Our final day of riding in China started in a town we hadn't planned on visiting. Pingbian was most of the way up a 500m climb and since we had already gone up most of it the night before whilst trying to find a hotel, we thought we may as well just continue along this road to the border. The joy of climbing this high again is the descending you get to do down the other side and this last descent certainly didn't disappoint especially with Queen's Greatest Hits in your ears.
We didn't make it to the border town of Hekou in time to cross to Vietnam before it got dark and since we still had some Chinese money left, we stayed one final night in China. We had read that Hekou was pretty bland but actually we found a great little place which did small dishes and smoothies for a really reasonable price and retired to bed feeling positive for the next adventure.
The fear of entering a new country had worn off by the time we got through the border. It took us 40 minutes of answering questions about why we had been in China and our onward journey and one final bag search before they stamped us out of our favourite country so far, and over the bridge we crossed to Vietnam. We were stamped in by a really unfriendly border guard and we on our way into Lao Cai. We stopped at the first coffee sign we saw and tried our first authentic Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk over ice which is GLORIOUS and that is coming from someone who has refused to drink coffee for the whole of my life up until a few weeks ago. I didn't ever like the taste or even the smell, but it's amazing how one's palate can change especially when caffeine is so strongly needed. Entering a country which uses the Latin alphabet was a hit to the senses and I felt my brain get overwhelmed by being able to read everything (even though I didn't know what it meant). We'd been in China for two months and Georgia for a week or two before that so it had been along time since we'd been able to freely read everything. That was something totally new to me and something very unexpected.
We'd been recommended a phone store by another bike tourer on the Whats App group so we trotted off in that direction to get a sim card for Vietnam. On the way we had our first taste of banh mi (or banh my) - a relic of the French colonial days. Banh mi were a sight for tired eyes as they are baguettes filled with yummy meat and veg. At least these ones were. We wanted to get out of Lao Cai and start our journey down to Hoi An so left behind the plethora of karaoke bars and started on the quieter, non highway, road down through the foothills towards Hanoi.
We were going to eventually circumvent Hanoi as we want to avoid these major cities as much as possible, especially as the driving really has hit rock bottom. Our first two days in Vietnam started out fine; we tried to local food and beer but struggled with finding enough calories to ride through the heat and humidity (now back up to about 80% humidity and over 35 degrees) especially as we were still undulating quite sharply and the Vietnamese don't care about steep inclines like the Chinese do. They'll just go straight up that hill!
The afternoon of the second day brought about our first accident. It wasn't major and was at low speed so nothing was damaged and I was just pushed into the barrier, but a car tried to overtake us on a corner going uphill with an oncoming truck coming down the other way. First I knew of it was Mike shouting obscenities behind me and suddenly a forceful shove in my rear nearside pannier which pushed me into the barrier. I'll be eternally grateful for that barrier as there was a bit of a run off down the hill but it just brought me to a stop. Thankfully the car didn't continue to push me against the barrier but I started hitting the passenger windows the whole way down the car as it started to speed off, not stopping to check if I was OK. Mike, in the meantime (a few seconds) had got off his bike and was running after the car and managed to smack its rear window. It was quite a fancy car, a standard we hadn't seen for a while as we were in a pretty poor part of Vietnam, but didn't catch the number plate. No one stopped. We checked in with each other, checked the bikes quickly and cycled on in case the vehicle had stopped to check themselves. I don't know what we were going to do if we caught up with them, but the adrenaline was pumping. Not far along the road we saw a car which looked exactly like the one which hit us, but since we didn't know the number plate we couldn't be sure. However, we've not seen one the same before or at all since so it's possible that was it. The driver was no where to be seen and there were dogs guarding the property so with the adrenaline slowing down, we went on our way. We figured we'd probably scared the shit out of the driver anyway with two foreigners banging on his car and screaming obscenities, but considering the standard of driving in Vietnam nothing is going to improve even if we did confront him. About 14,000 people die on the roads every year in Vietnam, that's compared with less than 2,000 in the UK last year.
The next day or two didn't improve and our first impressions of Vietnam certainly didn't match up to our love of China. I'll let our vlogging do the talking:
So since we started anew, things have got much better. It's probably coincided with our journey passing by Hanoi and now we're on the much more travelled roads. We're paying fair and consistent prices for food and drinks and we're enjoying ourselves! Definitely a turn up for the books. The cycling is tough in the headwind but it's so flat that it's to be expected. Mike collapsed in a bike shop when we were in Kunming a couple of weeks ago and I think it's fair to say he's not recovered from the exhaustion of the mountains and I'm really starting to wilt. Luckily we only have 6 more days of cycling before having an 8 day rest in Hoi An to get my wedding dress made. Neither of us want to wish the trip away but we're definitely looking forward to the break.
Posts by either Mike or Helen. Individual authors will be named.