Triplogue - Vietnam IV

25 July, Hanoi to Hoa Binh, 98km(a)

Drizzle. It does wonders for keeping a bikebrat cool in this climate, but certainly doesn’t keep him clean. By the end of our ride today our bikes and we were filthier than I can ever remember us being.

It was exciting to look out our window at five this morning and seeing the stuff falling, though. Has the rainy season arrived here, spelling a (temporary) end to the blistering heat? We woke Wendy to bid her adieu, and she waved us off as we rode into the mist. As always, it was great to witness an Asian town waking up. Cyclos carted coal used for cooking; women bearing twin baskets of vegetables trotted along with their yokes and cone-shaped hats; kids played soccer and badminton in the middle of busy streets, undeterred by the traffic. I was going to miss Hanoi –its unique energy and charm, our fantastically homey room in the colonial-era Hoa Binh hotel, and having spunky Wendy as our traveling companion.

Getting out of town was painless. The busy boulevard feeding into highway 6 featured a special parallel street for bicycles and oxcarts, offering some refuge from the constant honking of motorbikes and trucks. It was difficult, though, to go any faster than the slow-moving current of bicycles that we were a part of. I was delighted to see bikes bearing pigs –both live and butchered—and noticed that Fred’s back was a mud-splattered mess. As we penetrated the infinite expanse of rice fields, he told me I looked no better. We vowed to seek out fenders later in the day.

Rising out of the paddies about twenty kilometers out of town was an unusual sight: a huge French-style cathedral without so much as a hamlet around it. We did some hit-and-miss riding along irrigation canals in order to reach the place, and were beckoned to the rear of the massive church to the monastery. A man (perhaps a plainclothes priest) unlocked the door for me, and I was surprised to see that the place was still in use. Who came here to pray? What was this huge place of worship doing in the middle of nowhere? These are questions that do not figure in our phrasebook, so I never learned their answers. I did find "how old is it?" which our friend answered by dipping his finger in a glass of tea he’d served us and writing "100" on the long wooden table which lay between us. Other gawkers came and filled the doorway to the refectory, but little communication occurred.

When we left after three or four cups of excellent tea, the drizzle had turned to light rain. The traffic thinned out as we headed west through increasingly dramatic scenery. Somehow the road managed to take us gradually up into the lumpy mountainscape, and before long we were enjoying a gentle descent through a valley of dreamlike beauty. We reached Hoa Binh (which means "peace") well before noon, but it took us a while to decide on a place to stay. After a bizarre episode in a cheaper place we had pedaled back to, we settled on the most expensive hotel in town, primarily for its peaceful rural location far from the honking horns of highway 6 and the droning propaganda speakers which pollute the air of the town center.

After a good long scrub, we ate lunch with a pair of French women we met while scoping out a restaurant. They had been touring the region for a few days in a private car and this was the spot that their driver recommended. We were shocked to find the menu translated into English, and the friendly Thai owner kept sitting down at our table and forcing us to use the nine words we know in her native language. The food was delicious and we promised we’d be back for dinner.

Next on our agenda was finding fenders. We pulled into the first bike shop we found (they’re literally everywhere in this most bike-friendly of countries) and within instants several shirtless guys were jury-rigging plastic fenders onto my front and rear wheels. Fred decided to wait for something more specifically suited to our bikes, but with the misshapen things already attached to mine, I was hardly in a position to refuse.

We pedaled along a dike holding back the mighty Da River (the biggest of the Red River’s tributaries) out to the dam we had read about, the largest in Vietnam. Nothing in the guidebook had prepared me for the actual sight of the thing. Built on a gargantuan scale, it’s one of the few objects I’ve ever witnessed that has put me in utter awe of what our species is capable of accomplishing. An enormous spillway, through which a frighteningly powerful torrent of water gushes downwards and outwards, dominates one side of it. Fred and I spent the better part of an hour staring in gape-jawed wonder at this, and then set off to circumnavigate the dam. First, of course, we had to climb the thing. The view from the top was dramatic enough to make us wish we’d brought our camera. We continued on past various megabuildings associated with the project before swooping back down to river level, where we found a large and tasteful (surprising in tack-loving Vietnam) monument to the people killed by the behemoth. We bought incense sticks from an enterprising young woman and placed one in each porcelain jar associated with a memorial stone. This took a long time, for there were nearly two hundred of them, lots of Ng’s and Nguyen’s, plus exactly eleven Russians.

We pedaled through a special bicycle tunnel under the spillway itself to get back to our room and a nap. When we woke a couple of hours later, neither of us could find the wherewithal to bike back into town for dinner, so we dined on power bars before turning in at 10 p.m. We’ll possibly never know what Hoa Binh offers in the way of entertainment on a Saturday night.

Our Lady of the Paddies


Refuge from the rain in Catholicland


The slippery road to Hoa Binh

North Vietnam highlands, home of the T'ai people


Typical montagnard house


These guys fixed Andrew's tire



26 July, Hoa Binh to Ninh Binh, 127km (f)

Getting up before dawn and riding with the first light has become second nature. This morning was no exception. Thankfully the sky was gray-silver and filled with clouds thwarting the sun’s best efforts to overheat us. We chugged up a steep incline for the first 20 kilometers past women hauling produce and villagers pushing bicycles while overburdened scooters and trucks smoked past us. Finding our way was again a challenge. Locals have long been accustomed to sending tourists to the "tourist resort" of Mai Chau nearby, sort of a human zoo for hill tribe people. Each person we asked had to be told five, ten and sometimes fifteen times that we are not going there. Andy nearly lost his temper during at least one of these exchanges and was visibly flustered when we ask for directions. Our pace and path allow us to see "real" hill tribes going about their daily affairs like cultivating rice and grazing their cattle. They jeered and shouted at us as we passed.

After the ascent I looked down at Hoa Binh and was amazed at how far we’d climbed. We dove into a high valley and rolled along in it, awing at the dramatic verdant landscapes. After our strenuous climb we lunched at a crossroads where there was an exceedingly popular market. So crowded it was hard to pedal down the street. Traditional garb was all the rage -- pants flared outward at the bottoms and tunic shirts. Salty pho satisfied our hunger before we pressed on through what was one of the most beautiful rice filled valleys I’d seen since Indonesia.

At one drink stop I fell into a deep sleep on a bench while Andy watched a French version of a Jacques Cousteau video on VTV (Vietnamese Television). The road had deteriorated into little stones mortared together with mud. Bone jarring dips spotted our path and numbed my hands. The already ailing Connie the Compaq Computer can’t be liking all this abuse (nor can Siegfried and Roy). Andy baled water from a well at one stop and we poured the cold water over each other’s heads. The road became paved, the scenery more dramatic with sugarloaf mountain-like formations rising from the rice paddy. Soon we turned right onto the Transvietnamese highway with the sea of humanity on all modes of transport flanking us.

Scooterbound hotel hawkers tried to convince us to stay at their hotels but we elected to stay at the big, dirty and ugly commie hotel, the Hoa Lu. I met a pair of female French travellers in the lobby, one of whom had spent the bulk of her vacation in hospitals in Danang and Hanoi. At a guesthouse we ate a meal, meeting a pair of burnt British girls and a pair of Frogs who live in Shanghai. I could barely make it through the meal I was so rattled from our ride. We retreated to our filthy bedbug ridden commie hotel and passed into a coma.

28 July, Ninh Binh to Haiphong/Hon Gai, 119km (a)

Today we crossed the Red River delta, one of the most populated places on Earth –a fact that was hard to forget as we crossed the people-filled plain.

Yesterday’s "rest day" in Ninh Binh went by all too quickly (as rest days have an annoying tendency to do). We spent the greater part of it cycling out to Tam Coc, the region’s principal tourist attraction, where we were treated to yet another sweaty rowboat ride through intensely beautiful scenery. We foolishly elected to take another route back to town, along unimproved roads and tracks. While it was interesting to see the primitive conditions in which most Vietnamese live, my butt didn’t need another beating after the abuse I subjected it to the previous day.

This morning we got an extra-early start, having convinced the hotel to have breakfast ready for us an hour before regular operating hours. Our bellies full of yesterday’s stale baguettes, we rode out of Ninh Binh in the dawn drizzle, plowing past cyclos, oxcarts and clouds of slow-moving bicycles. A Vietnamese guy we met in a backpackers café yesterday told us that the road to Haiphong was "bad, very very bad" so we were expecting the worst. But in actuality it was all right –a little bumpy perhaps, but at least it was paved, straight, and flat as a board.

We made good time to Nam Dinh, 29 kilometers away. The town came as somewhat of a surprise after the rural aspect of the road. The place was hugely crowded, bursting at the seams with teeming humanity, Asia at its most intense. Somehow we made it through the mess (basically a giant bicycle jam) and out to the ferry that would take us across the Red River’s main branch. Since demand for this decrepit old ferry far exceeds capacity, we had to dig in our heels and wait while seven thousand pairs of eyes focused on us and us alone. Fortunately a tall, intellectual-looking local took us under his wing and helped us schmooze our way to the head of the line. He said he was on his way to nearby Thai Binh but spent most of his time in Brussels.

Thai Binh is another huge Red River delta town. Our route fortunately skirted around the center, allowing us to admire from a distance the big Spanish-style church dominating the city’s skyline.

We made a beverage stop on the way out of town, gulping down many liters of liquids and using the newly-installed bathroom facilities that were obviously the owner’s pride and joy (he insisted on providing us with clean towels and gave us a detailed tour of the sparkling clean plumbing). Though I’ve grown used to it over the past several months, I still find it amusing to walk through someone’s house –the kitchen, the bedrooms—in order to use the toilet (which is invariably located in the back yard with the chickens, the laundry). It allows an intimate glimpse of how these people live. Usually there’s someone crouched over a cooking fire, a couple of kids playing on the cement floor and a grandparent asleep in a cot in the corner. How do Asians manage to make so many kids with such an utter lack of privacy?

A glancing tailwind blew us the next fifty kilometers to a crossroads at Vinh Bao. A sign indicated a shorter route to Haiphong to the right; but having a rich experience in failed shortcuts, we proceeded with caution. Miraculously a young shopkeeper approached us and started speaking in perfectly pronounced German. He said he had lived in Germany before (presumably the eastern part) and that the shortcut was definitely the way to go. Though my German is limited at best, I understood that the road was well-surfaced, that we should turn left over the second bridge and that there would be a ferry. After so many weeks of making futile attempts at sign language, it felt great to be communicating verbally again.

We did well by taking the shortcut, which turned out to be an absolute dream of a road. A narrow ribbon of asphalt running alongside a canal and carrying only bicycle and foot traffic, it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Holland. During this bucolic 28-km pedal into town Fred developed his theory that Vietnamese –at least those living in this crowded region—are actually Smurfs. Supporting evidence included the miniature houses and boats, and the generally diminutive (not to mention friendly and fun-loving) nature of the people. Whatever the case, it felt wonderful to be away from truck horns, the only sounds being those of children playing, ducks quacking, creaky old bicycles pedaling along, and the ceaseless roar of the wind. If only all our routes were like this…

At one point we passed a one-legged man pedaling furiously. He blew us both away by keeping up with us for several kilometers, beaming proudly all the while. Another guy we saw was pushing a bike so heavily-laden with eel traps that it looked like a moving mountain of wicker rolling down the road.

Our second ferry of the day was even more crowded than the first, with no effete Brussels-dweller to buffer us from the teeming, curious masses. We had to fight tooth and nail for a tiny spot at the rear of the boat, jammed against motorbikes bearing crabs, pedaling ice cream vendors and yolk-carrying peasants of every stripe. Not long after landing on the other side we were lost in the tree-shaded labyrinth of Haiphong, Vietnam’s third- or fourth- largest city, depending on whom you ask. With more than the usual communications difficulties, we managed to find the port and book passage to Hon Gai, also known as Halong City.

The following two-and-a-half-hours unquestionably constitute the best three-dollar cruise I’ve ever taken. Standing on the bow of a boat in the golden hours before sunset is always a magical experience for me, and doing so among the dreamlike islands of Halong Bay touches on the sublime.

Hon Gai is much more spectacularly situated than its more touristed neighbor, Bai Chay (a.k.a. Halong City West), where we had been with Wendy precisely one week earlier. For one thing, it is set right amidst the karst formations for which Halong Bay is famous. But perhaps more picturesque is the substantial floating village which clogs the harbor. Boats –most of them oar-powered— glide this way and that, bearing all manner of goods, animals and people. The town itself is like a miniature Hong Kong, jam-packed and oriented vertically towards the mountains and the sky.

After two nights in a shithole, our lodgings in Hon Gai feel like a major coup. It is our first accommodation in Vietnam calling itself a "mini hotel" --an appropriate moniker given the postage-stamp sized towel, the Lilliputian furniture and the $13 price tag. Included in this rate is a drop-dead gorgeous view of Halong Bay, which we were able to appreciate for all of five minutes before darkness fell. As I write these notes, I’m hoping Fred won’t rustle me downstairs before dawn tomorrow so I can get another peek.

Tam Coc


Hauling rice


The first of today's three ferries


Hon Gai

Sunrise in Halong Bay


Wild, filth-encrusted mango-eating agouti


Bathe me!

29 July, Hon Gai to Tien Yen/Mong Cai, 92km (f)

I’d slept restlessly, with dreams of lost passports disturbing my sleep. Vietnamese hotel operators are absolutely crazy for your travel papers. They so badly want to hold them hostage so that you won’t run off with their sheets and towels. They all claim that the "police" must see them, but I have yet to see any hotel personnel run them to the station house. What they do is copy some information onto little slips of paper and then lock them in a drawer, press them into a notebook or use them as drink coasters in the hotel lounge. Normally we insist on having them the night before we leave a place, but on this occasion we were unable to persuade the management to give them to us, thus inspiring my dreams. After a breakfast of yogurt, mangos and Cliff Bars while staring at the most spectacular view from any hotel that I’ve ever stayed in, we hit the road.

We had to contend with a surprising amount of traffic as we made our way to the Chinese border. Huge trucks full of coal fought tour busses for space on the road. The tourists, largely Vietnamese, were on their way to the border town’s free trade zone to buy cheap Chinese goods. Soon after leaving Hon Gai the road and the houses lining it turned to coal-dust gray. From the palette we could have easily been in Belgium. The people were gray as well. We passed a threesome of children that were so dirty it was hard to distinguish them from the anthracite dust itself. We could hardly criticize their hygiene, as we were both sporting black skunk stripes down our backs and a thick layer of coal dust had adhered to our sweat-covered bodies. When we stopped for drinks the locals were amused by our ragtag appearance. When we could look past the gray road undistracted by the busses and trucks we saw the rounded limestone hills covered by thick green foliage.

It felt as though we had already passed out of Vietnam. The people seemed far less refined. In all other parts of the country even the poorest peasants seem somehow civilized. This day their shouts from the roadside seemed vulgar and obnoxious. When we reached Tien Yen --our intended day’s destination-- we were unable even to eat our midday meal in peace. The restaurant’s staff occupied the tables around us, pointing and laughing at us while we tried to eat. A visit to the only hotel in town revealed a shockingly dirty and overpriced hellhole. I voted to continue on to Mong Cai by bike or bus and Andy grudgingly agreed. We would have stayed had the villagers been nice or the town charming, but neither seemed so. After a half-hour wait (during which a handful of locals poked, prodded, pinched and petted us in awe) we were on a bus. Our bikes were secured up top and we were underway to the border after riding nearly 100 kilometers in the blazing sun. The bus itself was not one for tourists. It was filled with peasants, many of whom had been on the tiny thing since Hanoi. At times it seemed that the crew (there were at least five) and the passengers were a family; they displayed such familiarity. Just before we reached Mong Cai all available space seemed to fill with giggling girls who stared and laughed at us for the best part of a half-hour.

Mong Cai was hardly more beautiful than Tien Yen. The big dusty cement market town had the appearance of being built yesterday. Getting off the bus we were greeted by twenty motorcycle taxi drivers vying for our business despite the fact we had our own transportation. They stood in our way as tried to load our bikes and press onward. Other "helpful" types rode along side of us as we toured town hawking hotel rooms. In the end a Chinese-Vietnamese businessman helped us find comfortable lodgings and we settled in before seeking a pre-dinner BikeBrat snack of ice cream.

Vietnam, epilogue (f)

Dust, dirt, inhospitable surroundings, brusque people, average food all hosted in an ugly town. This seemed a weird way to end our stay in Vietnam and at odds with the rest of the visit. I wondered if this was what lay ahead of us in China fearing the worst. Mong Cai was a disgusting hell-hole, but our visit to Vietnam was probably our most interesting one in Asia to date. Part of the appeal was that Vietnam was new to both of us and neither of us had any idea what to expect, except the worst as we were warned by other travelers and our guidebook.

Our last hotel in Vietnam was hardly worth remembering except that it encapsulated two favorite pastimes of the Vietnamese: karaoke and cavorting with whores. I was certain the wailing sounds of the former would drown out the cries of the latter. There were at least three karaoke rooms that had windows on the same airshaft as our room. The songs mingled and echoed, rendering sound concoctions that ranged from horror movie soundtracks to dogs copulating.

Somehow through all the dust, dirt, dinge and Chinese influence there was some essence of the Vietnam I’d come to like. Curious kids uninhibited by our strangeness still approached, bustling market fringed with cafés beckoned and friendly folks of all sorts greeted us. I was truly sad to be leaving Vietnam and was counting the days until I might return. Perhaps we will have to ride from Saigon through Cambodia afterall?!

Home Page Contact Andrew and Fred About their adventure

© 1997 Frederick Felman and Andrew Broan, All rights reserved. No part of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from authors or their agents.