken to a more centralised processing point. Here the bamboo was split further into slim sticks and bundled up again. We wondered if this might be the supply source for the millions of disposable bamboo chopsitcks that are used and discarded across China and SE Asia every day.
Once out of the mountains and onto route 15 the chopstick industry was replaced by rice harvesting. Despite being a fairly main highway, the road was often reduced to just half a lane, and sometimes completely blocked with rice, peanuts and rice-stalks (looking like straw or hay) drying in the sun. The rice and peanuts were usually restricted to the verge, but the rice straw was regularly spread across the entire road and the traffic often had no choice but to run right over it. To be fair there wasn’t really anywhere else to spread it….all the surrounding land is water-logged rice-paddies….but where did they dry the harvest before the road was built?
Scooters’ exhausts were festooned with dried stalks and the smell of baking greenery assaulted the nostrils in the harsh midday sun. At least the hills here were now just gently rolling and it was getting easier to keep sufficient forward momentum to create a breeze and stop my brains from leaking out of my ears…but progress has remained hampered by frequent stops in the shade to rest and guzzle quenching cold drinks or eat watermelon or the divinely plump lychees on sale at roadside stalls. I wasn’t sure if I fancied trying salted lemon flavour…but it’s actually delicious and very refreshing. Keith is craving orange Fanta and is regularly disappointed by the scant selection of drinks offered at most places we stop at.
We followed route 15 to Tan Ky then route 46 to Vinh and then headed briefly onto route 1 – the main road artery running from Hanoi in the north to Ho Chi Minh City in the south. We didn’t spend long on route 1 before abandoning our map and heading out on smaller roads with a view to camping on the beach. Keith loves swimming in the sea and after enjoying many beach camps on our 2011 trip he was really looking forward to a quiet beach camp and a dip in the South China Sea. Sadly our first beach experience in Vietnam was not quite what he had in mind. Within moments of stepping onto the beach we were being annoyed by bunch of kids who simply would not keep their hands off the Pino. Keith did manage to go for a swim and I tried to read quietly in between glaring at our tormentors, but after a couple of hours when the time had come to start looking for somewhere quiet to put the tent, the kids had swelled in ranks and been joined by a load of adults who were equally incapable of keeping their hands off the Pino. We decided to give up on that particular beach. A few kilometres later we gave up on camping altogether and got a hotel…ah, aircon and a shower! I can’t say I was unhappy.
Route 1 gets bad press in cycling blogs for being busy and chaotic…which it is….but it’s not as bad as many roads we’ve been on and it does have the advantage of being flat, unlike the HCM highway which at this point is rolling over the hills to the west. The tarmac on route 1 is also in pretty good condition so we were finally able to cruise at 20-25kph and get some distance covered…something we need to do if we’re to see Ho Chi Minh City and exit Vietnam before our visas expire.
The biggest downside to route 1 is the Vietnamese love of driving with their hand on the horn. It’s just like being back in China…although with margially fewer dangerous driving maneuvers in evidence here….although that could simply be due to fewer drivers rather than better drivers. I don’t think quite so many people here pull out without looking, but there’s enough of them to drive Keith to distraction….and that combined with the people on scooters who ride alongside us beeping their horn for no apparent reason has resulted in Keith swerving towards people and screaming “Toot, toot!” in their faces. Another habit that’s getting on our nerves is the vocal minority who managed to make a simple greeting sound like a threat. Even when off the bike, a stroll up the high street in a mountain town induced a peremptory bellow of “Hello” or, even more annoying, “Hey!” or “Oi!” from each and every shop. Some people smile and say hello genuinely, which is lovely. I always try to smile and wave back if it’s done nicely, but unfortunately for a fairly large minority it seems to be some sort of sport to bait foreigners. We started off responding by shouting “Sin Jao” back , but I think the best response is just to ignore the bellowers and concentrate on the friendly people instead, of which there are plenty. We are particularly grateful to the friendly cafe owners who brought out free rice and vegetables to bolster our midday meal when they realised we were on a budget.
With just one small hill to cross on route 1 we made fast progress from Vinh to just north of Dong Hoi where we cut inland to do some sightseeing. Paradise cave was discovered just 8 years ago, and has got to be one of the most stunning places we’ve ever visited. We’d had a tough day getting there and already had 100km on the clock as we literally had to get off and push the bike over the two short 20%+ climbs on the final approach to the car park, and were then faced with a kilometre walk and 500 step climb to the cave entrance, but once inside any tiredness was forgotten as we descended the wooden stairway into the deliciously cool depths and our eyes widened as an ornately decorated natural cathedral opened out before us. The stairs wound down around gigantic stalagmites, and the cave roof and walls were draped with mineral folds that hung in thick curtains and looked for all the world as if you could wrap yourself up in them. At the bottom of the steps, the wonderworld continued. A wooden walkway took us round a corner and before our overawed senses chamber after chamber of glittering rock formations opened up. Pipes like huge church organs lined the walls. Silver-sheened fans of intricate tracery stacked metres tall to give an odd sense of both delicacy and immovable strength. Our sense of reverence and wonder was of course shattered momentarily when a local tourist shoved his face into Keith’s to scream “Hello!’ before snickering and rejoining his moronic friends. Ah, the joy of travel and experiencing other cultures.
A note to other cyclists planning a visit: there are two routes from the village of Son Trach to the cave. We did both as a loop and are really glad we took them (entirely by accident) in the order that we did. The Lonely Planet said there was accommodation in Son Trach so we were trying to find that with the intention of checking in and then heading to the cave unencumbered, but our map didn’t show Son Trach and signage petered out, so we asked locals for directions. In hindsight it’s quite clear on googlemaps so we should have looked at that. We ended up cycling west on the HCM highway’s eastern branch, past the entrance to the national park (the junction with route TL20, down which we would have found Son Trach) and we eventually turned south onto the HCM highway western branch where the caves are signed as being 16km away. This route was the longer of the two routes but predominantly flat and took us through rice paddies surrounded by stunning karst scenery and then into the national park. The only hills were in the last couple of kms and then the two horrible 20% ones on the approach road to the caves car park. After seeing the caves we had finally worked out where we were on our map and decided to turn right after exiting the caves approach road and make it a loop back to Son Trach. There was a bit of a climb and then a nice descent down to the crossroads where we turned left onto the TL20 which would eventually take us to Son Trach, but it was getting late so we camped on a gravelled clearing. The next morning we were really pleased we hadn’t tried to make it to Son Trach the previous evening as the hills were really steep and very hard work even in the relative cool of the morning. The scenery – heavily jungled karst – did make up for it and we felt as if we were in the middle of nowhere, but we were really glad we hadn’t been faced with those hills on our way out to the caves as we really needed fresh legs to tackle them.
From Son Trach we rejoined the HCM highway eastern branch and headed east on the rolling road to Dong Hoi where we re-joined the busy-but-flat route 1 and then made relatively quick progress even through the heat of the afternoon to camp just a few kilometres short of Ho Xa, which set us up nicely for a visit to the Vinh Moc Tunnels the next day.
On our way to the tunnels we stopped for breakfast in Ho Xa market, where our MAG-badged pannier was spotted by some MAG employees, who stopped to chat and have their photo taken with us.
As in Laos, Vietnam’s social and economic development is seriously hampered by the legacy of unexploded ordnance (UXO). Quang Tri province, which straddles the 17th parallel (the historic divide between north & south Vietnam) and where Ho Xa and the Vinh Moc tunnels are located, has recorded the highest number of casualties since the end of the war (6,760 casualties, including 2,774 killed) and 100% of the communities are still reported as contaminated.
From January to March this year MAG cleared 107,708 square metres of land in Vietnam…that’s about 15 football pitches….and destroyed 5,544 UXO. The more we learn about the UXO problem the more shocked we are….that’s a lot of bombs in a relatively small area. If you want to support the work of MAG please make a donation through the following link to our Just Giving page.
After saying cheerio to the MAG guys we ate our breakfast (delicious little shrimp parcels and some ginger dumplings) and set out towards the beautiful South China Sea coastline where the Vinh Moc Tunnels were home to several hundred civilians and fighters during the American-Vietnam war. The Americans believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying the Communist North with food and armaments, so they bombed them, forcing the villagers to dig in and re-locate themselves first 10metres and later, 30 metres underground.
I know that Asians are generally of a slighter build than Westerners, but you really wouldn’t have wanted to be claustrophobic living there. After just 30 minutes of wandering around my neck was cricked, my back ached, and I really couldn’t wait to get out….and we had the luxury of being the only people in the tunnels, not one of the 60 plus families who lived in them for six years.
After visiting the tunnels we stayed on minor roads along the coastline and Keith finally got to swim on a deserted and idyllic beach.
He tried to persuade me to camp, and I have to say I was tempted, but we’d set our sights on the historic town of Hue some 100km further down the coast and I REALLY wanted a shower and a night with aircon instead of sweltering in a sweat-soaked, airless tent. It was a long day in the saddle, and dark as we approached Hue, with the only illumination coming from oncoming headlights and eerie, soundless flashes of lightning in the distant sky.
We’d been recommended a hotel by Ian, a cycle tourist we met travelling in the other direction that afternoon, and are very grateful to him for his recommendation. The Phoenix is a lovely hotel. We’re being treated like royalty, being fed free fresh fruit and cups of tea, and are even getting some laundry done as the price is not bad at all.
We’ll be heading on south in the next few days. And to finish with, as ever, here are a few more pics of Northern Vietnam: