Warm Beer and Cold Women

The rain had been coming down in sheets for hours and by the look of it there was to be no respite from it; not in the near future anyhow. Was it the third or fourth day in a row of torrential rain? I don't know? It had been raining on and off for so long it was getting hard to remember a day when it wasn’t raining. Layer upon layer of the long sharp stinging water droplets were hitting our faces and bodies. We were both soaked through to the skin and thoroughly miserable. Our attempts at conversation with each other had long since been abandoned. We both just sat there deep in our own thoughts wishing that we were somewhere else, anywhere else in the world but here! When it rains in South East Asia it really rains.
Even under the wide brim of my hat visibility was poor. For what I could see out of my eyes they may as well have been closed. I kept trying to peer through a half open, half closed squint in a vain hope that I could spot any obstacles in our path. From time to time I had even been taking it in turns, to try to keep one eye open and one eye closed to give one eye a rest, but this just gave me headaches, making a bad situation even worse.

On and on we slowly went. The steady repetitive turning motion of my legs on the pedals pushing us onwards to our evening lodgings sent me in to some kind of semi trance. I was not really concentrating on where we were going; or even thinking about my very sore legs and bum. Instead I was contemplating the big question that I have been asking myself for the last few days now: How and why on Earth did I get myself in to this? It was all down to me; nobody else. I wasn’t pushed our coerced in to this. Nobody held a loaded gun to my head to make me finish this. It was all my idea for God’s sake, nobody else’s just mine. I must have been totally crazy to think that one man could pedal a Cyclo from Hanoi to Saigon.

What had made me talk my poor suffering wife into trying this way of travelling? Well that’s a long story and in a way, she is a little bit to blame for us being out here in the middle of Vietnam. After all she did agree to let me attempt this trip.
I have had a fascination with Vietnam and its people since I was a young boy when I used to watch the news reports about the American / Vietnam War on the early evening news. This in turn led me to collecting and reading as many non-fiction books about the conflict as I could lay my hands on. The place names sounded so magical and mysterious to me then, and still do to this day: Saigon, Da Nang, Nha Trang and the Mekong Delta to name but a few.

I have always known that one day I would go and see these places for myself. So when my wife of only a couple of weeks (Rachael) and I were deciding where to buy a house and settle down. She turned to me and said “let’s just sell up what we have, quit our jobs and travel around Australia for a year”. Even if I wanted to I couldn’t have said no to her request. I had travelled for quite a few years previously when I was younger but Rachael had never travelled for one reason or another. So being a firm believer that everyone should travel at least once in his or her life, the only answer for me to give was a resounding yes. Not to mention what a great way it would be to begin our married life together, it would be great for us to have such a big adventure together. If we could survive a year living out of each other’s pockets we could survive anything.

I only had a couple of stipulations for the trip:

1. If we are going to go all the way to Australia we may as well visit Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on the way.
2. If we are going to go to Vietnam I would like to try to cycle from Hanoi in the north to Saigon in the south on a Cyclo.

“What on earth is a Cyclo?” Rachael asked with a frightened look upon her face. I told her that a Cyclo is the Vietnamese version of a rickshaw where the passenger sits on a bench seat in front of the driver and that they are mainly used as taxis for short journeys around towns and cities. “Now I know you’re mad” she replied.

Route Map

It was not an original idea of mine to cycle Vietnam on a Cyclo. A few years before I had been watching a Lonely Planet travel program about Vietnam when the presenter stopped to chat to a couple of French guys trying to cycle the opposite way from Saigon to Hanoi on a Cyclo. “What a wonderful way to see the country” I thought to myself and made a promise that if I ever got the chance I would try to do the same. I don’t know whether they made it or not? I tried to find out on the internet without any luck. But there were two of them taking it in turns. While one pedalled the other one was resting. I on the other hand had only myself to do all the hard work. Rachael had told me straight after I had explained to her what a Cyclo was. If I was mad enough to even try to cycle Vietnam on a Cyclo there was no way that she would turn a pedal to help, “it’s madness!” she said. However I secretly thought that she would change her mind once we got out into the countryside and started to get in to the journey.

I am a keen mountain biker and I was fairly fit so I didn’t think it would be too hard for me to ride a Cyclo but who knows? I had only ever seen photos of them before. I had never seen one up close. My plan was to start from Hanoi in the north and head south to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) a distance of some 1,700km. Our Vietnam trip was to be the second leg of our journey. First we were going to spend two weeks in Thailand relaxing and getting acclimatized to the heat.

Part 1: Vietnam           

As our plane banked into its final approach to Hanoi’s Noi Bai Airport my body was covered in a cold sweat. I was nervous at what awaited us but so happy to be here after all the years of waiting and yearning. I was here. I was in Vietnam. I held on to Rachael’s hand and squeezed it gently. She had woken up earlier this morning with something in her eye; it was giving her a lot of pain and she could not see out of it so she was not as excited as I was and it was not a good omen for the beginning of the trip.

Finally at the age of forty one my dream was coming true; I was only minutes away from placing my feet on Vietnamese soil. For years I had been hearing and reading stories about the North Vietnamese Custom Officers. Apparently they use bullying tactics to try to extort money from travellers as they enter and leave Vietnam so I was very apprehensive of what awaited us inside the terminal building at customs? They might not even let us in the country for one reason or another? After disembarking from the plane we were ushered into a brand new terminal building where we were met with warm smiles and welcomes. Things could not have been more different to what I had expected. We retrieved our backpacks and passed through customs without a problem with a three month visa hurriedly stamped in our passports. Then with nobody to meet us we were quickly through and out of the air-conditioned building and into the energy sapping heat of the day. In seconds we could feel the humidity wrapping itself around our bodies as if it was some kind of alien sucking the sweat out of our torsos.

We climbed aboard a Vietnamese Airlines minibus and paid the $2 each fare for the 35km journey into the city and as soon as it was full up with other tourists we were off. Rachael could only see parts of the countryside through her watering eyes. On the other hand I was like a big kid trying to see everything at once. We drove past rice fields full of workers bent over almost double as they planted the rice stalks into the knee high water that they spent most of their day working in. The driver of the mini bus had to slow down and swerve for a water buffalo that was walking down the middle of the four lane highway. It was ambling along without a care in the world. A couple of artists were hand painting huge billboards advertising cars that they would never be able to afford.

As we entered the outskirts of Hanoi City the first thing I noticed was the build up of traffic. It was almost instant. Most of it was made up from motorbikes, mopeds and bicycles but there were still plenty of cars and Lorries flying about in the scrum. Most of the women riding mopeds or sitting pillion on the back of them were wearing facemasks and long cotton or silk gloves up to their shoulders to protect their skin from the sun and pollution. Quite a few were wearing a brilliant white Ao Dai the national dress of Vietnamese women. There did not look to be any order to the chaos. People were driving up, down and across both sides of the road and footpaths. They probably would have gone along backwards if they had reverse on their machines? Not once did I see any of them ever use a signal to show their intended destination. They just pointed their vehicles in the direction they wanted to go and hoped for the best. The funny thing was that it seemed to work; there wasn’t one collision to be seen. There looked to be lots of near misses but no actual contact. I made a mental note to myself that the traffic would take some getting used to and would probably be quite scary until we got used to it? If we ever did of course!

The Vietnam Airlines driver and his colleague tried their best to get us to stay in a hotel of their choice where they would have received a commission if we stayed for one night or more. But we were having none of it, after stopping to view five hotels in the west of Hanoi; they finally gave up on us and drove us to the Old Quarter where we had said we wanted to stay ever since we boarded the minibus. Their personalities had changed from helpful and friendly to mean and moody. We could tell they were slagging us off in Vietnamese but we couldn’t understand a word they said so it didn’t bother us that much. It is a shame though; they are supposed to be representing their company and country as well as making a good impression on the newly arrived tourists, but I suppose they make quite a few dollars on commissions? It must be a good sideline for them?
We were glad when we were dropped off at the hotel we had chosen from our guidebook. After booking in and paying for one night we were shown up to our room. It was a dark, damp windowless hovel with a combined en-suite shower and toilet. The remains of the last tenant were still present everywhere, cigarette butts in the ashtray and on the floor. On the walls around the bed there were streaks of blood and snot. It was not very appealing and again not a good introduction to Vietnam. But it was the only room they had free and we had already paid for the night. In my excitement I had forgot one of the main rules to travelling: look before you pay for anything, especially hotel rooms. It would do until we found something better the next day. Rachael’s eye was still hurting her and she could not face the bright sunlight outside or the hustle and bustle of the streets so while she rested I went for a short walk. I was eager to get out on to the streets and into the Vietnamese experience that awaited me. I knew that it would be a waste of time trying to relax until I had at least seen a little bit of Hanoi and what it had to offer.


Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam and has a population of around 3,500,000. It sits on the west bank of the Song Hong (Red River). Although it sprawls for miles the actual city centre is quite small and can be easily walked around in a couple of hours. A major hurdle in Hanoi (and Vietnam in general) is getting used to crossing the road for the first few times without getting seriously hurt or killed in the process. The streets have a constant flow of Cyclos, bicycles, mopeds and other traffic going in every direction. So the art of getting from one side to the other (if the guide books are to believed) is to step off the footpath into the oncoming maelstrom of traffic and to walk slowly across the road trying not to panic or look too scared as the traffic bears down on you. This goes against everything you have been taught about road safety throughout your life and is quite difficult to do without panicking. If you move too quickly or step backwards they will run into or hit you, but if you just move slowly across the road they whizz around you as if you’re not there. After a couple of crossings it becomes second nature and you don’t even think about it as you take your life in hand each time you cross the street.

At the heart of the city lies Ho Hoan Kiem (lake of the restored sword). History has it that King Le Thai To, after liberating the country from the Chinese invasion in the fifteenth century took a boat to the centre of the lake to return the magic sword given to him so that he could rid Vietnam of the Chinese. Legend says that a Divine Tortoise took it from him before it disappeared back into the lake never to be seen again. Near the middle of the lake stands the eighteenth-century Thap Rua (tortoise tower) built to commemorate this deed. The lake is quite tranquil considering its location. It is ringed by footpaths and trees and makes for a nice shady place to sit and eat lunch while watching the world going by. That’s if you can put up with the constant hassle from the postcard sellers, photographers and other touts that lie in wait for unsuspecting tourists. A simple smile and shake of the head usually gets rid of the uninvited intrusions but one or two of the sellers get quite persistent and need a more forceful no thank you before they leave you in peace. A couple of Vietnamese girls wearing the traditional Ao Dai gowns effortlessly walked past me. It was as if they were floating along on air; their movements were so graceful and effortless. White Ao Dai’s are meant to symbolize that they are unmarried and pure. Married women wear stronger coloured tops over white trousers. No matter how many times you see a Vietnamese woman in an Ao Dai you cannot help but to stare at the beautiful creation in front of you. We never once saw an ill fitting or dirty Ao Dai. Even when the women were in the middle of nowhere riding along on mopeds they somehow managed to keep them clean and dust free. How they do it in such an environment is in itself a testament to them.

In the north eastern part of the lake on a small island sits the beautiful Ngoc Son Pagoda. The pagoda is reached by walking over the picturesque red painted bridge called The Huc (rising sun). Surrounding the northern end of the lake is the charming Old Quarter or the “36 Streets” as it’s more commonly known. Here you can buy anything from gravestones to jewellery. Lining both sides of the narrow streets are the even narrower shop-houses or tube-houses so called because of their dimensions: 3m wide by 60m long on average. They were built like this to avoid taxes as they were taxed according to the width of their shop frontage.

Each of the 36 streets is named after the main item on sale there. For example “Hang Back” (silversmiths), “Hang Gad” (chickens), “Hang Da” (leather) and so on. Although there are still lots of shops selling the same items on each of the streets, mini hotels, souvenir shops and tourist cafés are moving in quickly to the area and pushing out the more traditional trades. I walked through a little fresh produce market that was squeezed in to a couple of the narrow streets; the stalls were laden with flowers, vegetables, chickens and buckets of live fish. On a dirty plate lay the still wriggling fish that had just been sliced into fillets; the blood mixing with the droplets of water that dripped from the fish. On a butchers stall among the cuts of meat lay the jawbone of what I’m sure was a dog, and probably was; as dog is a delicacy in Northern Vietnam.

A young girl followed me for ages. She was tapping me on the shoulder trying to get me to buy a green pith hat made out of straw. I had to keep smiling and saying “no” to her but she was very persistent until she finally got fed up and left me alone. On the side of the road I passed an item of torture for chickens and other birds. It was the same shape as an upright washing machine but it had metal knobs sticking out of the inside of the drum. In the bottom was a hatch with feathers all around the opening and on the floor. I surmised that it was used for taking the feathers off the chickens and birds that are sold in the market. I only hope they were dead before they were put into it? It was wonderful to stroll around experiencing the sights and smells and even in the narrow market place I had to dodge a couple of girls on mopeds riding along the footpath.

Every now and again a Cyclo driver would ask me if I wanted to go somewhere in the city. They were giving me my first proper glimpse of a Cyclo. I had been trying to get a good look at them without looking too interested in case the drivers thought that I was a ready and willing fare. A Cyclo is Vietnams answer to the Chinese rickshaw. They are basically a three wheeled bicycle, the back end is the same as a standard bike but the front end has a sofa like seat welded in place between the two front wheels. They are capable of carrying two persons but you often see a whole Vietnamese family crammed on to one.

They are also used as delivery vans transporting goods from place to place. Above the seat is a foldable awning that protects the passengers from the sun and the rain. Running the width of the seat just behind the headrest is the handle bar. Turning this makes the whole of the front-end turn and enables the Cyclo driver to steer the Cyclo. Rachael still thinks that I will not buy one and attempt this ride but I am adamant that I will give it a go. That was enough sightseeing for the first day so I thought it was time to go and see how Rachael was and maybe get some food.

The next morning Rachael’s eye was a lot better so we checked out of the hovel we were in and found a new hotel that had a clean room for us. We were even luckily enough to get a room with a balcony that overlooked a busy little side street. We spent the rest of the day sightseeing and getting our bearings around the city. We strolled slowly through the streets making our way down to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. In the American war the American POW’S incarcerated here called it the Hanoi Hilton. Only half of the prison remains; the other half was demolished in 1994 to have a multi storey office block built on it. The French first built Hoa Lo to imprison and torture the Vietnamese revolutionaries who fought and died for the freedom of their country. They were trying to win independence for their country from the French. In an inner courtyard there still stands a Guillotine that the French Government used on the so-called enemies of France.

After the museum we went to see the huge marble clad Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which was built in the square where Ho Chi Minh delivered Vietnam’s declaration of independence in 1945. We could not go in to see the embalmed uncle Ho as he was away in Russia being touched up. Apparently he goes at this time every year for an overhaul. He must be turning in his glass casket as we speak. In his will he asked to be cremated after his death but instead he has been turned into one of Vietnams biggest tourist attractions. The Vietnamese Government still thinks he’s useful even after his death.

As we walked on we stopped to talk to a couple of Cyclo drivers who were waiting on a street corner for a fare. I asked if I could have a little go up the street and back on one of the Cyclos. Without hesitation one of them said “yes” so I jumped up on one and began to pedal away. It was quite hard to get going. It was also a strange riding position; you sit so high up on the seat that it makes the whole thing top heavy and not stable if you make a sharp turn as I found out when I tried to turn the thing around to come back down the road. The whole bike nearly turned over I just managed to keep it upright. The Cyclo drivers thought this was hilarious but I was quite shocked and a little bit frightened that they could turn over so easy. Practice makes perfect I suppose and with time I was sure I would get used to riding one. I asked how many dollars it would cost to buy a Cyclo and they said about $80 - $100 for a second hand one. We thanked them, said our goodbyes, and continued on our way. I was still determined to try to do this trip. Even if I failed at least I had tried it.

Ha Long Bay

Because of the lack of time we had in Vietnam (we were not sure how long it was going to take us to cycle to Ho Chi Minh City) we decided to book on a tour out to Ha Long Bay with The Kangaroo Cafe instead of rising to the challenge and finding our own way there and back. After an uneventful journey in an air-conditioned mini-bus and a quick lunch break in a nice new restaurant along the way we arrived at the jetty to board our boat The Ming Quang. Once we were all aboard the sturdy three-decked wooden hulled vessel the crew cast off. While we were still sorting out our cabins and unpacking, the boat began to chug out to the three thousand or so islands that make up the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay. On the lower deck of the boat there were five cabins. The middle deck housed the kitchen, toilets, showers and dining room. There were also two more cabins on that level giving room for fourteen tourists to sleep in bunks aboard the boat; with the limited number of beds this means that the group that you travel with can never be too large. Half way down the top deck just after the life-boats sits the wheelhouse and just in front of this is a sun deck where you can sit and sun yourself while chatting, drinking beer and getting to know the rest of the people in the group. Just below the sun deck on the bow of the boat sits a big yellow dragons head leading us out in to the bay.

Ha Long means “dragon descending” and originates from local legend which tells how the Jade Emperor ordered a dragon to halt an invasion by the Chinese from the sea. The dragon did this by forming the hundreds of islands and making the Chinese ships run aground and by doing so he sank the entire attacking navy. It took us over two hours to reach the karst formations that were jutting out of the sea and growing larger and larger the closer we got. Once there, nothing could prepare you for the sheer beauty of the wondrous islands and seascapes. I got the feeling of flying in an airplane high above the clouds while all around below the peaks of gigantic mountains poked through. We sailed in and out of the rock sculptures and small islands that have been carved out by the sea and the rain over thousands of years. All of them were covered in small trees and bushes that were clinging on for dear life on the sheer rock faces. I looked up and above us a sea eagle glided effortlessly in huge circles riding on the warm thermals.

Ha Long Bay

The small fishing boats of the local Vietnamese people were bobbing around in our wake as they went about their daily work. It was absolutely breathtaking just to be part of such a wonderful scene. It was not long before we were at our first port of call. The crew soon had us moored to a small wooden jetty and then it was time for us to go and look at one of the hundreds of caves in the area. After a short walk up some fairly steep steps we wandered through the cave until we came to a huge rock window looking out across the water to more islands of rock. During the walk through the cave our guide took great pleasure in showing us the usual stone formations that vaguely look like an elephants head and the one that resembles a lion. Why is it that every cave in the world has the same rock formations in them? I’m beginning to think it’s a conspiracy? I think someone is going round all the caves of the world with a hammer and chisel producing the same sculptures. I’m sure that every cave that I have been in has a rock that resembles an elephant or lion in it?

After the cave we sailed on for a while and then we dropped anchor so that we could have a quick swim in the green, cool waters of the bay. We were running a little bit late so by the time we arrived at our mooring for the night it was just beginning to get dark. While we and the other members of our group sat around on the top deck drinking beers and swapping travelling stories with each other the deck below us was a hive of activity as the crew were busily preparing our dinner of fish, rice and vegetables. None of the crew act as waiters or serve drinks; this is done by trust; you take whatever you need from the fridge and then write it down next to your name it’s a very relaxed atmosphere and makes you feel at home.

After a wonderful meal and helped by the warm night and a couple of more beers each it was time for bed. All of us apart from one couple opted to sleep out on deck under the brilliant clear sky that must have been full of a million shining stars. The stars were giving out enough light for us to see fairly well by. We helped each other to haul the bedding up the side of the boat from the decks below, spread them out and lay down to sleep. I lay awake for hours looking up at the stars and across to the jagged outlines of the surrounding islands. A dog’s bark could be heard off in the distance probably from one of the fishermen’s huts? They used dogs to guard their shrimp farms from poachers throughout the night. I remember thinking to myself yesterday that life doesn’t get any better than this and the very next day it did! I must have drifted off to sleep with a huge grin on my face it was one of the best locations that I had ever had the pleasure to sleep in? It’s a hard life this travelling lark!

I awoke around five. It was just getting light but I could still just see a few of the stars from last night fading fast in the bright light of the oncoming day. Again I lay there just enjoying the peace and tranquillity waiting until the rest of the group began to stir; not wanting to wake anyone else needlessly. However as soon as I could I was up and out of bed, eager for what the new day would bring. After packing away the bedding, washing and eating breakfast we set sail for Cat Ba Island and the hotel that we would be staying at for the night. As we sailed in to Cat Ba port we sailed past endless houseboats. Most of them were built on floating rafts of wooden pallets and blue plastic drums lashed together with rope. The small one-room houses were built out of wood and painted mostly in turquoise and bright yellow. Some had pigs in pens on them, some had dogs and chickens roaming freely about the rafts oblivious to the fact they were surrounded by water. Every house had a TV aerial sticking out the top of its roof. The electricity was produced from small petrol generators next to the walls of the houses. I wondered how on earth they could hear the televisions with such a noise going on just outside. As we sailed quietly past we were looking at the residents and they in turn were looking at us, no one from either side daring to be the first to smile or wave at the other. I thought back to the scene in Apocalypse Now! where they sailed into Kilgore’s camp in dead silence surrounded by hundreds of natives staring blankly back at them. It was quite eerie and silent as we sailed past looking at each other without acknowledgement.

Ha Long Bay

Much of Cat Ba Island is covered in forest. In fact 50% of the island and 90sq km of the surrounding Gulf of Tonkin waters are part of a national park that boasts coastal mangrove and fresh water swamps, lakes and waterfalls. The population is around 15,000 with many of them living on boats around the island. After we had booked into our hotel and had a quick stroll around the small town we were put on a bus to drive through the national park to the other side of the island to go and see yet another cave. The rugged forested hills of the interior looked magnificent from the inside of the coach. It was a true jungle just how I had imagined the rest of Vietnam to be. Once on the other side of the island we transferred to another boat that would take us the rest of the way up river to the cave. On each side of the river banks there were nets strung out on poles at a height of about 2m. Our guide told us these were to catch a kind of sea bird that was a delicacy in this area. They play tapes of birdcalls through the night to entice the doomed birds into the nets then the next morning walk along and retrieve any caught birds.

We sailed past shallow manmade lakes full of hundreds of mangrove trees that doubled as shrimp farms. After visiting the cave and returning to Cat Ba Town for lunch we were again put onto another boat this time to go back out into the bay to swim in the waters and sunbathe on the Beach of Monkey Island. The island gets its name from the hundred or so monkeys that inhabit the island. One small troop has made a good life for themselves getting fed and pampered by the tourists but the rest of them stay well away and you can see them climbing all over the rocks and trees on the hill sides surrounding the beach, waiting until the tourists leave the island so that they can come down and scavenge any leftover scraps of food that might have been missed by the other troop.

A small fishing boat sailed towards us and moored just off the beach. On it was a Vietnamese man with four young girls. We could see packs of postcards laying about on top of the deck, we all thought there goes the peace and quiet and that we were about to get pestered into buying some cards. But as it was they made no attempt to sell us anything. They came over to us, said “hello” and had a lot of fun playing in the sea and surf and chasing the monkeys around the beach in fits of giggles and laughter. After spending the rest of the afternoon lazing about on the beach sunbathing and laughing with the girls we sailed back to Cat Ba Town and our hotel.

After a shower and a quick rest we were out again to have dinner with Faye who was in our group. Faye’s partner Ray was ill with a stomach bug and could not eat, so we asked her if she would like to join us for some food. When we had finished eating we decided to stroll around the little port town to see if we could find any more of the group and have a few more beers. We could hear long before we could see what must be the world’s loudest karaoke bar. We had a look inside to see if anyone we knew was in there. It was deafening, so loud that we had to walk straight back out; our ears were still ringing ages later. Down by the side of the dock a few enterprising women had set up plastic tables and chairs and were selling cold drinks out of cool boxes. We stopped for a beer and watched the world go by.

While we were sat there chatting, the post card girls from Monkey Island came up to us and asked if we would buy some cards from them. We were again laughing and joking with them. Their English was very good considering that they had picked it up and learnt it on the streets by talking to tourists. Before we left home Rach and I had made a conscious decision not to buy from street sellers as it only encourages them to do it all the more. I know that they are only trying to make a living but there is nothing worse than being pestered as you walk around a place; it spoils the experience. After a while though Faye’s resolve broke and she gave in to them because she said “they were so cute”. Rachael and I gave in soon after and bought some cards off one of the girls too. This really upset one of the others. She was the first one to speak and show her cards to Rach and so thought Rach should have bought the cards off of her and not the one she had done business with. We had thought that they all worked together and being new in the country we never realised that there was etiquette to buying postcards. There was no way we were going to buy more of the inferior cards. The copies were not good and anyway the damage had all ready been done.

The next morning as we were boarding the bus to take us back to our boat to begin the journey back to Hanoi, the postcard girls came walking past. They leapt all over Faye shouting their goodbyes but the girl we had upset just looked very sad at us. She still hadn’t forgiven us for the mix up the night before. It kind of upset us to see her hurt but what could we do? Our mood didn’t lighten any on the return journey to the main land as it began to rain quite hard and continued to do so for most of the way back to Hanoi.

We had been so lucky with the weather and had enjoyed the trip so much we decided to book another trip with the Kangaroo Café. This time we were going to Sapa in the north of the country. A Canadian couple John and Donna who we got friendly with on the trip to Ha Long Bay also wanted to go to Sapa so we booked the trip for all four of us to travel together. We were to leave the next evening on the overnight sleeper train.

I spent most of the next morning walking around the old city looking for a Cyclo to buy. I asked a postcard boy who had befriended me if he could help me buy one? He told me that “one would cost $300” I told him that “he was crazy and out of his mind and that they only cost half that new”. I would have given him a good tip if he had helped me instead of trying to rip me off. So I shook my head at him and walked off down the street. About an hour later without any luck I stopped and again asked a Cyclo driver how much he would sell me his Cyclo for? I was watching him as he was thinking of a price and was thinking that this looked promising when all of a sudden I noticed that his eyes looked past me over my shoulder then straight away he raised three fingers to state $300.  I turned to look behind me and saw the postcard boy from earlier walking towards us smiling as he came. I again shook my head at him and walked off. I am willing to give a fair price but the Cyclo driver had just lost what could have been a good deal for him.

Back at the hotel I asked the guy on the desk if he could help me buy a Cyclo. He and his friend fell about laughing when I told them what we wanted to do with it. (I say “we” but I still don’t think Rachael believed me that I was really going to try to cycle Vietnam on a Cyclo). He told me he would look into it while we were away in Sapa and that he should have one for us on our return.

That night we caught the train to Lao Cai in the north. It sits right on the Vietnamese/Chinese border. The four of us were shown to a six-berth soft sleeper cabin. We had met up again with John and Donna earlier at the Kangaroo café. We were to share the cabin with two Sikh gentlemen who were in Vietnam for a conference. Because they were wearing their turbans and white outer garments the Vietnamese people thought that they were Moslems and kept calling them Bin Laden. We had booked soft sleeper beds for the train journey. The difference between soft and hard sleeper is about an inch: the thickness of the mattress the Kangaroo Café had supplied for us. Hard sleeper was just the wooden board the bunks were made out of. It was going to be quite cosy in the cramped compartment but then all we were going to do was sleep so it shouldn’t be too bad.

One of the rules on the back of the ticket states that: “Passengers are prohibited to carry on board any dangerous items such as explosive, inflammable, radioactive or dead body, nauseating items or livestock or other commodities not allowed to be transported by government regulations.”

After chatting for a little while we all turned in to try to get some much needed sleep. The journey north was not good for me as I have trouble sleeping at the best of times, but I had no chance in the small cramped compartment, it was too dark to look at the scenery flashing past the window and there was not enough light to read a book by. So I just lay on my bunk wishing the hours away while I listened to the sound and rhythm of the train and to the snippets of conversations I couldn’t understand coming from the people passing by outside of the closed door. Rach on the other hand slept like a log. She is lucky and can sleep at anytime and anywhere. She tells me it’s because she has a clear conscience. I don’t quite know what she is trying to tell me? All I know is that I have a lot of trouble sleeping!


The train pulled into Lao Cai Station at 7.30am. It was exactly on time. Outside the station a fleet of minibuses were waiting to meet the locals and tourists off the train and drive us to our different destinations in Sapa and surrounding areas. The one and a half hour drive to Sapa was mostly up hill and took us past some of the most beautiful mountain scenery that I have ever seen. There were rivers meandering through the bottom of every valley and on each bank steep mountains of black and green towered upwards. On these mountainsides every square cm that could be cultivated was! From our high advantage point above the valley floor we could see the green and brown lines of the rice terraces curving around the mountainsides like the contour lines of a map.

As we continued up the winding road we could see far below us the little hamlets of grey and black wooden houses with their steep slanting roofs that were nearly touching the ground. They were sat nestled in amongst the trees and surrounded by fields of rice and corn. This scene was repeated wherever the valley levelled out enough to allow houses to be built on the flat ground. My eyes were following the routes of the brown snaking footpaths and tracks spreading out like spiders webs from the villages. Their routes were taking them up and down the valleys and sides of the hills.

Every now and again we drove past people from the different hill tribes that live in this part of Vietnam. They usually passed us on old motorbikes loaded down with people or different kinds of bundles strapped to their machines. One bike sped past with a couple of puppies looking meekly out of the conical wicker baskets that they were caged in. The motorbike riders turn off their engines and coast down the long steep hills to conserve petrol and being able to roll for miles at a time it must be quite a big saving.

Hmong Village

The hill station of Sapa was founded by the French in the late 1930’s and is situated at an altitude of 1,560m. The area boasts a cool refreshing climate and was a welcome change after the heat of the low lands. It is home to the Hmong and Dao hill tribes: just two of the many different groups that make up Vietnams ethnic populations. The highest mountain in Vietnam: Fan Si Pan and its neighbours can be seen from the radio mast lookout above the town. That’s if it’s not covered in mist and clouds as it usually is.

The minibus dropped us off at the Cat Cat Guest House: our accommodation for the trip. After checking in we were shown up a long and steep flight of steps to our neat spacious rooms complete with log fires and views to die for. Directly outside our room was a wide tiled veranda with tables, chairs and sun loungers to sit on whilst looking out at the stunning view across the valley; while recovering from a hard days trekking. Surrounding the veranda was a low intricate wall that incorporated the chimneystacks from the rooms on the level below us. I could have sat there for hours on end just looking at the view if we had had enough time but we had some exploring to do. After unpacking our one backpack (we had left as much as we could back at the Kangaroo Café) the rest of the morning was ours to do with as we pleased. We strolled around the town and local market place trying not to stare too much at the people from the local hill tribes. They looked magnificent in their tribal costumes. The Hmong are the biggest tribe in the area and can be identified by the blue/indigo clothes that they wear. The women and girls wear thick cotton pleated skirts and vests with embroidered decorations around the neck, sleeves and hems. On their legs they usually have knee length leggings bound with strips of cloth. On their feet most of them wear brown plastic sandals. Most wear headgear in the form of a turban. This is all topped off by silver bracelets and big silver earrings that hang down past their shoulders; the weight of the earrings leaves open slits in their earlobes; they all had an embroidered cloth bag full of trinkets and friendship bracelets to sell to the tourists. The women’s hands were dyed blue up to just above their wrists from using indigo to dye the cloth. The men and boys wore baggy indigo shirts and trousers. A lot of them had what look like home made flintlock riffles over their shoulders or a wooden frame used for carrying their goods.

The weekend market used to be famous for what became known as “The Love Market”. The young men and women of the Red Zao tribe would converge on the town to perform their courtship practice. Apparently two groups would form: one of boys and the other of girls and then the boys would begin by singing poetic songs across to the girls. All who partake would be dressed up in all their tribal finery to try to make an impression on the partner of their dreams. However because of the influx and taunts of insensitive tourists they have now moved on to a different valley away from prying eyes. I tried to imagine how it must have been: full of shouting and laughing people taking a well-earned break from the hard life they lead.

Because of the influx of wealthy tourists the produce market is now held every day of the week, and next to the more traditional stalls, in a drab square concrete building they even have an indoor clothing market where you can buy handmade items of clothing for next to nothing.

After lunch we met our guide who was going to lead us on the treks we were going on. She was a young Hmong girl called Zee. Zee told us that she was 16 years old but she looked a lot younger. She explained to us where we would be walking to that afternoon and then we were off down into the valley to see the Cat Cat Waterfalls and to check whether or not we were up to the task of walking up and down the steep routes we would be taking on our main trek the following day.

Rachael and Zee hit it off at once and spent most of the walk talking about their different lives and of course: boys. Zee told her that she did not want to get married yet because she enjoyed her job too much and if she did get married she would have to quit her job to take care of her husband even though she was earning good money from the tourists. Her sister was married at 12 years old and has two children but so far Zee had resisted the offers. It was an enjoyable walk; it was nice to get out in to the countryside and the peace and quiet of the valley even if the Cat Cat Waterfalls didn’t live up to much.

Later that evening as we sat on the hotel balcony outside our room having a well earned beer we could hear the squeals of a pig coming from the town below us. It was still making horrendous cries for help an hour or more later when we sat down to eat outside the wonderful Mimosa Restaurant. We were told that they were trying to weigh it before it could be slaughtered for its meat. But the pig had other ideas. It was so loud and distressing that we asked if we could be seated inside away from the spine tingling noise. Even inside we could still hear its pitiful cries for help but thankfully not as bad as it was outside on the veranda. The other three gave me funny looks and smiles when I ordered the Wild Boar off the menu!

After a wonderful meal we finished the night off with a stroll around the town. John and I played a game of pool on an old uneven pool table that was outside a café but under cover from the elements. We were quickly surrounded by a group of local lads laughing at our every shot and our strange rules. Pool tables can be found all over Vietnam. Even in the remotest parts it is not uncommon to find an old beat up one in a corner of a village.

Fantastic Hmong Lady

The next day on our main trek we walked across and down the valley through villages of the Hong and Gina Tribes; their mud and timber houses looked centuries old and probably were. As we passed by people stopped their work to smile and wave at us. We said hello to a couple of old women their lips and teeth stained red from chewing Betel nut; one was bent over double not being able to straighten her back from the years of hard work she had endured in her life. I wished that I could sit down with her and hear her life story? She must have so many tales to tell? We walked past water driven pestles that were pounding away at the rice in mortars. One chicken had learnt to time its run to perfection to steal the grains of rice while the pestle was on its way up! One mistake in its timing and that would be it off to chicken heaven.

Even out in the countryside most of the houses had TV aerials on their roofs, the power this time coming from small water driven generators placed in the small fast flowing streams. We stopped to eat lunch on a rickety wooden balcony that was joined to a little wooden shack built along the side of the footpath. Inside the shack a young girl with a small child in her arms had set up shop selling cold drinks and fruit to the passing tourists, she even had a few garments hanging on the wall for sale. Zee had brought with her some provisions for us to eat; we had baguettes, hardboiled eggs, cheese and some bananas. We bought some cold drinks from the girl to go with our meal and while we were eating and taking in the views across the fields to a small hamlet down below us, five more children came running in and sat down to join us. It was quite a crowd for such a little space and I wondered if the balcony would be able to take all of our weight. The youngest three children were for some reason not dressed in the traditional indigo clothes of the Hmong yet. They wore old baggy jumpers and not a lot else. All seven of the Hmong apart from Zee sat opposite us smiling and watching our every move. They looked so proud and happy; the only blemish on any of their faces was a round bruise on one of the little girls’ forehead. This had been made by placing a warm glass on her head causing a vacuum – the Hmong believe this gets rid of headaches. After lunch we said our goodbyes and continued on our way. After an hour or so it started to rain and this made the going extremely slippery as the tracks instantly turned to mud. It was all we could do to keep on our feet let alone look at the scenery. Zee of course had no problem in her cheap plastic sandals but we westerners in our expensive walking boots and shoes were slipping all over the place and a couple of times we ended up on our bottoms in the wet mud. After an hour or two of struggling along with bamboo walking sticks Zee had cut for us, we decided to call it a day and head for the road to try and get a lift back to Sapa.

There were a couple of guys on motorbikes waiting for us when we reached the road. They must have been following our progress along the trail and thought that they could make some money giving us a lift back to town. Zee told us not to trust them because they had been drinking and it could be dangerous for us to ride with them. After about ten minutes of arguing with the motorbike guys Zee flagged down an Old Russian Army Jeep that was already full of people. After a short conversation with the driver she told us to get in. The four of us squeezed on to the back seat. Zee and the driver were in the front and six Hmong men sat in the back. The Jeep absolutely reeked of petrol; the fumes were coming from a couple of full Jerry Cans that were also in the back of the Jeep. This did not deter the men from smoking their pipes and cigarettes around the cans. We thought that we were going to go up in a cloud of flames at any moment. John and I kept our hands on the door levers just in case we had to make a quick escape.

The next day Rach and I were to catch the train back to Hanoi. John and Donna had decided to stay an extra night but we had to get back and sort out a Cyclo to buy, so we caught the train back on our own.
This time we shared the compartment with a Vietnamese couple and their young child, a Vietnamese man with a huge metal trunk that took up most of the floor space and a young soldier who looked very smart in his dress uniform. As the train pulled out of the station the soldier called to a lady friend who was walking past our cabin; she came in, sat on the end of my bed, and started to chat to the soldier. He was sat opposite her on one of the other beds. They then began to talk none stop and continued on for hours. Rachael had long gone to bed in the bunk above me. I was stretched out ready to try to get some sleep. When the man who’s bed the soldier had been sat on kicked him off so he could get some sleep; the solider tried to sit on my bed next to his mate but I was having none of it and told them both to get off so I too could try to get some much needed sleep. They said their goodbyes and thankfully the soldier climbed up to his own bunk. This time I did manage to get a couple of hours sleep before we arrived back in Hanoi. We arrived at 4.30 am and it was absolutely throwing it down with rain. The streets were over flowing with water as our taxi made its way through the deluge to our hotel.

After a couple of hours sleep in a nice warm bed we decided to go and see Ho Chi Minh’s stilted house but I had somehow read the map wrong and we walked for miles in the wrong direction. Even when Rachael had realised my mistake and we were back in the right area we still could not find it. Not very encouraging for someone who’s going to try to cycle the length of Vietnam? It’s a good job that Rach will be doing most of the map reading and that most of the time we will be on Highway 1.

I had decided to get my hair cut at a Hot Toc (barbers) on a street corner. They just set up stall on the footpath as long as there is space for a chair and somewhere to hang a mirror from, be it a tree, a signpost or a building hording, they are in business. I sat down in the chair and after agreeing an outrageous tourist price he began. After the haircut: a short number two all over; he gave me a shave using a razor blade. He took great pains in showing me that it was new and not been used before. I think he was trying to justify the price to me? He then dipped his shaving brush into what must be the most putrid foul smelling water I have ever had the misfortune to be close to. It was awful when he had covered my face and neck in the evil smelling shaving foam. He shaved me, thankfully not cutting me once. Who knows what I could have caught from that water? After shaving my chin he proceeded to shave my hairline, my forehead, my nose, cheeks, and even my ears stopping every now and again to tut and shake his head at me as he showed me the little blond hairs on the edge of his razor blade before wiping them off in disgust on the dirty rag hanging over his left arm (The next haircut I had a few months later in Cambodia I even had my eyelids shaved). When he pointed to the collection of long pointed implements they use to root around in peoples ears fishing for earwax or whatever else they find in them I quickly paid him his money and made good my escape. It is a favourite past time of the Vietnamese to lie flat out at the barbers and have him dig around in one’s ear with one of the many long narrow pointed and hooked implements of torture they use for the job.

I met Rachael again; she was waiting for me at the Kangaroo Café. I told her that I needed to go back to the hotel for a shower before I did anything else. She took one sniff of me and instantly agreed. We were stood out on our balcony watching the world go by and smoking some of our last cigarettes (we were both giving up the evil weed as soon as we left Hanoi) when we saw three young boys with even younger children strapped to their backs were making their way along the street holding out their hands out for money begging as they went. They had no shoes on their feet and wore really tatty and dirty clothes. One of them was wearing a hat that was miles to big for him; it made me think of Huckleberry Finn. Women were also walking past carrying huge loads of vegetables and fruit in yoke and baskets; the weight was so heavy it made the yokes bend and the baskets were only inches off the ground. I thought that I would struggle to lift and carry that weight. How these little thin women carry such a heavy load is beyond me? A man cycled by, I think he was cycling? We could only just see him as he was hidden by the hundreds of wicker baskets he had strapped to his bike. All we could see of him was his shoulders and his pith hat.

Hoa’s friend did not have a Cyclo for sale so he drove around the streets of Hanoi with me on the back of his moped and him asking all the Cyclo drivers we came across if they wanted to sell their Cyclo to me? When finally one said “yes”, Hoa told me to sit in the Cyclo and that the driver would pedal me back to the hotel. It was fun sitting so low down in the Cyclo weaving our way through the Hanoi traffic. This was to be my first and only proper ride in a Cyclo as a passenger.

Back at the hotel Hoa wrote out a receipt stating that I had paid $80 US for the Cyclo, he then asked the driver and me to sign our names and then he signed as a witness. He then made two copies gave one to the driver, kept the other one for himself and gave me the original along with the registration document. “Just in case of trouble with the police” he told me. And that was that! After a round of smiles and shaking hands we were the proud owners of our very own Cyclo.

After the formalities were completed I went up to our room where Rachael was waiting for me and told her the good news. She laughed when she saw the Cyclo asking “Why with all the Cyclos in Hanoi hadn’t I bought a good one?” I admitted that it didn’t look all that good but what did she expect for $80? However it certainly looked and felt solid enough for the job. We spent the rest of the day running around buying things for the trip. Tomorrow we would set off on our first leg of the long journey south. There’s nothing like being prepared for a journey and we were nothing like prepared for it!

Around 8pm that evening while we were packing there was a knock on the door. Hoa had come to tell us that the police had said that we could not park the Cyclo outside the hotel at night but that they were willing to look after it in their compound for us. For a small fee of 10,000 Dong of course! It was not a good start to being a Cyclo owner but what could we do? We paid up and hoped that we would see the Cyclo again the next morning?

I was so excited and nervous that I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I just lay on the bed wide awake wondering whether this was a good idea or not? I was going through every worst-case scenario I could think of. Breaking down (mentally and physically), getting stopped by the police, getting robbed, etc, etc. I had only sat on and pedalled a Cyclo for twenty metres down an empty street and back. What would it be like in built up traffic; especially the way the traffic is around Hanoi? What on earth was I letting the two of us in for? I thought to myself “I have had some crazy ideas in my time but this beats them all hands down”. My one and only back up plan was: “I suppose we can all ways stop and jump on a bus if we need to?” What could be easier?

Part 2: The Journey           

Hanoi – Ninh Binh (100 km)

At 5am the alarm finally acted as a starting pistol and I jumped out of bed and went down stairs to wake the night porter so that he could go and collect the Cyclo from the police station for us. By the time we had washed and packed it was sitting outside the hotel. We loaded it up with a backpack in the front foot-well and the other backpack on the rack behind the saddle above the back wheel. I secured them both with bungee straps that we had bought the day before. Once everything was secure Rachael sat in the chair and I climbed on. I suddenly thought to myself that I had not even tried out this Cyclo before buying it! What would we do if there was something wrong with it? How embarrassed would I feel if I could not ride it for some reason or other and had to postpone the trip? There was nothing for it I had to try it. It was now or never. I asked Rach if she was ready to go. She replied “yes” so I pushed down on one of the pedals and that was it; we were off. It was as simple as that. No ceremony or fuss just a wave and a smile from the security guard as we rode away from the hotel. We were swaying from side to side while I fought to gain control of the Cyclo and get used to steering it.

As we cycled down past Ho Hoan Kiem the early rising Vietnamese were seriously pursuing their morning exercises around the lake. Some played badminton, some jogged around the footpaths, while others practiced Thi Chi. When we stopped at a red traffic light on the southern end of the lake the other commuters around us pointed and talked amongst themselves, trying to work out what we were doing on a Cyclo? We smiled back at them, a little bit nervous of the attention we were getting; then the light changed to green and we were off again. We turned right off of Pho Ba Trieu on to Pho Tran Nhan Tong. At the end of Lenin Park we took a left on to Duong Le Duan: the start of Highway 1 in the north of the country. The railway line was to our right; it was going to stay with us for most of the way as we migrated the 1,700km south to Ho Chi Minh City.

A Cyclo called Cybil

I was starting to feel a little more confident at riding the Cyclo and was getting used to the huge handlebars as we weaved our way through the other road users. A couple of guys threw something at Rachael. Later on we found a nail file, but apart from those two idiots everyone else just stared at us in disbelief. They looked gob smacked or just fell around laughing while pointing their fingers at us. We were quickly learning the only four road rules they care about in Vietnam:

1. The biggest wins and anything smaller has to get quickly out of the way.
2. Use your hooter as much as you can in one journey.
3. Go as fast as possible.
4. Stop for absolutely nothing.      

The sun was by now high in the sky and throwing its heat down at us. I was covered in sweat. Moisture was coming out of me as fast as I could drink it down. I was so glad that I had bought a wide brimmed hat to protect my head from the sun before we left Hanoi; one of my better ideas.

Men, women and children would ride along side of us laughing and talking to us in Vietnamese. We couldn’t understand each other but being on the road together gave us something in common, some kind of bond as we smiled and laughed at our inadequate attempts to try to understand each other’s comments. The traffic died down a bit as we left the city behind us and rode out in to the surrounding countryside but buses, cars and Lorries still came hurtling past us with their hooters blaring. Rice fields lined both sides of the highway for as far as the eye could see. In the distance we could see farmers walking through the knee high water behind their buffalos as they ploughed, others were bent double working in the rice paddies. We laughed at the shepherds with their herds of ducks as they kept them in line with long thin sticks or occasionally throwing a well-aimed stone just in front of them as they moved from field to field, waddling across the dirt banks that surrounds each rice paddy and then swimming across the water feeding as they went. Everywhere we looked there was someone going about his or her work?
The road could not have been better; it looked as if it had just been resurfaced and if anything it was going slightly down hill making cycling easy. We were cycling along the wide hard shoulder of the highway when we could; every now and again farmers drying their crops on it in the sun would force us out in to the road to take our chances with the speeding Lorries and buses. It is an ideal drying surface but the pollution from all the vehicles passing by cannot do the rice any good?

We stopped a couple of times at stalls along the side of the road to get something to eat and drink but we struggled to get cold drinks as they serve all their drinks warm and with ice. The ice is usually chipped off big blocks that are nearly always covered with sawdust and grime. They even have ice with their beer! Because I did not want to get ill from the ice I rubbed it into my aching legs. I hadn’t cycled in over six weeks and I was feeling the pace. I do not know if the ice worked but it cooled me down for a few minutes and made me feel a little bit better even if I did get strange looks from the other customers for doing it. I’m sure they must have been muttering to each other “stupid tourists”? It was not worth chancing the ice in our drinks, as it would be a complete nightmare if we were to become ill with a stomach bug out in the sticks, miles from a hotel room and a proper toilet.

Ninh Binh

We were both surprised and happy when we passed the sign for Ninh Binh and entered the town. There was a lack of signs on the route giving the distance to the town so we had no idea how close or far we were to the end of the days cycling. Even so there was no way we thought it would be this easy. It was 12.35pm and we had made good time covering about 100km on our first day. As we entered the town a guy on a moped pulled up alongside of us and asked if we wanted to stay at the Thuy Anh Hotel for the night? We told him that we had all ready chosen that very one to stay at from our guidebook and he rode off. When we pulled up outside the hotel the owner and his wife (Mr and Mrs Du) were waiting to welcome us. The guy on the moped must have told them we were on our way? They gave us a 1 litre bottle of cold water straight from the freezer and told us it was on the house; it tasted wonderful. We unloaded the Cyclo and carried our bags inside.

The Du’s could not believe that we had cycled from Hanoi in one day and when we told them our plan was to cycle to Ho Chi Minh City they thought we were mad to try it. Mr Du kept telling us that we were “heroes” and that we were “so strong.” We booked in to the hotel for three nights as there are a lot of things of interest to see and do in the area. After showering and getting changed we strolled around the town. Ninh Binh does not have any redeeming features and because Highway 1 goes straight through the town centre in the form of a dual carriageway, it isn’t all that pleasant to walk around. We strolled around the dirty dusty streets for about an hour or so not seeing any points of interest until we came upon two very sad looking bears in tiny cages on the side of the road; it was such a depressing sight we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel.

Because of the time and energy it would take to cycle to the places of interest on our journey we made the decision to take local tours, unless of course the place of interest was on our route. So we arranged to go on one of these the next morning to Cuc Phuong National Park.

About 50km to the west of Ninh Binh is Cuc Phuong National Park; Cuc Phuong was Vietnam’s first National Park and was set up in 1962. It covers an area of 23,000 hectares and borders the three provinces of Ninh Binh, Hoa Binh and Thanh Hoa. It is home to an amazing variety of fauna and flora. It is said that only a few years ago it wouldn’t be uncommon to see panthers and tigers roaming around some of the more remote parts of the park. But thanks to poachers the chances of spotting an animal of any kind now is slim. Much of the vegetation here has been preserved in its primeval state and there is an amazing diversity of plant species, some of which still have not been studied today.

At our first port of call in the park we walked up a gentle sloping walkway and climbed the hundred or so steps leading to the Nguoi Xua (ancient man) Grotto. On the metal railings of the walkway we laughed at what must be the stupidest stick insects ever. They were bright green, which in amongst the foliage of the forest is perfect camouflage, but they stuck out like sore thumbs trying to blend in on the black railings. The cave is famous for two burial tombs containing the bones and artefacts of prehistoric men found inside. Next we took a beautiful short trek through the ancient forest to one of the many trees in the park that is said to be over a thousand years old. We had forgotten to bring insect repellent so the Mosquitoes were eating us alive as we strolled through the jungle. But it was still worth the hassle.

At the entrance to the park is the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre. This German and Vietnamese run project was started in 1995 and is home to around 100 primates most of them rescued from illegal traders or people trying to keep them for pets. In one of the cages there was a sad looking one armed Langur monkey that was rescued in the nick of time from the poachers before it died. They have begun to re-introduce some of the primates back in to the wild. The first stage of this is to release them in to a huge compound at the back of the centre. We were lucky enough to be there at feeding time when high in the canopy we could see and hear the monkeys making their way back to the centre for their free hand outs of food. It was wonderful to watch them all as they came swinging through the trees towards us. It always amazes us how people can kill something so beautiful for profit?

Rowing with her feet

The next morning we hired a guide to take us to the village of Vam Lam: the starting point for a flat bottomed boat ride through Tam Coc, the Halong Bay of the rice fields. There are 150km of waterways in the Nim Binh Province and what better way to see some of them, than to spend a few hours on a pitch lined reed boat gliding through Tam Coc (Three Caves)? Our guide for the day was called Jim (his western name I guessed?). Jim hired a boat and a couple of women to propel it. In this area of Vietnam the locals row with their feet. This way of rowing evolved so that they still are able to use their hands to make and mend things while on the move. It is unbelievable to watch as they use no bindings at all. They just roll their feet around the top of the oars. It’s as if the oars are somehow glued to the soles of their feet. We never once saw anyone’s feet slip off the oars in all the time we were in the area. As we sailed up river we were chaperoned by another woman in a similar boat. Her boat was full of sweets, drinks and other useless nick knacks for us to buy. We had been warned about the hard sell tactics of the women in Tam Coc and we were adamant that we would not buy anything off any of them.

We glided through beautiful clear shallow lagoons winding our way through the green foliage covered karst cliffs and as we were the first boat of the morning (Mr Du had warned us to get here early) the only sound was the sound of the splashes as the oars sliced through the water and the occasional conversations of the three women. It was so quiet and tranquil. Every now and again we would see a Kingfisher perched on a reed or some other high advantage point, ready to pounce on its unsuspecting prey. Every time I heard a splash my eyes quickly darted towards the sound hoping to spot a fish jumping or if I was luckily enough a Kingfisher surfacing with a fish in its beak. On reeds and fences there were thousands of little clumps of snail eggs, they were bright red in colour. In the distance I spotted a Heron walking slowly through the reeds stalking its prey as it went. As we emerged into the sunlight from each of the three separate caves I felt as if we were entering another world. They call them caves but they are more like tunnels, carved out of the limestone rock over thousands of years by the constant flow of water. We sailed past what must be one of the best locations for a house in the world. It was nestled in amongst the foot of one of the cliff faces and only metres from the water’s edge. It was an absolutely breath taking journey upriver.

However once we reached the furthest point of our journey and began to turn around the hard sell began. The women who had been friendly all the way up turned in to old hags and were now bartering us to buy their wares. It was a non-stop onslaught of “you buy, you buy”. The woman in the other boat made us feel really guilty for not buying the woman who rowed us a drink. So we paid for a can of coke for her and her friend and they handed them straight back to their accomplice, unopened and ready to resell to the next soft touch who happened along. They didn’t even try to hide the fact it was a well rehearsed ploy. The second woman on our boat unpacked a couple of bags containing very poor quality embroidery. We tried to explain that we did not have the room in our backpacks for anything we did not need and refused to buy anything from her. By now the river was full with other boats full of tourists coming towards us. The two women were not happy with us for refusing to buy anything so it was a frosty atmosphere until at last they dropped us off and even then they had the cheek to ask for a tip for rowing us along the river. We gave them one but it ruined a wonderful experience and sooner or later people will stop going there because of it. While all this was going on Jim just smiled and never came to our aid once. He just looked the other way and ignored the proceedings. I suppose he thought that they to have a right to earn a living any which, way they can?

After lunch back in Ninh Binh, we tried to change some Travellers Cheques at the bank in the town. We wanted to change $300 worth of traveller’s cheques and asked an employee of the bank where we could do this? He pointed to a woman who was sitting behind the counter in front of us. She told Rach to fill out a small form with her name, passport number and the cheque numbers along with the value of the cheques and then sign it. After scrutinising the form she gave us the cheques back and motioned for us to move along to the next window. We then handed the cheques back over the counter to two different women who then proceeded to examine each cheque in turn by holding them up to the light, trying to rub off the ink on them and even by giving each one a thorough going over with a magnifying glass. When they both were satisfied that they were the genuine item they asked Rach to sign her name again and this was compared with the first signature she had signed earlier. When again they were satisfied they pointed for us to move to the next window along. Just before we came to the last window I was watching a man who was busily filling up a suitcase with bundles and bundles of cash; he must have put in millions of Dong into that case. When we got to the window Rachael had to sign her name once more and this in turn was again compared to her last two signatures before at last they counted out the cash and gave it to her. You can’t be too careful I suppose but the whole process took about 45 minutes. All the time this was going on we joked with each other about two women bank employees who were de-lousing each other’s hair. This was being done behind the counter in full view of the few customers who were in the bank. It seems to be another favourite past time of the Vietnamese to happily spend ages looking through a family members or friends hair. We had seen this de-lousing before in the street and in shops but for some reason we did not expect to see it in plain view in a bank.

We had taken so long changing the traveller’s cheques that Jim was waiting outside in his car ready to whisk us off to Kenh Ga Floating Village. Kenh Ga is situated amongst one of the most stunning mountain scenes you could imagine and can only be reached by boat along the Hoang Long River. Big beautiful irregular shaped limestone outcrops surround the village. Although there are quite a few concrete buildings and an impressive old rustic Catholic Church most of the inhabitants live on boats. The whole province was once a stronghold of Catholicism and we have seen many churches and graveyards in the area. Jim told us that they exhume and rebury their dead relatives after three years. This is so that they can also move house even after their death. He told us the smell was terrible especially if the grave had been water logged.

The children of Kenh Ga learn from an early age the skills needed to navigate the river and to row a boat with their feet. They even commute to and from school by river. We spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the area slowly by boat; we sailed in and out of the tributaries and islands; past a couple of surreal boat skeletons made completely out of steel reinforcing ready to have the concrete poured into them. This has to be done in one pour or else there will be a weak point in the construction. I wondered how they would get enough concrete up river in one go to do such a project? Every now and again we would pass a boat coming towards us and return the waves and smiles we had received from the inhabitants. It was all over too soon. We had to make our way back to the hotel to prepare for the next day’s cycling.

After dinner while we were chatting Mr Du came up to our table and handed me a piece of paper. On it he had written down some Vietnamese phrases asking directions to the nearest hotel or police station for us “just in case we needed them” he said. Yet again we thanked him and then we turned in for an early night.

Ninh Binh – Cong (100 km)

At 6am the next morning Mr Du and his wife were up and ready to wave us off from their friendly hotel. We loaded up the Cyclo, shook hands and said our goodbyes then we were off again. As we turned the corner back onto Highway 1 we turned and waved once more to Mr and Mrs Du who were still waving and watching us as we progressed along the road. We were in great spirits. If the rest of the hotels on our long journey were anything close to the wonderful Thuy Anh Hotel it was going to make our lives a lot easier? Then we were out of sight and on our own once again. Within minutes we were out of the town and again in to the green lush countryside.

A bus drove past us with an old man hanging out of the window he was being sick all down the side of the bus; he didn’t look well. After the first ten kilometres the road began to climb and we soon discovered that Cyclos are not designed for hills. Our Cyclo only had two gears and they were forward and reverse so we had to get off and push a few times on the steeper climbs but the road was so good it was not a problem. We stopped in the town of Thanh Hoa for a drink and were instantly surrounded by people pointing and laughing at us. We were learning that in Vietnam there are two things which it is almost impossible to get hold of. The first and foremost of these is cold drinks. Since being in the country we had seen hundreds of drink chillers full of bottles and cans of drinks but most of them had been turned off. The second thing is peace and quiet. Don’t get me wrong I’m quite gregarious and enjoy being surrounded by people but once or twice in a day it would be nice just to be able to chill and relax on our own for five minutes before starting the next leg of our journey.

On The road

When we could we rode along the hard shoulder of the highway away from the traffic but most of the time we were forced into the road by the locals drying their freshly grown produce in the sun. The road was so clean and smooth it made a great place to dry the rice before and after threshing it. We passed lots of handmade Rattan Mats and Incense Sticks hanging out to dry in the sun. This area is also well known for the bird salesmen on the side of the highway. They just stand on the hard shoulder holding up cages full of many different kinds of birds or they hold up bundles of birds tied together by their feet. On one rest stop Rachael was offered a beautifully coloured Parrot for 5,000 Dong (about 30 English pence).

Once again we made good time to Cong and once there we stopped to ask in a Com Ga Shop for a hotel. The woman did not understand a word I was saying so I had to show her the note Mr Du had written for us. She at once pointed down the road to a tall dirty looking building.

The sun had been beating down on us all day and I was in need of a long cold drink but they were all warm in the hotel so I decided to wait until we were cleaned up before looking elsewhere for a cold one. We were shown to a room at the top of the building; it was horrible but beggars cannot be choosers. It was the only hotel in the area so we had to stay there or under the stars and as we did not have a tent or sleeping bags the place had to do. The room was dark and dingy with damp patches on the walls and ceiling; the only items in the room were two single beds and a small bedside table. A door at the back of the room led to an even darker toilet and shower room and that was it. Gone was the luxury of the previous night’s accommodation and in its place was a mosquito-ridden fleapit.

As Rachael was showering I lay on one of the beds and dozed off. I was awoken by Rach saying “Oh my God”. In the dim light she hadn’t noticed that the drains were blocked in the bathroom and the water had flooded out under the door and in to our room. We threw everything of ours that we could on to the beds and started to mop up the water using towels and items of our clothing, hoping to God that it was not somehow leaking down through the concrete floor to the floors below and alerting the owner about our mishap. Upon moving one of the beds we found a used condom and one or two things that could only pass for science projects left over from the American War. Oh how spoilt we had been!

The hotel didn’t do food: it was bed only so we decided to walk back up the road to the Com Ga Shop we had asked directions at earlier. Com Ga means rice and chicken and you can find a shop selling it almost anywhere. The woman’s face lit up when she saw us walking to her shop and she realised that we would be eating in her establishment. I had to go with her through the back into the kitchen and look in the freezer to point at a piece of fish for Rachael to have and I had the Com Ga. I tried the only Vietnamese word I had learnt so far: the word for cold (Lanh) “Beer lanh!” I asked repeatedly but she didn’t understand me at all. Hanging on the wall I noticed there was a poster depicting a bottle of Tiger Beer that was absolutely covered in condensation and ice. Under the bottle “BEER LANH” was written in bold letters. So I pointed to the poster saying “beer lanh, beer lanh” and the penny dropped. She smiled and said, “Yes, yes” and retreated in to the kitchen. She reappeared ten minutes later carrying a warm smile, a warm bottle of beer and a bucket full of ice. I smiled at her, put the bottle in the bucket, and waited for it to cool down enough to drink. We take a lot of things for granted back home; these people are so poor they cannot afford to waste money on electricity just to keep things like drinks cold. In hindsight I should have asked if I could put the beer in the freezer for a while. As we were eating another woman came in the shop with a couple of kids, they sat at the table next to us and began to watch our every move. For some reason the woman took an instant dislike to me; so while the kids smiled and laughed at us both she just smiled and tried to speak to Rach. Every now and again she would stop and scowl at me. So much for first impressions I thought. As far as we could make out she did not think that I was good enough for Rachael. We thought it might have been because I was dragging her through Vietnam on a Cyclo or that I hadn’t given her a baby by now. But she went on and on saying that I looked sixty years old, that I was ugly and looked like trash. I was reminded of a line from an old Tom Waits song: “warm beer and cold women”. It summed up Cong for me in one line. I was glad to leave that Com Ga Shop and go back to our damp filthy fleapit of a room. Once back in the safety of our room we pushed the beds together in the middle of the floor rigged up our mosquito net and slept like logs until we were rudely awoken the next morning by the alarm clock.

Cong - Vinh (100 km)

As we pushed the Cyclo out of the hotel the next morning a woman with two baskets full of bread strapped to her pushbike came up to us and asked whether we would like to buy some bread for the day ahead? For some reason we said “no” and decided that we would get some further down the road. This turned out to be a big mistake; we survived all day on some horrible little Vietnamese butter biscuits and some of the wonderful locally produced peanut candy that is said to be some of the best in Vietnam. For one reason or another there seemed to be a bread shortage in this area?

We pulled into a shop on the side of the road and ordered a couple of warm drinks; a crowd soon surrounded us, again watching our every move. I was smiling and saying hello to them while I was rubbing the ice into my legs. After about five minutes of doing this an old woman came up to me and handed me a small glass bottle full of a purple liquid and then she pointed to my legs. I poured a little quantity into my hands, handed the bottle back and rubbed it into my legs. This was greeted with nods and loud sounds of approval from the small gathering around our table. We had no idea what was in the bottle but the Vietnamese people around us thought it was a great tonic and that it would help my aching muscles to recover.

We had only been back on the road a few minutes when we were pounced upon by a couple of village idiots who decided that we were fair game for their stupid antics. They would ride along each side of us trying to touch the handlebars and pull us to a stop then take it in turns to leer at Rachael. After a while this really began to wind me up. I thought they were the spitting image of the characters Walt Disney always portrays when they have baddies in their films. One was small and fat with a round chubby face. The other was skinny with the face of a rat with long pointed teeth and a few long curly hairs protruding out from around his mouth and nose. It didn’t help when a group of school kids also on bikes joined in the fun and rode along with us. All of them were shouting at the tops of their voices: “Wassa time? Wassa name? Where you go?”. We were absolutely surrounded and they were all jostling for pole position. They were trying to get along either side of us so they could shout their question at us. But mostly they were getting in the way by cycling around us and slowing us down. Then when a couple of guys on mopeds joined us it was absolute mayhem. A Cyclo is quite heavy and takes some energy to get it going, but once going it’s not too bad to keep it moving as long as the road is flat or better still, going downhill. The pedals on Cybil (Rachael had christened her earlier in the day: Cybil the Cyclo) are made out of solid blocks of wood and do not free wheel like a normal bicycle. As long as the wheels turn the pedals also turn and if one hits your ankle it really comes keen. This makes it difficult to slow down and then speed up again. The only ways to slow down are to apply the brake or take your feet off the pedals and wait until the Cyclo comes slowly to a halt whilst balancing on the seat with your legs held up clear of the turning pedals.

The Vietnamese have little or no road sense as it is and with all the traffic zooming past us we thought that we might cause an accident? We had already seen two Lorries smashed up on the side of the road that morning. But what could we do? We had just had a rest stop and because of the lack of hotels we couldn’t keep stopping. We had to make our day’s destination before dark if possible so we had to endure the taunts and try to carry on as best that we could. As it happened there was a small crash; I think one of the mopeds clipped the fat village idiot’s bike and knocked him off? Ratty was along the inside of us at the time and as we all looked back to see what was going on he lost control of his bike and flew off the road down the grass verge. The last I saw of him he was bouncing and jumping all over the place trying to regain control of his bike as he headed for the local duck pond. This made me laugh out loud and Rachael told me off for laughing at him. While everyone else had stopped to watch the fun we carried on and made good our escape. I only wished that we could have stopped to see if he went for a swim or not?

At lunchtime we parked Cybil on the side of the road and sat in amongst some trees on the opposite side where we could watch her but also get some peace without drawing attention to ourselves while we tried to force down the little dry biscuits and warm water of our days meagre provisions. We were only alone for about ten minutes when out of nowhere appeared a man walking towards us with a big grin on his face. He was wearing the uniform of a railway worker. As he came up and stood next to me he started to speak Vietnamese while pointing to a shack across the road close to where we had left Cybil. I tried to explain that we could not understand him. So he started to push his right index finger in and out through a circle he had made with his left hand. Every now and again he would point to Rach and then to the shack. I don’t know if he was a dirty old man and wanted to watch us while we performed for him or whether he was being genuine and offering us a place to rest but he had a strange way of showing it if he was? Either way we declined his offer and jumped on Cybil and made another fast escape.

A girl on a Honda Dream 2 moped smiled and waved to us as she sped past us. As she disappeared into the distance I wondered to myself what had ever happened to Honda’s first dream. With the endless hours spent in our own thoughts my mind tended to ask questions of even the smallest or stupidest of things. We are both so happy in our relationship that we do not mind long silences between ourselves. We think it’s better not to say anything at all rather than say something for the sake of it.

A dry day and a smooth road

Fifteen kilometres outside of Vinh we stopped at a little café to buy more water and candy. We still couldn’t work out why there was a lack of bread in this area and as no one could speak English there was no one to explain the drought to us. After pointing to what we wanted to eat and drink we sat at an old wooden table out on the tiled veranda. We were soon joined at our table by three giggling women with two children, a boy and a girl. I had one of the women either side of me and the other pulled up a chair so we were all in a line. For some reason they did not sit next to Rachael. It was so nice to be amongst friendly faces again. We were all laughing at each other trying to understand what each of us was trying to say. One of the women found me so interesting she didn’t take her eyes off of me the whole time we were there. She was scrutinizing every inch of my face. And she was not being shy about it. It was quite nerve racking having so much attention being paid to me from a complete stranger. She would just stare into my eyes as if she was a lovesick teenager. Rachael took a photo of us sat there laughing but even then the woman continued to look at me and not at the camera. Before we said our goodbyes to them we asked them to write their address down for us so we could send them a copy of the picture when we got it developed.

The port city of Vinh is the capital of Nghe An province and has a population of around 200,000. Apparently during the colonial days it was a pleasant citadel city. That was until the French destroyed it in the early fifties. It was then rebuilt again but during the American War it was again bombed repeatedly. So much so that by the end of 1972 it is said that only two buildings were left intact. This time they rebuilt it with the help of the East Germans. There are no buildings of interest left. Only dirty Soviet-style blocks of flats can be seen. Most have massive damp patches running down the side of the walls and from every balcony washing can be seen drying in the breeze. It was as if a grey cloud was hanging over the city and the population who live there. Gone were the smiles that we were used to getting off most Vietnamese as we passed on our travels and in their place were frowning city folk with no time or inclination to smile. I wondered if the Vietnamese people reflected on their lost French architecture.

After a walk around the town trying without luck to find a travellers bar that was in our guidebook we went back to our hotel to have dinner in their Restaurant. It was quite a big place with fifteen tables all laid out ready for any customers that might call in but apart from Rachael and I there were not any other diners. Behind the counter there were five waitresses all in different states of boredom. They looked shocked when we asked if we could order some food. As we were the only customers in the place we had no problem of where to sit and for once the beer was cold. This raised my hopes of having a good meal. If they took the time to chill the beer they probably took the time to prepare the food. We ordered a jacket potato and salad each (we had had enough of rice). I ordered roast pork and Rach ordered prawns in tomato sauce. As we waited for the food to come we watched in silent horror as a big rat climbed down the air conditioning pipes in the corner of the room and scuttled off under the tablecloth of another table. All the tablecloths on all the tables reached down to the floor; this made us very nervous as we lost sight of the rat and we were expecting it to run up our legs at any moment. I spent the whole meal shuffling my feet in a vain attempt to try to scare the rat away. Our food was now ready. The salad was brought out first and consisted of a plate full of sliced cucumber; next came Rachael’s prawns; ten minutes later two plates full of pieces of pork arrived and then after another ten minutes or so, out came the jacket potatoes. The potatoes were solid in the middle and were inedible. The whole time we were in the restaurant the waitresses never took their eyes off of us and were watching our every movement, apart from the circles I was making with my feet under the tablecloth of course!

Vinh – Ngang Pass (127 km)

There was nothing of interest to keep us in Vinh so the next morning we left the town and crossed the bridge over the impressive Ca River that begins its life to the west far over the border in neighbouring Laos. Fishermen were already at work rowing their boats with their feet; the boats were going up, down and across the river in every direction. It was a sight to behold in the early morning light and was the best memory I have of Vinh. The levels of light change so rapidly throughout the day in Vietnam with each level giving a different perspective of a particular scene. For me the first light of the day is the best, it almost gives the scenery a virginal look and feel to it.

Just outside of the town we came upon a long line of farmers each leading a buffalo along the side of the highway heading in the same direction as us. Most of the farmers were carrying a wooden plough across their shoulders. One or two of the buffalos had small children perched upon their backs. Every now and again one would turn onto a dirt track that led out to their fields to begin the day’s work. They were mainly small old men, wrinkled and hunched over from years of working bent double planting and harvesting rice under the baking sun. They looked up and smiled at us as we cycled by but otherwise showed no sign of interest in us at all. They had more demanding things to think about. They waved to be polite, but to them we were probably stupid Westerners with too much time on our hands. Maybe they are right?

Buffalo Boy

Buffalos are the workhorse of Vietnam and are as much a part of Vietnamese life as the conical straw hat that is seen in so many photos of Vietnam. The buffalo is a very eco friendly way of ploughing the rice paddies; it fertilizes the land as it goes about its work. They are low maintenance, only needing food and water and they seldom ever break down. They are more often than not a valued member of the family. Young children grow up with the family buffalo and treat it as a friend or pet. We often passed a buffalo with a boy or girl perched on its back as it was grazing along the side of the highway. The children are so much at home on the buffalos that they even manage to stretch out and lie down while the animal is in motion. We have read stories about farmers having been given the hard sell to buy a tractor in the name of progress. But then the farmer needs to buy fuel and oil to keep it running. Then they have to pay off the loan they have taken out to buy the thing in the first place. Then if it does brake down, or get bogged down in the wet and muddy fields as they usually do in Vietnam, they have to pay for it to be pulled out or to be fixed. If they cannot afford to do this they have to leave it where it stands but they still have to make the repayments on the loan, thus getting deeper and deeper into debt.

Due to the constant sun on my face my lips had cracked and become sore. I had being using lip balm to try to soften them but last night my bottom lip had erupted into a mass of blisters and was now a festering mess of scabs and puss. It was so bad that I found it hard to speak or laugh without it cracking and splitting open so I tried to talk without moving my lips. When I did talk to anyone I could see that their gaze was instantly drawn to it and because they were drawn to it so much they could not look away. It drew them in so much so that they held a conversation with my scabby lip rather than with me.

A small bright green snake came out of the grass verge just in front of us. I swerved to miss it and it darted back into the under growth, safe after its near death experience with a Cyclo. After a couple more hours cycling we pulled in under a tree next to a petrol station for a spot of breakfast. As we were eating a western looking guy cycled past on a mountain bike. He too was heading south. I shouted to him to stop but he didn’t hear me.
The owner of the petrol station came out to speak to us; he spoke German as well as Vietnamese. As we are English and the English never try to learn another language we could not understand much off what he was saying in either language but we had fun trying. I did make out that he had lived in Germany for six years before returning home to set up and run his own business.

On a later rest stop we pulled off the highway down a dirt track and stopped under some trees to rest in the shade. The problem with hunting for much needed shade is that any shade there is has been already taken up with local people building their houses in amongst it. We were only there a couple of minutes when a woman dressed in the usual black baggy trousers and a clean white shirt came out of a nearby house. On her head she was wearing a conical hat. Accompanying her was a young boy of about thirteen years of age. Rachael had sat down beneath a tree and had taken her journal out to write a few notes in it. The woman squatted down next to her and smiled while she looked her over. Again we were amazed at the lack of respect for other people’s space. She was only inches away from Rachael as she squatted down. However she had one of the friendliest faces we had seen in a long time. Her hair was parted straight down the centre and tied in a ponytail at the back; she had little chubby cheeks and a wonderful little smile. While she watched Rachael, the boy (I guessed her son?) went back to the house and reappeared with his sister, she looked over Rach’s shoulder to see what she was doing and then hurried off back to their house. Another couple of young boys came over from a different house and I let them climb and play on Cybil, they were taking it in turns to pretend to drive Cybil down the track while the other was the passenger. Then the girl came back. She was carrying a book and sat down next to Rachael to show it to her. It was an English exercise book she was working on in school. Rach looked at it and tried to speak to her but she would only giggle and would not say a word. She was too nervous to answer back. I wondered if her class mates would believe her when she told them that a couple of English people pulled up outside her house riding on a Cyclo.

An old man came towards us along the path. He walked up to me and pointed to his mouth and then held out his open hand. I offered him all we had left: an apple and he shook his head. Next he put his hand in his pocket and pulled out some Dong and in Vietnamese told me he wanted money. I told him no by smiling and shaking my head; he just looked disgusted at me. Then he snatched the apple out of my hand and walked off across the highway.

It was time to move on again, we said our goodbyes to our new friends and rejoined the traffic out on the highway once again. We hadn’t gone far when the guy on the mountain bike pulled alongside us and asked where we were heading for. We said that we were trying to make it to the hotel at the foot of Ngang Pass. He told us that was where he would be stopping for the night too. We arranged to meet him later for a beer if we made it. Then he was off. I envied his acceleration as he left us standing with no effort at all and disappeared in to the distance.

As we followed the highway through Ha Tinh we smiled at a woman trying on a wedding dress on the pavement beside the road. Apart from us no one was giving her a second glance. Everything in Vietnam is plainly done in the open; there is no privacy at all.

Just before leaving the town we stopped for a drink and for once the sparkling water was ice cold. As we sat at our table, we looked through a serving hatch as a little mouse ran from dirty plate to dirty plate and then over some uncooked food in the kitchen. We were glad not to be eating there. On the counter jars of pickled striped snakes sat there ready to be eaten. They were neatly coiled around the jars and where one ended the next one began. With the bright colours of the stripes they almost looked like a Damian Hurst exhibit. Macabre but somehow they draw you to them as you cannot keep yourself from staring in to their dark black eyes.

One of the wonderful things about Vietnam is the way they carry everything and anything on bicycles and motorbikes. A woman with four live ducks tied upside down on each side of her handlebars cycled with us for a short time. The heads of the ducks were only just missing the floor by millimetres. We had also seen pigs in baskets, pigs not in baskets tied upside down on their backs with their skin burnt red raw from the sun, baskets full of birds and dogs, fish traps, all kinds of baskets, fully grown flowering shrubs, little bonsai trees, ice cream and candy floss machines and a boat. We even saw a passenger on a motorbike in Hanoi carrying a four-foot mirror as they sped along the road.

Vietnamese Cyclists

The road was going slightly uphill all the time and I was feeling the effects on my legs. Rach had another short go at riding Cybil but could not get a rhythm going so had to stop. The seat post was welded in to position and was that little bit too high for her to reach the pedals in comfort. As we came into the foothills of Ngang Pass the scenery reminded me a little bit of Scotland. We stopped for more drinks in Ky Anh. While we were drinking them I asked the girl how far it was to Ngang Pass. On the map we had it didn’t look far at all. She smiled and held up three fingers; I was relieved that we only had three kilometres to go. Then still smiling she shook her head and made a three zero sign with her hands. I nearly choked on my water and gasped “thirty?” She nodded and said “yes”. I could have cried; it was 5pm I was already so tired and we still had over two hours to go. There was no way we would be there until well after dark. I asked her if there was a hotel in the town. She again shook her head and said “Ngang”. There was nothing else for it but to go on.

The wind had got up and was blowing straight into our faces. The awning and wide front seat were acting like a sail and holding us back. It was hard work to make any headway in the wind but there was nothing else for it. A couple of times we had to get off and push because the hills were too steep to ride up. A group of school children surrounded us on their bikes. All of them shouting: “Wassa time? Wassa time? Wassa time?” at the top of their voices. I wished that the teachers would teach them some different lines. It was as if every child we had seen so far was only taught “what’s the time” and “what’s your name”? Thinking about it, it is no different to the French I learnt at school. That’s about all that I can manage to say in French. They were so excited at seeing us that they were giving us a nonstop barrage of shouts and screams.

I was so tired I could not handle it so I put my foot down to try and outrun them; it worked and we soon left them behind. It was now nearly dark and we could only just make out what was in front of us. We were so ill equipped for this journey. The only light we had was a small pen torch and Rach had to lean forward shining the light to her front looking out for any potholes or other obstacles that might be in our way. It was a bit pointless by the time she would have seen any obstacles in our path we would have ran into them.

In the twilight a guy mumbled and shouted something at us as we cycled past. Because I was so tired and not thinking clearly I mimicked him and shouted back at him. Not one of my brightest ideas as he must have been the local madman. He jumped on to a bike and gave chase, shouting obscenities and waving his fist at us through the twilight. I had to get up out of the seat and put all my effort into out running this nutter. I was so happy when, on a downhill stretch, we opened up a good gap and he gave up the chase. We could hear him ranting on for ages as we flew down the road away from him. Our eyes were straining to see where we were going; by now it was pitch dark and we could not see a thing in front of us. We were hoping to god that there weren’t any big holes or obstacles in our way. All I had to guide us was the thick white line separating the hard shoulder from the main carriageway. I tried to keep Cybil a constant distance away from the line as best I could.

I had just regained my breath and began to relax again when running out of the darkness came a barking and growling dog; it was snapping at my right foot trying to get a tooth hold in my flesh. So again I was out of my seat tying to out run something. I was totally exhausted by now and was just about to give up and let it chew upon as much of my leg as it wanted when it too turned and headed for home. I’m not frightened of many things but dogs are right at the top of my list of things to keep well away from. For some reason they seem to know this and always make a beeline towards me thinking that I’m an easy meal. I suppose I am?

Further along the road I slowed down while we looked at the trees and shrubs along the side of the road. In amongst them were hundreds, if not thousands of Fire Flies or Glow-worms; their bright tails were shining back at us. It was like a fairy grotto. I felt as if fairies were watching our every move and hopefully keeping us out of harm’s way. I told Rach to be careful where she shone her torch just in case she attracted a mate or two.

We were once again struggling to push Cybil up yet another steep hill and as we reached the top of the hill we were so happy to see the lights of what we thought must be the hotel. It was just a few hundred metres down the road. We jumped back on Cybil; threw caution to the wind and freewheeled down the last hill. It was too late in the day and we were too tired to care about any obstacles in our path. I could feel the cool refreshing wind blowing into my face and reviving me but I could not see anything of the road ahead of us.

It was the hotel and as we pulled in and came to a stop in the car park we saw the cyclist we had met earlier. He was sat at a table eating his dinner just outside the restaurant. I parked up and hobbled over to him. He could not believe we had made the 127km from Vinh on a Cyclo; he said it had been hard enough for him to do on his mountain bike with loaded panniers. He asked if we would like to join him for a drink at his table.

We introduced ourselves. He told us his name was Pete and that he was English and lived in Portsmouth.
He also told us that for once the beer was out of a fridge and was cold. I ordered one from one of the waiters who had come out to have a look at Cybil, Rach and I. We sat for a while and as I took my time over another beer Rach went off to the reception and booked us into the hotel. After we had found our room we each had a cold shower as there was no hot water. It seems to have been impossible since leaving Ninh Binh to be able to get a hotel that has hot water for a shower, cold drinks and good food. Once we were ready we again joined Pete at his table for more beers and some food. I was absolutely starving.

From the menu I ordered the chilli chicken. There was no chicken! I ordered pork. There was no pork! So I settled for the beef. Rachael had fish. We were the only three people staying at the hotel and God only knows when the last paying customer had stayed for a night? Over more cold beers we swapped stories. Because Pete was from Portsmouth this gave us all a little something in common as I was born there and Rachael had spent her college years there. He also told us that he was the same age as me and that it was his first time travelling! He had just had enough of the UK way of life. He had been working all hours and then coming home to sit in front of the television all night as thousands of us do. Then one day he decided to quit his job, rent out his house and plan this trip before it was too late. What a way to start. His plan was to cycle down through Vietnam as far as Hoi An then go across to Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia. What a journey! And he had decided to do all of this on his own.

We had only planned to stay for one night in the hotel but because the hotel was situated on a good sandy beach and it served cold beer we all decided to make the next day a rest day and spend it lazing around the hotel and beach. The Hoanh Son Hotel was a rundown place owned by the Government. Nobody had done any maintenance on the place in years. It was set up as a motel with the rooms in a line just away from the main hotel block. The room we were staying in had the now usual dark damp patches on the ceiling and walls and gave off a musty smell. As I have said there was no hot water and who knows when the bedding was last changed? Looking around at the rest of the place we decided not to ask to change rooms as they would probably all be in the same state and what was the point of upsetting the staff? If this was the standard in Vietnam we would just have to get used to it. The setting was wonderful though. It had been built at the foot of the Hoanh Son mountain range and as I have said: it was only a couple of metres from a beautiful long white sandy beach.

After a well deserved lie in we went to the restaurant for breakfast. They did not have any bread so we had four fried eggs each washed down with lots of strong coffee. Then it was down to the beach for a day relaxing and getting some sun on our white bodies.

When we came back to the hotel a couple of hours later one off the staff called me over to Cybil and showed me that the chain was broken. The previous night I had put a small chain and padlock around Cybil’s chain in case anyone tried to steal her in the night. I cannot be sure but I think the hotel staff were playing around on her and tried to pedal off snapping a chain link? I made it known that I was pissed off with who ever had done it by swearing and shaking my head a lot but there was nothing else we could do. Arguing with the manager would not have done any good so I just let it go. Hopefully they might think twice about touching other people’s gear in future. Thankfully one of them had confessed and told us before we set off on our next leg. I would have been really pissed if we had found out at 6am the next morning! At least now we had time to fix it before the morning. I took Cybil about 1km back down the road to the local Zee Dap man with one of the waiters from the hotel sitting in the front. He said that he would show me where to get Cybil fixed but I think he really wanted a go in a Cyclo? To get the chain fixed it took about 20 minutes and only cost 10,000 Dong (50 pence). I hoped that there had been no more unseen damage done to her, no more weak links that would break further on in our journey. The chain is twice as thick as a standard cycle chain and I think it would be quite hard to do major damage to a Cyclo.

Ngang Pass – Dong Hoi (67 km)

Bright and early the next morning we were back on the highway heading towards the first major hurdle on our route: the Ngang Pass. This pass used to mark the northern border of the Champa Kingdom. After cycling the 6km from the hotel to the beginning of the pass we had to get off and push. It was a really hard slog up the steep 4km winding road. We had to rest frequently. Rach was at the front pushing and steering, being careful not to let the turning pedal hit her on the back of her legs. I was pushing from behind holding on to the rack. We were getting the strangest looks and catcalls from the people in passing vehicles. They looked on gob smacked as they wondered what on Earth we were doing? They must have thought we were mad.

It took an hour and a quarter to reach the top of the climb. We stopped to rest and get our breath back. The views were stunning looking back along the way we had come. Amongst the flat coastal plains covered with palm trees and rice fields we could make out the small villages; their positions given away by the blue/grey wisps of smoke curling upwards from their morning fires. The hotel was way down below us and the mountains to the left stretched as far as the eye could see. We were shrouded in the grey light that nearly always hangs over Vietnam when the sun is not shining. We felt elated that the first major hurdle was completed. We now knew that it was going to be tough going, but if we put our minds and bodies into it we could push up the steepest of hills. Slowly of course and with lots of stops to rest but at least we knew we could do it.

Cyclo brake

Going down the other side was a different matter all together. First I have to explain how the brake on a Cyclo works. Yes there is only one brake! And for a bike as big and as heavy as Cybil we were soon to find out that one was not enough! On the hub of the back wheel was a small metal drum with lots of little nibs on it. This rotated with the wheel. Below this was a thin strip of curved tin plate. Fixed to this tin plate with a couple of screws was a strip of car tyre running the length of the plate with the tread facing up wards? One end of the plate was fixed to the Cyclo; the other was fixed to a lever, which in turn went up to a handle just under the left hand side of the seat. So to engage the brake you had to pull up on the handle with your left hand whilst steering the bike with your right hand. This works fine most of the time: as long as you are on flat ground, riding around some city or other. However we were on anything but flat ground; we were on top of a mountain with only one way to go!

On the descent down Ngang I decided that we would be able to sit on Cybil and go down slowly by keeping the brake on. How wrong I turned out to be! We started off ok, coasting along nice and slowly enjoying the views. Then just as I was thinking to myself “this is easy” Cybil started to run away with me. As I have mentioned previously a bad point about Cybil is that there was no freewheel. So when we rolled down hills I had to lift my feet up out of the way so I didn’t break my legs on the four inch blocks of wood acting as pedals. This meant I was sat on the seat with my feet up on the back of the chair steering with one hand and trying to use the brake with the other. It was not a good position to be in as we came down the hill. It was all I could do to hold on and keep myself from falling off let alone steer the bloody thing. I was now pulling up on the brake as hard as I could but we were still picking up speed. On the left of us there was a low wall with a couple of hundred feet or more drop on the other side of it. On the right was a wall of solid rock. I could not use the rock face to try and slow us down because there was a rainwater gully just in front of it. If we hit that we would have gone head first in to the rock face and if I tried to slow us down on the wall opposite we might have been catapulted over the edge. By this time I was getting a bit scared.

These thoughts were flying through my mind as we passed the point of no return. We were now going so fast I had to give up on the brake completely and concentrate with both hands on steering us around the winding bends that were shooting up towards us. I knew we were in big trouble but did not want to alarm Rach so I tried to sound calm and just said to her “hold on a minute”.

We hadn’t been married a year yet and I really thought I was going to seriously hurt her or even worse kill her and myself in the middle of nowhere for some hare brained scheme. We were absolutely flying around the bends by now and I knew that if we met anything coming up the road towards us or if there was an animal of some kind in the road, or road works, we were in trouble. I have never been so frightened in my life. I was covered in sweat; I could feel my heart beating away so fast inside my chest I felt as if I was going to explode. My heart was racing us down the mountainside and winning. I am a firm atheist but as people often do when in dire straits I panicked and was praying to somebody or something for help; to anybody who would listen.

By now I was using up the entire road and any spare lives that we might have had held in reserve just to get around the bends. As soon as the next one came into view I would get as far to one side of the road as I could and just hope that we made it round. I was throwing my body as far over to one side as I could so that we didn’t tip over. We were travelling so fast the wind was contorting my face as it poured into my open mouth as I screamed to myself in silence. The scenery was whizzing past in a blur and I was now concentrating on hanging on to Cybil for dear life and at the same time trying to keep my balance on the narrow seat with my legs up in the air keeping clear of the spinning pedals. I knew that our luck was running out fast and that we would not make the next set of sharp bends if there were any. But as we turned the very next bend the road stretched straight out in front of us. We were still going downhill at a fair rate of knots and now I was having problems trying to keep Cybil in a straight line. We were going so fast we were getting speed wobbles and again it was taking all my strength just to hold her in line. I have no idea how fast we were travelling but I guess we were doing around 40mph at least?

As the road levelled out there was a gang of workmen beside the highway in a long line; they were digging a trench on the right hand side of us and were separated by gaps of about a couple of metres or so. It was like a scene from a comedy sketch. As we flew past, each in turn would look up, see us, do a double take and then stand upright and look on at us in disbelief as we carried on zooming down the road. Not one of them had time to say anything and there was no way I was letting go of the handlebars to wave at them because of the speed that we were doing.

When we at last came to a standstill about a mile further down the road I got off Cybil and my legs turned to jelly. I felt physically ill and my stomach was churning. I sat on the grass verge laughing. I told Rach how lucky we were to still be alive and that I had thought we were both going to die. She said, “I thought you were going a bit too fast but I thought you knew what you were doing” She even said she enjoyed the ride and said it was “fun?” The crazy, crazy woman she would not have said that if she was speaking to me from a Vietnamese hospital bed.

We now must hold the world record for the fastest Cyclo ride ever! I cannot see any reason why anyone else would want to go down a mountain pass on a Cyclo unless they turn it in to an extreme sport of some kind or other? “Cyclo Racing” it has a bit of a ring to it? Before we set off again we made a pact never to ride down a hill again unless we could see where we were going. From now on we would push down as well as up. I never want to be in that position or that scared ever again in my life. I was still shaking with the thought of how close we had come to serious injury hours later.

On the southern side of the pass there was a distinct change in the landscape and houses. The houses were painted bright colours and looked neater and cleaner. Pete had caught us up and slowed down for a quick chat; we said we would meet up again later that night at the next hotel along our way. We were cycling through a sparsely populated part of the country so it was a quiet day for meeting and greeting people. We rode through a couple of non-descript towns and villages and had to push up and down another small pass but we still made good time to Dong Hoi. As Rachael was booking us in to the hotel she noticed a piece of paper with the tariff of the hotel on it. On it was two columns: one had on it the Vietnamese price: $8 per night and the other had the tourist price: $20 per night.

Dong Hoi - Dong Ha (110 km)

The next morning as we were preparing to leave the hotel it began to rain so we held off for a few minutes hoping it would stop. Ten minutes later it did and we were once again on our way. The going was easy: there was a good road and the wind was blowing from behind for once. But after a few kilometres the wind changed direction and turned in to our faces. Then to add insult to injury it began to throw it down with rain again. We only had cheap raincoats and because of the heat I generated under the plastic covering I got just as wet from sweat as from the rain. I found it better not to use one at all. At least I was moving and keeping warm even if I was soaked through to the skin. Rach, on the other hand, had to sit there and grin and bear it. Because of the length of the seat cushion she was always sitting in a dip so she was also sitting in a puddle of water for long periods of time. To say we had not planned for this trip was an understatement! When I say “we” I mean “me”. I was the one who had not planned a thing. We didn’t need all that much and were trying to travel as light as we could but the least I could have done was to buy a decent waterproof coat and leggings for my poor suffering wife.

In another non-descript town I pulled into a roadside café to buy some breakfast. The place was a big open plan room with lots of dirty tables and chairs in rows. You could have sat an army in it and I wondered if it ever got that busy? Considering there were another three or more café’s on each side of it I doubted it. As it was in the one I had chosen to stop at there wasn’t a soul to be seen and we decided to wait a while to see if anyone came out to serve us.

Things like this always happen to me! I could pick any queue at a supermarket checkout and it would come to a grinding halt for some reason or other just when I was getting close to being served. We were stood there just looking around at our surroundings, both in our own little worlds, when all hell broke loose. A Vietnamese guy aged about forty something came rushing out from the back of the shop, quickly followed behind by a boy of no more than ten years of age. The kid ran straight up to the older man and punched him smack in the face. His foe retaliated and then they proceeded to knock the crap out of each other. Rach and I didn’t know quite what to do. We didn’t dare move in case they noticed us and in turn started on us. People were laughing and shouting encouragement at them as they walked or cycled past the cafe. The fight continued on until a large woman came back to the shop from the direction of the town. She barged in between the boxers and split them up yelling at the older man until she too started to punch and slap him around. With the odds stacked against him he quickly made his escape up the street waving his arms about, shouting and swearing at them both. No sooner had he gone than the woman came over and served us as if nothing had happened! We bought water, bananas and some Sticky Rice. We thought it best if we eat somewhere else and jumped back on Cybil to look for a quieter place to relax and enjoy our food.

Sticky Rice is a main stay of the Vietnamese diet. It is just rice that is very sticky. It is normally served wrapped up in banana leafs and tastes wonderful though we did always wonder what the little black things were in it?

The area was not overly populated but there had only been one group of school children cycling along with us all day. We were wondering why when I remembered we were about to cross the De-militarised Zone (DMZ). We had passed a few craters dotted about along the sides of the road and I had wondered if they were B52 Bomb Craters or not? The area 5km on either side of the Ben Hai River all the way to the Laos border served as the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam from 1945-1975 and was known as the DMZ. This area and the area just south of us was one of the most bombed areas in Vietnam. If any pilots had any ordinance left after their missions they would regularly drop them over the DMZ trying to get a lucky strike. It was classed as a Free Fire Zone and that meant if anything or person moved in it without permission it was fair game. They didn’t give a shit about any farmers or their families trying to make a living on their land. Over five thousand people have been maimed or killed in and around the DMZ since the war ended with America. Most of them were poor peasants digging for the few Dong they could earn by selling the dangerous scrap metal that is still lying around left over from the war. We were now cycling through an area that was poor even by Vietnamese standards.

As we were coming up to another river and began to cross the bridge we could see bomb craters on either side, they were almost perfectly round and full of water. If it wasn’t for the irregular patterns and the haphazard way they were laid out we would have thought they were manmade fishponds but history tells us different. One of them had been turned in to a monument to the war dead. Below us jutting out of the water the remains of an old rusty bridge could be seen. The bent, twisted, rusty metal was just another reminder of where we were.

Every now and again we cycled past huge graveyards full of the crosses of the war dead arranged in neat little rows. They make an ever-lasting testament to the bravery of the Vietnamese people trying to fight for their independence and winning the conflict against a so-called world power. That evening, as we lay on our bed listening to the BBC World Service on our little radio we heard that the Americans were again using B52’s. This time it was to try to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. It’s funny how mankind and especially the Americans keep repeating their mistakes down through history. Twenty-six years on from the Vietnam War and here they go again.

We were really in the South now! With each turn of the pedal our goal was getting closer and closer. The only trouble was that the road works seemed to happen more frequently and for longer stretches at a time; the road turned from near racetrack smoothness to a farm track covered in stones of all shapes and sizes. I found the going quite hard on the un-surfaced road and had to double my effort to keep Cybil moving at all. After arriving at the hotel in Dong Ha I noticed a bulge in the rear tyre. So after unloading Cybil and leaving Rachael to check in and have a hot shower I set off to find a Zee Dap man. As usual I didn’t have to go far before I found one: just a few metres down the road from the hotel. I pulled up and asked him if he could take a look at the tyre for me. He had Cybil on her side before I knew it and set to work taking the tyre off. After examining the tyre he showed it to me and said “No problem”. The bulge was only superficial and would not need to be repaired. After he had put the tyre back together I asked him “how much?” He just shook his head and said “nothing, for free, no work no money”. I tried in vain to give him something for his time but he would not take anything at all. Yet again I had found the Vietnamese people to be friendly and helpful. What a wonderful fantastic country Vietnam was turning out to be; full of beauty, friendliness and many, many surprises.

Dong Ha – Hue (74 km)

A couple of miles outside of Dong Ha we cycled past the turn off for highway 9 where the road leads to Khe Sanh Combat Base and Lao Bao - the town that marks the border crossing with Laos. This was the road Pete would be taking to Laos on his way back up after Hoi An. I really wished that we could go off exploring the heartlands of Vietnam but we were tied to the flattest roads we could find and as Highway 1 follows the coast as much as it can that would be all we could do on this trip.

Khe Sanh is the site of one of the most famous sieges of the American war. 500 Americans and up to 10,000 North Vietnamese troops lost their lives there. The siege lasted for 75 days and was a triumph for the North Vietnamese Regular Army. Khe Sanh Fire Base became the focus of the world and was featured on almost every front page of the world’s media. US aircraft dropped 100,000 tonnes of explosive on the surrounding area. Even today, as in the DMZ, there are still live munitions lying around on the ground.

As we rode on we passed an old man with one leg cycling down the road. He was holding his crutch across his handlebars. He was cycling along as well as any two legged person could. I wondered if he had fallen off a lot trying to learn to ride with only one leg. He thought we looked really funny on a Cyclo and had a good laugh at us as we pulled alongside him.

Pete passed us a bit further down the road. He had left over an hour after us and with the freedom and speed of his Giant mountain bike had already caught us up. We were becoming good friends and as he was going down as far as Hoi An it made good sense to meet up at the same hotels each evening.

About an hour or so out of Hue Rach and I stopped at a little cabin for a rest. A young couple that had only just been married ran it. After they brought us our drinks they took great pleasure to point out to us a big photograph hanging on the wall showing them on their wedding day. She was wearing a bright yellow frilly wedding dress; the kind most Vietnamese women like to wear. The brighter the colour the better the dress seems to be the unwritten rule? The groom was wearing a brilliant white suit. One look at the photo and you could tell that they were both so very much in love. Next they showed us some photos of their young daughter. We could tell that they were so proud of her and were even happier when we said she was beautiful. They were so proud that without a word the husband jumped on his motorbike and was back five minutes later with the little girl clinging on to him as she sat behind him on the back of his moped. He must have picked her up from a family member or friend who was looking after her. We were enjoying sitting there but after a while we had to make a move so we said our goodbyes and continued on.

Rachael on Cybil

Rach had another go at riding Cybil. She managed a kilometre or so before having to stop. Because the seat post was welded in position we could not lower it; so she struggled to reach the pedals. This made it very hard for her to ride the Cyclo.


We were made welcome at the hotel Binh Minh in Hue (pronounced whey) and after a hot shower and a rest we met up with Pete for some food and much needed beers. Rachael was tired and wanted to go to bed early so after walking her back to the hotel Pete and I looked for a beer Hoi place; without any luck. Instead we sat in the Mandarin bar chatting and drinking. I told Pete that for a couple of days I had been feeling faint and that evening I had nearly fallen over in the shower. I did not want to worry Rachael by telling her just yet. I thought that it would go away in time. Pete told me that it was probably a lack of salt and that I should up my intake, but if I didn’t feel better in a couple of days we should think about seeing a doctor? He said “we can’t have Cyclo Man being ill can we?” He and Rach had started to call me “Cyclo Man” for the effort I had kept putting in to get Cybil and us from place to place.

When we arrived back at the hotel the manager said he would put Cybil inside for the night. Pete went up to bed and while I was out on the road unlocking the Cyclo, an Aussie guy came over and offered to buy me a drink. The waitress in the restaurant next door to the hotel had somehow heard what we were trying to do and had told him. I couldn’t refuse a beer could I? So I gratefully accepted his offer and joined him and his wife at their table. They introduced themselves as Tim and Rachael. They told me that they were on their honeymoon and having a great time in Vietnam. I envied their chance just to come to Vietnam, see this beautiful country at leisure, be able to party each night and not have to jump on a Cyclo each morning. But we make our own beds so that would have to wait until next time for us. I had set myself this challenge so I was determined to see it through to the end. I also knew that we would definitely be coming back and when we did we would probably not have as many different experiences as we were having this time. I knew that I had, had enough beer when I walked into our room with a big sheepish grin on my face and Rachael took one look at me and said “Oh my God”.

We had a lie in until 9.30am the next morning then after a good breakfast we set out to explore Hue. The ancient imperial city of Hue is situated along the banks of the famous Perfume River and is about half way between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. It was established in the early 1600’s and became the capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty who ruled the country from 1802 to 1945. Under the Nguyen Emperors the Citadel was said to be as grand as the Forbidden City in Beijing. Apparently it was quite well preserved up until the 1968 Tet Offensive in which the Citadel was bombed and fought for inch by inch until most of it was destroyed.

Three walled enclosures made up the Imperial City. The exterior enclosure (Kinh Tranh) is made out of stone and earth and is 8 metres high and 20 metres thick; placed at intervals along the wall there are ten large fortified gates with watchtowers over them; together they must have formed an impressive defensive wall. The Yellow Enclosure (Hoang Thanh) is the middle wall and access to it was by four decorated gates. The Yellow Enclosure housed the palaces, temples and flower gardens of the citadel. The inner enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City this was reserved solely for the royal family and of course their servants. Sadly the Purple City took most of the damage in the two months of fighting during the 1968 Tet Offensive and now is almost completely destroyed. Through the destruction and the renovations that are now ongoing you can still make out the grandeur of what must have been one hell of an impressive place.

After walking around the citadel for a couple of hours we climbed the steps up to the Five Phoenix Tower that sits on top of the Ngo Mon (south gate). We sat there enjoying the view across to the massive Vietnamese flag flapping in the breeze and flying from the tallest flag tower in Vietnam. It is built right on the banks of the Perfume River. We sat there a long time enjoying the peace and quiet; just watching the world go by and laughing at the Cyclo drivers as they followed tourists along the road. The Cyclo drivers of Hue are some of the most persistent in Vietnam; it is not uncommon to see three or four in a line trailing the same two tourists along the streets; all of them shouting for the visitors to use their Cyclo.

The next day we took a Dragon Boat up the Perfume River to see the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Emperors. On the way we stopped off to have a look at Thein Mu Pagoda. Nguyen Hoang had the pagoda built in 1601. Each of the seven tiers of the tower represents a different reincarnation of Buddha. In the grounds of the Pagoda is the enormous Great Bell which was cast in 1710 and weighs over 2,000 kilograms. When rung it is said you can hear it over ten miles away. Also in the grounds is the old rusting Austin motorcar that Thich Quang Dus drove from here down to Saigon to protest about the war and the signing in of the new puppet president Deim. The form of protest he chose was to sit down in the middle of a busy street in the middle of Saigon and set himself on fire. The horrific photos of his lone protest shocked the world and helped start the anti-war campaign in numerous countries around the world. It is no wonder that this is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the whole of Vietnam.

A few more km upstream we came to the tomb of Tu Duc. This massive walled complex, full of temples, palaces and a lake with gardens that could rival any English Country Houses is utterly amazing. Tu Duc ruled from 1848-1883 and was rather a cruel ruler. On completion of his sepulchre he had all the workmen killed so he could keep the location a secret. Apparently his body is not even buried in the tomb and his resting place has never been found. We strolled along a terrace lined with beautifully carved stone elephants, horses and mandarins. At the end of the terrace was a building housing a twenty stone tablet that was somehow brought to the mausoleum from the Thanh Hoa Province about 500km to the north. It is said that Tu Duc inscribed the story of his triumphs during his rule on to the rock in his own hand.

On the way up the river to visit some of the other tombs in the area, every now and again we would pass a boat at anchor in the middle of the river. These boats were dredging for the sand and gravel on the bottom of the riverbed. This was all done by hand and feet and there was not a motor in sight. Across the back of the boat there was a long pole with four sets of pedals fixed around it; attached to one end there was a long rope; this in turn was attached to another long pole with a big scoop on the end of it. One person would skilfully use the current to fill the scoop. When it was full, the rest of the crew sitting behind the pedals would wind the rope up as if riding a bike. Then when the loaded scoop was out of the water it would be emptied into the bottom of the boat. This would be repeated until the boat was full with what must have been tons of ballast. Then they sail down the river to an unloading point where it is unloaded all by hand, using poles and baskets. It must be such hard work, especially in the heat of the day.

We had seen as much of Hue as we had wanted to or had time to see so the next day we again set of south. Each day we were getting that little bit closer to our final destination. Pete had decided to stay for an extra day to do some more sightseeing and said that he would catch us up down the highway.

Hue - Lang Co (85 km)

Back on Highway 1 we again hit major road works and again the going was tough, I struggled for most of the 85km we had to cycle to Lang Co Beach. In the distance we began to make out the formidable sight of Deo Hai Van (cloudy pass). Hai Van Pass is part of the Truong Son mountain range that juts into the South China Sea. Here the highway climbs to a height of around 500m. Our guidebook said it was an incredibly mountainous stretch of the highway so there was no way on this earth I was even going to try to cross it on Cybil. It would be too difficult and dangerous to push up and down the many steep climbs that make up Hai Van not to mention the length of time it would take. We estimated it would take longer than a day: maybe two or three? Our guidebook also told us that a train line ran through the pass so we decided the train would be our chosen form of transport to get us across to the other side.


We were once again out of the saddle and pushing up a steep hill. We pushed until we could not push another step, rested for five to ten minutes and then pushed some more. This is how we managed to get to the top of all the hills; slowly but surely making our way to the top. As we were walking down the winding steep hill on the other side it was a relief to see the palm-shaded peninsula of Lang Co Beach. To the right there was a lagoon full of clear blue water with lots of fishing boats bobbing gently on their moorings. On the left we could see miles of unspoilt beach stretching right up to the foot of the mountain range in front of us. It was such a beautiful setting that again I wished that we had more time to stop a while, sit down on the side of the road and take it all in.

We pulled off the highway and in to the Lang Co Hotel where we were given a very warm welcome from Mr Quang the manager. His English was very good and he told us that the hotel was owned by a Trade Union and that he had big plans for the place to become a good tourist hotel. As it stood, the hotel had seen better days and like most hotels out in the sticks it needed a lot of work to be done on it. The restaurant didn’t have anything we ordered so we were again limited as to what was available but the friendly staff more than made up for this. They thought we were “number 1” for our endeavours. Mr Quang said he would write us a note to give to the ticket office in the morning as there was little chance of anyone at the train station being able to understand us. We explained that we needed to get off at the first station on the other side of the pass. We didn’t want to miss out too much of the route. I was still a little bit disappointed that we could not cycle or push all the way to Ho Chi Minh City but because we did not have sleeping bags or a tent we couldn’t risk it. Also if we did attempt it: it would mean at least a couple of days without being able to wash or get dry if it rained.

After lunch we strolled along the beach to get a good look at the pass. As we passed behind Lang Co Village the beach turned into a rubbish tip. It was covered in junk and human excrement and we had to be careful where we placed our bare feet. The government with the help of American money are in the process of building a road tunnel through the pass. The cost is reputed to be in the area of $150 Million and should be finished in 2005 if it all goes to plan. We wondered about all the chaos that would happen as the Vietnamese drove through it with their horns blaring.

That night as we ate alone in the restaurant it was a bit strange not to have Pete there with us. We had become accustomed to seeing him and swapping stories and experiences at the end of a day’s cycling.

Lang Co – Hoi An (45 km)

The next morning as we were paying our bill Mr Quang warned us about a big storm that was heading our way from the South China Sea. It was due to hit shore any time in the next few days. He told us that it would be very dangerous to get caught in it. We thanked him, said our goodbyes, and cycled down to the railway station just south of the town. We caused a commotion as we pulled in to the station yard and were instantly surrounded by inquisitive faces. We thought they were glad to see us as we broke up the boredom of waiting for the train to come. They were all shouting questions at us and their hands were all over Cybil. They seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of ringing Cybil’s bell and taking it in turns sitting on the seat and making out that they were steering her down some imaginary road.

Rach stayed with Cybil while I stepped up to the ticket office and handed the small woman who was sat behind the barred window the letter Mr Quang had written for us. She read it, turned around and walked out of the office without a word and did not return for ten minutes. As she was the only person in the office this left nobody else to sell tickets to the growing group of people that was gathering around me asking me questions that I couldn’t understand. I just smiled dumbly back at them shrugging my shoulders. I turned to see if Rach was all right? She was still surrounded by the crowd and I could just about see her. She looked towards me and we just smiled at each other. It was one of those moments where we just felt wonderful and so glad that we gave everything up to do the trip. We couldn’t speak a word of Vietnamese and had absolutely no idea what was going on and we really didn’t care. Friendly, smiling and inquisitive faces surrounded us and I felt so alive. It was so much better than being in the UK working all hours just to survive from day to day. The ticket woman came back and handed me the note. She was shaking her head telling us that for some reason or other we could not get on the train. We never found out why but it was a definite no go situation. Whether or not they wouldn’t or couldn’t put Cybil on the train we just didn’t know? This meant that we had to resort to plan B: the bus.

We cycled back out of the station yard to howls of laughter and headed back towards the highway. It was a shame as I was really looking forward to getting on to the train. I think it would have been an experience in itself just to sit and watch the people as they went about their business.

Buses in Vietnam carry everything. If it can be lifted up on to the roof they will carry it no matter what it is. Instead of a conductor, each bus has a couple of bus boys; their main job is to lift up and secure any objects the passengers may bring with them. But most of their time is spent hanging out of the doors shouting at cyclists and slow moving traffic to get out of the way of the bus as it comes hurtling down the road. The buses only stop to pick up passengers and not for any other reason if they can help it! It’s not uncommon to see a bus flying down the road with a bus boy on the roof still tying down the load from the last pick up.

We only had to wait a few minutes before (as usual across the globe) two buses came along together. I flagged the first one down. The driver braked so hard that the following bus nearly skidded into the back of him. We tried to explain that we wanted to be dropped off just the other side of the pass but the driver said “No way, Da Nang or nowhere” and he began to get back on the bus. The only reason we could think of was that it wasn’t worth lifting Cybil on to the bus for such a short trip. We had no option but to say “yes”. The bus boys set straight to work putting Cybil and our backpacks up onto the roof. We boarded the bus and paid the extortionate tourist price of 150,000 Dong. The bus driver’s face lit up when we handed over the money without contesting his charge. We were so happy to have a way over the pass and £7.00 for two persons, their luggage and a big heavy bike was fine by us!

Putting Cybil on the bus

They even made some poor guy give up his seat for us. We tried to protest and say “no” so that he could remain in his seat but again we had no choice in the matter. We sat directly behind the driver with a good view of the road ahead and the wonderful views to our left out across the Gulf of Tonkin. It was kind of weird not being in control of our journey but enjoyable to let someone else do the hard work for a change; even if it was a bit scary the way the driver slung the vehicle around the bends with his foot to the floor.

A couple of kilometres into the first climb on Hai Van Pass we drove past a crashed lorry lying on its side on the opposite side of the road to us. Its cargo of pigs and pigs in baskets were strewn all around the crash site. It was utter carnage: dead and dying pigs were everywhere. Somebody was thankfully looking after what I think must have been the driver who was lying prone on the floor next to his cab. Whoever it was he looked in a bad way. As far as we could see there was no other vehicle involved, so he was probably going too fast for the bend and had lost control. There was no way we were going to slow down let alone stop to see if we could be of any assistance. I think it was Winston Churchill who when asked which animal he preferred said: “Pigs, I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. But pigs? Pigs treat us as equals”. When we met up with Pete that night he told us that the scene was horrific as he cycled past. He had made such good time from Hue to Lang Co Beach, he had decided to cycle on to Hoi An in one go.

Seeing the accident did not slow down our bus driver in the slightest. It didn’t even stop him over-taking on blind bends. A few times while he was flying around the bends I thought back to the last pass we had come down at speed and again wondered how on Earth we had managed to make it down Ngang in one piece? The driver was a maniac and we both wished we had been given a seat near the back of the bus with a restricted view. We were so glad to make it safely to Da Nang and unload Cybil. The bus had served its purpose but it was good to be under our own steam once again and be in charge of our own destiny.

Da Nang is yet another famous place name that I had read a lot about in my youth. It was the place that 3,500 American Marines first set foot in South Vietnam on 8th March 1965. It also marks the half waypoint of our journey. It’s another big bustling place with no redeeming features. So we decided to head straight on to Hoi An without stopping to have a good look around. If first impressions were anything to go by we had again made the right choice. We didn’t see anything of worth as we skirted around the city. But to be fair we didn’t give it much of a chance.

Rach had found a back road to Hoi An on the map so we were trying to find it in the maze of roads around the outskirts of the city. It would be good to have a break from the hustle and bustle of Highway 1 and its heavy traffic. When we did finally find it and were heading in the right direction it turned out to be a pleasant 30km ride. 11km or so out of Da Nang we could see what are known as the Marble Mountains to our left. We were cycling past lots of workshops selling the most beautiful marble sculptures of all sizes and subjects. We even passed a life size marble Red Indian standing by the side of the road; a strange subject to choose considering we were in the middle of Vietnam and South East Asia.

There are five marble mountains, which are not really mountains but small hills that are apparently made out of solid marble. Each is named after one of the five elements: Tho Son (Earth), Thuy Son (Water), Moc Son (Wood), Hoa Son (Fire) and Kim So (Metal). The largest: Thuy Son is riddled with caves; over the centuries Buddhists have built shrines in some of them and at certain times of the year they become popular pilgrimage sites.

Further along the road two motorbikes pulled alongside us with two Japanese tourists on the back. I say Japanese but they were actually from Canada. They had hired the bikes and drivers for the day and were on their way to go sightseeing in Hoi An. As usual they asked us what on earth we were doing and after we had told them the plan, one asked if he could video us? We said we didn’t mind and felt like we were in some kind of strange Tour de France with the cameraman sat on the back of a motorbike filming our every move. Cyclo-man was now becoming world renown!

Hoi An

Hoi An is a beautiful, picturesque town with a population of around 80,000. It sits on the Thu Bon River and in my opinion is the nicest town we visited in Vietnam. In its heyday it was one of the most important international ports in the area and for over three centuries it enjoyed trading with vessels from all over the world.

It is now home to artist and tailor shops and everywhere you go in town you can hear the singing sound of sewing machines as they busily churn out items of tailor-made clothing ordered by the many tourists looking for a cheap bargain from one of the two hundred or so tailor shops in the small town. The mass produced paintings are mostly all copies of famous masterpieces from present day artists back down through the ages; they are all painted by hand; the quality of the work is good and the prices are even quite cheap.

We stopped to ask a woman for directions to the hotel we had chosen to meet Pete in. Luckily she spoke good English. She tried to drag us into her shop to buy some clothes but we said we would return the next day after a rest. As we were talking to her a dustbin lorry turned the corner and proceeded to stop at every tree along the street. A couple of men who were sitting up on top of the roof started to hack down the branches off the trees with axes and saws. We asked her what on earth was going on and were told that it was to stop the trees damaging property and houses during the coming storm. This was causing a big commotion as on the branches of the trees were lots of orange coloured fruits and every time a branch was thrown to the ground people would pounce on it and rip off the fruits. The woman we were talking too dived in to the fray and was back in an instant brandishing arms full of the stuff. She gave us a couple and told us not to eat them for a few days when they would be ripe and ready to eat.

The hotel we had chosen was only around the corner so it was easy for us to find and after unloading our gear and cleaning ourselves up we set out to explore the town. While we were strolling around the town a woman, who was sat in a doorway with a small baby, motioned for us to take a photo of her baby. I did so just to please her, the truth being it wasn’t a good looking child and would not make a good photo. As soon as I had clicked the shutter button she held out her hand and said “Dollar”. I smiled and told her no and asked her to write down her address so I could send her the photo once it was developed. If we did take pictures of people we tried to make sure we asked permission and then got their address so that we could send a copy on to them.

The town was almost untouched by the wars of the French and Americans. Many of the buildings exhibit features of traditional architecture and some even date back to the 19th century and earlier. Most of the two story dwellings were a faded yellow colour with black streaks and damp patches all over them. These are made by rainwater running down the walls from the roof bringing with it the dirt from the lichens and moss-covered tiles above. Lanterns of all shapes, sizes and colours were strung out across the streets. Every now and again we would pass or be passed by women in conical hats; bent over double with the weight of the loads that they carry across their shoulders. Dangling from each end of the poles were baskets full of fresh produce. The weights of the baskets were making the poles bend until they nearly dragged along the floor. The lack of motor vehicles (a lot of the streets in Hoi An are closed to traffic) added to the feeling of stepping back through time.

We crossed the arched road of the famous Japanese Covered Bridge. It was first built on this spot in 1593 by the Japanese community to link with the Chinese quarters across the stream. Built into the northern side of the bridge is the Chua Cau temple. Across the door there are letters reading Lai Vien Kieu (bridge for passers-by from afar). We felt as if it was welcoming us to Hoi An. It was a beautiful piece of architecture and solidly built. However when the French were here they decided to flatten out the bridge so that motorcars could use it. Thankfully it was restored to its former glory in 1986 during major renovation works and is once again only for the use of pedestrians.

The promised storm finally came ashore. We were told it was a Typhoon. Luckily it has hit further south but the rain is torrential and didn’t stop all night and showed no signs of stopping in the near future. Hoi An is well known for flooding during the rainy season and that day was no exception. The river had risen up overnight to flood the lower streets and half the market was under water. The traders were still sitting under the dripping tarpaulin’s selling produce to anyone brave enough to venture out into the rain. The worst flood recorded was in 1964 when the water reached up to the roof beams of some of the houses next to the river.

In a short break in the rain we made a dash to the tailors shop owned by the woman we had met yesterday. We had to be careful not to step in a puddle or pothole, as they can be any depth. Even so we were still soaked though up to our knees by the water cascading down the streets. We entered the shop and after greetings we were given a pile of old catalogues to browse through. The catalogues contained hundreds of pages of people modelling clothes that had been ripped out of western fashion magazines. I ordered a couple of pairs of thin cotton casual trousers and Rach ordered a whole new wardrobe. After choosing the material, being measured and paying a deposit we were told to return late the next day.

The only down side to Hoi An we could see were the postcard boys and girls. They were the most persistent we had encountered on our journey so far. There were endless lines of them doing the rounds of restaurants and bars. It was so hard to keep saying no but we did not want to encourage them anymore. A few times we watched as they climbed off the back of their parent’s motorbike and then walked around a bar trying to sell their wares. Then they jumped back on and zoomed off to the next port of call. We thought it was good that one boy had an interest in collecting foreign coins. We gave him the few English coins that we had left. Later we found out that they ask other tourists to change the coins back in to Dong for them.

We had again met back up with Pete so the three of us had lunch at the excellent restaurant: No 19 On Hoang Van Thy Street. It was the only place that we could find that sold beer Hoi in the town. The food and the welcome by the husband and wife team were outstanding; they really made us feel at home.

The extra salt that I had been taking seemed to be doing the trick? I had not had a dizzy spell in a couple of days now and I was feeling good. With the combination of very good food and a keg of Beer Hoi at the restaurant we decided to eat there again that evening. Pete had changed his plans. He had a problem with the bottom bracket on his bike and thought he stood more chance of getting a new one in Ho Chi Minh City. Any way: how could he come to Vietnam and not see Ho Chi Minh City?

After eating lunch we walked back to the tailor shop to pick up the clothes that we had ordered the day before. I was disappointed with mine because they were too smart but Rachael’s were perfect. As we were being served a gay Vietnamese boy walked in. He was as camp as any gay I had ever seen or met before. I was taken aback by the way he promoted his sexuality and also by the fact that nobody batted an eyelid as he strutted around the shop. I was expecting gays in Ho Chi Minh City but not out in the sticks. Up until then we had thought of Vietnam as a conservative country. It was good to see that the Vietnamese people were still able to be themselves under Communism.

Hoi An - Quang Ngai (118 km)

Another 6am start but it was an enjoyable ride in the dim early morning light. The rain had stopped and the sun was just clearing the tops of the trees in the distance. It was still quite cool and I hadn’t even begun to get hot. People were already working away in the fields; children were on their way to school waving and laughing at us. The young boys had little white handkerchiefs, folded into a neat square, pinned to their shirts. We had not been able to work out the school day yet? From the early morning until dusk we saw children of all ages going to and from their schools; we guessed there must be some sort of shift system? It was not unusual to see children and their teachers doing PE in the playgrounds while other children in the same school uniforms looked on through the gates or over the wall. It’s as if they were waiting for their turn at school?

After about 8km we turned back on to Highway 1. At once the condition of the road deteriorated again and the ever-present sounds of vehicle horns shattered our beautiful morning ride with a vengeance. The weather was fine until just before we reached a town called Tam Ky and then it started to throw it down with rain. It was absolutely torrential. It made the visibility very bad but as usual we had no choice but to push onwards. We had taken the precaution of wrapping our backpacks in big plastic bags that we bought in the market in Hoi An to try to keep our meagre belongings dry. Every now and again we would hit really rough stretches on the road and they would just sap the strength out of my legs. I was quite worried about my fitness: after all I had just had a couple of days rest so I didn’t think I would be feeling so tired so soon. Rachael had two more goes at riding Cybil but she still struggled with reaching the pedals. After only a few hundred metres I had to get back in the saddle and carry on with the hard slog. By the time we arrived at the hotel in Quang Ngai we were both soaked through to the skin. Not one part of the clothing that we were wearing was dry but another days cycling was over and we had travelled another 118km.

As we were unloading Cybil in the hotel car park a delivery van reversed up next to us. As it moved back it was playing “We wish you a Merry Christmas” as a vehicle reversing warning signal. This reminded us that it was only a few weeks to go until Christmas day.

Pete was already at the hotel and was working away on his bike trying to solve the problem with the bottom bracket. After checking in and unloading we had to get out of our wet clothes and shower. As usual the hotel wasn’t up to much but at least it was dry and the water was hot. We had to place our clothes around the room and we covered the bed in our bank notes so that an oscillating fan could try to get them dry again before the morning. Then it was out to see what Quang Ngai had to offer in the way of food and yet another early night.

That night it seemed as if we were surrounded by the loudest television sets in the world. And it seemed as if the communal hotel spittoon was right outside our hotel door. Needless to say I didn’t sleep much at all; it seemed as if the whole of the hotel was lined up right outside our room in a coughing and spitting contest. I thought we must have had the Vietnamese national team in residence with us. The louder and more guttural they could be the more points they were awarded. It was hell. How on earth the Americans couldn’t find the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war I will never know? There’s no way the Vietnamese could stop themselves from coughing or using their vehicle horns for very long!

Seriously though: the health of the nation is not good at all. It does not help that the tobacco companies target third world countries even though they are so poor. Everyone in Vietnam seams to smoke. The life expectancy for the average male is around 67.12 years and 72.19 years for females. The exhaust fumes from all the vehicles cannot help either as the inside of our nostrils testified most evenings. Sooner or later I must have dozed off because the next morning I awoke to the dawn chorus of even more coughs and grunts. Again it sounded as if it was just outside our window. I got up, washed, dressed and then stepped outside of our door to check on the weather. Walking down the veranda towards me there was a Vietnamese guy. I got the feeling that I had almost caught him in the act of being on the way to cough one up outside our room; he looked very sheepish as he smiled his pleasantries and walked on past me. I was standing in the doorway watching his every move just in case he let a cough slip. I think that I might be getting a little paranoid? I looked up at the grey and overcast sky; it didn’t look very promising for the day ahead.


Quang Ngai - Sa Huynh (62 km)

We had only left the hotel compound ten minutes or so before it started to throw it down with rain again. Within minutes we were again as wet as the previous day. The condition of the highway never improved either and I was using up a lot of energy not getting very far. At least it was only 62km to our next hotel at Sa Huynh. I was squinting through the rain trying hard not to hit the sharp stones and potholes which were nearly impossible to miss as the whole road had been dug up. At one stage I had to ditch Cybil off the road because of some crazy fool in a lorry trying to overtake a vehicle coming towards us.

I was beginning to have doubts about whether or not I could do this? My leg muscles were screaming for me to stop, I had backache and my head was in a constant state of shell shock from the never ending blowing of horns next to my left ear. The drivers seemed to have a knack of pressing their horns at just the exact moment they were level with my head. It was never just before or just after but always right in line with my left eardrum. It was also not a lot of fun being soaked through all day and then struggling to dry our clothes out in the evenings. I cannot describe how hard it was just to keep the wheels on Cybil turning at times. We had been told that there was another storm on its way; so the weather was not going to improve in the foreseeable future. I had not mentioned my feelings to Rachael yet. I was hoping that I could shake off these melancholy thoughts.

A couple of hours further on the rain stopped and the road improved. We were freewheeling down a long straight hill. I could see in the distance that the road disappeared to the right around a bend. Just before the bend on our side of the road, heading in the same direction as us, were two Vietnamese women on bicycles. I didn’t think there was a problem at first. We were quickly closing the gap and were not far away from the women when a bus appeared around the bend coming towards us. It blocked the route I had chosen to go around the women. I knew that at this speed it would be totally useless to try the brake and in the few seconds I had as we quickly bore down on the women I consciously made the decision to take out one if not both of the cyclists rather than go head on into the front of the bus and kill us both! But just as we were a couple of metres away from the cyclists, the bus moved back over to the right side of the road and opened up a gap. I aimed for it and we flew through the slot at speed and were around the corner and breathing a sigh of relief. The two women were none the wiser to how close they had come to having a nasty accident as we sailed past them. I would be writing about Vietnamese prison life now if I had hit one of the cyclists; that’s if we had survived the probable lynch mob that no doubt would have gathered.

The Sa Huynh hotel was another government run place and again it had been built just metres from a beautiful beach. The sleeping accommodation was again in a separate block about 30 metres away from the main building. For once we had arrived before Pete. He had set out late after doing some more repairs on his bike so we had, had time to get showered and changed before he cycled up to the hotel and found us in our room. We explained to him that we were going to the restaurant to see if we could get some lunch but we would wait until he was there before ordering any food.

The hotel must have been a grand building once upon a time, but years of neglect had taken their toll on it. As usual it wasn’t well lit and it had not seen a coat of paint in many a year. Rachael and I were, as usual, the only people in the dining room. So while we were waiting for Pete to finish showering and sorting himself out we ordered drinks and watched the local floor show. Rachael saw them first and said “I’ve just seen a couple of rats”. Of course when I looked up and asked “where?” there was nothing to be seen. After a couple of minutes of scanning the floor she was proved right: a couple of huge rats were running to and fro across the room less than two metres from where we were sitting. We could not help thinking about the cleanliness of the kitchen as we looked at the menu. If rats were free to come and go across the restaurant floor. What on earth would be normal standards of hygiene in there behind the closed doors? However I must say that in all the time we spent in Vietnam none of the three of us had any kind of upset stomach or ill health.

While we were eating lunch I plucked up the courage and told the other two that I didn’t think that I could go on any further and that I thought I was at the end of my physical and mental abilities. They were both shocked to hear this and began to try to talk me out of quitting. They said that we had already done all the hard work and with over a thousand km gone we were well over half way to Saigon. They also said that the rain couldn’t last forever and as if on cue the clouds parted and a shaft of bright sunlight shone down on to the beach and out across the sea. We all laughed at this celestial intervention and took it as a sign. We decided to have another rest day so that I could think about it some more and pull myself together. It was my decision to make and mine alone but hopefully everything might look a lot rosier tomorrow after getting a good night’s rest. We were a team with everyone having an input into this journey one way or another. Rach was not having it easy and Pete was always there at the end of the day to lend support to us.

It was heaven to have a good lie in and then a leisurely breakfast without having to rush off anywhere. One of the rats must have been having a lie in or had been captured by the hotel staff as we could only see one of them running around the floor that morning. The only food the hotel had was eggs there wasn’t even any bread to be had. So we had four fried eggs on a plate each again washed down with lots of good strong Vietnamese coffee. While we were eating the sun again broke through the clouds and transformed the whole scene from dark, drab and dismal to bright, warm and sunny and by the time we had walked along the beach for a couple of hours with the sun on our backs I began to feel like a new man. The powers of nature are amazing; it really brightens the spirits just seeing the sun. Yesterday I was all for throwing in the towel but after a good night’s sleep and a bit of sun on my back I was again thinking that I could do this, after all it’s only 770km or so further down the road. Rachael was adamant that we should see this through to the end and as I have said before, she had it a lot harder than me. It was a great way to travel when the weather and going were good but when it was bad it was very bad for her. It was not a lot of fun just sitting there in a rain storm with the rain bouncing off her waterproof clothes whilst sitting in a puddle of water not being able to move about to try and keep warm. Plus it was only just over one more week’s worth of cycling; there was nearly light at the end of the tunnel.

Because the food was so bad and limited at the hotel, that evening we decided to walk a couple of km back along the highway to some transport cafés we had passed the day before. As usual we turned heads as we entered and sat down at a table. The locals didn’t understand why we wanted to eat here instead of the hotel down the road. As far as we could see there were no rats running about and the food was a great improvement on what was on offer at the hotel. After we had finished eating one of the old women who worked at the café got up, came over to us, and gestured to me that I should take one of the waitresses back to the hotel with me for some fun and games. There were howls of laughter when I showed them my wedding ring and told them that Rachael and I were married. They thought Pete and Rachael were together and that I was youngish free and single.


Sa Huynh - Qui Nhon (115 km)

As we left Sa Huynh and continued south the sky was becoming a beautiful clear blue but we could still see the remaining darkness of dawn. There wasn’t a cloud to be seen, which helped to raise my spirits. Give me the relentless heat of the day anytime rather than the constant rain. We were once again making good time and this continued until around lunchtime when we got caught up in the school traffic.

A group of teenage schoolboys decided that we were fair game for a laugh or two. I’m afraid they got me on a bad day; after ten minutes or more of “Wassa time, Wassa time” they thought it would be fun to try to pull us back by pulling hard on the rack. I was starting to feel tired again and really didn’t need this! After failing to outrun them I just pulled over and waved goodbye but they just waited down the road for us. We didn’t have the time to out wait them so on we went and they started to bait me again. This carried on for three or more times of me stopping to let them continue on with no luck. In the end I snapped and threatened to punch the ringleader’s lights out. The little shit got the message but I got in trouble with Rach for that. She thought that I was too stressed and that they were only kids being kids and if I was going to threaten more people along the way we may as well pack it in now and jump on a bus. She was not happy with me at all and I can’t really blame her. We continued on in silence not speaking to each other while I thought of the many ways as I could of torturing that kid; childish I know but at least it took my mind off of cycling.

About an hour or so further on we were sat behind a bus in a queue of traffic waiting for a green light at some road works (it was the first and only time in Vietnam that we saw traffic control at road works). We were right up close to the bus so I could not see the road in front of us. After a few minutes the bus pulled off and because we were in a rut I put all my weight on to one pedal to try to get us moving again. We shot out of the hole only for the bus driver to brake and stop dead. I didn’t have anywhere near enough time to pull on our brake so we ended up hitting the back end of the bus. Because the front end of Cybil is so low and Rachael had her legs stretched out on top of one of the backpacks we didn’t stop until the top of her thighs hit the underneath of the bus bumper. We hit it so hard the bus driver got out to have a look. He walked back to us, gave us a look of disgust, mumbled something to himself and turned back to his cab. I hate to think how bad it would have been if we hit where the exhaust pipe was. It would have ripped Rach’s legs to shreds. As it was she was badly bruised all around the top of her legs. This didn’t help the frosty feeling between us. It was turning into a bad day all round.

We had arranged to meet up with Pete at a hotel in Binh Dinh but as we came up to the outskirts of the town we could see Pete in the distance waiting for us. He was standing in the middle of a bridge surrounded by children, as usual all trying to talk to him at once. We knew this meant bad news about the hotel of some kind or another. He told us the hotel was a complete dump and that it wasn’t anywhere near fit for human occupation. Even the rats were wearing overalls it was so dirty. We consulted the map and decided to go on another 18km to the town of Qui Nhon.

Qui Nhon is right on the coast about 10km off Highway 1. It is the capital of the Binh Dinh province with a population of about 231,000. As we cycled down the main street we were again greeted by laughs; this time from other Cyclo drivers asking us where we were going and why? After finding the hotel, we unloaded Cybil and had a wonderful hot shower. Pete and I left Rach to get cleaned up and chill for a bit. We strolled around the town looking for somewhere for us to eat that evening and to see if we could get a new saddle for Cybil. For days I had been sitting on some pieces of foam rubber for extra comfort because of my saddle sore bum, but every time I stood up out of the seat to pedal up any small inclines they fell off causing us to stop to pick them up again. I tried tying them on with a bungee strap but that was uncomfortable sitting on the straps.

We found a well stocked bike shop and bought the top of the range saddle: a nice big well-padded thing with big springs for suspension and only costing the princely sum of 40,000 Dong (less than £2.00). What a bargain! I thought that Rachael might need a bit of time away from me so while she was relaxing in the bath we had a couple of beers as we continued to look for a good restaurant. We decided on a Vietnamese / Thai restaurant just around the corner from the hotel and what a good choice it was! It’s funny that the best meals we had in Vietnam were Thai or Indian. We never did find any Vietnamese food which we could call good; it was all plain and boring but maybe we were missing the good places to eat there must be some, somewhere?

Qui Nhon - Song Cau - Tuy Hoa (113 km)

Our next port of call was the Bai Tien hotel at Song Cau. Our guidebooks told us that the hotel was built on stilts over a fish farm in a picturesque bay and that it “makes for an attractive setting”. With it being only 43km away from Qui Nhon we decided to have a lie in and have yet another leisurely breakfast before we set out at about 9am. We had been told of a new road, which had just been finished that linked up with Highway 1 further down the coast. We were also told that not a lot of traffic uses it so we headed out to find the new road. It would be nice to ride a quiet stretch of road but it would mean that we miss the notorious ‘Happy 16 km’. The ‘Happy 16km’ is a stretch of road where apparently hookers line up along the roadside plying their trade to the truck drivers and anyone else that may be passing. I had been interested to see this since learning of it and had been looking forward to seeing what sort of reception we would receive as we cycled past the girls. When it came down to it I made the sacrifice of not seeing the “Happy 16 km” and opted for a morning of easy riding and a chance to rest my tired legs.

Pete said he would cycle with us today because it was only a short distance, and the company would be nice for all of us. Rach and I were back on talking terms but she still had not forgiven me for driving her into the back of a bus. Also in a three some it is harder for the mind to wonder off in one’s own thoughts; the third person all ways helping to keep the conversation’s going.

As soon as we left Quin Nhon the road climbed up a steep hill so we were soon off and pushing Cybil again. It was easy to wish for a bike like Pete’s as he effortlessly cycled up the hill next to us chatting away as if he was standing still. But our spirits were high and we were soon at the top and rolling along a brand new road as smooth and as clean as a babies bum. The road hugged the coastline and we rode past fishing villages built right on the edge of beautiful white sandy beaches. One such village was a hive of activity with about forty people pulling in fishing nets from the shore and unloading boats; it was such an idyllic scene. Because of the lack of traffic and the stunning views we took our time. There was no rush. After the long days cycling that we had already done 43km would be an easy days riding. There were a few hills where we had to get off and push but nothing too hard. However we were all still surprised when we turned on to Highway 1 again to find that we were all ready in Song Cau. We commented to each other what an easy, enjoyable days riding it had been.

What was left of the hotel

Our joy was soon crushed when we pulled up at the hotel Bai Tien and saw what was left of it. The typhoon that had hit a couple of days ago when we were in Hoi An had hit land here in Song Cau. The hotel was almost completely demolished; there was only half the corrugated roof left on, numerous walls were torn down and we could see the blue paint on the walls inside some of the rooms. Shutters and windows were smashed and debris could be seen lying on the bottom of the shallow water of the fish farm. The restaurant had not fared any better but it was still functioning and serving food and drinks so we decided to have some lunch. This was the only time I think Rach and I had a proper lunch on a cycling day?

We ordered our food and asked where the nearest hotel was only to be told that it was 70km away in Tuy Hoa. This was not good news at all. It was already 11.45am and we had a long ride to go. So after eating lunch and using the toilet (the roof of which had also been blown off) we set out again. The time was 12.30pm; we told Pete to go off on his own; it wasn’t worth all of us being late and we would only hold him up. As we cycled out of Song Cau we could see the damage the storm had caused to the rest of the village. Houses were ripped open; hundreds if not thousands of trees on the surrounding hillsides were snapped in two. It was as if a giant with a scythe had been in the area harvesting the trees. We thought we were in trouble with 70km still to cycle but the devastation made us stop and think. None of these people would have had any insurance to replace or repair their homes. It put it in to perspective that we could stop and catch a bus to the nearest hotel. These people would have to stay here whatever and rebuild their lives with little or no help from the government.

Even though there is no more than a metre separating us we still spend endless hours in our own thoughts while we endure the tedious repetition of turning the pedals and moving slowly down the road. I did not think that Highway 1 could get any worse but believe me it did; out of the next 70km at least 60km were road works and there were quite a few steep climbs thrown in. On one such climb I was just about to get off and begin pushing when an old man on a moped tried to give us a push up but he couldn’t manage it so he waved to us and carried on up the hill. About half way up there was a group of children playing in the road the old man shouted to them and pointed in our direction and they all came running down the hill to us. We watched them come closer as we pushed up the hill towards them and then in an instant we were in amongst them. They surrounded us and laughing to each other as they went; they took over, they were all eager to help push Cybil up the hill. Their ages ranged from about five to nine but with all of them pushing we found it hard to keep up with them so Rach and I walked behind them laughing at their antics as we walked. Cybil was being pushed all over the road, she was going from side to side and even forwards and backwards up the hill. They were climbing all over each other and Cybil. It all happened so quick that we had left our cameras on Cybil so we missed a wonderful photo opportunity.
When we finally arrived at the top of the hill we thanked them all and shook their hands. We had to tell them to go back home. We were certain they would have pushed us all the way to Ho Chi Minh City if we had asked them to. We just love the Vietnamese people; they always seem to be so happy and helpful.

It was at times like this that we wished we had more time to stay and have a little fun with the people we met on our journey but because of the distances between hotels we had to spend all our time in the saddle. The irony was that if we were not going so slow and were on some form of motorised transport we would not be meeting and experiencing these wonderful, wonderful people. Vietnam is a strange country; one minute you can see children playing and having fun, the next you can see a young child pushing a heavy wheelbarrow full of rocks who has probably been working away for hours on end helping out with the family chores.

We arrived in Tuy Hoa just as it was getting dark; the main drag into town was a long dual carriageway dotted with huge big puddles of water from what must have been a heavy downpour. Luckily it had finished before we arrived. Tuy Hoa is an industrial town and both sides of the highway were lined with factories belching steam, smoke and god knows what else out of their chimneys. It doesn’t have a lot going for it at all; there isn’t even a good beach, the only thing of interest we could see was the outline of a Cham tower on a hill to the south of the town.

In the fast fading daylight, we would have missed the hotel Huong Sen, if it wasn’t for Pete shouting at us from inside the hotel compound? He had been keeping an eye out for us. As we pulled up outside the reception I could see a drinks fridge brimming with soft drinks and bottles of beer but as usual it wasn’t turned on. I was again totally shattered and doubt was again creeping back into my mind as to whether or not I could finish this? I wondered what else was in store for us along our way.

That night we decided to try the restaurant in the hotel. Pete had already asked the receptionist if they served cold beer in the restaurant. She of course had said “yes”, but as usual it came warm with a bucket of ice. The menu was a sorry affair too and they didn’t have most of the items on it so we decided to try our luck elsewhere. We walked out of the compound gates and tried a place just across the road from the hotel. We sat outside on a small veranda; the beer was still warm so they put some on ice for us, it’s hard to imagine that we are in the town where beer Saigon is brewed and we can still not get a cold beer. The food was superb though and we had a good laugh with the waiters and other customers so all and all it was a good evening. Even when a Vietnamese girl from a nearby table lent over the balcony next to our table to be sick; we took it in our stride. We had been in Vietnam long enough to treat this as normal behaviour so we just smiled at her and carried on eating our meals. People from other tables came over to shake our hands and to say goodbye upon finishing their meals and leaving the restaurant. Later that night as I lay in bed I again felt a great respect for the Vietnamese people. For all the hardships they had been through they still managed to feel no resentment to us westerners where as in the UK and the rest of Europe, 50 years after the Second World War a lot of people still cannot forgive the Germans or Japanese for what they did.

Tuy Hoa - Nha Trang (120 km)

Early the next morning the torrential rain hitting our window awoke us. Upon pulling back the curtains all we could see was a sheet of rain hitting the hotel compound floor. It was so dense that the visibility was only a few metres. We had breakfast at the hotel in a vain attempt to see if it was going to stop, but the forecast was not good; another storm was on its way. Pete loaned me the use of his raincoat while I went looking for waterproof coats for Rach and myself. The streets had been turned into rivers and in seconds my feet and legs up to my knees were saturated. After about 15 minutes of looking I found a shop that sold rain ware, they had a good coat for me but we needed leggings for Rach because she was sat in a puddle most of the time when it rained. I tried to explain that I wanted waterproof trousers by doing a little mime for the assistant but apart from shaking her head and smiling at me she didn’t get the message. So I went back outside and braved the rain again looking for another shop that sold what I wanted. There was no way we could move on until Rach had a full waterproof outfit. I know it was a little late in the day to finally buy some proper waterproofs but its better late than never I suppose. After another 30 minutes or so without any luck I decided to go back to the first shop to buy her a coat just for now. I explained to the shop assistant that I wanted a smaller size than the one I had brought earlier so she proceeded to empty out the contents of a cupboard showing me the packages. As she did so, low and behold, out fell a two piece coat and leggings set which was just the right size for Rach! I paid the bill and no sooner had I stepped out of the door of the shop, the rain stopped!

As I was walking back past the wall of the hotel compound an arm appeared through one of the railings and in its hand was an enormous rat dangling by its tail. This was just dropped into the gutter just a few steps in front of me!

After checking out of the hotel, loading up Cybil and donning our new rain wear we were soon off again.  We said goodbye to Pete and made our way out of the town passing the Cham tower on our left and then out over the long bridge over the Da Rang River. The road and going was once again good and we quickly covered the first 30km or so.

As we came into the foothills of yet another mountainous pass we could hear a metallic clanging coming from the direction in front of us. As we got nearer we could see men and boys working away on huge boulders of rock on the hillsides around us. The work must have been soul destroying? One person would make holes along the grain of a rock by hammering in metal spikes with a lump hammer until the rock split. The rock could be up to 20 times the size of the worker. The split rock would then be rolled down hill to the next person who would repeat the process and so on until they had a pile of cobble stones about 12 inches by 12 inches square. It was unbelievable to think that these people earned their living by doing this work, day in day out for probably every day of their lives and in all kinds of weather. All this was done without a machine in sight. The bones in their arms and shoulders must wear out with the constant pounding and swinging of the hammers. Yet again we were reminded of how lucky we were.

We had to stop for a while in a queue of traffic at a railway level crossing; we watched the women hawkers going from vehicle to vehicle selling their wares. I don’t know how many trains pass through a day but it cannot be enough to warrant living out here in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they are the families of the men working at splitting the rocks?

The road up through the mountain pass was long, winding and steep. On one of our many rest stops a young couple on a moped stopped and asked us what we were doing. It had started to rain again so we must have looked a sorry sight standing next to Cybil half way up the hill shrouded in mist. The young Vietnamese guy spoke good English so we chatted for a while but by the time they left they still could not comprehend why we were cycling from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City on a Cyclo. To tell the truth, as we were pushing Cybil through the clouds, on this wet depressing mountain pass I again started to wonder why on earth I had, had this crazy idea?

The road down the other side was too steep with too many bends in it to ride so we had to walk most of the way down also. The road had turned back towards the coast again and through the rain we could make out villages and beaches way down below us. We were going slowly, freewheeling down one short slope on the brake, when all of a sudden we started to speed up. I looked behind us and there was a guy on a motor bike with his foot on the back of Cybil pushing us along! As I could not see around the corner to see how steep it was I had to ask him to stop. I was pointing to the brakes, trying to explain that they were no good. I think he got the message and he waved to us and off he rode. My heart sank when we rolled around the next corner to see a steep hill rising up in front of us. The guy on his motorbike was already half way up it. I was kicking myself; he might have been able to push us all the way up to the top. As it was we had to get off and push yet again.

Our plan was originally to stay at Dai Lanh Beach but because of the rain we had decided to push on to Nha Trang. Even in the dim overcast light (it had stopped raining) Dai Lanh looked spectacular: situated on a semicircular beach with most of the buildings just visible through palm trees; their positions given away by the smoke rising up from the fires. Just past Dai Lanh, in the distance, we could see a sand causeway connecting the mainland with Hon Gom: a mountainous peninsula which juts out to sea. Again I wished that we had enough time to see every part of Vietnam but it will all have to wait until next time.

Just a few miles further down the road we again hit road works. The Vietnamese do not do small road works; they just dig up kilometres at a time. The roads were so bad in places I even had to pedal down the hills just to keep our momentum going. I was again feeling the effects of the extra effort that I had to put in to keep us moving. I was tiring fast.

Another guy on a motorbike gave us a push for about 3km but he was pushing on our handle bars with his right arm, this was pushing us over to the right of the road so I had push against him to keep us in a straight line. That was just as hard as cycling; so I thanked him and asked him if he would stop and let us continue under our own steam. Next we had an old man with one arm cycling along side of us. We had one of those conversations where we just talked, smiled and nodded our heads a lot without knowing what the other person was saying. Just before he left us he asked me for cigarettes and money but I said no and he smiled and turned off.

Further on down the road we stopped at a roadside café with deck chairs outside and cold drinks served from cold boxes full of ice. It was heaven resting there in the shade for a while watching the world go by. I could have easily sat there and dozed off for an hour or two. I could now see a marked improvement in my body. Gone was the beer belly that I had been trying to get rid of (without stopping drinking beer) for the last few years. In its place was the lean, mean “Cyclo Man”. When I showered I even had to tie one of Rachael’s hair bands around my ring finger so that I didn’t lose my wedding ring. It would just slip off when my hands were wet. That’s how much body weight I had lost since leaving Hanoi.

About 30 km outside of Nah Trang, as we were cycling down a long straight in the road; a car drove past us and pulled over just in front of us. Three men got out of the vehicle and flagged us down. We at once thought they were Police and pulled up next to them wondering what was going to happen to us now. It turned out that two of them owned a ceramic tile factory and the third one was their driver, he spoke good English and translated for his two bosses. They were surprised to see two Westerners riding a Northern Cyclo in the middle of nowhere and they were so intrigued that they had to stop us to see what we were up to. After we had explained where we had come from and where we were going they couldn’t believe it and asked if they could take some photos. We said yes then we all shook hands and they got back in their car. Just as we were again mounting Cybil to begin cycling the driver got back out of their car and told us the other two had given us something to drink. He handed us two small bottles of water and four cans of an energy drink called Rhino. We thanked them again and then they were off. Again we were speechless at the generosity of the people we kept meeting along the highway.

Before we started the journey I had decided to stay clear of the energy drinks which were sold everywhere in Vietnam promising a healthy mind and body. If I was tired I wanted to know about it, not to overdo it by pumping myself full of caffeine. But as we still had another 30km to go I opened a can and necked it down in one. God it tasted and felt good. Right away I could feel the sugar surging through my body revitalizing my poor aching limbs.

Up in front we could see another mountain range. It looked massive. I said to Rach that I didn’t think I had the energy to push up another pass today and that we might have to jump on a bus again. But as it was, by the time we had cycled in to the foot hills the road had again turned towards the sea and we only had to push up a few small hills. That lasted until we were about 8km from Nha Trang; we turned off Highway 1 on to a very, very steep climb. If we had, had a support vehicle with us I would have given up then and there. It must have been a one in six gradient, it was so steep. But there was only one way to go and that way was up. The only other option was to spend a cold wet night here on the side of the road and that just was not an option at all. If we wanted to have a hot shower and somewhere decent to eat and sleep for the night we had no choice but to push on. So with one last big effort we began to push. Because of the gradient and because we were so tired we could only push up in short bursts and before we were even half way up it was pitch black.

It was a complete nightmare that hill. I still have nightmares just thinking about it now. Without street lighting the vehicles didn’t see us until the last moment but somehow or other they managed to miss us. We were expecting to become road kill at any moment. We struggled on, pushing Cybil up that bloody hill; our backs were bent double and our upper torsos were parallel to the ground with our arms outstretched in front of us. Up and up we pushed until what seemed like hours later, we at last reached the top. We were utterly exhausted. We again stopped to rest for a little while; not saying a word to each other; we were too tired to even try to speak. We just looked at each other and managed little half smiles. I again wondered why on earth I had put Rach through any of this. She was an absolute star. Never once on the whole adventure did she say that she had, had enough and wanted us to quit.

After a few more minutes we continued on and walked past an open top lorry parked on the side of the road. It was full of Vietnamese soldiers who quietly stared at us trying to work out what and who we were? They watched our every move in complete silence. The only noise was the wind blowing through the trees and the distant blaring of car hooters. It was quite eerie as we pushed on past them in the darkness.

Coming down the other side was just as bad. Because we could not see where we were going we had to push all the way down; this time pulling back on Cybil so that she would not run off down the hill on her own. We finally reached the bottom of the hill and the outskirts of the City. Here there were streetlights to light our way so we could see and also be seen; so we remounted Cybil and rode on into Nha Trang.

Nah Trang

As we rode through the town it started to rain heavily and once again we were quickly soaked through to the skin. We were too tired to put our waterproof coats back on. Rachael was trying hard to read the map and keep it dry to get us to the hotel but because of the bad light and rain it was impossible; so we had to stop and ask for directions from a shop owner. Using the directions we had been given and a couple of well placed signs we found the Hotel Ha Huong without any more problems. Pete, as usual, was there waiting for us. He had missed the first turning off Highway 1 and had come into the city from the south, going miles out of his way but at least he hadn’t had to go up the bloody great hill we had to crawl up.

Two very wet and tired people

The hotel owner asked me if we would sit with him and his friend to share some German sausage and whisky that they were tucking in to. Rach being a vegetarian and wanting a hot shower before doing anything else declined the offer and went to sort out the room. I accepted and sat down at the table with them. It’s amazing how fast the human body can recover from near exhaustion to close to normal in a matter of minutes helped, of course, by whisky and sausage! The hotel owner did not believe me (as usual) when I told him where and how far we had come and he began to joke with me that we were making up the whole story. He kept telling his friend and me that it was an impossible feat to do on a Cyclo.

Later, while I was showering, I felt a burning sensation on my penis. It was really sore. I looked down and there was a graze on it where on my wet clothes must have been rubbing on it during the day whilst I pedalled along without noticing it. After finishing showering I told Rach and she advised me to put some witch hazel on it. “She had some in her wash bag in the bathroom” she said. I had never used witch hazel before and I wasn’t ready for the hot stinging sensation in my nether regions. This resulted in me screaming and dancing around the bathroom in agony. I think she was getting her own back on me for talking her in to coming on this trip; not to mention driving her into the back of the bus a few days before. When I finally came down off the ceiling she pleaded her innocence but I was sure that I could make out a little smile on her lips as she denied all knowledge of the powers of witch hazel.

We found an Indian restaurant in the town and because we were in a tourist town the beer for once was cold. The food was fantastic. It was helped down with lashings of cold beer for the boys and Gin and Tonics for Rach. On a table nearby sat a couple of ‘real’ travellers: a guy and a woman. The guy was eating his food with his hand, scooping up hand full’s of rice and then dipping it in to his curry. He must have thought he looked cool but his partner didn’t look too impressed at all. Neither was anyone else in the restaurant. What a dickhead. I’m all for eating with your hands in countries where the tradition is practiced. But in a restaurant with knives and forks what’s the point?

Nha Trang is a rapidly developing city with a population of about 315,000 and has one of the best municipal beaches that I have ever seen. It is well known for its beautiful clear turquoise seas but alas when we visited, because of the weather, the water was a dark grey and quite rough. We strolled south along the beach making our way to the fishing village of Cau Da.  Despite the overcast skies the beach was full of people; most of them children. We found out later it was a school holiday. It was great to see them all enjoying themselves; the younger ones playing in the sand and surf while the elder ones sat in groups talking or playing ball games, being cool and flirting with the members of the opposite sex.

As we walked along the sand to the port we could see a big cruise ship anchored just off shore. The passengers were being ferried to the mainland by small speedboats. Once there they climbed aboard one of the many buses waiting to take them to whichever air-conditioned tour they had booked to go on. The entrance to the port was heaving with Cyclo drivers and taxies hoping to pick up some business from the rich tourists. We had to run the gauntlet of being asked if we would like a ride anywhere; which was strange as the road we were walking along ended another 100 metres or so up the street. Outside on the pavement a few of the shops had cages and fish-tanks full of lizards and seahorses ready for the dinner table no doubt. I wondered to myself how you would even begin to eat a seahorse and what they would taste like. I thought you might eat them the same way you would eat a Jelly Baby. My preference would be to bite the head off first, then the tail and saving the body for last.

That night we were lucky and managed to find a Beer Hoi place on the side of the street. We sat down on the little plastic chairs and drank a couple of jugs of beer (three pints for 50 pence) while watching the world go by. Pete and I were in heaven and in different circumstances might have sat there until they closed. The next day was spent chilling, giving Cybil a good oiling, more chilling and of course drinking more Beer Hoi. After all we were on holiday!

Nha Trang – Phan Rang (112 km)

The owner of hotel and his wife were up and ready to wave us off on the next leg of our journey. He was still joking with us that it was not possible to do this trip but in the same breath he was wishing us good luck and telling me that I was “number one”.

Back out on the highway the going was good; the mountains in the near, middle and far distances were stunning. We were passing fields of rice dotted with coconut palms and prickly pear cacti; the fruit of which is much like a kiwi fruit except for the skin having thousands of little fine hairs which irritate the skin unless you take care to peel them properly. Every now and again we would pass mud and straw houses of the local Cham people. Some of these mud houses were two storeys high.

The only down side to this stretch was that the side of the highway was used as a dumping ground. For at least 30 km there was a never ending mess of carrier bags, dustbin liners, junk and pieces of metal. I even saw the rear end of a dead dog sticking out of one carrier bag. It was such a shame because it was one of the prettiest parts of Vietnam we had cycled through.

We stopped for a drink in Cam Lam: the town next to the famous Cam Ranh Bay. This area was a massive army complex in the American war. It still remains a military base today. It is a natural harbour in its own right and is meant to have some beautiful beaches but because of the military presence it cannot be developed into a tourist destination.

We had an uneventful day and made good time to Phan Rang. After booking into the hotel Ninh Thuan in the centre of town, we decided that we had made such good time today cycling the 112km that we could cycle out to see the Po Klong Garai Cham Towers: another 7km each way. We were rolling quite fast down the final hill and as I pulled in through the gate to the site we nearly tipped up. For a moment we only had two wheels on the ground. What was it going to take for me to learn about going down hills on Cybil?

Po Klong Garai Cham

The towers are the area’s most famous landmarks and were constructed in the thirteenth century during the reign of Jaya Simhavarman the third. The four brick towers were built as Hindu temples at the top of a small rocky hill. Today the towers stand as a testament to the skills and the craftsmanship of the ancient builders, the attention to detail is fantastic, above the entrance to the biggest tower is a carving of a dancing Shiva with six arms. This is said to be the guardian of the towers. To ensure a good harvest, farmers place offerings of fresh produce in front of a statue of Nandin the bull inside the vestibule and say prayers, asking the gods to shine on them and their harvest.

Back in Phang Rang the hotel was yet another government run establishment which did not have a lot going for it so the three of us walked into town to see if we could find any good restaurants. A local delicacy in this area is roasted gecko served with green mango and I was up for trying some if we could find it. I cannot find a nice word for the town itself. We walked around it for over an hour looking for a nice place to eat and didn’t see one building of worth. It was just a dark and dirty place.

Just as we found a Com Ga restaurant and were crossing the road to go in a group of screaming, giggling children surrounded us. “Wassa ya name, Wassa your name?” they were all singing in unison. I told one of them that “my name was Michael Caine” and then all at once they were shouting “Michael Caine, Michael Caine”. I shook each of their hands in turn saying “Hello my name is Michael Caine what’s your name?” They loved the attention we were giving to them and were shaking hands and laughing with Rachael and Pete. It was as if we were famous movie stars. It felt kind of weird. I would not be able to stand the attention for long; though in short spurts its ok. We were having a great time until we said our goodbyes and walked in to the restaurant and then it all went swiftly downhill. The place was busy so we sat in front of a giant screen showing Vietnamese music videos which were not too bad. However as soon as we were in our seats they changed: on came music videos of Asian pop stars singing in English and the volume went up. It was terrible but they had obviously put them on for us to watch. Pete and I ordered a couple of warm beers and a warm sparkling water for Rach. While we were looking at the menu deciding what to eat some of the other customers came and stood around our table watching us make our selections from the meagre menu. They nodded and mumbled their approvals when Pete and I ordered Com Ga and Rach just had boiled rice with some prawns thrown in. The chicken I had was awful: it was just globules of skin and fat. I had never in my life seen so much fat on chicken before. All three meals were cold; in fact it was the first time that the beer was warmer than the food. The place was so dismal even the sparkle had gone out of Rachael’s bottled water. It was completely flat. We ate as much as we could force down our throats without throwing up and left as soon as we could, trying not to offend the proprietors.

We strolled around the town trying to find a bread or cake seller that was still open but without any luck. So yet again we went to bed hungry. Before we left the next morning the hotel receptionist motioned for us to go in to the restaurant where they gave us a breakfast of fried eggs, bread and coffee. It was a rare chance for us to start the day with contently full stomachs as we set off to cycle the short 30km to Ca Na. Below is part of the information pack for English speaking guests taken from our room:


* The name of hotel    : Ninh Thuan hotel
* Address                   : 01 August 21th street
                                   Phan Rang town, Ninh Thuan province
* Telephone               : 068.827100-822142-824282-8242
* Fax                           : 068.822124
* Level                         : 2 stars
*The organism in the charge : Ninh Thaun general produce business
*Place                         : In right the center of town
*The number of storeys         : 02
*The number of bedrooms       : 24
*Level of rooms   : Special room- One size room- Doudle room- Sighle room
*The devites in the room : the fridaing machine
*Regriqrator, satellite TV international direct telephone, hot water


1 The bedrooms
2 The rooms of banquet and conference
3 The restaurants
4 The fine arts stalls [departments]
5 The rental taxi [car]
6 Karaoke services
7 To exchange foreign currency
8 Tourist services


    A-The breakfast
          The breakfast is served free from 6h to 10h [six o’clock to ten o’clock] at the one storey of hotel.

    B- Alarm o’clock
           Our guests has demand to give up signal. Please related with protocal department the number of the telephone 101.

6 The car park:                                                                                                                  
Lying the left of the hotel.

7 Newspapers
When visitors has demand, relate at the receptional department. Receptionist will help visitors the number 101.

8 Signal board
Signal board “be don’t annoy” and “degree to prepare rooms” is hung in the behind of the bedrooms door. When the honour has demand, be hang this signboard in the front of the door.

  C- The keys of rooms
        When going out or checking out, pleased the honour guests send the keys at the receptional department [ stall]

9 The store of fine arts.
Lying in the front hall area                        
                                                                                                             * Telephone
+ Call protocal department : 101
+Call the duty man of rooms [woman] : 218
+ Rooms call rooms: call the number of room
+ Call in the town districts 9 + the needed number of the telephone.
+ Call inter province: 9 + area code + the need number of the telephone
+ Call inter national: 9 + 00 + the number of national code + the number of area code + the needed number of telephone

   G-Laundry service:
         [The board of price] the price board of wash and iron as the washed things, is set out on the board.
Please to relate with the duty man [woman] to be served- the telephone218.

         Please quests relate with protocal deparment the number be served when quests has demand to move the luggaqe.

    L-Emergency exit in fire
        Hotel has two emerqency exits in fire.
To be expressed on the guided map [broad].

            The restaurant area iye in the one storey of hotel. The ready serve the honaur guests with Eurocan- Asia speciality- especially, serve the wedding ceremony in the 500[seats] to 1200[seats] the vistors for every banquet.

        P-Served rooms:
            When needed to be served the demands belong to the bedrooms as pillows, blankets, electricity, water…please guest duty department – the number of telephone: 218

10 Photocophy
11 The honour guests has demand to transribe, copy the fi relate with the receptional department the receptionis visitors.

12 Tivi [television]

13   TV has the chanels of locality and international. To best memory in ready, please the quests himself don’t automatically. There is the problem, guests please relate with the department,

14 The ceremony and conference [banquet]

15   Ninh thuan hotel is the place which hold best for the important [everythings] events, the seminars of international Units….the rooms of conference, the rooms of fully comfortable, with the hold from 200[seats] to 500[seats].

16 Repay

17  To be served the demands about repaying, please guest dion the receptional eleparrment, the guests would repay the service master foreign currency [exchange] transfer the currency cards.

   * Imformation  
         When needing to be supplied information which quest well, please related with the receptional department.

18 Refriqerator
19   The price board of drinking is noticed in refriqerator have to repay for the things which quest has used in refriqerator department to be served


20 BEACH NINH CHU:                                                                                                                                                                    
     It is 6km east from Phan Rang-thap Cham town, in Ninh Hai distrist.
Being one of nine beautiful beaches in Viet Nam, it is about 10km in length with the flat white sand beach shaped like a crescent moon. The atmosphere is refreshing, water is crystal clear, and waves crash on to the sea shore all year round. The comfortable Ninh Chu hotel and bungalows here are hidden in immense poplar forest, near limitless rice fields smelling sweet. Near the beach are also Nai pond full of fish, shrimp, prawn lobster, craw-fish, cuttle-fish…and Ca Dumountain, Da Chong Mountain with different sized socks pilling up. Which create a harmonious nature.

It is 30km south of Phan Rang on national hight way 1 is the majestic Troung Son range sucking out of the sea.
Ca Na beach id called “the sleeping Princess” be cause it still retains the wild. The weather is sunny and warm here all the year round. Visitor will swim in the crystal-clear water which is about 3 degrees saltier than those of other seas. Tourist often take photos of rocks protruding into the sea. Climb the mountain, visit the landscape and the Cham’s special cultural strucres and traditional villages in Ninh Phuoc district. Tourists enjoy sea foods and tsay at Ca Na of Hai Son hotel 

Ca Na

Ca Na is a beautiful place and it is easy to see why, in the 16th century, after a hard day hunting tigers, rhinoceroses and elephants the Cham Royal Family chose this spot to relax and set up camp. As we pulled in to the hotel car park we could see the beautiful clear turquoise waters lapping gently against the white sandy beach. Moored just off shore in a little sheltered cove, a couple of round basket boats bobbed about in the water. These 2m wide boats are made from strips of woven bamboo and covered in pitch. They are called Thung Chai in Vietnamese, thung means basket and chai means pitch, they are propelled by a person standing up and moving the oar from side to side in a figure of eight movement. The fishermen make it seem effortless and they can get up a fair rate of knots even going against the current.

Fifty metres along the beach huge granite boulders that had been rounded smooth by the rain and the sea were dotted all over the sand and in the shallow waters. It was such a beautiful scene. I just stood there taking in the view in case it rained later and spoiled the natural beauty of the scene. We booked a couple of beach huts that were built raised up but right on the beach, just back from the surf, for $15 per night.

Ca Na Beach

We were eating lunch in the restaurant and were sat next to a table full of Vietnamese Soldiers. Amongst them there was a mixture of rank and they looked as if they were having a good time eating and drinking together. Beneath the table there were two crates of beer that were rapidly emptying. One of the higher ranking officers started to cough up some phlegm, just turned in his chair, and spat on the floor in the corner of the room. Nobody, apart from us, batted an eyelid. Pete said he had seen the waiter cough one up on the floor as he was bringing our drinks over to our table.

That evening after Rachael had gone to bed Pete and I sat on his balcony sipping cold beers and watching thirteen fishermen effortlessly rowing their Thung Chais against the current and then drifting back along it while their nets trailed out behind them. One guy held up something he had caught for us to see but we couldn’t make out what it was in the fading light. It was just so tranquil; the only sounds we could hear were the knocking of their oars on the boats and the sound of their voices being carried to us on the breeze. Then as the sun dipped down over the horizon they all turned to silhouettes. Far out to sea the shrimp boats lights glowed brighter and brighter; they were ready to begin their night’s work. It was again one of those pure magic scenes.

Ca Na - Mui Ne Beach (130 km)

We knew that today was going to be long and hard just by looking at the map; 130 km is a long way on a Cyclo. We didn’t realise just how hard it would become! We were going to have to pay for the pleasures of yesterday, one day pleasure the next day pain. Our map told us that there were no hotels on our route until we at least got to Phan Thiet - about 115km away. We had left the hotel at 5.30am and I knew we were in trouble as soon as we got on to the highway. We were cycling into a strong head wind and I was struggling from the off. I was out of my seat pedalling just to keep the wheels turning and this was along a flat stretch of road. Cybil’s front seat and awning were acting like a sail trapping the wind and holding us back. A train passed by on the right hand side of us; it was heading south: the same direction as us. On its carriages it was carrying eight tanks hidden from view by massive green tarps. With the shapes they made they looked like giant tortoises in a slow moving convoy. To the left fishermen were out at sea in their basket boats again, unless of course they had been out all night? I looked back over my shoulder; rising up over the horizon was the perfect sphere of the sun. It was a startling blood red and by the fierce look of it, it was going to be boiling hot day. I just knew that this day’s sun was going to throw everything it had at us. The elements were again trying their hardest to stop us completing our journey.

Not long after setting out we passed a crowd of people gathered around a lorry on its side in a ditch. The accident must have only just happened as the people still seemed excited as they gathered around the crash scene. In the rice paddies young, bright luminous green rice stalks were striking against the blue of the morning sky. Next to the rice paddies were stunning fields of Dragon Fruit that dwarfed them. The Dragon Fruit tastes similar to a Kiwi fruit but there the similarity ends. They only grow in the coastal areas south of Na Trang and are about the size of a small pineapple; the skin is bright red but inside there is beautiful white meat, speckled with little black seeds. They grow on a cactus with long leafs that fan out and fall gently to the floor in an arc around the stem of the plant. To me they resemble Rastafarians dreadlocks, but are said to look like a dragon hence the name. Many of the fields have electric lights strung up over the fruits ready to be turned on at night to try to speed up the growing process.

Pete had caught up with us by this time so we had a short rest stop. While we were eating our bananas and bread a moped pulled up with seven people on it. There were four young children, a teenage daughter, their mother and their father who was driving. They were on their way to work in the field we had stopped next to. We said hello and they smiled and nodded back. The children were excited and I think a little frightened to see us. They kept their distance until the father said something to them in Vietnamese and then right away the youngest child shot out her upturned palm to receive something from us. But we had nothing to give. We smiled and shook our heads and off they went to their work as if it was a normal every day situation.

Back on the bikes we said goodbye to Pete and again he disappeared off into the distance. We were alone again; just the two of us plodding along at our slow pace. I was trying hard to keep a steady rhythm going; turning pedal after pedal after pedal. Once again we were alone with our thoughts only talking when the need took us.

Along the hard shoulder of the road we passed rice, rice paper, cockles, chillies, and numerous types of nuts drying in the sun. We stopped off in a small village for some food and managed to get a treat: a couple of egg baguettes and some more bananas and water. The majority of the time all we had to eat along our journey was plain baguettes washed down with water.

The wind was still blowing hard into our faces and we had only just got back on Cybil after pushing up a short hill when we got our first puncture of the trip! I had bought a pump and puncture repair kit in Hanoi but like a fool I didn’t buy any spare inner tubes. We asked some local kids where the nearest Zee Dap was and they pointed us up the road. As I have said: you could be in the middle of nowhere (as we were) and still find a Zee dap man wherever you stopped. We pushed Cybil in to the yard and a little old man of around 70 gestured for us to come in to his workshop. It was quite a big set up considering we were miles from anywhere. By the look of the set up he dealt mostly with the passing trade of cars and Lorries? He stopped work on a trailer that was lying on its side and came over to us. He had a warm, well lived face and welcomed us with a big smile; he pulled up two small wooden milking stools for us to sit on and pointed the electric fan in our direction to help cool us down before he set to work. He was the one working yet he pointed the fan in our direction. The front right hand tyre had worn through in two places causing the puncture. I let out a big yawn; this made him laugh and he pointed to an old tattered hammock hanging in one of the corners of the workshop. He then pointed inside his house to a bed for Rach to sleep on. The house was an old mud and dark wood building with lots of character and I suppose history. We were sat close to a water well that was dug in to the ground just outside of the building. A couple of kids had come over to look at us and were spitting down the well when the old man wasn’t watching trying to show off to us. I shook my head at them to ask them stop what they were doing and they did. Vietnamese girls on mopeds or bikes rode gracefully by the front of the house wearing immaculate white Ao Dai’s; again we wondered how they managed to keep them so clean in the dusty conditions.

As we sat there in silence watching the old man at work I couldn’t help wondering why on earth we had got our first puncture that day, of all days? It was sods law that it was on one of the hardest days cycling that we would have to do on the whole trip. As we could not converse with the old man, every now and again we nodded our approval as he showed us what he was doing until he had fixed the hole. When he had fixed the puncture he cut up an old car inner tube and placed it inside the tyre to cover the holes. Nothing is wasted in Vietnam: it all gets recycled again and again. Before he replaced the tube the old man pumped it up and put it through a bucket of water to check for any more air leaks; he called me over, showed me a leak at the base of the valve and shook his head to say “no good” before setting to work once again. This time he cut the valve out making a big hole in the inner tube, dropped the valve inside the tube and then cut off another piece of the car inner tube and glued it over the hole. After it had set hard he cut a little nick in the tube and pushed the valve back through from the inside. He then put more glue around the hole to seal around the base of the valve. After it had set he again pumped it up and passed it through the bucket of water and when he was happy with his work he showed it to us again and we both told him what a good job he had done. Once the tyre was put back together and Cybil was again ready to go I asked him how much he wanted for his work? He said 10,000 Dong: the equivalent of about 50 pence. He had been working on the tyre for around 90 minutes; we gave him 30,000 and thanked him for his highly skilled work. He was over the moon with the extra money and thanked us gratefully.

Back on Highway 1 the wind was still blowing in our faces and we had just lost over an hour and a half of time. Because we had been stopped for so long my legs had all but seized up and it was hard to get them moving again. Because of the wind and my aching limbs we were down to an average of 10-12km per hour instead of the 15-16km per hour we usually averaged on a good day. At this rate I wasn’t sure if we would make Phan Thiet before nightfall let alone Mui Ne. I had decided to myself that we would get there by hook or by crook as tomorrow would be our first wedding anniversary. I was determined to let Rach relax on a beach, hopefully a sunny one? I definitely didn’t want her to be sitting on Cybil on such a special day.

To try to take our minds off the journey we began to talk about the nice food that we would eat when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I was hanging out for a strawberry milkshake and a nice big steak. Rachael was looking forward to a nice big plate of chips; eating so much rice every day was getting to us. After a gruelling few more hours and a real hard slog against the wind we reached the outskirts of Phan Thiet just as it was getting dark.

At the road junction where we turned off Highway 1 we saw a sign for Mui Ne beach saying it was just 15km away but that was the last sign we saw and it did not have any directions on it. We missed the turn and ended up in the middle of Phan Thiet at rush hour. It was mayhem! A girl on a moped was looking at us as she rode by and not where she was going. She crashed head on in to another moped. Thankfully she was not going fast. We didn’t stop until we were out of sight when we asked a guy who was walking down the road for directions. He pointed back up the way we had come and motioned for us to turn to the right. We had come at least 3km past the turning and when we finally did reach it after another couple of wrong turns we still had 15km to go. By now it was pitch dark and I was on my last legs. Again I felt that I had never been so exhausted in my life. I could have slept in the gutter let alone a hotel. If it wasn’t our anniversary the next day I probably would have? I was determined to get to Mui Ne Beach instead of booking in to a hotel in Phan Thiet for the night and having to continue in the morning.

The road was full of small rolling hills so we had to get off and push quite a lot. Because of how tired we were we again chanced rolling down the hills in the dark not knowing what was in our path. Surely our luck could not hold out forever? It was odds on that sooner or later if we had to keep cycling in the dark that we were going to end up in trouble. Yet again I cursed myself for not being organised and buying some proper lights. As I write this and think back I cannot for the life of me understand why we didn’t buy some lights somewhere along the route.

This area is famous for the Vietnamese Moc Nam (fish sauce) that is sold all over the world. Hanging thickly in the air is a horrible putrid smell of rotting fish and for a few kilometres along the road it stayed with us in our every breath. The only good thing about it was the fact that it was so bad it was acting like smelling salts on my tired brain. I could again feel myself going dizzy and beginning to blank out. Luckily the stench did not follow us all the way to Mui Ne Beach; it would have been impossible to sit and relax in that hideous smell.

We had arranged to meet Pete at a hotel along the beach but by the time we arrived it was completely full up so we had to carry further on down the road to find another one with a vacant room. We had to hope that we would meet up with Pete again tomorrow or at a later date. As we were cycling along a guy on a moped pulled up alongside of us and said that he owned a hotel with good clean beach huts. We told him to lead on but not too fast else we couldn’t keep up with him. As we pulled to a stop in the hotel compound Rach spotted Pete eating his dinner in the open air restaurant. We got off Cybil and I walked like a crippled cowboy over to him and flopped down in a chair at his table. It was 7.30pm; we had been on the road for fourteen long hard hours and I was gagging for a cold beer.

What on Earth was I putting my body through? I was totally shattered. As I have already said: I wanted to test my strength, mind and ability to see if I was capable of exerting myself to the limit and I think that day proved that I could do almost anything if I set my mind to it?

By the time we were showered and had eaten we could laugh about the days hardships even if we did have to have an early night. Pete had again thought that we would not arrive until the next day and was as surprised as we were at us making the day’s target. He had also missed the turn to Mui Ne Beach and had ended up taking the same route into Phan Tiet as we did. He was also directed around the houses to get back on to the right road. He was also turned away from the hotel we had chosen and as he was cycling along to the next hotel the owner of this hotel had pulled up alongside him and coerced him in. What a coincidence?

At least Rach and I could now spend our first wedding anniversary relaxing and sunning ourselves on a beautiful white sandy beach. After all, I was beginning to forget that our entire trip was meant to be a holiday.

The next morning the grounds man who was watering the newly laid turf around the beach huts rudely awoke us at 4.45am! The water tap he was using was right outside our door. An early morning wakeup call was just what we needed! We had breakfast and were walking along the beach by 7.30am thanks to him. The postal addresses in Mui Ne Beach are designated by how far along the road in km the buildings are. So a typical address would be: Bamboo village resort, Mui Ne Beach, Km 11.8. The rest of the day was spent lying on sun-beds and spoiling our selves rotten with anything we fancied.

Again the next morning the same guy watering the grass awoke us at the crack of dawn but it wasn’t as bad as we had booked three motorbike taxis too pick us up at 6.30am to take us along the coast to do some sightseeing so we had to be up early anyway. It was an exhilarating ride to the other end of the bay past rows and rows of palm trees every now and again glimpsing the sea through the trees to the right. We were on our way to the famous huge expanse of sand dunes behind Mui Ne fishing village. As soon as we pulled up and got off the bikes we were surrounded by children trying to hire us the use of some sheets of plastic to toboggan down the dunes on. We declined the offers and took a walk around the dunes; it was already getting hot and it was still early. As we were the first tourists of the day and the only one’s there at this time, the children followed us around. They continued to pester us to rent their pieces of plastic. Once again we found ourselves in a situation of pure beauty; the way the wind had sculpted and rippled the sand was fantastic and already the different shapes and depth of the shadows in the low morning sun were changing. The virginal yellow sand was in bright contrast with the brilliant blue of the cloudless sky. We just wanted to enjoy the moment but it was ruined by the constant cries of “give me, give me, give me”.

Back on the taxies we stopped at the village to take some photos of the fishing fleet moored in the bay down below us. The whole area was a hive of activity; most of the trawlers were painted in bright blues or yellows, hundreds of them moored in the shelter of the bay. Fishermen were going to and fro from ship to shore in rowing boats or round basket boats. Groups of people lined the shore folding and mending their nets, getting ready for their next trip out to sea. Then we were back on the back of our taxies and heading for the Fairy springs. We discovered it was just a shallow stream that you walk up to its source. This was where fairies are meant to hang out. We told the three taxi drivers that we would pay them for the whole day and that we would walk the 8km back along the beach to our accommodation. They thought we were totally crazy and it took us some time to convince them that it wasn’t that far and we could manage the 6km walk up stream and back also. We had just stepped into the stream after taking off our sandals when a young boy appeared out of one of the houses next to the stream and asked to be our guide. There was only one-way there and back “why on earth would we need a guide?” I asked, but he followed us anyway. The stream flowed through sand dunes and a few fields bringing with it different kinds of silt which made interesting formations and patterns in the surrounding rocks. It was a beautiful walk paddling through the clear cool water up to its source and back. On both sides of the bank we were surrounded and shaded by green fertile bushes and the overhanging palm trees.

The walk back along the beach to our hotel was interesting. Two men were fishing from the shoreline with a big net. While one of them stayed on dry land the other would walk in to the sea as far as he could unfurling the net in an arc as he went until he was back on the beach. Then they both pulled the net back to shore to see if they had caught anything. The time we saw them pull the net in, it was empty. Further on, as we passed a small hamlet tucked in among the trees, there was a group of people sorting out their catch from their net. As we passed by an old woman threw a shell fish at us hitting Rachael on the back of her leg; we have no idea why and we didn’t stop to find out. She was upset with us for some reason or other?

Mui Ne - Xuan Loc (120 km)

The next morning, bright and early (5.30am), we were on the road again. The hotel owner and his wife waved us off with four small bottles of water, an apple and a dragon fruit. All well received gifts that meant a lot to us. Again we knew that we were in for a hard day but hopefully it would be the penultimate day as we would soon be at the end of our journey. After the first kilometre we had to get off and push up a little hill; this set the precedence for the rest of the day. We rode in to Phan Thiet and as we turned off the Mui Ne road we looked for the signpost that we had missed a couple of days earlier but there wasn’t one. No wonder we went the wrong way!

Just south of Phan Thiet the highway leaves the coast for good and turns east towards Ho Chi Minh City. The countryside had changed yet again; this time into green rolling hills littered with fields of dragon fruit in different stages of ripeness; some with huge white flowers with bright yellow centres.

Air was again leaking slowly out of the front tube so we stopped at the next Ze Dap place we came to. A man on crutches with only one leg came out of the little hut that he had built on the side of the road. Using a petrol run air compressor he blew up all three tyres for us. While he worked he placed the stump of his missing leg in the handle of one of his crutches so he could use both hands as he worked.

We cycled through one village where every house was ancient and built out of wood with the most beautiful and intricate craftsmanship. The balconies, window shutters and eves were breath taking. The problem being that most were now falling in to disrepair and needed some tender loving care to restore them to their former glory. The whole village should be listed and saved for future generations to enjoy and cherish.

I was feeling faint on and off again and was finding it tough going, my legs were about at the end of their cycling days. I had to push down on my knees with my free hand to try to get some extra power to the wheels.

Fifteen or so kilometres out of Xan Loc a drunk on a bike accosted us. It was a good job he was riding his bike because he was too pissed to walk! He had a bottle of whatever he was drinking in the wicker basket strapped on the front of his bike. The lunatic was swerving all over the place trying to talk to us while he swung his free arm in great arcs as he shouted and slurred away to us in Vietnamese. Because of his unsteadiness on his bike he was making me pull the break on and off slowing down and speeding up trying not to have a collision with him. He was just starting to annoy me when I felt Cybil starting to speed up. I looked behind and there was a guy of about thirty or so on a motorbike. He was smiling at me and had his foot on the rack pushing us along. There was no way I was going to argue with him. With or without brakes I needed all the help that I could get. Again I was about on my last legs. He was my hero in shining armour and ended up pushing us all the way to Xuan Loc. I was still drifting in and out of consciousness and had to keep shaking my head to stop myself from fainting. It was a surreal feeling: as if I was on a giant games console playing a car racing game whizzing past people, other bikes and even overtaking one or two cars. He spoke a little English and asked where we were staying that night? I told him the name of the hotel and he said he knew of it.

As we were entering the outskirts of Xuan Loc and beginning to go slightly down hill I tried to tell him that the brakes were not good. I don’t know if he understood me or not because he just smiled at me and didn’t slow down one bit. It was a good job that I was seeing all this through blurred eyes as it got quite hairy when the traffic started to build up and dusk was quickly falling upon us. The guy was a maniac; he didn’t slow at all. We were over taking everything in our path. On cross roads Lorries, cars and Cylos were crossing from left to right and right to left. Once or twice I had to swerve around vehicles in our way. We would both go our separate ways around the obstacles and then we would rejoin each other on the other side, connected again by his foot. It was like a scene from the Keystone Cops. Sometimes we were mere inches away from cars coming towards us. I was praying that they could see us ok with no lights on Cybil. It was all I could do to try to keep focused trying to see where we were going. Then all of a sudden it was all over and we were outside our hotel. I turned to thank my hero but he just smiled and rode off into the night. Rach had again enjoyed the ride and said that it was “an exhilarating and thrilling ride but scary at the junctions”. I was starting to worry about her. She could not be normal: enjoying that kind of ride! I hoped she was not thinking of turning it in to some kind of extreme sport.

As we were checking in at the Hoa Binh hotel Pete walked in through the main doors. He could not believe we had beaten him to the hotel. In the low evening light he had cycled past it and gone right into town before getting directions back to the hotel. The hotel was another wonderful building that must have been something special in its day? It was three storeys tall and set in its own huge grounds with manicured hedges and gardens. It was also surrounded by a man made moat stocked with coy carp. The interior was covered in wood with lovely carvings etched in to it but it was so dark and dismal that it would have been a brilliant setting for a horror story. The first floor corridor had big communist paintings depicting big strong peasants working for the greatness of the cause all along it. Pete’s room was up there; ours was out the back over a short bridge in the middle of a small lake surrounded by water lilies and yet even more coy carp.

The hotel was not serving food for some reason or other so we found a small café just down the road from the hotel and had one of the best Vietnamese meals we had eaten in the whole country. After eating, we all had an early night. Tomorrow, all being well, we will be in Ho Chi Minh City and it will be the parting of ways for Cybil and us.

Xuan Loc - Ho Chi Minh City (80 km)

Even the best-laid plans go astray. Not that ours was a difficult plan: we would cycle on and wait for Pete to catch us up before eating breakfast. Then we would cycle the rest of the 80km together stopping off at the Ho Chi Minh City sign for photos. What could be easier?

By 6.30am I was again covered in sweat; it was scorching hot even at this early hour. Around eight we had to stop and get some food inside our bodies for energy. I pulled in under the shade of a big tree on the opposite side of the road and as usual, as soon as we had ground to a standstill, a boy on a bike stopped to watch us eat from a safe distance. He just stood and stared at us without speaking or smiling. Even when we smiled at him he could not make up his mind as to whether or not we were friendly. As we were eating a woman came up to us. Hanging from her neck was a board full of little knick-knacks: lighters, badges, razor blades and that sort of thing. Nothing of use to us at all, not unless she had an electric motor for a bicycle and I couldn’t see one on her board! We declined her offers to buy something from her. She would not take no for an answer and was so persistent I had to turn my back on her. As I turned away from her I caught sight of the back of Pete pedalling on down the road. He must have sped past us while a lorry was going past and with the woman getting in the way we had missed each other. I tried shouting him but my voice was drowned out by the noise of the highway. We jumped back on Cybil and tried in vain to catch up with him, hoping that he would stop for a rest soon. As it was, we did not see him again until we reached the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City.

We passed mile upon mile of rubber tree plantations; no doubt a legacy left over from the French occupation. Each tree was placed on an exact spot, an equal distance from its neighbour to form straight rows from every angle you looked. The terrain was the same as the previous day: more rolling hills and again we had to do quite a lot of pushing. Any energy that I had left had long since abandoned me and again I wasn’t feeling too good. We cycled through the outskirts of Bien Hoa: a large horrible industrial town about 30km north east of Ho Chi Minh City. The place was full of motor repair shops and large factories belching thick black and grey smoke into the atmosphere. We stopped at a roadside stall nestled amongst some trees to drink some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and to get a bite to eat.

We were back in the saddle and out on the highway for hopefully the last leg of our journey on Cybil. The traffic was becoming heavier but at least the surface was smooth and with every pedal turned we were reaching our goal. The closer we got, the stronger my body seamed to get. I must have been generating a lot of adrenalin? I even started to pick up a bit of speed as we cycled through the toll booth with a big sign above it welcoming us to Ho Chi Minh City (cycles go free). A couple of men in uniform shouted and waved for us to stop for a chat (I think?) but I knew that if I stopped now I would not get my legs turning again. On we went into the hustle and bustle of the capital of what used to be South Vietnam; we had made it. We were at last in the city of Saigon.

As usual in built up areas, Rachael was map reading. She directed us to the hotel on the first attempt: a massive feat in itself. Each time we stopped at traffic lights people would look at us as if we were crazy and for all they and I knew we were!

End of the journey

Pete was waiting for us in the hotel lobby when we arrived. He had been there for a couple of hours and had showered and rested by the time we got there. While we posed he took some photos for our album of two very thin and healthy looking ex-cyclists. I could not see us going anywhere near a bike again for a very long time and I think Rachael would have left me if I even mentioned going for another ride. We had cycled and pushed Cybil the Cyclo 1728km through all kinds of weather and road conditions. It had taken us four long weeks, nineteen days actual cycling; apart from feeling tired I had never been fitter. But what an experience it had been!

We now must be the holders of at least three world records? I cannot think of any other reason why anybody would go as fast on a Cyclo, as we did coming down Ngang Pass. So I claim that we are the fastest people ever to ride on a Cyclo. Even though we did not mean to go anywhere near that fast we were luckily enough to survive the experience. The second is the longest distance ever pedalled on a Cyclo in one trip. Cyclo drivers must pedal a huge number of miles over a lifetime but never in one go. 
The third must go to Rachael and that must be the longest passenger ride ever in a Cyclo. This trip was never going to be repeated and never going to be forgotten by us. It was very hard at times and I nearly gave up on numerous occasions but now we had finished it was all worthwhile. As a way of seeing and travelling through a country there can be no other way to beat it. However from now on we would have to cope with using more usual types of transport: having to travel by timetables and rely on other people to get us from A to B. It was going to take some getting some used to, but at least we would not have to pedal or push Cybil up and down hills anymore.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Everywhere you look in Ho Chi Minh City you can see the French influence: from the many beautiful buildings to the tree lined avenues and quarters. The French were in Vietnam from the mid 1800’s and remained there until the Viet Minh defeated them in 1954. Next came the Americans and after the division of the country, Saigon as it was then called (and still is by most of its inhabitants) became the capital of South Vietnam. The Americans stayed until 1975 until they also went the way of the French. I remember watching on the television news: helicopters taking off from the roof of the embassy, full of terrified American citizens. I also remember seeing those lucky enough to be able to buy their passage on to the waiting ships moored just offshore while the unlucky masses stared through the locked gates watching as their promised futures faded away before their eyes.

The population of Ho Chi Minh City is officially five million but the figure is nearer seven million. Much of this is made up from illegal residents. After the liberation of the south thousands of southerners were sent to re-education camps in the country, never to return to the city. Over the years a lot of them and their offspring have sneaked back into the city but they are unable to register for official residence permits so are not counted on any government census. Many of them end up sleeping rough on the streets. Because of the lack of public toilets this causes big health issues. On one or two of the streets it’s safer to walk in the road rather than try to tiptoe around the piles of human waste. Everybody has to go somewhere.

The city is 80 km inland from the coast as the crow flies and is Vietnam’s largest city and river port. It covers an area of 2,030sq km and is divided into twelve urban and six rural districts. Our hotel was in the Pham Ngu Lao area of the city. There are a lot of hotels and backpackers bars in the narrow streets so it makes for quite a cosmopolitan area. The downside is that while you are in the cafes and bars you are pestered by postcard and counterfeit booksellers every five minutes. The booksellers carry huge piles of photocopied books bound together with string. Even if they don’t have the book you want they carry a catalogue containing hundreds and hundreds of other titles. They promise to get the book of your choice back to you in a couple of hours.

We decided to go and see the Reunification Palace. I remember watching on television as two tanks of the 203rd tank brigade burst through the presidential wrought-iron gates and into the grounds of the palace. The date was 30th April 1975 and if anyone was still in doubt about the outcome of the war since the Americans left. It was definitely over now. South Vietnam was no more and once again Vietnam was whole. The palace hasn’t changed a lot since that day and has now become a museum. Ngo Viet Thu (who studied architecture in Paris) designed it after the old palace was bombed by the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1962. The new building was completed in 1966. I have to say it is not a very pleasing building to look at. In between the stone columns are lots more little columns designed to look like joints of bamboo trees. There is little of interest inside the building either, just a lot of clean empty rooms.

As usual Rach had decided to go to bed early and Pete and I were sitting outside a bar watching the world go by when we got talking to a group of expatriates. There were a couple of loud Americans, an Aussie and an Englishman from somewhere in London. The English guy said he was a teacher. Pete and I imagined all his Vietnamese students talking in a cockney accent. But why this guy lived and worked in Saigon I will never know? He was a complete and utter knob head. He hated everything Vietnamese and would say the most stupid things. Some of his classics were “Yeah mate they are not like us are they? I mean we are educated aren’t we?” or “we taught them everything didn’t we? Where would they be without us whites?” and “they are scum”. I did not want to start an argument and knew that trying to reason with this bigot would be a complete waste of time so we drank up and moved away as soon as we could.

The next day we visited the War Remnants Museum. The name was changed from the American War Crimes Museum so that it did not offend any American tourists who should wish to go and see the other side of the story about the war. Over three million Vietnamese people were killed in the war and more than four million were injured. Compare this to the figure of fifty eight thousand American dead and what was it for? Nothing! They (the Americans) were trying to save the Vietnamese people from the communists. In mid 2002 I watched on television as one of America’s highest ranking officers told the world that with hind sight the war was a waste of time and money and that America had no business being in South East Asia in the first place. The museum is popular with western tourists and it is good to hear the Vietnamese version of the story. Especially after years of American war machine propaganda and Hollywood films. Many of the photos show the war atrocities in graphic detail but I found myself being drawn to them so that I could try to understand the men in the pictures. What had made normal young men commit these hideous crimes? Both sides committed atrocities and to see a picture showing four smiling G.I.’s crouching down posing for the camera with the bodies of two Vietnamese soldiers in the foreground while one of the G.I.’s is holding their decapitated heads in his hand it makes you wonder even in war how one human being can commit such a crime against another? There are a lot of similar pictures in the museum from prisoners being thrown out of helicopters to the massacre at My Lai. They even have a room full of photos showing the horrific deformed babies caused by the spraying of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants over the country. Other people must have been pondering the same question as you could have heard a pin drop any second of the three or so hours we spent there. 
The strange thing is that the Vietnamese people do not hate the Americans. In fact they love anything to do with America. It will not be long before there are McDonald’s on every corner in Vietnam. If America had invested in Vietnam the three hundred and fifty two billion dollars it spent on waging war with the country Vietnam would be a completely different place. It would probably have a booming economy and a healthy population by now?

You would have thought that giving Cybil away would be an easy thing to do but it wasn’t. I had asked the manager of our hotel if he could write me a note in Vietnamese stating that I had a Cyclo to give away. We wanted to give her away to somebody who could hopefully earn a living in some way with her. If we gave her to an alcoholic he would probably sell her cheap for the price of a bottle or two. We couldn’t give her to someone who was too old or had a limb missing. I had been looking ever since arriving in Ho Chi Minh City and had not found anyone that I thought suitable for Cybil. That was until we were walking back to the hotel from the War Remnants Museum and I spotted this guy searching through a pile of rubbish. I thought that if he needed to search rubbish to feed himself and probably his family too, maybe just maybe he might be able to make use of a Cyclo? Even if he did sell her at least it would benefit him in the short term. I walked up to him and showed him the note I had in my pocket. I watched as his eyes lit up as he read it and a big uneasy smile covered his face. I beckoned for him to come with us and off we all set to walk back to the hotel. I tried to speak with him as we went but we could not understand each other and I think he was in shock a little bit. When we arrived back at the hotel his face was a picture as he saw Cybil for the first time; he had a huge smile from ear to ear and his eyes sparkled. I was sure then that I had chosen the right person. I lifted the seat to show him where the pump, grips and puncture repair kit were kept but they were gone: stolen by (I’m sure) one of the other Cyclo drivers who I had seen riding Cybil the previous day before without asking us for our permission.

Giving Cybil away

I asked the hotel manager if he could write out a receipt stating that I had given Cybil to this guy just in case someone thought that he had stolen her. We then shook hands and had a photo taken. Then he was off down the street on Cybil still not believing his luck. For me it was a sad sight to see Cybil go and a little tear welled up in my eyes as she turned the corner and disappeared from sight. But at least we hoped she went to a good home, who knows? We didn’t even get his name or address if he had one?

50 km from central Ho Chi Minh City are the legendary tunnels of Cu Chi. At the height of the war the tunnels were said to stretch from the Cambodian border to Saigon and were several stories deep. They were built over a period of twenty-five years beginning in the late forties and included field hospitals, schools, bomb-making factories, living accommodation and kitchens with specially built chimneys to disperse the smoke from their cooking fires so as not to give away their position. The tunnel network made communications possible between the V.C. held villages and enclaves and even let them mount attacks when and where they wanted to. Even inside the perimeter fence of the US military base at Dong Du and the large fire base at Cu Chi which was actually built on top of an existing tunnel system. The area soon became known as the Iron Triangle and is one of the most bombed and devastated areas in the history of warfare and again you can still see the huge B52 bomb craters littering the place. At the Ben Dinh tunnel complex we were ushered in to a classroom to be shown a map of the surrounding area with the tunnel network and American bases on it and then we watched a short video on the history of the tunnels before being lead out across the road and in to the bush to see the tunnels for ourselves. On the way the first person in our group set off a trip flare by walking in to a trip wire that had been strung across the track to catch out the unsuspecting tourists, oh how we laughed. We also stopped to see if we could detect a trap-door that had been camouflaged to blend in to the surrounding jungle. No one in our group spotted it even though we were only inches away from it. Only a few hundred metres of the 200km tunnel network are open to the public and they have been widened to accommodate the larger western tourists but you still get the feeling of the hell it must have been living and fighting in them for years on end. They stand as a testament to the courage and perseverance of the Vietnamese People. At the height of the war the tunnels were up to four levels deep. Most of the earth removed from the construction was used to fill in bomb craters or poured in to the Son Sai Gon (Saigon River) so that it would not give away the positions of the tunnels. We were glad to get out of the stifling heat inside the fifty or so meter stretch that we crawled through. We were asked if we wanted to fire an AK47 or other weapons on the firing range (for a small fee of course) but all of our party declined the offer so we boarded the bus to take us on to the Cao Dai Temple Complex at Tay Ninh.

The Cao Dai temple is known as the Holy See and was built in 1927. The massive building with its outrageous mixtures of colour: pinks, yellows and blues is a shock to the eyes. Cao Dai embraces a mixture of Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; not to mention Confucianism and Taoism as well. The structure of the priesthood is loosely based on the Roman Catholic Church apart from the so called “Earth bound messengers” who are worshiped as saints. These include famous people such as Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Shakespeare and Victor Hugo. There are an estimated 2.5 million Cao Dai followers in Vietnam; they all believe in one deity and practice meditation and vegetarianism.

Males must enter the temple through the right hand door and females to the left. All footwear has to be left outside of the temple. If the outside of the temple is a shock to the eyes the inside is a full on assault. It’s as if you have entered a giant sweet shop and everything you can see is made out of candy. The outside walls are painted with a bright yellow. A few metres inside of these stand two rows of great pink pillars with black and white dragons curling themselves around them. These split the great hall into three. Spaced equally in between the pillars are red poles with bright yellow parasols on their tops. Some have what look like lampshades; these are decorated in reds, blues and yellows. The ceiling is painted to look like the sky: blue with white clouds dotted all over it. At the end of the middle section stands the huge ever seeing Divine Eye: the focus of worship.

Just before the service starts all the tourists are ushered upstairs and on to the balcony that surrounds the temple so that they can get a bird’s eye view of the proceedings. There are four services held a day. We were at the midday one and at the stroke of twelve the Cao Dai worshippers quietly flowed into the hall. The priests wear white robes and a white pointed hat similar to the robes of the Ku Klux Klan; on the hat is embroidered a picture of the All Seeing Eye. The other worshipers are adorned in red, blue or yellow robes. Once in place they kneel down and begin to chant while gongs and other instruments keep the time. It is a sight to behold ruined only by the lack of respect shown by tourists falling over each other to get a good photo of the proceedings.        

It was Pete’s last night in Vietnam so of course that was an excuse to have some more beers. Tomorrow he flies to Bangkok to cycle around the north of Thailand. We hope to meet up with him again in Laos. Since meeting we have become good friends and have shared some good adventures. The next morning we waited with Pete until it was time for him to go. If saying goodbye to Cybil was hard it was a lot harder to say goodbye to Pete but at least we knew, what ever happened, we would all meet up again somewhere down the line.

This was also our last day in Vietnam as we would be flying out the next day on to other adventures. We spent the rest of our time in Saigon walking around the Saigon of Graham Green’s novel The Quiet American: down and around the Rue De Castanet now called Dong Khoi. We walked past the Continental Hotel full of wealthy people on business or expensive holidays, up to Notre Dame Cathedral and the fantastic building that is the Saigon Post Office.

Then that was it. Our time in Vietnam had come to an end. We came not knowing what to expect but found a truly wonderful and diverse country. It is full of amazing people and places; a proud country with an exceptional past and hopefully an exceptional future. A country we will definitely visit again one day soon.