The hills keep going up…

The next few posts are a bit of a catch up – even though we wrote posts we couldn’t access wordpress for our last week in Vietnam as it was blocked by the government, and during our first week in Lao we struggled to find any wifi at all.

We woke to rain in Cat Tien, but knew we had a pretty big day ahead of us so didn’t delay. Unfortunately our new friend was asleep when we checked out but his mum, who doesn’t speak any english, saw us off. She was really worried about the rain because we weren’t wearing a plastic poncho like everyone else in Vietnam does when it rains (we do have pretty good outdoor raincoats) so she kindly gave us one each. James’ arms are just too long for anything Vietnamese so we looked a bit ridiculous. Luckily the rain slowed while we ate breakfast at a tiny table in a puddle at the market, socialising with the locals, and stopped after half an hour on the road.

The morning was spent winding along a river at the edge of the Cat Tien national park, with the occasional steep hill to get around a bluff. We were surrounded by green mountains and riding through rice paddies again. After a coffee break we made our way to highway 20, which would take us all the way to Dalat. The traffic picked up, but the road was wide, smooth and had a good shoulder. The hills also increased, with more big rolling hills to grind up and coast down. We stopped for some noodles for lunch at a stall across from a resort. When it came time to pay the old man serving us asked his daughter to tell us how much (15,000d) and then he grumped at her for a bit, we think he was telling her she should have charged us more because he gestured at us a few times. The road carried on rolling all the way to Da M’Ri although we were gradually getting higher. Just after Da M’Ri though the hill started properly and we were faced with a very constant incline for the next 10km where we gained about 500m. It was slow going, and the road lost its shoulder so we were sharing a pretty tight space with some big trucks, and the low speed makes it pretty hard to hold a straight line. They gave us as much space as they could, and we are both pretty confident in traffic so we weren’t hating it, but it wouldn’t have been fun all day. The truck drivers and motorbikers were super supportive though – we got plenty of waves, thumbs up and at least two people stopped to take our photo. Just over halfway up was a rest stop so we had an icecream and chatted to a bunch of tourists who had hired motorbikes and were riding them from Hanoi to Saigon. They were heading all the way to Saigon from Dalat that day, covering what we’d done in 4 1/2 days that afternoon.

The sky turned dark just after stopping and heavy rain hit us about 1km from the top. We stopped for a quick coffee to celebrate and to rug up – once the rain stopped a fog rolled over the hills and at 850m this was actually pretty cold. The rest of the ride to Bao Loc was a glorious descent followed by another kilometer of climbing. We spotted a bicycle themed cafe near the center (with a fake zipp disc on the bike out front) and decided to stop at the next hotel so that we could check it out later. It was a pretty fancy place with a well dressed bell boy and a bicycle parking warden, but they had a room facing the mountains with broken aircon within our price range. It was glorious – nice linen, a proper duvet and a stunning view over the valley. We just wished we’d arrived earlier so we could explore a bit more. It was dark by the time we went out, but dinner was easy to find and the bicycle cafe had baileys icecream for dessert. If we weren’t planning on resting a while in Da Lat we certainly would have spent another night here.

As it was we had a big day planned – 130km to Da Lat which sits about 1,500m above sea level. We’re not particularly early starters by cycle touring standards and even when we try to leave early we still get away at about 8. We spent most of the morning climbing higher and higher along a ridge. The light was stunning and we had great views. Bryony was riding along with a silly grin on her face most of the morning because she was enjoying it so much. There were a few downhill sections, but we were definitely gaining altitude. It’s amazing how much hotter it is climbing. There is much less wind going across your body at the slower speed, so the sweat beads rather than evaporating. The road had a couple of crap sections where roadworks were underway, we hit one section through a town right on school pickup time which made it a little chaotic. We stopped at the top of a downhill section for the biggest bun bo soups we’d eaten before continuing down and down and down until heartbreakingly we were are the same height we started the day and we started the climbing all over again.

For the rest of the afternoon we gained height gradually until we reached the bottom of a very steep incline only 12km from Dalat but with 500 vertical meters left to climb. The road to this point had been a mix of nice seal with a good shoulder, mixed with some very dusty roadworks. Just before another toll road we took the older highway to the right thinking it would be quieter than the new highway, but when we joined the new road after about 10km it had a separate motorbike lane so may have been a better option. It was nearly 5 by the time we got to the bottom of the hill, so we stopped at the touristy stands outside the prem waterfalls and a hilarious lady made us a bahn mi op la. They were just shutting up for the day and there were no tourists around so they had plenty of time to laugh at our tan lines and share some bamboo stirfry with us as well. We didn’t hang around too long and set off up the very steep hill. We took the left hand option because it was slightly shorter, but it was very narrow. The rest of the traffic was mostly motorbikes and taxis, but the occasional bus cut us off on some of the corners. We climbed as fast as we could, as it gets dark very quickly at about 6pm, but we were still only doing about 5km an hour on the steep sections. It was strange whenever the road leveled out slightly we felt like we were going down hill, even though we were still climbing. Finally just on 6pm we topped out and caught our breath next to some impressed motor taxi drivers. They told us to hurry up though because some clouds were rolling on over the hill. The last few kilometers into town were mostly downhill with a stunning sunset on our left. The steets of Dalat are a bit confusing because the whole town is build on a hill, so they are windy and not in a grid pattern. We couldn’t find the hostel we planned to stay at, but found a hotel just around the corner for half the price. We were the only guests and the young woman hosting us was lovely and hilarious, although she couldn’t speak english at all. She had flash cards and showed Bryony through every room in the hotel so she could choose the best one. We wandered down to the market for dinner and noticed how much cooler it was, although the puffer jackets, wooly hats and scarves did seem like a bit of an overkill. Dalat is very popular with local tourists, with about 90% of tourists in the area being Vietnamese, so it was fun watching all the families on holiday.

dalat-hats

We finally wore the hats that James’ Mum knitted us

We took a couple of days off in Dalat, though we didn’t have any real plans. We stocked up on fruit at the market and found some muesli and yoghurt at a huge underground supermarket for breakfast. We also bought a huge 21L bottle of water – we just purify tap water while we bike because we are too thirsty to care about how it tastes. When we are resting we often don’t drink enough so this was a good challenge. There was a surprisingly delicious bakery just outside the supermarket with delicious buttery pastries. Dalat is a coffee region, so we were able to drink some really good espresso coffee at some cool cafes which made a nice change from the sweet iced coffee. We biked out of town a bit (“active recovery” although this doesn’t usually involve climbing a few hundred meters) to the civet coffee farm and cafe. We’ve read pretty bad things about force fed weasels and pretty crappy conditions, but from what we heard and saw it didn’t sound so bad. Of course it’s very easy to put on a good front for the sake of sales, and it seems a little unnecessary to add 6 months onto the process of making coffee by feeding the cherries to the civets, collecting their poo, fermenting it, cleaning it and roasting it. We tried a cup because it’s not something we see everyday and it did taste a bit different, but it was far too expensive get into in a big way and it seems unnecessary to add animals to the coffee production process. Civets are pretty adorable though.

Another new experience was visiting a barbeque restaurant. It was a huge, smoky hall full of big groups of Vietnamese guests. We visited on a Friday night and the staff were rushed off their feet, running around with pots of hot coals and slivers of marinated raw beef which we could cook and roll into rice paper wraps. We also ate steamed snails stuffed with lemongrass and minced pork, very tasty, although quite chewy. We ended up tacking our table to the end of a big family group who needed some extra space and they shared some of their home brewed whiskey with us (and we tried to imagine the response to someone taking homebrew in to a restaurant in NZ). It was a super fun night, although the big groups of roudy university students made us miss our friends at home – it would be a great place to go with a big group to try lots of different things.

On our last night we went for a beer at the 100 roofs bar which was a bar set in a regular skinny house that had been gutted and turned into a multiple level maze with nooks and crannies to sit everywhere. It’s amazing that they created such a disorientating maze in such a short space. We have no idea how they managed to make sure the place was empty after a big night.

Dalat reminded us a bit of Queenstown, with narrow winding streets up and down steep hills set around a lake (although the Dalat lake was not nearly as big as Wakatipu, and we definitely didn’t see anyone swimming). Then there were all the holiday makers wandering around in winter clothes, and the smell of the pine forests. The whole town had a really friendly atmosphere, probably because most of the people there were on holiday. It also seems to be very popular with weddings and nearly every second shop along one street was selling poofy wedding dresses.

What did we see on the roads up in the hills? Lots of churches, it seemed like more churches than temples. Instead of seeing the big shops selling giant stone buddah statues we saw giant statues of Mary. Durian were popular, and we could always tell which trucks were loaded with the fruit when they drove past. There was a huge tree outside our window in Bao Loc. Before we climbed the hill into Dalat the area became packed with lettuces. Even the school had lettuces planted outside the classrooms instead of a playground.

Things are starting to get a bit tight on our visas. When we applied in Battambang we had no idea how much we would love cycling here and opted for the cheaper 30 day visa. In hindsight we would definitely go for the 3 months. So even though we loved the hills we’re heading back down to the coast and will get a train 500km up the coast to get us closer to the Lao border we want to cross.

 

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