I woke early to the sound of heavy goods vehicles thundering by on the busy highway to Hanoi. I’d just spent the night with a Vietnamese family watching an episode of Vietnams Next Top Model featuring Donna of Haute Culture fame. The family had very kindly invited me for dinner and offered a bed for the night. The bed being the one outside their huge roadside restaurant next to the main arterial road connecting Hanoi to the North.
I was now three days out of the mountains and well on my way towards Cat Ba Island. I’d elected to visit the more relaxed of the Ha Long Bay attractions since I was keen not to end up on the ‘Castaway’ booze cruise with bunch of pissed, horny teenage backpackers, for which Ha Long Bay is famed.
Cat Ba was beautiful but wet. The island is densely packed with limestone karst and is known to have a secret bunker used during the American War. A brisk 19km end to end was undertaken in a light downpour, that then became a storm that stranded guests for the next 72 hours. Having camped the previous evening on the jetty at Tuan Chao and been near washed away by the incoming weather front I took it as instruction to enjoy an extra night and catch up on some sleep.
Back on the mainland at Hai Phong progress South was now the priority, stopping off at Hoi An for what would be a final discussion with Donna about onward travel plans. As I made my way a typhoon began to build just off the coast of central Vietnam. I was about to be stranded for a second time in as many weeks. At Dong Hoi I checked into Ocean View Home Stay in the nick of time. On arrival the very pretty Miss Trang asked if I would be visiting the caves. “What caves?” I replied. “Phoung Nha Caves, the biggest in the world, Vietnams best attraction”. “Erm, hmm, can I let you know tomorrow? Haven’t really thought about it” I said, somewhat bashfully. “Yes, OK, you sleep here, no extra charge”. I was shown to my room and found that, happily, I’d been bumped up from dorm to suite at no cost.
The next day I visited Phoung Nha Caves. First, in the morning, as a group we walked around the ‘Paradise Cave’, which is superb; colourfully surreal, like so many lava lamps left on forever and hidden underground. Then, in the afternoon, alone, I visited the ‘Dark Cave’. I ate a brief lunch, changed into my speedos, life jacket and head torch then zip lined 200m over the river into the cave. I joined a group of a dozen others at this point and we climbed very slowly and carefully deep into a slimy crevice down into the centre of the earth. Girls began to scream. Boys cheered. Everyone held their breath. We were now in a very narrow v shaped opening, covered in cold, thick mud. Each new step would sink us deeper into the soft clay below, sliding down the slippery, muddy walls. Finally we entered a wider cavern. Filled to waist deep with muddy waters we could now swim in mud. Then a curious thing happened. We began to float. Floaty, muddy, suspension. Weird. Mud was thrown. Hell broke loose. We left the cave via a giant natural slide into an icy plunge pool. We kayaked ashore to shower and change. The next day the weather worsened, closing the caves for a week and stranding your narrator.
I arrived in Hoi An (so many anagrams of Hanoi) to meet a flustered and stressed Donna. A broken Mac Book and a deadline the cause. Two days of errands preparing for a blogging conference I was never going to attend and I was ready to leave. So much for the chilled out beach vibes. I will say this about Hoi An; the streets are very charming in a French Colonial way, the lanterns make a pretty spectacle of an evening and the cake is some of the best in the country. A very romantic little town should you have a suitable companion. Donna and I parted for the last time on a sun drenched Monday morning by the river, our plans no longer in harmony.
My next stop along the AH1 was Nha Trang. I’d arranged my first Warm Shower in South East Asia and was very pleased to meet Kateryna on a hectic Saturday night. I’d pushed a pretty chunky day to reach the Russian playground resort in time for Mid Autumn Festival. The celebration was suitably brilliant. Dragons danced high upon the shoulders of teenage boys across the city, reaching up for candy like only sugar crazed adolescents can. Moon cake had become a staple of my diet for the weeks preceding the event; a dense, stodgy, pork pie lookalike of a confectionery – only sweet and often centred with a brace of quails eggs.
From Nha Trang I struck out for Da Lat; a cool mountain hideaway built by the French as summer retreat from stifling city temperatures. It was a punchy decision, much derided by Kateryna, since it was 140km most of which ascent. Kateryna accompanied me to the foot of the mountain, where we took a simple Pho lunch together. I thanked her for her excellent hospitality – so good to spend time with someone that appreciates travel by bike – then started the long, lonely climb to Da Lat. As it turned out I was a little ambitious attempting such a massive day, but only a little, I ran out of day light (and steam) at a small roadside cafe where I ate a couple of egg sandwiches and bunked down for the night – just 23km short of the town.
One final highlight of my journey south was arriving in Saigon in time for my friend Peters birthday. I’d seen Peter six weeks earlier when I was in town for just 48 hours but before that it was his leaving drinks five years previously before he set off to cycle from London to China. It was great to spend some quality time together and to share experiences of our respective trips. We also threw a massive party.
From the big house in D2 to the Mekong. My overwhelming memory of the Mekong is the food markets. Sprawling across small country roads with baskets of snakes, spiders, crabs, ducks, eels, chickens – plus every vegetable ever – the pho was simply the best in the country. I ate well. I’d traveled a couple thousand kilometres and seen a whole country at work. Industrious, hard working and tough. People of Vietnam I salute you – thank you for the memories.