Far from the Madding Crowd

26th JANUARY 2019

I’m finally going to be cycling out of Hanoi today. This moment has been a long time coming, and almost two weeks of anticipation has me up at 7.00am in readiness. The wonderful Bich makes my last breakfast at the Homestay and takes my photo before I depart. When I say Goodbye she tells me to wait a moment, before she pops back inside and returns with a packed lunch of mini bananas, watermelon, sweets and coke for me. It’s a really nice touch and should keep me going most of the day.

Then I leave the quiet little oasis of the Hanoi Sweet Family Homestay and join a throng of market day Saturday traffic. It’s not even 9.00am yet and the streets are choc-a-bloc with vehicles of every description – cars, buses, lorries, bikes, scooters. Hundreds of scooters. Luckily, the route I take out of the city is actually pretty straightforward. After only a couple of turns I’m able to join the QL1A, which is the main road that runs the length of the country all the way to Ho Chi Minh City. By sticking to this road today it means I won’t have to worry about taking wrong turns or getting lost.

The downside is that this road is almost gridlocked as we crawl along between junctions and traffic lights. Scooters and motorbikes jump onto the pavement in an effort to get past, often through queues of waiting bus passengers. Buses themselves will overtake every vehicle in the slow lane, only to slam on their brakes and pull in to a bus stop right in front of us. Horns are continually blaring and most drivers just carry straight on through red lights. It becomes a difficult thing to police if everyone is doing it. I notice that many scooter and motorbike riders have masks over the lower half of their faces to protect them from breathing in vehicle fumes. The road is completely chaotic, yet we all seem to be slowly moving in the direction we want. I stay close to the right hand side of the street, trying to keep out of everyone’s way as much as I can.

The traffic does abate slightly as I get further from Hanoi, although it’s still noisy and busy by normal standards. Sections of this road has toll booths, which certainly helps to thin out the traffic, though there are always small open gates at the side so scooters and bikes can nip through without paying. Since I left Hanoi there have been buildings lining the road all the way South, making it difficult to tell where one town stops and the next one begins. The only time there is a break in the buildings is when the railway line appears and follows the road for a while. The road is astonishingly flat too. I’ve been concentrating so much on the busy traffic that I’ve barely noticed the flatness.

Tonight I’m staying at another Homestay, a few kilometres off the main road at the Van Long Nature Reserve. I’m not far from the turn-off when I start to feel a little drained, worn down today by the traffic and humidity. I’ve finished all of Bich’s packed lunch by this point and most of my water. The last 10km are ridden in slow motion, but I’m OK with that as it’s my first big cycle for over a month.

I turn off the main road, reach the small village of Mai Trung and find the Van Long Family Homestay hidden down a narrow, unsurfaced street. An elderly Vietnamese couple greet me warmly in the courtyard, even though we can barely understand each other. They defer to their twenty-something son, Hiep, who has a much better grasp of English. The Homestay’s set up comprises two newish buildings behind the family home, in what was once a large rear garden. My room is right at the back, surrounded by lush, tropical garden and looks to be far more luxurious than its £9 per night price tag.

Hiep pours me a Vietnamese tea at their outdoor dining area and we sit down for a chat. He seems impressed that I’ve managed to cycle all the way from Hanoi, given that its not even 3.00pm yet. I try to be modest, but I’m also quietly impressed by how well today’s cycling has gone. He then asks if I’d like to go on a short bike ride so he can show me round the area. As I’ve just spent all day on a bicycle, this doesn’t strike me as the greatest idea, but I take him up on his offer anyway.

We cycle along dirt tracks, past small, family-owned fish lakes and rice fields that are being irrigated and prepared for planting. The walkways and tracks that we’re now cycling on are just thin ribbons of raised ground amidst a myriad of muddy fields. We stop to chat with a woman who is a relative of Hiep’s and working knee deep in the muddy water, readying the ground for rice. Behind her are two massive, bulky water buffalo, tethered to the flimsiest looking stakes I’ve ever seen. The beasts appear peaceful, but I find their sheer size intimidating. Hiep takes me through the tiny village where he lives, before we emerge at the edge of the nature reserve itself. I’m almost awe-struck at the sight of a large wetland area backed by tall, limestone mountains. It looks a bit like an inland Ha Long Bay. We ride along this spectacular waterside for a short distance and then loop back towards the Homestay. Hiep has gone above and beyond taking the time to show me round, and I’m so glad that I got back on my bike.

Dinner that evening is amazing, all freshly prepared by Hiep’s sister, Hương. I have four home-made spring rolls, probably the largest and tastiest I’ve ever eaten, along with some delicious battered fish. This is accompanied by pineapple salad, steamed bok choy and rice. There’s a spicy dipping sauce, a soy sauce. a fish sauce, chillies and lime. I really like the fish sauce, which is just as well as it seems to be the sauce of choice in Vietnam. I retire to my room happy and stuffed, and reflect on the contrast in my surroundings over the last twelve hours or so. This morning I was getting stressed out by a hectic and noisy ride out of Hanoi, whereas now I’m in a quiet rural village listening to the sound of frogs croaking outside my room. I couldn’t be further from the madding crowd.

As it’s such a lovely spot I’ve stumbled upon, I ask Hiep if I can spend an extra day at the Homestay. I’m their only paying guest so he’s happy to oblige. At this rate it’s going to take me an awful long time to cycle right down the country. Breakfast is pancakes. Lots of them. Served with sugar and honey and home cooked by Hương. In the late morning I walk much the same route that I cycled with Hiep yesterday, but this time venture a bit further into the nature reserve. In the afternoon I go for a spin towards Hoa Lư which was once the capital of Vietnam, albeit one thousand years ago. I briefly join the big main road again, before a minor road takes me into farming land alongside a flat, grey river. Cycling past crops, rice fields and grazing water buffalo takes me to a riverside village that lies in the shadow of tall, imposing limestone cliffs. When I cycle through the village and reach Hoa Lư, it appears that a wide, stone entrance gate with a pagoda-style roof is all that remains of the old capital. I’m not sure this was worth a 30km round trip, but there’s also a couple of Buddhist temples nearby that pique my interest instead.

Back at the Homestay Hương has cooked up a batch of fresh chicken noodles, which are tasty but can’t compare to the grand scale of yesterday’s feast. For some reason tonight’s shower is cold, and this results in a comedy of swearing and hyperventilating each time I dive under the freezing water flow. To make up for this, my bed might well be the comfiest I’ve ever slept in. It would be all too easy to spend another day in these comfortable surroundings. However, if I want to ride the length of this country, I need to get my cycle head on again pretty quickly.





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