Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A bumpy ride into Vietnam

24th August - 5th September 2012
8744 - 9201km
O Yadao – Pleiku – Kon Tum – Plei Kan – Dak Glei – Ngam Xoi – Hoi An

There's always one isn't there. Always one who has to spoil it. Nine months on the road and we only had good things to say about all the countries we've cycled through, then Vietnam swoops in and whacks us with a double barrelled twat cannon. If we'd thought hills would be the toughest thing we'd come across on this trip we hadn't banked on the gauntlet of hyena-grade hospitality we would encounter here. We were in for a rough ride through Vietnam and it began as we pedalled our way through the central hills on our way to a rendezvous on the coast.


And yet it all started so well. We were up at dawn on the 24th and got the tent packed away in time to join Jamjam and the rest of the border guards for breakfast. That done we headed over to the red striped barrier where they stamped us out of Cambodia and waved us goodbye. Goodbye indeed Cambodia, we will miss you. A muddy lane wound for a few minutes then we were Viet-side, greeted by border guards and oppressive lumps of windowed concrete.

We were, I admit, somewhat wary about the weeks ahead. Over the last few months we'd met a couple of travellers who'd bit their lips sympathetically when we mentioned our plans to visit 'Nam.

“Why the winces?” We'd ask “You not have a good time?”

“Ah it's not that.” this half remembered conversation might have gone “We just had a few bad experiences. More than anywhere else. It was tough sometimes. Like, for a communist country they're pretty into capitalising off of you. I'm sure you'll have a great time though.”

This wasn't the first time we'd been cautioned. Almost every country we'd visited had come with a danger tag attached. We'd been warned about everything from street gangs to extremists to dangerous driving and man-eating tigers. We took heed of the advice as it came, but by now we were confident that South East Asia was safe, friendly and unlikely to ingest us.

As we began our first day in Vietnam this trend looked set to continue. We spent the day gliding along a quiet road that gently ascended through grassland and small towns. Most of the hills were ripped bare by industry and many of the remaining 'forests' turned out to be plantations but the people were as lovely as ever and we spent the day waving to excited kids and friendly old fellas sat on their porches. Lunch was good too. The standard affair of noodle soup (called 'Pho') was not too shabby, and the girl running the shop treated us to a free lesson in Vietnamese as we waited for the rain to clear.

Vietnamese is a tough language to get your tongue around. You don't just need to remember the words, but also whether the tone should be high, low, middle, rising, falling, middle-rising, high-falling. Etc etc. And actually getting your word to rise or fall is trickier than you might think too, unless you perform exaggerated head movements and drag your vowel sound up with a skyward wiggle of the head. Does make you look a bit weird. Thankfully the Vietnamese use a romanised script, so if you are struggling to inflect you Pho correctly and mad facial gesticulation is only provoking funny looks, just write it down on a piece of paper.

Ice cream for breakfast, yum!

Making rice noodles

No vacancy

The gentle incline had kept our speed down for most of the day, so it was dusk before the city came into view. Pleiku seemed monstrously huge compared to anything we'd seen since Phnom Penh, stretching out across the plain below, glittering with lights. Our road descended and deteriorated into a ragged pot-holed strip and we battled down in a swarm of motorscooters and trucks.

A hotel sign soon appeared as we rumbled into town, but as I walked in two ladies grabbed me and led me straight outside again, pointing down the road.

“Full, I guess.” I said.

“Or they didn't like the look of you.”

The next hotel did have a room available. A rather distracted young man on reception led me upstairs while he texted away on his phone, then gestured into a small room. I had a look, gave him my “Mmm not bad” expression, then returned downstairs to report back to Liv. OK so it was a bit pricey and we'd have to carry our bags up four flights of stairs but we were knackered and hungry so we decided to take it.

But then something unexpected happened. As Liv began hauling her stuff inside the owner appeared from somewhere, stood right in front of her and began shooing her away “No. No.” and gesturing that we should leave immediately. What was the problem? Was it the bikes? Well, they were a little dusty from the ride into town, but no worse than the bunch of scooters parked in the reception, and it wasn't like she was saying leave the bikes outside, she was making it quite clear that she wanted us to go away.

The guy behind reception refused to look at us when we appealed to him so there wasn't really much we could do. With the woman making brushing motions at us and laughing we turned and rode off down the street, humiliated.

One more hotel turned me back as soon as I walked in, and then after a long hour scouring the streets Liv finally found a hotel that would take us. We checked in and immediately hurried out again to get some food. We were completely exhausted and very, very hungry.


We would find no sympathy from our waitress that evening, who adopted an attitude towards us that can most kindly be described as 'indifferent'. Indifferent to what we wanted to eat. Indifferent to whether we lived or died. Although if we had died I reckon it would have twisted a smile out of her.

She did her level best to ignore us despite the fact we were her only customers, she glowered when she looked at us, wandered off bored half way through our order, and when Liv asked for some extra chilli she served them on a used plate she grabbed from an uncleared table next to us.

Slam! “There's your bloody chillies.” The back of her shirt seemed to say.

As we left we tried out our Vietnamese “thank you”, with not a pinch of sarcasm, and she glared back in icey silence, looking like she was about to punch us. Her attitude was unsettling, but we were knackered and just glad we had found a bed to sleep in. Anyway, being dead-eyed and ignored by a waitress suited the mood of the evening, even if it did not bode well for the coming month. Welcome to Vietnam.

The next morning at breakfast we tried to make some sense of it. Perhaps the hotels really had been full. Maybe that room I'd been shown really had just been booked up. Not likely, it is true. Nine months on the road and we'd never encountered a full hotel, then three in a row in Pleiku. Seemed a bit fishy. Perhaps if Pleiku were a city of dreams then we could understand the discrepancy but unless you are in the grip of a malarial fever then your dreams are unlikely to coincide with the heavy grey reality of this place.

I'll be quite honest with you though, we were concerned. We were about to head out along a back country route through increasingly smaller towns and if we ended up in a one-hotel town and they decided we weren't welcome then we could be in real trouble.

However we did had to admit it was... how to put this... interesting finding ourselves completely stumped by what we'd experienced. Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe it was just that the Vietnamese were so direct that we got the wrong end of the stick and interpreted it as rudeness. After a week or so we'd tune into it, know what to expect and it'd be fine. That's how these things go.

On the war path

For just under a week we made our way north through the hills, following the old supply routes used during the war. The days of bush bashing, aerial bombardment and rickety bamboo bridges are well past thankfully and nowadays a neatly paved two lane highway bobs along the course, named in honour of the north's spiritual mastermind during their fight for independence, the ever present Ho Chi Minh.

They say that you can tell a lot about a country from the people it prints on its currency. In Vietnam every denomination has Uncle Ho upon it, short cropped hair and a benign smile, looking something like Santa's embarrassing out of date driver's license.

We'd been told by a few people that the war was not really an issue here any more. Americans are welcomed with open arms, and many kids didn't really know that much about it. While this may or may not be true, the outcome of the war is evident absolutely everywhere. All across the country these huge posters crop up, populated by proud, angular workers and armed guards, chests inflated, beaming at the hammer and sickle. Whether it's an issue or not, who knows, but the outcome is there to see; bold, red, and proud.

Vietnam would appear to be doing alright for itself too. These 'small towns' on our map, which would have translated into a couple of houses and maybe a shop in Cambodia, revealed themselves to be enormous urban centres tens of thousands strong. After a month in quiet old Cambodia it was a bit of a shock, but as we got further north the towns did begin to diminish in size and within a few days and a couple of hundred kilometres we were zipping by little riverside villages and hilltop markets. All in all it wasn't half bad, although the same could not be said for some of the people we encountered.


The next perplexing mystery in the world of Vietnamese hospitality emerged the day we left Pleiku. We finished up early to allow for any problems we might have getting a room, but all was well. Soon after arriving in town I was being shown into a spacious downstairs room by the owner of a little guesthouse. The room was great, the price was right, so we got to work unloading our bikes, handing our passports over and filling in all the forms. No problems there. But then the lady waved me over and led me upstairs to a different room, a much smaller and dirtier room than the one downstairs. In here, she gestured. I shook my head. She opened another door and waved me inside. Same again, cramped damp little chamber. Bewildered I wandered back downstairs and got the key for the first room. Nothing more was said about it. 

Another misunderstanding perhaps? Well maybe, but it would be hard to interpret standing in one room and discussing a price as actually meaning, “I want a small damp room upstairs please.” A weird one no doubt, but the excitement of eating communist ice creams and seeing decapitated dogs for sale at the market quickly drove out any worries we had and we relaxed into a long lazy afternoon.

Two nights later, after some short but tiring days along the loping highway, we decided to take a day off at the bottom of a large hill in the rather pleasant, slightly dusty township of Dak Glei. We found a little motel tucked away down a rough track and about half an hour later we found the owner too. The rooms were pretty basic for the $10 asking price but we got a few dollars snipped off, and although our Vietnamese was still abysmal and the woman who ran the place spoke absolutely no English, she and I managed to have quite an amiable interaction as we fumbled through the checking in forms. We paid up front and she took our passports to process with the local police.

A dusty day off, then time to check out. We were up early in order to nail this hill before the day got too hot. Our bikes were loaded and ready to go so I found the owner and handed the key back. Could we have our passports back please? She dallied. I stood around twiddling my thumbs for a moment, then the lady wrote something down.


I shrugged. No, I want our passports back. She spoke no English but by pointing and rubbing her fingers together she made it quite clear what was going on. We had to pay another 100'000 dong in order to get our passports back. Confusion from the bartering? No way. This amounted to more than the original asking price, and there was no way there had been a misunderstanding - we had written the figures down, she'd pointed and agreed and we'd paid it in full up front. We had the receipt. She had us by the balls though now, and she wasn't letting up without some extra cash.

Luckily the communication barrier swung things to our advantage. My frowning and head shaking, although in actuality a reserved British protest at the whole situation, appeared like the actions of a man who had absolutely no idea what was going on. The owner believed she needed to be more clear. She unlocked her secret drawer and pulled out our passports. She held them up.

“These.” her finger pointed. “For this.” she pointed at the scrap of paper and rubbed her fingers again.

Still I frowned and shook my head.

She waved the passports before me. “These.” the gesture repeated. “For thi-”

I snatched the passports from her hand.

Liv and I sat gloomily at breakfast trying to think up a nice explanation for what had just transpired, but the only conclusion was that this apparently pleasant woman had just tried to ransom our passports for a few extra bucks. What an absolute cow.

That morning was a long uphill slog through drizzle, but by midday we hit the top, the weather cleared and we enjoyed a first-class afternoon coiling down hills into a sequestered river valley below. Despite its isolation a lot of the land had been cleared, yet there was jungle too, bursting out between hydroplants and bare hills.

Creepy commie posters where everybody has the same face

A miserable restaurant lured us in with promises of a late lunch, but once we'd cracked open some drinks from their fridge we were informed, by inference from the yelling of the chef, that she didn't want to cook us anything after all. We pushed on up the road where our luck turned and we found another restaurant and a log cabin guesthouse. The road ahead of us was pretty steep and we were pretty shattered so we decided to call it a day.

After our ordeal that morning we weren't keen on handing our passports over, so instead we had to spend about 90 minutes filling in forms, speaking to people's brothers on telephones, and sitting down for a mild interrogation with an old man at the restaurant. Still, once the sharp eye of suspicion had fallen from us it meant we could sleep easy knowing that we could just leave without hassle in the morning, because we had a big day ahead of us.

None of the events of the last few days taken on their own were that bad, even the blatant money grabbing of the woman in Dak Glei, scams happen, and she was only asking for $5. What was troubling was their frequency. We'd been in the country six days and yet out of all the places we'd stayed only one had been a simple check in, pay, check out affair. We'd not had anything like this during the whole rest of the trip, no problems back to back like that, and nothing so scruffy and obvious as the passport blaggery.

After a day in the saddle these things weigh heavier than they might otherwise and taken together they had started to accumulate into a faint dread at the end of each day. For the first time geography was not the prime cause of our weariness. We needed a holiday.

We were in luck.

For the past few months we had been trying to arrange a meet up with Liv's parents. After deciding on one country, and then another as our proposed route danced across South-East Asia like an startled earthworm, we had finally pinned down a date and a location. It was in just two days time at the ancient trading port of Hoi An, less than 100km from our log cabin guesthouse.

The stars were still up when we rose the next morning and we cycled like crazy all day down out of the hills and across the plains until we screeched into town a day early.

Meet the parents

After an evening eating pizza by the riverfront and a night in a little hostel we were able to check in to the luxurious Ancient House Resort that would be our lodging for the next week. Thick feta-white walls curled round a cosy courtyard pool and, tucked away along stairwells and walkways, the walls stacked up into balconyed bedrooms. Our porter led the way and showed us inside. For about an hour we lay in amazement on our enormous double bed, cranked up the air conditioning and sipped complementary tea. And then a knock at the door came, and Graham and Chris arrived with cheers and bags and excited hugs.

The last few days had been so taxing that I hadn't really had a chance to process what was coming up, if I had it might have made me a little nervous. Meeting Liv's parents for the first time! Gah! And I haven't had a haircut in 6 months!

Of course I had nothing to worry about. We all got on so well right away that it felt much less an introduction and more a reunion, paving the way for an absolutely brilliant week together. As the four of us explored nearby ruins, paddled in the sea, and roamed about the yellow painted lanes of the old town, Liv caught up on the news from home, and we spun yarns about the last 9 months on the bicycles.

Hoi An was the perfect setting. Lots of narrow alleys and crannies to explore, cafes with views down across the river. Plenty of history locked up in the bricks and the temples and bridges. And although the town was usually busy by the evening, during quieter times of day we could watch centuries old scenes unfold, as women tottered by hauling buckets of water, gnarled old boats tick-tocked upstream, and stall holders cried out the latest catch.

Every single day was a gem, although the boat trip out to Cham island was a particular highlight for me. We spent the day snorkelling around the rocks spying out crazy-coloured odd-bodied fishes, corals and starfish and eels. After a fine lunch on the island we swung in breezy palm shaded hammocks before a final hour bobbing about in the sea. It was just perfect.

We celebrated the end of each day with a popped cork and a lavish meal. Starters, desserts, wine – all unheard of by us budget conscious travellers. The food was always fresh and delicious. Sometimes surprising too. Anybody for pig-ear salad? Yum! Inevitably each night turned into a bit of a late one, the time running away to the sound of chinked glasses and laughter. Giant beds and a big buffet breakfast served to refresh us, and the next day was ready to show us some more great times. Really, it would be hard to imagine a nicer way to spend a week.

But all good things must come to an end, and so too must our wonderful week in Hoi An. Although Chris and Graham had a week in Burma to look forward to, it remained a struggle to say farewell when their taxi arrived to whisk them away. Liv fought off a tear as they disappeared down the road, and I put and arm around her and let out a sigh. The end of a really splendid week. Still, what a week it was, and there'll be plenty more to come.

What did Liv and I have ahead of us though? After our perplexing week through the hills we were none the wiser about what to expect from Vietnam. One minute we were chatting to lovely noodle soup sellers, the next we were being given the evil eye by a waitress with an attitude. One night we're getting on fine with our hotel owner, the next she's trying to jimmy some extra cash out of us.

Vietnam could swing either way in its final two weeks, yet as the afternoon wore on and we lingered by the hotel swimming pool it was quite clear that we'd rather not have to gamble on it, and just carry on the lifestyle of the last six days. Yes, that would have suited us just fine.

Packed up and ready to leave...
...but not just yet.

Testing out some winter-wear
Liv looking lovely
Liv noshing noodles
Vietnamese countryside
Vietnam is a nation of coffee drinkers and they like it as strong as syrup and served with tea.

The village kids in Vietnam were wonderful cheering, waving, racing us on their bikes and giving us high-fives. They kept our spirits up

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