Jan. 3, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City): This was the first official day of the trip and it started with orientation and introductions to the group members and our hosts, Pedaltour's guide, drivers, and bike mechanic. From the CCCTS, we had Jeannie, Judy, Eric, Nancy, Terri, Donovan, Jenni, Janet, Ann, Jean, Gian, Helen, Rudy, George, Holly, and Ken. We then drove to a resort to fit and test ride our rental bikes and to enjoy a dip in the pool. The first evening ended with a fine dinner.
Jan. 4: Saigon to Loc An: We started with a 45 minute drive out of town as trying to bike ride from the City would have been suicide given the busy traffic and seldom, if ever, followed rules of the road. We rode 66 km (40 miles) along quiet roads to Loc An passing frequent villages and over "undulating" roads before reaching the Loc An Resort for the evening. Weather was ideal although some riders found it too hot.
Jan. 5, Loc An to Phan Thiet: Today was a killer ride. Not because of the 68
mile (108 km) ride or the terrain but rather the heat and terribly strong
headwinds the entire day. We headed north mostly along the coast (on the South
China Sea) and the wind was just a-blowing in our faces. The only factor that
made it bearable was the hundreds of school kids we saw with almost every one
of them saying "hello" and riding a bike. A few asked "How
you?" or "What you name?" We also passed some fishing villages,
dragon fruit farms (some of us getting a free sample from the pickers), lots of
small towns, and great scenery along the coast.
Holly and I got to the hotel just before 5 having left this morning about 8 a.m. so it was a long day. Others arrived much earlier. Lunch was very good and so was dinner. So far, most meals had squid, pork, and fish in them. Breakfast usually featured fresh baguettes and a variety of fresh fruits and pho (beef noodle soup with meat and/or veggies in it). After lunch today, there was an option to get into the support vehicle and skip about 15 miles of the last 29 miles (46 km) but we opted to ride it out.
Tomorrow is an early day with breakfast at 6 a.m., check out at 7:15 a.m. and then loading into the van for a quick drive to where we will start riding. Then we ride to lunch, another short van ride, and finally finish riding to the hotel where we will have the next day off. Just in time to do laundry and relax and see some local sights. We'll get to sleep tonight by 9 p.m. We're both tired but loving the group and trip. Everyone is getting along very well.
Jan. 6, Phan Thiet to Nha Treng: Another long day to get to the 3 star Hotel
in Nha Treng. We only rode 35 miles but drove over 130 miles. There are no
major highways or ways to avoid the many small towns and local traffic.
We left this morning at 7:30,.drove an hour, and then rode 23 miles in hot, sunny, and very windy weather. Once again, it was nasty headwinds over "undulating" roads. ("Undulating" is Pedaltours' jargon for vey hilly. We came to mock that term.) But we saw Dragon fruit fields and even sampled some when the fruit pickers insisted on giving us a sample and then one each to take along. The region is famous for growing and exporting this delicious fruit.
Lunch was at a roadside cafˇ. Then back in the vans for a 3 1/2 hour drive. We got left off along the south China Sea Coast about 13 miles from our destination Roads were pretty quiet until we got to our destination, a City of 400,000 people and just as many motor scooters. Maybe more? Navigating to our hotel was a chore. After a quick shower, we drove a mile to a famous BBQ place where we had several hibachis on the tables. We got plates of marinated beef, chicken, squid, prawns, and tuna to BBQ ourselves. Veggies, rice, bread, and dessert were also dropped off at the table. There was enough food for all 22 of us. (16 riders, 2 English speaking guides, 2 van driver, and 2 truck drivers.)
Tomorrow is a day off. However, we are leaving the hotel at 8 a.m. to go to a beach and do some snorkeling before lunch. Afterwards, it's off to see some sights. Fortunately, we are using the vans so we'll be off the bikes for the day. It is 10 p.m. here and time to get to sleep.
Jan. 7, Rest Day in Nha Trang City: Today was a very busy day off with no
time to relax. There was so much to see and do and even though it was overcast
most of the day with just a sprinkle or two a few times, we loved it. We
started at 8 a.m. by visiting a Temple built by the occupants of the land
before Vietnam was Vietnam. From the Temple, we had a wonderful view of the
City and enjoyed free entertainment.
Then off to a marina and a 20 minute boat ride in the harbor to an Aquarium located on an Island. There was a fascinating assortment of fish and we got to feed the giant turtles and sharks (from a safe height). Then, we walked through the surrounding neighborhood, a fishing village, ending our adventure when we had to board floating bathtubs for the short paddle back to the boat. The floating bathtubs, made out of woven wood, are round about 6 ft. to 8 ft. in diameter and hold 2 passengers and one or two paddler. What a trip. Cost was 50 cents per passenger.
Once on the large boat, we headed across the Bay to a busy area for snorkeling. Some people saw fish and coral close to shore but Holly and I did not see any as we spent most of our time floating away from the boat and then swimming against the strong current to get back to the boat. But the swim was enjoyable and cooling.
Then we headed over to Bamboo Island in the Bay for lunch. It was a 40 minute boat ride in rough and windy seas but the lunch was worth it. We had fish, roasted squid, sweet and sour squid, prawns, oysters, vegetable hot pot, rice, tea, beer (beer in Vietnam is cheaper than tea and generally sells for $1 or less regardless of bottle/can size), and dessert. Holly and I and the 2 vegetarians in the group were very selective with the food. After lunch, it was back on the boat for the ride back to the mainland and the vans. We finally got back to the hotel about 3 p.m.
Once we got back our sea legs, we went for a walk along the beach and then stopped at a supermarket to pick up some snacks for the next few days. Many in the group did also. As usual, safely crossing streets and getting through round-a-bouts in Vietnam cities takes a lot of skill and prayer. Everyone made it.
Dinner was on our own and Holly and I went to a restaurant just down the street from the hotel. Our guide suggested it and it was very good and very inexpensive. (For example, curry chicken and rice for $3.) Then, we took a short walk to the night market to end the day's outdoor activities. We met others in the group there.
Tomorrow starts early with a van ride and then a bike ride. There is so much distance to cover before we fly to Hanoi and cycle northern Vietnam that we must drive in the van part way. With the strong headwinds we have had, no one is complaining about the drive.
Jan. 8, Nha Trang to Quy Nhon: Today was another long day starting after
breakfast at 7:45 a.m. with a 2 1/2 hour van ride ending at the summit of Ca
Pass. Traffic, small town speed limits, and bad road conditions kept the van
speed down so in the 2 1/2 hours, we only covered about 100 miles. Then it was
time to get on the bikes and ride the final 36 km (22 miles) to our lunch spot
in Tuy Hoa. Fortunately, there was a tour guide or assistant at major turns in
the route to point us in the correct direction. Otherwise, we stayed straight
and followed the written instructions and map we get each morning.
Unfortunately, there were more strong headwinds and side winds but I think
everyone is resolved to ride at a slower pace and lower gear and enjoy the very
few and brief times when the road turns west or south and we have a fantastic
Weather was overcast most of the day and cooler than previous days as we got more north. We had a one minute localized rain when we took shelter in a store. Others missed it.
We drove and rode along the eastern coast once again passing many fishing villages, rice fields, harbors with fleets of fishing boats, shrimp and squid farms, major road construction, and some roads that badly needed reconstruction.
After a delicious lunch, we drove another 1 1/2 hours and then finished with a quick 29 km (18 mile) ride that included a few steep but short climbs. Once again, the ride sheets mentioned "undulating" terrain but no headwinds. I can only guess that we had said "hello" to children and adults about 200 times during the day. And many children want to give you a high five (slap of your hand with theirs) but we were warned not to as some kids may try to grab your hand as you ride by.
Holly and I reached the 3 star hotel in Quy Nhon (population 260,000) about 5 p.m. Dinner was at 7 p.m. in the hotel and included soup, fish, beef, French fries (yes, French fries), veggies, and dessert.
There were free computers in the hotel lobby as in many of the places we stayed and riders took advantage of them. A few members had their own computers or IPads along and were often able to sign on to the unsecured wireless network hotels or nearby businesses offered.
Tonight, our room is on the fifth floor of the Sea Gull hotel and faces the beach. We have the patio door open and the sound of the surf is deafening but very welcome. It's very different from the noise we would have if we opened the house windows in North Vancouver or Albuquerque in January.
Tomorrow will be a 100 km (62 mile) ride to Quang Ngai so riders got to bed early, not that we ever skipped happy hour. We'll be awakened at 6 a.m., breakfast (buffet in the hotel) at 6:30 a.m., and check out at 7:30 a.m.
Jan. 9, Quy Nhon to Quang Ngai: We got to the Communist hotel in this Communist
City at 6 p.m. after another long day of riding and van transport. After
breakfast, we had a 1 hour drive, then a 43 km ride, then lunch, then a van
ride for 1 1/2 hours, then a 33 km ride and then a 1 1/2 van ride to the hotel.
Mileage ridden was 48 miles but included the usual strong headwinds and several long, very steep climbs to get through the mountains and continue down the coast. Some people opted for a ride in the van but Holly and I stuck it out and enjoyed fantastic down hills once over the top. Anyone who rode all the ups was in their lowest gears and pumping hard. Weather is still good with shorts and t-shirt. Dinner is in 20 minutes so this is a short note. In conclusion (thought I'd never get to one, eh?), we are loving the trip and the Vietnamese people.
Jan. 10, Quang Ngai to Hoi An: This was the easiest and shortest day so far.
Only 28 miles of riding along mostly level road but some significant traffic in
the villages and market areas. You really have to pay attention and have 360
degree vision. Never assume anyone will follow rules of the road or even know
what they are. Horn honking and flashing headlights seem to dictate right of
Also some bad road encountered but as usual, the people are the friendliest. There is always a hello and smile and wave from the locals. Children giggle, smile, and left when you acknowledge them with a hello, wave, or SIN DJOW (Vietnamese for Hello). Weather is still t-shirt and shorts and headwinds present but less than previous days.
We left Quang Ngai at 7:30 a.m. with a van ride. Then we got on the bikes and rode to lunch. Then, back in the van for about 90 minutes. Finally, back on the bikes for the short and scenic 8 mile ride into Hoi An, a City of about 125,000 people. We rode in as a group which gathered much attention from the locals. We arrived at 3 p.m. and had 2 hours to clean up, do laundry, and get ready for a walking tour of the City.
This morning we visited the My Lai Memorial that documents the My Lai massacre in March 1968 by US forces against a village of mostly old men, women, and children during the Vietnam War. Five hundred and 4 Vietnamese were killed and the village destroyed. Some of the houses have been rebuilt to show visitors what the village originally looked like. It was a very moving hour we spent there watching a film, going through the museum, and walking the grounds. It was a terrible period in US history.
Back on the bikes, we rode to Hoi An. After arriving in Hoi An, we had a brief evening walk with our guide who took us to the THANG LOI Manufacturing and Export Company. We had a tour of the facilities where they do silkworm breeding, silk extraction, silk weaving, and lantern making. It was very interesting how they breed the silkworms, collect the silk, and make all types of garments. Prices were very reasonable and custom made suits, shirts, and women's wear were the specialty. Holly bought a wool/silk blend scarf for $7 US. Pure silk scarfs were $8 US. Most of the group bought something and inexpensive scarves were the number one selling item for us. Guess group members remembered they eventually have to return to Vancouver in late January and we were heading up north where the temperature would be much cooler?
After the group spent 30-40 minutes browsing the clothing items, we headed to the CITR NELLA restaurant and cafˇ. The menu was: pumpkin cream soup, white rose (dumpling), crispy fried wontons, Cao Lau (pork with noodles ‰Ūš a specialty of the City), stir fried morning glory (green veggies), grilled pork with sesame, braised fish in clay pot, steamed rice, and fruit salad. There was plenty of food and some people opted for ice cream to top off the meal. Everything was delicious. Then we took the long way back to the hotel and watched a traditional entertainment performance and browsed some shops. All in all, it was a wonderful day. Tomorrow, we continue our walking tour of the City with a 4 hour walk in the morning. The afternoon is free for individual exploring and maxing out credit cards. We have tomorrow off and Holly and I looked forward to some walking around the City as did the whole group. There was much to see and buy.
Jan. 11 ‰Ūš Day Off in Hoi An: We enjoyed a wonderful day in this
ancient and picturesque town which was the international trading center for
southern Vietnam in the 16th and 17th Century. Foreign merchant ships came to
Hoi An for trading and commercial fairs. Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, and Indian
traders set up their quarters for permanent habitation.
We had a morning walking tour and then were free to explore on our own. We toured an ancient Temple and the oldest house in Hoi An and enjoyed entertainment. After Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An has the most Caucasian visitors I've seen on the trip so far. Needless to say, tourist shops and food markets are abundant and you are expected to bargain for every purchase. You can easily end up paying half or less of what the original asking price was. Holly bought a nice skirt for $7.00. For lunch, we had a large (28 cm) pizza, noodle soup with veggies, coffee, and 2 scoops of mango ice cream for about $7.25 total. There is no tax or service charges at most places. As you walk down the streets, merchants try to entice you to come into their shops. If you show any interest, street vendors get a little more aggressive and sometimes follow you or offer you free samples of their food items. (Almost as much fun as being in Costco.)
The hotel we are at, Vinh Hung, is very nice but there has not been time to enjoy the pool. We did enjoy a nice breakfast of Western and Vietnamese food. Every hotel we have been in has offered an onsite buffet breakfast which makes it very convenient each morning.
Weather is still very good. It's still t-shirt and shorts time. In the evenings, some people wear a light jacket. The very few and brief times we saw rain was either while we were in the van driving or at night. I hoped our luck would hold out. We had 13 more days of the trip before heading to Vancouver Jan. 25. Other CCCTS member planned a post ride tour of going to Halong Bay, to Cambodia (which Holly and I did before entering Vietnam), or just staying longer in Ha Noi.
Eric, our CCCTS coordinator, started a blog (daily log) of the tour but he and some others are having trouble getting it accessed. There were some technical problems that could not be surmounted so it never went live.
Well, time for our (and everyone else's) happy hour, a shower, and then dinner. People in the group are offering suggestions for dinner restaurants and Holly and I have not selected one yet.
Jan. 12, Hoi An to Hue: Except for a very long 9 km. climb over Hai Van
mountain pass (more on that later), today was a relatively flat ride. We
started riding from our hotel in Hoi An and did approximately 77 kms to our
lunch spot at a very nice resort in Lang Co. On the way there, we toured the
Hoi An vegetable gardens to see where the City gets most of its produce. To get
there, we cycled on lovely quiet roads. Then, we rejoined Highway 1, Vietnam's
main road, and stopped at a terrific marble factory and saw incredible works of
art. Continuing in perfect cycling weather, we passed through Da Nang and
passed China Beach and the old Da Nang airport the US used during the Vietnam
War. We rode over the Han River Bridge getting great views of the City. Traffic
was light the entire day and the morning roads were mostly new.
To get to the wonderful lunch at the Thanh Tam Resort, we had to first climb 500 meters (1500 feet) over 9 kms to get to Hai Van Pass. It was pretty cool at the top so no one lingered there too long even though there were merchant booths set up. Everyone wanted the 10 km downhill on the other side of the pass. It was a spectacular downhill with great views. Five kms later, we were at lunch.
We then drove partway to our next and final City in central Vietnam, Hue. Back on the bikes, we cycled 34 kms on flat country roads passing several towns, rice fields, vegetable gardens, and cemeteries. As usual, we got a wonderful reception from the locals and the frequent "Hello." Another quick drive in the van for the final 12 kms got us to Hue, a City of 300,000 people, at 6 p.m. Hue was the capital of Vietnam from 1902 to 1945 and boasts of having had 13 kings reign here. Tomorrow, we visit some the tombs and other sites before leaving central Vietnam for Hanoi and northern Vietnam by plane at 4:30 p.m. We expect cooler weather in northern Vietnam and we hope our luck of no rain will persist.
Jan. 13, Hue and Ha Noi: Today was listed as a rest day. However, it was
anything but that. We started early with a tour of the Royal Khon Thai Palace
and Citadel in the former capital city of Hue. We were very impressed to see
the grounds and buildings and Temple of the former Emperors of Vietnam starting
in 1804 and ending in 1945.
Then we visited a famous pagoda followed by a one way boat ride on the Perfume River. The vessel dropped us off at the foot of a typical market place where many of the group bought nuts and treats. There had to be hundreds of booths and vendors crammed so close together it made walking down the narrow aisles nearly impossible. It also enabled sellers to be up close and personal when trying to entice you into their shop.
A ride back in the van took us to the burial site of an Emperor who died in 1928. The art work and carvings and decorations were "over the top." It was just incredible how the people of Vietnam treated their Emperors when they reigned and after they died. Emperors were considered the Son of Heaven with supreme power. The structure took 11 years of non-stop work from 1920 to 1931. From the burial site, we went back to the hotel to check out and then off to lunch at a local cafˇ seldom frequented by foreigners. The specialty was rice cake with both meat and shrimp. Including tea, the meal cost us each $1.
Our flight to Ha Noi left Hue at 4:30 p.m. and 1 hour later, we landed in Vietnam's capital City where the 6 p.m. temperature was 13 C (56 F). (Hue had been 17C ((64 F)) when we left.) A 45 minute bus ride to the hotel gave us a quick look at the City. Next was a delicious dinner at the hotel. Finally at 8:30 p.m., we headed to our rooms for some shut eye. We leave Ha Noi at 8 a.m. tomorrow and expect cooler riding conditions then we are used to but still no rain forecast.
Jan. 14, Ha Noi to Mai Chau: Today's 65 km (40 miles) ride was a relatively
difficult one. We started with a 2 hour van ride from Ha Noi. We drove west
from the hotel located in the Old Quarter of the City never to see the Vietnam
coastline again and hopefully the headwinds.
We got a tour of Ha Noi as we left the City and saw most of the 6 million people living there. Unlike Saigon, Ha Noi has more cars than scooters. And whereas Saigon scooters and motor bikes stay to the right (even those coming at you are on your right), in Ha Noi, these vehicles take up all the lanes so car travel can be slow. But we had a great breakfast buffet first so who cared?
It became foggy after we got out of the City but by the time we reached Lung Son Quan, the place to start riding, the fog disappeared. Sometimes the roads were wet and sometimes not but it never rained on us. We had a 5 km (3 mile) hill to climb before getting to lunch which was delicious. NO SEAFOOD. We had veggie spring rolls, beef, chicken, rice, and vegetables.
After lunch, we started on "undulating" roads followed by a major 10%, 10 km (6 mile) climb to Thung Khe Pass. For those of you who have never climbed this pass, it is a killer. It was foggy at the bottom of the climb and by the time we got to the top (and we think it was the top), we could see no more than 25 or 30 yards in front of or around us. Vehicles stayed away from us and we sure appreciated that. The van was at the top of the pass and the guide informed us of the 15 km (almost 10 miles) downhill to our stop for the night. It was a thrilling and winding down hill and much enjoyed. The fog dissipated quickly and the road was dry allowing for a speedy descent, even passing slower moving trucks. We got to the Mai Chau Lodge Hotel at 4 p.m. and enjoyed some hot tea. We then did a walking tour which we hoped would not be uphill. (It was not.)
At 8:30 p.m., we walked to a nearby village of 10,000 "White Thais," one of 54 minority groups in Vietnam. The village is famous for its weavings and houses built on stilts. The houses are either occupied by the owner of the shop located on the ground level or else rented to guests. The Thai people first came to Vietnam in the 13th. Century and built the elevated houses because of wild animals such as wild pigs, tigers, and elephants that roamed the area. It has become a custom to construct elevated houses. Many in the group bought scarves or wall hangings or table cloths.
Then, we walked back to the hotel for a delicious dinner. It was time to get to bed. We had a long and difficult ride the next day.
Jan, 15, Mai Chau to Son La: This was the coldest day of the trip so far but
still no riding in the rain. (Fog yes, rain no.) We were warned the temperature
would be in the 40s as we ascended to a summit 1,240 m (about 3,720 feet) above
sea level in the mountains before lunch. This is winter time in Vietnam.
However, no one warned us about the dense fog we would encounter on the climb.
So dense that some riders considered riding too dangerous and delayed the start
of their pedaling by riding in the van. No one knew what conditions would be
when we awoke at 6:15 a.m.
Holly and I started the day with a very early breakfast buffet so we could walk back to the "White Thai" village and finish our shopping before meeting the group for departure. We bought another two scarves ($2.50 - $2.00) and one additional wall hanging ($3.00) giving us 3 scarves and two wall hangings. Ken got one wall hanging and Holly got the rest.
We left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. in the van with the intent of having 2 groups of riders. The first would start pedaling at 17 km (11 miles) before the summit while the second would wait until 7 km (4.5 miles) before the summit to get out of the van. Well, as we got closer to the summit, the fog increased so significantly that visibility was down to 25 feet (8 meters) or so. And the moist air really chilled you. We knew we needed very warm clothing for today.
Four people chose to start riding at 17 km before the summit and another four of the group got out at 7 km before the top. The remaining group of 8 went over the summit in the van and when the fog dissipated, got out of the van and waited for the truck carrying the bikes to arrive so we could start riding. However, we were informed the truck had a flat tire and would not reach the final group in time for them to ride and make lunch. So, the 8 wannabe riders got back into the (warm) van for the ride to lunch.
After lunch, everyone rode from 55 to 80 km (34 miles ‰Ūš 50 miles) depending on how far they got by 4 p.m. when we all had to get in the vans for the 2 hour drive to our stop for the night, Son La. The afternoon ride was mostly a wonderful downhill passing through several towns and villages and along tea plantations. We saw different ethnic groups, each dressed in traditional clothing for that group.
After everyone was picked up, we drove the remaining 65 km (40 miles) which took almost 2 hours due to construction, traffic, slow speed limits in the towns, and bad roads. We were pretty happy when we finally arrived at the Ha Noi Hotel in Son La. We had an hour to clean up, shower, get organized and meet for a delicious dinner in the hotel restaurant. The next day would be a 7:30 a.m. departure and about 80 km (50 miles) of riding with some climbing, "undulating", and descents. Weather was forecast as clear and warmer.
Jan. 16, Son La to Dien Bein: Oh, what a glorious day it was. One of the
best we had in Vietnam so far. We wished all the remaining days would be so
nice and scenic. After yesterday's foggy day, we deserved today.
We started at 7:30 a.m. wearing warm clothing as we rode from the hotel in Son La but we soon heated up and shed the heavy duty stuff as we climbed out of town to a summit 5.5 km (3.5 miles) away. Traffic was busy in Son La and the sky was overcast but we had a tailwind. Finally, wind in our favor. We summated the hill and started a gradual descent and then "undulating" terrain for the next 45 km (28 miles) for a total morning distance of 51 km (32 miles). We stopped at 2 very busy market places in two villages. Each market was dominated by a different ethnicity and each ethnic group dressed in a unique traditional and very beautiful garb. Most adults seemed to carry on the dress tradition while most teenagers wore jeans and casual clothing. There was quite a mix of dress at the markets. The first market was a very large and crowded outdoor Sunday one and the second was an indoor market with permanent booths. Holly bought a head piece worn by the Black Thai people at the second place.
We passed other villages, lots of cattle (some on the road), people working the fields (Sunday is not a rest day when there is work to do), a funeral reception (that 2 riders mistook for a happy celebration and were invited in to have some tea), coffee and tea plantations, military monuments (very popular in a Country that had so many wars), and very scenic water wheels on the river. Finally, we reached our lunch site in the village of Tuan Giao. We ate a delicious and abundant meal at the Hoan Quat restaurant. We sure enjoyed the food. I would recommend this place to anyone passing through Tuan Giao.
From lunch, we were driven in the vans for 1 1/2 hours until 3 p.m. and were dropped off on a summit 30 km (19 miles) from our final day's destination. Terrain was mostly downhill as we followed the river through the valley to the fancy and later disappointing Him Lam Resort in Dien Bien.
As we went from one village to another, there were big signs thanking us (and others) for visiting the last town and welcoming us (and others) to the next town. The text was in Vietnamese and English. We had not seen English signs since Ha Noi. And as usual, we got many "hellos" from kids and adults along the road. Most rural houses were on stilts and some had satellite dishes. Farming was very popular around the houses, in fields, and up the mountainsides. We saw Vietnam potbelly pigs that just roamed free on or near the roads as did water buffalo, cows, roosters, and chickens. Dogs also strolled across our path but never chased us or even acknowledged we were there. With thousands of motor scooters and bicycles on the road daily, dogs were used to them. Some animals would claim their spot on the road and we and trucks and cars would have to go around them. A water buffalo always has the right of way over a bicycle and fortunately, we all arrived safely at our destination.
The resort where we stayed was very nice but within 2 hours of checking in, our building (one of 4 used by the group) had had 3 short power failures. They lasted only 2 to 5 seconds but shut down the heating unit, which we were using to dry our laundry. In the literature we got from Pedaltours, it stated power failures happen in Vietnam and suggested we bring flashlights which Holly and I did. Still, while it was an inconvenience, we managed by having another glass of wine before dinner. We bought 2 bottles of white Vietnamese table wine the other day for $3.35 each and it was not bad.
To summarize, today was a great day for picture taking as the route was very scenic, the people brightly dressed and willing to pose, and we had time to stop and snap a photo or 50. We had the next day off and planned to tour the City before returning to Him Lam Resort in the evening.
Jan. 17, Day off in Dien Bein: We had another great day weather-wise and
meeting the friendly and hardworking Vietnamese people in the City. At 9 a.m.
after a mediocre breakfast (compared to our other buffet breakfasts), we loaded
ourselves into the van for the 10 minute ride to Dien Bien.
We first visited the Museum and then the Battlefield of the 1954 French-Vietnamese War. It was really interesting to watch the film about the war and then see some bunkers, tunnels, and a major hill where a fierce battle took place right in the City. (The Vietnamese won.)
Then, we visited a typically crowded Vietnamese market with hundreds of stalls where you could buy all kinds of fresh vegetables and fruits, nuts, herbs, spices, roots, dried seafood, flowers, clothing, cell phone accessories, and meat. Meats (including snake, gecko, water buffalo, and others I choose not to mention) are always freshly killed and sold the same day as few houses have a refrigerator or freezer. The region's specialty in the wine department is wine containing worms from the palm tree and not just one or two worms per bottle but dozens of them. Our guide even showed us some vendors selling the branches with live worms in them. No one bought any.
Lunch was next after visiting the fresh meat section of the market. Holly and I each ordered 3 delicious spring rolls and a big bowl of pho (beef broth with noodles and beef). We also had pops. The bill was about $8.50. (There is often no tax and service charge on meals unless you eat at a hotel.)
Then, while most of the group went back to the resort in the van, Holly and I and 4 others walked back there. It would be about a 5 km (3 mile) walk assuming we went the right way. (We did.) It took us about 4 hours to get back because we stopped at 2 other street markets to look around (even bought ice cream), several grocery stores to buy snacks, a liquor store (others bought wine with no worms), and a pharmacy (needed by one of the other walkers).
It was a lot of fun exploring the stores, seeing the goods, trying to interpret what something was, and then inquiring what the price was. Vietnamese always expect you to bargain but when the initial price is $1, 50 cents, or 25 cents, why bargain? We even bought mini baguettes from a lady who had a batch of them on her bike. Everything was so cheap. The baguettes were 10 cents each (no bargaining and she even threw in an extra one or two) and would go well with our wine and cheese tonight. (Dinner is on our own during rest days but with our large lunch, we just wanted something simple.)
At our 6 p.m. group meeting, the guide, Binh (pronounced Bing), said we leave at 7:45 tomorrow morning from the hotel and climb about 6 km (4 miles) before topping out. Then we ride downhill with "undulating" roads for a total of 60 km before lunch. After lunch, we were to get a lift to the top of a summit for the bike ride down and to the hotel but temperatures would hover about freezing so instead, we'll ride up the hill to stay warm and then take the van down to our next overnight. What's wrong with that picture? Time for happy hour.
Jan. 18, Dien Bien to Sin Ho: What an incredible 24 hours this was. At 8:15
p.m. last night while Holly was having a bath and I was editing my daily
report, our building lost electric power. Everything went out including our
room heater and our individual hot water heater and of course the TV and
lights. Then, the lights flickered on and off for a few minutes and finally
they were permanently off. We used my flashlight to get around the room and for
Holly to finish her bath. At 9 p.m., we heard lots of talking outside our room
and found out the hotel staff was trying to get all of us in building 5 to
leave our darkened rooms and move to another building. They could not restore
power tonight. Just pack up everything in the dark or using a flashlight and
move. Holly and I and another couple refused to move and had to convince the
staff to let us stay. All we wanted was another blanket for the bed and we'd
manage. So, I grabbed a blanket from one of the "abandoned" rooms and
we settled in for a cold winter's night. It was warm in bed so we did not care
until we had to get up at 6:15 a.m. It was dark but we used the flashlight
again to get ready for breakfast which was mediocre again. (We subsequently
heard from a few people who did move to another building that they did not have
We dressed for riding from the hotel as instructed and just as the group was about to leave at 7:45, it started to rain. That broke our record of not having to ride in the rain so far. (Dense fog is not rain.) So, people grabbed their rain gear, if they had some, or large plastic bags and off we went. The rain only lasted 5 or 10 minutes but by then, the road was wet and in some places muddy with puddles. Needless to say, the bikes and lower parts of our bodies got dirty and muddy.
As we rode out of Bien Dien, we started a very steep and long climb to Co Chay Pass that quickly heated us up. Some clothing came off to prevent overheating and sweating. We then completed the 60 km (38 miles) to lunch in the village of Muong Cha. The route was "undulating" ("very" this time) besides a river and through a beautiful valley passing many ethnic villages with friendly people before reaching the Thau Hien cafe for a very good meal.
After lunch, we again rode up a very steep, 13 km (8 miles) long, 10% grade hill to Ma Thi Ho Pass arriving at the top at 2 p.m. Our head guide told us this was the end of today's ride as riding down would be too dangerous due to major construction, bad roads, traffic, single lane, and fog. (We reached the Pass in dense fog.) So we all got into the vans and the bikes went in the truck for the drive to our evening's destination, Sin Ho.
The tour guide was right about everything. The road was the worst we had seen in terms of mud and dirt surface, major pot holes, narrowness with no shoulder, steepness (up and down), no passing space, equipment congestion, and distance. Eighty five km (53 miles) in the vans took us 3 1/2 hours over the terrible road with much of it in the fog. We could only imagine the beautiful views if it were summer time.
We were very happy to finally reach our hotel in Sin Ho, a relatively small town. The excitement did not last long as we each hauled our luggage up the 2 flights to our rooms. Quickly, there was lots of talking outside the rooms and people heading down to the receptionist including me. We could not get our room heater turned on and we could see our breaths in the room. It was cold. Nor could we figure out how to turn on the hot water heater. And we only had one working light in the bedroom as the big fluorescent bulb would not turn on, just dimly flicker. I got the desk clerk to turn on the room heat and Holly figured how to turn on the hot water heater so we could take showers.
Bottom line is we constantly experienced "brown outs" (diminished power) so the fluorescent bulb was seldom on, the TV did not work, the room heater only worked sporadically when there was full power available (and when it did work, no heat seemed to be blown out of it), there was no wireless connection or hotel PCs here, and we were bundled up for the night. We understood from the other riders in the group that they experienced similar problems. All in all, not a great place to stay. Dinner was fine with hot soup, chicken, pork, shrimp, rice, veggies, and an orange (for dessert). However, the hit of the meal was the Lipton hot tea. We all had seconds and thirds as the dining room was as cold as our rooms. A side note: our tour guide told us that this had been the coldest Vietnamese winter in 15 years and, as a result, over 3,000 water buffalo died due to cold. We noticed water buffalo have very little hair so there was little insulation against the cold.
Tomorrow, we would dress for riding but would wait to see if there was fog and extreme cold. The next destination was only 36 km (24 miles) so we may start driving and then be let off to ride if weather conditions improved. Oh, winter in the mountains of northern Vietnam.
Jan. 19, Sin Ho to Lai Chau: We awoke to a slightly warmer room than we had
last night (heat came on sporadically during the night) and headed down to
breakfast. The cafˇ was still colder than our room, probably 50 F. We had a
fresh mini baguette with fried egg and honey and lots of hot tea and coffee.
Very unusual as almost all of our previous breakfasts were satisfactory buffets.
But this was a small village and the only hotel there.
We had an unexpected day off in Lai Chau because the road from Sin Ho and weather were too bad to pedal the 63 km (39 miles) into the City so we all drove in the van getting to a very nice hotel at 11 am. After lunch, we had the rest of the day to ourselves. Some of us got a lift to the Town center to look around and shop and then walk the 3 km or so back to the hotel. We enjoyed the decent weather and just taking it easy in preparation for tomorrow's difficult ride, weather permitting.
We were scheduled to pedal 70 km from Lai Chau to Sapa over 2 mountain passes. The first pass was Giangma Pass with some of the climb at 11% to 14%. It was about 8 km long. The second pass was Hoang Lien Son Pass with much of it 10% up grade. The summit was at 1,955 meters. However, if the weather were bad, we would drive as much in the van as necessary to reach decent weather and then ride.
Jan. 20, Lai Chau to Sapa: Overview - This was one of the hardest cycling
days on the trip, at least for me with its 2 major passes. The group did not
get to complete the second one but was picked up about 43 km from the start in
Lai Chau because of dense fog and rough road conditions. I'm glad we were. The
full ride of 70 km (45 miles) had 35km of climbing.
We were not sure if we were going to cycle from the hotel in Lai Chau today but the fog was moderate and the temperature mild when we assembled after breakfast. So, off we went on the bikes that the Tour Company, Pedaltours, had cleaned and lubricated the day before. They should have saved the effort and time.
We rode out of town and immediately started a serious climb to Giangma Pass which involved those 11% to 14% segments up hill. The actual climb was about 8 km (5 miles) with the fog increasing with altitude. The fog was so bad, we did not get to see any scenery at the top or even know it was the top except for easier peddling. We did see and ride through and around thick mud, countless puddles, rocks on the road, deep grooves, and dirt road. On the way up, riders got really hot and sweaty from the effort and took off some clothing only to put it all back on for the incredible descent that was interrupted by more mud, puddles, and lack of pavement. (I think I may have worn out 2 pairs of brake pads on the way down.) When the dirt finally turned to pavement and the road dried, I really enjoyed the downhill using the brakes only after hitting 50 km (31 mph) per hour.
But the descent was short lived as we started the second climb at a relentless 10% grade. And this was a 25 km (15.5 miles) climb in the fog with dirt road, pot holes, traffic, and no shoulder. Most of the road was one lane. Off came the winter gloves and fleece vest to help with cool down. Others also stopped for a uniform adjustment.
I had ridden about 42 km (26 miles) without lunch (as lunch was at the destination in Sapa) and with an incredible amount of climbing and lousy weather and roads, when I had had it. I started mixing walking and riding for about a km when I saw the 2 vans and bike truck parked on the side of the road. The lead guide said to get in and I did not argue. All the riders were already in the vans and the bikes loaded in the truck. That was at noon. So, I had ridden (and walked a little) constantly for about 4 hours. Holly got to the vans and truck 10 minutes before I did. (She had waited for me farther down the second hill to make sure I was okay and then rode ahead.)
It took the vans and truck 30 minutes to reach the summit of the second pass so it would have taken me a few hours more. We then drove another 30 minutes to the City of Sapa for the night. The hotel was a nice place and there was heat and hot water. We dried our clothing on the heater and drank some wine and watched HBO in English on the telly. (We saw "Gifted Hands" and "Frankie and Johnnie.") We then had a fantastic lunch with the biggest assortment of food so far including the best spare ribs I have ever had (except for Holly's). Holly got all the veggies she could eat. We were happy as was the others. The bikes were very muddy but who cared (they were rentals) and we had tomorrow off to explore the place.
Dinner was delicious. Here is the menu: Soup of Red Dao (which was a pumpkin soup named after the restaurant), potato/sweet potato/pumpkin patties, grilled pork with lemon leaf, fish in vegetable sauce, sautˇed chicken with 5 spices, sautˇed eggplant with garlic sauce, steamed rice, and pineapple cake which was sliced pineapple dipped in batter and deep fried. We also had a choice of tea: Lipton, ginger, or jasmine. After this late dinner, it was back to the hotel.
Jan. 21, Rest Day in Sapa: We awoke to a very foggy City. Sapa (or Sa Pa) is
a tourist City with lots of stores and many restaurants serving western,
French, and Italian food. Dozens of locals roam the streets selling their woven
items. Women "attach" themselves to visitors and follow you down the
street asking you to buy their stuff. We looked forward to that.
Breakfast was a very nice buffet in the hotel and afterwards, we gathered for a "hike" to a H'moung ethnic village and market about 3 km from the hotel, all downhill. We picked up a few of the vendors but after we got to Cat Cat, the name of the village and market, they left us. While at the market, Holly bought another nice wall hanging and we all enjoyed some entertainment by the locals. Then, we hiked back up the hill to the center of Sapa and its own market place for lunch. A little more shopping after and it was 3 p.m., time to get back to the hotel and relax before a 6 p.m. group meeting to discuss tomorrow's itinerary and dinner on our own.
Jan. 22, Sapa to Bac Ha, LAST DAY OF RIDING: Well folks, today was the last
day of riding in Vietnam and probably the hardest for me as we did 102 km (63
miles) with a long, monster hill at the end. Darn near made me get in the van
instead of riding the last few kilometers but I did not give in to temptation.
Things looked much better when we started the ride at 8 a.m. from Sapa.
We rode out of Sapa in a dense fog but by then, we were used to fog, cool temperatures, and damp and muddy roads. (Again, Pedaltours had wasted their time cleaning and lubing the bikes.) After a 1 km (1/2 mile) gradual downhill, the down grade increased significantly. It was about 25 km (15.5 miles) of steep DESCENT on a wet, winding, and busy road. Fortunately, the road was paved. However, the cold and down grade intensified so much, the group stopped 1/2 way down to warm their hands and rest their hand muscles that had been pulling on the brake levers for 12 km (7.4 miles). Some riders had to stop to adjust the brakes as brake pads were quickly being worn out. (Mud and grit on rims quickly wear away rubber brake pads.) We all danced around and had group hugs (gropes?) to keep warm while waiting for the last rider and support vehicles. We then waited 10 minutes and took off again on the screaming descent with constant braking. We did not start pedaling until we got to more level ground and lost some of the fog.
Most of us quickly heated up as we navigated the "undulating" (moderately hilly) road until we got to the lunch place 79 km (51 miles) from where we started. We had passed many villages, rode along rivers, and rode over several bridges. We even saw the border with China that was less than a mile away when we rode through Lao Cai and then along the Red River that separates Vietnam and China. It was certainly a long and tough morning but nothing compared to the afternoon ride.
Immediately after leaving the lunch cafˇ, we started a 15 km (9.3 mile) climb. The ride sheet we used today read "START BAC HA PASS ‰Ūš 12%. THIS IS A SEVERE CLIMB ESPECIALLY IF THERE ARE ROAD WORKS AND IT IS A HOT DAY." Well, we had some road construction to tend with but no heat. Instead, we had dense fog, wet road, and cold temperature. Steep climbing was endless with winding turns. The ride sheet also mentioned a FALSE SUMMIT at 91.5 km (56 miles) from Sapa. Just what we needed: False hope after climbing 12% for 10 km (6.2 miles). The real summit was another 4 km (2.5 miles) straight up. And when I reached it, the road was "undulating" and then a very gradual descent to the Sao Mai Hotel in Bac Ha where we were staying the night. I was not the last one to get in (of those who rode) but next to last arriving at 4:30 p.m. The climb was almost 3 1/2 hours for me. I have not asked what it took others except for Holly who arrived at the hotel 10 minutes before I did. We both got high fives and a well done from the riders who already made it. We took a last picture of us in front of the hotel holding the dirtiest bikes you'll see in a long time. (Glad the bikes were rental ones.)
Several times I was very tempted to get in the van for the ride to the summit or beyond but just kept plugging away. The van even closely followed me and the other rider for most of the way up the hill. It would have been so easy to flag it down and get a lift. But, it was the last day of riding and last opportunity to accumulate mileage our guide was recording, unbeknown to us. Holly and I finished with 950 km (594 miles). The 2 leaders were Jean and Gian with 30 km (18 miles) more. (If others did 980 km also, I apologize for not remembering it. Too much rice wine for me.)
The hotel in Bac Ha was very nice except for the occasional 5 second power failures of which we had 3 in the first 2 hours. But the room was warm and dry, the bed comfortable, and our Vietnamese wine cold. Too bad we had to leave it all in 30 minutes for dinner and our guide explaining tomorrow's schedule.
Tomorrow would be a busy day starting with breakfast at 7 a.m., a walk to the Sunday market at 8, check out of the hotel at 10, a 1 1/2 hour walk to get on a boat for a scenic cruise, a late lunch, a drive back to Lao Cai, hotel check in for the afternoon, a walk to the train station there at 7:45 p.m. and finally boarding the train at 8:00 p.m. for an 8 1/2 hour, overnight trip back to Hanoi, arriving at 4:30 a.m.
Jan. 24, Bac Ha to Lao Cai to Ha Noi: This was the last official tour day
and took us from Bac Ha by bus and boat to Lao Cai and from there to Ha Noi by
overnight train. It was quite the ending to a fantastic and adventurous 3 weeks
in south, central, and northern Vietnam. From Ha Noi, Holly and I would fly
back to Vancouver Jan. 25 arriving the same day due to crossing the
International Date Line.
This last day was a very busy one we started at 8 a.m. We walked to the nearby market which was attended by all 14 tribes (minority ethnic groups) in the area including Mong, Dao, Tay, and Nung. Our guide pointed out some of the groups and their specialties. To say the market was the biggest and most varied we had seen on the trip would be an understatement. The number of stalls (probably numbering at least 300) was incredible and there were many sections including live animals for sale, all kinds of produce, a food "court" serving anything that had ever been alive (I enjoyed seeing python meat, one of my family's staples), clothing, shoes, Vietnamese crafts of many kinds, jewelry, etc. We spent about an hour and one half there and then went back to the hotel to check out. (Everyone in the group bought something.)
After checking out, we drove back over Bac Ha Pass that we rode the day before. It was much easier getting over the top this time. We left the vans at the village of Coc Ly and walked (sometimes in mud and sometimes around road construction) 2 km to board a long boat for a 2 hour cruise up and down the Blue River. We got off the boats at one point to see some sand cones formed by dripping water off the side of the cliffs. The boats then dropped us off in a village where we walked to lunch and then got the vans again for the drive to Lao Cai.
We arrived in Lao Cai about 4 p.m. and checked into a hotel for a shower and rest and dinner before boarding the 8 1/2 hour, overnight train to Ha Noi. We sure appreciated the rest and later, the dinner.
The train left at 8:15 p.m. with the 16 riders divided into 4 groups of 4 as each sleeping room had 4 bunks. The beds were comfortable and we all socialized until about 9:30 p.m. when it was lights out and blankets on. The train chugged along at about 30-35 mph (my estimate) and made 3 stops I believe. Everyone got some much needed sleep because we knew the train would arrive in Ha Noi at 4:30 a.m. Two buses were at the Hanoi station to meet and take us to various destinations as some people went straight to the airport for their flight home while others checked into one of 2 hotels. However, Holly and I and some others arrived at our hotel at 5:15 a.m. with check in not until 10:45 a.m. To kill time, we used the lobby computers, had the hotel's breakfast buffet, and then roamed the neighborhood after it got light and the City came alive.
After checking in, we walked around the Old Quarter of Ha Noi that is full of shopping and very crowded. We also arranged with some in the group to buy tickets to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater for 3:30 p.m. We got the better seats at $3 each. Cheaper seats were $2. Then, we walked around some more, had lunch, and went back to the hotel to relax until leaving for the show.
The show was incredible and ran for 45 minute. The puppets were all in water and their controls were under water and behind a rear screen. There were 11 scenes all accompanied by an orchestra and singers. We really enjoyed it.
What we did not enjoy was the 40 minute walk back to the hotel afterwards. Without traffic and blocked sidewalks (by scooters parked everywhere), it would have taken 20 minutes. Pedestrians have no rights on the streets and there are very few traffic lights to allow pedestrians to cross safely. But we made it back, relaxed, and then found a nearby place for some Vietnamese pizza. Once again back at the hotel to pack and get some sleep.
We started the next day, Jan. 25, with breakfast and then got the shuttle bus (arranged by Pedaltours) for the 50 minute drive to Ha Noi airport. From there, it was off to fly East and home.
Final comments: Vietnam is an incredible and beautiful place. The people are
hardworking and very friendly to visitors. Many of the younger Vietnamese, at
least in the larger cities, understand English. We never felt threatened due to
crime but we sure were careful crossing a street in Ha Noi or Saigon.
(Pedestrians are lowest in the list of rights-of-way unless you are on a bicycle.
Then you are even lower on the list.) We had to always be vigilant on the bikes
because of traffic, bad roads, construction, and animals roaming free. There
are traffic rules but no one observes them. Remarkably, we saw only one minor
accident when our van was passing a stopped dump truck on a one lane dirt road
and an oncoming scooter tried to go around the right side of us and went off
into the ditch. There was no more road for him to ride on but he did not know
that until he came around the dump truck. Our Vietnamese guide said the driver
had "too much wine." The motorcyclist was not seriously hurt and we
helped pull him and his scooter out of the ditch.
What did I not like? I did not care for the headwinds in southern Vietnam and some of the others complained about the hot temperature and lack of shade. But headwinds and temperature extremes are part of the experience when riding. In the central and northern part of the Country, steep and long climbs, fog, and cold were factors. You had to be prepared. And wherever we rode, the vehicle honking was constant. Drivers used their horns whenever they approached a rider from either direction not as a sign of danger but just to let us know they were there. And vehicles blew their horns or flashed their lights when they approached each other, passed another car or truck, or let a pedestrian know they were not stopping even if the walker were in a marked crosswalk. It really got annoying. I can't wait to get back to Vancouver and Albuquerque where drivers are courteous, law abiding, and do everything right. Just like Holly and I do.
But, I'd do it all again especially with the 15 others CCCTS members who participated. Many of us started off as strangers to each other but are now friends and riding pals. I assume that is a good thing1/2 Thanks with special recognition and appreciation to trip organizers Eric O'Higgins and Chris Hodgson. (Eric, we didn't need no stinkin' blog to have a great time.)