From Laos, we cycled to Hanoi passing Mai Chau and Hoa Binh. After about 10 days of the saddle enjoying Hanoi and surroundings, we continued towards the Chinese border of Lao Cai, taking the longer route going through the Ha Giang province.
The first couple of days riding in Vietnam were rough, and if it wasn’t for meeting our family in Hanoi I would have turned around and go straight back to Laos…well I am glad we didn’t :).
Anyway, our journey in Vietnam started with 150 km of road works: that means dust, mud, so many trucks! I guess coming from Laos the heavy traffic came a bit as a shock, and we had to learn quickly that bicycles are at the bottom of the ‘transportation chain’ and that trucks would run us over without hesitating if we wouldn’t move out of their way. We hated it!! And we had to be so focused on the road that we couldn’t give much attention to the beautiful landscapes (lush green rice paddies) and people along the road harvesting bamboo. But we also experienced some amazing generosity, with people inviting us for tea, or offering us watermelon and super sour little red ‘berries’ dipped in chili salt (We haven’t found out what they are…at first I thought they were cherry tomatoes…).
After 2 days of ‘mud, sweat and tears’ (yes, I had my first meltdown), we finally rolled into Mai Chau. We cleaned the dirt from our bikes and panniers and bodies, and felt ready to forget all about the previous 2 days. On our way to Hanoi we also passed Hoa Binh, a little city that had a great vibe. In the late afternoon, when the temperatures cooled down a bit, the city really came alive with kids playing in the streets a crazy market alley with scooters and people everywhere. We also had our first Vietnamese coffee…I know you’ve heard me rave about Lao coffee before, but this coffee just enters a whole new level. It is thick and dark like oil (coffee and water close to a 1:1 ratio), impossible for us to drink without condensed milk…but it tastes like heaven!
We managed to cycle in (and later out again) Hanoi without too much difficulty, and we were quite impressed by everyone’s reflexes on the road.
We were super stoked to surprise our family (they were only expecting us the following days), which we hadn’t seen in more then 1 ½ year! After a few days in Hanoi living like queens and kings, Seba and I went on separate trips: he went to Halong Bay with his parents to relax on a boat and kayak around limestone cliffs peaking from the ocean, and I went with the Luxembourgish crew on a little tour south of Hanoi, as they had already visited Halong Bay. We walked through the rainforest of the Cuc Phuong National Park, and took a rowboat on the Ngo Dong River through karst caves in Tam Coc. We loved spending some time with our families, it gave us renewed energy and motivation to continue our trip.
We also applied for our Chinese visas, and decided to ask for a 2 months visa straight away even if we hadn’t heard about anyone getting more than 1 month at the embassy in Hanoi. Worst case they would only give us 1 month, right? (or could they have refused our application? We don’t know….) Anyway we were amazed to find out a week later that our plan worked out!
We liked the vibrant and chaotic city of Hanoi, but 10 days were enough and we were itching to get moving again. A few people told us that we couldn’t leave Vietnam without doing the road from Dong Van to Meo Vac in Northern Vietnam, apparently it is a must-do in SE Asia. It was a little bit out of our way, and we looked at all the different possibilities to go there with the few remaining days on our visa. Unfortunately, there was no way of making it without taking another mode of transportation. So we opted to cycle to Ha Giang, and from there did a 2-day loop with a scooter. If we should have any regrets on our route planning so far then it would be that we didn’t manage to cycle that road, because it truly offered some of the best landscapes we have seen so far (the photos don’t do it any justice at all). The Dong Van plateau is like travelling on a different planet, with black karst peaking (‘stone forest’) from a pastoral landscape, houses with mud walls, and beautiful folds in the limestone at the Ma Pi Leng pass (between Dong Van and Meo Vac), all that without the distractions of tour buses, travel groups or large hotels. A few ethnic minorities live in these mountainous regions. We timed our visit well, as we were there for the Sunday market. Women worn their very colourful traditional clothes, which reflect the customs of the local ethnic groups most of which have remained unchanged for centuries. Men were mostly in black (we saw the occasional beret, ‘souvenir’ of the French influence).
With the visa ticking we got back on our bicycles, and quickly made our way to Lao Cai, to cross into China, and of course getting scammed one last time at the border (like on so many occasions before…that is the only side of Vietnam I won’t miss).