Setting Out – Cycle Touring in Vietnam
Leaving the hotel this morning was a buzz. It’s difficult to get your head around the fact that this is the departure on a 4000km ride to Singapore and it was going to start with some Cycle Touring in Vietnam!
I think we were probably more organised this morning than for any another initial departure which was a mixture of experience and nerves.
After a little faff with selfies and filming a short video for ourselves then we were rolling down the short road to the hotel gates. The bikes felt good but familiarly unstable at the front end. Riding with laden front panniers is different than riding an unladen bike and, for our flying friends, PIO (pilot induced oscillation) is very easily achieved. Once you’re over 10-15 km/h though things settle. Slower speeds are of course available, but it takes a day or two to be able to do this with real stability.
The road that passes the front of the hotel is the main drag down to Saigon and we regularly saw HCM mile markers by the side of the road. To give you a feel of the road, it’s a bit like the A1 between Grantham and Lincoln.
Pretty much dead-flat through extended Vietnamese ribbon developments. Driving styles are manic but courteous. The first thing you notice is that the Vietnamese are very quick to use their horns and it reminded us of areas around Hyderabad where each piece of passing traffic uses their horn to warn the slower vehicle. The Vietnamese drive on the right but nobody uses the right hand lane unless they’re overtaking something. It’s the opposite of what us British would expect; but the big assumption is that both the hard shoulder style lane and the first lane will be populated with a wide variety of two-wheeled death-traps. And they’re not wrong. In a busy area you need both lanes to accommodate scooters 5-abreast and a motorised food tricycle coming the wrong way. That’s how they do it around here and it seems to work. Very similar to Thailand, but different.
The first 25km was a dream. Cranking along at 23-28 km/h on the flat, pushing a 60kg rig each, is getting a right wiggle on and we felt good.
We felt good even knowing that the 20+ knot tailwind may have been helping us just a little 😜
We just back off the pace and cruised trying to keep the heart rate at about 130 because of the 35 degree heat and high humidity; managing heart rate is the key to managing core body temperature.
At 30km it all changed. We knew it would, but it was like a mountain climb. 400 foot in 3km (apologies for mixing metric and imperial but it’s how I think) was a big task in this heat and we ended up pushing the bikes from shade to shade and resting as heart rates hit 145. Start pushing again at 120bpm and rest again at 145. Rinse and repeat until the top of the hill a LONG time later.
We have both picked up a niggling cold that we don’t know where it’s going but today it’s developed on the chest and breathing was difficult at times under exertion, for my ex-military friends, the burning sensation in the lungs was a bit like the gas chamber but nowhere near as intense.
From the peak it was a lovely vista over the bay that then turned into an equally steep hill downwards. Strewn with my potholes and aware of our weight we were circumspect and we arrived 400’ lower with streaming noses and coughing like we had a 20 a day Marlboro habit.
We’ve been using Vietnam Coracle as a guide book for the area and Tom recommended a lovely upmarket resort, Ngoc Suong Yen Bay Resort, where you can camp on the beach. But when we got to the gates we were just flat refused entry.
We’d ridden nearly 40 hard kilometres to be here, ok 35 easy ones and 3 killers, and I wasn’t going to be deflected at the first go.
I tried the assumptive approach.
“It’s ok we come to camp on the beach”
“No” was the clean flat response.
I started to think then that they had had enough of Western cheapskates in their resort so I tried a slightly different tack
“Yes, we go to hotel”
Hmmm, not really getting anywhere now. So one last try.
“Hotel open, yes?”
That’s 3 strikes and I backed off about 10 yards where I stopped and called the number for the hotel.
First in Vietnamese and then in English “This number is not recognised”
Awwwww poo. Best guess is that they’ve gone bust.
Beck to Vietnam Coracle and Looking at alternatives that don’t require us to go back over that hill today. Another place, Anh Tu was mentioned and identified on a map.
We cycled past it three times before we saw a sign laying on the ground that identified the place.
In South East Asia you really need to recalibrate your perceptions of what we might perceive as quality. This looked like a run down junkyard besides the beach and a small shop area on the left as we rode in over the dirt track.
But a beautiful Vietnamese girl climbed out of a hammock where she was sleeping and welcomed us enthusiastically asking us where we came from and where we were going. It was a short while before we got to the point of what we wanted, which was a place to pitch a tent for the night.
“Yes yes”’and she started pointing out different concrete plinths, some under a thatched roof and some open to the elements. Some one the raised ground and some on the waterfront.
We identified a raised one so that we didn’t have to cart the laden bikes down a steep ramp.
I won’t lie to you, we’re a bit out of our comfort zone here. We’ve got no idea how this all works, the verbal and body language is all alien and it’s all more than a little clumsy. I think we had a conversation that food was available later, but I wasn’t really sure.
Beer is Bia in Vietnamese and we were able to communicate that enough to secure a couple of ice-cold ones as we started to derig the bikes.
Mercifully the wind was still blowing and the 30 odd degree heat was somewhat tempered. We were still soaked in sweat to every fibre of our base layers though.
Tent pitched, we went for a paddle in the sea that was cooler than we expected. We decided not to swim, choosing instead to return to the tent and shower.
Another recalibration required in the shower where a pipe stuck out of the wall at about head height. A turn of the solitary tap confirmed that this was going to be an invigorating experience and as the cold water hit the hot spuds, I gasped involuntarily.
After drying off I went back to attempt a follow up conversation about dinner. Better luck this time and got confirmation that food would be cooked for us and I was taken to a freezer area where I picked out some prawns and some fish, this wasn’t the kind of place that had a menu, I was in someone’s kitchen. There was some chat about rice and vegetables, I think, and then I really confused her when I tried to say that we would come back in 30 mins.
Siubhan has just taken a call about a 15 night booking in Salisbury and was keen to get a quote out and as she finished this the same lovely lady came over and had almost the same conversation about food again. It was so close that I started to think that maybe there were two of them and I’d got the girls confused, but there was definitely only one.
The Vietnamese, like many Asians, are very tactile in their friendliness and this tiny dot of a girl was quite taken with Siubhan and would hug her repeatedly. It’s a lovely thing but the easy intimacy can be a bit of a jar to our western sensibilities.
There was a small table with kindergarten chairs in the area where our tent was and dinner was brought to us. I don’t know how much they think that westerners eat, but this was a banquet for half a dozen people. Two sea bream, a kilo of prawns, a whole sliced cucumber (that was the vegetable) and mountain of rice. On the side was a bowl of Vietnamese soy sauce, lime and some aromatic pepper.
More Tiger beer washed down this delicious food as it got dark over the bay. Rustic and out of our comfort zone it definitely was but good food and a friendly face goes a long way.
At about 8 pm the girl came back and I tried to ask her if she was going to be here in the morning so that I could pay her or should I pay her tonight?
Nope. None of that was working. Even the trusty Speak and Translate app on the iPhone failed me and we got nowhere except that she wanted us both to follow her up to the area near the kitchen.
Here she had a whiteboard a few dry markers that we put in our hands and a Collins English Picture Dictionary. It soon became clear that this was about to become and English lesson and we were the teachers.
For an hour we stood and all three of us took turns swapping Vietnamese and English words. It was lovely and every now and again Siubhan would get another hug for our tiny hostess.
As we went off to bed we were offered Vietnamese pancakes for breakfast, I think , and we all hugged goodnight.
I still have no idea on prices, when to pay etc but it all seems to be working out ok.
I’m laying here now with only the inner part of the tent pitched to protect us from mosquitoes as we look at the moon above us and listen to the crashing waves.
Comfort zone just got a little bigger.