From Hanoi to Cao Bang - the bike ride

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April 18th 2009
Published: April 18th 2009
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Pigs on the way to marketPigs on the way to marketPigs on the way to market

Our first sighting (but not the last) of pigs being transported to market on a motorbike.

Tuesday 14th April

Today we were very lucky! when we arrived at the train station at 4.30am it was pelting with rain. We took our rain ponchos out of our bags and waited. We waited so long the train started moving again as it was shunted to another line. We weren’t the only ones still on board so we weren’t too concerned.

By the time we got off it was only sprinkling so we went back to our original plan which was to kill time walking tot he Army Hotel. Even though Nam in Sapa had contacted them and they said that the hotel would be open for us to find a comfee chair until daylight we are coming to realise that in Vietnam people tell you what they think you want to hear and we were right. When we did arrive at 5.30am we found the doors firmly closed and the place in darkness. As we sat on the doorstep people slowly began to arrive and someone suggested that the doors would open at 6ish. Judy found we had a wireless Internet connection so she was happy that she could use her iphone to Facebook with her friends.

Sure enough the doors did open at about 6 and when rags went to the desk he found they even had a room available so we paid for their buffet breakfast as we were both ravenous and after that we collapsed and slept for over an hour in our room. That seemed to revive us so Judy started selecting and uploading photos to the blog and Rags went to check if anyone else had arrived. About mid morning he discovered some of the other BikeBoyz outside our room - Mark and Neil, they were indeed in the room next to us.

Others were also arriving so we joined them downstairs for a walk and lunch. Of course with so many bodies we couldn’t all agree on where to eat so we split into 2 groups. We head off to a small place in the Old Quarter with Roger and Julianne. We returned to where we’d left the others and found them about to tuck into icecreams so as we had some shopping to do we left them to it.

By mid afternoon we were back at the hotel and spotted Noisy by the pool so we joined him and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing, chatting and swimming.

Dinner was at a “beer hall” which Noisy had previously sussed out and an enjoyable evening was had. As we had an early start we were earlyish to bed after that.

Wednesday 15th April

On the way down to breakfast Rags received an sms from his daughter, Julie, announcing the birth of his fourth grandchild, Benjamin James.

We all met our group and tour leader from Buffalo Tours, Han, in the lobby and were on our way soon after 8am. We were taken approximately 270 kilometres north of Hanoi passing through small town and endless field of rice paddies. Dwellings ranged from the 4 story colourful “mansion” to thatched roof huts on stilts. Our tour guide, Han regaled us with stories including the history of Vietnam. When questioned about the many massage parlours advertised he told us that they were mainly “happy ending” massages unless otherwise requested.

At Bac Kan we pulled into a restaurant that was a large open area on stilts - quite impressive. Food was a selection of Vietnamese dishes including stir fried Tofu and tomato, beef and vegetables, soup, rice and spring rolls. At this place we bought a bottle of corn spirit (29% proof) to taste later with our Diet Cokes. As it was only about $2 we thought it was worth taking a risk!

Just outside of the small town of Phu Thong on the side of a hill, we were met by the van containing our bikes. Everyone was quite impressed with their quality, they all being fairly new. Each one was labelled with our name as we had previously sent our measurements. We took off in dribs and drabs and began the long climb up the hilly track. Han had told us the ride was over “undulating” road but the arduous take off up a steep hill soon dispelled any possibility of merely undulating road. This proved to be almost too much for several of the women (including Judy) who were less experienced.

As Judy was unfamiliar with the bike and different gears Rags stayed with her to assist for the first 15 kilometres. By this time Judy was finding it difficult and decided to walk up the hill. the bus wasn’t far behind so Rags left her to try to catch up with the main group who were well in front by this time. Rags pushed himself pretty hard and at one stage narrowly missed a buffalo on the side of the road. There were many obstacles including buffalo, chickens, dogs, children, scooters and the odd car that decided to veer towards us to startle us.

Judy managed to keep going for another 5kms until she saw the 20km mark which was her goal for the day. As the bus was following closely by this stage she stopped and joined Julie in the bus. Julie who is a non rider had found the first long uphill run too much.

It was quite some time before anyone else joined us. The first couple was Julianne and Roger. After that it was after about 35 kms when we had driven through the small town of Cho Ra that we came across 3 more riders. It didn’t look good - Pixie was quite unwell, probably suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Looie and Baguette were with him so they all joined us on the bus when Pixie was up to it.

It was now starting to get dark and we came across Gavin, the 15 year old son of Mr and Mrs Pixie as well as our tour guide. Just before we reached our destination, we found Marge and Jan but when Han, our tour guide told them they only had another 500metres they continued walking their bikes up the hill!

When we arrived we found “the pack” upstairs into the beers already! Rags was amongst this group, having pushed himself to the utmost, even to the stage of having to walk up several hills, arriving about 10 minutes after the main group. This timing was helped because they’d stopped for a beer at Cho Ra!

The accommodation at the BaBe National Park was in the form of a line of double sided huts reached by walking down a dark path. We were glad to get into the shower to cool off but while Judy was in the shower we lost the poser for the lights in the main room. Also the water didn’t drain away which meant the bathroom was awash as they were Malaysian style bathrooms with the shower going directly onto the floor. Luckily, Dunno came to the rescue. As he was an electrician he discovered that the
The peaceful lake at BaBeThe peaceful lake at BaBeThe peaceful lake at BaBe

It’s about 7km long and a kilometre across at its widest point. Around the lake are several small villages inhabited by members of the Tay, Red Dao, Coin Dao and White H’mong ethnic minorities.
hold water system had earthed through the water and the trip switch hadn’t worked. this made it very unsafe. Luckily there was another room available and we moved here.

Dinner was served and proved quite interesting. It included a plate of chips, spring rolls, chicken, fish head curry, pork pieces, fried cabbage plus a plate of nashi pear quarters and soup and rice!

People were tired so they drifted off to bed after dinner.

Thursday 16th April

This morning we were ready for breakfast at 6.30 however this was not served until after 7am. We are learning about Vietnam time!

The morning excursion was to BaBe lake. Here we boarded a crude boat that took us on the long journey to a “waterfall” at the other end. The lake, in the National Park was inhabited by the local people whose families originated there and they continued their farming and fishing lifestyle. The “waterfall” was a bit of a disappointment as we were expecting more than some fast flowing white water. However what was interesting was the locals net fishing in the fast water.

From here we went to collect Pixie and Dunno from the hotel. Pixie is still unwell and Dunno had stayed with him. Back at the hotel we also had a “happy room” stop - these being few and far between. Even here we had no water in the ladies loo to wash our hands!

Lunch was had in an upstairs room of a local family. One of the more unusual dishes here was a fish head curry!

The road to Cao Bang was long and winding so we both nodded off in the warmth of the bus. Judy had reconsidered her thoughts on riding. She feels that it is foolhardy for her to ride up steep hills, starting in the heat of the day when she is a morning person and owing to the lack of “happy rooms” she is not well hydrated. The temperature feels like about 35 degrees and the humidity about 90%!

The decision was taken out of her hands however as the bus was also struggling to get up the hill about 10 kms from our intended starting point. All of a sudden the airconditioning was turned off and the next minute the bus ground to a halt. The consensus was that it wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry so gradually the group all walked to the next little group of houses where there was a local “shop” which had a few beers. These were soon being consumed by the thirsty!

A few of the more able riders decided to start riding, Shredder borrowing Rags helmet,as his was left on the bus and Rags was still in the truck from yesterday. Rags decided to remain with Judy who certainly had no intention of even attempting the 70 odd kms still left to Cao Bang. When it didn’t look like the bus was going anywhere in a hurry, our tour guide, Han, suggested we ride in the back of the truck to the top of the next hill and coast down. This we refused point blank to do, suggesting instead that we catch the next local bus to our hotel in Cao Bang. And this is what we did along with Pixie, his wife, Julie and son, Gavin.

The bus ride was hair-raising enough for us with the driver careering around corners often with only one hand on the steering wheel as he was speaking into his mobile held to his ear! We passed the riders, several of whom were already walking up the hill (mountain?) It was obvious that there was no possibility of them reaching Cao Bang before dark.

We arrived just after 6pm at the Thanh Loan Hotel. They were excellent, giving us keys to our rooms straight away and making us feel welcome. Once we had washed we met again downstairs for a few refreshments while we awaited the arrival of the others.

They came in 2 lots.The first, most of the group arrived in a mini bus that Han had waved down. Baguette and Looie came after. They had been put into a ute and their driver hadn’t known where to take them. He’d called his daughter who spoke in perfect English to them and they arranged to be dropped at the post office where Looie was able to contact the owner of Buffalo Tours who had spoken to Han and knew what had happened. He also contacted Noisy’s wife in Australia and asked her to contact Noisy and let him know where they were. However by the time Noisy came to tell Han, they had arrived as the owner of Buffalo Tours had already called
Even hot for the localsEven hot for the localsEven hot for the locals

It was so hot hot out even the locals used umbrellas and we were expected to start riding!
Han and he’d been to pick them up. Quite a scary experience we think for Looie and Baguette!

A late dinner was had at a nearby restaurant and all agreed that this was the best meal we’d had so far.

Friday 17th April

Breakfast was in the hotel and consisted of an airy white roll and jam with some juicy fresh pineapple. It was brought out as we arrived which was a much better idea than having to wait for the whole group to arrive.

We didn’t have to pack up after breakfast so we could be down at the bus promptly at 8am. We drove through open countryside dotted with villages, up and down mountains. Vegetable gardens were poked into any available plot of land as were corn and rice plots.

We stopped at the little market town where everyone had a great time photographing the sights and making a few interesting purchases.

We then stopped at a local school of Truong Tieu Hoc Phuc Sen as some people in the group had brought pencils and books from Australia for the children. What an amazing experience. The teachers allowed us to completely disrupt their program and the children were happy to pose for photos(as you’ll see in our photos)

After and hour and a half we stopped on the side of a mountain to unload the bikes. The road was narrow with many broken, rocky edges. The road veered sharply downhill and Judy decided there was no way she was going to ride down that and after watching a convoy of trucks coming up the hill and passing others going down she was glad of her decision!

The cyclists were off, some, like Rags managing to get past the trucks but for others it was a case of matching their speed to that of the trucks so they were unable to get past for quite some time. It was a fast ride downhill for the cyclists and we didn’t catch them up in the bus as it slowly picked its way over uneven, broken roads until we reached the lunch stop in Trun Khanh. While we waited for lunch we did some shopping at the little local stalls across the road from the restaurant.

A plate of delicious noodles, apple and cucumber portions and omelette was lunch for today. Everyone agreed that this was one of the better meals so far!

Bikes were again loaded in the truck for the continuation of the trip to the Ban Gioc Waterfall on the border of Vietnam and China. Half the river and waterfall, the largest in Vietnam belongs to China and the other half to China.

We turned back towards Cao Bung from here, stopping at the Nguom Ngao cave on the way. This cave, discovered in 1920 has only opened to tourists in 2006. It was a huge cave full of amazing stalactites but poorly lit and with little regard to preserving it’s unique features.

The boys broke out the beers after this which made for a rowdy, but fun trip back. It took us 2 and a half hours from here so it was well after dark when we arrived back at the hotel.

It was after 8pm by the time we’d assembled for dinner and to make matters worse we waited at the restaurant for over an hour for our food. this was a hotpot but unlike the one in Sapa where the food was brought to the table too be cooked all at the
One for LarniOne for LarniOne for Larni

Larni, you asked to see what the rooms are like that we are staying in. This one was colourful.
same time it took an hour for them to bring out the raw food to put in the hotpot. As you can imagine it was a battle to get food with a table full of starving people vying for the food as it slowly came to the table.

By the time we returned to the hotel we could do no more but crash on the bed!

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Friendly sellers at the marketFriendly sellers at the market
Friendly sellers at the market

All the people were very friendly which was amazing with the number of camera toting tourists from our bus. We were the only tourists though.
The children sang a song for us.The children sang a song for us.
The children sang a song for us.

And we sang Advance Australia fair for them!
Pinnacle like hillsPinnacle like hills
Pinnacle like hills

We saw lots and lots of these shape hills on the way to Ban Gioc Waterfall.
Our group in the cave.Our group in the cave.
Our group in the cave.

Nguom Ngao means “tiger’s cave” in the language of the local Tay ethnic minority. It is said that a long time ago, many fierce tigers sheltered in the cave and would enter the nearby village to hunt for livestock and even humans.

18th April 2009

Hey Guys This sounds pretty full on, not my idea of a holiday! Although the pic of the accommodation you put on here for me is better than the description of some of the other places. Love the updates! Larni
18th April 2009

Well it certainly looks llke a different holiday for you this time !! The country looks lovely but the kitchen didn't look to choice! It didn't sound as though you were any safer on the bus than you were on the bikes. I'll be glad to see you home. The accommodation certainly appeared very nice. The curtains were a different "Look". What time do you arrive home? And do you want me to pick you up ? Love Ya.
19th April 2009

Sounds like you are having a wonderful time but you are making me exhausted just reading about it. As for me, this holiday has been about a good book and a comfy chair. Keep up the hard work for us all. Really, sounds like fun. Love Di
20th April 2009

Just like being there!
Hi Judy, thanks for the blog, saves me the trouble of doing my own and I like your version. Mine would just be a list of favorite beers and good local meals....ha ha ha Notice you left out all the dirt on you and Raggs ? Maybe I should do my own.

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