Cycling Through Vietnam

My cycling journey through Vietnam has taught me a few valuable lessons.  You have to learn to roll with the punches.  We have faced more than our share of hurdles to get over on this trip from Saigon to Hanoi: a serious road accident, a dozen bus changes instead of the usual 2, a train that was missing our 1st class car, an unshakeable case of diarrhea, a bike spill that resulted in a nasty case of road rash, a cold that has made the rounds through more than a few members of our group, and a few bouts of bad weather.  But through it all, we managed to keep our sense of humour, and to keep looking on the bright side.  After all, we are in a beautiful country, with a great group of people, and we lucked out by signing up with an amazing tour company.  Spiceroads is the tour agency I booked with (based in Thailand), but they subcontracted with a company called Exotissimo in Vietnam, and their guides Giang and Tuan had to work overtime to make sure this has been a trip to remember for the dozen of us.  When the Reunification Express pulled into the Hue Railway Station on Day 10, without our first class car attached, they scrambled to book all 12 travellers and themselves onto a Vietnam Air flight to Hanoi, book us buses to transport us to dinner and the airport and then pick us up again in Hanoi and take us to a hotel for the night… all at the last minute and during the busy Tet travel season.  They achieved all this while we sat in a nearby cafe drinking wine and ginger tea.  The manager of adventures for Exotissimo even stopped by our Hanoi Hotel early the next morning, while we had our breakfast, to apologize for the trouble and wish us a safe journey. Now that is great service!

This trip is all about taking life by the cajones and grabbing all I can get,  and what better way to see Vietnam than by bicycle.  When I booked my dream vacation to Vietnam, cycling from north to south or south to north was right there at the top of the list.  I have always wanted to do a BIG bike ride.  I have friends who have cycled across Canada and while I thought that was amazing, I didn’t think I’d have the stamina for something like that.  However, if you expect it to be a Sunday ride in the park, taking in the scenery, stopping for photos along the way… and barely breaking a sweat… you will be sadly mistaken.  I was.  This is one of the biggest challenges I have ever faced – on par with my trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.  I will face other challenges on my journey, like the 10 days of silent meditation in India, but I doubt anything will compare physically to this adventure.

We all gathered for the first time in a very nice 3 star hotel in Saigon, the Northern Hotel, a very positive sign about the level of comfort we could expect on this trip.  Each day we take a nice air conditioned bus part way to our destination and then hop on the bikes to tour the cities and the countryside.  It was well worth the few extra dollars we had paid in order to book it.  In fact we ran into another group of cyclists in the Hue train station.  They were a group of 20 riders, 2 of them Canadian and the rest from the UK, also cycling from Saigon to Hanoi, but their trip was not as well run as ours.  They were riding the main roads and highways, far more dangerous with less chances of mingling with the Vietnamese people than we had riding the backroads.  In fact one of their riders had a spill and broke her arm.  Their guides handed her a bandaid, because there was no first aid kit, and then took her to a Vietnamese Hospital where her arm was reset WITHOUT anaesthetic.  One of our riders also had a bad spill and within minutes Stan was being attended to by one of the guides who was armed with a full first aid kit.  His wounds were cleaned with antiseptic and then he was patched up with proper sterile bandages.  Luckily he didn’t break anything.   As we walked past the group on the train station platform to wait for our specially assigned train car, we overheard them ask, “why do they get first class?”  It seems they were all booked into a 2nd class car, far more crowded and uncomfortable than ours was supposed to be. 

For our first ride we drove out of Saigon, and hopped on our 7 speed mountain bikes for a 25km ride to the Cu Chi Tunnels.  What an awesome experience!  The ride was smooth and I surprised myself by keeping up the pace from the mid to the front of the pack, although I don’t expect I’ll be able to keep that up for long (tomorrow we take a 7 hour bus ride and then cycle about 40km UPHILL!).   This was a relatively easy first day.  Cu Chi Tunnels are a large area north of Saigon that played an important role in the North Vietnamese being able to defeat the South and the Americans and was the site of some of the biggest battles of the war.  The Viet Cong (VC) had built an underground warren of caves complete with steps and passageways.  Not only did the guerillas hide out there, it was also a source of communications and was even equipped with a field hospital.  They were also able to scrounge up American scrap metal and unexploded munitions in order to build weapons using whatever they could find.  The VC even developed a clever way to disperse cooking smoke, by diverting it quite a distance away, and doing that early in the day when it would be difficult to distinguish from the morning haze that is a regular occurance… at least in Southern Vietnam.  When we first arrived we watched an old black and white propaganda film, made in the 60’s, that explains how the tunnel system worked.  We were also given the chance to go down into the tunnels, a very tight squeeze and in absolute pitch darkness… not something for those who are claustrophobic to attempt.                                                                                         We were shown some of the booby traps they had constructed to surprise the enemy, who would fall into a hidden trap and be impaled on sharpened bamboo sticks and poles.  As we wandered through the forest we could hear gunfire in the distance – wait a minute, isn’t the war over? It turns out you can pick up an AK47, buy 10 bullets for about $12usd and have a go at target practice.  Since I have never really fired a gun, I thought this would be my opportunity in a safe and controlled environment. I don’t think I hit a single target, but the kick from the weapon is powerful. We hopped back on our bikes and rode another 8km to an outdoor restaurant where we were served a big Vietnamese lunch, that we had earned after all that cycling.  We called it a day, the guides didn’t want to discourage us, so they were relatively easy on us rookies… well some of us are rookies.  The group of 12 ranges in age from early thirties to midsixties.  There are 5 Canadians on the tour (including me) from Toronto,  Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Montreal, four Australians from Canberra and Melbourne, one American from New York, a woman from Plymouth, England and a woman from Ghent, Belgium. We would also meet up with a couple from Berlin who would stay with us until we reach Hoi An.  Some of the group have ridden competitively or have taken part in triathalons, while a few of us are definately rookies at this.

Day 3

It’s only the second day of cycling and I’m already asking ‘why did I do this again’? We were up and on the bus by 6:30AM for a 7 hour bus ride to the Dalat Airport, a beautiful new modern facility.  After a quick pit stop, we hopped on our bikes and began the hilly challenge, and what a challenge.  I did fine at first, staying near the front of the middle of the pack, but as we faced higher and steeper hills, I started to fade fast. My hip flexors were screaming at me to stop and I did end up walking my bike up a few hills. What made it bearable were all the kids waving and saying “Hello” along the way, just a taste of the great welcome we would receive on our journey.  At around the 25km mark I connected with Paula from England and we commiserated as we tried to fight the forces of gravity and get up the longest hill in the world… at least that’s how it seemed.  Luckily the sun was starting to set so the bus pulled up and the guide told us to get on board.  We didn’t need any convincing, there were already a few people on there.  It was a little disappointing that we hadn`t reached our first goal, but we had managed to cycle about 32km of those hills (about 16km short of our destination).  Dalat is a beautiful mountain town, set high in the alpine mountains.  It was cooler than we were used to, but a welcome relief from the heat of Saigon at the start of the tour.   

Day 4

They don’t call them the central Highlands for nothing.  The ride from Dalat started out fine, up some hills, but then quick relief as we rode downhill again.   There is nothing like the feeling as you coast down these mountain roads, with the wind cooling you down from the hot midday sun and the spectacular alpine scenery, which included hundreds of greenhouses that surround Dalat.  But what comes down, must go back up again… and the hills are a serious challenge.  When I found I was getting nowhere, even in low gear, I would get off the bike and walk a bit.  It seemed to help stretch out the muscles so I could continue to cycle.  But this was a big challenge… we’re expected to complete about 100km total on this day… 60 uphill, then 30 downhill, and then an up and down course for the last 10km.  I convinced myself that I had nothing to prove, and I wasn’t about to kill myself on this trip, so after about 40km (two thirds) of the climb, I decided to get on the bus.  Anneleen from Belgium was already on there, sick with the flu, along with Stan who had a bad crash on one of the downhills.   Riding the bus was not a bad thing.  The scenery is spectacular and I was finally able to savour it a little bit more. Alpine forests, emerald green mountains, lakes, streams, soil that ranged from a pink red colour to a rusty brown.    I decided to stay on the bus to the top of the incline, and then get back on the bike for the 30km downhill ride. What a great decision. As the lastcourtesy: Seona Meharg of the riders arrived at the summit, we had a little snack break and then hopped on for a wild ride to the bottom.  I don’t have enough adjectives to describe the ride… spectacular, exhilarating, life affirming… it made everything we had gone through so far, worthwhile. Allcourtesy: Seona Meharg you could hear was the wind whipping past you and the buzz of your tires on the pavement as you raced down the mountain at about 50km/hour – with nothing between you and the road except your bike and helmet.  I was smiling from ear to ear… beaming… and even yelled out a few ‘yahoos’ on my way down.  There were beautiful vistas overlooking the mountains and valleys below, with waterfalls pouring down around you.   I wanted the bus to drive us back up to the top so we could race down again. First I had to find them.  As I rode along, I didn’t see anyone in front of me, and no one behind me… but I persevered, keeping my eyes open for our lunch rest stop.  I hit not one but four patches of road construction, one that had the road covered in sand, and another that had just been soaked down so it was a muddy mess.  I rode up more steep hills and coasted down again, but at one point both my calf muscles cramped up and I had to pull over and take a break.  I came through one small community and there were two kids holding out their hands for ‘high fives’ so I stuck out my hand and almost knocked one little boy over with the force as I sped along the road.  I finally hit a dead end, and at that point realized I was lost.  What could I do, I had absolutely nothing with me, I’d left my daypack with everything, including my money and my camera and my water, on the bus.  I wanted to sit down on the road and cry, but decided I would turn back and depend on the kindness of strangers to call for help.  I made it back up another huge hill, and when I paused to rest my burning muscles, I saw a motorbike headed my way with someone wearing  a bright red shirt.  Soon the rider started waving and I realized it was one of our guides.  Tuan pulled up and said I had gone about 6-8km past our lunch spot, oh and I missed lunch. He asked me to ride ahead a bit so we could drop off my bike and then ride back on the scooter.  Luckily it was downhill, so after getting rid of my bicycle I hopped on for the long ride back to our lunch spot.  When we arrived the entire group burst into applause.  Apparently they were quite concerned about me, and realized some time ago, that I must be lost.  My first question was how they spotted the lunch location in the first place.  Fortunately for them, they spotted one or two members of the group, but our guides were not standing in the road to direct us in.  No wonder I missed it.  They did have lunch for me, so I wolfed it all down and then we started to pack up… that’s when one of the guides came over and asked me if I wanted to cycle back to the hotel with the group… I just look at him incredulously and said “no!” Turns out we’d be going the same route I had already completed on my ‘detour’, so why would I want to do it again?  The good thing was that I was able to show everyone where I had been, and we picked up my bike where I’d left it.  A few of the others opted to ride in the bus and after a few minutes I was laughing about my misadventure.  As it turns out, what I thought was a dead end, a small dirt road through a tiny town, was actually the detour that connected to the main road.  Good thing I didn’t see that earlier or I might have kept going. 

The road that we took to Nha Trang is nothing more than a dirt road, covered in potholes and too narrow for anyone to pass.  But as we hit the city, the pavement improved.  Still, Nha Trang was not what I had expected.  It reminds me of a mini-Saigon.  As we drove through the city, there was a fair amount of traffic, mainly motorcycles and scooters, with many of the same shops and street food vendors like you see in Saigon, but as we turned onto Tran Phu, the main road that runs along the waterfront, it was more along the lines of what I expected to see.  Islands offshore with a skytram connecting the mainland to VinPearl City, an amusement park that’s a big draw for Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike.  Big waves crashed over the sea wall, although the water looked to be a muddy brown, not very inviting to swimmers.  There are also a lot of big hotels and many more under construction.  There are the usual big chains, like Sheraton, Novatel, a Crowne Plaza under construction, but also many locally owned hotels, some quite large.  This is obviously a big tourist draw, that is only going to become more developed as more and more people discover Nha Trang.  This is also the perfect spot to have a day off, and luckily we did.  We all piled in to Cyclos (this time our guides had arranged it) for the ride to our dinner spot, a fun BBQ place where they bring a small grill to your table.  It is set over a clay pot full of burning charcoal, and we were given a few plates of raw meat to cook up ourselves, kind of like a fondue. We had tuna, squid, chicken and beef, and there were also mixed vegetables and of course rice… good thing we’d all worked up a big appetite.  The next day we hopped on the bus to visit the Cham Temple in Nha Trang.  It was built sometime between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Cham civilization, and similar in architecture to the Angkor Wat temples I’ll be visiting in Siem Reap, Cambodia.  After a short visit, we boarded a boat for a trip to the other side of Coral Island where we laid anchor and were able to take a swim in the South China Sea.  I wasn’t up for a swim, so just lazed around in the sunshine on the boat, taking photos.  A few hours later our boat took us out to a floating village, where there were nets full of fish along the deck around the homes.  Next stop was an island just a few meters away for a seafood feast.  Some people opted for the small round bamboo boats to get over there, I decided instead to take the ‘ferry’ ,basically a small little platform that they pulled back and forth across the water with a rope.  We had the last laugh though, those who took the small boats got dinged with a bigger than expected bill.  Seems when they were getting in the basket boats, our guides told them it would be about 15,000dong (about a buck) but it turns out that the women navigating the boats had their own ideas.  They started off telling their captive passengers their sad stories… their children who had nothing, or that they were now widows and struggling to make ends meet… they were still offshore so they were stuck.  Then came the punch line.  The ride would be 100,000dong PLUS they offered to sell each member of the group a coconut juice, oh and ‘can you buy one for me too?’  It ended up costing a lot more than the 15,000d everyone expected. A few members of the group stood their ground, while others paid the price.  Still it’s another travel story to tell their friends and we had a delicious lunch on the island before heading back to the mainland.  We had the rest of the day off to relax, which I took as an opportunity to check out the beach, as we prepared for our next day back on the bike saddle for another 80km day.

Day 6

After a day of rest we were ready to tackle the next leg of our journey… a total of 80km broken up into 3 sections so it would be a little easier to handle.  The first leg out of Nha Trang was beautiful, as we rode our bikes along the coast, some small hills to get over but spectacular scenery.   The first 18km went by fairly quickly.  We hopped back on the bus so we didn’t have to ride along the busy Highway 1, and when we stopped in the fishing village of Vung Ro, we got back up on our bikes to continue the journey.  As we passed through the towns and villages along the coast, we would attract a small crowd.  Kids would ride up to us on their bikes and pretty soon some adults would join them, and they would all be staring at us, sometimes giggling if we said ‘hello’.      Some members of the group say they felt like movie stars… I guess we were like celebrities to some of these people who don’t see a lot of tourists coming through their towns.   Along the way, as we rode through some open farm fields we suddenly got hit by a massive wind storm.  The gusts were blowing right across the road almost knocking us off our bikes.  We actually had to pull over and stop a few times because the wind was so strong… but we kept pounding the pedals as we rode along.  Then the rain started, and combined with the powerful wind it felt like pins and needles on your skin. We road through a rice paddy to the main road, and the pavement made the going a little better, but every time a big truck or a bus would pass us, while it would block the wind for a moment, as soon as it passed the wind gust would almost blow you over.  We were weaving all over the shoulder trying to control our bikes.  You could see everyone’s bike leaning 15 to 20 degrees as each of us tried to stay upright.  We made it another 22 km or so to our lunch spot at Dai Lanh beach, absolutely drenched.  The beach is spectacular and I’m sure would have been a lot of fun in better weather.  The view from the men’s room has to be one of the best I have ever seen.  Wide open windows in front of the urinal looking out onto a beautiful beach and the surf.  We all voted after lunch to call it a day, boarding the bus for the rest of the 40km journey to our next hotel, The CenDeluxe Hotel in Tuy Hoa.   It’s a small city without a lot to do… there is another Nhan Cham Tower (similar to the one in Nha Trang) on the same hill as a war memorial, but that didn`t really matter because  the hotel is magnificent.  It’s a  5 star highrise and very modern and brand new.  We were greeted by staff wearing the traditional Ao Dai and they brought us a welcome drink before showing us to our rooms.  Definitely the nicest hotel we’ve stayed  in so far during this trip… they just keep getting better and better.  There is a large outdoor pool (too bad it’s raining), and a spa offering Thai, Japanese or Vietnamese massage.

Day 7

Well the rain didn’t let up so it made for a very interesting ride along the dirt roads from Tuy Hoa.  The terrain is relatively flat (compared to some of the other rides we’ve had) but the roads are mainly unpaved, lots of gravel and lots of dirt (now mud) .  We rode through numerous Hilltop villages, and were the main attraction as people would come running out of their homes (especially the children) to wave and yell out a ‘Hello’.  I think I finally have found my cycling legs, and powered along near the front of the pack for most of the day, and then as we were about 5-6 kms from the finish, everyone else stopped to take a photo but I kept cycling. As a result I ended up finishing first (likely the first and last time that will happen).  And what a wild looking group of cyclists we were when we arrived in the small village… wet and covered in mud… no wonder the towns people were so interested in us (again we drew a pretty big crowd of locals).  Some of us were lucky and able to shed our top layer of clothes, leaving us damp but at least relatively clean.   That’s how we would ride for the next four hours to our next destination, and all we could talk about was the showers and baths we would have when we arrived at the hotel, IF they let us in, looking the way we did.  Unfortunately about an hour after boarding the bus we were involved in a serious accident with a motorcyclist, you can read all about that, here.   When we finally arrived at the hotel, about 8 hours after first boarding our bus, we really didn’t care how we looked, we just wanted to get to our rooms.  Good thing this was not the greatest hotel, older and in need of repairs, so we didn’t feel so guilty making a mess of the bathtub and shower.   We had to get cleaned up quickly and get to bed so we could be back cycling the next day at 9am.

Day 8

The focus of this day’s ride was our visit to the museum and memorial site of the My Lai massacre. I have already posted this story and you can read it here.   We arrived in Hoi An, late in the afternoon,  another one of the places I had been looking forward to visiting.  The old town is still intact, old buildings constructed so close together it is impossible for a vehicle to pass through. It has also become a tourist mecca for Vietnam, the place where you come to get tailored clothing made quick and cheap.  We went out for our first evening, with a stroll through the centre of the city wandering among the many shops selling tailored clothes and shoes as well as silk lanterns and kitchy tourist souvenirs.  We had a delicious dinner but unfortunately I had a cocktail, again mixed with ice, and again got hit with another bout of Saigon Stomach… but this time it was far more serious.  I didn’t plan on taking part in the optional bike ride the next day, to a local Cham Temple, since I would be visiting the world’s biggest temple of its’ kind in Siem Reap in a couple of weeks.  It’s a good thing, because as soon as everyone departed, I went back to my room and was slammed by the bug, like a ton of bricks.  It took everything out of me, and I stayed in bed for the entire next day, missing my planned tour of Hoi An.  This will have to be another stop on my next trip to Vietnam.  In the meantime, I laid low to prepare for the next day of cycling, expected to be the toughest one yet as we tackle the Hai Van Pass… a 100km bike ride that involves a steady climb up the mountain and then downhill, which would be similiar to the downhill ride we experienced a few days earlier on our way to Nha Trang.

Day 10

I didn’t cycle the 100km marathon because I was still quite sick.  Nothing was staying with me, so I laid low on the bus, which turned out to be a pretty good decision, because as soon as the group started to cycle from Danang and China Beach,  uphill, it started to rain and was very cold.  They did say the ride was not as difficult as they expected and in fact was easier than day 2 or day 3.  We stopped off at a resort for lunch, that would be a beautiful spot for a vacation, in better weather.  They continued to ride through villages on our way to Hue… which also would have been even more enjoyable except for the wet weather.    As it was the group decided to pack it in early, and we drove the rest of the route into the city.   The ride into Hue was captivating.  There are thousands of graves and family pagodas on the roads along the shore, each one more elaborate than the next.  Hue was heavily hit during the Vietnam war, so there were a lot of dead that were buried there.   It is also supposed to be a city of fine dining, but I never got to experience that,  I dined on white rice while the others feasted on beautifully decorated food like shrimp coated in green coloured Panko bread crumbs.  

Day 11

I woke up feeling a lot better but didn`t want to risk another episode, so I only ate rice and bananas for breakfast and lunch.  We all arrived at the train station on-time, ready for our 2:30pm ride on the Reunification Express.  We waited and waited but had been warned the train didn’t necessarily arrive or depart on time and about an hour after we were supposed to depart, we were told we could now wait on the platform since the train was coming.  We waited about a half hour longer in the cold when it finally pulled into the station.  We all piled onto car 13! supposedly our first class carriage.  As we were walking through the car, we could tell this was not right.  This was definately not first class.  It was crowded, stinky and people were hacking and coughing, with children playing noisily in their berths and in the hallway.  As soon as we reached the end of the car, the guide turned around and said we had to get off the train, “everyone back”.  Our faces all registered panic at the same time, as we tried to rush off the train before it pulled out of the station.  We had to squeeze past people who had spilled out of their berths to look out the windows and we had to wait until our porters unloaded our luggage again.  We didn’t have much time, so we pushed and shoved our way to the front of the car… as politely as possible,  and all managed to get off with our bags, just as the conductor blew the whistle to depart.  It seems, because of the Tet Holiday and the increased business, the railway had decided to attach our specially appointed car to an earlier train and sent the information, cryptically in an email… which the tour company had missed.  So our guides, who had already gone above and the beyond on this trip, were forced to figure out how to get us north, again in the midst of the busy travel season.  So while they were scrambling, we all wandered off to a nearby cafe, I had ginger tea for my tummy, while the Aussies pulled out their Australian Wine and their picnic lunch to toast Australia Day with everyone.  We learned a big lesson here, when travelling in certain developing countries, you will have to maintain a sense of humour or you will go insane… patience is the key word, you have to learn to ‘roll with the punches’.  The Vietnamese have a favorite saying which we all tried to adopt: `When you can`t forget, you forgive… and when you can`t forgive, you forget` great words to live by, and it explains a lot about the Vietnamese character.   The company managed to book us on a Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi at 10pm where we would hotel it for the night, and then bus back down to where we were supposed to start cycling the next day.  Too bad we wouldn’t get to ride the Reunification Express, but this would be a much better alternative than sitting in that stinky and loud second class car.  We did get a chance to enjoy a delicious and beautiful dinner at Y Thao Garden in Hue.  Presentation was just as important as the taste of the food and they went all out presenting us with a peacock carved from vegetables and the body a pineapple studded with small spring rolls,  the dessert was fruit formed with green bean paste and then coated in a coloured gel made from tapioca flour.  Another spectacular feast, and something to hold us over for the wait at the Hue airport and our flight to Hanoi.

Day 12

We just got a quick introduction to Hanoi, and it wasn`t very impressive.  Our hotel wasn`t near the centre of the city and the neighborhood was grey, dull and dirty.  The people did not seem friendly at all and as we rode our bus along the highway out of the city, it only reinforced our initial impression.   We had to travel for 4 hours to Namh Dinh where we were scheduled to start riding after our train trip.  This would be my first day back on the road after being so sick.  I had eaten a bit of dinner the night before and planned to eat a big breakfast to prepare myself for the day`s bike ride, (relatively easy through mainly flat terrain) but unfortunately breakfast at the hotel was lacking so I had only eaten a couple of pieces of white toast with butter and a couple of bananas.  Still I felt like I was ready to ride… and it was spectacular scenery, absolutely breathtaking.  We rode through villages surrounded by Karst Mountains, rising up right off the flat terrain, and jutting up into the sky.  There was a smoky haze in the air which gave them a surreal appearance, some looking like ghost images.  This was the Vietnam I had seen in so many photos and guidebooks,  and I was excited that I was now seeing what had been looking for.  The ride was also a good pace for me,  as we travelled across the countryside, again greeted by villagers with children running out to enthusiastically yell out their `Hellos`.  We stopped for tea and coffee at a beautiful roadside restaurant nextled next to a mountain with a rice field in front.  When we arrived two women were irrigating the rice paddy, the old fashioned way, by scooping up water in a conical pail and dumping it into the next field.  It was facinating to watch.          We rode on for another hour or so, stopping to take a lot of photos along the way.  Unfortunately it was quite chilly so the slower pace meant we weren`t really generating any heat.  We rode into a little village for lunch, but our restaurant was closed to prepare for Tet celebrations so we simply went to another a few doors down.  While they prepared a delicious lunch of noodels, beef salad and goat meat, we took more pictures and mingled with a few of the townspeople.  I took a photo of one man with his grandchild and I handed over a US dollar to thank him. He looked at me quizzically and then when I walked away he asked one of our guides what I had given him.  He apparently had not seen a dollar bill before so when he was told what it was he rushed out to cash it in for Vietnamese Dong, and the family kept smiling at me and pointing to the baby… obviously a good luck charm for them.  I thought I would earn some good Karma heading into the New Year.   As we prepared to start cycling again, I was still feeling pretty good, so I decided I would tackle the next 20km… unfortunately this time they decided to increase the pace to stay warm, and I just wasn`t strong enough yet.  I tried to keep up with the pack and managed to stay right in the middle for a while, but gradually started falling back, so I told one of the guides I needed to get back on the bus.  We rode on for a while and when we stopped to wait for the bus, I got off my bike and immediately started seeing stars.  I felt like I was about to pass out and staggered to the curb where I sat down and put my head between my knees.  My concerned riding pals also came to my rescue, offering up all kinds of sweets to riase my blood sugar.  It didn`t take long until I started to feel better, but knew I shouldn`t try riding again, so I got on the bus and as we drove on I found it hard to stay awake, dozing off several times until we reached Cuc Phuong National Park and our guesthouse.  It would be pretty basic accomodation, air conditioned but no heat and my thermometer registering just 15C and the sun hadn`t even gone down yet.  This would be like a camping experience so I bundled up in layers, 2 pair of socks, my pyjama bottoms under my pants, two t-shirts, a hoodie and my jacket.  Luckily I`m alone in the cabin so I could also strip off the comforter from the other bed and I actually was pretty warm all night.  There wasn`t much to do there, so we all called it a day around 7pm and crashed for the night. 

Day 13

We got up the next day to the sound of rain outside, and combined with the cold, this would not be  fun day cycling.  As we gathered for breakfast our guides came in and told us we should reconsider our plans for the day.  They gave us 3 options, the cold option of cycling in the rain, a warm option where we would cycle about 20-30km and ride in the bus the rest of the way or the hot option where we could tour the park in our bus and scrap our cycling plans for the day.  Not everyone was happy about it, but we decided to ride the bus.   Cuc Phuong National Park is the first and largest National park in Vietnam, created in 1962 during the war.  It is also a nature reserve and celebrates some of the ancient history of the country.  Our first stop was a series of caves that date back about 7000 years where the first people of Vietnam lived.  We climbed up the mountainside and made our way through the caves, that had emergency exits already created by those who lived there.  After climbing back down we headed to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre.   It is run with the help the Frankfurt, Germany Zoological Society, and is home to more than 140 primates mainly Langurs, Gibbons and Maquaques.  They are rescued from poachers and from areas where their habitat has been destroyed.  They are kept in different enclosures, small areas for the first stage and then moved to larger semi-wild enclosures to prepare them for release.  When we first arrived we heard loud sirens echoing through the park, it turns out it wasn`t sirens but the calls of the Gibbons… simply amazing.                                          We got back on the bus and drove off to the massive Bai Dinh Buddhist temple in Ninh Binh, Vietnam`s largest.  It covers approximately 700 hectares, about a kilometer from the bottom to the top with numerous temples scattered around the site.  There are more than 2000 stone Buddha statues, all images of former prominent Buddhist monks, as you make your way to each of the temples.  There are also several massive gold Buddha statues and thousands of small gold Buddhas housed in small wood cubes covering the walls of the temples.  Construction started in the late 1990`s and it`s expected to be complete around 2016.  It`s a magnificent site and the view from the top is spectacular.  We made our way through the site fairly quickly since we had a long bus ride ahead to our next stop off point at the port city of Haiphong.  It`s Vietnam`s third biggest city and the port is the country`s largest and most important and is the gateway to Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay.

Day 14

We woke early the next day and made our way to the dock where we would take a fast boat across to Cat Ba Island. We docked under more cloud cover and rode through the beauty of the island about 25km to our hotel in Cat Ba city.  It turned out to be a sleepy little beach town, with a lot of backpackers around the community but not a lot of other people since this is the low tourist season.  It was great because we basically had the community all to ourselves.  We had lunch in our hotel on the top floor overlooking Cai Beo Bay and then had the rest of the day to ourselves to explore.  A few of us wandered down to the beaches and we stumbled on a nearly desserted resort that was beautiful with a private beach overlooking the spectacular scenery of the Karst outcroppings scattered around the Cai Beo bay.  We ran into the rest of the group and settled down at the beach bar at the resort for an afternoon drink before wandering back to the town.  Paula and I had a craving for something sweet and found a little restaurant advertising different cakes.  I ordered a pineapple cake with honey and Paula ordered a banana cake with chocolate… it turned out to be pancakes with banana or pineapple on top.  Still it hit the spot.  As we wandered back to the hotel we happened to time it to sunset which was shaping up to be  spectacular, so instead of heading to our rooms we went back to the rooftop restaurant and had front row seats to one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever witnessed.  We dined in at the hotel again that night and prepared for our final day of cycling.

Day 15

We woke early ready to ride.  This was it, our final 30 kilometer bike ride to the other side of the island and the port of Gia Luan where we would board a Junk for the cruise through Halong Bay.  We pushed the pace a bit so we could spent more time admiring the scenery of the bay, but had hoped for better weather.  As I climbed the final big hill I wasn`t feeling sad at all, in fact I was happy to see the end of this marathon journey.  Still I knew a part of me would miss the rides and I would definately miss my new friends.We took a final group photo on the dock and then boarded the boat for the chilly ride across the bay.  Again the scenery was breathtaking, when our teeth weren`t chattering.  I had initially planned to return to Halong after the cycling trip for a 2 or 3 day sail on a Junk and the chance to do some ocean kayaking through the Karst caves.  When I realized what the weather was like, I quickly changed my plans and booked an extra few nights at our Hanoi hotel.  A few days of relaxation in a 5 star hotel would be much better for me to prepare for the next phase of my trip… to Cambodia.   We arrived in Hanoi late afternoon and checked in to the hotel… what a welcome relief that was. And our initial impressions of Hanoi were turned on their head, this was not the same city we had visited days earlier.  We had time to get cleaned up before boarding the bus to take us to our farewell dinner.  We were all in great spirits as we said our thanks to the guides and bid them a farewell. They really did a great job trying to keep the tour moving along, despite the obstacles.   They thanked us too for bearing with them and the problems.  They said any other group would not have been as good natured about some of the things we encountered, but everyone on the tour just took it in stride and rolled with whatever was thrown our way.  When we began this trip the guides told us we needed to have a sense of adventure and a sense of humour and be ready for whatever happens.  I think we all took that to heart and accepted the challenges we faced and ended up having an experience to last us all a lifetime.

For those of you interested in the logistics of the rides, one of my fellow riders Liz Eedle from Australia had a GPS tracking our journey and she uploaded all the data to a website.  You can check out the distances, incline etc for each location (remember these are HER times though):             = 17 Jan (Cu Chi Tunnels)             = 18 Jan (Dalat)             = 19 Jan (Dalat to Nha Trang)             = 21 Jan (Nha Trang to Tuy Hoa)             = 22 Jan (to Quang Ngai)             = 23 Jan (Quang Ngai to Hoi An via My Lai)             = 24 Jan (from Hoi An to My Son)             = 25 Jan (Hoi An to Hue) and = 27 Jan(to Cuc Phuong National Park, recorded in two parts – dodgy watch operator!)             = 28 Jan (not a ride at all, just establishing location of the Dai Binh pagoda)             = 29 Jan (Cat Ba Island)             = 30 Jan (Cat Ba Island)

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