Vietnam, interrupted

Posted on 2020-01-27

Our trip to Vietnam got off to a good start. We reached the Vietnamese border town of Mong Cai relatively early in the afternoon, despite leaving Fangchenggang quite late in the morning. Following the coast, the road was finally flat, and we had good tailwind behind us, so we cruised along at unexpectedly high speed. We were also running on a boost of motivation, as we were excited to be finally entering Southeast Asia, a region that both of us have travelled extensively before (especially Hannah). Returning to Southeast Asia felt a little like the start of the home stretch.

As we arrived early, we waited a few hours to meet our Warmshowers host, who was working at his 9-5 job while we hung out at his restaurant. After having dinner together and showing us to his home, he returned to his restaurant for the night, the busiest time there. It turned out that he worked not just two, but three (or more) jobs, and still has energy on top of that to host cyclists! While we were surprised at first, some of our subsequent hosts had a similar level of industrious-ness, that seems quite normal in Vietnam.

With our host Duc in front of his new restaurant in Mong Cai, just after the border from China

With our host Duc in front of his new restaurant in Mong Cai, just after the border from China

From Mong Cai, it was two relatively flat and easy days along the coast to Halong. Even though the climate here is basically the same as our last stretch in China, the vegetation suddenly became a lot more tropical, and we enjoyed the cool-but-not-cold "winter" weather that hovered around the low 20s, perfect for cycling. We found the traffic in Vietnam to be slightly better than in China, mainly because people look at where they're going when they drive, but Vietnamese drivers use their horns even more liberally than the Chinese, and we found ourselves wearing earplugs on the road almost all the time. The Vietnamese people are friendlier than the Chinese though, which helped to offset some of our road rage.

Karst mountains popping up behind the buildings between Cam Pha and Halong

Karst mountains popping up behind the buildings between Cam Pha and Halong

As we approached the city of Halong, we took a small coastal road that rewarded us with views of the famous Halong Bay, with its karst peaks rising abruptly out of the water. As we had both been on a Halong Bay cruise before, we didn't plan to take another one this time, but the views from land were just as impressive as we remembered them. In Halong, we stayed with a Couchsurfing host who runs his own tourism business, including Airbnb rentals in the city. As luck would have it, one of the best rooms in his apartment was available and he let us stay there - a beautiful room with an amazing panoramic view of Halong Bay!

Fishing boats in Halong Bay

Fishing boats in Halong Bay

Women collecting fish from the fishing boats in Halong Bay

Women collecting fish from the fishing boats in Halong Bay

From Halong, it was a relatively short ride to Haiphong, the third largest city in Vietnam and home to one of the country's largest ports. We needed to travel to Hanoi for Heiko to apply for a visa to Laos, but given the infamously chaotic traffic there, we had no desire to cycle into the city. Furthermore, we planned to stay closer to the coast while continuing our way south, and cycling to Hanoi would have been a detour inland. So we arranged to leave our bicycles with a Couchsurfing member in Haiphong for a couple of days while we traveled to Hanoi by bus (there) and train (back).

Tree-lined street in Haiphong

Tree-lined street in Haiphong

In Hanoi, we stayed with another Warmshowers host - a density of hosts that we have not experienced since Iran, surpassing all expectations we had about the hospitality of the Vietnamese people. As we had both visited Hanoi before too, we didn't plan to do any sightseeing, and only budgeted enough time to complete some "admin" tasks (applying for Heiko's Lao visa and renewing our typhoid vaccinations) as well as catch up with some of Hannah's friends in the city. By this time, we were both already feeling a little unwell, possibly due to the sudden change to warmer temperatures (since Fangchenggang) and accummulated poor sleep. After getting both typhoid and influenza vaccinations (the latter by the doctor's recommendation), we were both feeling even more unwell, but we attributed it to side-effects of the vaccines. Nevertheless, tasks completed, we were glad to leave the bad air quality of Hanoi behind and return to Haiphong.

In Haiphong, we checked into a small guesthouse (actually a room in a family home) and promptly crashed. The next day, Hannah's (ironically) flu-like symptoms only became worse, but we waited it out for another day before we decided to see a doctor. The first "international" hospital we went to, however, was completely useless, as Hannah was sent around the hospital for checks, only to be prescribed mouthwash and medicines for conjunctivitis, which she clearly didn't have. We paid the doctors but skipped the medicines, and returned to our guesthouse wondering if we should evacuate to somewhere with better medical care. With more research, however, we found another international hospital in Haiphong that seemed more trustworthy (modern building, English-speaking staff), so we went there the next day, and that's where Hannah got a proper diagnosis (sinusitis), along with a course of antibiotics for a week. So we stayed on in Haiphong, hoping that the symptoms would subside once the antibiotics started (as it did for some of Hannah's illnesses before) and we might be able to continue soon. However, after the antibiotics ended, Hannah was still coughing so much her ribs hurt, and it even woke our hosts up in the middle of the night, full of concern and ready to take Hannah to the hospital again if needed. Although our hosts were really kind, we really didn't want to hang out in the guesthouse any longer, after already staying for almost two weeks and not knowing how long more we would need. So after some consideration, we booked a flight from Hanoi to Singapore the next day, where we went straight from the airport to Hannah's family doctor.

We've spent a week in Singapore now and we are waiting a few more days to fully recover before booking our flights back to Hanoi, where we left our bicycles. Our unexpected return has allowed us to spend Chinese New Year with family (yay!), but it has also coincided with the escalation of the Wuhan virus, so it has been a highly suspicious time to be sick. All we can say to this unfortunate timing of events is: Hannah doesn't have the Wuhan virus, and she didn't get the flu from the flu shot. Get your flu shots, people!