Jan 18 Ninh Binh – 95 km
At breakfast in Hanoi I decided at the last minute to change my moving on plans. I would follow Hwy # 1 south towards Ninh Binh, rather than head inland along the potentially harder route that would have more climbing and some poor roads. In part I wanted to see the Karst formations around Ninh Binh and in part I was still a bit worried about my knee.
I left my hotel at 7:30, pushed my bike into the river of motor bikes and quickly got up to motor bike speed. I made each turn correctly and about 2 km had me joining a big stream of bikes passing in front of the railway station on the main drag that would become Hwy 1. It was one-way at this point and the four-lane road probably held twelve lanes of bikes, with the odd car merging in where they could. For 20 km the density of commuters never eased. When we stopped for a red light a thousand bikes and a few cars and pedal bikes formed in ready formation. The countdown timer on the red light would get close to 0 and the whole phalanx would accelerate en-mass. By now the highway had formed and the in-coming traffic, at least as thick, was separated by a concrete abutment. I was keeping roughly up with the speed, passing some and being passed by those in a real rush as I tried to keep within a metre of the bike in front of me. The whole thing was exhilarating.
As we left Hanoi the commercial outlets along the road never really stopped but the density of traffic lightened considerably. I could now relax a bit keeping my own speed and space on the road. It was essentially two lanes each way with a two metre shoulder where the slow traffic could amble along. I had lots of bikes and the odd slow moving motor bike to pass. I let my speed drop from about 28-30 kph to around 24-26. At 40 km out I stopped and had drink and admired crafts people working on heavy highly carved furniture. I had also seen granite figures being carved, Karst rocks on display, among other specialties. As I was nearing Ninh Binh the Karst formations began to arising out of the grey mist. I had one more drink stop and rolled into Ninh Binh just after noon.
It took me a while to pick out a hotel from the many. I had a bowl of soup and a beer before staggering up to my room. It took a while to shower up and have a bit of a rest. There was a point during the day that I considered riding out to Tam Coc to do the boat tour, but it would have been a lost effort. I had ridden too hard for my physical condition. I spent much of the afternoon sleeping and stretching.
Jan 19 Thanh Hoa – 80 km
Off again at 7:30, I had a seven km ride to get to Tam Coc, billed as Halong Bay without the sea. Just before I got there I realized I had forgot my passport at the hotel. The practice here is to give the hotel your passport when you check in and get it back in the morning when you pay your bill. My hotel people had not seemed to have dealt with foreigners before and my habits were not yet formed and so we both missed that important step. I finished my ride to Tam Coc, where the boat tours begin, took two pictures and turned around to go back to the hotel. I now had a decision to make. Do I return to Tam Coc or head on down the road. Tam Coc would take at least 3 hours and I did want to keep on going down the road. In the end I decided that this was one of the few things along the way that I had wanted to see. So, it took 21 km of riding to get to Tam Coc, 7 km away from where I spent the night.
It cost me just under $20 to pay the entry fee into the park and the 1 ½ hour ride in the flat bottom boat into the Karst formations. My paddler was a 65 year old woman. She babbled away much of the time. Some seemed to be directed at me and I tried to respond but most of the talking was with the other paddlers. There were other boats with one, two, or three clients coming and going. The paddlers were mostly women but quite a few were men; they ranged in age from the teens to possibly 80 years old. They were so adept at paddling they could even text away on the cells while paddling. About half the time they paddled with their legs. The Karst formations and setting was incredible but the paddlers may have been equally of interest to me. We went through three tunnels going out and then turned around and returned the same way. I saw some birds and one goat way up on the cliff faces. Apparently there are kingfishers here but I was not so lucky. It was well worth the stop.
I had left my bike with my panniers at a restaurant near the boat launch and had a nice lunch when I returned. I considered checking into a hotel and spending the afternoon in the region on my bike, but I decided to get a few kms down the road instead. I rode on another 2 ½ hours to get to Thanh Hoa, where the hotel I checked into was down a notch or two. It still had an ensuite bath with towel, shampoo and things but only cost $10.
For dinner at this place all they had seemed to have was eel soup. I had it for dinner and for breakfast.
Jan 20 Vinh – 140 km
Not much on this day, just grinding away down the road. It has been very grey and overcast since I left Hanoi. This makes the temperature great, around 20 C, but the landscapes are uninspiring. My speed along the road continues in the 23-27 range depending upon wind direction. When passing through towns the number of motor bikes increases and the big trucks and buses seem to find a by-pass that I don’t always notice. The riding is pretty easy and not stressful very often. I need to watch for people shooting out from a side street. I have a theory that when they see a bike coming along they think they can beat me but since I am moving faster than most bikes that doesn’t hold and I don’t usually give way. I also need to watch for people coming towards me in the shoulder lane. Any of the vehicles I share the road with may decide to fire down the shoulder the wrong way. When I tire and my head drops a bit in fatigue these characters can appear awfully quickly. But mostly, other than my poor physical conditioning, I am quite enjoying the whole thing.
I have been riding through the towns I am stopping in, getting to the far side before I pick a hotel, often up to ten kms. There are many hotels to choose from; the western text makes it easy for me to pick places to eat and sleep. I am learning to read Vietnamese much faster than speaking. The six tones are killing me. There is almost nothing that I say that anyone understands. My Vinh hotel looked a bit up grade, but I couldn’t get the hot water working and I could only get dinner in my room, which I don’t like.
Jan 21 Ky Anh – 110 km
I wanted an easier day today and so I stopped for drinks more frequently and tried to ride a little slower. Still, when I picked out a hotel 10 km past Ky Anh it was only 1:30.
At my second drink stop I joined four young people who were waiting for an event to begin. They were dressed quite nicely and seemed more like city kids, possibly from Vinh. We had the normal questions. How old, how tall, where from and so on. One of the gorgeous young women had to have a picture of us snuggling. Possibly she has a beauty and the beast interest. I am sure she had to rush right home to wash my sweat off her impeccable outfit.
At my mid-day Pho Bo, just down the road from where I am now, the whole family running the restaurant got into the act. They tried my bike, took pictures with my camera, read my guide book and map. One guy even came over with the Brooks web site to show me a picture of my Brooks saddle. Two delightful interludes on this still grey drab day.
I wanted to get about twenty kms past Ky Anh before stopping, but I came upon this strip of hotels where normally I wouldn’t see so many. I had been worried a bit as the next major town is too long off. So I checked into one of them. It is fairly low keyed and so I didn’t expect much. When I asked about food the woman took me out and pointed to the back of the parking lot. I entered a lovely restaurant hanging out over a peaceful lake. Away from the noise of the highway I had a couple of beers in the most peacefully place I have found. And now I have just had a high end dinner. I love the pho bo and bun bo and even the eel soup, but something a little different is nice. And the day has ended without me falling into bed in deep fatigue. A great day.
Jan 22 – 116 km
I was now just riding along, enjoying the road side activity. The views were basically always the same. Towns stretched along the highway and the grey skies rising on all sides. I pushed relatively hard, keeping an eye on my distance or the time. I had to be careful to stop often enough that I did not create fatigue that took so long to over- come. I would stop to have a cool drink. Most places did not use refrigerators but would give you a glass with ice. Initially I would not use this as ice in many eastern countries would be created from un-treated water. After a while, as I gained some confidence in the practices along the road I started to use the ice. I also eat the greens that at one time was also a problem. I have not suffered yet.
I have begun to enjoy the Vietnamese coffee. It is brewed very strong and often served with a thick condensed milk. Usually it is cold, but sometimes served in a tin, filled with coffee grounds and a small amount of water that drips into a glass. I stopped on this day at a nice looking roadside coffee house with wood furniture and plants creeping into the trellises overhead. This was the best of the coffees that I have had so far. The coffee was served in a little pottery cup sitting on a pottery stand over a candle. I waited until the coffee was warmed and then stirred in the cream. As I was leaving the wife of the owner appeared on her motor bike with her eleven year old son. She was a teacher and his favourite school subject was English. So we had a good conversation exhausting his vocabulary. He wants to come to Canada. I gave him a card. Who knows.
On this days I was just trying to split the distance remaining to Hue. I had gone about 15 km without seeing a guest house and so I was getting a bit worried. But finally a few appeared and I chose one that was quite good. I had a nice rest before going down the two flights to visit with the man of the house while his wife made me a very nice dinner. She served it in the foyer as there was no dining area.
Jan 23 Hue – 135 km
This would be my sixth day of pretty hard riding and I was so looking forward to getting to Hue, where I would take some time off. In the morning I woke to pounding rain. I suited up and headed off into it. Once away from the guest house it didn’t seem as bad. My rain coat is pretty good and I was able to ride without feeling cold, usually the worst part of a hard rain. It also helped that a pretty good wind was driving me along 3-4 kph faster than normal. I had a breakfast Pho Bo at 27 km, a not very good cold coffee at 67 km, a second meal at 100 km. I was covered in road grit. The rain flushes mud onto the road and so the front of my tights, all the way up to my jacket and the back of my reflective vest was brown rather than yellow. Even my helmet was covered in grit. Naturally my panniers and bike were possibly worse.
I had calculated that 123 km would get me to Hue, where I had a reservation in a guest house recommended in my Rough Guide. But suddenly the road signs seemed to add 10 km to the distances. I guess the signs that had occurred for the last number of days were to the Hue Township or something. Now they were indicating the city. Thankfully the wind had kept up all day and so I sailed along consuming less effort than normal. Once into Hue, in the tourist area the guest house did not appear easily. Hue Nino, is a small guesthouse down a little alley that I found only with directions from locals. The rain was if anything even worse than during the day, and so I imagine I was quite a picture pulling up covered in grit. A young guy came out to help me. He took my panniers over to a tap and washed them down and then took command of my bike saying that he would wash that down as well. A young girl took my dripping bags into the bathroom of my room and I followed, where I stripped all my clothes off and threw them in the tub. Some time later I came out of my room and was given a hot coffee and a dish of mangoes. This is a lovely place to tour Hue from. Now if only it would stop raining. I am anguishing about what I should do as it is expected to rain hard for quite a few days.