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VIETNAM - V FOR VACATION

Febuary 14th, 2017 in Bangkok, Thailand

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Just like entertaining China had been like stepping into a whole new world, rolling into Vietnam would prove no different. However, this time the big difference arose from there being so many other tourists! We had arrived in Vietnam via the Ha Giang province and even though the region is not on the main tourist route, the change was immediate. The small border-town of Ha Giang had a hostel packed full of western tourist and we noticed a dramatic increase in spoken English among the locals. Pleased by being able to communicate again we took this a good sign; a sign that things weren't going to be particularly hard from here on.  

After being on our own for so long, having so many westerners around felt a little bit strange. There was no longer anything abnormal about our presence. We were suddenly just two in the crowd, just like all the other tourists. It was both a relief and a bit of a disappointment; we were not special anymore...

So we made the best of it and went all in on being ordinary tourists. Leaving our bicycles at the hostel, we rented an motorcycle to efficiently/lazily explore the rolling Vietnamese countryside for the next three days. 

We rode the so called Dõng Vãn loop that took us up on winding roads between karst mountains. After a somewhat late start, followed by an hour going in the wrong direction, we started the actual route in the afternoon of the first day. But with a actual motor underneath us, a late start was not such a big deal. A pass that normally would have taken us half a day to climb was now over in less than an hour. So easy! Although, perhaps not as fulfilling... 

Later that day we joined up with some other motorcyclists from the hostel in Ha Giang. Discussing the day over dinner, it became clear that we've become quite the scenery-snobs over the last nine months. There is no doubt that these roads had taken us through some beautiful landscapes, but by now, we've gotten so used to this type of scenery, we sometimes can't see the forest for the trees. 

On the second day we, quite literally, couldn't see the forest nor the trees as rain and fog alternated throughout the day. Not doing any of the physical work ourselves, we realised how much body heat one produces while bicycling. Sitting still while going 30 to 50 km/h through pouring rain is absolutely freezing! And a bit boring… When cycling, if the scenery is boring (or just not visible), you at least get the satisfaction of feeling your body working and accomplish something. But on motorcycle you don't even have that. 

On the third day however, the rain stopped and the fog cleared. Low-hanging clouds now clinged to the mountain tops in every direction, mesmerizingly fluffy and dangerously distracting while driving. See, not all snobs! 

On the way back to Ha Giang we stopped for coffee at one of the many viewpoints and came across something that would come to be typical of Vietnam. This shack, in the middle of nowhere, that looked like a bunch of 10-year-olds had built it from scrap wood, had WiFi! We knew Southeast Asia would be like this, but coming from China and it's very limited internet (in every sense of the word), we felt like starved children reaching an all-you-can-eat buffet. 

When we returned to Ha Giang, we got back on our bicycles and headed for Hanoi. There is no better way to truly appreciate how populated an area is than trying to find a good place to pitch a tent...

Five minutes after we pitched our tent by a river, well hidden from the road and any houses (or so we thought), the owner of some nearby boats popped up. Thankfully, he didn't mind us camping there (they never do). Later that night we were woken up by a motorcycle delivering takeouts to a place across the river and the next morning we were visited by even more locals. It was getting all too clear to us that the number of camping days we could expect to have in Vietnam (and the rest of Southeast Asia) were going to be limited. 

Getting into Hanoi was, as expected, quite a traffic-chaos-extravaganza. After zigzagging our way through hundreds of motorcyclists, we finally arrived at our hostel in the old city, aka the tourist area. 

Hanoi is (apparently) notorious for it's party hostels and even if we're no strangers to a couple of beers, we're definitely struggling to keep up with the millenia backpacker crowd. Saying that, we didn't turn down the free all-you-can-drink happy hour that seemed to come compulsory with any hostel in this part of the city.

We stayed in Hanoi for three days, not doing much but enjoying being in a semi-western environment again. We thought we tried Kopi luwak (coffee eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet) but googling it afterwards we learned that the probability of us getting the real stuff was basically zero… it was still nice coffee though. 

We also applied for, what should be, our final visa on this trip. Yay! We've really come to dread visa applications over the last year... This time it was Thai visas as arriving by a land meant that we would only get 15 days on arrival instead of the 30 days you get when you fly in. Not that it mattered as we already knew we would need more than 30 days in order to have time to meet up with Robin's brother who lives in Chiang Mai.

It rained every single day while we were in Hanoi and, as it would turn out, would continue to do so for the entirety of our stay in Vietnam. This quickly had Vietnam racing to the top as the wettest country we've gone through. But as the temperature constantly stayed above 15 degrees, we didn't mind it too much even if Ida did manage to land a long running cold complete with fever and a never-ending snot supply. 

Between Hanoi and Ninh Binh we had an easy but pretty awful day on Highway 1. Once in Ninh Binh, Ida was in need of some serious down time in order to fight of that cold of hers. However, we did manage to squeeze in half a day of cycling (without all our heavy bags) among the rice paddies as well as climbing (there were stairs) the mountain above the Mua cave. 

After we left Ninh Binh we stubbornly continued on Highway 1 for another two days until we reached Vinh. The highway meant easy riding and good speed but the loud traffic and non-existing scenery had our emotions running havoc and us both getting grumpier by the day. So, after Vinh we decided to take some smaller roads, cutting across to the famous (well, famous if you Google it) Hồ Chí Minh trail/highway

Getting to the trail was an adventure in its own though as each turn had us following an even smaller path than the one before it. These paths took us through little villages and flooded rice paddies as well as across rivers and streams on bridges only wide enough for pedestrians, cyclists and motorbikes. And thanks to the constant rain we had our mandatory disputes with muddy trails… 

It would all be worth it though. The Hồ Chí Minh trail was a dream come true compared to Highway 1 and China. The road quality was good and there was next to no traffic. And the traffic that did pass… didn't honk! Sure, it still rained on a daily basis but nothing could dampen our mood now that we've gotten away from heavy traffic, honking and other loud noises. 

Some parts were particularly beautiful as we rode through mountain landscapes whilst the fog rose and swept past us. It amazed us how hilly the landscape on each side of the road was while the road itself stayed almost completely flat. 

The lack of traffic and the small villages had one downside though - the food! Reaching Vietnam, we had such high expectations. After three months of Chinese noodle soup we were excited to try something new. We would quickly realise though that northern Vietnam and southern China is not that different. Apparently, all of the yummy Vietnamese food that we've tried before is from the south. Instead we got noodle soup, noodle soup and noodle soup… Some days, we would end up having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner… 

But not always. Whenever we had the chance, we would stop for Bánh mì (baguette sandwiches), something we hadn't had since Europe. Although they're on every corner in Hanoi, we only occasionally came across the little bánh mì kitchens while on the road… 

Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is filled with hundreds of cave systems and home to the world's biggest cave. It's one of few things we had planned to visit from the beginning of this trip and it could easily make out a two-week-vacation on its own. And yet, we stayed only for two nights and visited only one cave (Hang Toi cave, aka the Dark Cave). The reason for this was quite simply that we didn't have the money nor the time to explore the park like we would have wished. Instead we'll just have to come back another time… 

Our visit to the Dark Cave was a bit touristy but fun nonetheless as we started off by crossing the river by zipline followed by a short swim into the cave. Once inside, we followed a pitch dark passageway that got both narrower and narrower and muddier and muddier until it it opened up into a pool of liquid clay. There we got in touch with our inner child as we floated around in the dark, held up by the extremely buoyant mud and only lit up by our own head torch. Or that's what it would be like if it wasn't for the other 15 tourists doing the same thing…

From Phong Nha, we headed towards the Laos border. The border was only a few days away so we took it fairly slow, stopping both in the morning and the afternoon to enjoy one of the best things with Vietnam - its coffee!

Enjoying a Vietnamese coffee is a something that can’t be rushed, something we really appreciated as it gave us an excuse for longer breaks. When you order a coffee you're presented with a glass or mug with a small curious aluminium drip filter on top. The filter lazily drops coffee on a layer of condensed milk and as the minutes pass (usually between five and ten minutes) a darker coffee layer slowly appears. Stir it together and drink it lukewarm (since after waiting for up to 15 minutes there is obviously no heat left) or add ice to make it an ice coffee. We usually went with the “on the rocks” option. 

It's worth noting that the taste of the Vietnamese coffee is very different from what we are used to. The coffee is served strong (like an espresso) but has more of a chocolaty taste and the addition of condensed milk obviously makes it even sweeter. Hence, the coffee kind of resembles a frappachino more than an ordinary coffee from back home. A good thing we've become such sugar junkies on this trip… 

But what truly made Vietnam such a coffee experience was not the fact that you could get it more or less everywhere but that you could get it in so many different ways. The Vietnamese are by no means shy when it comes to mixing things up. On top of the more traditional choice of warm or iced coffee you could often choose to have it with yoghurt, ice cream, fruit (in a shake) or why not topped with a beaten egg white. It made us feel really quite boring and conservative in the way we normally drink our coffee. 

So even though the Vietnamese food wasn't as good as we had hoped for, the Vietnamese coffee made up for it. And Vietnam was, overall, a good experience even though we've had to come to terms with the fact that cycling in Southeast Asia is going to be very different from the rest of this trip. We've now reached the tourist trail and nothing feels particularly hard anymore. We no longer need to worry about where we'll find our next meal. There are no mountains or even particularly high hills to climb. It no longer feels very adventurous to be travelling by bicycle. It's a big change but not necessarily a bad one. We're just going to embrace it and enjoy the easy riding. From here on, it's vacation! 

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