It took us longer than it should have to realise that we weren’t going to have time to bike the length of Vietnam, but we’re glad it did – we would much rather see a small part of a country in detail than feel like we were rushing through. But even so, we needed to get a move on. We loved our time in Dalat, and the woman running the hotel we stayed at made it even better. When we left we gave her the nearly empty giant bottle of water which she could refill really cheaply. As an added bonus James found an extra book for our collection on the top of the wardrobe as he checked the room, bringing our total up to 13. Being 6’2″ has its advantages at times.
From Dalat we planned to ride our longest day of 145km, not much by some cyclists standards, but big for us. We figured we would be ok because we were at 1,500m and we would end the day at sea level. What we didn’t account for was the 800m we would climb and descend before we plunged down off the plateau. Or the thunder and rain that set in just after a morning coffee break and didn’t stop until we reached the valley floor. Steep climbs really slow us down and we were half heartedly waiting for the rain to stop with an extra long coffee break and lunch a little later. During lunch we donned thermal layers because it was actually pretty cold. While eating we got to watch the purchase of beef for the pho bo from the moto-butcher. The scenery was stunning, even in the rain. At times it felt like we were riding on the west coast – lush, isolated forest (and rain).
We were a little worried by the time we reached the start of the real descent at about 3 that we would struggle to make Nha Trang before dark, and being worried about time makes us cycle tourists we don’t want to be – the ones that don’t stop for photos, snap at each other and kind of forget to take the whole thing in. Even so, riding in heavy rain with limited visibility and ongoing rumbling thunder definitely added a mystical element to the ride.
We were fading pretty fast by the time we reached the bottom and eventually stopped for a huge plate of rice with meat and vegetables 70km after our lunch stop. We must have looked a right site drenched, grim faced and shovelling food into our faces without saying a word to each other. Luckily the rain had stopped, although with 40km to Nha Trang at 5pm (it gets dark at 6) we knew we’d be pushing it. Food helped, and we were in full on team time trial mode going about 30km an hour with the occasional glance back over our shoulder at the beautiful sunset over the mountains we had descended. We got to stop and properly appreciate the sunset when Bryony’s rear tyre punctured near a fuel station 20km from Nha Trang. We changed the tube under the lights and by the time we got going again it was properly dark. We both have good USB rechargeable lights, and Bryony’s new helmet comes with a rear light, but none of them were designed to give us any kind of visibility as we navigated the dark rural roads. It was only a few km to highway one, and we were in good company sharing the road with plenty of motorbikes with no lights at all. Highway one, and then the road into Nha Trang were lit and we felt completely safe amongst the night time traffic. Bryony’s rear tyre deflated again, but being 7pm we gave up and just added air and rode as fast as we could to cover distance until we had to pump it up again. The adrenaline must have kicked in, because even though we had been on the bikes for nearly 12 hours we were weaving through the traffic passing electric bikes, scooters and even taxis, all while Bryony’s tyre was deflating. We had to walk the last 100m because it was truly dead. We had arranged to stay with warm showers host Mark who manages apartments in a bay just north of the main Nha Trang township (GB apartments, if anyone wants somewhere comfortable to stay). He generously keeps a huge and well equipped apartment for cycle tourists passing through. It was brilliant to be met enthusiastically at the end of such a big day, and to share beers and talk bikes on the roof late into the night.
It turns out beer probably isn’t the best way to rehydrate and Bryony had one of the worst hangovers she’s had in a very long time in the morning. This, combined with exhaustion from the big ride, made hanging around Marks appartment a very attractive option. We spent most of the day fixing and cleaning the bikes, and talking gear with Mark. Mark bike packs on a fat bike, and has done an extraordinary amount of research (both reading and testing) to find the ultimate lightweight set up that we could only dream of. He was bit scepticle of our giant tool kit until we produced the tools needed to fix his broken spoke and when he mentioned he was worried about his bottom bracket we produced the tool to get at that as well. There are lots of different ways to tour and ultralight isn’t really for us, but we definitely appreciate the art of it (and long for it when we’re climbing steep hills).
During the day Mark’s partner helped us to book tickets on the night train to Tra Kieu (about 30km West of Hoi An). We really wanted to make it a bit further north, particularly to Hoi An which had been reccomended to us by Bryony’s uncle and a number of friends. We were also worried that if we crossed into Laos too low we would be pushed for time on our visas in the far north. For some reason we couldn’t book online and pick the tickets up at the station as we had read of others doing, but somehow Sang managed to get them to drop the tickets off at no extra cost. We made our way to the station extra early, because we weren’t really sure how getting the bikes on was going to go. Luckily we did because Bryony spent about an hour being passed between desks until she found the freight services (it’s on the right of the station and not signposted, but you can spot it by all the motorbikes in wooden crates). Then she got passed back inside because freight couldn’t be unloaded in Tra Kieu, only in the next station Da Nang, which was luckily still only 30km from Hoi An, just to the North. So with new tickets we were able to purchase a pass for our bikes (240,000 dong for the two of them). Unfortunately we had to remove the panniers – we were told to open them, so Bryony opened one thinking they wanted to check what what we were carring but the woman says (as if we were stupid) “no OPEN them”. Turns out she meant take them off. The process was confusing, but not painful and Bryony just kept smiling at everyone so they were pretty nice even though we were clueless. She even got offered a baby by one of the ticket ladies who tried to pass it out the window to her, but that would have complicated travels a bit.
With all the running back and forth we only had half an hour to wait before our train showed up on the platform at 9.30. Getting onboard with 4 panniers + backpack + handle bar bags each is not ideal, especially because we were in the more cramped hard sleeper carriage. These have 6 bunks per cabin, and since we are cheap we chose the tiniest top bunks. Luckily we arrived first and had jammed most of our things away before we were joined by a woman and her two children and a couple in their early 20s. The couple dissappeared and didn’t come back until we were asleep, but the kids were delightful. Their Mum spoke pretty good english, but was helping her kids learn by speaking to us. They liked looking through the photos Bryony has of her family and home, and we could tell them that we’d ridden our bicycles (Xe dap) from Singapore to here. We were passed hard boiled eggs, crackers and a swift nest drink. We were particularly confused by the drink and the older boy was trying his best to explain in english but got frustrated so just spoke very very fast in Vietnamese at us for a while. His Mum laughed at him and translated for us and he was quite pleased when we got it. It was a strange drink, quite nice but with a strange texture and it was kind of hard to forget that you were drinking bird spit. Once we got used to the motion of the train it wasn’t too hard to fall asleep. The only drama was when James’ shorts fell to the floor in the night so he had to get up at 3am and retrieve them hoping no one was awake to see him climbing around in his undies.
After a surprisingly good sleep we arrived in Da Nang only an hour after waking up. It was strange to cover 500km, which would take us a week to bike, in just 11 hours. We were relieved to see the bikes wheeled across to the freight area and quickly loaded them back up so we didn’t have to carry so many bags around. Panniers are great while on the bike, but are a bit cumbersome alone. After a leisurely breakfast we headed off towards the coast and south to Nha Trang. The ride started along a beautiful beach, but the road eventually wound away from the sea and we spent most of the time looking at the construction of huge hotels and resorts. It’s pretty built up the whole way to Hoi An. Even though the houses are sparse with lots of space they are still the skinny style houses we see crammed together in the cities with no windows on the outsides. Bryony’s tyre went flat again about 5km out of the city, but it was just a badly stuck patch, rather than a whole new puncture.
Bryony’s friend Wali had put us in touch with her friends Ginny and Nathan who live in Hoi An and we’d agreed to get to a coffee shop so we could use the free wifi and they could guide us back to their house. We chose the most expensive coffee place in Hoi An, but the internet worked and 10 minutes later Nathan rolled in on his scooter and we followed him home. They were amazing hosts (and not just because they had vegemite and weetbix for breakfast) for the two nights we stayed. Ginny grew up in Buon Ma Thuot, the area we would have headed after Dalat if we had more time, and hearing about it made us sad we didn’t. Nathan and Ginny oversee the manufacturing of garments that Nathans sister designs at home in New Zealand (White Chalk, if anyone is interested in NZ designed clothes). It was really interesting hearing about how the process works, as well as about living in Vietnam (as opposed to travelling through). They also have a house full of giant rolls of fabric which fascinated Bryony. The afternoon we arrived we motorpaced to the beach and spent the afternoon swimming and drinking beer at a laid back beachfront bar and were then fed home cooked spaghetti bolognaise for dinner. The next day we explored the town and market, then had a riverfront dinner and played pool at a bar in town. We borrowed one of their Marlin bikes (the granny style bikes with a seat at the back that everyone rides here) to go into town, although Bryony wasn’t nearly as trusting as a passenger as Ginny was.
We felt instantly at home with Ginny and Nathan, and it was such a nice change to be living in a house with a kitchen rather than a hotel room, but we knew we needed to get to the border so after two nights we said goodbye after a quick photo shoot in the rice paddies near their house and headed towards the steep hills along the Lao border. We left Hoi An on our 99th day of this adventure – compare the picture Nathan took of us to the one Tatyana took when we started.