Vietnam: from the mountains to the capital!
After a month in Laos, we enter Vietnam on February 22, by the border of Dien Bien Phu. The road on the Vietnamese side is very damaged, it goes up and down. But we have beautiful landscapes, with rice fields and other diverse cultures.
Very quickly we see that the country is richer than Laos: the people are dressed in a classier way, the cultures are more varied: after having passed through one of the poorest regions of Laos, the change is radical!
It's party !
For the first night, we find a guest house: it's the Tet holiday (Chinese and Vietnamese New Year, from February 19 to 26, 2015), and the manager of the hotel offers us coke and a rice cake for our meal. We don't know it yet but it's the first of a long series...
We leave in the morning in the mist, rice fields all around us for miles, with the people working on replanting the sprigs. At lunchtime, we stop at a grocery store to eat a bowl of bagged noodles: because of the New Year, grocery stores are about the only shops open. In the house opposite, the family celebrates and plays the traditional drum. Seeing us there, they come to get us to party with them. Here we are in the middle of around thirty Vietnamese, none of them speaking English, eating (again), toasting with rice alcohol, shaking hands, dancing, learning to play the drum... The women are all in traditional clothes. We discover that in Vietnam physical contact is quite natural and easy: women do not hesitate to take me by the hand, to hug us. After 2 hours we decide to leave; our hosts want us to sleep, but it’s only 2 p.m. :). They offer us 4 rice cakes: it weighs a good kilo!
The rest of the road is quite quiet, the bitumen is in good condition. Many people on scooters everywhere, in traditional clothes, who have to go or come back from a family party. We have fun seeing the women, who wear their helmet above the chinion on the top of the skull: it gives them a little air of Marge
Further on we stop to admire a superb point of view. A young man on a scooter who is there asks us to take pictures with us, tries to chat a little. We find him in the descent: he offers us to come and celebrate the New Year with his family this evening, and sleep at their place. It's 4 p.m., we've driven enough for today... banco!
Before arriving at his place, we enjoy a superb descent that lasts more than 10kms and a breathtaking view, in short happiness.
We arrive at his home in Muong Ang where his parents welcome us with open arms. They are farmers, have a beautiful plantation of coffee trees, a pig and 12 baby pigs (I counted them, they are too cute), but also hens and roosters who will not hesitate to remind us of their presence all night long. The toilets are at the bottom of the garden, the bathroom carved into a rock next to the house, the kitchen is attached to the house – or rather the common room where everyone eats and sleeps.
After a welcome tea, we go back to the table: seated in a circle on the floor, we eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice cake… while toasting again with rice alcohol – and there is quite a rhythm! They make us understand after a while that we don't have to drink the whole glass each time: I thought that was so cute! We try to chat a little with Google translate, which once again shows us its poor knowledge of Asian languages.
Family and friends pass. And in particular the grandfather, who made us laugh in spite of himself! Why ? The grandpa has a good descent; after a few drinks, he begins to “tell” us (in Vietnamese, but with unequivocal gestures)… the battle of Dien Bien Phu! Here he is reliving live and miming this episode with the help of alcohol… so passionately that his wife and grandson end up dragging him out of the room. Our guests no longer know where to sit, we reassure them, our grandparents also experienced the war. What he experienced there must have been very traumatic…
The rest of the evening goes very calmly, continuing to talk as best we can, and at 9 p.m., everyone is in bed in the common room!
In the morning, after a breakfast of rice noodle soup, we leave them after a thousand “thanks”… and the bags still weighed down by a kilo of rice cake.
The descent started the day before continues (in all, it's a 25km descent!), before arriving in valleys tinged with the bright green of the rice fields, where the first irrigation water mills appear.
For lunch, we find a small “bar” where we try to sell off some of our cargo of rice cakes… except that the manager offers us another one when we leave!
In short, to summarize: we have a square and a half, and 8 small elongated ones; knowing that in a meal we eat 1/2 square, or 1.5 elongated, that the next few days it will be exclusively our food for breakfast, lunch and dinner (well yes because it's the Tet holiday, almost all the restaurants are closed), calculate… from when we will no longer be able to eat only that!
In short, it is still heavy that we tackle a beautiful climb of 12kms, 1000m of unevenness… for 2h30, with a beautiful sun. People watch us pass a little dumbfounded, raise their thumbs to encourage us. The view is superb. It's done quite well in the end.
In the evening, we pitch the tent near a village. Quickly, villagers come to see us: they are very curious, have fun with all our equipment, touch it, examine it, they help us to make a campfire... The next morning, we have barely finished our breakfast that a family arrives, then still others. We fold the camp with a dozen pairs of eyes watching us. It's weird at first, but now we're used to it: Vietnam is the first country where, when we stop 10 minutes somewhere, a small crowd forms around us, people touch the bike, the panniers, try to ask us a few questions. It's very nice. We take a few pictures with the villagers (at their request) before hitting the road again.
We continue the big climbs and the big descents. It's not always easy, we sometimes get really tired; but we realize that it is in the mountains that we have the most beautiful landscapes.
We leave the mountains for a while, passing through Son La, a city that marks us with its communist architecture: large avenues, large squares, it gives a really amazing atmosphere, especially since everything is closed for the Tet holiday. The next day, February 26, life slowly resumes in the cities because the week of Tet is ending.
When there is an ascent… there is a descent!
This Thursday, February 26, after a good passage in the plain, here are some nice climbs again. You can see sugar cane fields everywhere.
At the top of the pass appear a succession of mountains as far as the eye can see: we are impressed to have arrived there by bike! In the descent, we find a school to set up the tent (again with a good number of eyes watching us do it). Children are very curious and full of life. Once they have examined everything, they return to play; that too is something that makes us react: in Cambodia and Laos, the children hardly played… or at least not in such an “elaborate” way.
In the early morning, we must not hang around too much, because there is school today! We take the opportunity to do a little tour in the classroom.
We ask to fill up with water, we are shown a kind of grocery store next door. To get there, you have to climb over a pile of corn. The lady shows Thomas a can, he fills 3 gourds.
She catches up with us as we are leaving to ask us for 70,000 dong (about 3€); it's expensive! We try to negotiate, she gets angry... Thomas suddenly has a doubt, opens the bottle and smells it... rice alcohol! We burst out laughing and explain the problem to the lady who laughs too. Thomas trades for water and off we go!
We finish the descent to the river started the day before.
When there is a descent… there is still an ascent!
Yes, after a river in general it goes up. At first it's fine, then we finish the morning with 6 kms and 600m elevation gain, under the sun. We arrive in Bac Yen at 1 p.m. We stuff ourselves with a super varied meal, and the manager offers us the homemade digestive (the day before, we had already had the small glass of whiskey offered at the end of the meal). It's very good, quite sweet, a bit like Pommeau. The lady waves to us that she offers us a small bottle. What a welcome !
Everything gets tougher when it comes to paying… to break the big bills, we pull out one for 500,000 dong (about €20) for a meal that must cost around 100,000. All of a sudden, we see her who thought, then asked us for 350,000 dong! The gift is no longer one. She manages to extort 150,000 dong from us, and we leave (without the bottle) very upset at having been “cheated” when we felt confident.
We follow 2 climbs in the afternoon under a blazing sun – who told us that it is cold in northern Vietnam? At the end of the day, in Phu Yen, we had accumulated another 1000m of elevation. Our legs get tired of these 1000m of daily elevation gain; they are offered a good night at the hotel to recuperate.
And it had to be! The next day, at 9:30 a.m., it was already 29° (temperature taken in the shade!), and we climbed again in full sun. Morale takes a hit, especially since we know we have 2 or 3 ribs today. But in the end it was the hardest part, phew!
We arrive at noon in Thu Cuc, a small town in the middle of tea plantations: it is the first time we have seen tea! It's quite beautiful, especially as it mixes with the rice fields, banana trees, papaya trees and sugar cane.
After 1000m of elevation (again!), we are looking for a place to sleep. We are told a pagoda 6 kms further. But arrived there, failure! The locals do not give us their agreement to put the tent there. Night falls… We have to do another 4kms at nightfall on roads full of stones to reach a guest house… which turns out to be just clean. Here's to a good galley day of cycling! (And in addition we lost the bread bought for breakfast the next day!)
When we wake up, it is gray, and it starts to rain in the morning. Here we are in autumn! We arrive in Hanoi after a day of flat road – one of those days where we feel that we are approaching the capital, with urbanized areas everywhere.
Near the capital, a Vietnamese on a scooter drives at our speed and talks in French with us for several kilometres. It's nice !
Little by little, it becomes scooter madness, some sporty areas where you have to manage to sneak around with everyone!
On the menu for the week: meetings of cyclists, tourism in Hanoi, and a round trip to Halong Bay,... and rest!
– When we arrive in town, we meet two French cyclists, for 6 months in Asia, Pascale and Marc. They invite us for dinner in the apartment they rent. On the menu: a delicious chicken cooked the French way, accompanied by a not disgusting Vietnamese wine! It's too good ! And we spend hours talking to cyclists. Top !
– We were hosted for 5 nights at a warmshower, Quynh, a French-speaking Vietnamese – having lived all his youth in France.
We had a great time with him. It was great to discuss together, that he tells us about Vietnam 30 years ago, the current education system (he is a university student), and so many other things. Thank you Quynh for your welcome!
– And to finish, we had a great evening with the Vaniers: Guillaume and Servane, the parents; Anatole (7 years old) and Gaspard (3 years old). They are on the road for 15 months in all ! They made us dream by telling us about their trip to South America.
A bit of tourism
We discover the city over the days. There is a nice mix of “colonial” and communist type dwellings in this city. Lots of trees and cables everywhere, the continuous hustle and bustle of the street: you have to look up to see all the pretty houses.
We will have the opportunity during the guided tour we do with a French student (found by the association Hanoi free tour guides). With her we will also visit the Hoa Lo prison, where the French colonists made the opponents of the regime live through the worst horrors. But also, more cheerful, a traditional house in old Hanoi. Or the very beautiful temple of literature, the first university in Vietnam (but today only a tourist site). We had a great time with Quyên our young guide, talking about our respective cultures.
During our week in Hanoi, we also liked the water puppet theatre, a traditional Vietnamese theatre. Very pretty !
At the Halong Baths
Thursday, March 5, departure by bus (yes, we cheat a little!) towards this mythical place. When we arrived, it was raining and there was a thick fog. Hop, by boat. We are 12 people of about the same age on the boat. Arrived in the middle of these mountain peaks placed in the water, we still do not see very far. We continue on 1 hour of kayaking, with passage in a small village on the water. We are impressed by the amount of waste in the water... It's a shame for such a beautiful place! There are a lot of jellyfish too, it makes you want to take a dip! The weather rises in the afternoon, and we begin to see the grandeur and beauty of the place. It seems that there are 1969 islands in Halong, an easy figure for the Vietnamese to remember because it is the date when Ho Chi Min came to power, as the savior of the game.
En soirée, on passe un bon moment à discuter avec notre guide Cong : le mariage au Vietnam, les relations homme/femme, la signification du drapeau vietnamien. Il parle sans tabou, c’est super intéressant !
On dort sur le bateau, c’est le luxe ! On se fait plaisir, c’est quand même notre voyage de noces ! 🙂
Le lendemain, à coup de pagaie, on va visiter une grotte assez impressionnante, où on est tout seul. Le bateau nous promène ensuite à travers la baie d’Halong où le ciel est assez dégagé. C’est superbe. On rentre au port après le déjeuner.
These two days have done us a lot of good. Being pampered, varied and really excellent meals, not having to worry about our bikes. In addition, the company Ethnic Travel chose sites far from the mass of tourists, we did not experience the crowds of Halong Bay at all that others had been able to describe to us. In short, we recommend Ethnic Travel ! (Little publicity stunt, ok, but they deserve it!)
Short course on how traffic works in Vietnam and in particular in Hanoi, received from our host.
Traffic is like fluid mechanics: it's a kind of current in which we enter and we leave, everyone somewhat at the same pace. Initially, it seemed harder on foot because it crosses the stream; while on a bike, we are in the flow!
When there is a hole or a plate, the scooters avoid them: yes, it damages the shock absorbers!
In the event of an accident, it is the biggest who pays: people have no interest in having an accident, so they make sure that it passes and calculate the trajectories of each one; Sometimes it's just, but it happens! So on foot, you must never back down.
Car drivers are former scooter drivers: so they tend to drive the same way!
Ah and then also in Hanoi, we made our Chinese visas, without worry (we were helped) !
So now, off to China!