Long Way Home
Crossing over the increase in traffic and noise is immediately obvious but the ride towards the coast is pleasant enough through lush green hills dotted with villages. We didn’t realise it at the time but this was probably the nicest day’s ride we did in Vietnam, with things going downhill pretty rapidly.
The town of Dong Ha was a rude introduction to the Vietmanese experience. Within a few short hours we were harassed by touts, had possibly the worst meal we’ve eaten in ten months on the road for which they tried to both overcharge AND shortchange us; and then were nearly flattened and deafened by the vehicular mayhem on highway one.
Some French cyclists, hearing that we were heading into Vietnam, suggested wearing earplugs when riding, to reduce the blast of airhorns to a tolerable level. We thought they were exaggerating. They weren’t.
The combination of seriously stupid driving and the ear-splitting wail of airhorns (drivers seem to delight in triggering these when they are precisely level with your ear), made the cycling in Vietnam some of the most unpleasant and dangerous we’ve experienced. The best riding was on day trips on tranquil back roads, cruising between the rice paddies, dodging mud encrusted water buffalo and weaving between groups of locals carrying extraordinary loads on their rickety bicycles.
As in Laos the motorbike replaces the family sedan, providing transportation for a family of five – no problem. If the kids are smallish there is generally room for at least one of the in-laws as well. Babies start out in a sling, tots can be spotted sitting placidly in a bike basket and toddlers cling like limpets to motorbike handlebars.
The traffic might be ugly but it’s certainly very entertaining.
From dismal Dong Ha we squelched on into the historic former imperial capital of Hue in pouring rain. Despite the uninspiring conditions we liked Hue immediately. We may have been influenced by discovering the best banana chocolate pancakes yet, but the charm of the walled Citadel and magnificent tombs of the Emporers certainly helped.
Continuing south we crested Hai Van Pass. Most traffic now uses the new road tunnel so the climb was very peacful. That night we somehow fluked finding a guesthouse around a hundred metres from a gorgeous piece of beach and decided to hang around for a day or so.
Finally we manage to drag ourselves on into Hoi An. The narrow streets are lined with pretty pastel coloured old houses and it’s very appealing. There is no escaping mass tourism here and huge tour coaches jam the streets, disgorging loads of white and well-fed visitors who should not have been allowed to leave their hotel wearing shorts.
Heading south from Hoi An the tourist crowds disappear as most board a bus straight to Nha Trang. For us this was a five day ride and we had some nice overnight stops in towns where we didn’t feel like a ‘wallet on wheels’. At one tiny restaurant the owner greeted us like long lost friends and pulled out his homemade whiskey for us to sample. We were completely won over by the friendliness of this family. In Vietnam so many simple financial transactions were soured by over-charging, short-changing and the ever-popular ‘flexi-pricing’ (the agreed price doubles after you’ve consumed your meal or drink). Thus when you do encounter some genuine friendliness and honesty you want to give them all the business you possibly can.
Just before reaching Nha Trang we turned inland, heading into the Central Highlands. The inland ‘Ho Chi Minh Highway’ proved to be only marginally less busy than the coastal route but did allow us to sneak past Saigon and off to the border via a convoluted back route.