2nd FEBRUARY 2019
After complaining that all my noodle soup breakfasts were lacking in variety, I’m quite looking forward to seeing what I’ll get at this big hotel in Ha Tinh. I choose my seat and am waiting with a sense of eager anticipation, only for the waitress to bring me nothing more than a standard bowl of beef noodle soup. It’s a disappointing start to my day, but at least my bike is still chained to the luggage trolley in the hotel lobby. There’s always a slight worry in the back of my mind that I’ll come downstairs to find the bike missing from the place I left it the previous evening.
Because breakfast didn’t really hit the spot, I look for somewhere that serves big rice meals for lunch. This is not a difficult task as nearly every roadside restaurant has colourful signs outside to display the types of food they sell. I’ve already worked out that the Vietnamese word for rice is Co’m, so all I have to do is wait until I pass a Plastic Chair Cafe that has a sign outside saying Co’m. It also strikes me that I’m fortunate the Vietnamese language uses the same letters as English. If I was dealing with a language that used symbols or a different Asian script then everything would become a lot more challenging.
It only takes a few kilometres of cycling before I’m able to stop at a cafe that does rice meals. Large servings of rice, chicken bits, soup and veggies are soon disappearing down my greedy throat. I’ve noticed that a lot of Vietnamese meals seem to follow a ‘Carbs, Protein, Vegetables’ pattern. The carbs come in the form of noodles or rice. Protein is usually chicken, beef or fish and you nearly always get a serving of fresh veggies as a side. As a result, this trip is seeing me eat a fresher, more healthy diet than I have done for months – no biscuits, no chocolate, no sandwiches. I’ve hardly had any alcohol either, although I do imagine that is going to change with the upcoming New Year.
As a Westerner cycling through Vietnamese towns and cities, I get my fair share of kids shouting ‘Hello’ and also scooter riders talking to me as we ride along. Today a twenty-something guy on a scooter keeps pace with me for a couple of kilometres, asking questions and practicing his English. He insists his name is Tiger, which I think must have started out as a nickname and then just stuck. In the course of our conversation I learn that he’s an engineer from Ky Ann who studied in Hanoi and wants to marry his childhood sweetheart one day. We continue to chat away and he tootles along beside me for a while until we reach the turn off for his village. He tells me his house is only two minutes away and asks if I’d like to come for tea and meet his family. Now, had this invitation occurred in the UK I would almost certainly have declined, thinking it was a bit weird or even potentially dangerous. However, I’ve found Vietnam to be an extraordinarily safe country so far, even amongst the eight million population of Hanoi. I’m ninety-nine percent sure that Tiger won’t try to spike my tea or lead me off the main road to be mugged.
We cut off the big QL1A road and within a minute he turns into the driveway of a plush looking, modern two-storey home. His father and grandmother are at the house already and I’m given a cup of Vietnamese tea whilst sitting on the front doorstep. The father takes my photo a few times and is very eager to show off the family’s peach blossom tree, which has been moved into a prominent position in his front yard for the upcoming Tết celebrations. Tiger continues to practice his English on me, but I’m not really able to communicate much with the rest of the family. After about five minutes his phone rings and he says he has to go and meet a friend, bringing this bizarre little episode to an end not long after it started. I thank the family for tea, before heading back up the concrete track to the main road.
Fifteen minutes later I’ve cycled through Ky Ann and have reached my accommodation on the other side of town. It’s a thin, four storey hotel up a dusty side street that looks posh but is really incredibly cheap. The receptionist is a friendly girl in her twenties who doesn’t quite know what to make of my post cycling appearance. Its difficult to tell if she’s shocked, amused or fascinated. I think I’ll settle for ‘fascinated’ as she reaches out to touch my arm when she sees it glistening wet through a combination of sunscreen and sweat. The temperatures have been creeping up since I’ve left Hanoi, but it’s barely registered until now as the change has been so gradual. It’s hard to believe I was wearing a fleece top and cargo pants a week ago.
A piping hot shower returns my arms to their normal self, and I open the two windows on either side of my corner room to create a cooling airflow. When I go back downstairs the receptionist asks if I would like to order breakfast for the following morning. Needless to say, I don’t spend much time debating this question. I’m told I can order two choices if I want, so opt for a baguette and an omelette. She says they will be ready at 8.00am tomorrow morning.
8.00am arrives and so does a knock at my door. It’s the receptionist who tells me ‘Sorry, we not doing breakfast today because of Tết Holiday’. This is not the alarm call I was hoping for, and I’m actually quite gutted by the news. There are a couple of Pot Noodle type containers in my room, so I boil up my remaining water and have to settle for those instead. I say Goodbye to the receptionist, who walks with me to the hotel entrance and watches while I upend my bike to pump a little air into the tyres. Then she takes me completely by surprise and asks if I would like her to pump the tyres up for me. Perhaps she sensed my disappointment over the lack of breakfast and is trying to make amends. I decline her offer, but have to give her credit on her customer service.
I turn inland this morning and up towards some hills that bring me to my first tunnel of the trip. I’m faced with a smaller road that goes up and over the hills, or the main road tunnel that bores straight through them. I decide to go for the tunnel option as it’s only 500 metres long, although a guy on a motorbike seems to be telling me that my panniers will make me too wide to get through safely. There’s a raised walkway that runs the length of the tunnel, but it’s full of cracks and potholes, so I just plough through on the road. Only one car overtakes me on my way, which is a bit of a blessing as the tunnel is very dark and narrow.
Today is another warm cycle, past farmland, rice fields and over the 700 metre long bridge that spans the mighty Gianh River. An 80km ride gets me to Đồng Hới a bit early for check in, so to kill time I cycle along the city’s river and out towards the coast. I’m now heading in the opposite direction to my Homestay, but it’s a picturesque ride so I don’t mind trundling slowly along. Dozens of blue-coloured fishing boats dominate the river, tied up and set to remain idle for the duration of the Tết Holiday. I carry on down the river, then head North until I reach the blue sea and the white sands of Nhat Le Beach. It’s a gorgeous location to stop, and I’m more than content just sitting there for a while to pass the time.
To get to my accommodation I first have to retrace my tracks back towards the city, then over a long bridge that takes me to the coast on the opposite side of the river. Now I’m on a narrow spit of land that is bordered by the sea on one side and the river on the other. I ride through a little collection of local shops and houses, before I find the Sealand Homestay up a short, dusty track. My hosts are a friendly and chatty couple in their thirties, Candy and Tung. I’m soon to discover that they also have two cats and two kittens, as well as a lovely old dog named Moon who has just given birth to five puppies. Tung must think I look hot and exhausted after my cycle as he sits me down at their outside breakfast bar and brings me a large, refreshing iced tea.
In the late afternoon I go for a walk past the enormous concrete skeleton of an unfinished beachfront hotel and down to the shore itself. The beach is wide and sandy but, disappointingly, has a bit of a litter problem. I’ve already seen that there’s a huge issue with roadside litter in Vietnam – it appears that people don’t think twice about just dumping their trash here. On the beaches it’s usually from family gatherings and picnics where folk simply leave their beer cans, bottles and plastic bags lying around when they depart. I’m not really sure why Vietnamese behave this way, but it’s sad and infuriating. The problem is only going to escalate too, with this relatively small country having to cope with a population of almost 100 million people and one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
I don’t move much from my room once I get back to the Homestay. I’ve just cycled six days out of the last eight and covered around 500km, which is a fairly decent effort to begin a cycle trip with. I crash out early in order to catch up on sleep and to make sure I’m prepared for the big Tết celebrations tomorrow. I’m quite excited as I’m about to experience my second New Year in the space of six weeks !