Adventures across Vietnam

Once again it’s been a while since I last posted oh here – sorry Mum! The truth is I have never been writing so much as I have these past few weeks: articles for cycling websites, magazines, music journals – basically everything but here. Because it’s been such a long time, I’ll start off with where I am now before jumping back to the rainy coast of Vietnam where I left off. I’m currently sat in the nicely airconditioned Beluga coffee shop located on the eastern most reaches of the sprawling Bangkok. I’ve been in the city for 5 days now, and I’m chomping at the bit to get out and start cycling down the coast to Malaysia. 

Two days ago I said goodbye to some close travelling friends, and consequently am experiencing a lonely episode after one month of incredible fun and friendship meandering around Cambodia and Bangkok. I’ve written about these feelings before, and I know the cure lies in front of me on two wheels. Some writing followed by cycling will soon set the world right again. 

During the past two months (especially the past month) I have spent a lot more time off the bike, exploring places for a little longer than usual now I am free from the shackles of a ‘schedule’. It’s been great, but now more than ever, I feel a real urge to reach Australia. Not to finish my trip necessarily, just to feel that rewards that comes with seeing progress across the map on the bike again. Anyway, that’s enough of now, the 40 degree heat and blistering sun, let’s head back to 10 degrees and monsoon rain, to the Vietnamese city of Hue.

After managing to dry my soaked belongings on the last available bed in the Ibiza Guesthouse, I was able to find the previous day’s 200km, 2 punctures and 7 hours of rain amusing again. I had no urge to shoot off the next morning after that escapade, instead opting to explore what was once central Vietnam’s capital city. After escaping the shoebox of a guesthouse, I ventured out after repairing yet another slow puncture. That meant donning the full waterproof gear again as the unrelenting rain fell for yet another day. Today, the ancient citadel was to be the tourist trap of choice, but it meant acquiring some soggy shoes as I trudged across a city full of puddles and crazed traffic. 2 hours of further trudging around the grey castle to the backdrop of a greyer sky, I was ready to head home.

The castle itself was beautiful, set out in these large quadrants, beautiful old cloisters surrounded ornate gardens and quirky water features. The only problem was that the water feature from the sky was – pardon the pun – dampening my mood somewhat. Every now and again on this trip, I get the feeling that I am doing something because it the advertised ‘essential to do’ in the city, when actually it isn’t something I’m interested in at that time. This was one of those times – I couldn’t go to Hue and not see castle, but it was now time to call it quits and dry off.  The evening was spent enjoying the cheap street food, watching a film in bed and just relaxing after a grim couple of days cycling.

The following morning I rode out of the city in search of the infamous abandoned waterpark. After weaving through a series of small lanes, I reached the covert ‘free rear entrance’ as it was marked on my phone, perhaps not so covertly. It was more an area of soft mud than an entrance. I cycled further into the bush, still unable to make out anything that suggested this place had once been a waterpark. Eventually I stumbled across a decaying water polo pool surrounded by a large stand of concrete bleachers. The crumbling structure reminded me of some of the old Soviet monuments I had explored back in eastern Europe all those months ago. Before I was able to take a photo, a man on a motorbike came out of nowhere brandishing a security badge and making a lot of noise. Apparently I was to leave immediately.

I had been told about the waterpark by other travellers, without the mention of any security guard. Had I just chosen the wrong day or was this a crafty chap trying to earn money from travellers’ bribes? Either way, he was damn persistent. After assuring him that I was off, I caught a glimpse of a huge concrete dragon on the far side lake. The dragon was some sort of viewing tower for the old park. A menacing sentry, beckoning me to come investigate. I couldn’t resist. Once the man was out of sight, I shot of down the path, pedalling like crazy in its direction. I just managed to sneak a photo of my bike by the dragon before remounting the saddle as I heard the whir of his motorbike bearing down on me – I was being hunted. 

Quick as a flash (or as quick as you can possibly be on a touring bike) I began pedalling back the way I came, hearing his motorbike draw nearer every second. He caught me just at the point I’d first seen the dragon, shouting something incomprehensible Vietnamese. ‘Wrong turning’ I said, as continued his rant. I wasn’t about to pay him off and decided that would be all for the waterpark today. 

It took a little while before I managed to re-join the road by the coast after that detour, but the wind was on my side. It pushed me along happily for the rest of the morning, where the menacing clouds dispersed to reveal a warming blue sky. I was making great progress, and soon found myself not far from the cosmopolitan city of Da Nang. Between me and Vietnams answer to Miami however, was the famous Hai Van Pass. Popular in travelling circles, this is the only coastal pass on the common tourist motorbike circuit. 

Due to the driving regulations being all but non-existent in Vietnam, tourists can buy motorbikes without a license and happily drive them up and down the highways there. This is a major draw to the country; with driving the Hai Van Pass advertised as a must-do on the circuit. Thankfully it stands at just 500m, with a quality road winding all the way up its 21km route to the summit. The views from the road over-looking the sea on the way up were stunning, as was the way down. Sticking to my usual form, I descended with my hands off the bars, shouting manically and giving thumbs up to everyone coming the other way. 

After coming back down to earth, the road soon re-joined the main drag of lorries and cars that had opted for the tunnel through the mountainside as we entered Da Nang. I had actually been here before, just a month previous for a spontaneous New Year plan. After flying into the city, I had seen in 2019 from the streets on Hoi An with old school friends. It was here that I intended on spending the night. After negotiating the ever-manic traffic as darkness fell, I found my hostel after what had been a truly epic day on the bike. 

It was nice to walk down familiar streets again, knowing which cafes were worth visiting and what was worth spending my time doing. The next day, a group of us from the hostel decided to rent out scooters for the day; exploring the beaches of Hoi An and Da Nang before graduating onto intricate shrines and caves of the Marble mountains. A giant female Buddha was next, followed by a long drive to see the ancient My Son monuments. The pictures showed them looking like those from Bagan, Myanmar, that had awed me a couple of months back. Hoping to see the sunset over the shrines, we arrived at promptly at 5PM, just in time to see them close the gates to the place… A down-beat hours’ drive to the hostel followed – it appeared My Son would have to wait for another time.

That evening one of the group was turning 30, so we quickly got over the lack of sunset shrines as the hostel descended on a beach bar in celebration. That night my bank dutifully decided to freeze my card after over a year of using across the world, meaning I had more reason to celebrate after a frantic back and forth with home managed to free it up again. 

The next day I was back on the bike, riding with the wind down the coast to what would be my first Couchsurf since India. Chris was an interesting guy, originating from Poland, he had given up his job as a postman to teach English and chase girls. Judging by his steering of the conversation, it seemed like the latter was the sole reason for him being there. It’s not often that I don’t click with a couchsurfing host, but this was one of those occasions. I was very grateful for him letting me sleep on his floor and enjoyed sharing music, but our reasons for being in Asia couldn’t be more different! Chris was trying to obtain an English qualification so he could return back to Thailand where ‘the girls were better’ – it was time to get some sleep.

The road out from Chris’ place turned into a real beauty once I steered off the main drag. Quiet roads, rice paddies full of waving farmers and a sea view. I rode for hours and hours and hours. Clocking 200km as darkness fell, I was still riding along a smooth road through eerie forest with no intention of stopping. These days come round only every so often when you’re tuned into the bike, just enjoying the novelty of being able to cover vast distances whilst constantly engaging with the world around you. It was a special day’s riding that would end up in a special place. Whilst grabbing some food for lunch, I had spotted a tiny beach hostel located away from everything right at the end of a small peninsular. There was only one road in and out of the coastal village and the place had gleaming reviews. The only hitch was that it was very far away, but that was a challenge. One that at 8 o’clock, pulling my bike through soft sand as the waves crashed in behind me, I happily managed to complete.

The Nhon Hai Beach Hostel was a haven run by an ex-canadian forces man, Chuck. He welcomed me into the ‘family’ before showing me to the cosy dorm. Quickly my planned one night there evolved into 4… The idyllic setting gave me time to set about exploring the shore by kayak during the mornings, whilst returning to write in the afternoons. On the first morning however, Chuck declared that we had been invited to ‘star’ in a Vietnamese tv advert if we fancied joining him in the city. Slightly fascinated, we all accepted. The advert was advocating the use of bamboo straws which went down well with us. We were told to sit around a table, where we dutifully set about pretending to chat between slurps of an ice-cold coke through said straws – a large lens capturing our every slurp. 

Back away from prying lenses at the hostel, things couldn’t have been less staged or more relaxed. Chuck cooked up a big pasta dish for the ‘family’ that we all tucked into over a few beers followed by stories. There were some interesting characters about that night, making for some hilarious tales. One that really stuck with me however was told by a man called Eric who was riding the coastline with his wife on large motorbike. He told us how he had quit his job as a banker in Madrid to join his brother taking out tourists on off-road vehicles around Marbella. The journey progressed to him organising dolphin tours despite knowing nothing about the creatures or boats, before concluding with him owning a beach club – an accidental product of trying to secure a jetty for his boats. Now all the tours have gone, and Eric owns the successful Blue Dolphin beach club on the coastline outside of Marbella with his brother – if you’re ever about that area. 

Little nights like that meeting intriguing people are what really make this trip. Just writing about it now is bringing a smile to my face here in this coffee shop only months later. I often wonder what it will be like in years’ time, drifting back through hazy memories of quirky people in strange places – it’s going to be weird going home! 

After finally leaving the beach hostel, I knew I was way behind my schedule required to make Ho Chi Minh in time for Chinese New Year (or Tet as they call it). I didn’t care however, those days down at the hostel had been wonderful, I would somehow work out a way to arrive on time. The following night I camped out on the sand, where a strong gale buffeted my tent about on the lonely beach. The night after I camped in dank creek, hoping it wouldn’t rain before I started my journey up to Dalat early the next morning. The city is located at the top of a mountain, where the cool air attracts people away from the stifling heat of the lowlands during the wet season.

It was certainly cool the next morning when I set off at 5AM. It lasted all of an hour before the sun rose in spectacular fashion over a nearby river and I began climbing. Now it was seriously warm, with me having to throw my t-shirt and hat into every available stream to gain a small rest bite from the searing sun. After 5 hours of climbing, I reached the summit where a cool breeze raced through the trees. Now up at 1700m, the landscape had completely changed – I felt like I was in Canada. Winding roads flanked by skinny pine trees led me into the heart of the city just as night fell. 

The next day I would leave my bike here whilst I went onwards by bus to make Ho Chi Minh for Tet. I planned to be back in a couple of days to continue cycling.

Ho Chi Minh is a huge city with a population of over 8 million complete with crazed traffic. It lacked the quaint feel of Hanoi, yet there was a definite buzz in the air for the approaching New Year. I met up with my friend Angie who I’d met back in Luang Prabang, and found that  friends made in Hoi An also happened to be in the same hostel. We spent a couple of days exploring the strange delights of Tet, venturing out with the jubilant masses of locals much to their delight. 

After a few days in town, I needed to pick up my bike pronto if I was to stand any chance of making it out the country before my visa expired. Angie offered me a lift back on her motorbike, where we took shifts to ride the ropey machine complete with precarious rucksacks hanging off the back. After a full day of riding, we’d made the 300km journey back to my bike Tina. The traffic had been heinous entering the city, just ridiculous. Swarms of bikes were taking to the pavement in an attempt to edge further along the endless queue of cars. Eventually they were stuck-still too, with little prangs and crashes now occurring left-right and centre. Damn did I sleep well when we finally arrived safely that night.

Deciding to stretch my small window before my visa expired just that bit more, I opted to explore the surrounding lakes on Angie’s bike for the day. It was nice to be away from the hordes of Vietnamese that had descended on the city for Tet. Leaving the city, we were rewarded with some lovely forest walks leading to stunning vistas, complete with quaint lakeside café’s to feast upon. 

Finishing on that high note, I was ready to start my 5-day ride to Cambodia’s Phnom Penh. The ride took me over some of my favourite Vietnamese terrain to date – quiet flowing hillside roads leading through forests then into farmland. After one day of riding I decided to try my luck asking to camp on a farm a few hundred meters off the road. It was here that I met Ty; more than a little surprised to see me walking up his drive, he welcomed me in, quickly showing me to the shower (very subtle) before coming into his little house. His eyes weren’t good enough to read the translator on my phone, so we communicated by writing on the back of his calendar, before translating the phrase and writing the reply back on his calendar. He didn’t need to translate his love of alcohol though. I rigidly stuck to the small beers, watching as he got stuck into what smelt like some potent homebrewed moonshine. 

It seemed like Ty lived a lonely life on that farm. Our conversation never progressed to me asking why he was alone in the house, but in some ways it made little difference. As I rolled out his drive the following day, he took some photos and waved me on my way. I hope he enjoyed our little conversations that night just as much as I did. ‘That weird English bloke who turned up at my house…’ I would hope to hear him saying to his mates.

Buoyed by the success of last night’s spontaneous couchsurf, I decided to continue this more adventurous streak, spending the proceeding night camped on the drive of a lovely family who’d invited me to join them for a BBQ fish dinner. Then the next was spent camped in a cool forest where the moon cast long shadows of the trees whilst I went to sleep. It’s funny how the modd of the forest can quickly turn however, as I was woken in the early hours when a torch beam scanned briefly across my tent. Quickly I rose to see an array of five torch beams scanning the forest some distance away. As all the trees had been planted in rows, they were frequently able to light up my tent. These are the times when you wish you weren’t alone in a strange forest! I quickly got dressed, pocketing my penknife knife and headtorch as I carefully watched them move between the trees. Were they searching for me? I had encountered a man on a motorbike whilst setting up my tent the night before, yet he seemed innocuous enough at the time.

After half an hour, the beams continued past my position into the depths of the forest but there was no way I could sleep after that. Instead I opted to start early on my journey to the border – Cambodia lay just 40 miles away. Often described as the wild-west of south east Asia, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect crossing that border. After being stamped out on the last day of my visa, I was surprised to find I’d slipped through without having to pay any of the bribes reported by my friends. I checked my passport again, yep, I was legally in Cambodia alright.

The country greeted with a flat dusty road that ran away over the horizon. After grabbing a mixture of Khmer Riel and Dollars (they bizarrely use two currencies here) I chased the sun towards the capital. After just 20 miles however I was plain exhausted. The past few days riding the punchy Vietnamese hills in the heat of the day had really taken it out me. After a long roadside break, I retreated to a nearby temple where the Police took a keen interest in my presence. Luckily I had befriended the monks enough by this point that they made some calls before sending the Police on their way. Again I was concerned about having to dish out bribes, yet I shouldn’t have worried, the Monks thought my trip was fascinating, offering me a basic small fold out bed and a space in one of their rooms. 

The Cambodian monks live a very basic existence compared to their Thai counterparts. This particular temple placed their tiny concrete rooms around a worn courtyard of fading shrines which they spent the day attending to with paint during their free time. Still they were extremely upbeat, friendly people. One thing which I always find funny about all the monks I’ve met is how they own so few belongings, yet are always checking Facebook on their smart phones. After acquiring a few monk friends on social media as well as real life, it was again time to be on my way to the capital.

80 mind-numbing miles led me to Phnom Penh. The capital of Cambodia felt a world away to the monastery I had stayed in the previous night. Sky rise buildings signalled the CBD whilst smooth roads escorted me to my plush hostel. Complete with a pool, the Mad Monkey hostel seemed like the place to be. Yet, after a tiring 5 days on the road, the only place for me was my bed. I would explore the bar the following night, and it would be one of the best decisions I’ve made…

2 thoughts on “Adventures across Vietnam

  1. Another great blog Pedr read in front of a.big log fire. Splendid photos. I felt part of your journey. Keep going my Star I am with you at all times. Big hugs OmeXX

    Like

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