With the weather failing to pass in Kham Duc and feeling the urge once more to get back to the well-trodden path where I can at least be semi-anonymous, I began the 130km journey to Hoi An.
Despite the rainfall that soaked me to the bone, my spirit could not be dampened as the scenery I passed through while straddling a gorgeous flowing river was once again nothing short of spectacular; gushing waterfalls ran down cliff faces and under the roadway while thick green vine carpeted the mountains that lay under a thin mist of everlasting fog.
I liked the historical port town of Hoi An instantly. Although it is heavily dressed for the tourist market, it is done so tastefully with aesthetically pleasing art and craft stores and tailors lining the narrow streets. All are either housed in actual historical dwellings or have similar facades that make for streetscapes that are colourful, clean and brimming with charm. An entire day was spent exploring these ‘old town’ streets and the wonders within them including several Chinese pagodas and temples and beautifully crafted timber houses.
Another was spent at the ruins of the ancient Cham culture in My Son. Although placed in a beautiful valley setting that made for a very peaceful stroll, the ruins themselves were a little underwhelming, particularly for one who has spent three exploring those of the Khmer Empire in Cambodia. They were well complemented however, by a visit to the breezy and comprehensive Museum of Cham Sculpture in nearby Danang.
I hadn’t expected much from the 100km ride north from Danang to Hue as I had decided to stick to what I had heard from several sources to be the ‘dreaded’ Highway number 1. So when what proceeded was undoubtedly one of the most scenically beautiful rides of the tour, I was very pleasantly surprised. After so much time in the mountains, I had forgotten how good it felt to pump along on a constant grade and that is just what I did, side by side with endless rice paddies while enjoying light traffic conditions and a nice wide shoulder to call my own.
However, these flats were interspersed with several mountain passes, the highest and most magnificent of which was the reasonably well touristed Hai Van Pass or ‘Pass of the Clouds.’ This stretch of road rises from sea level to 500m only to fall straight back down again. A tunnel has recently been built that apparently shaves an hour off the journey for trucks and buses and no doubt it would have done the same for me, but where is the reward in that?
The slow ride up afforded me fantastic views of vast green plains on my left and the expansive blue of the Pacific on my right, as well as several secluded beaches including one housing a leper colony of 200 residents, or so I was told by a woman selling postcards, bracelets, chewing gum, etc. at the 300m mark. The descent down the other side was somewhat faster, but the scenery no less stunning and with the wind in my hair as I rounded bend after bend, I complemented these sights perfectly with the atmospheric trance of DJ Tiesto pumping in my ears. It was absolutely thrilling and at the same time, utterly peaceful.
It was at the summit of a smaller pass later in the day that I decided to break for a sunscreen stop, as this was a rare day when the sun was burning brightly. When I did, I was mobbed by about 10 school kids, some of whom asked for money, all of whom wanted to touch everything on me and my bike, including my computer, which has been the subject of much local interest. ‘Bike computer’ perhaps makes it sound more sophisticated than it really is. It is simply a glorified odometer that proves invaluable for navigation purposes.
All of a sudden, the mob dispersed and assuming their bus or something had arrived, I was pleased to see them go so that I could continue to put on my sunscreen in peace. When I turned back to my bike however, I noticed my computer was gone as were two of the kids who had jumped on their bikes and raced off down the hill I had just ascended. Absolutely fuming, I went over to the remaining group who gestured that it was one of these two who was the thief. I ordered them to lead me to them and they seemed quite willing to do so. At the bottom of the hill however, they stopped. What ensued was a futile attempt to get my computer back (which didn’t even work without the other components that were still attached to my bike, I might add) as it became clear that none of the kids were about to turn their mates in.
Just as I thought I was defeated, I realised I had been going about this the wrong way. This was a hostage situation and I had to offer these brats that which had drawn them to me in the first place. From out of my wallet I pulled a crisp, green 100,000 dong ($7) note and watched their little almond eyes light up. Using my ever-trusty phrase book, I explained that I would wait for ten minutes and whoever brought me the computer would be duly rewarded. Within two, it was back in my hand and I was making good on my promise.
I maintained my angry facade to the end, but on the inside I was smiling. Smiling at the cunning of these enterprising little deviates. I laughed about it all the way to Hue.
Following a couple of days in recently flooded Hue where I went on a cruise down the poetically named ‘Perfume River’ to visit several ancient tombs of the Nguyen dynasty, I cycled about 100kms and officially entered Northern Vietnam as I crossed the DMZ (demilitarised zone). This acted as the demarcation line between the north and south during the American War. It wasn’t until I holed up in the city of Vinh however, that I truly felt like I was in the north, for it was there that I had the chance to sample Vietnam’s famous ‘bia hoi.’
Quite possibly the cheapest beer on the planet at a ridiculous 2000 dong (15 cents) per glass, bia hoi literally means ‘draught beer.’ It is cold, refreshing, bubbly and certainly hits the spot after 100kms in the saddle. I had planned to just have a couple to ‘rehydrate’ before dinner, but the problem was that as I sat there, drinking in my little plastic chair at my little kiddies table, every Vietnamese guy in the place wanted to go ‘tram phan tram’ with me. This literally translates as ‘100%’ and means both participants have to down what is left in their glasses.
Needless to say, I took the following day off to rest/recuperate and watch some horribly dark weather go by. As is usually the case, the weather lasted longer than my patience so I donned my wet weather gear (which happens to be exactly the same as my dry weather gear, only wetter) and continued northbound.
After a couple of days of battling a furious seasonal northerly, I arrived in Ninh Binh, the home of Tam Coc; a stunning group of karst formations set among flat green ride paddies. A charming wooden rowboat was a very pleasant way to experience what is known as ‘Halong Bay on the rice fields’ and a nice change from the clunk clunk and smell of the diesel engines that power most other boats I have been a passenger on.
Another 100 or so kilometres in the saddle and I was to experience the real Halong Bay from the picturesque though touristy Cat Ba Island, but not before a stay in the city of Thai Binh. What I thought would be a fairly standard overnight stop turned into a frustrating struggle to find a bed to sleep in and only a bed. I pulled into the first nga nghi (guesthouse) I found and was greeted by three giggling girls, my lucky day. I asked for a room for the night and a guy offered to show me one. Before ascending the stairs though, he said, “You want……..” and made the universal symbol for sex by pushing his forefinger on one hand in and out of a ring formed by the thumb and forefinger of his other. It was then that something clicked and I thought I best be on my way.
At the next nga nghi as I was being shown upstairs, I passed several rooms, every second one of which was inhabited by a scantily clad girl. Again I moved on.
This continued a couple more times before I decided that it must be a nga nghi thing and that perhaps I should try the khach sans (hotels). At the first, I was greeted in the darkened foyer by a seemingly mute man with terrible teeth. After much gesturing and broken Vietnamese, I was sure I had conveyed my point that I just wanted a room for the night. He then shouted something up the stairs and down came a girl busting out of her tight pink top to whom he gave three packs of condoms. I couldn’t believe it and feeling quite frustrated, as I left I just wanted to exclaim, “All I want is a hotel that’s not a brothel!” but alas, I had no one to listen.
I have seen brothels all over SE Asia but they are usually marked by telltale ‘karaoke’ or ‘massage’ signs. In Thai Binh however, there was no such subtle distinction so I decided to carry on and try my luck in the next town.
20kms later and some hotel receptionists thought it was hilarious that I wanted a room for an entire night as opposed to just a couple of hours. They even called their friends over to tell them about it. Others were given away by a telltale Japanese-style screen in the foyer from behind which shot the occasional scooter carrying a patron who would hop the curb at speed and anonymously rejoin the traffic of the general population.
In the end I stayed in a hotel that I am not sure was a brothel or not, I suspect it may have been, but Mum will be happy to hear that I spent the night alone.
The following night, after taking an extremely rough and roundabout though cheap route that saw me endure 2 ferries, a truck and a whole lot of cycling, I arrived on Cat Ba Island, a beautiful spot from which to explore Halong Bay. A UNESCO World Heritage site consisting of over 3000 islands in the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong Bay is the most amazing natural site I have seen on this tour and no words or photos can do it justice.
Huge limestone mountains, the highest of which rises to 330m above sea level, dot the water that is absolutely glass-like and under the bright sun and blue skies, so inviting that it took all of my will power not to jump overboard. I would have my satisfaction though when the boat stopped for a break and I pulled off a mean horsie from the upper deck.
I swam out to a tiny, isolated beach that I could call my own, plonked myself on the sand, took in the view and contemplated whether I would ever be anywhere so beautiful and peaceful again.
The following day I farewelled the ocean as I am due to head inland to the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. When I’ll see her again, I do not know. 6 months? A year? More?
I am going to miss her, her revitalising energy, her calming nature, her soft touch and her warm embrace.