The day we crossed the border into Vietnam was also our one year anniversary on the road! Exactly one year ago to the day we left Greenwich with no idea what was in store for us. It has been a crazy year with lots of adventures and one we won’t forget for a long time.
Happily when we reached Vietnam we were back into a country of plenty – there was food everywhere, giant juicy pineapples lined the road and everything was cheap. After rural Laos we were excited to be surrounded by fresh food again. Our only problem was that the ATM machines refused to give us money, so we had to cycle around the city hungrily looking at all the food but not able to buy any – nothing is worse!
The border town where we crossed into Vietnam is called Dien Bien Phu and is famous for being the site of a major battle which resulted in the end of the First Indochina War. The Vietnamese spectacularly defeated the French (who had strong support from the Americans) in 1954, with a huge loss of life on both sides. The city and the neighbouring countryside is strewn with war memorials. The Black Thai (Tay Dam) hill people represent more than 50% of the population of Dien Bien Phu and during our stay we got the chance to try some staple Black Thai food, one dish we tried was pretty similar to meatloaf. The North of Vietnam is very diverse with most of the remaining 53 official ethnic groups living in the surrounding mountains.
We always expected our cycle to Hanoi to be tough due to the mountains, and we weren’t disappointed. The hills were constant and fairly steep. However, the beauty of this place made up for the challenging cycling – spectacular limestone cliffs jutting out of the ground were a frequent sight which we never tired of seeing and repeatadly tried to capture with our cameras.
Wild camping in Vietnam didn’t go very well. It is illegal to camp, but this is also true of many other countries we have cycled through, and we usually don’t have any problems. Therefore, naively we thought the same would apply here. On our first night, it started raining, it was dark and we were in a densely populated valley where all available land was either rice paddies or occupied by a home. We also had the problem of our missing tent fly and groundsheet, this meant we tried to find a camping spot with a roof and the local school on the outskirts of the town seemed perfect! However, very quickly after we set up our tent the police arrived. They were very friendly but said it was too dangerous for us to camp there – which translates as you are not allowed to camp here! We protested and more police arrived, then more police, each police officer that arrived was more senior ranking until the big boss himself rocked up. We were tired and it was late but this drama dragged on for a very long time, with them telling us we can’t stay in a friendly manner and us protesting that it is too dark and we are too tired to move! They were also photographing every page of our passport over and over again! Eventually they offered to help us pack up our tent and show us to a local hotel where we could stay for free. There were no arguments left to make so we agreed! We had a police motorcade to the local flophouse and were greeted kindly by the owners even though it was late and they were being forced to host us for free! It was one of the grimiest places we have ever stayed. It seemed like a ‘pay by the hour’ type of place and we were worried about catching fleas or an STI, but it was dry and free, so we couldn’t really complain.
The next time we tried wild camping we made sure to be slightly more hidden and away from a town. However, this meant relying on the cycle touring gods to make sure it didn’t rain as we had no roof. Unfortunately the gods were not on our side this time and we were woken up by rain falling on us in the middle of the night. We had to pack up in the pouring rain and move to another spot underneath a wooden shack on stilts in a rice paddy! Not the best night’s sleep.
Whilst on the road we ate a lot of pho, a noodle broth often with chicken or beef and spring onions sprinkled on top – it seems to be the only thing Vietnamese people eat in the rural areas of the north. We had some really tasty pho, and some not so good, bland pho. In the end we became pretty sick of the stuff and were desperate to eat anything but. Often restaurants tease you with big glossy posters of delicious looking food and when you stop and try and order some of the food by pointing at the posters the server just shakes their head and you soon realise the posters are just for decoration and all they have on offer is pho – it is a bitter disappointment! We did get to try a few other interesting foods on the road – we bought some squares of sticky stuff that were the consistency and colour of tar with coconut rice and banana mush inside – all wrapped up in a banana leaf and although it was a little tricky to eat it was pretty tasty! We also sampled rice crepes stuffed with meat, which were sliced up and dipped in a spicy sauce, also good and a nice change!
Life in Vietnam is very different from the West for many reasons but the one that really struck me was the communal living here. Most of life, cooking, bathing, washing clothes, brushing teeth, preparing food, all takes place out the front of the house, on the street and in public. It is all very communal and the boundary between house and street seems very permeable. This is similar to much of Asia but what was really noticeable here was the houses, some of which were fairly modern, were built with completely glazed fronts – almost like a shop. Which meant as you cycle past, particularly once it was dark you could see everything that was happening inside, the whole family going about their business and many, many houses were like this. No privacy at all. It was almost like the stage of a theatre – very strange. Not at all like the West where we cherish our privacy and love the feeling of closing the door on our house and having our own private sanctuary.
The roads got busier as we got closer to the big city and we noticed a couple of things; women riding mopeds have a funny relationship to road safety. The helmets here often have a big hole in the back for pony tails, which seems to negate any of the safety benefits of wearing a helmet and also many of the women from tribal regions have elaborate hair designs, with their hair piled on top of their heads in buns with lots of ornaments, they then balance their helmet on top of their hair far above their head – managing to simultaneously look ridiculous and render the helmet useless in the event of an accident!! The second thing we noticed is that Vietnamese drivers are terrible, they have big powerful 4x4s and they don’t stop for anything they feel they are the most important person on the road – always. They hurtle through small villages with kids playing, old ladies carrying crops, livestock wandering around and they just lean on the horn and don’t even slightly slow down, it is infuriating. We managed to partly cause an accident on our last day of cycling, we were resting by the side of a long, straight road and a car overtook a lorry, the car behind him followed suit and neither of them noticed us on the side of the road, there wasn’t quite enough space for them to get past the lorry without hitting us at the speed they were going so the first car slammed on the brakes and the second car went straight into the back of him. We cycled off before we were implicated in any way!
The ride to Hanoi was a really spectacular one, we both agreed it was one of the nicest of the whole trip. It seemed to be rice harvest time while we were there as the valley was bustling with women in the paddies bent over 90 degrees busy at work, and water buffaloes were all over the place churning up the land. There is always so much for us to absorb whilst we cycle along.
The landscape was much more open than in Laos with jagged mountains on either side of you towering above the valleys of rice paddies with little wooden houses on stilts dotted amongst the paddies. And the icing on the cake was the limestone cliffs jutting out of the landscape – looking like little islands in a sea of green jungle – just awesome.
Arriving into Hanoi, we were greeted warmly by our warmshowers hosts’ Tim and Carlina with a delicious meal. We felt so at home in their lovely flat that we ended up staying for a couple of weeks! Whilst in Hanoi I turned 30, which was a mixed affair which left me feeling slightly in turmoil – I was happy and excited to be hitting the big 3 – 0 whilst on such an incredible adventure and experiencing something completely different but I also felt suddenly very distant from all my loved ones back home. I think for many people it is a time to take stock and assess life so far and I tried hard to focus on what I have achieved rather than the many things I have not sorted out yet!! However, it was hard not to be content with life when I was celebrating by swimming and kayaking off the beautiful islands of Halong Bay! We opted to explore the area independently by moped, shunning the much touted tours, and this was an excellent choice which we thoroughly recommend. (You can read our “Alternative guide to Halong Bay” with lots of details on how to go it solo.)
Our time in the city was also spent jumping through many bureaucratic hoops. We spent more time than anyone should have to endure at customs trying to persuade them to release our tent footprint and fly without making us pay the extortionately high bribe, sorry I mean completely legitimate tax on our parcel. Luckily we had the incredibly kind people of the Canadian Embassy on our side. We were shocked by the lengths they went to, to help us negotiate the fees, and when everything failed and we were still forced to pay the taxes, after seeing how distraught we were they all clubbed together at the embassy and handed us an envelope of Vietnamese Dong to cover the costs. We were completely overwhelmed by how kind some people can be. Thanks especially to Ralph whose pay if forward attitude and willingness to help was completely refreshing and renewed our faith in the civil service!
In addition to hanging out at customs we also had to pay many visits to the Chinese Embassy in order to get our China visa and in stark contrast to the Canadians the staff here were awful, rude and unhelpful to the nth degree. Our advice if you are travelling to China from Vietnam – apply for your visa elsewhere. We were hoping to get a 60 or 90 day visa as we had heard this was completely possible at other embassies and we even heard of one cycling couple who had been granted a 90 day visa from Hanoi. However, for us it was impossible and completely non-negotiable, we were only allowed 30 days. This was a problem for us as it seems the rules have changed recently and you can only extend your visa once now and only for the same amount of time as the original visa – meaning we could only get a total of 60 days in China – not long enough for André to still be in Beijing when his sister arrives! We can already foresee some big problems in the future!
We loved Hanoi, it is a very picturesque city with its characterful old French colonial buildings, tree-lined streets, and numerous parks and lakes. It is a great place to meander, sampling the delicious street food and getting lost in the curious, narrow streets of the old quarter. We particularly enjoyed the iced coffees and the egg coffee (cafe trung), the Bahn mi sandwiches and Bun Cha (BBQ meat and noodles). We shopped in the many bustling markets, and Andre even found time to get a tailor-made suit.
However, after lingering too long in the city, time on our visa running out and we made a last minute decision to take an overnight train to the border with China. At the station it was all very complicated with an unnecessarily complex ticketing process, with our previously bought tickets needing to be exchanged for new ones at a strange stand situated round the back of the station down an alley and manned by dodging looking blokes and the bicycles needing be abandoned with reassurances they would be placed on the next train, needless to say we felt more than a little nervous! Luckily we arrived at the border town after a good nights sleep in the bunk beds and our bikes arrived shortly after us.
Vietnam was a beautiful place to ride and our stay felt relaxed and reinvigorating. We feel prepared and excited about facing the challenges of China. We have no idea what to expect cycling though this rapidly modernising country, a place which seems full of contradictions and complexities
For more photos of our time in Vietnam click HERE