Hanoi held us for almost a week.  A combination of comfortable lodging, crunchy baguettes and travel fatigue conspired to keep us pushing back our departure “just one more day” again and again and again.

Hanoi's hard to leave when you've got everything you need at your fingertips.

While much time was spent holed up indoors, I did venture out for a walk around West Lake, Hanoi’s largest:  17 kilometers of shoreline to be exact. Leaving the guidebook stashed in the panniers and just wandering around is my favorite way to explore any city.   And with the shore as my guide, getting lost seemed highly improbable. Mostly I met a lot of fisherman.  Friendly ones who invited me over to have a look at their catch.

I also stumbled across Quán Thánh Temple where locals were busy preparing for Tet (the lunar new year).  Many were presenting the Buddah with offerings of money, sweets and even booze… praying for health, happiness and luck in the new year.  Others were lining up for scholars to pen good wishes for 2012.

In theory, Tet should be an interesting time to visit Vietnam—get an inside look at the celebrations; see colorful local life, etc.  The stuff guidebooks rave about.

Reality is a bit different.

The streets of Hanoi were thronged with shoppers as we inched our way out of the city.  Think Christmas Eve at the Mall of America.  People zipped along with kumquat trees strapped to the back of motorbikes and bicycles.  The deep orange fruit trees—which symbolize fertility– added a splash of color to the dreary winter scenery, but the overloaded  machines were just one more road hazard to contend with.

As we cycled further along Highway 6 towards the Laos border, water buffalo on the road posed a bigger worry.  And drunks.

Dangerous Times

From what we observed on the roads, Tet is little more than a three day drunk.  Cycling is relatively safe until about mid-morning, since everybody’s still snug in bed nursing a hangover. But by about 10 AM, revelers have sufficiently recovered to start downing moonshine all over again.   Packs of youth on scooters blaze down the highway, popping wheelies and weaving dangerously across the center line.  Teenage girls hold on tight and giggle at the antics. Apparently traffic statistics during Tet 2012 showed some improvement over previous years.  Just 167 road accidents across the country  killing 137 people and injuring 148 others.

 

It's early, so the roads are still safe.

Personal Expereinces

We witnessed several crashes and even more smashed helmets on the side of the road.  In fact, we even had a crash of our own.  A minor one. I’d pulled up beside Eric to bemoan the risky riding practices of a group of kids who had just roared past.  As we chattered away, another pack of boys came blazing up from behind and we ended up smashing into each other.  I went crashing into a cement pylon and tumbling down a slope.  It hurt like hell, but all I had to show was big bump and some nasty scrapes.  And yes, I was wearing my helmet at the time.

The biggest concern of all

Time not spent dodging drunks, was devoted to tracking down food.  For non-meat eaters, Vietnam poses enough problems, but during Tet the difficulties reached new heights. [vsw id=”euPqrtMqDug” source=”youtube” width=”637″ height=”514″ autoplay=”no”]

 

No, I'm really not interested in feasting on Fido.

Most businesses come to a grinding 3-day halt during the Lunar New Year.  Even hotels close as workers head back to their home village to spend time with relatives.

Food is always an issue with us, as it is with most cyclists.  Fortunately, we still had a few vegetables that we’d been carting around since leaving the capital.  On day two of Tet a few small shops opened back up, but all that was available was junk food.   We loaded up on choco-pies and sweeties plus a few packets of instant ramen noodles which pumped us with enough energy to climb the grueling hills.

No exaggeration this time

I know the word grueling finds its way into most of my blog posts, but we’re not talking hyperbole this time. 9,252 meters (30,354 feet) of climbing in just under 500 kilometers.  Up and down all day long day after day all the way to Dien Bien Phu.

 

So steep and so many climbs! I love' em anyway!

 

The lush highlands of Vietnam are very different from urban areas and coastal regions.  First off, the vast majority of the highlanders belong to one of 15 different ethnic groups.  Few ethnic Vietnamese live in the mountains where living conditions are often harsh.  Subsistence farming is a way of life for most hill tribes.  Women can often been seen weaving brightly colored fabric and men toiling away in the fields with their water buffalo.

Homes are simple, usually built of wood or even mud huts in very poor areas.  Many hill tribe people live in stilt houses, with humans on top and animals living below.

One night we even got the chance to sleep in one of these quaint dwellings.  Regular blog readers can imagine the scene:  the sun is sliding behind the mountains, we’ve got what looks to be a long, steep climb ahead of us and there appears to be no place to sleep.  Every inch of land in the highlands is occupied either by animals, people or crops.

I’m slogging away, gently cursing under my breath…I knew we should have stopped at the last village.  We’re gonna be climbing this @#$#$ mountain till midnight.

“Stop , Stop,” I hear Eric bellowing, “there’s a hotel!” WHAAAAAT? No way, a hotel, out here in the middle of no where in the heart of the hill country?  Impossible, I wail.

But Eric’s right.  There is a hotel, of sorts.

Before you start conjuring up images of clean white sheets and hot showers, let me set a few things straight.  Eric had spotted a sign announcing Nha Nghi.  Guesthouse in Vietnamese.

There was a house, one on stilts, with the animals slumbering below, that was offering accommodation to passersby.  Who might come to such a place I wondered.  Certainly no middle class Vietnamese would put up with such rustic conditions. But foreigners would.  For the “authentic” experience.

 

Simple, but good enough for us.

I climbed up a rickety ladder into a spacious room with mats for sleeping and a worn mosquito net for privacy.  The old man in charge soon appeared with heavy blankets, all wrapped up in plastic to save them from the dust.  He carefully swept out the room with and then jury-rigged lighting from the main house.  There was a certain charm to the lodgings and you certainly couldn’t complain about the price at the equivalent of around $2.50.

Later, the lady of the house cooked up our remaining vegetables (no charge, part of the rural hospitality) and we drifted off to sleep to the sounds of the animals shifting and relieving themselves below.

Another evening, we were treated to hospitality from the village health center.  The people of the mountains were some of the kindest we encountered

 

In almost every country we've cycled, we're always offered hospitality.

 

After almost a week’s riding from Hanoi, we conquered the final climb in Vietnam and rolled across the border into Laos: country 84.

 

A trip down memory lane as we return to Laos after more than 15 years.

This is a special place for us because Laos is where we met, some 15 years ago, when we were both embarking on our very first long-term travel experiences.

Back then, I would have never predicted that I’d end up devoting more than 8 years of my life to full-time travel.  Back in 1996, I thought a stint travelling in Asia was just a short break from “real life.” After my little Asia adventure, I thought I’d return to the US, get another job in corporate America and slave way until 65.

I guess there’s no way one can predict life’s twists and turns.

 

What's Next?

You can check out more of our Vietnam Photos on Flickr.

Read more bike touring tales from Asia.

Send us an email at worldbiking@gmail.com

 

Hanoi to the Highlands

13 thoughts on “Hanoi to the Highlands

  • Leah
    January 29, 2012 at 10:19 PM
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    Country 84? Unbelievable. I’ve been following you since South America and the photos and stories just keep getting better. I”m inspired to go bike touring, now if I can just convince my husband.

    Reply
    • World Biking
      January 30, 2012 at 6:20 PM
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      Thanks for being a faithful follower…feels good to be appreciated! Hope you’ll set off soon on your own bike tour.

      Reply
  • arby
    January 30, 2012 at 5:09 AM
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    I loved the linked Flickr set, the flower bicycle, the fisherman long shot, and far too many other good ones to call out. Thanks for sharing with us stick-in-the-muds. rb

    Reply
    • World Biking
      January 30, 2012 at 6:19 PM
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      Thanks for the encouragement. I’m working hard to become a better photographer and your kind words give me hope.

      Reply
  • nicolaus
    February 5, 2012 at 2:35 AM
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    Hanoi reminds me of 1995 in some small hotel watching the South African Rugby World Cup final, with the whole Mandela effect. One of the reasons my son is called Nelson. Did part of what you did in the hills, but with local transportation (4 wheels). Good memories.
    Hope you will enjoy Laos, I remember it as super laid back, a world of difference with Vietnam.
    Love you pictures and new video add-ons. Epic traffic in the last China video, not for the faint hearted.

    Should you go through BKK in the next 4 weeks, my wife is there and has a large house – but outside of town, kind of half way from the old airport and town – where you can chill if you wish. Let me know.

    Enjoy # 84!…and the warmth, -10C here in Geneva.

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 10, 2012 at 6:43 PM
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      Thanks, Nicolaus, for the invitation.

      We’re really loving relaxed Laos, as you say another world from the chaos of China and Vietnam,.

      Reply
  • Adele Arthur
    February 5, 2012 at 11:28 AM
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    Memories of surviving on mandarins and dry biscuits during Tet when we were in Vietnam.

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 10, 2012 at 6:41 PM
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      Guess you can relate to a growling stomach!

      Reply
  • Joel Bauer
    February 7, 2012 at 6:17 AM
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    Hello,

    Je suis Joël Bauer, un ami d’Eric.
    On était copain à Obernai.
    Vous aviez logé chez moi à Paris en 2000, je crois.
    J’ai lu votre histoire et je trouve votre parcours vraiment génial
    Mon adresse mail est Joel.stras@gmail.com

    Bon courage à tous les 2 et bonne chance!

    Joël

    Reply
  • Paul Buelterman
    February 17, 2012 at 3:54 AM
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    Eric and Amaya:

    You two are amazing. I met you in Farmington, Missouri where we spent a night together in a fire department command vehicle. I ended my bike tour in Henderson, KY, and you two just keep on rolling!

    My wife and I just finished marveling at your beautiful Viet Nam and Laos pictures. She’s apparently thinking about retiring somewhere beautiful, so she wants to know: of the 84 countries you’ve visited, which would you choose to live in for the long term, and why? Right now, we’re soaking up the sun here in Florida.

    My daughter is on her way to Thailand, where she spent a year teaching English. She biked through Viet Nam, Laos, and Thailand. She loved it there, so she’ll return soon.

    Paul B

    Reply
    • World Biking
      February 17, 2012 at 8:50 AM
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      Hey Paul,
      Your wife asks tough questions.
      Of the 84 countries I’ve visited there really aren’t many I could live in long term.
      Most places are lovely to explore but actually putting down roots somewhere new is pretty difficult.
      I’d need to be part of a community of Westerners, have access to good healthcare and ideally enjoy the local cuisine and be able to communicate in the local language.

      Climate is also key and I’m not an island person who thinks paradise can be found in the tropics. Finally, I need to live in a relatively safe country.

      South Africa is one of my favorite countries and I’d consider living there if the security situation improved.
      India might be another option, it meets all of my criteria plus I could do yoga. The only problem is that it’s a tad to crowded for my tastes.
      Morocco is nice because it’s near Europe, but it’s perhaps a too conservative country for me.
      Brazil and Argentina are both countries I feel comfortable in, but they’re expensive to travel in and out of which is a major drawback.

      That leaves the good ‘ole USA and Western Europe! Great choices but a little costly.

      Reply
  • Jono
    June 3, 2015 at 1:46 PM
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    Hey guys,

    I’m heading out to do the original Ho Chi Minh trail, starting in Dec. What time of year did you do this trip, as I see you had quite a bit of warm gear on?

    Cheers

    Jono

    Reply
    • World Biking
      September 5, 2015 at 1:09 PM
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      We were in northern Vietnam in December and it was cold up in the highlands. Down south should be warm enough.

      Reply

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