Long days on the bike, sticky nights in the tent (frustratingly the wind that dogs us all afternoon disappears at sundown), an impressive imperial palace at Hue, beautifully restored merchants’ houses in Hoi An (not to mention shopping opportunities galore and no damn space in the panniers)….and the extraordinary variety of things simply happening in every day Vietnamese life alongside Route One.
It’s been a tough few days. We usually cover around 80km a day. In the last 6 days we’ve ridden over 780. Our shortest day was 5hrs 45min pedaling (107km) and our longest was 8hrs 36min (160km). These long days have been partly due to the fact that we’re getting up at the crack of dawn to beat the heat but then cycling through the heat anyway as it’s really hard to find anywhere to camp so we tend to leave it until near sun-down to reduce the chance of discovery, and partly due to the fact that we wanted to ‘buy’ ourselves a couple of extra days sightseeing when we get to Ho Chi Minh City as we don’t think the single day our previous itinerary allowed would be nearly enough.
Here’s a run-through of a typical day since leaving Hue: the alarm goes off at 5am and we’re on the road a bit after 6 (having reduced breakfast to a hastily assembled and scoffed mashed banana baguette, or in Keith’s case two baguettes with mashed banana and brown sugar……and I thought I was meant to have the sweet tooth!). We try to get 20-30km done before stopping for breakfast number 2 (noodle soup, or rice and meat). Sometimes, if we’re peckish, we have a third breakfast of snacky things bought in the market whilst shopping for vegetables for our evening meal. Bananas and lychees keep us going until lunchtime (more noodle soup or rice & meat) and then in the afternoon we have more bananas or lychees and sometimes a nice big water-melon (warm water-melon is remarkably refreshing). We also stop a couple of times during the day for either fresh coconut or fresh sugar-cane juice. It’s amazing how the hours disappear. Even though you’re enjoying long summer days back in the UK we barely get 13 hours of daylight here (although what it lacks in hours it makes up for in intensity). All of a sudden it’s 5pm and we’re starting to look for a campsite. It’s tiring riding long days but more rewarding than the relentless hills through China, Laos and Northern Vietnam…at least the flat terrain means we’re getting some good distance covered.
Before this recent stint of pedaling activity we’d had a couple of sightseeing stops in two very different but both enjoyable locations. Our last blog post saw us arriving into Hue (pronounced Hway not Hugh), the old capital of the Nguyen dynasty which ruled Vietnam for almost 150 years prior to 1945 (even though it was part of French Indochina). The city of Hue suffered considerable damage in the struggle between North and South Vietnam and after the war ended the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party had no interest in restoring what they saw as a symbol of the old feudal regime and left already damaged buildings to fall further into disrepair. More recently though, the Party has recognized the value of the citadel as a national treasure and renovation work is underway to restore this UNESCO World Heritage Site to its former glory. Even semi-restored the site is impressive. Contained within walls 10km in circumference the citadel includes a forbidden city where only the Emporer, his concubines and some eunuchs were allowed to tread – on pain of death.
A couple of days ride down the coast from Hue is Hoi An, our next sightseeing stop. There’s been a trading port at Hoi An for over 2000 years, but it really saw its heyday in the 15th – 19th centuries, when Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Dutch traders settled there. The ancient town centre is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and packed full of beautifully restored buildings spanning 3 centuries. Old traders’ buildings jostle against Chinese assembly halls, family graves and a 16th century Japanese bridge (which has a Buddhist pagoda attached to it) nestle in amongst French colonial houses.
In keeping with its trading history, Hoi An today is packed with shops. Any one of the hundreds of tailors can whip you up a made-to-measure shirt or dress in an afternoon. Suits may take a little longer. As well as beautiful bespoke clothes there was a plethora of other artisan offerings from gorgeous paintings to leatherware, silk lanterns, wood carvings, bone carvings and embroidery. I ummed and ahhed over a couple of gorgeous silk tops….but in the end decided they wouldn’t go with anything else in my panniers….and indeed wouldn’t fit in my panniers.
After Hoi An came our six days of hard pedaling effort down to Mui Ne. We were originally going to stop in Nha Trang, but another traveler recommended Mui Ne instead, two days further on from Nha Trang.
The temperature cooled a little (down to 30 degrees instead of 40) as we left Hoi An under overcast skies, but our reprieve didn’t last more than a couple of days. We’ve come up with some new strategies for coping with the relentless sunshine. Keith has invested in some sandals as his sweat-soaked feet and trainers were beginning to rot. He’s had to revert to wearing socks with these though as it didn’t take long for his white feet to turn pink. I have bought some thin off-white gloves (increasingly off-white as the days go by) to protect my hands and wrists and wrap a thin cotton scarf over my helmet to keep the sun off the sides of my face and neck. Very fetching doncha think?
Route 1 (marked on maps and kilometre markers as either QL1 or AH1) is the main north-south artery in Vietnam. It isn’t generally recommended as a cycling route due to the relatively heavy traffic levels….and an approach to driving that rivals the Chinese for sheer breathtaking stupidity.
Vietnamese Driving Test:
Q1 – You’re driving on busy Route 1, where trucks and coaches slow for no-one. As you approach the brow of a hill you spot a Pino proceeding slowly along on the narrow hard shoulder. Do you:
a) Pull safely into the layby at the top of the hill and wait for the Pino to reach you whilst giving a cheery thumbs-up of encouragement.
b) Blare your horn loudly as you pass the laboring tandemists.
c) Stop in the middle of the road (with car straddling the white line) to let your passenger out, who then stands, camera in hand, blocking the hard shoulder whilst you block the road, ignoring the blaring horn of the large lorry which is now determinedly overtaking you on entirely the wrong side of the road just before the brow of the hill. (Luckily he’s got a magic horn so anything approaching on the other side of the hill will instantly de-materialize…or at least this is what the truck driver appears to believe.)
Q2 – You’re on a motorbike or a pushbike and want to turn left onto Route 1. Do you:
a) Wait for a safe gap in the traffic to cross to the opposite lane and proceed with the traffic, suffering a momentary inconvenience whilst waiting for a gap.
b) Swing immediately and with gay abandon into the oncoming traffic, thus inconveniencing everyone else (this is a particularly effective manoeuvre if you have a 2.5m wide aviary strapped across the back of your motorbike).
Q3 – You see an interesting tandem on the road ahead of you and wish to express your approval of their chosen mode of transport. Do you:
a) Make eye-contact as you pass and give a grin and a thumbs up.
b) Ride/drive next to them beeping your horn and screaming “Hey! Oy!” almost loudly enough to drown out the scream of the airhorn on the massive juggernaut that’s also trying to overtake you.
c) Quickly overtake them and then pull in and drop your speed forcing the Pino to pull out and overtake you, which lets you take another look at them without risking your own ass out with the lorries. This works best if you repeat the sequence a few times, giving you and your family plenty of opportunity to point and stare at the increasingly irritated Westerners on the funny bike.
If you have answered A to any of the above you have just failed your Vietnamese driving test. (Actually, I’m exaggerating just a bit with Q3. Most people here do grin and stick their thumbs up, but there have also been rather too many who scream, shout and get in the way a lot.)
Thankfully though, aside from a couple of days which were particularly noisy and stressful (most notably between Hoi An and Quy Nhon) where the above behaviours were frequently observed, it’s actually not been too bad a road. It’s got a pretty good surface, avoids hills (OK, there are a few notable lumps, but it’s a lot flatter than the Ho Chi Minh road, which is the only other north-south route) and it goes through loads of towns and villages so you’re never far from a snack stop. It’s also really interesting. On the couple of occasions when we’ve slipped away to ride along the coast, our initial relief at being on a quiet road often degenerated into stultifying boredom as we’ve trundled along empty roads next to unfinished beach resorts with unchanging kilometers merging into the heat haze. Swinging back onto route 1 the noise hits you like a physical insult, but there’s something really exciting about the hustle and bustle of life along route 1 that helps the long days pass quickly. Here are some of the sights we’ve seen:
Aside from the traffic, the only other downside to route 1 is the paucity of good camping spots. We’ve struck lucky most of the time, but gave up about 10km before Nha Trang and got a guesthouse (aircon, wifi, shower, for a fiver….what a hardship!). We have had to be less picky than usual though with our choice of campsite and spent one rather disturbed night in a small plantation between two houses almost 6km down a side road off route 1 (that we then had to ride back along the following morning) listening to a dog barking for hours. We’d arrived at dusk and were soon hidden by darkness, but as expected were discovered by the plantation owner at 5am. I have to make sure I get up really early if I want to have a pee unobserved. A few nights later we were surrounded by endless acres of waterlogged rice paddies and ended up having to make do on a small dirt trail linking a handful of houses dotted across the watery landscape. After about 2km the trail widened just enough to get our tent on and leave room for a motorbike to get past. It was right next to a house so we said hello to the occupants and asked their permission to camp, which was readily granted. I have to say it’s not our usual strategy – I like to be well away from habitation and curious locals – but it turned out fine so maybe we’ll do it more readily in future.
We’re currently enjoying a two day break in Mui Ne, a lengthy strip of sand, sea and Russian tourists about two days ride from Ho Chi Minh City. Today’s been blogging, admin and odd-jobs day. Tomorrow is our relaxing day. We can’t wait!