CCCTS Vietnam Bike Tour - January 2011: A View From The Back of the Pack by NMTS Member Ken Levine

NMTS members Ken Levine and Holly Evans belong to a Canadian Bike Club titled Cross Canada Cycle Touring Society (CCCTS) and in January 2011, they joined 14 other CCCTS members for a 3 week sag supported bike tour of southern, central, and northern Vietnam. The trip while, initially planned by the CCCTS, was contracted out to Pedaltours, Inc, a Company specializing in cycle touring in Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, and India. (Ken and Holly will tour India with Pedaltours in November 2011.) In addition, Ken and Holly spent 4 days prior to Vietnam touring the Siem Reap and Angkor Wat areas of Cambodia and then met the other riders in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).This daily journal report starts in Ho Chi Minh City and covers only Vietnam.  
Monday, 1/3

Today, we flew from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City in anticipation of starting the group ride on Wednesday. We self-toured HCM City today and saw how busy the City is. I was born and raised in New York City and this City far exceeds NYC for congestion, traffic, noise, number of people, volume of businesses packed into small areas, and sights to explore. Tomorrow, we will walk around some more and then meet the other participants during the orientation meeting and bike fitting as all the riders are renting bicycles rather than bringing their own.  

Wed., 1/5 
Live from the Saigon Suoi Nhum Resort in Phan Thiet, Vietnam. No Internet access this evening but I'll start this tonight and send it at the first opportunity.  
Today was a killer ride. Not because of the 68 mile (108 km) ride or the terrain from HCM City but rather the heat and terribly strong headwinds the entire day. We headed north mostly along the coast (on the South China Sea) and the wind was just a-blowing in our faces. The only factors that made it bearable was the hundreds of school kids we saw with almost every one of them saying “hello” and riding a bike. A few asked “how you?“ or “what you name?“  We also passed some fishing villages, dragon fruit farms (getting a free sample from the pickers), lots of small towns, and great scenery along the coast.

Holly and I got to the hotel just before 5 having left this morning about 8 a.m. so it was a long day. Lunch was very good and so was dinner. So far, most meals have squid, pork and fish in them. Breakfast usually features fresh baguettes and a variety of fresh fruits and pho (beef noodle soup with meat and/or veggies in it).  After lunch today, there was an option to get into the support vehicle and skip about 15 miles of the last 29 miles (46 km) but we opted to ride it out.  

Tomorrow is an early day with breakfast at 6 a.m., check out at 7:15 a.m. and then loading into the van for a quick drive to where we will start riding. Then we ride to lunch, another short van ride, and finally finish riding to the hotel where we will have the next day off. Just in time to do laundry and relax and see some local sights. We'll get to sleep tonight by 9 p.m. We're both tired but loving the group and trip.  

Thursday, 1/6.

Another long day to get to the 3 star hotel in Nha Treng. We only rode 35 miles but drove over 130 miles. There are no major highways or ways to avoid the many small towns and local traffic.  

We left this morning at 7:30. Drove an hour and then rode 23 miles in hot, sunny, and very windy weather. Once again, it was nasty headwinds over “undulating' roads. But we saw Dragon fruit fields and even sampled some when the fruit pickers insisted on giving us a sample and then one each to take along. The region is famous for growing and exporting this delicious fruit.  
Lunch was at a roadside café. Then back in the vans for a 3 ½ hour drive. We got left off along the south China Sea Coast about 13 miles from our destination  Roads were pretty quiet until we got to our destination, a City of 400,000 people and just as many motor scooters. Navigating to our hotel was a chore. After a quick shower, we drove a mile to a famous BBQ place where we had several hibachis on the tables. We got plates of marinated beef, chicken, squid, prawns, and tuna to BBQ ourselves. Veggies, rice, bread, and dessert were also dropped off at the table. Enough food for all 22 of us. (16 riders, 2 English speaking guides, 2 van driver, and 2 truck drivers.)  

Tomorrow is a day off. However, we are leaving the hotel at 8 a.m. to go to a beach and do some snorkeling before lunch. Afterwards, it's off to see some sights. Fortunately, we are using the vans so we'll be off the bikes for the day. It's 10 p.m. here and time to get to sleep. Take care everyone and thanks for the many emails I've gotten recently. Not sure there is enough time to reply to all of them individually. But thoughts of each of you are with us.  

Jan. 7 in Nha Trang City, Vietnam

Today was a very busy day off with no time to relax. There was so much to see and do and even though it was overcast most of the day with just a sprinkle or two a few times, we loved it. We started at 8 a.m. by visiting a Temple built by the occupants of the land before Vietnam was Vietnam. From the Temple, we had a wonderful view of the City.

Then off to a marina and a 20 minute boat ride in the harbor to an Aquarium located on an Island. Fascinating assortment of fish and we got to feed the giant turtles and sharks. Then, we walked through the surrounding neighborhood ending our adventure when we had to board floating bathtubs for the short paddle back to the boat. The floating bathtubs, made out of woven wood, are round about 6 ft. to 8 ft. in diameter and hold 2 passengers and one or two paddler. What a trip. Cost was 50 cents per passenger. (Attaching a picture.)

Once on the large boat, we headed across the Bay to a busy area for snorkeling.  Some people saw fish and coral close to shore but Holly and I did not see any as we spent most of our time floating away from the boat and then swimming against the strong current to get back to the boat. But the swim was enjoyable and cooling.

Then we headed over to Bamboo Island in the Bay for lunch. It was a 40 minute boat ride in rough and windy seas but the lunch was worth it. We had fish, roasted squid, sweet and sour squid, prawns, oysters, vegetable hot pot, rice, tea, beer (beer in Vietnam is cheaper than tea and generally sells for $1 or less regardless of bottle/can size),  and dessert. Holly and I were very selective with the food. After lunch, it was back on the boat for the ride back to the mainland and the vans. We finally got back to the hotel about 3 p.m.

Once we got back our sea legs, we went for a walk along the beach and then stopped at a supermarket to pick up some snacks for the next few days. As usual, safely crossing streets and getting through round-a-bouts in Vietnam cities takes a lot of skill and prayer. We made it.

Dinner was on our own and Holly and I went to a restaurant just down the street from the hotel. Our guide suggested it and it was very good and very inexpensive. (For example, curry chicken and rice for $3.) Then, a short walk to the night market to end the day's outdoor activities. . 

Tomorrow starts early with a van ride and then a bike ride. There is so much distance to cover before we fly to Hanoi and cycle northern Vietnam that we must drive in the van part way. With the strong headwinds we have had, no one is complaining about the drive.  Signing off for now. Time to get some shut-eye. 

Jan. 8 Nha Trang to Quy Nhon

Today was another long day starting after breakfast at 7:45 a.m. with a 2 ½ hour van ride ending at the summit of Ca Pass. Traffic, small town speed limits, and bad roads conditions kept the van speed down so in the 2 ½ hours, we only advanced about 100 miles. Then it was time to get on the bikes and ride the final 36 km (22 miles) to our lunch spot in Tuy Hoa. Fortunately, there was a tour guide or assistant at major turns in the route to point us in the correct direction .Otherwise, we stayed straight and follow the written instructions and map we get each morning. Unfortunately, there were more strong headwinds and side winds but I think everyone is resolved to ride at a slower pace  and lower gear and enjoy the very few and brief times when the road turns west or south and we have a fantastic tail wind.

Weather was overcast most of the day and cooler than previous days as we go more north. We had a one minute rain when we took shelter.

We drove and rode along the eastern coast once again passing many fishing villages, rice fields, harbors with fleets of fishing boats, shrimp and squid farms, major road construction, and some roads that badly need reconstruction.

After a delicious lunch, we drove another 1 ½ hours and then finished with a quick 29 km (18 mile) ride that included a few steep but short climbs. Once again, the ride sheets mentioned “undulating” terrain but no headwinds. I can only guess that we had said “hello” to children and adults about 200 times during the day. And many children want to give you a high five (slap of your hand with theirs) but we were warned not to as some kids may try to grab your hand as you ride by. 

Holly and I reached the 3 star hotel in Quy Nhon (population 260,000) about 5 p.m. Dinner was at 7 p.m. in the hotel and included soup, fish, beef, French fries (yes, French fries), veggies, and dessert. 

There are hotel computers in the lobby but I'd rather work on my netbook in the room even if there is no wireless access tonight and you'll have to wait at least another day for this update. (The delay will allow you time to get back to your own lives.)

Tonight, our room is on the fifth floor of the Sea Gull hotel and faces the beach. We have the patio door open and the sound of the surf is deafening but very welcome. Very different  than the noise we would have if we opened  the house windows in North Vancouver or Albuquerque in January.

Well family and friends that is it for tonight. Hopefully, this will go out tomorrow night after a 100 km (62 mile) ride to Quang Ngai. We'll be awake at 6 a.m., breakfast (buffet in the hotel) at 6:30 a.m., and check out at 7:30 a.m. Hugs to everyone.  Ken and Holly


Jan. 9 Quy Nhon to Quang Ngai

We got to the Communist hotel in this Communist City at 6 p.m. after another long day of riding and van transport. After breakfast, we had a 1 hour drive, then a 43 km ride, then lunch, then a van ride for 1 ½ hours, then a 33 km ride and then a 1 ½ van ride to the hotel.

Mileage ridden was 48 miles but included the usual strong headwinds and several long, very steep climbs to get through the mountains and continue down the coast. Some people opted for a ride in the van but Holly and I stuck it out and enjoyed fantastic down hills once over the top.  Anyone who rode te climbs was in their lowest gears and pumping hard. Weather is still good with shorts and t-shirt. Dinner is in 20 minutes so this is a short note. In conclusion (thought I'd never get to one, eh?), we are loving the trip and the Vietnamese people.  

Jan. 10 and we're in Hoi An.

This was the easiest and shortest day so far. Only 28 miles of riding along mostly level road but some significant traffic in the villages and market areas. You really have to pay attention and have 360 degree vision. Never assume anyone will follow rules of the road or even know what they are. Horn honking seems to dictate right of way. 

Also some bad road encountered but as usual, the people are the friendliest. There is always a hello and smile and wave from the locals. Weather is still t-shirt and shorts and headwinds present but less than previous days.

We left Quang Ngai at 7:30 a.m. with a van ride. Then we got on the bikes and rode to lunch. Then, back in the van for about 90 minutes. Finally, back on the bikes for the short and scenic 8 mile ride into Hoi An, a City of about 125,000 people. We rode in as a group which gathered much attention from the locals. We arrived at 3 p.m. and have 2 hours to clean up, do laundry, and get ready for a walking tour of some of the City.

This morning we visited the My Lai Memorial that documents the My Lai massacre in March 1968 by US forces against a village of mostly old men, women, and children during the Vietnam war. Five hundred and 4 Vietnamese were killed and the village destroyed. Some of the houses have been rebuilt to show visitors what the village originally looked like. It was a very moving hour we spent there watching a film, going through the museum, and walking the grounds. It was a terrible period in US history.

Time to shower and get ready. We have tomorrow off and Holly and I look forward to some walking around the City. With regards to everyone.   ken 
Jan. 10 Vietnam Log

After arriving in Hoi An, we had a brief evening walk with our guide who took us to the THANG LOI Manufacturing and Export Company. We had a tour of the facilities where they do silkworm breeding, silk extraction, silk weaving, and lantern making. It was very interesting how they breed the silkworms, collect the silk, and make all types of garments.  Prices were very reasonable and custom made suits, shirts, and women's wear were the specialty. Holly bought a wool/silk blend scarf for $7 US.Pure silk scarfs were $8 US.

After the group spent 30-40 minutes browsing the clothing items, we headed to the CITR NELLA restaurant and café. The menu was: pumpkin cream soup, white rose (dumpling), crispy fried wontons, Cao Lau (pork with noodles - a specialty of the City), stir fried morning glory (green veggies), grilled pork with sesame, braised fish in clay pot, steamed rice, and fruit salad. There was plenty of food and some people opted for ice cream to top off the meal. Everything was delicious.

Then we took the long way back to the hotel and watched a traditional entertainment performance and browsed some shops. All in all, a wonderful day. Tomorrow, we continue our walking tour of the City with a 4 hour walk in the morning. The afternoon is free for individual exploring.


Jan. 11 - Day Off in Hoi An

We enjoyed a wonderful day in this ancient and picturesque town which was the international trading center for southern Vietnam in the 16th and 17th Century. Foreign merchant ships came to Hoi An for trading and commercial fairs. Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, and Indian traders set up their quarters for permanent habitation.

We had a morning walking tour and then were free to explore on our own. We toured an ancient Temple and the oldest house in Hoi An and enjoyed entertainment, After Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An has the most Caucasian visitors I've seen on the trip. Needless to say, tourist shops and food markets are abundant and you are expected to bargain for every purchase. You can easily end up paying half or less of what the original asking price was. Holly bought a nice skirt for $7.00. For lunch, we had a large (28 cm) pizza, noodle soup with veggies, coffee, and 2 scoops of mango ice cream for about $7.25. There is no tax or service charges at most places. As you walk down the streets, merchants try to entice you to come into their shops. If you show any interest, street vendors get a little more aggressive and sometimes follow you or offer you free samples of their food items.  

The hotel we are at, Vinh Hung, is very nice and there has not been time to enjoy the pool. But, we enjoyed a nice breakfast of Western and Vietnamese food. Every hotel we have been in has offered an onsite buffet breakfast which makes it very convenient each morning.

Weather is still very good. It's still t-shirt and shorts time. In the evenings, some people wear a light jacket. The very few and brief times we saw rain was either while we were in the van driving or at night. I hope our luck holds out. We have 13 more days of the trip before heading to Vancouver Jan. 25.

Our leader started a blog (daily log) of the tour but he and some others are having trouble getting it accessed. When it is up and running, I'll send you the address. There are many more details in the blog than what I write you. I have 3 pictures of today's activities to send you.

Well, time for happy hour, a shower, and then dinner. People in the group are offering suggestions for dinner restaurants and Holly ad I have not selected one yet. Take care everyone and thanks for the emails. I read and enjoy every one but can't answer each.  

Hoi An to Hue, Jan. 12

Except for a very long 9 km. climb over Hai Van mountain pass (more on that later), today was a relative flat ride. We started riding from our hotel in Hoi An and did approximately 77 kms to our lunch spot at a very nice resort in Lang Co. On the way there, we toured the Hoi An vegetable gardens to see where the City gets most of its produce. To get there, we cycled on lovely quiet roads. Then, we rejoined Highway 1, Vietnam's main road, and stopped at a terrific marble factory and saw incredible works of art. Continuing in perfect cycling weather, we passed through Da Nang and passed China Beach and the old Da Nang airport the US used during the Vietnam war. We rode over the Han River Bridge getting great views of the City. Traffic was light the entire day and the morning roads were mostly new.

To get to the wonderful lunch at the Thanh Tam Resort, we had to first climb 500 meters (1500 feet) over 9 kms to get to Hai Van Pass. It was pretty cool at the top so no one lingered there too long even though there were merchant booths set up. Everyone wanted the 10 km downhill on the other side of the pass. It was a spectacular downhill with great views. Five kms later, we were at lunch.

To cover the distance to our next and final City in southern Vietnam, Hue, we had to initially drive in the vans. Then, we cycled another 34 kms on flat country roads passing several towns, rice fields, vegetable gardens, and cemeteries. As usual, we got a wonderful reception from the locals and the frequent “Hello.” A quick drive in the van for the final 12 kms got us to Hue, a City of 300,000 people, at 6 p.m. Hue was the capital of Vietnam from 1902 to 1945 and boasts of having had 13 kings reign here. Tomorrow, we visit some the tombs and other sites before leaving southern Vietnam for Hanoi and northern Vietnam by plane at 4:30 p.m. We expect cooler weather in northern Vietnam and we hope our luck of no rain will persist.  
Jan. 13, Hue and Ha Noi,

Today was listed as a rest day but it was anything but that. We started early with a tour of the Royal Khon Thai Palace and Citadel in the former capital city of Hue. We were very impressed to see the grounds and buildings and Temple of the former Emperors of Vietnam starting in 1804 and ending in 1945.

Then we visited a famous pagoda followed by a one way boat ride on the Perfume River. The vessel dropped us off at the foot of a typical market place where many of the group bought nuts and treats. There had to be hundreds of booths and vendors crammed so close together it made walking down the narrow aisles nearly impossible. It also enabled the sellers to be up close and personal when trying to entice you into their shop.

A ride back in the van took us to the burial site of an Emperor who died in 1928.  The art work and carvings and decorations were “over the top.” It was just incredible how the people of Vietnam treated their Emperors when they reigned and after they died. Emperors were considered the Son of Heaven with supreme power. The structure took 11 years of non-stop work from 1920 to 1931. From the burial site, we went back to the hotel to check out and then off to lunch at a local café seldom frequented by foreigners. The specialty was rice cake with both meat and shrimp. Including tea, the meal cost us each $1.

Our flight to Ha Noi left Hue at 4:30 and 1 hour later, we landed in Vietnam's capital City where the 6 p.m. temperature was 13 C (56 F). (Hue had been 17C (64 F) when we left. A 45 minute bus ride to the hotel gave us a quick look at the City. Next was a delicious dinner at the hotel. Finally at 8:30 p.m., we headed to our rooms for some shut eye. We leave Ha Noi at 8 a.m. tomorrow and expect cooler riding conditions then we are used to but still no rain forecast. P.S., without wireless internet in the room and my choice not to use the hotel PC in the lobby, this email and pictures will have to wait.

Jan. 14, Ha Noi to Mai Chau

Today's 65 km (40 miles) ride was a relatively difficult one. We started with a 2 hour van ride from Ha Noi. We drove west from the hotel located in the Old Quarter never to see the Vietnam coastline again and hopefully the headwinds.

We got a tour of Ha Noi as we left the City and saw most of the 6 million people living there. Unlike Saigon, Ha Noi has more cars than scooters. And whereas Saigon scooters and motor bikes stay to the right (even those coming at you are on your right), in Ha Noi, these vehicles take up all the lanes so car travel can be slow. But we had a great breakfast buffet first so who cared?

It became foggy after we got out of the City but by the time we reached Lung Son Quan, the place to start riding, the fog disappeared. Sometimes the roads were wet and sometimes not but it never rained on us. We had a 5 km (3 mile) hill to climb before getting to lunch which was delicious. NO SEAFOOD. We had veggie spring rolls, beef, chicken, rice, and vegetables.

After lunch, we started on undulating roads followed by a major 10%, 10 km (6 mile) climb to Thung Khe Pass. For those of you who have never climbed this pass, it is a killer. It got foggy at the bottom of the climb and by the time we got to the top (and we think it was the top), we could see no more than 25 or 30 yards in front of or around us. Vehicles stayed away from us and we sure appreciated that. The van was at the top of the pass and  the guide informed us of the 15 km (almost 10 miles) downhill to our stop for the night. It was a thrilling and winding down hill and much enjoyed. The fog dissipated quickly and the road was dry allowing for a speedy descent, even passing slow moving trucks. We got to the Mai Chau Lodge Hotel at 4 p.m. and enjoyed some hot tea. We are now off for a walking tour. Hope it's not uphill.

8:30 p.m. We walked to a nearby village of 10,000 “White Thais,” one of 54 minority groups in Vietnam. The village is famous for its weavings and houses built on stilts. The houses are either occupied by the owner of a shop on the ground level or else rented to guests. The Thai people first came to Vietnam in the 13th. Century and built the elevated houses because of wild animals such as wild pigs, tigers, and elephants that roamed the area. It has become a custom to construct elevated houses. Many in the group bought scarves or wall hangings or table cloths.

Then ,we walked back to the hotel for a delicious dinner. It's time to get to bed now. We have a long and difficult day tomorrow.  

Jan, 15, Mai Chau to Son La

This was the coldest day of the trip so far and fortunately, we don't anticipate any colder days to come. And still no riding in the rain. (Fog yes, rain no.) We were warned that the temperature would be in the 40s as we ascended to a summit 1,240 m (about 3,720 feet) above sea level in the mountains before lunch. This is winter time in Vietnam. However, no one was warned about the dense fog we would encounter on the climb. So dense that some riders considered riding too dangerous and delayed the start of their pedaling. No one knew what the conditions would be for sure when we awoke at 6:15 a.m.

Holly and I started the day with an early breakfast buffet so we could walk back to the “White Thai” village and finish our shopping before meeting the group for departure. We bought another two scarves ($2.50 - $2.00) and one additional wall hanging ($3.00) giving us a total of 3 scarves and two wall hangings. Ken gets one wall hanging and Holly gets the rest.

We left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. in the van with the intent of having 2 groups of riders. The first would start pedaling at 17 kms (11 miles) before the summit while the second group would wait until 7 kms (4.5 miles) before the summit to get out of the van. Well, as we got closer to the summit, the fog increased so significantly that visibility was down to 25 feet (8 meters) or so. And the moist air really chilled you. We knew we needed very warm clothing for today.

Four people chose to start riding at 17 kms before the summit and another four of the group got out at 7 kms before the summit. The remaining group of 8, of which Holly and I were proud to say we were in, went over the summit in the van and when the fog dissipated, got out of the van and waited for the truck carrying the bikes to arrive so we could start riding. However, we were informed that the truck had a flat tire and would not reach the final group in time for them to ride and make lunch. So, the remaining 8 got back into the (warm) van for the ride to lunch. 

After lunch, everyone rode from 55 to 80 kms (34 miles - 50 miles) depending on how far they got by 4 p.m. when we all had to get in the vans for the 2 hour drive to our stop for the night, Son La. The afternoon ride was mostly a wonderful downhill passing through several towns and villages and tea plantations. We saw different ethnic groups along the way, each dressed in traditional clothing for that group.

After everyone was picked up, we drove the remaining 65 kms (40 miles) which took almost 2 hours due to construction, traffic, slow speed limits in the towns, and bad roads. We were pretty happy when we finally arrived at the Ha Noi Hotel in Son La. We had an hour to clean up, shower, get organized and meet for a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant.

Tomorrow, we have a 7:30 a.m. departure and about 80 kms (50 miles) of riding with some climbing, undulating, and descents. Weather should be clear and warmer.  
Jan. 16, Son La to Dien Bein

Oh, what a glorious day. One of the best tour days we have had in Vietnam so far. All the remaining days should be so nice and scenic.  After yesterday's foggy day, we deserved today.

We started at 7:30 a.m. wearing warm clothing as we rode from the hotel in Son La but we soon heated up and shed the heavy duty stuff as we climbed out of town to a summit at 5.5 km (3.5 miles). Traffic was busy in Son La and the sky was overcast but we had a tailwind. Finally, wind in our favor. We summited the hill at 150 meters above sea level and started a gradual descent and then “undulating” terrain for the next 45 km (28 miles) for a total morning distance of 51 km (32 miles). We stopped at 2 very busy market places in two villages. Each market was dominated by a different ethnicity and each ethnic group dressed in a unique traditional and very beautiful garb. Most adults seemed to carry on the dress tradition while most teenagers wore jeans and casual clothing. There was quite a mix of dress at the markets. The first market was a very large and crowded outdoor Sunday market and the second was an indoor market with permanent booths. Holly bought a head piece worn by the Black Thai people at the second place.

We passed other villages, lots of cattle (some on the road), people working the fields (Sunday is not a rest day when there is work to do), a funeral reception (that 2 riders mistook for a celebration and were invited in to have some tea), coffee and tea plantations, military monuments (very popular in a Country that has had so many wars), and very scenic water wheels on the river. Finally, we reached our lunch site in the village of Tuan Giao. We ate a delicious and abundant meal at the Hoan Quat restaurant. We sure enjoyed the food.  I would recommend this place to anyone passing through Tuan Giao. 

NEWS FLASH: We just had our second power failure at the fancy Him Lam Resort where we are staying. It's 6 p.m. and more on the power failure later.

From lunch, we were driven in the vans for 1 ½ hours until 3 p.m. and were dropped off on a summit 30 km (19 miles) from our final destination for the day. Terrain was mostly downhill as we followed the river through the valley to the Him Lam Resort in Dien Bien.

As we went from one village to another, there were big signs thanking us (and others) for visiting the last town and welcoming us (and others) to the next town. The text was in Vietnamese and English. We had not seen English signs since Ha Noi. And as usual, we got many “hellos” from kids and adults along the road and from houses and stores. Most of the rural houses were on stilts and some had satellite dishes. Farming was very popular around the houses, in fields, and up the mountain sides. We saw Vietnam pot belly pigs that just roamed free on or near the roads as did water buffalo, cows, roosters, and chickens. Dogs also strolled across our path but never chased us or even acknowledged that we were there. With thousands of motor scooters and bicycles on the road daily, dogs were used to them. Some animals would claim their spot on the road and we and trucks and cars would have to go around them. A water buffalo always has the right of way over a bicycle and fortunately, we all arrived safely at our destination.

The resort where we are staying is very nice but since we got here and checked in at 4:15, we have had 3 short power failures. They last only 2 to 5 seconds but shut down the heating unit which we are using to dry our laundry. In the literature we got from the tour company, it was stated that power failures happen in Vietnam and it was suggested we bring flashlights which Holly and I did. Still, while it's an inconvenience, we'll manage by having another glass of wine before dinner. We bought 2 bottles of white Vietnamese table wine the other day for $3.35 each and it's not bad. 

Dinner is in 30 minutes so I need to stop rambling on in this email and get ready.  Besides, you probably have other stuff to do also.

To summarize, today was a great day for picture taking as the route was very picturesque, the people brightly dressed and willing to pose, and we had time to stop and snap a photo or 50. I'll attach a few of the pictures when I send this in 2 or 3 days. We have tomorrow off and will tour the City returning to Him Lam Resort in the evening. This place has wireless and I can get my netbook to connect but Internet Explorer will not display a page. I don't know why not. Take care everyone and you have the next 2 days off.

Jan. 17, Day off in Dien Bein

We had another great day weather-wise and meeting the friendly and hardworking Vietnamese people in the City. At 9 a.m. after a mediocre breakfast (compared to our other buffet breakfasts), we loaded ourselves into the van for the 10 minute ride to Dien Bien.

We first visited the Museum and then the Battlefield of the 1954 French-Vietnamese War. It was really interesting to watch the film about the war and then see some bunkers, tunnels, and a major hill where a fierce battle took place right in the City. (The Vietnamese won.)

Then, we visited a typically crowded Vietnamese market with hundreds of stalls where you can buy all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, roots, dried seafood, flowers, clothing, cell phone accessories, and meat. Meats (including snake, gecko, water buffalo, and others I choose not to mention) are always freshly killed and sold the same day as few houses have refrigerators or freezers. The specialty of this area in the wine department is wine containing worms from the palm tree and not just one or two worms per bottle but dozens of them. Our guide even showed us some vendors selling the branches with live worms in them. We did not buy any.

Lunch was next after visiting the fresh meat section of the market. Holly and I each ordered 3 delicious spring rolls and a big bowl of pho (beef broth with noodles and beef). We also had pops. The bill was about $8.50. (There is often no tax and service charge on meals unless you eat at a hotel.)

Then, while most of the group went back to the resort in the van, Holly and I and 4 others decided to walk back to the resort. It would be about a 5 km (3 mile) walk assuming we went the right way. (We did.) It took us about 4 hours to get back because we stopped at 2 other street markets to look around (even bought ice cream), several grocery stores to buy snacks and cheese, a liquor store (others bought wine with no worms), and a pharmacy (needed by one of the other walkers).  

Jan. 19 (Continued)

We had a day off in Lai Chau because the road and weather were too bad to pedal into the City so we all drove in the van getting to a very nice hotel at 11 am. After lunch, we had the rest of the day to ourselves. Some of us got a lift to the Town center to look around and shop and then walk the 3 km or so back to the hotel. We enjoyed the decent weather and just taking it easy in preparation for tomorrow's difficult ride, weather permitting.

We are scheduled to pedal 70 km from Lai Chau to Sapa over 2 mountain passes. The first pass is Giangma Pass with some of the climb at 11% to 14%. It's about 8 km long. The second pass is Hoang Lien Son Pass with much of it 10% up grade. The summit is at 1,955 meters. However, if the weather is bad, we will drive as much in the van as necessary to reach decent weather and then ride.

Jan. 20, Lai Chau to Sapa

This was one of the hardest cycling days on the trip, at least for me with the 2 major passes. The group did not get to complete the second one but was picked up about 43 km from the start in Lai Chau because of dense fog and rough road conditions.  I'm glad we were. The full ride of 70 km (45 miles), had 35km of climbing.

We were not sure if we were going to cycle from the hotel in Lai Chau today but the fog was moderate and the temperature mild when we assembled after breakfast. So, off we went on the bikes that the Tour Company, Pedaltours, had cleaned and lubricated the day before.

We rode out of town and immediately started a serious climb to Giangma Pass which involved those 11% to 14% segments up hill. The actual climb was about 8 km (5 miles) with the fog increasing with altitude. The fog was so bad, we did not get to see any scenary at the top or even know it was the top except for easier peddling. We did see and ride through and around thick mud, countless puddles, rocks on the road, deep grooves, and dirt road. On the way up, riders got really hot and sweaty from the effort and took off some clothing only to put it all back on for the incredible descent that was interrupted by more mud, puddles, and lack of pavement. (I think I may have worn out 2 pairs of brake pads on the way down.) When the dirt finally turned to pavement and the road dried, I really enjoyed the downhill using the brakes only after hitting 50 km (31 mph) per hour.

But the descent was short lived as we started the second climb at a relentless 10% grade. And this was a 25 km (15.5 miles) climb in the fog with dirt road, pot holes, traffic, and no shoulder. Most of the road was one lane. Off came the winter gloves and fleece vest to help with cool down. Others also stopped for a uniform adjustment.

I had ridden about 42 km (26 miles) without lunch (as lunch was at the destination in Sapa) and with an incredible amount of climbing and lousy weather and roads, when I had had it. I started mixing walking and riding for about a km when I saw the 2 vans and bike truck parked on the side of the road. The lead guide said to get in and I did not argue. All the riders were already in the vans and the bikes loaded in the truck. That was at noon. So, I had ridden (and a little walking) constantly for about 4 hours. Holly got to the van and trucks 10 minutes before I did. (She had waited for me farther down the second hill to make sure I was okay and then she rode ahead.)

It took the vans and truck 30 minutes to reach the summit of the second pass so it would have taken me a few hours more. We then drove another 30 minutes to the City of Sapa for the night. The hotel is a nice place and there is heat and hot water. We are drying clothing on the heater. We have wine and HBO in English on the telly. (Already watched “Gifted Hands” and now “Frankie and Johnnie” is playing.)  We had a fantastic lunch with the biggest assortment of food including the best spare ribs I have ever had (except for Holly's and Thew's). Holly got all the veggies she can eat. We are happy. The bikes are very muddy but who cares and we have tomorrow off to explore the place. And I'm finished with this email.  So are you.

Jan. 21, Rest Day in Sapa

Last night's group dinner was delicious. Here is the menu: Soup of Red Dao (which was a pumpkin soup named after the restaurant), potato/sweet potato/pumpkin patties, grilled pork with lemon leaf, fish in vegetable sauce, sauted chicken with 5 spices, sauted eggplant with garlic sauce, steamed rice, and pineapple cake which was sliced pineapple dipped in batter and deep fried. We also had a choice of tea: Lipton, ginger, or jasmine. After this late dinner, it was back to the hotel.

We awoke this morning to a very foggy City. Sapa (or Sa Pa) is a tourist City with lots of stores and many restaurants serving western, French, and Italian food. Dozens of locals roam the streets selling their woven items. The women “attach” themselves to visitors and follow you down the street asking you to buy their stuff. Holly bought an item. Breakfast was a very nice buffet in the hotel.

Afterward breakfast, we gathered for a “hike” to a H'moung ethnic village and market about 3 kms from the hotel, all downhill. We picked up a few of the vendors but after we got to Cat Cat, the name of the village and market, they left us. While at the market, Holly bought another nice wall hanging and we all enjoyed some entertainment by the locals. Then, we hiked back up the hill to the center of Sapa and its own market place for lunch. A little more shopping after and it was 3 p.m., time to get back to the hotel and relax before a 6 p.m. group meeting to discuss tomorrow's itinerary.  More later including pictures. 

Jan. 22, Sapa to Bac Ha, LAST DAY OF RIDING

Well folks, today was the last day of riding in Vietnam and probably the hardest for me as we did 102 km (63 miles) with a long, monster hill at the end. Darn near made me get in the van instead of riding the last few kilometers but I did not give in to temptation. Holly and I are proud of me. Things looked much better when we started the ride at 8 a.m. from Sapa.

We rode out of Sapa in a dense fog but by then, we were used to fog, cool temperatures, and damp and muddy roads. After a 1 kilometer (1/2 mile) gradual downhill, the down grade increased significantly. It was about 25 km (15.5 miles) of steep descent on a wet, winding, and busy road. Fortunately, the road was paved. However, the cold  and down grade intensified so much, the group stopped ½ way down to warm their hands and rest their hand muscles that had been pulling on the brake levers for 12 kms (7.4 miles). Some riders had to stop to adjust the brakes as brake pads were quickly being worn out. (Mud on rims quickly wears away rubber brake pads.) We all danced around to keep warm while waiting for the last rider and support vehicles. We then waited 10 minutes and took off again on the screaming descent with constant braking. We did not start pedaling until we got to level ground and lost some of the fog.

Most of us quickly heated up as we navigated the “undulating” (moderately hilly) road until we got to the lunch place 79 km (51 miles) from where we started. We had passed many villages, rode along rivers, and rode over several bridges. We even saw the border with China that was less than a mile away when we rode through Lao Cai and then along the Red River that separates Vietnam and China. It was certainly a long and tough morning but nothing compared to the afternoon ride.

Immediately after leaving the café, we started a 15 km (9.3 mile) climb. The ride sheet we used today read “START BAC HA PASS - 12%. THIS IS A SEVERE CLIMB ESPECIALLY IF THERE ARE ROAD WORKS AND IT IS A HOT DAY.” Well, we had some road construction to tend with but no heat. Instead, we had dense fog, wet road, and cold temperature. Steep climbing was endless with winding turns. The ride sheet also mentioned a FALSE SUMMIT at 91.5 km (56 miles) from Sapa. Just what we needed: False hope after climbing 12% for 10 km (6.2 miles). The real summit was another 4 km (2.5 miles) straight up. And when I reached it, the road was “undulating” and then a very gradual descent to the Sao Mai Hotel in Bac Ha where we are staying the night. I was not the last one to get in (of those who rode) but next to last arriving at 4:30 p.m. The climb was almost 2 ½ hours for me. I have not asked what it took others except for Holly who arrived at the hotel 10 minutes before I did. We both got high fives and a well-done from the riders who already made it. We took a last picture of us in front of the hotel holding the dirtiest bikes you'll see in a long time. (Glad the bikes were rental ones.)

Several times I was very tempted to get in the van for the ride to the summit or beyond but just kept plugging away. The van even closely followed me and the other rider for most of the way up the hill. It would have been so easy to flag it down and get a lift. But, it is the last day of riding. Holly and my total mileage for the Vietnam tour is 950 kms (594 miles).

The hotel is very nice except for the occasional brief 5 second power failure of which we have had 3 in the last 2 hours. But the room is warm and dry and the bed is comfortable, and the Vietnamese wine is cold. Too bad we'll have to leave it in 30 minutes for dinner.  

Tomorrow, we have a busy day starting with breakfast at 7 a.m., a walk to the Sunday market at 8, check out of the hotel at 10, a 1 ½ hour walk to get on a boat for a scenic cruise, a late lunch, a drive back to Lao Cai, check in for the afternoon, a drive to the train station there at 7:30 p.m. and finally boarding the train at 8:15 p.m. for an overnight trip back to Hanoi, arriving at 4:30 a.m. While touring Bac Ha Town, we hope to see some of the 14 ethnic minorities in the greater area. Among them are the Mong, Dao, Tay, and Nung groups. You can differentiate ethnic groups by dress, skin color, and hair. (Our lead guide is a minority from the Central Highlands and has darker skin and curlier hair than pure Vietnamese people.)

Holly and I stay 1 night in Hanoi and fly home Jan. 25 arriving at YVR (Vanc. Airport) the same day. This has been quite the experience and I hope to share our photos with most of you. Adios, goodbye, and Shalom.

P.S, this hotel in Bac Ha does not have wireless internet so you'll just have to be patient.  
Jan. 24, Bac Ha to Lao Cai to Ha Noi

This was the last official day of the tour and took us from Bac Ha by bus and boat to Lao Cai and from there to Ha Noi by overnight train. It was quite the ending to a fantastic and adventurous 3 weeks in south, central, and northern Vietnam. From Ha Noi, Holly and I fly back to Vancouver Jan. 25 arriving the same day due to crossing the International Date Line.

This last day was a very busy one we started at 8 a.m. We walked to the nearby market which is attended by all the tribes (minority ethnic groups) in the area such as the Tay, Nung, Dao, H'mong, Giay, etc. While I was not able to differentiate each group by the clothing worn, our guide pointed out some of the groups and their specialties. To say the market was the biggest and most varied we had seen so far would be an understatement. The number of stalls (probably numbering at least 300) was incredible and there were many sections including live animals for sale, all kinds of produce, a food “court” serving anything that has ever been alive (I enjoyed seeing python meat, one of my family's staples), clothing, shoes, Vietnamese crafts of many kinds, jewelry, etc. We spent about an hour and one half there and then went back to the hotel to check out. (Of course, Holly bought some things.) 

After checking out, we drove back over Bac Ha Pass we rode the day before. Much easier this time. We left the vans at the village of Coc Ly and walked (sometimes in mud and sometimes around road construction) 2 km to board a long boat for a 2 hour cruise up and down the Blue River. We got off the boats at one point to see some sand cones formed by dripping water off the side of the cliffs. The boats dropped us off in a village where we walked to lunch and then got the vans again for the drive to Lao Cai.

We arrived in Lao Cai about 4 p.m. and checked into a hotel for a shower and rest and dinner before boarding the 8 ½ hour, overnight train to Ha Noi. We sure appreciated the rest and later, the dinner.

The train left at 8 a.m. with the 16 riders divided into 4 groups of 4 as each sleeping room had 4 bunks. The beds were comfortable and we all socialized until about 9:30 p.m. when it was lights out and blankets on. The train chugged along at about 30-35 mph (my estimate) and made 3 stops I believe. Everyone got some much needed sleep because the train arrived in Ha Noi at 4:30 a.m. Two buses were at the station to meet us and take us to various destinations as some people needed to go straight to the airport for their flight home while others checked into one of 2 hotels. Holly and I and a few others checked into the same hotel we were at last time we came through Ha Noi. (However, we arrived at the hotel at 5:15 a.m. but check in was not until 10:45 a.m. We used the lobby computer, had the hotel's breakfast buffet - $6, and then roamed the neighborhood after it got light and the City came alive.)

After checking in, we walked around the Old Quarter of Ha Noi that is full of shopping and very crowded. We also arranged with some of the others to buy tickets to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for 3:30 p.m. We got the better seats at $3 each. The cheaper seats were $2. Then, we walked around some more, had lunch, and went back to the hotel to relax until leaving for the show.

The show was incredible and ran for about an hour. The puppets were all in water and the controls for them were under water and behind a rear screen. There were 11 scenes all accompanied by an orchestra and singers. We really enjoyed it.

What we did not enjoy was the 40 minute walk back to the hotel. Without traffic and blocked sidewalks (by scooters parked everywhere), it would have taken 20 minutes. Pedestrians have no rights on the streets and there are very few traffic lights to allow pedestrians to cross safely. But we made it back, relaxed, and then found a nearby place for some Vietnamese pizza. Once again back at the hotel to pack and get some sleep.

We started the next day, Jan. 25, with breakfast and then got the shuttle bus (arranged by our bike tour company) for the 50 minute drive to Ha Noi airport.  From there, it was off to fly East and home.

Final comments: Vietnam is an incredible and beautiful place as is China we visited last year. The people are hardworking and very friendly to visitors. Many of the younger Vietnamese, at least in the larger cities, understand English. We never felt threatened unless we tried to cross a street in Ha Noi or Saigon. (Pedestrians are lowest in the list of rights-of-way unless you are on a bicycle. Then you are even lower on the list.) But, we had to always be careful on the bikes because of traffic, bad roads, construction, and animals roaming free. There are traffic rules but no one seems to observe them. Remarkably, we saw only one minor accident when our van was passing a stopped dump truck on a one lane dirt road and an oncoming scooter tried to go around the right side of us and went off into the ditch. There was no more road for him to ride on but he did not know that until he came around the dump truck. Our Vietnamese guide said the driver had had “too much wine.” He was not seriously hurt and we helped pull him and his scooter out of the ditch.

What did I not like? I did not care for the headwinds in southern Vietnam and some of the others complained about the hot temperature and lack of shade. But headwinds and temperature extremes are part of the equation when riding.  In the central and northern part of the Country, steep and long climbs, fog, and cold were factors. Holly and I knew January is winter time in Vietnam and we would be at high altitude so we prepared by bringing warm gloves and a heavier (and rainproof) jacket and long riding pants. Some of the others did not and they bought the necessary clothing as soon as they could.  And wherever we rode, the vehicle honking was constant. Drivers used their horns whenever they approached a rider not as a sign of danger but just to let us know they were there. And vehicles blew their horns or flashed their lights when they approached each other, passed another car or truck, or let a pedestrian know they were not stopping even if the walker were in a marked cross walk. It really got annoying. (We use rear view mirrors so we knew who was approaching.) I can't wait to get back to Vancouver and Albuquerque where drivers are courteous, law abiding, and do everything right. Just like Holly and I do. See you all soon, we hope.

H & K