We entered Vietnam in a need for a change. A change of scenario, and most importantly a change of climate. It was nothing inparticular against Laos, but simply the accumulation of more than a month of hot, dry and dusty landscapes. Vietnam promised green scenery, a sea cooled climate, and on top of that, a different architectural look and culture feel.
Well, it delivered. As we zoomed down away from the border, we were so overly excited on how cool the climate was (on our very first day in Vietnam we gave away our mosquito net to the friendly people who let us sleep in their garage) and now we were surrounded with lush green hills. We had definitely made the right choice.
There was just one problem. We had zero Vietnamese money, and of course, barely any food with us. On top of this, apparently no one was interested in the Laos money we had with us. Lunch hour was approaching, as was the appetite, so we hoped that if we aimed for a restaurant near the border they would be more than happy and accustomed to receive money from their neighboring country. It was not the case. And we were way too hungry to have to cycle to the next big town that seemed to have banks.
Our insistence in asking about paying in Kip, or if there was “by any chance anywhere a guesthouse or someone where we could exchange” made a bit of fuss, to the point that one of the restaurant’s customers came to see what was happening and if he could help with translation. He quickly understood the situation (and perhaps our hunger) and said he could pay for us and we would pay him in return in Kip. He went regularly to Laos and it wasn’t a problem for him. Vietnam continued to win us over.
While we savoured some very yummy and different food, we chatted a bit with our stomach savior, a local lawyer in the next city, before hopping back on our bicycles towards the coast. It had been a while since we had seen the sea, and we were somehow curious to see and bathe in a sea to the East instead of to the West. As we headed there, the green hills gave place to luminous green rice paddies, with an occasional water buffalo here and there, and a curious collection of graveyards spread out in between the rice.
We were clearly heading towards the sea, as we started seeing fish being dried by the side of the road. Rows and rows of small squared mesh baskets, with every inch covered in small fishes, drying in the sun. You can imagine the smell. The coast however was a bit disappointing, sand covered in trash and a very long row of beach hut restaurants, all a bit abandoned, all looking a bit the same. It was actually hard to reach the sand, so long was the continuous row of restaurants. Upon this scenario, Sarah lost interest in having a swim, but Pedro as usual, didn’t miss a chance to go for a swim.
With some difficulty, we searched for a spot by the coast to camp for the night. Vietnam had brought us many changes but population density was not one of them. We missed more and more the remoteness of the Central Asian mountain ranges. The next morning we were rewarded however with yet another amazing sunrise over the sea to the East. We had then the realization that we had started the trip seeing the sun setting over the sea, and now we were seeing it rise, giving us an appreciation of how far we had already traveled.
And there was still more traveling to be done, so we said yet again farewell to the coast and headed towards Phong Nha. Back to the interior, back up to the green hills, we reached Phong Nha already in the dark, not entirely aware of what was around us.
We had planned a day off so we could have some good solid rest and do nothing all day long… Ya, right… Of course not. We unloaded our bags, and as we usually do on our rest days, we went off cycling, into some very green, but also very very steep hills. It felt amazing to travel light and the landscape in this area was indeed as beautiful as we had been told by our Dutchie friends. Towers of overlapping karst limestone, hill after hill of steep, green covered rocks, with some thin fresh mist to make it all so scenic.
The mist persisted the next day as we left, together with some light rain, making our ride, towards the north now, a continuation of the confirmation the right decision we had made. At this point rain and cold was much more appreciated than heat and sweat and dust. The Vietnamese honeymoon didn’t last long however, as we got closer to Hà Nội the roads were becoming busier and busier, with its associated endless honking and the added difficulty or in fact impossibility, of finding a hidden camping place.
A few nights spent in hostels (the condition of which our parents would probably again frown upon), we made our way towards Ninh Bình, from which we had hoped to catch a train to Hà Nội, avoiding any even more traffic filled roads. However, after some very frustrating conversations with several people in the train station, we kept being told that we could buy ticket to Hà Nội, but not take our bicycles. Although we were pretty sure other people had done it before and that if we were trying to travel with a motorcycle it would not have been a problem. You could take a bicycle in the train if coming from Hà Nội, but not to Hà Nội (?!)
Some indecision on whether to just stick it and do the hundred something kms between us and Hà Nội or to take the train was rather bluntly resolved with some ridiculously heavy almost tropical rain. The bus it was! After arriving in Hà Nội and being dumped together with our bicycle in what seemed a quite random location, we made way to our warmshowers in town, which turned to be one of our best, ever. The feeling was never so relaxed, the conversation so open, and little did we know, the stay so long.
During our time in Hà Nội, we set out to repair some small things in our bicycles, besides the usual maintenance. Covid-19 was bubbling in the background, there was talk of an outbreak in Italy, and Japan and South Korea were seeing a growing number of cases. Japan was our next stop, but some of Sarah’s family living there suggested that in the countryside things were still ok.
In our optimism, or perhaps naivety, we made a visit to the Mongolian embassy to ask if they were accepting visa applications. At the time, Mongolia was banning the entrance of people who had been in China, South Korea or Japan in the past 14 days. But we wouldn’t be trying to enter Mongolia for another 2.5 months, maybe things would have changed by then, this little virus episode would have finished and the borders open to everyone again? …. A girl who we had met in the Chinese embassy back in Tehran, also applying for the visa, said “at least if the visa isn’t accepted I could say that I have now been to China”, as she was inside the embassy. Alas, this would be the case for us, in the Mongolian embassy…
We were planning to cycle a small loop in the North of Vietnam, with a reputation for beautiful amazing (super steep) hills and cliffs, while leaving most of our bags back in Hà Nội, with our most wonderful kind hosts, Chris and Alice. We planned to return a week or so later, to pack up our bikes and fly to Japan!
We wanted to enjoy once again to cycle light, carrying as little as possible to make cycling in that hilly region all the more enjoyable. Given the availability of many and inexpensive hostels along the way, we would even be leaving our tent behind, but luckily in the end, deciding to take the camping stove with us.
As we left on the bus towards Cao Bằng, we felt somewhat uncomfortable with having apparently purposely being put in the very back of the bus, together with some masked but coughing Vietnamese young men. With some regions of the north of Italy being put in lockdown, there was this little niggle at the back of our minds, that the world was turning into a strange place and we were unsure of how it would all pan out for us…