I left Hanoi much the same as I’d arrived – in the rain. The fine drizzle seemed to creep into every opening in my clothing, but at least it was not cold. My plan for the day was to take it nice and steady and get back into cycling with my fully loaded bike, knowing of course that if I ended the day in Hoa Binh, I would have a relatively flat ride. The cycling was much the same as the weather, pretty disappointing, but then riding highway 6 out of Hanoi was never going to be much fun even if the sun had been shining. I would have to wait until I picked up highway 15 and then the Ho Chi Minh trail before things got interesting.
Hoa Binh was certainly an interesting place. I arrived there a little after 2 p.m. with just 75 km on the clock, so had a look round for a likely camping spot just outside town before returning to try and find somewhere to eat. The town must have a hundred mobile phone shops, but very few food joints and I eventually settled on a cafe with free wifi. Once fed and watered I set about pitching the tent in the rain, which had hardly abated all day. I just hoped I would not have to pack it away the next morning wet. I slept early and well, most likely because sleep had been pretty difficult the previous week and now was my chance to catch up.
My wish for a dry start was forlorn, so I just got on with packing everything away and made an early start. Almost immediately on leaving Hoa Binh I was climbing and my legs complained, no doubt about the lack of hills they’d ridden since I came through the mountains from Sapa. However it was short lived and I soon dropped back into the valley road where the scenery was beginning to change and I could see the karst peaks in the distance. I took the opportunity to go on the back roads (read mud tracks) through some of the villages and ran into what must have been a school run, with youngsters in their school uniforms (green and white tracksuits – can’t help thinking what a great idea!) and rode for a few kilometres to the sound of ‘hello’ and much merriment. Good kids.
I captured a few more images in the valley before starting the long climb through dense mist, heading in the direction of Mai Chau. Visibility near the top was just a few yards and I decided it would make a good picture, so duly set up the camera with self delay, placed it on the barrier then ran back to the bike a little way down the hill. The idea was right, but I should have used manual focus! As I placed my bike back on the barrier I watched in horror as my camera slid off and down a steep bank, where the lens promptly broke in two. Checking the camera over it seems the lens took the brunt of the impact so it may be OK, except where do I get another lens and can I stretch my funds to do so? Oh well, let’s worry about it later, for now it’ll have to be the iPhone which is really crap in low light.
It was getting quite cold as I dropped back down to the tight hairpin bend and the junction of the QL6 and QL15. Mai Chau lay just a short distance further down the valley and I was a little sad to pass on by, but in truth there was little point in hanging about unless I was going to do a home-stay in one of the stilt houses. Although tired from the climbing I decided to push on to the nearest decent sized town, not really aware that it was a good 40 km away. This next section of road was pretty awesome, passing through small villages and for once I could enjoy cycling without being disturbed by the sound of horns. I was climbing steadily and progress was slow, with darkness starting to encroach upon me. It had been a long day, but as I had taken decent breaks for my meals I didn’t mind that much as I rolled into Hoi Xuan with 107 km on the clock. I was shattered but well pleased with myself. A quick meal of fried noodles and I was off again, this time in the dark. Camping just off the QL15 was really easy as there are lots of little tracks leading away from the road, so I didn’t have to go far. The roads (so far) were mostly paved, although there was one section of pure off-road through the villages that I enjoyed immensely.
Overnight the drizzle continued and I awoke to find my tent in a shallow pool of water, as I had unwittingly camped in a hollow in the dark. The inside of my tent was of course dry and was packed away in it’s separate dry bag (for those travellers who have an inner and outer tent, take my advice and do this – it means I never have a wet inner tent!) but the rest was once again packed away wet, which significantly adds to it’s weight. After a quick cup of coffee I went in search of breakfast, which ended up being a couple of hotdog sausages in a bread roll. That would do me until later in the morning when I’d stop for some noodles.
The cycling was a series of short ups and then dropping down again, which continued for many kilometres. I’m not sure which I prefer, the long climbs or this constant up and down which at least gives you a little rest in between the hills. Although it was no longer raining the road sections that were not paved were covered in a thin film of wet mud and this made for a pretty dirty ride – I had already changed clothes and my nice clean ones were filthy after just a few hours.
This part of the journey was enjoyable, as there was very light traffic, but that all changed when I met the Ho Chi Minh trail at Ngoc Lac where it was nothing more than another busy highway, complete with buses, cars, bikes and trucks. Once again the sound of horns spoilt the riding and although I looked for alternative roads, this particular section cannot be avoided on my route south. Guim advised me there would be sections like this, so not only will I look to get off the highway at every opportunity, I’ll check out on-line which parts I should not miss.
Even though my legs were a little sore from the previous days climbing I made good progress and camped off the trail just outside a small town called Khe Ha, having ridden 92 km. I managed to find a nearby food stall complete with toilet block, so I unpacked my shower kit and had an all over wash – bliss. I’ve gotten into a habit of searching the roadside food stalls for electrical outlets when I stop to charge my GPS, as with the complete lack of sunshine my solar charger has become somewhat redundant of late. This means I no longer have the luxury of watching an evening movie on my laptop and filling the time can be difficult, because if I sleep too early I’ll wake early.
Day four gave me not much to write about, just another section of the Ho Chi Minh trail that is nondescript to say the least. By now the constant ups and downs were becoming a chore and in truth I was not enjoying the riding much, so my mind was considering the possibility of coming off and heading west to Laos. I would make this decision in the morning as I reached Thai Hoa, which was basically the cut off point if I was going to take highway 7 to Laos. What was really putting a dampener on my usually high spirits was the drizzling rain, which had stayed with me since leaving Hanoi and totally fed up I called it a day after just 75 km. I was covered in filth from the road with no real means of getting clean, save using my water bottles once again. This is when cycle touring is hard.
I thought long and hard about taking the trip into Laos, as I so wanted to go there. In the end I opted for common sense though, because in reality I would really be pushing the boat out (in terms of my budget) and with the additional costs of visas (as well as the Laos one I would also have to get a new Vietnam one) I would possibly be using the money put aside for my flight to Canada, so the choice in the end was a simple (but painful nonetheless) one. I couldn’t go. It made me think back to all the media interest in me and the thought that maybe I’m doing something wrong, because I never ask for a penny and would it be so wrong if I did?
The sound of heavy raindrops falling onto my tent from the overhead trees told me the rain had not gone away in the night. As I peered out I could see the valley was shrouded in mist and I decided I was going to try and find somewhere to dry out, I would ride until I came across the first cheap hotel or guest house and take a rest day. By the time I’d packed everything (wet again) onto the bike I was feeling guilty and so just got on the bike and rode off into the driving rain. It seemed even the food stalls had shut up shop and I struggled to find anywhere to get a breakfast, so thought I’d try hitching a lift for a while to try and get me nearer a big town. While the Vietnamese are friendly enough, they won’t stop. I have tried on numerous occasions and never been shown the slightest chance of getting a lift. Thankfully my misery ended after 37 km, when I pulled into what in England we’d probably describe as a dive motel. I didn’t care, it was a (very) cheap roof over my head, a warm shower and (appallingly slow) wifi, just what I needed!
Thanks to Mike from Couchsurfing Hanoi I now have a sim card which I use sparingly to check emails, so if you need to contact me you can. Nick Ross did just that, giving me the names of a couple from my home town of Huddersfield who now live out here in Vietnam, in Danang. I will be dropping in on them shortly.
That’s it for now, more soon…