Wild Encounters in the Wild East
I had no idea what to expect of the next few weeks as I headed south, as there was very little information online. Little did I know I would be cycling through the ‘Wild East’.
Northern Laos and Vietnam had been a very cool climate, with the temperature often requiring a warm jumper and even the purchase of a down jacket, and although the temperature had risen a little in Tam Coc, it was still nothing compared to the barmy 33°C lands of northern east Thailand and Central Laos I’d already ridden through.
I had friends who at the same time were in Ho Chi Minh City, who had mentioned just how hot and sticky the south was, so I knew I was going to reach it soon enough.
Leaving Tam Coc, Northern Vietnam
The first day riding south from Tam Coc to Sam Son, a coastal town, was amazing. Within a day and only 84km south, it went from a mild, dank climate to a clearer, warmer and windier climate with an obvious change in landscape. Lush green to arid in a flash..
It is uplifting the esteem in which you are held in by the Southeast Asian people when traveling by bicycle. The amount of people that I’ve met along the road has been quite overwhelming. If I told you a story about every person, face and character I met along the road, you’d think I was making it up or exaggerating. Children and adults calling out “hello, hello” nearing the thousands, people stopping to say hello and for a photo, high fives, and complete strangers offering me bottles of water and inviting me for drinks. It’s something you could never expect or plan for, but when these actions are considered, you see something in these people that you can only hope to learn from and see in the west.
As I was cycling along a busy road, feeling great, I see a group of three Vietnamese men struggling to push start a small lorry on the side of the road. Without even thinking, I slam on the breaks, pull my bike over, lean it on the roadside barrier and run to help these guys. “Mot, Hai, Ba” "1,2,3" I shout, pumping my legs and giving it my all. “Vang” "Yes" I shout in celebration; as the truck bumps to a start and a cloud of fumes engulfs us! A quick handshake and big smiles and they are back on the road and I was back on Surly Temple without any change in the course of my day or consideration for the very simple act of helpfullness just offered.
Before I could even pedal one rotation, I’m halted in my tracks. A young, smiling chap pulls in front of me. “Where are you going?” I’m asked. A question I’m now very familiar with. “I’m not sure, about 80km that way” I point, expecting the conversation to end there as per 80% of other conversations. “Where are you from?” he asks. “England”, I answer. “That must be it” I think to myself, ready to pedal off.
“Oh cool, I am suppose to be going to Cambridge to do a course, but I’m not sure I’m going” the young man replies, much to my amazement.
That is not something I had expected to hear considering the road I was on, the country I was in and, the people I’d already come across in the area.
We introduced ourselves and Hue, the young chap, asked for a photo, to which I responded in kind. We talked for a little while longer, and then wished each other well as we made tracks. Nice guy.
70km later I arrived in the resort city of Sam Son in north-central Vietnam. Very very tired and hot, I thought I was hallucinating when I heard “Andy, Andy” called from behind me. I didn’t look around as I literally though I’d just over cooked it that day, but then I heard it again. “Andy, Andy”. To this, I stopped, turn around and see Hue, the same guy I’d met 70km back on the side of the road running towards me.
“Hue, wow, wha…. are you following me?” I said nervously laughing, half jokingly, half serious. I’d had an incident in rural Laos which consequently made me sometimes question a friendly, innocent mans motives. ( See my 'AND INTO THE WILDS OF THE NORTH I GO, TO GROW STRONGER THAN I ALREADY KNOW' blog post for that story)
“No no ” he said. “My father died here working on this building in June last year, ” he explained, pointing next to him.
“I’m sorry to hear that” I responded.
“It’s ok, it happened” Hue replied, with a cognition beyond his years. His answer and how it was delivered showing an almost sagacious quality.
We spoke for a bit longer, then we parted ways and wished each other good luck.
Sam Son is a resort city in north-central Vietnam, that get’s incredibly busy in the summer with locals and a ghost town for the rest of the year, and it was now the rest of the year.
The next three days, although straightforward “ just pedal Andy” days, were tough mentally. I’d met some very friendly people along the way, but the people in the towns over the next few days made me feel quite unwelcome. The looks and stares I got made me feel uncomfortable, with people hawking up and spitting on the floor as I walked passed in what seemed like a purposeful and directing insult on regular occasions. I didn’t feel in danger nor threatened, but I did’t feel entirely comfortable and I didn’t like the idea of having to consider everyone that I made contact with in these towns, like I was tainting everyone with the same brush, as I have done so freely in the past.
The 420km through the ‘Wild East’ of North Cenral Vietnam had been tough, yet a great experience, but the short route from H. Dien Chau to Vinh was awesome, with red clay, bumpy roads along the coast providing cool views and no people, which lead to a fun little up and down ride with some great temples and pagodas.
Vinh is the biggest city and economic and cultural centre of central Vietnam, and is the capital of Nghệ An Province, a key point in the East–West economic corridor linking Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
Practically obliterated during the American War, Vinh was rebuilt with East German aid – with downtown dominated by brutalist concrete architecture.
Vinh to Hai Phong (a different Hai Phong to the port city further north I visited) was a straight forward and flat, 120km day. I’d seen a maybe 4 ‘farang’ in Vinh, but hadn’t spoken to an English speaking person since Tam Coc, and whilst I quite like that, I was excited when I saw a ‘farang’ bike tourist cycling towards me on the other side of the road. This excitement was short lived as the conversation started and the guy held out his hand and said “Ruussia”, in a strong, Soviet Ivan Drago from Rocky, esque accent. We pointed at tires, made hand gestures and attempted Google translate, but both tired of playing rainman and content with a photo of the moment, we shook hands and waived goodbye, with him filming me as I rode off.
I’m 30km’s down the road, when a guy pulls up next to me on his motor bike, adorned with a Canadian flag, and starts talking to me. Canadian Jay lived in Vietnam in a small but developing fishing village called Bai Xep, 15 km south of Qui Nhon and 300km south of Hoi An, and had been visiting a friend in Hanoi. He took a real interest in my riding and suggested I visit Bai Xep on my way through. We chatted for 10 minutes on the side of the road, wished each other well and said good bye.
Another 30km’s down the road, and in a moment of de ja vu, Jay pulls up next to me. “I stopped for lunch and didn’t see you ride past” he said. “ I also forgot, here is my number if you do decide to visit Bai Xep”.
I did end up visiting Bai Xep and having a beer with Jay which will be in the blog post after Hoi An. Cool guy.
The following day was Hai Phong to Phong Nha and it was an awesome, 83 km ride and 800m elevation, and the first bit of climbing I’d done in a while, which was a real treat. The surroundings really reminded me of northern Laos, just with much smaller hills. It is amazing the excitement seeing hills induces in me now. When thinking about some of the climbs I rode in Laos it really evokes a butterfly excitement inside me.
The landscape can change in a New York minute in any SEA country and here, cycling towards Phnong Nha proved true. After riding a busy-ish road for the morning, I soon felt as if I was days away from civilization which was bliss, with awesome views, undulating roads and silence, a rarity in Vietnam.
I climbed a short 2-3 km steep hill and stopped at the top to take a minute and ‘smell the roses’ as it were, when a car drives past and stops just ahead. 2 ‘farang’ gentleman in their early 70’s jump out the back with excitement and intrigue etched over their faces. “Hey man, wow, nice bike”. Friends Sven and Burt from Canada stopped to chat on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, whilst their driver sat with the engine running still. They took a huge interest in my adventure which was the main topic, then Sven said that when I arrive in Phong Nha, to come and find them, and he’ll buy me a beer, which was very nice of him. I did find them to say hi and had hoped to have a beer with them the next day, but it didn't happen unfortunately.
Phnong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, is a Unesco World Heritage Site in north central Vietnam, near the Laos border, and is known as the home to the worlds largest and 3rd largest Caves, for its tropical forests and ancient limestone karsts formed approximately 400 million years ago, and has become a popular destination with tourist seeking adventure.
Hang Son Doong, the worlds largest cave at a staggering 200m high, and over 5 kilometers long, only became internationally known in 2009 after the British cave research association conducted a survey there.
With this recent accolade come the subsequent cost to explore it. Oxalis is the only company with a license to explore this gargantuan cave and with a limit at 500 visitors per year, Hang Son Doong see's fewer visitors than Everest is summited each year. For those able and willing to pay the 3000$ per person, will embark on the 4 day trek and find them selves camping in one of the worlds most incredible natural formations.
According to a man living in the area for 10 years, only 10-15 years ago, Phong Nha didn’t have electricity and nor were they using currency. With this in mind, I was gutted to hear of proposed plans to build a 100-200million$ cable car running through one of natures wonders, and changing one of Vietnams last authentic areas.
There are plenty of caves to choose from in Phong Nha and with botanical gardens, hikes, bike rides and boat rides it’s a central place that will keep you busy for a few days. I took a short and steep ride out to the botanical gardens, where I choose to hike the longest route which lead to a cool waterfall.
Having worked up a real sweat riding and hiking around Phong Nha, on my way back to the main village, I stopped at The Yacht Club, which I’d seen on my to the botanical gardens. The Yacht club is a more upmarket place with a great menu and setting. I sat out on the waters edge, sipping on a cold beer, having a nice lunch and watching the water run, surrounded by mountains all around. After lunch I even sat and rested my eyes for 15 minutes sat on a swinging chair, which was lovely.
Whilst Phong Nha is small, there are some great restaurants to choose from. Namaste Indian restaurant is central and delicious, serving your traditional ‘British Curry’ and more authentic Indian food. Capture Vietnam Café is a great place in the centre of Phong Nha and offer delicious, western, Asian food and cakes that you’d be happy to have as your local ‘go to’ casual eatery anywhere in the world. The Yacht Club offers a more refined dining experience, with a good looking wine list to boot and prices to match, with rooms there from £115 per night.
Heritage by Night was the hotel I stayed at, and was a great choice with great views from the swimming pool area out the back over looking the mountains. As is increasingly common across SEA, those wishing to relax by the swimming pool or take in the tranquility of the local surroundings will have to contend with the construction sites either side, which seem destined to take a decade or more to come to fruition as the motorbike helmet wearing, blowtorch wielding, smoking Vietnamese men climb over the precariously placed bits of scaffold board, and watch one another take on the task at hand.
I was excitedly preparing to leave Phong Nha and take on the next 300km of Vietnam where I would be introduced to the highly praised and significantly important and historic Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An and have the pleasure of cycling the famous Hai Van Pass.
The following day was a leisurely but hot 50km of up and down riding to the coast at Dong Hoi Beach resort, showing just how narrow this part of Vietnam is.
As I was leaving with my bags packed and Surly Temple fully dressed, the girls at reception took a shining to me it seemed, telling me about where they are from and things about the places I was going and even asked if I would stay longer and that “ maybe you can stay and marry Vietnamese girl here” with a giggle to each other.
“I’m afraid I only have eyes for one beauty at the moment” turning to Surly Temple and blowing her a kiss, which made these friendly Vietnamese girls giggle even more.
I’m not sure I was aloud to leave without a photo though, which I was more than happy to do, and of course, reciprocate as usual and share with you fine people and have record of this life changing adventure and encounters.