The yellow army set off down a country lane on that misty morning feeling fairly chipper after a good but somewhat unconventional breakfast & I seem to remember there may have been the odd outburst of song (someone probably missing their Mum). The day saw the road get steeper, with more traffic & a steadily rising sun so that by lunchtime there were some tired legs, arms & bums & red faces, in abundance. The setting was rather industrial looking, but the sit down, rest & noodle & vegetable soup that followed did a lot to brighten spirits.
There was a short, agonising spell uphill after lunch but then a long run downhill through some lovely scenery & views although on deteriorating roads. These suddenly made the mountain bikes with pneumatic front forks the vehicle of choice for the terrain. Those who hadn’t mountain biked before started to hone a new skill that would become second nature by day 8 (loose grip on the bars, let the bike find it’s way seemed to be the central message).
The MOC CHAU TRADE UNION HOTEL had the sort of décor that would make Stalin proud & was located (as were all our hotels) at the other side of town, up a hill – how could that happen with such consistency? The hotel boasted impressive green mould on the walls, towels that wouldn’t dry a small foot & bed linen of dubious provenance. We later heard that we would have had hot water if we’d thrown a particular switch but I think that was a rumour. Despite all this I slept like a baby. Gave up morning showers.
DAY ONE started in a manner we were to follow for the 8 days of cycling i.e. up at 05.15 with bags & selves present at breakfast & ready to go at 06.00. We received orders from our leader Andy at both ends of the day & although of slight stature, this crew cut army man of discipline was not to be messed with.
We started with a 2 ½ hour bus drive out of the City to be brought face to face with our bikes & there followed a couple of hours of frenetic activity in the hot sunshine, whilst we attempted to re-jig & mould these machines to our liking. Personal saddles & peddles were fitted, bags & bar extensions attached & gears & brakes tested. Most were in decent shape – mountain bikes with flat bars & largely with 24 gears. There were some complaints, largely dealt with by swapping the guides bikes for ours. The lunch that followed was fairly diabolical, eaten in pretty unhygienic conditions (& given there was a Cholera problem in parts of the country, not particularly encouraging), which contributed to a rather nervous mass of yellow jerseys hitting the road that day. Whatever we felt on departure however was soon overtaken with thoughts of how to tackle the immediate fairly steep gradient we met, would we ever get used to the traffic of largely diesel exhaust spewing trucks & why in god’s name did they have to keep blowing their bloody horns. However the end of the day saw us on country roads of the sort we expected, largely downhill & through farming communities almost medieval in their simplicity & onto our home for the night MAI CHAU.
The Ritz it was not & we were allocated two barn floors for the guys & one for the girls with two people sharing the small space under a single mosquito net. The communal dinner that night was excellent & the local people then entertained us with some wonderful dancing & singing. There were also stalls to buy largely silk products, which we could watch being hand spun by the ladies. This was our first real encounter with the Vietnamese people & their welcoming quiet dignity was to be repeated throughout our 700km trip with only rare exceptions.
I never was a good sleeper, even with my tempur mattress & the total solitude of St Martin’s to assist. I was therefore delighted to see 05.15 on my watch in the dim light & the chance to be first to the communal facilities. I exited with caution, climbed down a treacherous staircase that would be condemned in the West & entered a fetid shower room to discover it wasn’t 05.15 but 03.15. It didn’t help that when I came out, toilet bag in hand there was a queue of three already formed. Piss taking followed all day & my street cred, not the highest before, plummeted.
HANOI (Ha Noi) is not a city one can easily ignore. There is constant motion & constant noise & literally millions of scooters driven primarily by helmet less people, often 3 or 4 to a bike & often carrying loads that would do justice to a small truck. Horns are relentless but not in an aggressive way but rather to say, ‘I’m here’.
It is disconcerting to try & cross a road & involves more risk than most people take in a lifetime. We were told the method is to just go, they avoid you but you must avoid eye contact. It actually works & one arrives in a fashion Moses would have been proud of. One of our number merely stood in the middle of a busy junction & lo & behold the traffic went around him without protest or concern.
The pavements are not a great deal easier to negotiate & at least 80% of available space is given over to every commodity known to mankind. However there’s no great hustling going on & in the majority of cases a polite ‘no’ does the trick.
The City has lots of appeal & attractions but the guide books will tell you these far better than I can.