Creeping Slowly Southwards

30th JANUARY 2019

Every accommodation provider in Vietnam is required by law to register foreign guests with the local police. To do this they will always demand to see your passport on check in before they’ll hand over any room keys. Usually they will just use their mobile phone and take a picture of your passport’s personal details page and maybe the visa page, before handing it back to you. Sometimes though, the accommodation will insist on keeping your passport until you check out. This never sits quite right with me as I’d rather keep my passport with me at all times. I can only imagine how much of a hassle it would be if I lost my passport on a cycle trip.

My hotel in Diên Hông is one of those that insists on keeping passports, and I face a bit of an uphill battle getting it back from the receptionist when I check out. I’m standing at the desk waiting to have my passport returned, while she is getting more and more animated, pointing to the door and saying ‘You go outside !’ Not until I get my bloody passport back ! I grab my room keys again and tell her that I’m going back upstairs to check, but a thorough search reveals that it’s definitely not in my room. While I’m up there I type ‘You have my passport’ into Google Translate so that there’s no doubt about what I’m trying to tell her. By now I’ve decided that I’m going to wait at reception and cause a fuss for as long as it takes to get my passport back. Then, when I do go back downstairs, she calmly hands me back my passport as if nothing had happened. How strange.

Today I’ve left myself a short cycle of only 47km before I reach the city of Vinh and it’s half million inhabitants. I’m still on the flat, busy QL1A road, but this afternoon I get to turn inland and ride through some hills, which provides a welcome change. I also get rained on briefly for the first time on this trip, although it’s more refreshing than soaking. In Vinh I’m staying in the fabulously named Tokyo Hotel 2, which has a ground floor car park for scooters next to reception. I ask about my bike and am given the standard line that it will be safe in their car park. There’s nothing solid to chain it to though, so I just feed my lock through the frame and rear wheel. Now it can’t be ridden, but someone could still steal it just by lifting the bike and walking away. This fact plays on my mind for the next hour, so I return to the car park and move the bike upstairs to my room, much to the bewilderment of the reception woman.

I go for a stroll and find a nice walking path round the almost rectangular Lake Goong. As I’m wandering along the urban lakeside, a guy in his twenties stops me, introduces himself and asks if he can speak English with me so that he can practice. In some places this might be seen as a prelude to a scam, but I’ve found that in Vietnam it’s a fairly common request and is totally genuine. His English is patchy, but if there’s anything he can’t understand he gets me to write it down in a little notebook that he seems to carry around for just that purpose. It appears that he can read English to a decent standard, but can’t understand spoken English so well. He tags along with me until I reach the street that my accommodation is on, shakes my hand and then departs, looking quite pleased with his afternoon’s work.

At night I go for food, ordering a big rice meal from the first Plastic Chair Cafe that I find. Through a pantomime of pointing and Thumbs Up gestures, I manage to choose beef patties as the main meal. Once again, I’ve got no real clue what is going to accompany this, so I’m pleasantly surprised when they just keep bringing me little plates of food. I get a beef and broccoli mix, steamed rice, bok choy, soup and some sort of unidentified pickled veg. They offer me a can of coke to drink, but I get the feeling that’s only because they think all Westerners drink coke. I’m also given a small empty bowl, as you’re meant to take ingredients from all the larger bowls and transfer them, bit by bit, into this smaller bowl to eat them. I only know this because the lady owner shows me how it’s meant to be done. Nevertheless, they are very friendly and patient with this curious Westerner who can barely use his chopsticks. I’m happy too, especially as the whole meal comes to a grand total of £2.50.

The following morning I decide to have a Rest Day in Vinh, before what I think will be four days of cycling to take me up to New Year and the Tết Holiday. I try to contact a couple of Vinh locals on Couchsurfing, but in the end it’s an Algerian teacher named Amine who gets back to me. He tells me he’s a vegan, so we arrange to meet up at a vegetarian cafe about ten minutes walk from where I’m staying.

When I get there it turns out he’s not a vegan at all. He’s not even vegetarian. He’s a Muslim. He tells me he only pretends he’s vegan because he finds it too difficult explaining to Vietnamese that he can’t eat pork or that he needs Halal meat. He’s not fanatically religious though, and says as a teenager he stopped going to mosque for about ten years because he always questioned why he had to behave in a certain way. He wouldn’t just settle for the fact that the Koran told him not to eat pork, he always wanted to know WHY. This search for reasons led to many conflicts with a frustrated Imam, and to Amine becoming disillusioned with his religion. In the end he drifted back into it of his own accord in his early twenties. Nowadays he says that most things in the Koran do actually have a reason behind them, so consequently he’s happy to follow them. Fair Enough. I can respect that a lot more than someone who just blindly follows what they’re told to believe.

We have a rice meal, with all the side dishes coming in the form of veggies or tofu, which is a pleasant change for me after all my recent meat consumption. Amine is here in Vietnam teaching English, and his big ambition is to open his own language school once he returns to Algeria. For New Year he’s hoping to hitch-hike his way down to the big coastal city of Da Nang, which should be easy enough for him. It will also be much quicker and a lot more comfortable than cycling

I leave Vinh the next day on a long straight-ish road out of town, cross over a river and stop for breakfast within twenty minutes of setting off. A Plastic Chair Cafe under a highway overpass provides the setting for my usual Bún (noodle soup) breakfast. On this occasion it’s beef noodle soup, which is a simple and filling meal, although starting to become a trifle monotonous.

Today I manage to get off the main QL1A road for a while and through a hilly, forested area. Outside one village there are a handful of water buffalo grazing next to a track that leads from the highway. I pull onto the track to take some pictures of the beasts, but I’m still a bit wary of them and don’t venture too close. They look like they’re tied to a fence, but I can’t be too sure. Part of me thinks they might have much the same characteristics as Highland Cows – horned and potentially fearsome, but just docile old stoners in reality. Some on-line research has told me that domesticated and wild water buffalo are actually a separate species. Nonetheless, If I’m ever in a position to tell the difference, then that will probably be too close.

Once I descend from these small hills, I’m back to cycling through acres of flat, green rice paddies. The fields are divided into rectangles and are in different stages of the growing process. Some are still only muddy fields, some have rows of small, green seedlings poking through and some are covered in taller, lush stalks. I sometimes see the rice workers riding old, clapped-out bicycles and then leaving them at the roadside while they jump off and tend to their field. It’s quite comforting to know they can just abandon their bike on the road verge and be sure it will still be there when they return. It must be tedious, back-breaking work though, spending hours bent over, ankle deep in water and replanting each seedling one by one. Most of the workers are wearing large round hats that taper into a shallow cone shape at the top to shade them from the sun. Seeing a group of rice workers in the fields, labouring under these pale-coloured conical hats is such an iconic postcard image of rural Vietnam.

I reach the busy city of Hà Tĩnh and check in to a large, plain looking hotel that has the feeling of an old communist style government building. My bike is left in the hotel lobby, chained to a luggage trolley, with the receptionist promising that she’ll keep an eye on it. In the evening I turn my attention to the issue of where I’m going to spend New Year. This is far from straightforward as virtually all businesses close for a few days over the Tết Holiday. Even finding places open for food while I’m cycling might be as big a problem as finding accommodation. In the end I manage to find a Homestay in the coastal city of Đồng Hới and book in there for two nights. This gives me two days to cover the remaining 150km, which hopefully shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The alternative to reaching Đồng Hới is that I’ll be stranded with nowhere else open at New Year if I don’t. So there’s my motivation.

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