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Hanoi & Halong Bay

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

There are many key moments in a persons life when a decision made maps out their path for the foreseeable future, but it’s the unforeseeable future which has always excited me. Ideas and dreams can be turned into reality, if nothing else surely this trip has proved that? Yet it’s the unexpected changes in my plans that have for the most part brought me the greatest joy, the not-knowing what is coming next.

The ride through China stretched me to breaking point and while I complained in my blog, I kept quiet about the toll it took on my health. Instead of being sensible, I ploughed on in Northern Vietnam and further continued to put myself through a tough daily routine, knowing from my own performance and the struggle to complete a (decent) days riding that I was deteriorating badly. Arriving here in Hanoi I have finally accepted what I knew, that as strong as my mind has become, my body cannot keep pace any more. The weight loss has been dramatic and I know from loved ones I have watched lose their own fights that this is the biggest challenge I face.

I have no intention of stopping, not just yet. However if I don’t change things I will not last much longer and so I have decided to change the way I rest and recover. This will now be given greater importance and it may be that I take extended breaks like this one, although in fairness there is another reason I’m hanging about in Hanoi – I lost my debit card. The cycling will definitely have to be more measured though, but still be as much as I can manage sensibly in a day.

The tan looks good, but the clothes are a little too loose!

This creates a problem though, as wild camping and cycling large distances between breaks is dirt cheap. Resting up and staying in hostels is not as cheap (relatively speaking) for me and taking transport can further increase my daily budget. I’m going to try it, see how things work out. It may mean my funds run out much sooner, but if that’s the case I’ll simply put my ‘Goodwill Tour’ into action earlier than planned. Don’t worry though, I still plan on ‘cycling’ round the world, I just need to be much more careful in what I put my body through. I’m proud of the fact that I have become an inspiration to many and this has become my biggest motivating factor, therefore I will not stop while I can still turn a pedal.

Back to the present

One of the quieter streets in Hanoi

Arriving in Hanoi, it was cold, wet, grey and looked likely to remain that way for a while. I hooked up with David O again (we first met in Georgia) and he spent time showing me around on the back of his scooter then took me for the best meal I’ve had (seriously) since I left England, a wonderful buffet where I had four plates of main and two of pudding! That’s what makes this trip special, the friends I’ve made and kindness of strangers simply blows me away.
The (many) hostels here can be as cheap as $4 a night and the best deals include breakfast. Don’t jump in to the first one you see unless it is exactly what you want though, as the spotlessly clean (with good wifi) hostels are the ones to choose and still only $5-6 including a cooked breakfast.

I’ll do another blog update later with pictures of Hanoi as it’s set to improve and I’ve not yet taken my camera out in earnest in the rain. I decided to do a trip to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island but in hindsight I really wish I’d waited for the better weather as it was pretty grim (and cold) even though I did take a few photographs. The highlight of the trip (for me) was meeting some other travellers, two guys from Austria and a lovely young couple from Germany, then forming a nice little group for meals and socializing.

Our little group (L to R) – me, Christian, Stefanie, Erwin and Bernhard.

It was pretty misty in the bay and quite a challenge to get decent pictures, yet the scenery (what we saw of it!) was stunning. You see pictures and postcards of the huge Karst towers but they can’t compare at all to actually being there – it really is something special. When you consider that the limestone in this area has gone through 500 million years of formation and many of the Karst towers have been formed over 200 million years under the impact of the wet tropical climate.

Shrouded in mist, the Karst towers in Halong Bay, Vietnam

I chose to go on one of the trips organised by our hostel, but if you wanted to you can shop around the many travel agents and get them for as cheap as $30 a day. The quality will vary and all I’ll say further is I would not go again in the winter on a trip like this as many of the activities are either cancelled or really dummied down. It’s only because of the logistics I took this one (when I calculated the costs of visiting Halong Bay and Cat Ba I could not have done it myself as cheaply) – tours are not really my thing.

I couldn’t ‘not go’ here, one of Vietnam’s major highlights.

I do however think it is a ‘must see’ sight if you’re visiting Vietnam and one I’m glad I took, even if at times it felt like we were sheep being herded around by our guide (incidentally my excellent impressions of a Yorkshire sheep got very disapproving looks!) who like many Vietnamese (and Chinese) repeated every sentence (in English) at least twice just to make sure we understood him.

Evening light on Halong Bay, Vietnam

Despite the many tourist boats filling the bay you can still catch sight of the locals going about their daily chores and I stood  watching a couple of locals doing some traditional fishing from a small boat and wished I still had my telephoto lens for the camera as I was a little too far away.

Local fishermen in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Cat Ba Island lies at the southeastern edge of Halong Bay and as we made our way across the waters we’d hoped for a change in the weather, as day two of our trip was to involve both kayaking (to see a ‘wet’ cave) and trekking. Sadly it didn’t and I opted out of the kayaking (still feeling run down I can’t afford to get a cold) which to be honest didn’t look up to much anyway, the group were only in the kayaks for a very short time and it seemed hardly worth the effort.

Approaching the docking pier at Cat Ba Island

On the bay, as the boats drop anchor locals would come up alongside offering all manner of goods for sale, but mostly sweets and drinks. That’s one of the things I’ve certainly noticed since I’ve been here, the Vietnamese are pretty canny at spotting any opportunity to do business!

One of the locals selling goods on Halong Bay

The trekking involved a trip to one of the Islands high points but really was a major disappointment because of the weather, as there was nothing to be seen – only the surrounding trees. This is where I think some flexibility in the tour program would go a long way, it was obvious from the outset that once we climbed the hill it would be a major let down so why not schedule something else?

Steffi and Christian on the well worn trekking path.

I did step off the trail when I spotted this lovely ruin and let the group wander on while I photographed it. I was even more surprised when I saw the year above one of the doorways (1977) and later learned many of the properties on the Island have been damaged in the storms that sweep across this part of Southeast Asia.

Storm damaged ruin on Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba town was enveloped in a cold grey mist and drizzling rain. My afternoon ‘free time’ where I had planned on going fishing went out the window as no way was I about to sit out in that, despite how much I had been longing to have a go at catching my own meal. Some of the group went off exploring on the local motorbikes and came back with tales of how cold it had been, whereas I remained nice and warm cuddled under the duvet and got some much needed sleep.

Cat Ba town in the rain

My own personal thoughts on the tour were perhaps unfairly critical because of the weather, but there were many areas that could so easily be improved. My main bugbear was on the bus out our half way stop involved being dropped at a ceramics shop where the prices were more than doubled for even the simplest of snacks, so I did without. We could so easily have stopped at a decent place to get something substantial to eat – there are no shortage of these on the route. On the way back we were not given any water or a free drink as we had been on day one and the feeling was they just wanted rid of us and couldn’t care less about our comfort. OK grump over.


I usually shy away from big cities, yet I love Hanoi. It’s a real mixture of culture and people and the food is very good. I’m meeting some really nice people and enjoying my ‘chill out’ rest period – I did really need this. As I said above I’ve yet to do the wandering about like a ‘tourist’ with my camera, but as the weather is set to improve that will happen soon. I hope it won’t be too long before my new card arrives and David has kindly arranged to let me send it to his address. Then I’ll be back on my way – else my legs will be forgetting how to cycle!

I’ve also got some pictures from the cave we visited, but again I’ll save them for the next blog. To end here is what’s been keeping me happy in Hanoi at a cost of less than 50 pence. 🙂

Dry noodles with peanuts – yummy!

More soon…

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 11:22 am

Go, go, go Derek… you still look great and you still inspire all of us! Indeed, take more rest when you can… and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy every minute! lots of love, take good care of you

    Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 11:30 am


    I hope I can go so far as genuinely changing someone’s life for the better with my story, this is my greatest wish. You have done this though and I have to say I admire you more than I can put into words.

    Derek x

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 11:28 am

Sorry to hear your health is now failing.. but as the same time impressed that you have had the strength to accomplish so much. Your ‘world tour’ has been incredible. Take it easy Derek!

Interesting report with regards seasonal weather in Hanoi and Halong Bay.
The weather in the UK is pretty bad at the moment too!!
I envisaged (solo) cycling up from Ho Chi Minh City from late February next year but, and at my suggestion, some friends are looking to cycle Vietnam at the same time. They seem keen on Hanoi as a starting point.. I still think it may be best, weather and temperature-wise to work my way up and exit into Laos via the North. We shall see…

Glad that hostel prices are cheap. I default to wild camping too and travel on a shoestring to make my own pennies go further. I hope you get your new bank card delivered soon.

Enjoy Vietnam. I look forward to more great photographs and the next blog update.

    Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    It’s not suddenly failing, truth is I’ve pushed it too hard for too long and that has to eventually catch up with you. Combine that with ignoring the fact I should be taking it easy and I can’t complain now.

Friday, February 21, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Amazing photos again Derek, I cannot imagine ever being able to experience what you are right now. You must finish your journey and have some time to relish your accomplishments. Take care of yourself..

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