Day 4: This morning we are about to leave Hanoi for the countryside to the west. Nam attempts to teach us some important Vietnamese words. The Vietnamese language is tricky. Due to its tonal nature, a single word can have many different meanings, depending on the inflection you put on it.
The greeting ‘Xin Chao’ with a downward emphasis on the second word, means “Hello”, but say the same phase with an upward emphasis on the second word and you are begging for rice porridge. We learn the first few numbers, so we can say “one, two, three, cheers” (“mot, hai, ba,Yo” ), how to say “Thank You”, “How much?”, “Too Expensive” “beer (bia)” and “I love you.” We feel we are ready to go out into the world, hopefully without insulting anyone’s mother.
We travel Northwest of Hanoi by van, to visit the ancient town of Thay, and the Tayphuong pagoda (built in the 8th century). The pagoda hosts many Buddha statues, and nearby a market is in progress. We ride a bit further by van to the spot where our bike truck is waiting, and where we begin our 50 km cycle through the countryside. As we pass, young children run out into the roads yelling “Hello, hello!”, looking for high fives and smiles. We dodge lots of dogs, chickens, goats, beautiful cows, and the odd water buffalo. We see surprisingly few cats, and wonder why.
Plant stalks for brooms lie drying by the side of the road. Fields of sugar cane and rice paddies surround us. Wet rice is grown in this area, and the inhabitants produce two or three crops a year, depending on the water supply. The plants are in the early stages of growth now. Apparently the seedlings are grown in bulk elsewhere, and when the planting is ready to begin, they are taken from these nursery paddies and planted individually in the paddies where they will mature and ripen.
Small towns are dotted with pho (soup) shops, where customers sit on diminutive yet colorful plastic chairs in front of low tables. There are shops with decorated, tall and narrow living quarters built behind them, the sides unfinished as another one will likely be built adjoining. Many shrines surround the homes and fancy temples dot the neighbourhoods. Ancestors are often buried in sepulchers in the family rice field. We stop for jackfruit and coffee towards the end of the day at a nice waterfall, and then cycle to our home for the night.
We spend the evening in Mai Chau village, a popular location for homestays, and all sleep in a greatroom on stilts, with bamboo floors, similar to the one we saw in the Ethnology Museum. As we walk on these floors, we feel that the slats could break at any time and send us plummeting to the floor below, but in reality they are sturdy and safe. This picturesque little village is surrounded by rice paddies.
Tossing and turning on board-hard beds under mosquito nets, we are awakened around 1:30 am by a lively rooster right under the floor, whose every ‘cock a doodle do’ is answered by ten others in the neighbouring farms. Some of our group find it a comforting rural lullaby, others not so much. The meals are wonderful – rice, spring rolls, veggies, meat dishes, soup (at the end of the meal) and fruit for dessert. We are still enjoying spring rolls.
In restaurants the local beers are cheaper than bottled water, so we feel compelled to try them all out. (Rob is collecting labels so we feel a duty to contribute to his collection.) The Hanoi brand seems to be the favorite to date, with Saigon next, and 333 (“ba, ba, ba”) at the bottom of the heap. Vietnamese Dalat wine is not great, and is much more expensive than other drinks, so we don’t drink it often.
Day 5: We spend an hour in the morning at the local country market, where live chicks, chickens, pigs, ducks and dogs (yes, they eat dogs in the north) are crammed into in bamboo baskets and available for sale. Live fish swim in bowls to be cut up as required for sale. I find it hard to look at the dogs, as they are so cute.
There are oodles of vegetables, some even recognizable: beans, cabbage, bok-choy, spring onions, garlic, ginger, cilantro. There are small tart Vietnam apples, water apples, milk apples, tapioca root, watery dragon fruit, and sweet pineapple. Nam introduces us to jack fruit, which we all really like. Later in the south, we will find the stinky durian fruit, which piques our curiosity.
We begin our 50 km cycle pushing our mounts up a steep mile-long hill, then enjoy a lovely stretch of downhill cycling on a pleasant but bumpy buffalo track, overlooking beautiful vistas. We experience our first country toilet, making our way through the home and garden at the back of the country store – upsetting the chickens and the huge pig (thankfully penned) en route – to the open shelter with the porcelain hole in the ground and a bucket of water nearby for flushing. It is rustic, but workable. It also underscores the tough conditions many in the country still face. We meet a very old bare-footed women on our trail, with teeth blackened to show her married status, and give her some of our snacks, for which she thanks us all profusely. There is little social safety net for the old in Vietnam – the family plays this role. It seems that little is gratis in “communist” Vietnam.
We return to Hanoi for another night at the Authentic Hanoi Hotel. About 10 kms out of town we hear a ‘buck buck’ from the back of the van and discover a stowaway chicken, which was purchased by one of our support staff. We decide we need a change from Vietnamese food and go out for pizza. The street has been closed for a weekly festival, and several singing performances are held right across from our tiny table.
Day 6 and 7: We set out from Hanoi again by van, heading Northeast towards Ha Long Bay, where we are to spend the night on a tourist junk. Ha Long means “descending dragon” , and the bay is full of the most interesting natural structures. We climb into small boats and visit a local fishing village, oyster farm, and pearl factory. Back on the junk we receive a lesson in making salad rolls, and after dinner Rob and I do some squid jigging at the side of the boat. We each catch a squid, but mine is more beautiful than his. I’m not certain if they were cast back afterwards, or became part of the next day’s lunch.
The following day we visit a local cave, followed by a beach, but the weather is too cold to swim. It’s back to the boat for brunch, then the return voyage to the mainland, where we are met again by Nam. Continuing to the airport, we take an afternoon flight to Hue, in central Vietnam. Rob travels through airport security with a full bottle of water in his hip pocket, without being arrested. Hoa, our new guide for central Vietnam, meets us at the airport and takes us to the Romantic Hotel, then out for a Central Vietnamese dinner.
For more information:
- Lac Viet – our tour operator
- Biketours.com – the US company that did all the arangements
- Part One: Cycling in Vietnam – Hanoi
- Next part: Cycling in Vietnam – Central: Hue & Hoi An
- Why Travel Alone?