Friday, 29 November 2013

04/11/13 - Ngoc Lac to Tan Ky

Getting up at 6am for a 6.30am rendezvous, we slyly thought about just heading off quietly before breakfast as we were very tired and the thought of having to engage brain so early in the morning was not appealing any more. Before we could steel ourselves to do it anyway, Mr Tang was knocking on our door - at 6.20. It turns out the kids need to be in school for 7am for the first lesson, so they were keen to get us there as early as possible. We finished packing and loaded the bikes and by 6.35 we were following Mr Tang's motorbike off to the restaurant. There were not so many kids left, maybe only 5 or 6, and some more just heading off to the school across the road. We said our hello's and sat down. The kids had chosen the place for breakfast, partly because it was opposite their school and partly I think because of what it consisted of. It was Bun Cha which is a mix of barbequed meat served with rice noodles and some veg. Not my idea of a good breakfast meal really, but when in Rome. Also, we were reliably informed by Mr Tang that this particular Bun Cha was dog meat. So this would be our first sample of canine flesh, at not yet 7 in the morning. To be fair it smelt and looked very nice. The meat was barbequed with a sweet sauce on it, and served in a broth as either little burgers, or hammered flat steak pieces. It wasn't challenging at all, very tasty actually and could have been any other spiced meat. Saying all that, we wont be making it our must-have breakfast snack either.

We swapped our email details with Mr Tang, him checking again if we could possibly stay longer and meet his family and asking hopefully when the next time we might be back. We followed him back down to the main junction with the HCMH and waved him off as we parted. Nice guy, a bit desperate for Western culture we thought.

Back on the road, the weather was great again. Sunny but not too hot yet and despite our tiredness we started to make good progress. Today would be around 145km, flat mainly but with undulations making the total climb close to 1000m, all on the HCMH. The weather was the usual, a couple of showery outbreaks of rain, but mainly sunny. When it was uphill and the sun was out it was devastatingly hot though. We stopped for lunch in a very nice roadside café and had noodle soup, one of the best yet.

We got to Phu Phong around 4pm, and started looking for a guesthouse. Luckily there was a big one right at the entrance to the town, opposite a couple of shops and a restaurant. Perfect. The room was cheap at 170,000d but looked OK. We hand-washed some of the cycling gear and hung it up and then went out for dinner at 5.30, a bit early. They were happy to cook for us though and we ordered some De (Goat) which was apparently the speciality of this region as we had been told in Hanoi. It was delicious, cooked with chilli and lemongrass. Dinner cost another 170,000d so we had a cheap day which pleases me!

Back in the room Johanna skyped her family for a while and we started watching a film before conking out for the night. 

Route Link

Bun Cha place - doggy for breakfast

Mr Tang, Johanna and a girl called Panda who gave Johanna the toy

Bun Cha

It got slightly wet at one point briefly


Parking for lunch, it was hot now


Message about the local province supporting electrical project on HCMH

The horizon is only 1.5km away! That x100 was the full day.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Leaving Hanoi 03/11/2013

03/11/13 - Hanoi to Ngoc Lac

Leaving Hanoi after breakfast - 8.00am on a Sunday we headed south for the Ho Chi Min Highway, the road that runs from North to South Vietnam and roughly follows the famous Ho Chi Min trail used by the National Front For the Liberation of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (or Viet Cong as they have come to be known in the West).

The HCMH is inland from the main QL1A truck infested highway so we hoped to avoid the worst of the traffic plus see some more of the smaller towns and villages en route, plus the coastline in this section has nothing of worthy note according to all sources. We have become used to the quieter lifestyle in the smaller towns after our 1300km Jaunt up North (described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as the "Extreme North Loop"). Nonetheless, we wanted to make progress quickly to get down to our next planned excursion point of Phong Nha National Park which has the worlds largest cave. It was 570km to the town of Son Trach where we would stay whilst visiting Phong Nha. We plotted a route down the HCMH, stopping at random towns on the way, and this left us with the first day being very close to 160km. This would be the first time we would attempt the century - 100 imperial miles that is.

I used the GoPro video camera to make a video to attempt to capture the crazy Hanoi traffic, but for some reason the traffic was quieter and the roads better than any we had previously cycled in Hanoi - typical! Still, we produced a video clip which is above this post - just click on it to watch.

It was a hot and sunny day. Before we reached the HCMH, we were passing through small townships on the outskirts of Hanoi (once off the main roads) with concrete pathways, lots of smiling locals and lots of loose livestock. We decided to stop for a quick lunch just as we merged with the HCMH at a Bahn Mi roadside cafe. Bahn Mi is basically a baguette (left by the colonial French) which can be filled with lots of different things, but always includes chilli sauce and shredded radish as long as we have had it. Sometimes comes with pork, or sausage or pate, and is always delicious. This time we had Bahn Mi Opla - baguette and fried eggs.

The HCMH was all it promised to be. Great tarmac, not much heavy duty traffic and wide enough in most places to have a generous hard shoulder albeit one normally occupied by various drying produces like sweet potato, corn and rice instead! It was also almost completely flat so we looked good to make our 100 mile marathon. We got through an awful lot of water on this cycle.

Arriving in our destination town of Ngoc Lac, we cruised the main street casing all the Nha Nghi possibilities. The other reason for doing this extra couple of km's was that we had not yet quite reached the magic 160km and we didn't want to stop just before the red ribbon! A bit pointless but we had to do it! When the GPS read 162km we called it a day and checked in to one guesthouse round the back of a mini-market totally exhausted. When I uploaded the route the online version reported only 159.9km - DOH! Oh well, good enough!

We got showered and changed and went out for dinner, found a good restaurant and demolished some fried pork ribs (absolutely delicious - think they were the Pot-Bellied pig ones), rice and the usual morning glory veg along with a couple of beers. So around 7.30pm we were our way back to the guesthouse, tired and satisfied from the full day. We stopped in at a shop to get some drinks and snacks for the room. Whilst we were shopping, some kids started chatting in English - asking the usual "where you from" type of questions. As we were politely obliging them a guy came up to us and started chatting also in very good English. He said "Would you like to come and help me teach one English class?". We declined saying we were only here for one night and would leave in the morning, but he said "It's OK, we can teach them now, the school is very close to here". We couldn't say no really, it would have been rude, plus you have to enjoy these sort of experiences that just land in your lap. We said OK, and introduced ourselves. His name was Mr Tang.

Mr Tang asked us to follow him and we walked about 200m around to the school. We were greeted with a two storey u-shaped building, courtyard dimly lit by the fluorescent light leaking from a couple of classroom windows that still had activity within.

We were ushered into the classroom and onto two chairs in front of the blackboard as the kids came pouring in behind us. Talk about being put on the spot! The format seemed to be questions and answers, Mr Tang started by directing specific pupils to ask us a question. They began with the usual "where are you from?", "what is your name?" etc, but after a while we ended up just kind of chatting to the most confident kids, the ones with the best English. A few times we tried to ask other kids who were not chatting as much a question, but most found it pretty tough, and would break down into giggles as the rest of the class found their efforts hilarious.

The English level was generally good. After a while longer we found that Mr Tang was more keen to have a chat with us himself telling us about his own family and life whereupon the kids started to get bored in the background. One girl asked to be excused and disappeared for a few minutes, coming back with a gift bag and presenting it to Johanna much to the interest of the class. She had gone out and bought her a coffee mug and spoon combo in a box from the shop!

She was very pleased as were all the other girls that Johanna appreciated it. Then she asked if she could take a photo of herself with us which we obliged, but of course all the other kids jumped up and eventually it was a group photo, taken on many many different camera phones! After the noise of all that had subsided, Mr Tang said that the kids wanted to invite us for some "special food" with them at a restaurant around the corner. We advised that we were already full but he insisted that it would not be a huge meal, just some local snacks. When we agreed the kids went mad again and streamed out of the classroom delighted, each wanting to be the first to get to the restaurant.

We sat down with them in segregation - all the girls around Johanna, and all the boys around me. The boys mainly wanted me to talk about English Premiership football, about which I have very little knowledge or interest. My only saving grace was that they were not completely expert, and I could at least discuss all the big name players and teams that they wanted to hear about. I tried to keep them on topic and avoid undisguising my weak knowledge of football by asking about their favorite subjects and what they knew about maths and other stuff. When I asked what they wanted to do after school I was very surprised that the majority told me with straight faces that they wanted to become rappers. I din't know how to answer that to be honest!

We ate some chilli and salt spiced apple/pear thing, then some garlic fried freshwater snails with tooth pics, then some banana fritters (the plate got pulled all over the table as the kids clamoured for a piece). The boys were funny as the ones who spoke really good English were maybe only three or four out of ten in total. One other less well versed lad would nod enthusiastically and repeat whatever I had just said every time he understood something. Even if it was just a Vietnamese town or a footballer's name much to the amusement of his peers. I couldn’t help but join in a couple of times as his mates laughed.

Johanna had a different experience with the girls, she was proudly presented many phone pictures of family members - especially babies and was mainly told how beautiful they thought she was! She also received more gifts (a necklace, a key ring teddy, and a post card).

After the snacks and chatting we were truly knackered and decided to slope off to bed, before the other guys decided to leave. Around 9.30pm we were saying our goodbye's when Mr Tang asked that we meet for breakfast in the morning with them! We again couldn't say no so agreed to meet them at 6.30 outside our guesthouse.

Route Link

Video Link

On the way to the HCMH

Bicycle tat shop playing hardcore techno - only in VN!

Roadside lunch stop with...

...view of the famous HCMH.

Bahn mi-liciousness!

The perfect road for cycling!

Water in, water out!

The card the girls wrote to Johanna

Spicy chilli fruit slices

Tiny but good as far as snails go

Where's Wally?

Saturday, 23 November 2013

01/11/13 & 02/11/13 - Hanoi

After a long, loud and bumpy train journey trough pitch black Vietnamese country side and probably only a few hours of decent sleep, we arrived back in Hanoi at 5.20am. We got of the train and found our bikes already waiting for us on the platform. There were two other bikes which turned out belonged to two older guys who seemed to be touring Vietnam. We were two tired to start to have a chat with them and just wanted to get to our hotel.

Easier said then done. We forgot to load the route from Hanoi train station to our hotel to the GPS. The hotel was only about 1km from the train station, but we had absolutely no idea in which direction. We decided to sit down and have a coffee in a nearby café with WIFI. We got the coffee no problem, but the WIFI that was promised in big letters on the sign outside the café was non-existent. After we finished the coffee, Greg walked equipped with the laptop into three different nearby hotels to ask to use their WIFI whilst I guarded the bikes. After his third attempt he returned with printed directions from googlemaps, as all two hotels had problems with their WIFI and Greg couldn't connect our laptop in the last place either.

We got to the hotel about 2 hours after our train had arrived. Nice place though tucked away in one of the less busy side streets of Hanoi, but had to pay an extra 20USD for an early check-in. We would have had to wait until 2pm otherwise and we both couldn't face Hanoi without a shower and some breakfast. We were tired and thought about a nap but decided that it would be better to stay up, make the most of the day and have an early night instead. We did have a little break in the room though.

After a quick online search of things to do in Hanoi, Greg found a nearby pool which seemed like a good idea. We had breakfast and jumped on our bikes to find the pool which was about 5km from the hotel near the West lake. The area seemed to be quite upmarket and Westernised, the houses were more modern and newer looking than in other parts. We also saw a few Westerners who looked like they might live here.

The pool was very nice; an Olympic size pool, only slightly run-down and we paid only 30.000 dong each (90 pence), but strangely it was totally empty. No idea why. Maybe 30 degrees is too cold for the Vietnamese to swim? We spent a few hours there. I mainly stretched my tired muscles and floated in the water, whereas Greg actually found the energy to swim 1.5km. He must be running Duracell batteries!

The next day we woke up early and well rested after a long sleep. Greg went off to a nearby Gym on the top floor of a shopping mall. They offered gym and sauna for 15USD. A good deal and it seemed a good idea as Greg was keen to start using some different muscles other than his legs. In the meantime I was desperate for a few girly hours and treated myself to a manicure in the hotel spa and a shopping spree in the other levels of the shopping mall. Turned out to be very difficult though to find anything that was remotely my size. The girls here are absolutely tiny, no waist or hips it seems. I was successful in the end and bought myself a little summer dress.

We met up again after a few hours and decided to grab some lunch. We followed a Lonely planet recommendation for a restaurant not too far from the shopping mall and searched up and down one street for the address just to find out that the place was shut. Not sure if Lonely planet is always that up to date, despite the info being from 2012. I guess things change frequently here though. 

After lunch we had a wander around Hanoi. Crazy place! We sat down for some bia hoi (some kind of home-brewed lager for 15p per glass) which we hadn't tried the first time we came to Hanoi and walked to one of the main markets. It was great to just enjoyed the wonderfully chaotic atmosphere of the city. It somehow felt more real and less overwhelming after having been in Vietnam for a while.

Top Bombing

Bia Hoi - just like lager really

Streams of tourists get between the hotel and the tour bus

Couldn't catch a cold

The big market in Hanoi

Turtles for soup

Frogs getting skinned

Eels and Sturgeon

This guy does amazing real life paintings, from photos, he has one of himself painting himself from a photo... Wish we could have bought something

Hold your breath sonny