Monday, 27 June 2005

Hanoi day 5, Monday 27 June

Monday 27 June 2005

Awoke before 5am. Jogged to Hoan Kiem Lake to meet Ron Brent, as arranged, at 5:30am. We jogged around three times while chatting, then walked another lap taking photos. We both used the video options on our cameras and should have some good footage.

To the usual breakfast in the hotel about 7:30am. Called Carolyne. The hotel had not delivered my laundry as expected yesterday afternoon, so chased that at reception. The staff brought 5-6 bags for me to check, but no luck. Then they told me it would be another 2 hours, while they checked at another hotel. This was not good. It turned up an hour later.

My first priority was to arrange the next step in my journey. After much reading and discussion with other travellers - Fiona & Sam in particular - decided that would travel to Cat Ba Island and Ha Long Bay independently and give myself as much flexibility as possible. Went to a reputable-looking nearby travel agency (there are hundreds to choose from) and bought a combined bus ticket Halong City and boat to Cat Ba Island (127.000D). Once there can arrange my own accommodation and guide to the national park. After one or two days hiking will arrange an overnight boat trip in Halong Bay, the immediate north of the island.

Spent time shopping for the second successive day: two sets of chopsticks, each comprising five pairs, made of wood and tipped with oyster shell (40,000D); a 300,000D Vina recharge card; another pair of light, local shorts, better made than the first pair, for 55,000D; two oranges for tomorrow's journey; and two minature bottles of Ha Noi vodka (5,000D each). At the Vina card shop the proprietor offered me 600,000D for my phone before I leave Vietnam. He explained that he needed a robust second-hand one for customers who need a phone while having theirs repaired. Bought a sweet rice bun, a coconut bun and a savoury roll for 8,000D.

For lunch went to Dong Xuan Street, my favourite eating lane beside the Dong Xuan Market. This time went to a place which operated like a minature buffet: a bloke served rice onto a plastic plate from a huge pot of rice, and stuck a small, flat metal spoon in the top. Then each person selected the desired food from possibly fifteen bowls, I chose mustard greens, string beans, pumpkin/squash in garlic (first time had seen pumpkin/squash), tofu in tomato sauce, squid, beef and peanuts in chilli. Sat on a tiny plastic stool and ate the bowl from my lap. Was delicious and cost the princely sum of 5,000D (the cost of a small bottle of water).

Spent some time on the free Internet in the hotel. During the day there are few guests around so the computers are usually free. Had a shower and a 40 minute snooze. This was lazy living! Then some more time on the Internet. Returned to the same little store to download the videos and photos i've taken since yesterday. Very friendly bloke who plays classic guitar very well.

Back at the hotel checked on my laundry. Despite all the hotel guff that says that laundry is returned by 5pm, it was not yesterday and was not today. Complained and explained that will be leaving early. The fellow wandered off to retrieve it from elsewhere for me so gave him 10,000D tip - we were both happy.

Sunday, 26 June 2005

Hanoi day 4, Sunday 26 June

Sunday 26 June 2005

Slept in till 7am. Showered and was at breakfast before 8am for the usual comprehensive Camellia Hotel spread of fruits, eggs, bread, yoghurt and tea. The day was bright and shiny.

Bought two more tee shirts (50,000D) that are the Vietnam flag design: red with a yellow star. Have found the one I bought two weeks ago comfortable, light and easy to wash. Bought a North Face (Vietnam original!) day pack for 150,000D for use while travelling to Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay. Downloaded my latest photos to my photo CD for 20,000D. Bought a 5 litre mineral water, 3 cans of beer and a Diet Coke for 48,000D.

As we'd arranged, Sam & Fiona met me at the hotel about 12:45pm and I took them to the alley near Dong Xuan Market. Had a spring roll and a bowl of noodles with vegetables and snails (7,000D). It was delicious, though Sam & Fiona were not so keen on the snails. Fiona introduced me to the ease of using my camera as a video. While feeling rather foolish that I had not tried it before, was hooked. They had several books that wanted to exchange so we went to a small store opposite my hotel. There were not a lot of books, but sufficient and in alphabetical order by the author's surname. They gave four books and selected three, of which they had to pay for one. I bought F Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night(65,000D) that have not read since was at Uni, but remember it was good.

We continued down to Hoan Kiem Lake for a coffee at the lakeside place I'd tried and enjoyed 2 weeks before. Had an espresso (17.000D) while enjoying the lakeside setting and the shade. Along the wall between us and the water were small jets sending out fine sprays of water to keep guests cool.

While there tried Ron Brent's Australian mobile phone, in the absence of hearing from him and after failing to get through earlier. He was in his hotel, the Army Hotel, on the swish side of town, looking after his 7 year old daughter who was mildly sick, while his wife Anne and teenage daughters were out. Agreed to go to see him. Agreed with Sam & Fiona to meet them either on the bia hoi intersection or at the same restaurant as the night before. They liked the places I'd introduced them to!

Caught a scooter to the Army Hotel for 6,000D (fellow only had 2,000D change for my 10,000D note, so he made 8,000D). This is not the top hotel but is 4 star and huge . By the time I arrived all of the family were there. We chatted, then Ron and I went walking to find an ATM. As soon as we left the hotel women followed and called out to us. This was the first time had seen prostitutes, obviously in the area of the expensive hotels. Finished up at the ANZ ATM on the far side of the lake. Ron had to get back, so took him to a spot for scooters and off he went for 7,000D.

It was now 5:30pm. As I passed the bia hoi intersection saw Sam & Fiona there. Had a beer with them. After they went off to the restaurant (they were catching the evening train to Ho Chi Ming City) chatted to a Finn and waited for the Brent's. They arrived right on time at 6pm. Had expected they would have caught a taxi, but they came on 5 scooters! We strolled to the restaurant and joined Sam & Fiona. There were not a lot of people there, as have noticed that 7pm is the peak time. Had mustard greens and garlic, grilled pigeon, rice and a Tiger beer for 49,000D. The pigeon was predictable: bony with not a lot of meat, but the meat was gamey and tasty. The Brent's enjoyed the food, and for just one third what they'd paid the evening before.

Strolled with them to the lake and around to the water puppet theatre at 8pm. I then searched several Internet joints until found a computer with a CD reader. Then spent 2½ hours downloading the remaining photos from the CD. To bed after a shower at 11pm.

Saturday, 25 June 2005

Sa Pa to Lao Cai, train to Hanoi

Saturday 25 June 2005

Woke at 5:30am, and was showered and the first person to breakfast at 6:30am. Sat by the window of the hotel restaurant looking into the valley below and across to the highest mountains in Vietnam, unfortunately still covered in mist and cloud. Pleasantly quiet. Bought some water for the cycle to Lao Cai, packed and checked out of the hotel. As the temperature was quite cool as always in Sa Pa at this time of year, wore a tee shirt under my jersey for the descent.

Was on my bike soon after 7:30am. First had to return the room key to the Son Thuy Hotel that had inadvertently taken with me. Then started the twisting, winding descent, being careful of the many buses and some trucks, mainly heading to Sa Pa. Overtook a bus on the way down and it was another 15 minutes before it overtook me on an incline, with horns blaring and everyone in the bus smiling, waving and yelling at me: am sure that the first time they'd seen a cyclist faster than a bus! Had a close call when a bus coming towards me overtook a truck on a blind corner. I was traveling fast and had to brake hard and hug the edge of the bitumen, with little room to spare. If I'd been a bus there would have been trouble.

Friday, 24 June 2005

Vietnam cycle, recovery in Sa Pa

Friday 24 June 2005

Hotel was quiet and did not wake until 6 am, after 11 hours sleep.

Felt better this morning but deteriorated through the day. Changed hotels to the Royal Sa Pa (Cau May Street), a nicer one in the centre of town, for US$12, including breakfast. My room has views across to the mountains but there were only clouds. Ate well - there is a good mixture of tourist restaurants and local com phos. Had breakfast at the Royal (15,000D), bought two big mangoes and two small pineapples in the market, and two sua chua. For lunch ate at one of about 10 com phos in the market: a big bowl of tasty tofu and noodles for 6,000D! There were no tourists here, only wonderfully dressed montagnards.

The weather was uninspiring: heavy cloud and fog over the huge mountains close by. Drizzled on and off. My six-year-old sandals eventually are showing bad signs of wear: the front of one start flapping, so had it repaired by a street shoe repair man for 10,000D.

Enquired about the train to Hanoi. Tomorrow will catch the day train - leaving 10:20am - to Hanoi from Lao Cai about 37 km from here. It's a downhill ride to Lao Cai so should be okay.

Then a 10 hour train trip, arriving after 8 pm. Have booked myself into the Camellia 4 Hotel in Hanoi, it's 2 minutes walk from the Camellia 2 where I stayed last week which has no vacancies. Will ride from the station to the hotel. Will make sure I recover before venturing afield again, probably to Halong Bay.

Spent some time in Internet joints clearing my emails (45 since Wednesday evening). While walking the streets saw a dog being bled and its fur singed in preparation for dinner tonight. The fog came into town and reduced visbility to a 100 metres or so.

Walked towards recommended restaurants but on a whim tried another - a mistake. Before ordering meal, ordered a cold Tiger beer (11,000). It arrived frozen solid and had trouble convincing the woman serving me there was a problem. She brought another but it was the same. She spent the remainder of my time in the restaurant pouring the little beer that defrosted. The only other diners were an unfriendly, smoking, old American couple. Ate fried, mixed vetables (8,000D), grilled wild boar with lemon grass 25,000D) that was excellent, and steamed rice. The staff were very friendly but I became frustrated with frozen beer and difficulty in getting the standard soy and chilli (she brought ketchup). Was insufficient food but could not bothered trying to get more.

Back at hotel did some blogging, amongst smokers and screaming kids.

Thursday, 23 June 2005

Tam Duong to Sa Pa, 74km, 1,850m ascent

Thursday 23 June 2005

Had a disturbed sleep, with a sore throat waking me. Eventually got up at 5:15am, with a cold and headache. Showered and to breakfast of two bananas, two bread rolls with fried eggs and coffee in the hotel at 6:30am. As I ate in the lobby colourfully-garbed montagnard women were walking along the road outside.

Noticed am missing news from the outside world: no radio, TV in English or newspapers. Carolyne sends me brief news snippets.

It was sunny and warm and I started the ride at 7:30am, third day in a row at this early time!

Passed through several small villages of H'mong, Dao and Lu. Rice paddies lined the road, with many water buffalo both on and off the road. At 7km started the first climb of the day. Though nothing like what was to follow, was still substantial at 400m. The views of the craggy karst mountains behind were wonderful. Noticed it was cooler by the top.

The descent was pleasant, made doubly enjoyable for 5-6 km as the road was straight and I could let fly without braking. Covered 5km in 6 minutes. At the bottom of the descent came to Binh Lu. Stopped there to buy cans of Coke and two Buffalo, and more water. Wanted to have plenty for the massive climb ahead. Started with 5 litres, plus a couple of bananas.

The road started climbing immediately out of town, but it was 4km until it became steep and could see it snaking high above.

With regular km markers was able to determine how much further had to climb the 22km up the mountain. Within a couple of km the views behind and around me became striking, improving all the time as I climbed. For about 7km followed a gully with a creek roaring down over the rocks. In the distance could see water falls. There was little traffic. Stopped several times to drink or eat a banana. The temperature distinctly cooled by half way. After leaving the creek climbed up the mountain side, the road twisting back and forth. When there was a scooter or bus, in front or behind, could usually see it a couple of km away. Could now see a long way, with huge mountains all around and the valley falling away behind me. Most of the time was accompanied only by the roar of the many waterfalls.

While stopped for a break two Aussies on a motorbike coming from Sa Pa stopped to take off their rain jackets at the same spot and advised that it was raining ahead. That did not worry me: still felt hot and was drinking a lot. Once in the rain felt the temperature felt comfortable but realised would probably be cold over the pass. The views slowly disappeared into the mist, and I just kept plodding on. The fog became thicker, with visibility reduced to a couple of hundred metres.

In the steady rain eventually saw the communications towers that signalled had reached Tram Ton pass, the highest road in Vietnam at 1,900m. At the pass there was thick, clay mud all across the road and had to negotiate it carefully. The fog was even thicker, with visibility at only a few metres. Then the blessed descent, with the road rather broken up for the first time. Had to limit my speed as there were some big potholes, all full of water, and the fog. Within a couple of minutes started to feel cold. Where I had to pedal felt okay, but with the rain continuing steadily the freewheeling sections made me feel very uncomfortable. The temperature was definitely lower here that on the other side of the pass. Counted down the 14km to Sa Pa. The closer I got, the worse I felt.

Arrived in Sa Pa at an altitude of 1,650m frozen to the bone and unable to lift my bags off my bike etc. Stopped at the first little hotel on the edge of town as I could not go on. People helped with my bags and got a warm shower going for me. Rested in bed all rugged up for a couple of hours but when I went to find my way around the town about 4pm could not orient myself and was constantly confused. Realised was suffering from low blood sugar and mild hypothermia. Found that the hotel was ordinary and about 2km out from the town centre. Bought four sua chua to keep me going. At 6pm had a good meal at the Little Sa Pa restaurant. Wandered slowly back and was sound asleep by 7:30pm.

Wednesday, 22 June 2005

Lai Chai to Tam Duong, 106 km, 990m ascent

Wednesday 22 June 2005

Had a bad night. Was woken at about 3am by teeth on my big toe. Was very dark. Jumped up and switched on light. Looked around, checked the bed but could see nothing. For a moment thought it might have been a vivid dream, but remembered sequence of distinct feelings. Knew it was a rat, as that is the only creature capable of attacking in this way. Left bedside light on with eye-shades but could not sleep. The power went off, causing the air-conditioner to stop. Heard a movement. Found my torch and saw a medium-sized rat disappearing through a hole in the bathroom. Lay down with torch on my head, and the light on. Felt uncomfortable and stayed awake till I arose at 5:15am.

Had been wondering what had attracted the rat, and with the power was now on, saw a hole chewed in my Vegemite tube.

Showered and was first person to breakfast at 6am. Had noodles with beef (10,000D0, a bread roll and omelette (10,000D), and coffee (5,000D).

Had rained during the night and outside mist was hanging low all around. My glasses kept fogging up.

Left the hotel at 7:30am, delayed only by a New Zealand couple chatting to me. Followed the right hand (eastern) bank of the Na River. 4 km out of Lai Chai crossed a great suspension bridge provided by China few years ago. The countryside was very rugged, with the river valley a narrow gorge for most of the time. There was a small population, with only tiny scattered villages. Not a lot of traffic. Saw evidence of deforestation, with the high slopes denuded. Because of the terrain the road undulated, making it strenuous work in the heat and humidity. Fortunately had occasional shade from the jungle rising steeply from the road.

Continued this way for 60 km to Pa Tam where I stopped for a Buffalo energy drink, a Coke and a bottle of cold water. Then on another 14km to Pa So, the only town of any size between Lai Chai and Tam Duong. The town was a mess of mud washed across the roads. Stopped at 12:30pm at the the Lan Anh 2 Hotel for lunch (the proprietor of the hotel of the same name in Lai Chau had given me a map). Started with a 1.5 litre bottle of cold water and ordered the 40,000D set menu: spring rolls, steamed pork with tomato, mixed fried noodles, teamed rice, fried pork wrapped with herbs and fried vegetable (cabbage). It was a substantial and tasty meal.

Left the restaurant at 1:15pm and headed out into the heat - the sun was shining brightly. Continued to follow the Na River for 5 km until the start of the climb out of the valley. The heat and humidity affected me quickly, with sweat pouring off me. Stopped several times, panting heavily. Took my time but the km markers moved slowly. Eventually the noticed a distinct drop in temperature and even though was feeling tired, rode more easily. Passed many water buffalo with black Dao children and women tending them. The women wore black clothes with a large black hat tied tightly around their heads. The young women were wary of me, not responding to my smiles or waves. The children generally did so, and older women also.

It took an hour 25 minutes to get to the pass out of the valley and was pleased to start descending. Took another 20 minutes before I reached the outskirts of Tam Duong. Rode slowly making sure I didn't miss the centre of town and hotels. Found one hotel, then saw immediately the Wes Hotel opposite: it had been recommended by the New Zealand travellers this morning.

Was given a room at the back, but the air conditioning was not connected. The room only was 150,000D, with breakfast an additional 20,000D. Called Carolyne. Felt very weary. Had a shower and washed my cycling clothes. At 4:45pm a terrific storm hit, with strong winds and heavy rain. The wind eased but lightning and tremendous thunder followed. The power went off several times but only for 10-15 minutes at a time. Could do little but enjoy the storm through my large open window.

Went for an early dinner, in the rain, to the Tuan Anh restaurant, recommended by both Lonely Planet and the guide, Kien, last night and very close to the hotel. Had two Ha Noi beers (12,000D each), vegetarian springs (20,000D) that were superb, tofu in tomato and chive sauce (15,000D), a long, green vegetable (8,000D), noodles and beef (25,000D), steamed rice (5,000D) and 2 bananas for dessert. Though expensive it was a huge meal and excellent. An international volleyball match with Vietnam and Kazakhstan was showing on the TV. I was the first customer but many more arrived before I left at 7pm. The proprietor looked at my legs and indicated that I was a cyclist - this has happened several times while I've been riding. Left restaurant at 6:50pm.

Bought two 1.5 litre bottles of water (14,000D) and went to an ADSL Internet joint. Spent a fruitful two hours there before heading back to the hotel to bed.

Tuesday, 21 June 2005

Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau 90km, 815m ascent

Tuesday 21 June 2005

Awoke 5:30am. Showered, packed and ate the same breakfast as yesterday. Left the hotel at 7:30am, my earliest start yet. A good four lane road led out of the town but ended in a wet clay ditch 20 metres wide that I had to cross to get to the road north.

The countryside was flat for several kilometres, with hills to the left and rice paddies to the right. The paddies were being worked hard for planting, some with only human labour, others with water buffalo. Some paddies were sprouting young, green shoots. Stopped to call Carolyne before losing coverage in the hills.

The first hill of the day was 3km long, with road work the whole length. My cycle guide advised that the sealed road became gravel and dirt at this point: thankfully it didn't. Through the pass and a pleasant descent into the next valley, joining the Na river. The road was undulating through small villages of stilt houses, interspersed with a lush landscape of ferns, bananas and bamboo.

The raod showed a lot of damage through the day. It was washed away completely by the river at one spot and had to ride over mud and rocks for 30m. At other spots it was partly washed away, and there were many lanslides, maybe 30-40 through the day.

Reached the small town of Muong Lay at 10:45am. Stopped for lunch at a basic, family-run com pho. As I sat down a heavy rain shower hit - fine timing. The choice was limited - I ate fried tofu with tomato and chives, and a bowl of noodles with chives and finely sliced pork. There was no vegie dish. Washed down this tasty food with a can of Coke and tea. While I ate the family watched TV comprising 1940s and 1950s Disney cartoons. The cost was 20,000D.

Out of Muong Lay the road rose, gradually getting steeper. The nature of both the environment and the people changed. Noticed immediately that people stopped calling out hello, and were not waving at me. The women were dressed even more strikingly than had seen previously, but could not get any to agree to being photographed. The countryside became extremely rugged, with thick rain forest coming down to the road, interspersed with occasional banana trees. By the time I'd reached the pass, after 13km, felt that this would be country to see Vietnam's remaining endangered animals - puma, bear, and so on.

The descent was long and pleasantly cool. Soon the hellos started again, along with waving from people on the road-side, scooter riders and local cyclists. There was a huge landslide, maybe 100 metres long. Although the worst of it had been cleared, there was mud and logs washed a couple of km down the road.

As I rode into Lai Chau, my destination for the day, a motor-cyclist came up behind and yelled How are going, mate? It was a young Australian, Ben, was riding with a pommie friend, Woody, along the same route as me. They'd noticed me leaving Dien Bien Phu, not expecting to see me again. They'd settled into the same hotel as I planned to stay at, and were out exploring the area. It was good to have opportunity to speak to a native English speaker for the first time in more than a week.

The Lan Anh Hotel is spread over a large area with landscaped grounds, and several buildings with guest rooms. As soon as I arrived about 3pm the heavens opened up with a very heavy tropical downpour that continued for more than an hour - fine timing again. Was given a room with air-conditioning and fridge for US$12, but there was no electricity for about 30 minutes. Once it started I showered and washed my cycling gear. Could not get the air-conditioning to work effectively, so arranged for a new room.

Rode with Ben and Woody to the only Internet joint in town (they'd checked it out) attached to the post office. Unfortunately it was not broadband, so slow, but was able to type this. Back at the hotel met a young Sydney couple - Peter and Bec - who were travelling with a guide, Kien, in a jeep (US$280 for 7 days). Went with the five of them to a small local restaurant for several tiger beers, cheap at 9,000D, and a feed ordered by Kien. Back at the hotel chatted with Peter and Bec till 10pm. Really enjoyed the evening, talking with English speakers for the first time in over a week.

Monday, 20 June 2005

Vietnam cycle, exploration of Dien Bien Phu

Monday, 20 June 2005

Awoke at 5:30am feeling good despite no dinner last night. The gate of the hotel was locked shut so could not get out for my run until it was opened at 6am. Jogged along the streets for 30 minutes, enough to keep the 'running memory' in my legs.

Showered and ate breakfast in the hotel as it was included in the room rate. It was a simple fare of fried egg, a bread roll with cheese, two bananas and an instant coffee.

Carolyne called with the Western Union details for me to collect cash from the bank. Was in the bank by 7:45am (banks open at 7:30am), and filled in the required form with carbon paper (every customer seemed to be doing the same). Customers were crowded around the counter. Then waited till 8:35am when I was led to an adjoining building, with a frontage on the street. The woman there took the documents and examined them very thoroughly. Waited another 15 minutes until she led me to an adjoining shop that was selling gold and silver jewelery, but seemed to be part of the bank. To my relief, the fellow there handed over the cash.

Bought two sua chua (small yoghurt) and bottled water. Great to be able to eat and drink again! Dropped into thank Dung for be so nice to me yesterday when rather down in the dumps, and gave him an Australian 50 cent coin. He explained that as well as being a hoyel receptionist he was a tour guide and would like to show me around at 2pm for no charge. I accpted the kind offer.

Went to a shop I'd come across yesterday that was able to dowload photos from my camera to my CD. After negotiation, shop agreed to 40,000D, and the process took only a few minutes, with me watching closely (don't want antone stuffing up my memory stick). Found the nearest

At 2pm met Dung and friend of his, Ninh, who accompanied us on a tour of the sights by scooter.
Hill A1. Museum. Heroes Cemetary. French commander's dugout.+

At 7pm wandered past the roundabout for three beers (2,000D) at a bia hoi, with two plates of beautiful nuts. While drinking, deleted my uploaded photos from my camera, much to the great enttertainment 0f a growing group of young women and chidren, numbering about eight by the time had completed the task. The only other patrons were three young policemen at a nearby table also drinking beer and eating nuts. Wrote up a temporary diary, as was habit, and this also a lot of interest as usual.

Walked 2 km to Lien Tuoi restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. Was the only customer. A table cloth was laid, a first for Vietnam and a medium cold Tiger beer (15,000D). Ordered vegie soup (5,000D), vegies fried - a long green with lots of garlic (10,000D), and superb beef and noodle (35,000D). All very clean and good service, with the food served hot. Total cost of 65,000D was reasonable given the high quality.

As I was eating, a group of young people came down from upstairs, apparently the worse for wear, this was the first time that had seen this. Some young men were very red-raced. Then a young woman had to be helped downstairs and outside. Walked home, admiring the brightly coloured light displays outside the Heroes Cemetary and at the roundabout near my hotel.

Sunday, 19 June 2005

Tuan Giao to Dien Bien Phu 83 km, 625m ascent

Sunday 19 June 2005

Awoke 6am after fitful night worrying that may have insufficient funds to get me back to Hanoi. Towns in between may not have access to more. Showered and bought small orange (1,000D), 1.5l water (5,000D) and three bread rolls (3,000D) for breakfast. Ate these, with a mango from yesterday and Vegemite on rolls.

Paid for my room with 12 US$1 bills, making the proprietor quite upset. Have noticed that Vietnamese are extremely particular about the appearance of the notes you use.

Stopped for lunch at Muong Ang, the only small town along the way to Dien Bien Phu, before the major climb of the day. Enjoyed a lovely feed in a com pho near the market (have found that eating early is not a problem - eating late means cold food): a can of Coke; a bowl of rice; tofu in tomato sauce; a finely chopped green vegie in a clear soup; a plate covered with a long, green vegetable; a bowl of ca muoi (small olive-tasting vegie); and a plate of a salad of bean sprouts and mint. All this for the modest cost of 15,000D.

Soon out of town started the hard 7 km climb, winding back and forth around the hillside with the valley stretching below to my left. There was little other traffic. Through the pass, marked by a communications tower, the long, wide Muong Thanh valley stretched below me. The winding road soon had me at the Ron River. Thought I had completed the descent, but through rice paddies with many water buffalo and people threshing the rice, I twisted and turned through another 30 or more S bends.

A well-made four lane road signalled my arrival at a suburb of Dien Bien Phu. Was pleased to see a few ADSL Internet dotted among the variety of shops. The hotel recommended by Lonely Planet, the Binh Long, was close to the centre of town and I found it readily.

Monday, 13 June 2005

Hanoi Day 3, Monday 13 June

This morning was up at 5:30am, not feeling too flash, with a headache. Decided to go for a run to the same spot as yesterday as I'm worried about running too far and not being able to find my way back. Have maps but would have to carry glasses as well - too much trouble. Ran around Hoan Kiem Lake 4 times, and was home in 40 minutes. Went shirtless and felt more comfortable - my cold is improving as well. Even though a work day, there were heaps of people, with the exercise classes in the same spots, and badminton being played in any spare spot. There is a real sense of an exercise community.

Had the same breakfast, but none fruits this morning, with orange as well. I've seen oranges for sale, but took a while to work out what they are, as they have a dark green skin.

Sunday, 12 June 2005

Hanoi Day 2, Sunday 12 June

Awoke before 5am with the pre dawn light. Tried to get back to sleep as my cold is still making me feel head-achy and tired. Eventually got up, changed into shorts and light top, and trotted the 2-3 minutes to Hoan Kiem Lake. Quickly found that the high temperature, very high humidity and lack of any breeze made the conditions stifling and not at all conducive to heavy exercise.

There were thousands of people at the lake, most walking, some jogging, and many women in groups doing aerobic exercises to music. At one spot men were doing exercises on outdoor equipment: chin-ups, back bends and so on. The small lake must be about 1.5km around. I trotted around it three times, keeping to the road as the paths on the lake shore were crowded. The vehicular traffic was light, and it kept clear of people exercising. Returned to the hotel within 30 minutes.

Showered and to breakfast about 7am. Had the same as yesterday. Took my tea to the computer to catch up on mail. Carolyne called.

Another pleasant though unexciting day, spent mainly exploring the streets, markets and food of the city. As I had brought from home the wrong charger for the mobile, had to buy a new one. It took quite a few shops but eventually found a little place that had Nokia chargers for 90,000D.

Walked to a large indoor market, spread over 3 floors of a concrete building. There were thousands of stalls, with a huge variety of goods, but mainly clothing, cloths, toys and household items. Many stall holders, most of them young women, were sleeping on their goods in tiny spaces. Bought a small brolly for 25,000D and a pair of shorts for 40,000D. The latter is interesting: it appears to be entirely hand made, with shallow pockets and an elastic waist. Remember the exchange rate is roughly 12,000D for AUD$1.

The best thing about the market was a narrow lane nearby where there were 5-6 tiny restaurants that appear to provide the market with food. Saw young women carrying trays of hot food up the stairs and distributing it. As it was 11:30am and the food looked good, decided to try a place with seating in a room off the lane-way. A middle-aged woman sat with all the food around her, including a soup with tomatoes. With her hands she filled each bowl with noodles, a spinach, chopped spring onion, fungus, other vegies and poured the soup over the top. That was the only dish being served. I ate a bowl for 7,000D: it was quite spicy and superb. Had green salad on the side and bowl of what tasted like green olives in a clear broth, shared with other diners, as a condiment. The only problem is that the heat of the cooking in the small room, plus the spicy food made perspiration cascade down my whole body.

Returned to my room about 1pm for a shower and snooze. Felt much better afterwards.
At about 3pm took my bike along the street and got a bloke to pump the tyres with a foot pump. Gave him 4,000D and he was happy. Then took the plunge and joined the throng of scooters to follow a route advised in the Lonely Planet Cycling Guide. I enjoyed it enormously.

The scooters ride more slowly than I had expected - about 25-30kph, so was able to keep up easily. But had to be aware of everything around me and concentrate. The most difficult problem occurred when scooters coming towards me veered in front, either to turn a corner or just to stop on the side of the street. Had to weave my way through. It's even harder when cars do the same thing! The air movement made the exercise more pleasant than jogging. I saw Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the botanic gardens, embassies, beautiful colonial buildings used for government purposes and two lakes.

Spent the evening as had yesterday, with beers sitting in the nearby intersection, and eating at the same outdoor restaurant, with again terrific food.

Saturday, 11 June 2005

Hanoi day 1

Saturday 11 June 2005

The bed was hard and slept okay, only being disturbed by my cold symptoms. Awoke about 5:30am as the room was quite light. Put my valuables in the safe deposit box at reception. Breakfast is served from 6am to 10am, and I was in the dining room soon by about 6:30am. Breakfast is buffet style, with the food sitting on platters, with no means of keeping the cooked food warm or the fruit etc cold: a strong incentive to eat early. Ate a platter of fresh fruit: pineapple, water melon, paw paw, apple, jack fruit, lychee's, starfruit and a tart pale yellow unknown fruit. Had some warm fruit juice, tea, sticky rice, cold egg and several pieces of fresh bread with jam. There were no napkins, just a box of facial tissues!

Had a small list of things to do: buy a SIM card, water, a good road map of Vietnam, an umbrella if possible, and change some AUD$ into dong. Set off with the idea of just wandering the streets and hopefully finding what I was looking for. The first sight outside the front door was a woman trotting along with a flat pole over her shoulder, a basket hanging from each end of the pole and a conical hat on her head. The streets of the old town, with the hotel in the centre, is a fabulous collection of narrow streets with shops and businesses on the ground floor and accommodation in the 2-3 floors above. The streets are full of people going about their business, sitting eating in small groups and just hanging around.

Soon came to a street food market with all sorts of goodies. There were the usual vegetables, fruit, herbs and meat stalls. There were live chickens stuffed into tiny cages, live fish, turtles, bunches of live frogs tied together and trying in vain to kick for freedom. There were crabs, both large and small. The small ones were available either alive or freshly grilled. There were pork butchers, chopping up whole pigs, and chickens roasting on small spits or in oil. There were nuts, both raw and freshly roasted, and various other cooked items that I couldn't identify. There was little space to walk, but the motor scooters still managed to honk their way through.

Continued to walk around admiring the huge variety of goods that are for sale. There are many specialty streets, where a single produce predominates: silk garments, watches, co

Friday, 10 June 2005

Flight to Hanoi, 10 June 2005

The day was very long and tiring. Woke about 6:15am. From the Sydney Airport International Inn, a basic and noisy place, caught shuttle ($2) to the airport, arriving at 7:50am. Had no trouble with the weight of the bike: I just advised the Qantas counter woman that it was 17kg (about 1.2kg less than it weighed in at Canberra) and she accepted my small pannier. Was given a window seat and was ready to go with 2 hours 20 mins to wait. Had a coffee with my muesli/prunes/soy, bought the SMH. My cold was troubling me a lot, with a blocked nose, headache and tiredness.

The flight to Ho Chi Minh City passed slowly. Was lucky that the seat beside me was empty, and the aisle seat was occupied by Phuong, a young Vietnamese from Haiphong who has been an Australian resident for 6 years. He was very friendly and we chatted a lot. Only one movie was shown and as usual I fell asleep before it finished. Felt worse and worse through the day. The personal headphones worked superbly and helped me relax.

The airport at Ho Chi Minh City is basic and there's no transit lounge. So the staff pasted a 'Transit" sticker on my shirt and I went through customs and collected my luggage. Then had to load it on the flight to Hanoi. I sat with Phuong in a small cafe in the departure lounge for the 2 hour wait. Phuong shouted me a coconut juice (I had no dong): a coconut with the bottom cut flat to rest on the table, and a small hole cut in it with a straw. It was delicious.

The flight to Hanoi was on a smaller plane, with no music or movies, and ordinary service. The airport here has few lights, although the terminal is new and air conditioned. We arrived on time at 8pm and my luggage came through okay. The minibus I ordered was waiting for me and I was driven the 30k to the hotel, taking 40 minutes.

The traffic became heavier with more bikes as we came closer to the city. The locals are amazing on their motor bikes: none wear helmets and many bikes have 2 people, although I saw a family of 4 on one. All the bikes pack together and don't stop for anything. They ride relatively slowly, maybe 30-40kph, but it is hair-raising to watch.

Was greeted warmly at the hotel and was given Room 205, at the back and with no traffic noise. There are two 3/4 beds, a fair sized fridge, a wardrobe, high ceilings, a small TV and air conditioning. Although the rooms are air-conditioned, the rest of the hotel - hallways, stairs, dining room and lobby - are not. I was absolutely exhausted by the time I got my gear into my room (the bike case is in a baggage room). All I could do was have a quick shower and fall into bed.