A Turning Point – Northern Vietnam

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April 16, 2014 by melcogger

After our last post, we gritted our teeth and continued to the north of Vietnam after our decision not to give up on the country. This was a hard decision to make, and made us second guess ourselves constantly while riding, particularly because we had 3 days of 230km of bad riding. The road between Bao Ma Thout to Pleiku left a lot to be desired. It was 230km of road construction, honking buses, vans and motorcycles driving on the wrong side of the road without a shoulder and dust being pelted into our faces, making everything difficult. Our only solace was found in the thousands of butterflies haphazardly flying around us, much like the motorcycles whizzing in all different directions. It was a picture of us cycling amidst a confetti display of lime green. Needless to say, we didn’t take many photos during these days.

Our second day back on the road was probably the stuff nightmares are made of. When it rains, it pours and the dusty roads became a slick, slippery mudslide down a mountain pass. This was not helped by the road fast becoming a river in our lane. This meant that traffic in both directions had to play nice and share the road while maneuvering through the mud slide. We both slipped and fell, luckily on the side of the road where cars did not want to venture. After enduring 3 hours of cycling carefully at a snails pace and covered in thick mud, we eventually reached our stop for the night. We cleaned off our bikes with a high pressure hose much to the amazement of the locals within a 100 meter radius as they stood gawking at our filth. We were comforted to find a really fancy hotel in our budget and had a warm rice soup to soothe our miserable souls.

The locals were not improving in their manners towards us. At one rest stop we pointed at our usual drink of choice, Revive and asked “bao nhieu”(how much?). The shop keeper aggressively kept responding in Vietnamese which we didn’t understand as we gestured him to respond with his fingers as we were doing. He then screamed in my face with ten fingers raised. It was the the straw that broke the camel’s back as I screamed back in his face with my fingers raised saying “I don’t speak Vietnamese!”. Jonty quickly hushed me away to save the man from any further bursts of outrage. In hindsight the most obvious remedy to cure the communication deficit is to learn the numbers in Vietnamese. It seemed stupid to us then, but we are only just adjusting to the extreme language barrier. However, it is puzzling that locals continue to respond in Vietnamese when they can see that we can’t speak the language and there is no attempt on their part to find middle ground. Jonty’s pet hate is when we are looking for a town or using a word that is the same in English as it is in Vietnamese, like the town name “Hoi An” or “Internet”. As soon as locals see two english speaking foreigners approaching them for help, they quickly shut their minds and wave their hands indicating that they don’t understand and we should not bother them for one more second.

But I don’t want to harp on about those bad three days, it was a whirlwind of being angry, frustrated and constantly checking when we would near the Laos border just in case we changed our minds and decided to abort the cycling mission in Vietnam. The next day was only half bad. After a morning of the usual honking trucks and buses and with 30km until our next stop Kon Tum, all the buses and trucks disappeared. We thought that everyone must have stopped for lunch and without any hesitation, we decided to postpone our own lunch and make the best of the empty roads while we could. We eventually came across a 2km que of trucks and buses in both directions being blocked by a jack-knifed truck. We couldn’t believe our luck as we whizzed in between all the traffic to the front of the que and onwards. We had the roads to ourselves all the way to our destination.

We had a well deserved rest day in the town of Kon Tum. A really pleasant town that doesn’t see many tourists. At this town we decided to give up on our inland route and head east towards the coast. Although we would be joining the infamous busy highway 1 along the coast, the inland highway had not been proving to be much better. It would also give us something more to look forward to, some much needed beach time and a few touristy attractions. This was the turning point in our Vietnam cycle tour. We studied google maps and decided on the nearest route to the coast. This was QL24, a road that seemed untraveled by many since most websites indicated that it was only done by motorbike in one day because there was no accommodation. It was a 198km detour on mountainous terrain. We were willing to take our chances on accommodation and set off. This proved highly risky as we intended to do it in three days, needing two stopovers, but isn’t this what adventures are for?

As we left the town of Kon Tum we soon realised that QL24 was the stuff cycle touring dreams were made of. If there was a road that I could put in my pocket and ride at any whim, it would be QL24. We were no longer competing for road space with monstrous buses and trucks, in fact we dominated the roadspace on QL24. We no longer had an incessant honking of horns in our ears, but rather the chirping of beetles, birds and crickets. We cycled through small villages of wooden houses, rice fields, rolling hills, sunshine peeping behind the clouds, fields of flowers, and tropical jungles. It also turned out to be a pretty friendly road. At one rest stop a neighbour peeped his head out from his gate and ushered us inside his house. Unsure of what to do or whether we could hold any conversation with finger pointing and gestures we obliged. We were invited in for tea by an English teacher! Yay, being able to speak to a local in English was very rewarding. We were invited to stay for lunch but we were both keen to get to our next stop. On our way we were stopped by a hipster on a motorcycle who thought that what we were doing was so cool that he made us take an assortment of photos with him. He could not speak any English but he was clearly excited. After a steep and long mountain pass we reached the ghost town of Mang Den. The government has been pumping a lot of money into Mang Den to make it the next Da Lat (a popular tourist town in the mountains in Southern Vietnam). We were pretty much the only people in town, and our sugar levels were low. We quickly checked into a nice looking guesthouse with hammocks and bonsai trees and overdosed on mentos, biscuits, coffee and cookies. We laughed at the site of ourselves pigging out on sugar like vampires to blood.

The next day on QL24 proved to be just as good, even better. More mountains, more jungles, more chirping, rivers, dams, agriculture, tree lined roads, forests, and Vietnamese people smiling at us (for a change). QL24 made our souls happy again and washed over us with its beautiful views and was candy for our eyes and mind. It was time to celebrate our new route as we flagged down the nearest ice-cream motorbike and had ice-creams at 9am. It was so rural that we couldn’t even find a place to get a drink or a snack for a further 50km and settled on laying on the grass under tree eating the snacks we had hoarded from the day before. As usual the night before our cycle, Jonty checked our route which was a series of squiggly lines, indicating mountain passes, however, on closer inspection of the terrain, it turned out that we would be ending off our day on a 30km downhill. It was a glorious twisty and turny downhill, rewarding us with Panaramic views of the town below. At the foot of our downhill, we bumped into the hipster on the motorcycle again, who was clearly very happy to see us again for the second time. I’m not sure what conversation was had between the hipster and Jonty but there seemed to be some agreement that he would ride with us. It was a funny sight, as he would ride 500 meters and then wait for us. While he stopped he would try and figure out google translate. We were not sure how long this arrangement was going to continue, and whether he was going to go all get way to our next stop, but we guessed that eventually our friend got tired of our slow pace and lost interest. We found another guesthouse in Tt Bou To, a simple town with not much to do and settled for the night. We also tried barbecue pigeon, but only wished that pigeon a were as big as chickens because it was delicious.

On our third day it was hard to say goodbye to QL24. If only the rest of the Vietnamese roads and people were like QL24, an unspoiled and undiscovered gem. It was an oasis to us in a sometimes hostile, crazy and busy country. It was what we had hoped Vietnam would be like. We had a short 50km day to the town of Quang Nai and bid farewell to what we knew was the highlight of our cycle tour here in Vietnam. We had a rest day in Quang Nai where we did not do much but eat and sleep and visited the beach. It was here that we began a naughty secret eating habit which we blame cycling for. We have been unashamedly consuming copious amounts of condensed milk – drinking it straight from the tin. Now most people would cringe and scold us for being so bad to our bodies, but we figured that this is probably the only time in our lives where we can do such shameful things because of our energy expenditure while cycling, we don’t feel bad either because we’ve both lost weight cycling. We have tried to stop, but like a moth to light we cannot keep our minds off condensed milk after a long day of cycling. “Hello, our names are Jonty and Melissa Cogger and we are addicted to condensed milk.” Is it ok that we still drink this stuff on rest days when not cycling?

Our cycle between Quang Nai and Hoi An was a 120km whirlwind on the infamous highway 1. We now had our own shoulder to cycle in, but the honking was much louder. I think that the Vietnamese are addicted to honking their horns, there also does not seem to be much consistency with honking. It’s honking before thinking and honking for every single action. The only really effect is, yes, I can hear you a mile away coming, you and all your big truck and bus friends. It was a flat 120km and we whizzed past, clearly much fitter and stronger as we covered 100km by midday. We were impressed with ourselves. Another big achievement for us is that we reached our 2000km mark on our trip, a real accomplishment. We high-fived our way down highway 1 as we counted down to our 2000km marker.

We arrived in the touristy town of Hoi An. Despite being touristy and full of white people, we were happy to be around some creature comforts again, people that can speak English, English menus, and western food that we can’t afford, although we did splurge out on burgers and fries. On the plus side, the beer was the cheapest we have found at 3000 dong a pint (R1.50), practically a steal! It is a quaint old town near the beach, with many pagodas, temples and historic sites. On our usual morning stroll for breakfast, a French couple approached us and handed us tickets worth R250 to see all the historic sites in town. They were leaving the town early and had only used 2 of the 10 tickets they purchased. We spent a day visiting all the sites, enjoying another free splurge.  The old town was pleasant, with classic music to add some ambience. It was a shock to see so many tourists riding rented bicycles, we had to do a double take on the popularity of riding a bicycle in this town, but we know deep down that these peeps ain’t got no idea what it’s like to cycle in Vietnam. We are stopping here for some R ‘n R for a few days.

We’ve taken two videos to give you a taste:

QL24

Hoi An town

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