(Tldr; the north of Vietnam is nice, Corona virus made us fly back home.)
Cycling without bags felt like flying. We could pedal what felt like endlessly uphill without having to pause and rest our legs or our lungs. We were so happy with our decision to leave most of our gear behind and to travel light, despite the added expense of having to pay for guesthouses all week. But it was worth it. After Vietnam, the plan was to go to Japan and then head back west overland through Russia, Mongolia and Scandinavia towards friends and family in Northern Europe before aiming to be back in Portugal in time for Christmas. We knew that once we left South East Asia we would be camping pretty much every night, as the cost of accommodation would be outside of our budget, so we decided to embrace this perceived luxury while it was still an option.
The north of Vietnam is known for its hills, and steep ones at that. Our planned route was going to take us from Cao Bang to Lao Cai, covering 600km and about 11000m of climbing in 9 days. That was a lot of climbing. The last time we had covered that much climbing over so few kilometers was in Armenia, over a 14 day stretch.
As soon as we left Cao Bang the views came to greet us. It felt like we had been in hibernation and were finally cycling again. South East Asia had been interesting, but definitely not our favourite leg of the trip. It felt good to be back in more remote landscapes, pedalling through villages and isolated dwellings, and breathing clean air.
The views were out of this world. Quite literally unlike anything else we had cycled through up till now on this trip. And I think it is fair to say we had cycled through quite a few different landscapes by now. It was impossible to perceive the height difference from the bottom of the fertile valleys up to the top of the bare rocky mountains. Roads weaved and snaked their way through the landscapes and houses were perched precariously in the most unexpected places. It was a harsh environment to try and live in, and yet people did. Steep mountain sides were terraced, paths beaten through rocks and vegetables grown in barely any soil.
Yet, in such a harsh and barren landscape remote hill tribe communities have lived for thousands of years (and some ethnic minorities more recently as a result of political pressure from China). What is more, the traditional dress of these tribes are woven from some of the most brightly coloured threads we have seen. Standing in contrast to their surroundings and in rebellion to the incredibly physically hard lives they lead.
Usually, as we cycle through places like this we share small interactions with the local people, even if it is just a small mutual smile. Each learning a small fragment about the others’ lives. Times however were different and changing.
The first we noticed was being turned away from a noodle restaurant, being told they were out of food when we could see a giant bowl of noodles and pan of steaming broth in the kitchen. People were more curious than before about where we were from, and we were very happy that neither of us were Italian and that I was travelling on my Irish passport rather than a British one. Then we started to be turned away from guesthouses, being told they were full or closed, even when we had made reservations online only a few hours before. Ironically, the guesthouses which would let us stay still had no soap in the bathrooms.
Instead of running towards us for a high-five, kids were covering their faces with their t-shirts or running away from us to hide behind a door. Some people were noticeably keeping their distance or pulling up a mask to cover their mouth and nose. Soon more and more restaurant and guesthouse owners would just shake their heads and wave their hands at us if we made to move towards their property.
We started to regret not having our tent. It seemed ridiculous that the one time we are without our portable home was during a global pandemic. Staying in guesthouses used to seem like a luxury, taking that long awaited shower and sleeping in a bed for the first time in weeks, but now camping seemed so much easier. Thankfully we had our stove, and people hadn’t stopped us from entering shops. Although a few shop owners were clearly keeping their distance, one shouting the prices at us from the back of the shop for us to leave money on the table at the front.
The few smiles or waves that were sent in our direction gave us a deep sense of gratitude and we appreciated more than ever the remaining sympathetic guesthouse owners who would allow foreigners to stay.
Cycling was no longer fun.
Sitting in a cafe watching the torrential rain pour down outside we knew what we had to do, but deliberated on it nevertheless. We cycled in the direction of the next biggest town, flagged down a bus and headed back to Hanoi. Four days earlier than planned.
In Hanoi we were staying with Chris and Alice, aka possibly two of the best humans on the planet. They were unfazed by us needing to come back sooner and welcomed us back into their home. Both of them taught English at a local language centre, and with schools closed in Vietnam for the last month they were already aware of the effects of virus on daily life.
Vietnamese authorities had announced that they would stop offering visa exemptions to many European citizens. Lockdown had spread from the region of Lombardy to the whole of Italy. Mongolia was closed and travel in or out of Ulaanbaatar was impossible.
We began to question whether flying to Japan and continuing to travel there was the right thing to do, considering that most of the world was being told to stay at home and to travel only if essential. Was cycling through the cherry blossom in Japan essential? Probably not. How about Sarah seeing her Aunt and cousins for the first time in seven years? Although heart wrenching, we couldn’t define that as essential travel either.
With chaos spreading across Europe by the hour, we considered our options. We only had 6 days left on our Vietnam visa and before our flight to Japan would leave, aka Plan B. (Plan A had been discarded back in February when the virus broke out in China). If only we knew how much the world would change in those six days.
Across our network of bike travellers, people were either looking for a place to wait out the chaos or desperately trying to catch a flight home. Some people had been travelling for so long they would be returning to places they hadn’t lived for years, others didn’t really have a place that they called home anymore. As some borders closed, flights evaporated, and neighbouring countries imposed compulsory testing (despite no tests being available), travellers were becoming trapped in Myanmar, India and Nepal. Governments of some countries were instructing all of it’s citizens overseas to return home, some provided repatriation flights, others not. It was looking like two of our Dutch friends would now be stuck on a small Malaysian island for the foreseeable future, with pretty much just a toothbrush, bikini, kindle and a spare t-shirt. Given that they had only planned to spend a few days there, they had left their bikes and majority of their belongings in a hostel on the mainland. (They ended up staying three months.)
Sarah’s older brother James had just landed in Melbourne to stay with their resident younger brother Dan and his girlfriend Izzy. James had conveniently rented an apartment with a sofa bed and enough space for two cyclists to hibernate. We would have to quarantine ourselves for 14 days, but atleast we would be in an English speaking country and we would not stand out as foreigners. We joked about team self-isolation parties, dwindling toilet paper supplies, and the joys of three Crowley’s living in close confinement having not lived in the same city let along under the same roof for 17 years.
We wondered if we were in denial about the fact that our trip was unceremoniously over, but that we just didn’t know it yet.
We went for Plan C, and booked flights to Australia. The cloud that had hung over our heads for the past days lifted with the clarity we gained in finally having a plan. We could hang out in Melbourne for a month or two and then continue with our trip and fly onwards to Japan when this all blew over. How naïve.
Five minutes after booking our flights the UK government advised against all but essential travel to anywhere in the world, further solidifying our decision to not fly to Japan. Conversations over dinner with Chris and Alice covered non-Corona topics, we laughed and joked and they shared tales of their year of living in a car as they travelled through Australia some years before.
With the knowledge that we were now flying to Australia, bikes, shoes and pannier bags were given an extra thorough scrub lest we illegally import any mud into the country. We bought a bumper package of loo roll and alcohol hand gel, as my brother was down to his last two rolls and hadn’t been able to find any for the last few days.
Atleast here, toilet paper shortages and ransacked shop shelves weren’t a problem. In fact if everyone in the west used water to clean their bums like the whole of Asia, toilet paper hoarding wouldn’t be a thing at all.
For the first time in days, spirits were lifted. For 18 hours atleast.
After enjoying our last lunch in our favourite vegan buffet (aka cyclist’s heaven), Pedro picked up his phone to check out something that is so irrelevant now that neither of us remember what it was, to find a flurry of missed calls from Sarah’s brother Dan. Less than 24 hours before we were due to fly, Australia had announced that the following evening the border would close to all non-residents. With family connections there, Sarah may have been able to justify entry but not Pedro.
The knots that had been sitting in our stomachs throughout the previous days returned. Cursing ourselves at our stupidity for not booking flights a day earlier, with tear stained cheeks we hurried back to the apartment. At a loss as to that we would do, we stripped the bed of its sheets and hurriedly packed our bags.
Should we catch our original flight to Japan? We’d need to be at the airport in 3 hours. Book a convoluted flight to Perth which would get us into the country 1 hour before the ban came into force? We only had 48 hours left on our Vietnam visa and, given the current treatment of foreigners here, we did not want to stay. As we sat in a three-way call to Ireland and Australia, prices of flights were going up and selling out as we spoke. With a sinking realization we acknowledged that the only realistic option we had was to return to Europe, especially as both Sarah’s brothers were now likely to be stuck in Australia for months.
Hibernating in the countryside with Sarah’s parents was not an option, as Ireland had already blocked entry to non-residents. Lisbon it was. Tears flowed as Sarah’s brother booked us an extortionately priced flight to Portugal.
Reluctantly we returned downstairs to continue packing our bikes.
You think this would be where our story ends, but there were more unwanted twists to our already tangled tale.
Surrounded by half dismantled bikes and bubble wrap, Chris came down to say there was an issue. The cleaner of the building had seen us in Chris and Alice’s apartment and had reported us to the landlady, who in turned reported to the police that two foreigners were staying here. The landlady had contacted Chris to say that the police were looking for us and wanted to put us in quarantine. We did not want to be put in quarantine and we did not want to cause any trouble for Chris and Alice.
Packing hastened and we planned to leave the apartment as soon as we could. We could spend the next 24 hours at the airport if we had to.
All of our stuff piled in a corner downstairs, the four of us went to find food (and beer) at a local Bia Hoi. High on adrenaline, hysteria just about setting in, we ate our last plate of banana flower deliciousness not knowing whether to laugh or cry. While eating, we met two friends of Chris that had been forced into quarantine in their own apartment after returning from a trip to South Korea two and a half weeks before. The possibility that the same might happen to us felt very real.
Returning to the apartment, relaxed by beer and too tired for any thing else, we all decided that it would probably be ok if we stayed the night and left for the airport as early as possible in the morning. After peering around the corner to check there was no one waiting for us, we returned upstairs and all tried to sleep.
Despite our exhaustion, anxiety won. Every creek on the stairs and sound of voices from the street put us on edge keeping all of us away from sleep. Bleary eyed, we piled ourselves, all of our bags and bike boxes to the cafe opposite the apartment and waited for a taxi to take us to the airport. As we sat drinking coffee, it was hard to believe how so much had changed since we first called Chris just 15 days ago to say that we had arrived in Hanoi, to think that we had even gone to the Mongolian Embassy, to try and get a visa but now borders of so many countries all over the world were shut, seemed absurd.
After turning away several hatchbacks that wouldn’t fit one bike let alone two, a taxi finally arrived big enough for our bikes, bags and one of us. With heartfelt goodbyes, we were waved off by Chris and Alice, to whom there weren’t enough words to express our gratitude, and set off for the airport – Sarah in the taxi and Pedro following behind on the back of scooter.
At the airport nine hours early for our flight, our packing only half finished and a very ungenerous baggage allowance we set about shedding our load. All unnecessary, half broken, or inexpensive items were out. Even two of the tyres were taken off the bike and left behind. They had taken us all the way from Bulgaria to here, and we had expected them to get us back home through Japan, Mongolia and Scandinavia, but they did not make the cut. Dressed in too many layers of clothes, pockets stuffed to the brim, and still collectively 10kg over the weight limit, we checked in for our journey back to Portugal…