7th FEBRUARY 2019
My room in the Sealand Homestay was a corner room on the first floor. If I opened the balcony doors and also a window on the adjacent wall, then a cooling breeze would blow nicely through the room. During my three days at the Homestay I began to notice a pattern with the changing wind directions during the day. In the early mornings there would be no breeze to speak of, but in the late morning a wind would start to blow from the North. Then, by mid afternoon it would turn round completely with a strong South-Easterly blowing in off the sea. This all affects my cycling. Early morning no wind. Late morning tailwind. Mid afternoon headwind. And it would just be my luck that the strongest of these winds is the headwind, which will make late afternoons a battle when I’m already tired after a day’s cycling.
I have my final Homestay breakfast of banana pancakes with chocolate sauce while sitting on the outside decking. I say Goodbye to Tung and Candy, who have been absolutely brilliant during my stay. I’ll always remember my Vietnamese New Year and the kindness they showed in taking me round all their friends and relatives to see how it’s celebrated. I leave them under an almost foggy sky, cross the Nhật Lệ river one final time and start heading South out of town. Despite the fog and clouds, it’s an oppresively hot and sticky morning. Within half an hour I have rivulets of sweat running down my forehead, along my eyebrows and into the corners of my eyes. The cloud clears quickly though, meaning my first 100km day of this trip will be ridden in blazing sunshine.
The first 60km are fairly easy, although the heat becomes more stifling as the day wears on. I stop for lunch at a large Plastic Chair Cafe where I slump onto a seat and order a rice meal. It’s a family run business where the adults are happy to let their twelve year old son deal with me as he can speak a little bit of English. Like kids the world over he is wearing a football top and he’s keen to show off his English speaking skills to his family, walking past my table every few minutes to speak with me. I ask for chicken with my rice but, apparently, the birds haven’t been delivered yet and I have to make do with fish. I’m expecting some tempura-style chunks of fried fish, so am a little taken aback when a whole fried fish arrives at my table, with head and tail still attached. It’s a lovely golden colour, with a large triangular head and a rather sad looking mouth. I concentrate on the centre of the fish, trying to remove as much flesh as I can from the middle without going too near the head or tail. It’s delicious too, despite appearances, and I get all the usual sides of rice, soup, salad and steamed bok choy. Instead of dipping my food into the small saucers of soy and fish sauce, I simply pour the sauces over my rice to give it some flavour. Drink comes in the form of tea, which is served in a plastic jug and poured into a smaller glass containing ice. I can see green leaves circling the bottom of the jug as I pour, but also a couple of tiny insects floating on the surface. Still, it’s so refreshing poured over ice that I ignore the insects and drink most of it.
Today, without realising it at the time, I pass a significant place in Vietnam’s history when I cross the Bến Hải river. This was the dividing line between the warring factions of North and South Vietnam during the First Indochina War, and later the Vietnam War. The country was essentially cut in half, with this river acting as the border between North and South Vietnam. For 5km on either side of the river there was a demilitarised zone, or ‘D.M.Zee’ as the Americans would call it, although the surrounding area is still considered dangerous nowadays due to the threat of unexploded mines. I wish I had been aware of all this beforehand, but instead I just cycled on over the river completely unaware. For me, the day hots up even further after this landmark, through a humid, flat landscape of farms and rice fields.
It’s getting towards late afternoon by this point too, so I’m now fighting a strong headwind in addition to the energy sapping heat. As the sun moves lower towards the West, my right hand side starts to heat up uncomfortably. I’m plastered in sunscreen, but my face, neck, ear and bicep are still burning and hot to touch. Towns and roadside trees do afford some shade, although the next 20km are tough going on the flat road into a headwind. In one town I stop, lean my bike against a flagpole and just sit on a pavement in the shade for half an hour trying to cool down. All the while I’m sitting there, a Vietnamese flag atop the pole above me is flapping furiously, showing me the strength of wind I’m cycling into. A small climb signals the end of this stretch, and I pause at the top, sweating, for a big chilled bottle of water. I can always tell when I’m dehydrated as simple things like plain water start to taste magnificent. The restorative powers of drinking cool water on a boiling day are miraculous and I feel refreshed within seconds.
When I reach Đông Hà it’s after 5.00pm, just as myself and the daylight are both beginning to fade. I turn off the main road and follow the town’s river upstream for about 3km to reach my Homestay for tonight. By this point my cycling top is sticking to me with the amount of sweat it’s absorbed today and it has to be literally peeled off over my head. The shower is bliss, but as I’m unpacking I realise that I’ve left my toothbrush and toothpaste back in Đông Hới this morning, much to my annoyance. I head out for food, however the ongoing Tết Holiday means I can only find one Plastic Chair Cafe open, its chairs sitting outside and taking up most of the pavement. Pointing and Thumbs-Up gestures gains me a big bowl of chicken noodle soup with several bony chunks of meat in its midst. Pleasantries are out tonight, so I just pick the chicken chunks up in my hands and chew the meat off, caveman style. I can’t tell if the owners are surprised to see a Westerner in their cafe, or just surprised to see a Westerner with such appalling table manners. Either way, my soup hits the spot beautifully. Back at the Homestay I have to make use of an overnight fan for the first time on this trip, partly to keep me cool and partly to stop mosquitos from landing on me.
The Homestay had told me they weren’t doing breakfasts because of the Tết Holiday, so I’m a bit gutted the following morning to see the whole family tucking into noodle soup as I leave. In lieu of breakfast I do get them to sell me about fifteen mini bananas for 35p, which should keep me going today. Once I’m out on the road it feels just as hot and sticky as yesterday, but without the same morning cloud cover to diminish the sun’s rays. Normally a 75km day would be fairly straightforward, but my energy levels are so low after toiling for 100km yesterday in a humid, thirty-three degree heat.
By midday I’m drenched with sweat and crimson coloured when I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe for lunch. The woman owner sits me on a chair, plugs in a pedestal fan and points it straight at me to help cool me down. I must look as hot and knackered as I feel. The rest of her family take turns to come out from their adjoining house for an excuse to look at the sweltering foreigner sitting in their cafe. I have hot beef noodle soup and am offered a can of energy drink to go with it, presumably because I look so wrecked. It’s a real effort to drag myself away from the fan afterwards, and I procrastinate for ages before I get back on the road. I carry on in the sultry, baking heat, with the sun only hitting the right side of my face and body once again.
About 15km from Huế (Whay) I’m able to leave the big, noisy QL1A route and get onto a quieter minor road. I’m stopping with increasing regularity now, limping my way slowly towards my destination. I’ve been cycling through flat rice fields and under a relentless sun most of the day, but I start to receive more shade from buildings as I near Huế. Despite this let-up from the sun I’m beginning to feel a bit woozy. Every time I stop to drink water or check google maps I feel dizzy. I cross a bridge over the wonderfully named Perfume River and into the city. I’ve only 3km to cycle now but I feel rotten, as if I’m about to throw up.
In my favour, Huế is a green, tree-lined city along its river banks, which offers some welcome, cooling relief as I flounder my way towards my accommodation. One final causeway-type bridge has me at the Charming Riverside Hotel, where a young lady called Nga greets me. She tells me to sit and wait in reception while she goes off to get me some juice and freshly cut fruit as a welcome. It’s an absolute godsend ! Cold fresh orange juice, as well as a plate of chopped mango, banana, watermelon and dragon fruit. Every guest receives this welcome, but I bet none appreciate it as much as me. I leave my bike chained to a banister downstairs and then have to trudge, in super slow-motion, all the way up to the third floor with my bags as the lift is out of order.
Nga had told me that breakfast is served on the fifth floor every morning, which apparently offers diners great views of the river. I ask if it’s alright to go up and take a look now, but then I sneak up one extra level to a storage floor above the breakfast room. The view is brilliant from up here, with a hazy sun about to set over mountains in the distance and reflecting yellows and oranges onto the languid Perfume River below. I spend about half an hour up there just taking in the view and snapping a few pictures. My hands feel a little shaky on the camera, so I’m still not quite right despite the fruit and drink welcome.
I feel so drained that I don’t move from my room all night. Luckily, this hotel has air-conditioning, so I laze around in the cool airflow eating what remains of my mini bananas. The high temperatures and humidity have really got to me in the last couple of days, possibly even afflicting me with a touch of heat-stroke. I’ve cycled 175km in those two days, which is a decent distance for me at the best of times, but especially so with the hot, tough conditions that I’ve faced. I keep telling myself that I need to be doing shorter, more manageable days when the weather hots up like this. I’ve got a month left on my visa extension and I’m almost halfway down the country, so there’s really no need to be pushing big distances on these hot days. I put this thinking into play immediately by opting to take it easy and remain in Huế for the next couple of days.