30 Aug Bicycling North on the Ho Chi Minh Highway
After another breakfast at the backpacker’s hangout across the street, we pack up our bikes and head out of town. Our plan is to continue bicycling North on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. After crossing the river at the edge of town, we find ourselves back on the Ho Chi Minh Highway, on which we will continue cycling north toward Hanoi. The view is beautiful: rugged carst mountains are flanking the highway and around each turn the scene becomes more stunning. A couple of children ride their bicycles into the same directions, they give our fully loaded bikes a few curious looks, smile and say “hello”.
One of the girls seems to be of the competitive kind and starts racing past us. Her friend struggles along behind our group and so we race along the road for several miles. Sometimes it seems the way to school is never-ending for the kids in Southeast Asia, but after a couple of villages and plenty of rolling hills later, the girl stops. She looks very confident and accomplished and still has the biggest smile on her face, but she decides to finally wait for her friend, which does not seem to be in a hurry to make it to class.
A few more miles down the road, our road widens. While we were staying in Phong Nha, we were told that there used to be a temporary runway for airplanes during the Vietnam war along our path. Later on in time, the dirt runway was paved to preserve it as a memorial or symbolic gesture for future generations. Today, we get to ride our steely steeds on the old runway and since it slopes downward, we almost feel like we are going to take off. Since the road is so wide and slopes, we really get a grandiose view of all the mountains around us. Although the scenery is phenomenal all around us, we still enjoy watching the water buffaloes and “cows-on-a-leash” right along our path.
Eventually, it is getting late and we stop at another small restaurant to have dinner. The children of the house are curious and check out our bikes. As we eat, the family asks where we come from and where we are going. We pull out our maps, which are pretty much a small atlas of Vietnam, and show them our route. The father seems impressed and tries to explain the map to his son and his son’s friend. There is also a brochure about the former DMZ zone in the atlas which is half written in Vietnamese and half in English. It looks like dad has a good sense of humor and likes to tease children. He hands the Vietnamese version to his young son, who apparently reads it out lout just fine, then he shows the English version to his son’s friend who tries to read it out loud, and can’t make any sense of the gibberish, while the whole family cracks up laughing. This goes back and forth several times. While we eat, the kids continue to check out the maps with such delight, that we feel bad taking the book away from them. They look so happy pointing at towns and areas, giggling, laughing, with wide eyes. They keep asking their parents about the maps who seem to tell them stories about places far away. We never knew a couple of maps could bring this much joy to children, so we decided to leave the maps with the children who look like they just got the best Christmas gift ever.
Before we leave, the family tells us about two guest houses down the road and how much they are supposed to be. We say our good-byes and keep going.
Unfortunately, the guesthouse they thought was a good place to stay, wanted way too much for their room, so we decide to keep going until we find another very quiet place along our path.
As we continue cycling the next day, our nice quiet mountain road comes to a forks, to the left the road leads into Laos…which is very tempting, to the right it remains the Ho Chi Minh Highway. We take a right. From now on, we have to share the quiet mountain road, with more trucks and buses heading in and out of Lao. It seems the regulations for how much you can load on a vehicle are even more lax in Lao. Most of the trucks struggle up and down the mountains, we see a couple of them stranded in the middle of the road causing traffic jams and the buses are filled to the gills with people and goods. Even the roofs are loaded down with bikes, scooters and what have you.
We stop at a few small family restaurants to either have lunch or take a break for ice coffee and tea. At one place, Ron gets to drink some home brewed whiskey with a trucker; and the owner is eager to sell us one of his backyard chickens for lunch. Although, we already picked out beef from the freezer to be cooked, he runs out back, hunts down a chicken and shows us proudly what he caught. We laugh, and gesture, that it is too big and point back at the freezer with the beef. Soon afterward, we have a delicious beef, veggie, and rice meal in front of us. Not only, does the trucker offer us some of his whiskey, for some reason he also seems to think that we are into drugs and gestures whether we want to shoot up something. We were told that this part of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, as well as the second Highway which runs closest to Lao are supposed to be somewhat dangerous because of drug trafficking between Lao and Vietnam. Luckily, this guy does not seem too serious and when we shake our heads and say no thank you, he is just happy to have another swig from the bottle with us.
After going over a few more mountains, we find our way to another town, where we stay the night. Many of the nice cars we see, have Lao license plates, which makes it seem that this is a major tourist area for Laotians. The first guesthouse we are checking for rooms at, must be the only place we have encountered, where we are told that there is no secure place to store our bikes and that we can not take them up in the room. So we leave and find another place in town. Over the last few days, the weather has slowly become colder and more and more rainy. Because of the nasty weather, we decide to take a down day in town and do some wandering through the local market, eat a few local pastries and food and check out what people sell for rain gear. Our rain pants have given up being water-proof way back in Europe already and while it was hot and steamy in the southern parts of South East Asia, we did not mind getting soaked. Up here though, it is getting a little bit chilly. We check the prices of a few of the ponchos people use on scooters and find that they are sold at about every store we encounter, so we decide to wait and buy one when we really need it. Instead I finally bought myself a rice patty hat.
The following morning, we continue our ride toward Hanoi. Today, we are going to leave the quiet Ho Chi Minh Highway and continue our bike ride on the busy Highway 1. Once we find our way to Minh Bin we look for another guesthouse away from the main road. The first guesthouse we find, we are offered a room up on the 4th floor. The place is dark and the stairs are steep and narrow. As we climb up the stairway to check out the room, we already know that we are not in the mood to carry all of our gear 4 flights up. We politely decline and head down the road to another place, where a friendly older women shows us another room on the second floor and a nice, secure area on the ground floor, where we can store most of our gear.
Across the road from the guesthouse is a small little restaurant, where we have dinner. Apparently, the owner has a party going on and lots of food is prepared for the big family. People gather in the back of the restaurant. Children gnaw on chicken feet like special treats. Copious amounts of food are placed on the tables and the family is having a great time.The father of the house shares some vodka with Ron while we wait for our food. We thought we were getting pretty good at ordering “com bo” (rice with beef), but for some reason the woman of the house does not quite understand what we want and we end up with a delicious fried tofu-vegetable meal with fried rice and egg. At least we did not order mystery meat by accident!
Afterward, we head to the tiny store next door to buy water and snacks. There are no prices on anything and our charades on “how much is this?” are not working too well either. Jessi holds a big bottle of water and so do I. We planned on having separate checks. Jessi pays first, which seems the normal price for a bottle that size. I go to pay and get a confused look by the owner after handing him a bigger bill. After a short moment, he goes to the cash register and gives me change. I get the same amount back that I just handed him, just in smaller bills. Apparently, Jessi paid for both of us and he thought I needed smaller bills. The honesty of people is remarkable, this man could have easily made us pay twice, without us even knowing. Instead, we got the best price ever. Even in the North of Vietnam, we are still wondering, what other travelers where talking about, when they said they had to haggle for everything!
After returning back to the guesthouse, Ron decides to sit down by the front desk to check out the internet. While he is down there, he gets to chat with the owners while the friendly woman of the house feeds him a bowl of potatoes and butter.
While we are packing up in the morning, we hear a knock on our door. We open, and see the owner standing there with a big smile and another bowl of potatoes and butter for breakfast.
Happy and with full bellies, we head downstairs to load up our bikes. As we push our bicycles outside we are greeted with more rain. We quickly decide to head back across the street to the small store and buy three cheap ponchos. Unfortunately, we don’t read Vietnamese and do not realize that they come in different sizes, adult and children. We grab the packages and head out. As it starts raining more, we try to put them on. As we wiggle them over our head and shoulders, Jessi’s rips right away. Ron’s sleeves bust apart and the poncho is way too short…apparently, we grabbed a couple of children ponchos, luckily they cost less than a couple of dollars and we did not lose much. We keep riding and stop at the next vendor to pick up a couple of good ponchos; they are big, heavy and very sturdy, and as soon as we become the proud owners of these nice ponchos, the rain stops and never returns….Murphey’s Law at its best!
So we continue our long ride into Hanoi. Before getting to the big city we decide to stop for dinner. Two men and the owner are happy to have us for guests. They don’t speak a word of English, but we are able to order our food and of course Ron has to have another shot of vodka with the men.
After a very long day of riding along the busy Highway, we finally make it into Hanoi just in time for nightfall.
It is quite exhilarating, entering the big city at dark. Scooters weave in and out of traffic, buses are everywhere and intermingle with bicyclists, trucks, and scooters. Traffic is the typical Southeast Asian harmonious chaos as we maneuver through traffic circles and intersections. Eventually, we find a quiet road which is leading us closer to where we plan on staying in Hanoi. We stop at a few guesthouses and finally find one, we like. It is off the beaten bath, down a narrow, little, but quiet alleyway…and it is close to a bike shop!