On the road again

Posted on 2020-02-18

After two weeks in Singapore (and almost one month off the bicycles - who knew a bout of sinusitis would take so long?) we flew back to Hanoi, where we had left our bicycles, to continue our journey. When we got into old town, where our hotel was, we were surprised to find the streets emptier than when we left - perhaps partly due to it being the end of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, as well as the coronavirus outbreak keeping people off the streets. We also learnt that schools had closed in Vietnam in a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus - and that anti-Chinese paranoia was at an all time high (and Hannah was not spared).

As before, we wanted to avoid cycling in the chaotic city traffic, so we planned to take the train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. We thought taking the train would be as easy as it was from Haiphong to Hanoi - fixed price for bicycles, with staff helping us load and unload our bicycles onto the cargo carriage. Unfortunately, things were quite different at the Hanoi train station - with unfriendly staff shouting unhelpfully at us and trains that were already full when we wanted to buy tickets. So we took a bus instead, which went relatively smoothly after some price negotiations with the driver for taking our bicycles on board.

Ninh Binh is also known as "Halong Bay on land", less well known but equally impressive as its more famous counterpart. The karst landscape area is actually a few kms west of the city, and surprisingly rural. We stayed in a guesthouse in a village close to the karst landscape area and spent a day cycling around. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favour, with light rain and low clouds throughout the day, so we skipped taking the tourist boat ride through the secnic area. However, we did visit Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, exploring the few temples remaining there.

Cycling through paddy fields in Ninh Binh, with beautiful karst landscape in the background

Cycling through paddy fields in Ninh Binh, with beautiful karst landscape in the background

Tourist boats rowing down the river and into the mist-ical karst landscape at Trang An, Ninh Binh

Tourist boats rowing down the river and into the mist-ical karst landscape at Trang An, Ninh Binh

Cycling through Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, in Ninh Binh

Cycling through Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, in Ninh Binh

From Ninh Binh, we were determined to stay off the QL1, the main highway from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, as much as possible on the way to Vinh. We first took the QL10, which was still busier than we liked though, so we turned off onto some even smaller roads just before the Phat Diem Cathedral. At the cathedral, we stopped to take a look around the complex, built in 1892 in a unique blend of Vietnamese and European architectural styles. After the cathedral, it was back on the QL10, where the traffic had thankfully lessened a bit, all the way to Thanh Hoa.

Bell tower of Phat Diem Cathedral in Ninh Binh province, built in 1892 in a blend of Vietnamese and European architectural styles

Bell tower of Phat Diem Cathedral in Ninh Binh province, built in 1892 in a blend of Vietnamese and European architectural styles

When we arrived in Thanh Hoa, we were surprised to see a touring bicycle parked at our hotel - though we never met the owner. The next morning, we were even more surprised to find two more touring bicycles parked there - and this time we met the owners, an Australian-Irish couple touring around Vietnam. We haven't seen so many touring cyclists in a long time!

From Thanh Hoa to Vinh, we cycled almost all the way on small roads, staying as close to the coast as possible. We often cycled on dykes, where there was little to no traffic altogether. Sometimes we had nice views of the sea, often lined with fishing boats. Other times, we had to maneuver through trash-piled roads, as the coastal roads tend to be back roads of towns and villages where nobody lives. We also passed countless paddy fields, with many farmers hard at work planting rice at this time of year. What surprised us the most was the number of cathedrals we saw, spires sticking out of the otherwise flat, rural landscape - even more than what we remember seeing in Europe, despite Catholicism only making up about 7% of the population.

Farmers planting rice, on the way from Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa

Farmers planting rice, on the way from Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa

Fishing boats moored on the shore, on the way from Thanh Hoa to Vinh

Fishing boats moored on the shore, on the way from Thanh Hoa to Vinh

Quite the elaborate nativity scene at the Pilgramage Centre of Cua Bang at Ba Lang parish, on the way from Thanh Hoa to Vinh, complete with the Three Kings (on camels), Santa Claus, and a couple of penguins (??)

Quite the elaborate nativity scene at the Pilgramage Centre of Cua Bang at Ba Lang parish, on the way from Thanh Hoa to Vinh, complete with the Three Kings (on camels), Santa Claus, and a couple of penguins (??)

In Vinh, we took a rest day, which coincided with a whole day of rain, so it was a good thing that we didn't plan to cycle. The next day, we turned westwards, away from the coast and towards the Lao border. We would eventually need to get on the QL8A, but we (again) took small roads for as long as possible. When we finally merged with the main road after about 20km, the traffic had become relatively quiet. We cycled up to the village of Nuoc Sot, where our maps told us there was accommodation available, the last options before the big climb up to the border. When we turned up, however, our first option, a guesthouse in a water bottling company, was not in operation, and our second option, a "cheap guesthouse" (as in, that was its name), only looked really cheap, but the owner quoted us a relatively high price and refused to negotiate. So, out of spite, we cycled a full 13km back down to the last town, Tay Son, and somewhat splurged on a fancy hotel there (but with oh so comfortable beds, after so many hard beds in Vietnam).

The view from our hotel room in Tay Son

The view from our hotel room in Tay Son

The next day, it was then a long, hard climb to the Lao border, through increasingly dense forest. By this time, traffic had died down even more, and mostly comprised of trucks (both Vietnamese and Lao) heading to the border. When we finally arrived at the top, we almost cycled straight out of Vietnam without going through immigration as we maneuvered through the massive pile-up of trucks at the Vietnamese border post.

Dense forested slopes on our way up to the Lao border at Cao Treo

Dense forested slopes on our way up to the Lao border at Cao Treo