A soggy morning in Hue meant we weren’t up for sightseeing. It’s a shame to miss the citadel and a few other bits around town but it either means walking around in full waterproof bike gear or getting our normal clothes soaking wet only to have to pack them in our bags for the ride. No thanks. We headed straight north on the fastest road, the storm should end about 2 days north and we’re keen to get there.
The boring and straight roads in the morning were broken up by cattle and insane bus drivers until lunch, which was a weird one. We sat with 2 guys who were travelling on a motorbike, though a much bigger one than ours, the Portuguese guy was a passenger and the Vietnamese guy was driving him all the way to Hanoi. I still can’t figure out why you’d be a passenger and not ride, or take the bus or train, especially in this weather. The Vietnamese bike rider actually cooked our lunch, he told us the owner of the restaurant “Doesn’t know how” It was delicious too, fried noodles and beef with lots of spices.
The afternoon brought some very different scenery, a couple of hours riding dead straight on an undulating road through a very wet desert. It was the bypass around the towns and took us right into a long range of sand dunes with lakes and ponds running through them. There wasn’t much growing, just patches of bushes and trees surrounding any water. It made for a very different view, bright white sand with big patches of dark green compared to the jungle or rice fields.
It all flew by, with small dry spells for a treat, and we made it to Dong Hoi for the night. We found a nice hotel by accident and settled for some pool and a burger in a pub down the road. Simple, but very effective against a long day in the rain.
It was bucketing with rain come morning, with no signs of stopping but we geared up and headed out. More straight roads, but it should mean we get out from under the clouds today. Lunch was another odd one. I spent half of it trying to fix my broken speedo cable with a Vietnamese lady, Charlee spent his time talking to an old woman who was begging for money. I’m convinced this woman was an Ancient Witch only we could see, and didn’t like us so she cursed him. We moved restaurants for some food and Charlee’s bike keys vanished, we searched for about 15 minutes on the 30m between the two restaurants and all inside. When I went for my 5th look in the first restaurant and found nothing, but on the way back out, there was another old woman, very similar looking to the first, I said hello and she looked at me and walked off. I looked down and Charlee’s keys were 3ft away on the floor in the middle of the street, where the old woman had been, and that we’d walked down 10 times. We were Cursed I tell you!
With the curse broken and the wroth of the old woman quelled, we ate our dinner, which I’m 80% sure was beef, not dog, and left. Some more dry spells kept giving us hope that the underwater part of our trip was coming to end. It did toward the end and we had a glorious hour of riding into Vinh drying out, opening the jackets and trying to get wind blowing through everywhere.
Just for a last burst of excitement my rear sprocket decided it didn’t like the chain anymore and rejected it, just as I was u-turning on a busy street outside the hotel. Luckily it didn’t lock the back wheel up or I might have had a worse day. As it was, I could push it embarrassingly down the pavement passed laughing mechanics gesturing to come inside to fix it. After we’d unpacked everything I took a look at the bike, the sprocket was missing a bunch of teeth, not ideal. I went back down to the garages and the guy worked like a machine, it was 20 minutes till home time and he had the chain and sprockets and even oil changed just in time. It all cost about £10. Score.
Dinner didn’t end the days shenanigans. “Garlic chicken sounds alright”, the waitress looked very confused when we asked for two and just laughed and walked off. Luckily she only bought one, because it was a whole plate, and a whole chicken. Literally an entire chicken, head, feet, ligaments the lot all fried, ripped apart and dumped on a plate. Not to forget the 50 cloves of garlic spread over the whole thing, making some mouthfuls literally unbearably garlicy. We did our best, too stubborn to order anything else.
A dry start to the following day and suddenly everything was more beautiful, either because we were drying out or the changing landscape or both. The mountains were coming closer to the coast now so the green land was just slowly rising to meet it, and we were riding through the middle through some long sections of flooded fields from the constant rains and streams out of the mountains. We even saw the sun peaking through for the first time in around 5 days.
The car crashes however, were not so beautiful. They were getting more and more common as we got further north, we’d seen at least 2 a day for 3 days straight and today was even worse, one scene had at least 6 bikes on the ground, another had a car very much squished by a bus. Charlee was only a few feet away from two mopeds that collided for no reason at all, two young lads on one and a mother with her small daughter on the other, all mostly fine, he stopped to help pick everyone up in the middle of the junction.
Lunch was a weird one again (yes there’s a pattern), a cafe busy with a bunch of teenagers. They were immediately giggling and chatting about us as we walked in. Probably the two tallest people they’d ever seen, with beards and motorbike gear. One kid became obsessed with Charlee and felt it was his duty in life to get him to have some Codeine with him, or cocaine, or anything, he would not drop it. Relentless selfies from the group of lads, and a few of the girls once they’d plucked up courage and were sure we weren’t there to eat them and grind their bones to bread. They didn’t linger long though, after the days of rain and no laundry done for a week we had an quarantine zone around us.
The evening bought us to the town of Ninh Binh, our first tourist town since Hoi An, so we indulged in pizza being available and a nice hotel. By this point we were *almost* dry, a whole day of no rain! A nice breakfast the following morning makes for a nice start to the day too, the first in a while, sitting outside the cafe laughing at the crazy stuff on the roads before we join it. A woman taking her clothes rack for a walk, a guy with a bamboo forest dragging 10ft behind his moped down the 6 lane main road, all of this passed the “traffic police” who stood at the side of the large junction.
When we did get on the road the traffic was worse than ever, it had gotten steadily worse as we’d gone North and seemed to his a new peak of stupid every day. After the kid yesterday and the many sightings of Bamboo Bongs in every cafe (that’s not a joke, it’s a thing) I’m convinced everyone on the roads is high, maybe it helps here. The road was simple enough and the highways led us over across the stretch of land between the Capital and the coast, very industrial, and very flat, but it did make for some great views over the huge bridges spanning the wide rivers.
We were seriously chuffed when we made it to Ha Long bay. We took a small diversion out to the harbour that jutted out into the bay and got an awesome panoramic first view of the karsts in the ocean. It felt like the completion of the trip, after our planning on Day 1 the goal had been Ha Long bay and a boat trip around the Islands. 10 days and 1000 miles later there we were!
The hangover from the all the celebrating hit me pretty hard in the morning. Luckily we’d planned a day off to try and find a good boat tour and recover after 5 long days of riding. We found our boat tour and decided to see what was at the other end of the huge cable car that was pretty unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the bay. It was attached to a theme park at our end and seemed there seemed to a smaller one at the top. We gave it a go, it wasn’t cheap and our spirits fell when we got the waiting area and it was jammed full of Chinese tourists. We packed in to the cable car with them and their complete lack of awareness of personal space. The views were great over the town and out to the bay, at least out until where the fog covered everything. The top was a weird place, like a tiny theme park but half abandoned or being constructed. We ended up on a slow, short and surreal toboggan ride on the side of the mountain. Not what we had imagined of Ha Long bay when we were in Ho Chi Minh.
The boat ride the following day was one of the highlights of my entire trip. We wound in and around the limestone karsts of the bay for 6 hours, exploring some caves, climbing TiTop island and doing a little Kayaking around an Oyster farm. I’m not sure how I can explain the area, it’s just stunning, the sheer scale and number of the islands all woven around each other, all beautiful with unique and odd features made by the waters over millions of years. A very special place.
All of a sudden that was it, Charlee’s last day was here. It’s only a few hours ride to Hanoi, a short day for us and his flight wasn’t until after midnight so we hung around a while for breakfast and packing up. More crazy stupid traffic on the roads but we made it alive and in one piece to Hanoi in the afternoon. Coming into the centre of the city we crossed one of the craziest bridges in the world. All the bikes, cows, wagons and pedestrians, and even a few dumb cars, get funneled onto the “sidewalk”. It’s only about 7ft wide but that doesn’t stop everyone trying to overtake, whether or not they can fit or get anywhere afterwards. Trying to get passed a guy pulling a wagon nearly brought the entire bridge to a halt, nobody gives way, you just go, and if you’re about to crash, you try and brake, then you go again. The old quarter we were aiming for had more seriously ridiculous traffic, with the sidewalks taken up by shops or parked scooters everyone is walking in the already narrow old streets. There is a one way system, which I think does more harm than good since nobody follows it. Just stopping at the side of the road to check the map was a challenge in itself. We eventually arrived at a hostel to dump our stuff, then I nearly had a heart attack when I realised I had to pay for parking. You’re not paying for security though, there was just literally no room to leave it outside. I hadn’t had to do that since I worked in Soho in London, bikes are always free in Cities!
We spent Charlee’s last few hours quickly exploring Hanoi on foot and reminiscing about everything that had happened. Time very quickly stretches out when you’re travelling and it was nice he was experiencing it too, thinking back to Ho Chi Minh only 2 weeks before felt like a life time because there’s so much packed in to each day. We said our goodbyes come 9pm and he left for the airport and his night flight home.
No time to rest though, earlier that day my friend Chris had landed in Hanoi ready for our 10 day adventure. I messaged him and we met up for a beer and a catch up, not an hour after Charlee had left, what can I say, I get around.
03/12/2017 – 09/12/2017