Dust gets in your eyes

Our route for day 3 was fairly straightforward, follow the road QL49 which runs West out of Hue, then join up with the Ho Chi Ming highway which runs south down the middle of the country. Once through the hills turn east and ride to Danang and the sea. Planned as maybe a six hour ride, it turned into 10 hours.

QL49 was a great road but very bumpy, and consisted of huge climbs and descents, great scenery but very hot and dusty. The road was not finished of course, some parts were very tricky with our style of bike. The 70k to the junction to go north seemed to take forever, and when we reached it we dived into the first place with shade to recover with water and coffee. The cafe clearly had not had any western visitors in a while and looked at us and our bike fairly quizzically, that would not be the last similar look of the day.

Every guide you read on Vietnam suggests a bike is the best way to see the country off the beaten track, our day makes that a certainty. We joined the very quiet highway and tried to stop for fuel, but unfortunately they had run out so we had little choice but to continue with what we had. Surely there would be fuel down the road, but for 3 hours we wound ourselves through what has to be a bikers dream but with no places to stop. Good tarmac’d roads winding up and round the hills, following the contours of the valley. No traffic, we saw less than 20 scooters and 2 cars for the entire 5 or so hours on the highway. But at the back of our minds the nagging feeling what if we run out of fuel. Markers on the road counted down the k’s to the next village, 40,30,20 only to find it was actually for a bridge. The only visible help was opening the tank to see if there was fuel in it, which miraculously there was and it didn’t seem to go down too quickly. A small engine definitely helps on that regard. Just as we really needed to stop, as it was getting painful to sit as well as the fuel requirement, we came across a couple of shops, with the great sight of their basic pump which deals the petrol out based on a container line in litres.

Clearly no westerners ever stop here, and why would they? The entire village came along to see us, the lady who ran the shop did speak some English because she was a teacher in the school opposite. She proudly took me on a tour of the few classrooms there. It actually looked pretty good, but some the children had no shoes either in school or by the shop. She said, I think as we had some trouble communicating, that it was very poor there. It clearly was but then this was in the middle of the hills, in the middle of nowhere. The kids smiling and cheeky as usual had their photos taken, and they love seeing them in camera display afterwards. The naughtiest one actually tried to secretly tie some junk to the back of the bike!

A Vietnamese couple chatted to KT whilst we drank bottled sugary green tea, and gave us the slightly dispiriting news that we were a further 3 hours away from Danang. We set off again, at least safe in the knowledge that we had fuel. The road got better and better with large sweeping turns through the valleys and still no traffic. Only one small section was under construction and that didn’t trouble us. Eventually we reached the turning to Danang, stopped at another random shop where a very old lady served us more green tea and some sort of cake. After finding a proper fuel station we set off on a much less interesting road, and then battled through the Danang traffic.

We arrived totally covered in dirt and dust, with panda eyes because of the glasses and face masks we wear for the dust. We must have looked a state, but a shower in a very reasonable, new and clean hotel called the Indochine just off China Beach sorted us out, and we stepped out to find an Aussie bar round the corner serving ice cold beer. It was definitely needed after a mad mad trip.

Would we have done it had we known how long it would take? You would be nuts to do so, but either way it was a fantastically great day.

Slippery when wet

Hue used to be the capital of southern Vietnam back in 1744, but over the years has lost its importance in the running of the country. During the American war over 10,000 people died in Hue most of which were civilians. We took a lazy day away from the bike to walk around the Imperial enclosure, which is a sort of castle within the city walls. Originally made up of around 146 buildings only 30 or so exist, although they are rebuilding them slowly. They were destroyed partly by the French war,but largely by the US, who also dropped napalm on it. It was very calm, peaceful and because it’s so large its easy to get some time to yourself there. The buildings are in both Japanese and Chinese style and the entrance looks very similar to the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. It also has the biggest flag pole and flag in Vietnam, oddly.

What we had noticed is that all the stone floors in the Palace were slippery, and it’s not been recently raining, and it was also 30 deg outside and sunny. Now when we booked our hotel one of the comments was their room smelled of damp. Ours didn’t and was actually quite a nice room for 12 pounds a night. But all the floors in the hotel, mainly granite, were damp or slippery. Our bathroom did not dry out at all and we were on the 3rd floor. Our clothes were slightly damp in the morning as well. Our hotel wasn’t the only place either, bars we went into also had the same problem. Clearly the water table is very high, or the buildings are low, either way they clearly have some issues around the river.

We awoke early to the sound of the dementors again, our pet name for the cockerels. This one seemed to sound like it was in the bathroom.

You can go your own way

On arrival in Hoi An we had looked into booking a motorbike tour for a few days, but having seen the pricing, were put off. So we took the plunge and got our own bike and planned our own mini tour. Our hotel had a recommended company and called them round. We had logged up some hours on a couple of scooters, and our ‘proper’ bike in Dalat, so we knew what we wanted. Big, manual and space to strap bags on the back. We ended up with a big Chinese made cruiser in excellent condition. The rental wasn’t cheap but in comparison to the prices for tours we had been quoted it saved hundreds of dollars. We got the bike from diemomotorrider.com and Mr Vuong.

We packed 1 medium rucksack, strapped it on the back with rubber bands and took off. Our itinerary was pretty much thrown together with 2 key rules avoid the main roads and always follow the simple guide, we are in no hurry. You cannot go fast anyway, 70kph is fast on a bike here and faster would be suicidal. Most of the time you are riding at 40-60kph, or 25-40 mph. This is probably the reason why bikes have small engines, you can’t ride fast and nobody wants or can spend lots of money on fuel. Our monster had a 150cc engine, but with a full manual gearbox and what seemed to be a souped up exhaust it actually pulled along ok, which it needed to as we were going to do a lot of hills.

Our destination for the first day was Hue, around 130k north if you follow the direct route. The road you can take on a bike is via the Hai Van pass, which i think Top Gear rode in an episode. It’s the highest road pass in Vietnam and is stunning. The south side usually has the better weather, which was true. It was also pretty empty as all the busy traffic goes via the new tunnel, but motorbikes are not allowed through it. Along the side of the pass the train line meanders its way around which looks great. The top was partly cloudy, and the north side descent was cooler but the cloud cleared up as we went down. At the top there are the usual collection of vendors and less than good value cafes. We met a couple of easy riders at the top carrying a couple of inappropriately dressed english girls, and they tried to share their wisdom about where to go, which largely consisted of adding hundreds of k’s to our journey. They clearly have greater padded seats than we have experienced or have.

After the descent we continued up the coast, stopped at a roadside shop for some food, and then instead of going directly on we cut across to the local roads and made our way through some villages, large areas of private graves and Mausoleums , paddy fields and grazing water buffalo. Our bike is great on the sweeping roads but less so when the road gets bumpy. By the time we drew into Hue we were pretty sore, tired out and dirty.

We finished the day with a great shower and a fair amount of cold beer and margaritas . We drank at the Hue backpackers hostel which was pretty reasonable and lively, and decided to follow the number 1 choice on Trip Advisor for food, Nina’s cafe. Whilst ok, not sure it deserves its top billing as there are definitely better options.

Where everyone knows your name

We took the train up to Hoi An via Da Nang, number SE08. Pretty much our benchmark for most experiences is, “nothing can be as bad as India”. So in comparison this train was ok, the Cockroaches were tolerable however Paul did not mention the mice until we were well clear, despite the pleas that I could feel something around my feet. But, it took a couple of hours to realise why all the bags were hanging up and people had their feet off the floor. We get back on this train on Sunday to continue to Hanoi, a mere 17 hour journey, we can’t wait..

We arrived around midnight and took a taxi to Hoi An where the extremely kind hotel staff opened the restaurant for food despite the staff sleeping on the floor. The staff are very attentive and everyone knows your name which was slightly disconcerting at first but is a nice touch. Check out the swan display we had in our room upon arrival. There is nothing bad to say about our hotel, which might be a first and they have been brilliant at sorting out new train tickets and our cruiser motorbike for riding up to Hue.

Hoi An is a relaxing experience, very much a stop for middle class westerners, or maybe the Islington set. Just outside the main town there is a whole stretch of luxury resorts along the beach, and a lot of people get bussed in. We are staying in the middle so it’s a short walk to the old city. The old town is a UNESCO heritage site due to the efforts of a Pole who campaigned to have it preserved, which they duly have. The architecture is beautiful and most unusual it reminded us of China with a touch of French. We have managed to get a whole new wardrobe made courtesy of the numerous tailors which are everywhere, fingers crossed we won’t come back looking too Miami vice.

People seem to come for the day or just a night but we have used it as a base to explore the surrounding area. Lots of food options and bars have kept us occupied. We return to Hoi An on Saturday as we are off to Hue on a motorbike adventure.

Rainy days

Our next stop up the coast has been Quy Nhon. This is not on the usual tourist routes as the open route buses do not stop there, and whilst the Saigon-Hanoi train does stop its rarely visited. That in itself seemed like a perfect reason to go, and to break up the journey between Nha Trang and Hoi An.

We had to catch a local style bus from Nha Trang which took 5 hours. The entire journey was a game of chicken, with at points 3 or 4 trucks filling the width of the 2 lane road. Both of our drivers, they changed half way, were mad. Seems to be a running theme,taxi drivers and bus drivers all having death wishes. We think it might be a macho thing, there seems no other reason. There was another western couple and ourselves, we were all relieved to get there.

Quy Nhon has a great long beach, as good as Nha Trang, and thunderous waves crash into the sand. Our hotel was right on the beach and the noise was impressive. Out at sea a whole city of lights appears at dusk with the huge numbers of fishing boats on the horizon.

There are not many tourists here and you do get looked at a fair bit. Getting around you might as well ignore the LP as it is totally out of date. One of the entries only existed for 6 months back in 2008 according to Barbara who ran one of the places which is in the guide and does exist. We had some good local beer and some pasta at her place, along with her getting interrogated on lots of things by us, sorry Barbara.

We had two meals at a random place called Bon Thit Nuong in town mentioned in Trip Advisor. Great food and service although we needed a local to guide us on how to eat some of it. There was no menu, just meat or vegetables with cold noodles or rice. It was pretty basic and very cheap. A starter of sorts, two meals and 2 beers came to 1.50 pounds between us.

During the day we went for a long hike around the city to see the sights and ended up seeing three funerals. Normally this would be odd thing to do I admit, but here they are spectacles in themselves and you cant really avoid them. Much like us you get what you pay for and we saw three different ones of varying expense. The grandest was almost like an episode of Monkey, a man dressed as a pig fake fighting a painted masked man with a stick, playing out the theatre on the street with a supporting cast of 20 odd people, and a clearly very important group of Buddhist monks providing the key words. It went on for an hour on the street and in the house with fairly incessant music and drumming. Then a band strikes up which is quite Mardi Gras and they all get in trucks, vehicles and coaches and go off for the burial. The whole neighborhood turned out to watch and were encouraging us for the best vantage points. The best bit was at the end when another funeral procession then collided with the one we were watching and the street turned into complete chaos, even the locals were laughing.

We found out later that the bits we were seeing were actually the end of the process. Five days of music and other traditions happen prior to this stage, not always good if you are a neighbour. In our hotel later the party continued as a large group from the funeral were singing karaoke and consuming a few beers. Turns out the funeral was for somebody from Vietnam Bank, so I guess bankers are liked somewhere.

The only disappointment has been the weather as its been stormy and on off rain. Such a shame as the beach would have been stunning in the sun. Regardless of the weather we really liked the place, and its worth getting off the trail to see it.

A room with a view

Nha Trang had not been given much of a billing to us, people we have met have said the sea was dirty, the sex industry was rife and there was one good place to spend the day. So those thoughts, combined with it being Valentines day and our recent luck of places to stay, convinced us to relatively splash out. So we booked a room at the Sheraton,which was doing a 3 nights for 2 deal. When we arrived we got upgraded to a sea front executive suite which was stunning, combined with free drinks and food in the club lounge made it an excellent relaxing 3 nights.
The first benefit was that you can see the whole coastline from the hotel and it is a lovely long sandy beach, with gardens and palm trees, with the road behind it. Similarities with Miami or Venice beaches sprung to mind. However the sea looks murky, maybe dirty, and we did not swim in it and many people chose not to from what we could see.
There is a great selection of bars, resturants and travel shops further down which helped us both with food and our onwards bus and train tickets.
As for the sex industry, we didn’t see much to be fair. There certainly seemed to be a number of candidate couples to paraphrase Mrs Merton, ‘what did you see in the overweight rich eastern european’. Although there were a number of clubs and bars which might have fitted the bill, but we didn’t visit them.

There are a lot of Russians in Nha Trang, and a number of shops catered directly to them. Our hotel had a conference, which I think was Russian or Baltic car dealers, and pretty much all of them seemed to follow the dress code out of the film Fargo, including some quality 70’s footware.

We rented a motorbike, which was not the most manly bike I have ridden, and went further up the coast, and the quality beaches and views continued. They seem to have a master plan for development but they are playing the long game. The gardens, beaches and layout are all in place, just no hotels as yet.

Overall we liked the place, although it was probably biased somewhat from the hotel.

The long and winding road

We took a bus from Dalat to Nha Trang, a short ride of 4 and a bit hours over some of the most stunning scenery we have seen so far. The bus, a very bashed up sleeper bus, wound its way up very slowly through the clouds and back down to the coast. We have found that we are going the opposite way to most travellers so the transport can be a little hit and miss, but the advantage is it can be quieter. Our bus was about half full, and because it was old it did have sliding windows which was good because from my ‘bed’ we could take pictures. Not possible really from the newer sealed buses.

On the west side of the hills, there were vast tracks of deforested land that had largely been turned into arable land. It was not a great sight to see, and the clear upshot of this process is the land slips. Once over the cloudy top which seemed to take ages to reach, the land then turned into full jungle which went for as far as you can see. As the land flattened out it became paddy fields with stunning mountain backdrops.

Of course its a Vietnam main road which meant that for large portions of it the road did not exist, was broken, was being built or just was plain scary. Our bus driver managed to truly multi-task by smoking, being on the phone and pretending to drive at the same time. Just what you need with a 500ft ravine a few feet away.

Easy Riding

Dalat, le Petit Paris, honeymoon capital, vegetable paradise and motorbike heaven. Now not sure why Paris other than the mini Eiffel tower and a few french style buildings but the rest is true. Set up in the hills surrounded by stunning countryside its much cooler which is a welcome break. Surrounding Dalat there are huge plantations of every conceivable vegetable, and lots of flowers as the soil is so good. In the city centre there is a market where some of the produce is sold, but most gets shipped all over Vietnam. The usual barmy collection of loaded up scooters carrying all their goods, women carrying cooking facilities, and lots of Vietnamese tourists fill the market amusing colour and odd looking food.

We were only here for two days so our first aim was to sort out an easy rider to take us out into the country. Easy riders are bikers generally with old (or very old) proper motorbikes who you pillion with and act as guides. However we wanted to ride ourselves, nothing like cruising around the hills bugs in your face. We picked, or should i say they picked us ambling along looking lost, a tour from the Easy Rider club next to the Peace cafe. Our rider and guide Kim sorted out a route and another bike for us for an early start the next day. We ate at the book recommended Da Quy where we practically devoured a small farms worth of great vegetables and surprisingly good Dalat local red wine. On our return to our hotel a show was going on in the theatre in the town centre which we were encouraged to go into, it was being televised and a man in a very shiny suit introduced a variety of singers and dancers, including a cracking we love Vietnam show piece, which had something to do with china and a huge flag unveiling at the end. Outside amongst the crowds kids were jumping skateboards and the worlds worse Michael Jackson dancer was trying hard.

After a fairly horrendous nights sleep (more of that later) we met Kim in the morning,there were two bikes to pick from. A Honda cruiser with a slightly better engine than the 125 badged on the side and upgraded seats, and a Chinese badged something cruiser. The latter had a better engine and a very easy clutch, but the seat won. I rode both around the town first to test which was a little hairy. Then without further ado Kim leads us off. We were a little worried about it being a tourist trap as there were lots of stops but every stop was interesting and Kim was an excellent guide. We stopped at a flower farm, saw some cracking vegetable farms, coffee plantations, an impressive happy Buddha, a silk factory which was bizarre and using 200 year old machines, the Elephant water falls, a rice wine and weasel coffee shop( coffee bean eaten by weasel,then you drink it post exit..). We stopped at probably the dingiest and fly ridden ‘restaurant’ yet seen for lunch for Pho, we are still alive 2 days later so it was ok. In between we rode some amazing roads and the scenery was stunning. The seat kept us fine, the engine wasn’t quite my 1000cc Ducati but managed just about. Around 70km round trip later we arrived back, worn out and shared a very welcome cold beer. Lots of graffiti on the walls say thank you and talk about how friendly they are. We totally agree, a great day.

Now usually you get undressed for bed, in our case after waking up itching all over on our first night we put clothes on. We are not sure if it was the washing powder, something in the bed, or something in the air but after the first night we were taking no chances. Thankfully, we still had thermals with us so we were completely covered up for the second night and slept better. We stayed at the Dalat Plaza, room 303. It was also very noisy from the road, and the light in the bathroom was so dim that it was helpful to have a torch.

We booked an onwards bus to Nha Trang.

Room number 21

Our 4 night stay at Nhat Lan on Phu Quoc is finished and we move back to Saigon, next stop Dalat.
Our experience of the island has been pretty good. It’s still an underdeveloped tourist location and none of the big chains are here which is good, until they sort out the roads that’s likely to stay the same. The beaches are good sometimes picture postcard like, some have way to much rubbish on them and as far as we can tell that it is coming from the locals, not tourists. Most of the place is National park which is definitely helping keep the development down. We rode pretty much all round the island and there are pockets of real poverty, especially where there is little or no development, but it has great scenery and is still pretty cheap.

definitely worth a visit to see it. When the roads and airport get developed it will take off and never be the same.

We wrote that our hotel was good value a few blogs ago. After 4 nights it is difficult to say that now in comparison to other places, as we didn’t move. However we would not stay in hut number 21 again for sure, and probably not in the hotel either. This is a tropical island so wildlife is expected, especially rats. There are lots of them everywhere, thats ok, it’s expected. It could be less if the island cleared up its rubbish, or even if the hotels cleared up the rubbish immediately outside their spot.
So.. Hut 21 had rats running over the roof and up the outside walls, so not ideal and they make a racket at night. The cute house puppy dogs running around the beach managed to catch a rat in the beach kitchen. The for all pretenses outside bathroom was a wet room with a hand held shower, the waste was blocked so we had a small swimming pool when you used it. The room had one light, a nice flourescent, and one fan which didnt stand up straight. They never changed the sheets, or towels, or cleaned the bathroom. The reception had one person that could speak any other language. There was wasn’t enough cushions for the few beach chairs that existed, and no bins to put rubbish in, or enough people cleaning up afterwards.
But, the hotel does have probably the best bit of beach, the sea is clean, calm and warm, fish jump out of the water which is a great sight. It has an eclectic and generally very friendly group of people staying from everywhere in the world and not all the huts were like ours, some are right on the beach. It also has rooms in the main block which some adventurous families stayed in.

We rented our scooter from outside the hotel just up on the left past the veranda entrance. They actually gave us a card and said we could call them in event of breakdown which surprisingly is not normal. They were recommended to us, they only do motorbikes. We had to show no id, deposit or passport to get a motorbike. This seems to normal here and 5 dollars a day is standard. Riding here outside of the tarmac’d roads is a little hairy, we saw more than a few tourists with bandages or worse.

We had food one night at Modo which was very good if pricier than the usual, it does great tapas and had decent wine. The chocolate cake there might be the best in the world, a big statement to make but we have never had better. It’s on the main road run by a Swedish couple.

For amusement we went to Amigos and played pool, Yul Brynner was actually playing keyboards/guitar and singing with a couple of matching front singers. It was so bad it was great.

After a night in Saigon we have moved onto Dalat.

On a road to nowhere

We rented a couple of scooters (5 dollars a day) and set out to explore the northern beaches, it turned into a bit of an adventure.

We are staying in Long beach located on the west of Pho Quoc. The northern end of what is a pretty decent sized island is largely national park and we wanted to see the forest as well as the beaches of Bai Dai and Bai Thom. Until relatively recently many of the beaches have been inaccessible due to military installations, and some still are. Pho Quoc is claimed by Cambodia and was given to the Vietnamese via the French annexation of the Mekong delta in 1949, hence the previous military presence.

Of course we got lost on the way to Bai Dai probably around the time the roads literally turned to dust. Some enterprising kids however decided to take us to where we ‘needed’ to go. Fair to say our scooters were not designed to actually ride through partial jungle. A slightly nervous 20 odd minutes later we were back on tarmac, with the growing collection of local kids now all wanting payment for their good work. Clearly sharing money out is not kid etiquette here or probably anywhere.
We did, we think, find the beach or something near to it. We stopped and had a beer at the Mango bay hotel, secluded and definitely more upmarket than ours. Not a bad beach, but you are in the middle of nowhere in this part of the island.

From here we decided to go to the north-east to Bai Thom which was probably another 30km. All the way from the airport to the north-east they have been building a new road. The problem is that they haven’t actually finished it. Dual carriageway (why?) most of the way, but one side is partly finished or the other side is, you have to keep swapping sides, sometimes it’s not clear which side to be on which is a little disconcerting. Then large portions of it are not finished at all and are pretty hairy to ride on as it is large shingle or just small rocks. Then there is the sections which have nothing on but dirt. Comforting for those stuck in road works in the UK, nothing of course is happening or being built. Between the sections are ramps, dips, holes and potholes. Adding to the fun are cows which wander across the road, and dogs which play chicken with you. It is not a good choice for newbie motorbike riders.

Eventually we made it to the north and after a couple of false starts of local rubbish strewn beaches we found our destination. On a clean beach in a warm lagoon we had a great lunch of local grilled squid, and a lukewarm beer. It was truly was what we were looking for, the food was great and so was the service in what was basically a brick shack on the beach. At some point they might finish the road and when they do this area will change radically as it gets built up. After a swim and a great local coffee we ventured back.

We finished the day very late playing pool with some locals but suffering from very badly bruised bodies from the ride. We had been totally covered in dust, sand and a fair smattering of bugs but it was worth the trip.