Vietnam was for us another of those countries which wasn’t originally on our roster but, as we got closer to South East Asia, it became obvious that we just had to go there. The fact that it’s a well know awesome destination, mixed with the fact that we didn’t feel like going home already meant that, once we crossed from Myanmar into Thailand and we started noticing that Singapore, our final goal, was getting too close for our liking, we began realising that we had the time and motivation to take a long ride around all of the SE Asian peninsula (hence Vietnam) and make our trip just a little bit longer!
Basically, we needed an excuse and Vietnam is a pretty good one!
Why? Well, anyone who lives anywhere even mildly international knows how cool Vietnamese culture, food and sights are … but are they really? Let’s find out!
421adventure being so … different … we wanted, once again, to cross at a small border crossing (why are we saying this? Don’t forget that we’re really unlucky with border crossings; read here). This time it didn’t go so badly but we did have to spend a whole day in a military quarantine building because they wouldn’t let us in until Monday morning (very long story). There was a toilet nearby and we even had decent Wi-Fi so we decided not to set off on the wrong foot and just went along with it. Incredibly, the next morning at 7 we were on our way (someone tried to charge us 10$ for the room … we just left). And there it was, Vietnam, country #24 on our list and we were really excited about it!
Well, not excited actually, knackered! Laos had taken a huge toll on our little bodies and we really needed a rest (learn why exactly and read more about this other exciting country here). We had paid for a 3 months Visa so we decided to reach the shore and have ourselves a holiday. Hanoi and Ha-long Bay were just next door so … We found a great Warmshower host to look after our bikes for a few days, got on a bus and left.
We didn’t know it yet but in the first couple of days we had already learned a few lessons about this place, one of them being that it’s way better away from the coast. It generally felt like people were poorer but also friendlier, there is less noise, light and air pollution everywhere and the country in general felt more authentic … more on that later.
After having experienced the wonders of Asian sleeper buses for the first time and having loved it, we arrived at Hanoi very early in the morning and decided to walk the 2 kilometres to the centre and saw a lot of really cool mundane scenes on the way; workers having breakfast on little stools in the street, butchers receiving huge carcasses, mini buses picking up school kids and a lot of yawning everywhere!
An early check-in and an egg coffee later, we were roaming the streets and looking for Xoi Xeo (breakfast stuff … amazing!) which gave us enough energy to see most of the main sights in the city; nice enough but we prefer seeing scenes from daily life, so we hit a park and watched people dancing, doing exercise and even had a few interesting conversations with young people who wanted to practice English … cool!
One of thing we preferred about Hanoi though, apart from everything just described and the fact that we went to an Original Version cinema (something that we hadn’t done in … yonks!) was meeting other cyclists! This is a city which is on the crossroad of many different routes and so we found ourselves spending time with other 8 bike tourers from all over the globe and had a blast!
Anyway, we still needed to rest (no, sightseeing is not resting!) so we spent a few days on Cat Ba Island where all the boat trips to Ha-Long bay set off and absolutely loved it! We basically just ate, chilled on the deck and chatted with our fellow passengers and, as always, took the time to catch up with our families and local media pages.
On the subject of food, although we feel like we shouldn’t be telling anyone about the wonders of Asian cuisine in general, and Vietnamese in particular, we do feel that Pho is overrated! I know “abroad” it’s this amazing, Ramen-style soup but most of the time in Vietnam is basically just broth with a few leaves and a small piece of meat. Seriously, we use like a zillion calories a day; what are we supposed to do with broth? On the other hand, whenever we could get our butts seated in a vegetarian eatery we would always end up taking food away too for our dinner (in the tent, on a white beach, with the noise of the waves breaking … priceless!)
Oh and coffee of course! Vietnamese coffee is just indescribably yummy (and strong!)!!!
Feeling like we missed our saddles, we took another inexpensive sleeper bus back to Vinh, spent another evening with our great hosts at Pencil English School (thanks again for all your help guys!) and rode away due South.
We had heard numerous horror stories of campers being kicked off the beach in the middle of the night (it’s illegal to wild-camp in Vietnam) so at first we were very wary BUT it was December and the beaches were deserted. So we found ourselves sleeping on soft white sand almost every night in almost perfectly mild temperatures (not for the locals, they were freezing!) and finding it very easy indeed!
Pretty quickly we realised something that we mentioned previously; we weren’t enjoying cycling along the coast as much as we thought we would because most of it is either heavily industrialised, full of tourist resorts or packed with fish farms. Most bigger dwelling along the coast are pretty big (not really big but tend to spread along the coast more than inland) and so we spent most of our time entering or exiting big towns and cities and, as you should know by now, 421adventure prefers smaller places where connecting with other humans is easier …
Having said this, more than anywhere else in SE Asia, we would often meet someone who spoke decent enough English and, looking back, we got a pretty good insight on their culture by being able to communicate with lots of different people.
On the off chance that we’ve been way too nice to Vietnam in this post, let’s get a couple of things off our chest; first of all, Vietnamese people drive like crap! It’s not just the fact that there is a total and general lack of respect for any human or logical driving rule, it’s also the fact that there are a lot of vehicles EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME and that drivers seem to honk more than they breath. Although we are trying to make it funny it’s not … not enjoyable to cycle in those conditions anyway, and a huge reason to stay away from big settlements. The other thing that really got on our nerves bout Vietnam is the fact that, out of nowhere, someone will always tell you not to do something! If you leave your bicycle on a sidewalk (even really wide ones), a parking “valet” will come tell you to get off it and park on the road. If you lean your bike against a dirty old wall to go and get a ticket for a ferry or whatever, some worker will come out of the building and tell you to get off! Sorry, just two very trivial examples but it happened to us a lot and we just can’t get our heads around it!
Last but not least, something that we did absolutely adore about cycling down the coast of Vietnam, apart from the prevailing northerly winds, is the fact that in just over 2000 kilometres we experienced a lot of different types of terrain, climates, cultures … It’s an incredibly varied country, in all respects, that we seriously recommend, but we also tell most cyclists to consider alternating between the coast and the highly regarded Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs pretty much parallel to the coast but further inland.
After a few days spent in Ho Chi Minh (good old Saigon) in our beloved Long’s house, the time had come to head towards Cambodia. There was still some time on the clock though so we decided to zig-zag a little through the Mekong Delta and ended up really enjoying it! It’s very rural and very authentic and we just thought that it was a nice way to end our Vietnamese adventure before entering another country and a totally different world …
As always, don’t forget that we have a superb YouTube channel where you can find 6 amazing short videos on our time spent in Vietnam shown all of the information given in this entry and much, much more. Here are the links;
Vlog #12 – Into Vietnamese Culture … link here
Vlog #13 – Noise in Hanoi, peace in Ha-Long Bay … link here
Vlog #14 – Along the coast … link here
Vlog #15 – Basket boats, egg coffees and much more! … link here
Vlog #16 – Into Ho Chi Minh City … link here
Vlog #17 – Good bye Vietnam! … link here