Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 4)

June 30th, 2014 Comments Off

DAY: 04Screenshot from 2014-06-15 01:05:26
Distance: ~300km
Endpoint: Huế
Pho Consumed: 0
Today’s Author: Felix
Screenshot from 2014-06-15 01:05:12

Despite our intention of getting an early start, we managed to ignore our alarm and didn’t get out of bed until around 10.  After grabbing a quick bite (seafood soup, rice, more egg, and mystery meat) and loading up the bikes, we hit the road around 11.  Departing from the humble village-without-a-name, we headed into some excellent riding roads.  Although the temperature was scorching, we encountered little traffic and had a pretty enjoyable ride.  However, we did see our first Westerners in a couple of days – first a pair heading north, one of whom had a GoPro on his helmet, then a few shirtless gentlemen on scooters in the twistys.  We stopped after about 30 minutes to snap some photos, then continued on.

The end of the mountain roads deposited us in a deep valley at the north end of the Phong Nha park area, with a nice wide highway.  Around 12:15, we stopped for fuel and to check our maps, then headed into the park towards Paradise Cave.  Despite a distinct lack of signage or instructions for tourists, we made our way 20km into the park and found ourselves at the entrance to a tourist site around 12:45.  We parked our bikes (5,000 VND) and grabbed some cold drinks, then headed off towards the cave after buying entrance tickets (120,000 VND).  Presented with the option of hiking towards the cave mouth or taking a small electric cart, we decided to walk (hey, we could use the exercise, right?).
A 15 minute or so walk on along a paved path brought us to the base of some stairs, where we began our ascent towards the cave entrance.  Along the way, we encountered a friendly gent from SF who had hired a guide; she was quite helpful in directing us towards the cave entrance.  Reaching the top of the stairs after another 15 minutes or so, we headed into the cave.
Phong Nha is noted for its extensive cave systems, which extend for some 70km underground; only 20km or so of these have been fully mapped.  Visitors to Thiên Đường (aka Paradise) Cave is one of the largest caves in the world, extending for some 31km underground, with the larger chambers over 100m in height.  Tourists are permitted to explore the first kilometer or so on their own, and up to 7km if accompanied by a guide.  Being neither guided nor experienced spelunkers, and wanting to make Hue by nightfall, we spent about 45 minutes exploring the blissfully cool caves before heading back out, stopping briefly for a cold drink.  In the interest of time we also opted to skip Phong Nha cave, which is supposed to be spectacular, as it contains a large underground river.
Heading back onto the highway around 3 (after another cold drink), we made fairly good progress until we hit a massive thunderstorm.  Stopping briefly to acquire/put on rain gear, we quickly became soaked anywhere we weren’t covered by waterproof clothing.
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 Although we reduced our speed in the interest of safety, we made it through the worst of the storm after about an hour.  We stopped at a gas station around 5:40 to check our maps and get fuel.  With the light failing rapidly, we began to encounter some fairly dangerous riding conditions.
First, the Vietnamese seem to have in indifferent attitude towards the use of headlights, even after dark, causing some fairly obvious problems.  This is exacerbated by the fact that motorbikes can (and often do) drive in the shoulder of highways, leading larger vehicles to think it’s perfectly safe to move into the oncoming lane to pass (two wheelers are expected to get onto the shoulder and out of the way).  Third, most of Vietnam’s highways are unlit at night, which only compounds the headlight issue.  Finally, construction zones appear to be ubiquitous, frequently necessitating rapid maneuvering and going quite slowly.
We also had to stop at train crossings twice, which saw just about everyone (trucks, vans, bikes, etc.) jockeying for position – including moving into the opposing lane on both sides of the crossing!  Fortunately our bikes had enough power to get us away from the worst traffic snarls.  Between the traffic, the train crossings, the poor weather, and the lack of light, we reached our hotel in Hue around 7:45 (including a harrowing ride across a 4m wide bridge absolutely PACKED with scooters over the river in the city).
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Hue is the former imperial capital of Vietnam.  The city is divided in half by the Pearl river, with the older part of the city (and the famous Citadel) to the the northwest of the river, and the newer portion of the city to the southeast.
When we saw the “Google Hotel” listed in our guidebooks, we knew we couldn’t pass it up – although they didn’t seem to understand Zach’s request for an employee discount.  Fortunately, the hotel was clean, offered us free beer, and took our dirty laundry.  After a quick rinse and change, we had a beer in the lobby and stopped by a large electronics shop.  After a lot of gesticulating, the staff were able to help us finally get our cell phones’ internet speeds back up.
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We then headed to dinner at a tiny shop recommended by one of Felix’s Wharton classmates, Bánh Bèo Cung An Địnhh, where we enjoyed some traditional Hue food (mostly different sorts of rice cakes with shrimp, meat, and other bits, served with a slightly spicy and very salty/oily fish sauce).  The place was literally a hole in the wall – 20m down an alley with no visible signage – but the food was delicious.
We then headed back to our hotel, stopping at a shopping mall and getting soft-serve at an American-style fast food joint.  On the way, we also saw a few Vietnamese guys riding matching Kawasaki Z1000s – a rare sight in this part of the world.  Back at the hotel, we got cheap massages and turned in for the night.