Week one back on the road down, along with 177 miles, in spite of the fact that where we sit now is only 56 miles from where we started. Georgie’s addition has made this feel like more of a holiday than a punishment, which it can feel like at times, so I happily rode 3 times the distance to take in Ha Long Bay (it is a World Heritage Site after all) and Cat Ba island. The chilling on the beach part is my forte, but the riding out of my way to get there isn’t.
Riding out of Hanoi was as hectic as expected but surprisingly manageable once you understand the concept: ride wherever the hell you want, just keep going in a straight line. Georgie did incredibly well considering it was her big Day 1 and she was an extra 3 feet long towing the trailer behind her. We navigated out of this small and friendly city having had a great introduction to Vietnam, and immediately hit the paddy field and bamboo hats that thoughts of the country conjure up. Ha Long bay was 2 days away at our gentle, introductory pace (gentle, that is, for me – Georgie was eager to carry on past the hotel at 42 miles but I wanted to get off my bike ASAP; the 7 weeks off (the longest I’ve been off a bike in the past 4 years) now seems like less of a wise move and my body is rebelling).
On arrival in Ha Long City, or in reality Bai Chay, which to the Lonely Planet writers is the same place but for us is a tiring 5 mile bridge crossing doubleback, we decided to do things independently rather than going for an organised 3 day trip, so the following day we kept everyone waiting whilst loading our 2 bikes and 8 bags and trailer onto the boat before cruising off into the bay for 4 hours, on the way to Cat Ba island. The scenery was expectedly spectacular and the notorious trash filling the water was less apparent, though clearly respect for the water isn’t on everyone’s minds (see image above).
The Vietnamese/tourist relationship can be strained at times. They’re enterprising people filling niches and servicing needs, but when there is money to be made their knack for telling you what you want to hear is second to none (giving truth to the ‘same same… but different’ SE Asian mantra). When booking the boat to the island, and handing over money, the distance from port to town was 15km, flat, along the highway. Upon arriving at the island, when buses were being booked, it had miraculously become 45km, and hilly. It turns out the latter was the closest to the truth. Following an hour or so of dirty tricks (locals telling the local, 15,000 dong/50p bus not to stop so we’d be forced to take the 700,000 dong/23 pound private one) and hardcore, righteous bartering courtesy of our newly made Israeli friend Assaf (no stereotypes please), 6 of us and 2 bikes piled in at a knock-down but still rip-off price of 2 pounds and 50p each. The road was long, mostly uphill, and certainly not a highway. If I ever meet that liar again I will be sure to let him know what a scoundrel he is.
This series of stresses behind us our new group of 6 had a great few days on Cat Ba island, sharing a hotel, hanging out on the beach together, eating together – to Assaf, Mick, Julita and Pavel, thanks for your company and I hope you all enjoy the rest of your trips.
I spent yet another day on a motorbike, this time a 125cc Yamaha scooter, the staple vehicle of Vietnam, riding through the stunning scenery of the National Park. Not the manliest of beasts, especially when twinned with a glittery fake Nike peaked helmet, but the feeling of cruising effortlessly at 25mph and zooming up hills was intoxicating. Next trip…
Fighting the feeling to stay on the island and spend another 7 weeks sitting on the beach, thanks as well to Georgie’s encouragement and eagerness to get more miles under her bum bag, we departed on the hydrofoil back to the mainland. Another 2 days of riding in ever increasing heat and intense sun has landed us up in Ninh Binh, a base to see Tam Coc – the Ha Long Bay of the Rice Paddies – and rest. This we did today, after a very tough afternoon of riding yesterday. Thinking I’d got yet another bout of food poisoning from the eggs/rice/fried insect/ice at lunch I felt increasingly ill and Georgie was leaving me in her wake. It seems bizarre but after spending weeks in the heat and the deserts through Turkey, Iran and India, the sun got the better of me in humid Vietnam and I had what I guess was heatstroke, to go nicely with my British tourist sunburn. Whether it’s the humidity or the nearing the equator I don’t know, but 42 degrees here is far more intense than the 42 degrees I’ve ridden in anywhere else.
This morning we spent 2 hours being rowed along a quiet river between limestone cliffs and through caves, a lovely way to counteract the previous day’s punishment.
Now Highway 1 is upon us and we follow it from here all the way down the coast to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as someone unfortunately renamed it. Our only concern in this very safe, easy country in which to travel is how long we can stomach the noodles and put up with the ridiculous worse-than-India beeping.