Despite extending my stay in the country, China never really ‘did it’ for me. There are many reasons for this and I’m sure if you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll be able to read between the lines, but suffice to say the roads/traffic and the way ‘tourists’ are systematically overcharged were my biggest disappointments. I could say the hills almost broke me, but I think it was more the above, having to be constantly on my guard simply wore me out. Having said all that, the best was certainly saved ’till last as far as the cycling goes and the final few days ride to Hekou were without doubt the most enjoyable of my time here.
Once I’d polished off the final climb out of Honghe, it was pretty much downhill (or flat) all the way to Hekou, except where I made a 5 km diversion up to Pingbian to find somewhere to eat. This was by mistake rather than design, but I’m always amazed at how such events turn out and this is a tale worthy of telling. I took the wrong road and struggled up the steep incline (is 5 km an incline?) to Pingbian, which is a village set back from the road. I was seriously in need of sustenance and just as I thought I would have to leave the road and head in towards the village, I was beckoned to stop at what I assumed was someone’s kitchen. It was in fact a restaurant and a cold bottle of water was placed in my hand as I was given a seat, quickly followed by a huge plate of fried rice. After demolishing both my kind hosts refused payment and I rode off reflecting what a very different experience I could have had in China.
Next stop was Mengzi, a lovely town which I’m amazed doesn’t get a mention in Lonely Planet as it is well worth stopping off if you’re making your way towards Vietnam as I was. I enjoyed an afternoon off in the cafe’s that had WIFI, wandered around by the lake and watched the strange sight of a camel being used for a photo shoot, then rolled out in time to find a nice quiet camping spot. Some chance of that, as the Tet (Chinese New Year) celebrations were in full swing and fireworks were going off all night!
I allowed myself three days to get to Hekou, due mainly to my overall weariness and not feeling too well. I did it easily in two, as it was mainly downhill and had designs on finding a cheap room to clean myself up before presenting myself at the Vietnam border. I called in at numerous hotels (initially choosing what you can only describe as the dumps) and was quoted stupid prices (500, 420, 400 Yuan) despite there being plaques on the wall showing rooms as cheap as 58 Yuan. When I pointed this out, I was told “not price for tourist” to peals of laughter from other guests in the lobby. Instead of getting upset I thought back to the free meal I had received, telling myself thankfully there are good people here too. Undeterred, I camped on the filthy beach, washed in the river and set my alarm early so I could be at the border before it’s 08:00 a.m. opening.
Good Morning Vietnam!
After hearing stories of goods being confiscated at the Chinese side of the border, (including Lonely Planet guides) I was unsure of what I’d experience, but I really needn’t have worried. The only obstacle was an elevator into the building and once there it was literally just a few minutes of having my passport checked, stamped, handing over my entry card (which you must keep safe when you enter China) and then I was told to go. No bag check, nothing. I headed across the bridge to the Vietnam registration building and apart from the time I spent waiting in line, once again my passport was scrutinized, copied, handed back to me and I was welcomed to Vietnam. Immediately on leaving the building there was a money-changer, but also an ATM just across the street which I headed for and withdrew 1,000,000 local currency. That’s about £30 folks!
I love Vietnam and I’ve only been here hours. Wifi really is free as I rode across to the first hotel and logged on my iphone to download maps (I’d been unable to do this in China – too slow) which took a few minutes. Then off I rode into the beautiful countryside, knowing I had a 35 km climb (to Sa Pa) in front of me. But there in lies the difference from China, I knew exactly what was ahead and could plan my ride and energy output, which believe me is a big deal for a cyclist.
The roads are in good condition, traffic is light (at least here) and the moped riders mostly say ‘hello’ as they pass. No heavy trucks belching out diesel or getting covered in dust, it’s just bliss. The climb was the steepest I’ve yet undertaken, but with it being morning I managed to ride it all and more importantly, thoroughly enjoy doing so amongst the beautiful scenery.
I booked into the Sapa Hostel, sorted out my washing, showered then headed into town for some decent food (I’m blinking fed up of noodles!) and a nice pizza did the trick. Wifi is free everywhere and it’s fast, so I’ll post another quick update before I leave the day after tomorrow. For now, I think I’m going to really enjoy Vietnam.