Days 248 – 259
The first rotation of the pedal is always the hardest. I anxiously left Haiphong with the whole of Vietnam laid before me. And only 15 days before the visa expired.
The next few days I spent hours treading tarmac, racking up the miles. From Haiphong I went to Ninh Binh, Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa, Thanh Hoa to Vinh, Vinh to Dong Hoi. 100 miles, 110 miles, 80 miles, 105 miles. Big days. I glided down the coast, gifted with a perfectly positioned tailwind. It was cold and wet, but I stayed positive. With each new day, I checked the forecast for Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh, 30C – 33C. Head south and I’d eventually warm up, I told myself.
Hotels were cheap: £3 – £5 per night. I allowed myself to indulge in the luxury of four walls, only if I cycled over 100 miles. That meant I could ride into the night as there was no need to find a campsite. The days were a blur. Wake, cycle, eat, sleep. Repeat. I often arrived at the destination just as the sun set or in pitch black. I didn’t see anything, other than the roads I cycled on. I didn’t feel like I missed much. Vietnam wasn’t a particularly intriguing place; its nature was beautiful yet tarnished by tourism and the gimmicks that come with it. So, I just sat back, turned the pedals, and enjoyed the ride.
As experienced in India, the days were made up by small interactions. For example, I stopped at a bakery, in the centre of a traditional Vietnamese town, and refuelled. I returned to the stand three times. The workers found this amusing. I’d assume I ate more food in one sitting than they would eat in a week. I was then greeted by the owner. An elderly man, who spoke no English. He appeared with a money folder. He collected money from different parts of the world (he even had a £5 note from the 50s!). It was a genuinely interesting moment. After I’d reviewed his entire collection, I gave him a 500 Indian Rupee note, which he didn’t have – a gesture of gratitude for his time. In return, not that I expected one, I was given a South Korean note. The interaction was short, language-less and random, but perfect.
The food portions were small. Tiny, in fact. As minuscule as the child-sized seats I had to sit on whilst I ate. Knees by ears, during most meals, was a daily irritation. I lived vendor to vendor, it being cheaper to eat out than cook myself. The food was good, but well below par of its twice-removed neighbour, Thailand. What Vietnam does really well, however, is coffee. Delicious surgery condensed milk is melted into a black caffeinated broth. Drip coffee at its finest.
I was 50 kms into a ride when I stopped at a coffee house. I left the bicycle outside whilst I enjoyed a five minute coffee and contemplation break. I was deep in thought and Komoot analysis when I was greeted by Til. A young German solo cyclist – riding from Hanoi to Bali. Tent shy, his setup was lightweight – his plan: jump from hostel to hostel and toy with the likes of backpackers.
Hue was both of our day’s destinations, so we rode the remaining miles together. Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam. An area of historical significance, the city’s centre is hidden behind a squared brick wall and an empty moat. That evening, I joined Till for dinner and chatted about our forward plans. It was a welcomed break from solitary confinement.
850 kms in five days called for a day off in Hoi An. Just like Sa Pa, the world heritage site was similar to Venice. Not only were there gondolas, but its architecture was renovated to generate tourism. It’s not a living, breathing town, but an aesthetically pleasing historical replica of its former Port days. Independent coffee chains, clothes shops and scented candle stores sit parallel to small museums and souvenir stalls. The rain continued to batter the coast, which saw the city’s riverbanks overflow. Hoi An floods, on average, eight times a year. Even more reason to twin it with the likes of Venice.
Hoi An was a reminder that Vietnam’s tourism was not my cup of coffee, so I happily returned to my saddle the following day. The race was back on.
I steamed inland, for the hills and the Cambodian border. The scenery became more impressive and my (small) connection with Vietnam grew stronger. I spent days gaining elevation, following rice paddies, getting frustrated with Komoots’ inability to distinguish between tarmac and gravel, and admiring the country’s natural beauty.
The border with Cambodia is long, running south to the Gulf of Thailand. Many crossings dot the geographical line, but few are for foreigners. Mac Boc sits north of Ho Chi Minh, but I didn’t want to cycle that far south. In a bid to shave off miles, I turned to Google Maps. Official websites lack any information, whereas Google Maps is populated by hundreds of reviews. Most, of which, are posted within six months. After hours spent sifting through reviews, I found Sunol – a crossing 150 miles north of Mac Boc. A German had successfully entered Cambodia three weeks prior – that was my destination.
Just as I could taste the finish line, I was greeted with a roadblock. A roadblock of dramatic and frustrating proportions. I had spent the day following the ‘Border Line’, an impressive, luscious green ridge that I had to myself. That evening, I arrived at a hotel, high on a peak, and only a day’s ride from Snuol. I’d spent one hour riding through an aggressive side wind, with my head torch as the only light on the road. My efforts were in vain. The hotel was not for foreigners, it was forbidden for foreigners to sleep within 40 kms of the border. I’d already cycled 170 kms, and refused to ride another 40 kms in the wrong direction. After a call with the police, it was agreed I could sleep in a hotel 15 kms south of where I stood. Annoyed and tired, I didn’t have any choice but to leave.
The following day, I retraced tyre tracks and returned to the ridge. I was stopped by border police shortly after and told it was forbidden to cycle along the border. Long story, short: I refused to turn around. The officer called his superiors and I was given permission to continue onwards.
The road was untouched wilderness; a national park with rolling hills, unbeatable jungle and expansive views of Cambodia. It was glorious. The heat was ever-present, the cold of the North a distant memory. I was determined to cross the border that day, so I pushed on.
Dusk fell when I reached the crossing. I was elated. Elation, however, soon turned to disbelief. I wasn’t allowed to exit. I had a Vietnamese e-visa. The border officers didn’t have the facilities to process e-visas, so I couldn’t leave. Moc Bac was the closest e-visa exit. My acceptance of the situation was quick; my mood was lifted by a man on a scooter, who used his foot to push Betty up a steep hill. Language-less, we rode together until the next town. After speaking to his wife on a video call, I thanked him and bid farewell.
The next day, I ate the remaining 75 miles in the morning. My annoyance at the previous two days was present, so shortly before the border, I indulged in one last Vietnamese coffee. Within minutes, the irritations were all but gone. I cherished that one last coffee, but was keen for greener pastures.
It was the 23rd of December and I was driving towards Cambodia. Merry Christmas.