We were stamped out of China for the last time and crossed the bridge into Vietnam; in doing so the three of us were transformed from savvy ex-expats – who understood how things worked and possessed a passable knowledge of the language – to three clueless travellers in a profoundly different country. Everything on this side of the Red River suddenly had so much more of a South-East Asian feel to it. The roads around town were far narrower than those in China. Palm trees and electrical cables criss-crossed overhead while at street level motorbikes and bicycles heavily laden with fruit I couldn’t name were being pushed about by locals wearing those conical straw hats that scream the de facto image of rural Asia. China, with its traffic jams of shiny 4WD cars all of a sudden seemed very wealthy: on this side of the border, two wheels and two-stroke engines still reigned supreme. Normally border towns are grim places to get out of as soon as possible but we enjoyed the atmosphere of Lao Cai so much (and due to the revisitation of what I ate for lunch throughout the preceding night) we decided to stay the night.
One of the first things I noticed as we rolled across town was the familiar smell of Pho: rice noodles cooked in stock and served with beef that is then covered in coriander, mint leaves, lime, and bean sprouts. The freshness of all the food was a welcome escape from the oily equivalent we had been eating north of the border and we never thought twice about piling fresh coriander onto what seemed like every dish were found. We were content whiling away most of that first day sitting outside a cafe opposite a church, sipping Vietnamese coffee (a shot of super strong coffee mellowed out with sweetened condensed milk) with freshly baked baguettes strapped to the backs of our bikes, to be eaten later. If that scene doesn’t demonstrate the impact of French imperialism on this country (notwithstanding about ten years of war before the Americans had a go) then I don’t know what does.
Judging by the number of foreign faces we saw, a rare breed in rural China, it was clear we had found the tourist trail. While this made things like finding hotels that accepted foreigners and spoke English a thoughtless task, these conveniences came at a price we believed to be extortionately high. Many disgruntled travellers have taken to the internet to describe the act of ripping foreigners off as Vietnam’s national sport and, as we knew nothing about the country, how to say numbers, or just a general idea of how much things should reasonably cost, we were easy targets. Later that day I went to buy a couple of apples and the woman put them on some legit looking scales, the same as they did in China, and said something in Vietnamese while pointing to the 940 that showed on the dial. The number of zeroes on the scale clearly wasn’t geared up for the local currency, in which a thousand Dong represents about 5 pence, so I guessed maybe this meant 10,000. The woman shook her head when I tried to give her this amount. Misguided by wishful thinking, I thought I was getting a bargain here and proceeded to show a 1000 Dong note. Exasperated, the woman snatched 100k from my open wallet and gave me about 4000 back. I was a little too slow to process all this, thanks to my terrible mental arithmetic skills and general avoidance of confrontation, and it took me half of the walk back to the hotel to realise I had just paid over a pound per apple. Evidently I was still in China mode, where you don’t have to be on guard or even try to negotiate because prices are always upfront and usually reasonable. Scott and Sarah, equally unprepared to haggle, had their own experience of being shafted but the apple incident became both the gold standard, against which we judged how badly we were being parted wth our cash, and a form of consolation. ‘It could have been worse,” I’d say, “you could have just bought three apples.” We had barely lost sight of China, but it seemed the rose tint of hindsight was already making us us nostalgic for the way of life in the Middle Kingdom. I really thought it would have taken longer.
From Lao Cai we rode a steep 30km climb to the hill station of Sapa. This is the place famous for rice terraces and villages filled with elaborately dressed members of Vietnam’s minority groups. That’s what the guidebook says, anyway. We wouldn’t know because, as we neared the former French hill station, we cycled into low lying rain clouds that wouldn’t lift for the next three days. At best, we were able to enjoy the the vague outline of our outstretched hand. We were held up in a hotel for the duration, only leaving in vain attempts to find a reasonably priced meal. As a tourist town, dining options fell into a binary of either expensive foreign food in restaurants geared up for people on their holidays or Pho which, as delicious as it is, does not come close to satisfying a cyclist’s appetite. We really needed to learn some more dishes on the Vietnamese menu.
The Long Rode Home duo had family visiting in Hanoi and, thanks to the weather, we realised we wouldn’t have time to take the road we originally wanted. We decided to take the less hilly main road to Hanoi and retreated back down to Lao Cai. Now, it is known that going back the way you came is a sacrilegious act but, thanks to the 1000 meter difference in altitude, if you’re not pedalling it doesn’t bloody count. Five days after crossing the border, we were back within a kilometre of China, feeling that we’d had a bit of a false start in this country and hoped the road to Hanoi would show us a bit more than rain clouds and backpackers.
The road delivered. For the first time since Central Asia, waving and returning greetings from locals was an all-encompassing job. Everyone was so friendly and there was none of the vacant staring that had been so irritating in the big country to the North of Vietnam that I can’t stop comparing everything to. Young kids seemed to loose control of their limbs as they waved frantically as we passed while even the oldest generations gave us a welcoming nod or smile that makes a world of difference when you’re on the road. Most importantly, over the next few days we found out the going rate of the essential items for touring cyclists (bread, laughing cow cheese, and coffee).
While the drizzle continued to remind us that it is indeed January in the Northern Hemisphere, we we cycled through narrow valleys and rustic villages made of thatched wooden houses on stilts. Once again, with the paddy fields, ploughs being pulled by water buffalo, and villagers wearing those conical hat, we basically spent five days cycling across that archetypal rural asian scene, albeit with positively English weather. While we managed to find a few places to camp, including a football pitch on the edge of a village that was mainly used for grazing than sport, the weather ‘forced’ us into hotels most evenings. When the cost of a room can be split between three people, it’s hard to insist on spending the night under canvass.
The the second last day’s last ride of 120km to the edge of Hanoi was fuelled by our anticipation of foreign food rather than our diet of Pho and Banh My (which is not nearly filling enough for three greedy cyclists). While the ride had improved once we left Sapa, I cannot claim I was feeling enthusiastic about riding in this country. The weather and issues we initially had meant our first week in Vietnam had been a learning curve as steep as that exhausting road to Sapa and left us feeling a little ambivalent. Luckily, capital cities really offer the chase to regroup and our time in Hanoi, spent mostly up by the West Lake in the company of our amazing Couchsurfing host, really helped reset my attitude toward this country after a rather negative and wet false start. Remember those apples? Well, our host explained that most apples just cost an absolute fortune here and are mainly given as gifts rather than to rip off clueless foreigners. So with a better understating of how things are done (i.e. what I can eat and how much it costs), I’ll leave Hanoi’s swarm-like traffic with a lot more enthusiasm toward this country than when I entered.