The Hungarian Puszta

Sept 17-21, The Hungarian Puszta

Standing between Budapest and Romania is the Hungarian Puszta, the largest prairie in Europe.  My route across the puszta will take me through Hungary’s oldest and possibly largest National Park, Hortobagyi.  After feeling quite constrained by the Danube Cycle Path, I was particularly excited to be crafting my own route, in no small part to the Hungarian road atlas geared for cyclists I had bought in Budapest.

Budapest to Jaszbereny

It took about 10 minutes to cycle from the hostel to the train station, 20 minutes to find the right ticket booth and get my ticket to Isazeg, and then the scary 40 minutes of trying to ensure I found the right platform and train before it left.  I never did figure out the signage system.  Guessed wrong twice, even getting help hefting my bike onto the train headed for Munich.  I just stumbled on the right train, on platform 12 but never did figure out where the signs said so.

Once on, the train felt just like Germany.  Very modern, pulled out precisely at 9:35 as scheduled with in car signage for each station along the way. I was only on for 30 minutes, just to get me out of Budapest onto my chosen bike route.  Isazeg was much smaller than I had imagined. It was spattering when I got off the car, I guessed which way to go, finding a coffee shop, which I now realize was real lucky on this Sunday.  It was the last one I found on that day. It was 10:30 before I had my coffee and two different pastries and got my load arranged for possible wet riding.  It was still just spattering and so I headed off.  The big test was now how good my new cycle road atlas was going to be at picking out a good route and then helping me stick to it.

It started to rain immediately, but I just kept going.  The road was a little hilly but pretty quiet.  I was kind of expecting, from my atlas legend, either a shoulder or a marked bike lane; neither. It was 13 km to the first town and it rained all the way, but I was on my way and going well and well rested.   I had a turn at the first town and it happened exactly as the atlas indicated, and the rain stopped.  At each town I passed I was on the lookout for a coffee or pastry shop, nothing.  The cycling was really enjoyable and my confidence in my atlas grew as I got on to ever smaller roads.  The puszta was ever in evidence but usually I was buffered by trees and bush, and with it frequent bird song to add to my enjoyment, not that any were known to me.

Approaching Jaszberney, the largest town on this day, it started to rain again.  I was just under 60 km, and had thoughts of continuing but the rain cleared that thought.  Once again, no restaurants, no coffee shops no hotels as I rode towards the centre.  Not even sure where the town centre was I stopped at a crowd of people taking tents down, obviously some event, maybe shutting down early.  I asked for panzio, hotel, bed, all my terms.  In the rain the communication was tough and so one guy just indicated I should follow him.  About ten blocks later he stopped outside a fairly big hotel, but the price, no registration, was good.  But the restaurant was fully involved in a wedding.

I walked back into what I perceived to be the town and again with help from a friendly soul I was able to get a couple of beer, a goulash, coffee and more sweets and to kill a few hours before going back to an early night.

Jaszbereny to Tiszafured

It cleared overnight, now sunny and cold, I headed off after a good hotel breakfast.  Never on busy roads, my route took me zig-zagging across the puszta again accompanied primarily by birds.  It was Monday so the towns were a bit busier and so I could have found a place if I had needed one but I just kept trucking, greatly enjoying quiet road riding compared to the busy often convoluted bike route riding of the Danube.  One or two of the roads were rough and pot-holed but only dropped my speed to 20-22 range.  There was no appreciable wind on this sunny soon to be warm day.

Around about the 55 km point I did run onto the Tisza river and with it EV11, I think the Euro-Velo route that connects the former Iron curtain countries.  My time on EV11 lasted most of the rest of the day, about 50 kms and it was always on a paved trail on top of the berm along the Tisza.  A reward on this leg was riding along but unable to photograph some buzzards.  Lunch during this segment was another nice soup and a citroen/beer drink that was thirst quenching.

At the point I was to leave the Tisza, still only about 2:30, but over 100km so I stopped at a campground with a likely looking hotel/restaurant close by.  I will camp when it looks sunny and is not too cold.  The campground was also a boating concession.  By the time I set up camp, had my beer and early supper it was cold and dark and so I crawled into my tent at about 7:00. One downside of camping at this time of year.

Tiszafured to Hortobagy

After a number of night calls, when I had to get up at 5:00 I convinced myself that the heavy wind that had hit was going to bring rain.  Still dark out I broke camp.  By 6:00 the sunrise showed no rain, I  rode into town where I found coffee and yoghurt.  So I was on the road early and only had 40 km to Hortobagyi, where I hoped to see some birds.  Luckily it was to be a short day as the wind that woke me was straight out of the east.  I rarely got above 20 kph and was pretty spent when I pulled into Hortotbagyi.  The hotel that I found was 2 km down the road but I was able to get in early and was back by 10:30 looking for birds.  The big destination turned out to be 7 kms back down the way I came by a gravel bike path.  I saw a big eagle sized bird and lots of crows and sparrow like birds but never did find the area where the birds are.  After riding around for another 20 kms I was tired of fighting the wind.  Back in town I signed up for a $4 wild animal safari which turned out to be a bus ride out to a seedy zoo.  I did see one of the big Hungarian cattle that this area was built on.

I had a second meal at the 200 plus year old Hortobagyi Csarda, from the years when the Inns were spaced about a day’s travel apart.  What I missed in not finding birds I gained in finding about the Hungarian “cowboy” history.  Hortobagyi seems to be an immense grassland reserve amidst the crops that surround it.  I believe a large part of the park is preserve the ages old cattle environment that has been in place for the hundreds of years since the Magyar came.  The Csardas, cattle and big cattle farms are part of this history.  Next day, on my way I saw some real examples of the cattle, a modern cattle man, the farms and every 15 km an old Csarda still in use.

Pusta Cattlemen

Sculpture & Hortobagyi Csarda

As I wander across the Puszta (we need a similar term for our prairie), spending about 4-5 hours spinning away and 19 hours eating, sleeping, or filling time, it occurs to me to wonder what I am doing out here.   There is no doubt that the exercise is beneficial above and beyond what I do when at home.  But I could get the equivalent value in a rigorous hour or two not even every day.  The planning and plotting is also of value, but a good chess game every day could fill in that need.   I meet some new people, but particularly away from the tourist stream there is little scintillating dialogue.  Perhaps, as I experienced last year in Hanoi, I should find a bar in Calgary where travellers congregate and appear open to conversation.  That one is a little tough to visualize.  I am seeing a new place, feeling a small part of the pulse of that place. Here on the ground, I think that the research that has gone into the trip, this trip in this case is an essential part of what I am doing.  There is no way that I would have or could have read with retention what has happened in this part of the world without having the trip ahead of me.  Solitary cycling is an activity for solitary people.  It sounds trite to say, but what it means as the kms click by, as I sit alone in a nice restaurant enjoying my beer and meal, as I sit writing to myself is that I feel an empathy for place and people not possible if I was to stay in Calgary working out in the gym and reading.   Confirming and clarifying my feeling of a place and people as I have gleaned from the historians and travellers who have gone ahead fills me as I trudge on.  As I cycle on down the road onto the next place I leave with a satisfaction of having been and felt maybe superficially but for a solitary soul it is good.

So, leaving Hortobagyi my birding experience sucked but my feeling for the history and soul of the puszta is great.

Hortobagyi to Nyirbator

Another misty day as I headed on down the road.  As I finished riding out of the grasslands of Hortobagyi back into cropland I was particularly happy to get some shots of the cattle life now more significant than before my visit.

I headed on into Debrecen, Hungary’s third city, with no real interest in stopping.  I got through town with no trouble only to have my rack fail.  With the larger tires I am glad to have on this trip Kham, at Bow cycle installed some extenders.  One side failed near Budapest, now the other side failed.  It took 45 minutes to bend and jigger things so I had about ½ cm of tire clearance.  Still close to Debrecen I had a chance to head back in to buy a new rack or smaller tires.  I chose to carry on.  Things seemed ok and as if to sign that I was doing the right thing probably the nicest roadside eatery of my trip so far appeared.

Not only that, but the crumby road side bike trail that had moved me onto the moderately busy road all of a sudden became a modern two lane separate bike road.  This treat disappeared in the towns but then picked up again out of town.  I followed this pattern most of the way to Romania.

Nyirbator to Satu Mare, Romania

I had negotiated breakfast at my panzio and so at 7:30 I came down to a 67 year old man who had made me an omelet and who proceeded to have a conversation with me through his smart phone.  He would speak into it in Hungarian and written English would appear.  I would reply in English and written Hungarian would appear.  Along the way we had tea, a special Tokay wine, and a final expresso.  Some of the conversation was a little mysterious.  In response to my estimate that my bike trip would be between 3 and 4000 kms he said that he was going on a bike (motorcycle?) trip of 18,000 kms to celebrate Satanism.  He was particularly emphatic that I understand what he meant.  I lied.

My cycle atlas lead me onto a backroads route towards Satu Mare, which is a large city very near the Hungarian border.  I did not want to ride the busy highway.  So I had a pleasant ride, early in the mist along some quiet roads.   Unfortunately the wind was fighting me again and it was draining my energy faster than normal.  On one section of berm riding I watched a buzzard souring in the wind.  Somehow I lost my way and ended up beside the main road, only to find the separate bike road system which took me into Csenger a border town where I spent the last of my Hungarian Florints on a nice lunch.

The road into Csenger took me away from the highway into Romania, and not wanting to backtrack I found what my atlas seemed to indicate as a bike crossing.  I found my way up onto a nice berm with paved road.  There were no others around but I carried on.  Now granted that there were quite a few signs in languages that didn’t communicate to me, and at one point there was a dead end sign on the road.  Dead end signs though don’t always apply to bikes.  15 or 20 minutes along the berm there were some bars across the berm which were not very hard to get around.  At this point I hoped to be in Romania and distant church steeples indicated there were some towns that I could possibly find my way into from the berm.

Illegal Berm Riding in Romania

And then there was a small white car with uniformed people waiting for me.  The woman started very sternly speaking in one of those languages that I am not conversant in.  I replied by smiling and saying hello, usually very persuasive strategies.  The man asked for my papers.  We had a nice 15 minute conversation during which I was prompted to reveal my whole trip plan and why an old Canadian was entering Romania illegally.  They explained that the borderless EU world didn’t really apply to Romania.  The man had a conversation with someone on his car phone.  The very nice young woman finally shook her head and pointed on down the berm and told me to have a nice visit.

So I continued on down the berm, ultimately into the centre of Satu Mare where I flailed around for an hour to find the place I had booked.  The tough long day convinced me that I needed a day’s break in Satu Mare to get my act together for Romania.    Hungary had been great, hopefully Romania will be as fulfilling.





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Sept 13-17, Budapest

Coming down the Danube a dramatic view of Budapest first unfolds from the Buda looking across the river to Pest and the Parliament buildings. 

Crossing the river on one of its six or so bridges I floundered around to find my booked hostel, on the second floor above the very touristy Vaci Usta, but only reveals itself if you happen the know the address, #23

Budapest is one of the city destinations on this trip, perhaps the most important one for me.  It comes when I need a bit of a mental and physical break from my cycling, and it is one of those cities that has allure for me. My first morning found me in the National museum, where I hoped to fill in a few gaps in my understanding of Hungarian history.  The Magyars, found their way into Europe from middle Asia around the 8th century.  Hungary, as a name evolved from the Huns who preceded them but who retreated back into Asia and there is no relationship between the Magyars and the Huns.  Magyarorszag is the Hungarian name for their country. 

Ethnically the Magyars have created a gap in the Slavic world of Slovakia, The Czech Republic, The Ukraine and others to the north and Bulgaria to the south. Mediterranean Romanians form a rough eastern border. Of course the European diaspora of the last 1000 years has greatly stirred the pot, but these borders are still very important. 

It is interesting to me that the Hungarians consider the nation began around 1000 with its conversion to Christianity by its king and patron Saint Stephen (Istvan).  The same thing happened in Norway at the same time by its king and patron saint Olav.   Something about the time I guess and wonder how prevalent this was around Europe at that time.

The Magyar position in central Europe has continually been under pressure from outside.  At one time the Hungarian empire spread much more widely but with pressure back and forth from the Ottomans from the south east, the Hapsburgs from Austria, and Russians from the North West.  German settlements were encouraged to help repel these pressures.  Hapsburg control in Hungary weakened in 1948 with a rebellion attempt but lead to the Austro-Hungary Empire that lasted until WWI.

The Trianon Treaty in 1920 hit Hungary Hard.  Having chosen the wrong side in WWI Hungary lost 2/3 of its territory, ½ of its people and 1/3 of ethnic Hungarians.  Hungary resisted getting into WWII for a while but internal factors and the possibility of getting some of its losses back had them again entering the war on the wrong side.  Today 10 million Magyar live in Hungary, 5 million outside Hungary.

St. Stephens

Budapest today is a wonderful place to walk around, which is largely what I did.  Many of its streets are car free and the baroque architecture (for me, anything ornate), mostly from the late 19th century is candy to the eyes.  It is very much of a tourist city and so it is hard to pick out who would be local and who not.  The modern parliament, most tourist facilities and the tourist centric activity emanate in Pest, the part of the city on the east bank of the Danube.  Buda, the more traditional capital is a city of hills.  Buda Castle and many of the upscale living quarters are on the west bank.  I spent the better part of one day walking those hills, and when I wanted a thermal bath I chose one in Buda. 

The Central Market

Buda Castle

Street Happenings

Electic Car

Beer Can Sculpture

In searching out my next moves I was sent from a bike shop to a specific book store where I found a cycle atlas for Hungary from which I have created my path out of Budapest and out to the eastern part of the country.  My main option had been to stay on the Danube following it south into Serbia and onwards.  That option is off for now, and hopefully by Sunday night I will be well on my way into the Hungarian Puszta.

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Photos from Frankfurt to Budapest

Leaving Frankfurt by Train

The Steinerne Brucke in Regensburg

Danube Travel Choice – Bike  or Boat

Rad Weg (Cycle Path)

Birds on the  Danube


Coffee and Strudel

In Austria


Wachau Wine District

Egon Sheile

Berm Cycling

Sturovos from Esztergom

Last Ferry before Budapest

Budapest – Hungarian Parliament Buiildiings

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To Vienna

Sept 2 – 9, 2017 Frankfurt to Vienna

(no photos yet)

Ringing their door bell at 7:00, I woke my Frankfurt Warm Showers hosts, Anne and Jan Schwarz, a bit too early on this Saturday morning.  They were expecting me but I am sure they still would have enjoyed another or hour or so of rest.  Anne commutes to Berlin every week and so must be thankful for some extra sleep time on the weekends.  Anne and Jan are not yet experienced bike travelers but have motor biked from Cape Town to Germany and have hosted other bike travelers.

In my sleep deprived stupor it took twice as long to get my bike together as normal and then Jan lead me to a close train station where I purchased my train ticket to Regensburg.  He then sent me to the central station to look for a sim card for my phone, and I found one that would work but naturally I didn’t bring my passport.  The sim card has still not been purchased.

Back at the apartment I dozed for a few hours; Anne and Jan were out for the night.  I woke about 11:00 and then tossed and turned, read a bit and fretted about imagined problems until just before I had to be up.

Jan made me a bit of breakfast and I was the station about 7:20.  My first train arrived exactly at 7:35 as scheduled.  Each of two other trains were as prompt.  Each train was different, but all were immaculate, quiet and fairly fast.  It took me five hours to get to Regensburg, about three underway.  Each got a bit busier as the day wore on, and at each station I had to get my bike down off of the arrival platform and up onto the departure platform.  I carried the bike up and down the first two until I discovered elevators were at the far end of the platforms.  The cars that had bike space had a bike painted on the outside.  Fast trains do not have these cars.

In Regensburg I fiddled around a bit finally finding the Danube and the 900 year old “Steinere Bruke” that took me across it for the first time.  I needed something to eat but left it too late and so had to use a McDonalds on the outskirts.  It was now after 2:00, but I had hopes of getting part way down the river before I ran out of gas.  Mostly the “rad weg” (cycle path) followed the river and so it was not hard initially to stay on route.  Mostly the trail was paved, but I had about 10 km of nice gravel.  The trail would be on the berm beside the river or below it sometime wandering off through the fields.  I saw quite a few tour boats right from the beginning. 

At the start of trips I often run on excess adrenalin.  It only took me an hour to catch two cyclists who were ahead of me when I stopped to eat at McDonalds.  I pulled into Straubing, my most ambitious target for the afternoon about 5:00 as it started to rain.  Sunday, the information centre closed; the hostel apparently terminated; the first hotel I asked at quoted me 99 Euros, more than twice my hope.  The hotelier took in my dripping bedraggled state and phoned around and got me into a Gasthof for 56. 

Showered, beered, fed and the eye lids gave up on me.  But I was wide awake at 1:00 so again I tossed awhile and then read for a few hours before getting an hour or two before breakfast.

The second day was very hard.  I got out of Straubing on the wrong track and it kept going wrong.  It was overcast all morning and again I had some gravel roads, whether on course or not I will never know.  I had a nice Goulash at a little kiosk on a part of the route that was car free.  I was passing about 4 or 5 people an hour at this point, mostly going the same direction.  Two young one-pannier riders actually caught and passed me.  Silly to be going so fast.  After yesterday’s experiences with route finding (good) and accommodation (poor) I had made a hostel booking at Passau and so that was my target. Going through two small cities I lost a lot of time looking for the route signs and missed eating or drinking.  For a while I was on a busy road, obviously off track. Finally as I got into the Passau outskirts I was now pretty punchy and so hit a road bump too hard and my rack, too heavily loaded, collapsed on my wheel.  In Passau I found that the hostel is in the old castle, lovely.  But it is at the top of a long, steep, cobbled road, horrors. It took all my remaining energy to push my load up.  I had to have a beer and a rest before I could drag my stuff up two more flights to my room. 

Not all is bad.  The ride is wonderful, the miles of quiet tree lined trails soothing.  The Danube started big and gets bigger with every new river joining it.  I have seen swans, sea gulls, ducks, crows, rooks, many little flitters I can’t identify.  I am not going into every advertised attraction, but I didn’t plan to.  I the meanwhile the jet lag is killing me

Passau is where most people begin their cycle trip.  They will rent their bikes, all hotels will be booked and they will ride to Vienna in 5 or 6 days.  The trails are well developed almost the whole way on both sides of the river.  I have seen all manner of people doing the ride.  Please, if you have gained a little weight and your old team logoed spandex was bought some years ago, don’t wear it.  The 100+ page cycle-path description is filled with useful information.  One surprising note is the three or four pages listing e-bike stations, where you can charge up during the day.  Perhaps 40% of the now 100s of cyclists I am seeing ride rented e-bikes.   And the vast majority wear appropriate clothing. 

The days unfolded.  I was on both north and south side, crossing by bridge, on dams but mostly on little bike ferries.  The paths were mostly pretty quiet but only periodically for a few kms were they completely car free.  This would happen when the route went through a park or protected area.  But when we were on roads there would be at least 10 times as many bikes as cars.  It sound bike busy but I was often alone, particularly early.  I would stop mid-morning for coffee and strudel.  I had some good meals, mostly soup, and some hit and miss other things because I didn’t know what I was getting.

My next night after Passau I tried to get a place in Linz.  I was again quoted 90 E and up so I headed on down the road and in a much smaller place I found a Gasthof for 30 E.  Stay away from big places.  Another poor sleep but a bit better. 

My second day I promised myself I would not go past Melk and I found a 36 E place right away.  But I got ripped off for a 6E coffee in the main square.  I have been paying no more than 2 E.  Stay away from tourist squares. 

Third day out of Passau and Vienna is only 120 km, but I don’t want to get stuck coming into a big city with no reservations so I will stop early.  I can’t get a sim card and the wifi connections are not working for me.  I think the world is moving to data cell connections.  The morning was slow but lovely.  Riding the north side I went through and area called Wachau, a wine area.  The route was on quiet roads connecting little towns or wine estates every 4 or 5 km; a lot of slowing down and dodging people on wine tours.  A good thing I’m not going far.  I stopped for a coffee about 11:00 but should have had wine in the middle of this richness.  A glass of wine is half that of a small coffee as well.  I had tasted both red and white grapes from the side of the road and need try the wine.

Back on the south side the path again enters quiet forests or river side berms where I cranked it up a notch.  Lunch was a bit more upscale than normal and so I had a glass of white wine with my chicken and mushroom spaghetti. 

My day’s stop was at Tulun, about 30 km from Vienna, and I found a campground that advertised wifi, which also did not work.  I think the days wore me down a bit and I just started to feel terrible.  When the wifi connected for me I reserved two nights in Vienna.  Expensive, but I need a short day and a longer rest.

The hotel has been great; two nights in one place has helped.  I have suffered stomach issues as well and much of my time here in Vienna has been in bed.  Today I got to the Leopold museum where I got a better appreciation of Gustav Klimpt and Egon Shiel.  The day is lovely and all of Vienna is out walking.  Unfortunately my energy level didn’t take me far.

Tomorrow I will move on down the line towards Bratislava, which is an easy day’s ride.  We will see how I feel and where I will get. 

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Into South East Europe

It has been a year and a half since posting travel experiences on this site.  I am sorry for that and have no excuses.  In the months that have slipped by I have hiked in Iceland and Norway that should have been shared.  There have also been numerous birding trips to new destinations resulting in a host of new birds in my repository, some of which are interesting enough to share.  But, that is water under the bridge and I am committed to try again.

My first foray into Eastern Europe, as a cyclist, was on the back end of my trip around the Baltic in 2004.  Leaving Scandinavia I fought the wind and rain from St Petersburg out of Russia through Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Kalingrad, Poland and East Germany on my way to Copenhagen and the end of that adventure.  As challenging as the cycling was tasting a less modernized and unhurried Europe left me with a hunger for more.  I’m not sure why a return did not make its way to the top of my travel priorities before now but at last I have booked a return.  This time I will be heading for the confusion of countries in the south east part of Europe.  I am flying into Frankfurt on Sept 1 returning 60 days later.

One of my favourite travel writers, Patrick Leigh Fermor, as an eighteen year old in 1933 struck out from Britain to walk to Constantinople, largely following the Rhine and Danube Rivers.  It took him a year and a half to get there and a further 30 years to write the first of three books reliving his experiences and observations of an unsettled Europe between the two world wars.  To some extent I will be cycling over Fermor’s steps now 85 years erased. It is not only his foot-prints that have been eliminated by time and happenings.  I have little expectation of being hosted by Hapsburg nobles or ambling along quiet roads beside a wild Danube as he experienced.  WWII, the Soviet occupation, multiple power dams and the modern world has dealt the Europe of old a blow. In search of the remains of a quieter world I will be heading for some of the more remote parts of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, …  It will be impossible to resist Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Bucharest,… but the quiet roads call more urgently. 

I will likely start this adventure by hopping a train from Frankfurt to Regensburg on the Danube.  The Danube Cyclepath is one of the popular car free cycle destinations in Europe.  As I have never been successful in sticking with a cycle path for long this time I am going to attempt to deal with my impatience with slow routes and convoluted navigation by following the Cyclepath , possibly as far as Budapest, about 1000 km.  My inclination, as I flit from maps to books to the internet here in Calgary, is to leave the Danube in Budapest to begin a wander through Hungary into northern Romania finally reconnecting with the Danube at its Delta on the Black Sea.   If that works out I will turn and head up the Danube this time, possibly into Bulgaria, Serbia or wherever.  At some point I know I will run out of time; I needed four not two months to taste SE Europe even superficially.  So I will likely need to bus and train back to Frankfurt at some point. 

Along the way I am expecting to savour the regional food, beer and wine.  After all, one of the reasons for leaving my lethargic life in Calgary to travel by bike is to be able to eat and drink whatever I want.  I expect to tent a little, use homestays, hostels and small inns by preference.  I will touch on a few birding destinations, hopefully catching some of the fall migration.  Alas, since buying a nice birding lens a few years ago I have been spoiled for bird photography with smaller lenses.  But my big one is just a bit too bulky, heavy for long bike rides.  However I do hope to get some nice travel pictures and will have to be happy with that.  Fitting in some day hikes is also on my wish list.  Hopefully I will not get in such a rush that I forego that pleasure.

I leave a week today to spend a night with a “warm showers” host in Frankfurt so if I am diligent with my communications job I will do a further update in a couple of weeks… ‘til then.


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Feb 20 to Mar 1, Hanoi

During this time I was in Hanoi for six days, with trips to Halong Bay and Sapa interspersed.  In all I will have spent eight nights in Hanoi and have come to really enjoy the city.  One big benefit for me is that the weather has been cool, sometimes almost cold. 

I have headed off on my bike on three of those day and on those rides I went out from the central part of town.  The nicest ride was around West Lake that is said to be 17 km, most of on quiet car free roads.  On that same day I headed in another direction looking for a museum but never did find it which meant that I had a long meander through a range of different kinds of districts unlike anything that you see in the tourist frequented areas.  Another day I rode over the oldest bridge circa 1900 over the Red River.  Now cars are not allowed; train tracks run down the middle with a motorcycle lane on each side.  On one of my rides I stopped to remove my jacket which meant removing my camera bag containing my passport and wallet.  I rode off without the bag but stopped at the end of the block to have a look at my street map and a lady came running up with my bag.  Very scary but with the side benefits of making me more attentive to what I am doing and making me feel even better about Vietnamese.

Red River retaining wall

Red River retaining wall


Along West Lake

Along West Lake

West Lake

West Lake

Mostly though I walk the streets.  The Old Town has 36 market streets.  They are named Hang ___, with the Hang meaning roughly market and then the word following was the name of the goods traditionally found on that street.  That is why the street names change every couple of blocks. The goods now found on the streets is rarely the same but you still find groupings.  There are streets where fifteen shops sell glasses, another might be where you get tin boxes made and another will be wood products and so on.  Tourist stuff can be found interspersed throughout.  As I head out for a walk I purposely choose different routes to sample these different streets. 

Modern Wiring

Modern Wiring



Drinking Bia Hoi

Drinking Bia Hoi

Hoan Kiem

Hoan Kiem

DSC_4479 DSC_4475 DSC_4470 DSC_4456 DSC_4450

One interesting activity here is drinking Bia Hoi, fresh beer.  It is served and drunk almost on the day it is made, always at street vendor places. I costs between 30 and 60 cents, about a third of normal beer.  One day I sat with a doctor having Bia Hoi.  He comes to visit with tourists to practice English.

I have immensely enjoyed staying at the Rendezvous Hotel.  They have arranged all of my forays and I have returned to stay here in four different short segments always feeling like I am coming home.  What makes it so nice is that everyone knows who I am and we talk about all sorts of things.  I have helped some of the young ones who are working on their English and they help me by giving suggestions for my travels. 

On Hoan Kiem Lake

On Hoan Kiem Lake

Rendezvous Hotel

Rendezvous Hotel

Rendezvous Staff

Rendezvous Staff

In all my trip to Vietnam has exceeded all expectations.  What an ideal time to visit this country.  Things have progressed significantly since I was here twenty years ago, but no one is jaded by an overabundance of tourists.  My knee problems have put a damper on some of the things I wanted to do, but que cera cera.  I leave tonight in a couple of hours.

All until next trip, Ken 

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Feb 26,27 Sapa

A taxi brought me to the Train Station at 7:00 for the night train to Lao Cai.  A bit nicer than the soft sleeper from Ho Chi Minh.  I had a full complement of sleeping companions and after some fussing around everyone was in bed.  The American girl and her Spanish boyfriend slept together on the narrow bunk, rather than up down.  It must be nice to be so young, supple and in love.  The narrow bunks are just wide enough for me.  Perhaps with a tiny Viet bt these two were full sized caucasians.   I was on my way north to near the Chinese border to a small mountain village called Sapa.  It is famous for its hill people, its rice paddies and for the trekking possibilities. 

The train got in at about 5:30 a.m. and I followed some other back-packers across the square where fifteen minutes put us on a public bus to Sapa.  It was still dark but I could tell we started climbing seriously so I turned on my altimeter.  We climbed 1200 m over the next hour into moderate rain and cold 3C temperature.  I had a room reservation, but once out of the bus I was so cold I just found the nearest café that was open and advertising a fireplace.  This became the trend for the rest of the day. 

Gloomy start to Sapa Visit

Gloomy start to Sapa Visit

Huddling away from the rain

Huddling away from the rain

My room, which I did not get into until 1:30, had only a small space heater for a large three bed room.   While in the room the only way I could get warm was to crawl under the comforter.  I scurried around in between rain showers to see the town but spent a lot of the time in coffee shops, none of which were very warm.  The town is hung on the side of the mountain and seemed to have grown too fast for the infrastructure. 

Ornate buildings and Garbage

Ornate buildings and Garbage

Probably vegetables not rice

Probably vegetables not rice

The hill tribes in the region, I think possibly Red and Black Muong among others, are noticeable in the dress of the women.  They are a very small people, I think the women may average 5 ft tall or so.  Walking around town they are constant companions selling their goods or trying to get you to go trekking with them.  It certainly bothers me to see these people hawking goods like this, particularly when they enlist their often very young children to help.  Signs around encourage you not to buy from any of the street seller but to use the kiosks instead.  This doesn’t seem to discourage the practice.  DSC_4756 DSC_4750 DSC_4747 DSC_4743 DSC_4739

Child Vendors

Child Vendors

Children playing, not selling

Children playing, not selling

My big disappointments are the very cold weather while I was here and my bad leg with precluded any notion that I had that I may be able to go on a good walk.  There are stairs everywhere as the town tumbles down the slopes.  After a while I found that I could walk up the stairs but that I would follow the streets the long way around, rather than hobbling down the stairs.  My second day the rain had stopped and the sun came out a bit which made all the difference.  I did walk to the next town which took me painfully down a fairly steep road.  I went with the idea that I could always get a motor bike ride back but the walk up the hill felt good.  I took most of my pictures on this walk.  DSC_4738

Working Women

Working Women

DSC_4730 DSC_4714 DSC_4709

Traditional House

Traditional House

It is too early for the rice paddies to show much; they haven’t even planted rice yet.  Near HCMC they have already have had one harvest.  I went with the idea of staying two nights, but that idea went out the window when I found that I couldn’t really walk very well.   I took a mini-bus back down to Lao Cai late in the day so that I could see things as it was dark when I came up.  It takes a good hour to do the 40 km as the road is very steep and windy as it plunges down through the rough terrain interspersed with rice paddies.  It would make a wonderful bike ride, down not up. 

The train back was another overnighter depositing me for my final two days in Hanoi.

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