Wednesday, 30 October 2013

20/10/13 - Yen Minh to Tam Son

We met up with Alex and Mii in the morning for a Pho breakfast just across the street from the hotel, before they brapped off on their way again on the motorbikes.

As usual we started off into a steep climb, rising 500m in about 8km. We are getting used to this now, and our heart rates don't seem to be too bothered. Interestingly, J's heart rate always seems to be about 20bpm higher than mine during normal (110-150bpm) operation. So she must find these hill grinding climbs much tougher than me. Makes me feel lazy! Although, she does have a very low resting heart rate - 37bpm, versus my 44 or 45. That is very low and comparable to some serious cyclists. Lance Armstrong had 32-34 bpm. I think she has achieved athlete status.

It was a day of repetition for us. We passed through the mountains, passed through some small villages, drank some coffee. We ate some of our favourite carb food and didn't stop for lunch. 50km and some more amazing views and local-watching we arrived at our destination.

We holed up for the night in a small town called Tam Son, as it was too far to go all the way to Ha Giang in one day, with all the climbing involved. Nice hotel, in fact the best cheap hotel we have had. £6 (200,000d) and was perfectly clean and spacious, with a nice bathroom and good clean sheets on the bed. We have got used to the beds now, they are all hard as boards. No joke it's like sleeping on scaffolding planks with a memory foam sheet on top. You get used to it though and it's probably quite good for your back! If all the guest houses were as good as this one we would be happy.

We got there quite early so ambled the length of the town and then sat outside at an empty street-side café/bar and watched it all go past. Then we had dinner in an empty restaurant as the one we had spotted earlier and chosen was packed out with locals and no space left, some sort of birthday or something. The food was good in the place we found next-door though, fried semi-cured beef and veg and rice cooked by the owner/resident of the very large but desolate restaurant.

Route link

Greg with Alex and Mii, just before they headed off

Climbing out of Yen Minh

Saw this weird dragon caterpillar, its about 20mm only

There is always one weird tree sticking off the side

the bees

the bee keepers

Tam Son

Fantastic hotel in Tam Son, we are on the 2nd floor

Sitting in the cafe opposite the hotel, and...

...watching the Vietnamese world go by.

Girls playing badminton in the road.

Monday, 28 October 2013

19/10/13 - Meo Vac to Yen Minh

We had been looking forward to today's cycle for a while, since Alex first suggested the Northern route, our perceptions of just how good it was had been confirmed and bolstered by the people we have met coming the other way over the last couple of days. The remote mountain pass between Meo Vac and Dong Van is the clear blue Karst-pinnacled roof of the country - and the pictures we have seen have always been the centrefold of any Vietnam brochure. Just twenty odd kilometres separate the two mountain towns, but the views go on for thousands ;)

Its always a gamble with the weather though and as we set off into thick clouds and heavy drizzle, we thought we wouldn’t actually see any of it. It turned out that as we got up into the pass, the clouds cleared just enough to see what all the fuss was about. Disintegrating spikes of dark volcanic rock reaching infeasible sharpness above several hundred metre drops into the abyss of clouds, the winding (but well surfaced) road clinging with hands and feet around the waist of the cliffs, heading off into the distance like a rope bridge. And the best bit is that the local bus takes it all at 45 degrees lean angle and about 40 miles an hour!

We stopped and took photos almost every 50m.

After the pass we went through Dong Van and stopped at the cash machine, considered stopping for the day but as we knew the place was packed out with no rooms available due to something happening. The football/hockey field was full of people, the streets too, a big local political rally or convention. We didn't find out and decided to press on to Yen Minh. Alex was researching a route for the bike tour in the area, so we arranged to meet him in Yen Minh for some dinner and a chin-wag. Whilst I was in the cash machine (little glass room on the street outside a bank usually), Johanna was approached and extensively photographed by an overly interested Chinese tourist!

The road between Dong van and Yen Minh was no less breathtaking - but slightly less sheer.

We were stopped in our tracks at one point by the screams of a pig as we dropped into a little village. We could hear it before we came round a corner and then stopped as we could see some sort of commotion on the road ahead. The noise a pig can make is blood-curdling, more like the screams of a tortured person than an animal, it gets you somehow. After a minute or so, and seeing the bemused expressions of a couple of people also checking what the noise was, we went up the hill and past the commotion. It was an absolutely huge sow pig, maybe 180kg's that 5 or 6 guys were trying their best to truss up but it was having none of it - kicking and bucking and biting for it's life. What a noise! We were too embarrassed to take a photo, but I guess more adventurous tourists would have had a field day. This was the first time we had seen such a big pig in Vietnam, they are normally a much smaller breed, not counting the tiny pot-bellied ones.

Twenty minutes later the same massive slab of ribs, chops, cutlets, steaks and various other delicious cuts came grinding past us, on its side on a wooden stretcher strapped to the back of a Honda Wave II moped which was squashed onto the bump stops. This whilst climbing up a 10% grade with the now-tired swine still giving its best shot at escape. Great stuff! We have seen pictures of a full grown Buffalo on a moped also, so we reserve our topscore for something even more extreme.

Arriving in Tam Son, we used Johannas unnaturally accurate hotel spotting skills to find our lodgings yet again. Nice hotel but very busy, something going on in town again, just like Dong Van. We showered and met up with Alex and his buddy Mii who had been researching a new tour route and homestay in the area, renting motorbikes from Ha Giang. We let the guys get washed also and then met them for dinner having the best part of a duck between us plus many other dishes such as omelette, chicken and pork that is the reward for eating with guys who speak the lingo. It is great in Vietnam as Mii just brought in the duck from another restaurant to our table, no problem!

Route Link

The new carb food - much sweeter

Dong Van

Right on the border

These kids dont have much, but dont care too much either.

From left, to the middle junction and then up left again. Ooh me thighs..

Squealey pig already audible in the valley, passed us on moped on road on right

Chewin the fat

Karst Plateau an all that

Appeasing the BIG chief at the top of the pass.

The long and winding road...

We went through the pic top dead centre

Lush, innit?

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

17/10/13 - Bao Lac to Meo Vac

We had a great sleep - 10 hours and got up nice and early to get started. The weather was starting to change, today the morning greeted us with a misty coldness that was new since we arrived, then it started to rain heavily just as we were about to leave. We sat with one of the girls from the Guesthouse for a while and had a coffee, and did our best to understand each other! She sent us off with a bag of green tea for some reason, just nice to be nice I guess!

We stopped not long after we set off to put our gaiters on. We didn't have these in the Europe cycle, and bought them, to try to stop the rain running into the top of our waterproof shoes. It's a bit of an oversight to have waterproof shoes that are not sealed at the top! They look daft, bit like cycling in wellies, but definitely helped keep the rain out. It eventually seeps in, but we stayed dryer for longer. The Goretex jackets are also great, but it's too warm over here to wear them for very long, or on any uphill in fact, so we just get used to being soaked on a cycle like today's, it's not so bad really as long as you are warm. No problem for us, the steam pouring off our backs on the >150bpm climbs up the hills (we both have Heart Rate Monitors on this trip - also new - they really give you an insight into how hard you think you are pushing sometimes). Another interesting thing is the water consumption when it rains. It REALLY drops. Say from 5 litres on a sunny day, now you drink 2 litres. Partly to do with the overall temps, but also the rain on your hot skin does the job of the sweat, evaporating to keep you cooler, so you need to drink less. Also, when it rains, you pee more - showing again you’re using a lot less water.

The rain continued, replaced by mist when we climbed up a few hundred meters. The end of the cycle was all uphill, rising 1000m in about 15km. It was a tough climb, but the mist and low temps made it a lot easier. We passed a few tiny hill tribe villages on the way up. They lead such a simple life, growing the rice, tending to patches of veg and other produce, keeping chickens, pigs, dogs and water buffalo all for food and trading at the local market. They all seem very happy  and are genuinely surprised and excited (or maybe a better word is amused?) to see us passing - bursting out into laughter, the kids going wild and chasing us, always saying "ELLO! ELLO! ELLO!" (or sometimes "BYE-BYE! BYE-BYE! BYE-BYE!" - they still mean hello though).

We need to take a good video with sound of a day on the bike up here just to see how many times we are saying hello to people, no joke its about one a minute.

On the steep uphill, we passed one group of about 4 houses there were a few of the wifey's sitting out the front in the thick mist working on some food prep and got really excited when we passed (it's always the women working - don't see the blokes in the fields either too much), just after we passed with the familiar rounds of "'ELLO!!" one of their sons came shooting out on his bike that was far too big for him (they only have one size bike over here - a granny shopper with no gears) and started belting up behind us. He caught up with me and seemed to want to fly past to prove his skills - his mum and the others really loving it. Just in case the kid got too much of a complex I decided to give him a run for his money, and pushed off a bit. staying in 2nd, us going up like a 10% hill. He stayed right there beside me - intent on getting ahead!! Little bugger, RIGHT! I pushed on a bit more and went into 3rd just as it got even steeper but he is still right beside me, obviously feeling the burn a bit by now after a minute or so. I kept going for another minute or so and expected him to drop back, but he was still there just a length or two behind, still trying to get past! I dropped down to 4th gear and got up on the pegs and gave it everything - 175bpm for another 30 secs or so and then I saw him dissapearing. Yeah!! Take that kiddo! ;O)  Greg on modern geared touring bike - ONE!! 11 year old vietnamese mountain kid on a crap single gear rattlebag - ZERO!!   Really impressive, I guess going up and down a mountain every day and eating well is probably good for your fitness then! They raise them tough around here... When I stopped for a drink he caught up and I gave him a high five and tried miming the actions for strong and fast, he was obviously knackered also but still seemed chuffed, and by now about 3km from home! He turned back around and then reappeared through the fog with his mate who had followed Johanna up the hill behind us.. They just think we are something special - no idea why! It's a real compliment and you don't get bored of that reaction from people. They followed us a bit further, maybe another 2km and then turned around as we headed further up the hill into increasingly dense fog.

It didn't break until 1000m exactly, at which point we were treated to the first view over the side for the day - amazing.

The ride over the pass at the very top was something special, our first taste of this black volcanic rock formations, the huge glacial valleys and contrasting green rice and corn fields. Almost all of the sides of the hills seemed to have been terraced at some point, but not all are still in use. After lots of photos and awestruck staring, we went over the top and dropped down into Meo Vac, a hill station town, the beginning of this altitude section of our North Loop. We had booked into a great hotel in the middle of town called Hua Cuong. Looked 4 star compared to last nights lodgings, very comfortable indeed.

It was a great cycle today, we love the hills and the weather was just right for the work level, plus gave us that extraordinary surprise view when we reached the top.

We went out for dinner to a place we passed earlier in the day. A restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating. As we waited for our food to arrive (we can now order spring rolls, whatever meat we need, and all drinks, rice etc!) we got talking to a group of three other tourists who spoke English. So we met Greg, his dad Pete and a big German fella called Frank, whom they had met only a day earlier. They were all touring by motorbike, Greg and Pete sharing one bike. Turns out Greg is the Manager of our favourite Hanoi restaurant - Highway 4! (The place that did the ants and other great food that we visited twice in two days). We had a great night eating and drinking beers with those guys and swapping stories. We will definitely meet up again in Hanoi.

Route Link

Hotel in Bao Lac, still half a building site!
Is it time to put on the gaiters?

Soaked but happy! Passing through one of many village markets.
They are selling everything here. Animals, clothes, food...

The boy in the front was chasing Greg!
The clouds are lifting at 1000m exactly!

Just a bit wet!

Local hill tribe woman in bright blue dress.
Final descent into Meo Vac!

Vibrant market in Meo Vac

Some like roasted ducks, ...

...others like dog!

Great hotel!
Fat, happy Buddha in hotel reception!