Category Archives: Cycle Touring

Out of Bangalore



 A glossy brochure from an ‘adventure’ travel company landed on the mat. It detailed group cycling holidays. One particular trip caught my eye:’Cycling Tropical Kerala and it’s Backwaters’. Oh my. I had hoped to cover some of that ground after cycling Sri Lanka but the lack of ferry services had put paid to that idea. It was unfinished business. It all looked very tempting although less so at the prices quoted by the travel company!  A quick check revealed that flights to Southern India with ‘cycle friendly’ British Airways were pretty reasonable. Irresistibly priced. Add in that Indian immigration services now provide a tourist visa on line (24 hour turnaround). I figured a ride from Karnataka over the Western Ghats and down into Kerala would do the job very nicely. Besides.. my tent had a new floor, I had replaced my thermarest and serviced my stove with a new wick. The bike had a new chain, chain rings, jockey wheels and cassette. It all was waiting to be used.

 Bangalore or Bengaluru, the capital of Karnataka, is slap bang in the middle of Southern India. It boasts of being the software factory of the subcontinent and has earned the moniker of ‘silicon city’. The flight with no frills British Do-not-really-care-ways took around 10 hours. The newly revamped Kempegowda airport at Bangalore is pretty impressive. However it is almost 40km north of the city and escaping it involves some major congested roads. I grabbed a smallish taxi  with folding rear seat to take me and the bike to a friends home in the city. The young driver drove like an absolute maniac. I truly feared for my safety. I am used to people taking risks but this guy had a death wish. He narrowly squeezed the car in between other road users both big and small. He did not stop for any traffic lights. He had been working all night and my fare would be his last before returning home South of Bangalore. I feared it would be a last trip for both of us. He became lost and I guided him (courtesy of google) up and over the hills of the city. 

Prashanth warmly greeted me outside his family home. I had a self contained cosy room perched somewhat neatly on the roof terrace of his house. He and his family spoilt me rotten. Good food and great company; it became the perfect start to my somewhat randomly arranged trip. I was lucky to arrive during Diwali too. Bangalore loves fireworks! 

The following morning we cycled together out beyond the outskirts of the city and had coffee before parting ways. Thanks for the hospitality  Prashanth! 



Kanakapura Road provides a longer, more relaxing ride West towards Mysore as opposed to the busy highway 85. 


It didn’t take too long to reach a turning which would lead, in time, to the waterfalls at Shivanasamudra. I loved the little lanes that led me past picturesque villages and rural scenes. It had turned into a great ride through a rural India which took me back to my experience of cycling in Sri Lanka. It is fresh, green and subtropical. With the light fading I found a  discreet spot to camp close to an open wood and small roadside shrine. 

There were few sealed roads as such but mostly dirt tracks which took me past local villages. I had to backtrack a little at one point but then could not believe my luck. A canal works its way Westwards in the direction of the fabled waterfalls. Alongside it was a sealed service road. It is ‘closed’ to traffic and guarded at each end.  But it is used by local people for cattle, cycling and scooters. I was waved through. Great!


 Finally I arrived at the visitors  viewing point overlooking  Shivanamudra waterfalls. It is pretty impressive and, quite understandably, one of  the most popular spots for visitors from Bangalore and Mysore. Monkeys too. 




The  dusty road from the Laos -Viet Nam border at Na Phao drops quickly and winds down into a valley. It was hot and dry and I was low on supplies. Most importantly I had not been able to change any money. So when I did finally find a shop my cash was worthless. I hungrily pressed on in the heat. Eventually I came across a woman selling water melons by the road. To my absolute delight she accepted a US dollar for one. I sat on an old rotten tree trunk and enjoyed that melon like no other before being stung by huge red ants. I moved off that log pretty quickly. The road (AH131) was pretty good with little traffic. I passed through a few small villages consisting mostly of stilted houses. But then came to the town of Nakai which not only had a BCel ATM but also a Laos Telecom office where I was able to get a sim for my phone. The day was starting to work out nicely. The scenery was great with karst-like hills all around.



Following the AH131 towards the provincial capital of Thakhek I stopped for lunch at a market.  The range of local food was very different!  Snakes, frogs and variety of small mammals were for sale. But I was perfectly happy with noodles for lunch..




As I rode towards Thakhek I saw a lorry stopped in the shade that was piled high with crates of Lao beer. It was quite a lovely sight for someone that had just cycled through a desert valley. I smiled at one of the guys in the cab and happily pointed at the beer. He smiled too, scrambled out and up onto the back of the lorry, and passed me a bottle of beer. GREAT! Thank you, thank you, thank you! The bottle was warm and slipped it into one of my front panniers. I thought to save it as a special treat for later and continued towards Thahkek.  Soon I came upon a  roadside shop. They had chilled beer in a cabinet so I asked and was able to swop my warm bottle for a chilled one. I stopped at a cafe and shelter next a river. I sat with a woman who was scraping the fur off of what appeared to be several large rats before popping them into a cooking pot. A man appeared who was waiting for visitors. A number of Western tourists turned up on motorcycles and he took them to their sleeping quarters in a building in the field behind the cafe. I drank the beer and set off over the bridge. I wondered how the tourists might have enjoyed their meal that evening. IMG_4244


On the approach into the regional capital I gave my last few remaining balloons to the children of women selling melons by the roadside. I was offered (but refused) a free watermelon but did buy an ice cream from a vendor.

img_4252   I looked for, but failed to find, a well recommended backpackers guest house that was  detailed in the guidebooks. It is a little climb in to Thaheck before reaching a roundabout from which the road either heads south parallel to the Mekong river or runs straight to the river promenade. Fountain square represents the old centre and has a French colonial feel about it.

IMG_4258.jpgThe Inthira Thakhek hotel on the square looks rather plush and I tried to negotiate a better room rate than that offered. I did get the price down but had a ground floor room directly behind the reception. Apparently the first floor rooms with balconies overlooking the square are the ones to have. However I was able to keep my bike next to my room. It was all quite luxurious and a far cry from my usual choice of cheapie hostel accommodation.
I am not sure the management would have approved had they realised that i was using their beautiful shower to do my washing and string it all up on a line across the room.
A short walk across the square revealed the wide Mekong river and Thailand on the opposite bank.


Cha Lo/Na Phao border crossing


I took the Asian Highway 131 from the Ho Chi Minh Highway in Quảng Bình region towards the border with Laos. The road was good with excellent mountain views. I loved it. Camping close to the road I found that I had picked up a leech when I sprayed my legs with deet. The leech (‘Larry’) immmediately fell off and wasn’t a problem but my leg did not want to stop bleeding. I had to apply pressure to the bite for some time to stop making a bleedin’ mess. For some way the road followed the river Gianh but then climbed and dipped through a series of valleys dotted with small settlements. It was quite different from the Viet Nam I had already seen with deep jungle and old wooden stilt houses. It appeared timeless. The thick lush vegetation created a green carpet in every direction. I imagined how difficult it would be to cut a way through it. This was my first experience of real jungle and appeared quite a forbidding place. I stopped for food in a village  and was spoilt with the most delicious cooked meal of catfish steaks, prawns, omelette and rice.

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The Cửa khẩu Cha Lo border area is a slightly messy collection of buildings. Just before the administration building there is a glass fronted hotel and a small ring road with storage warehouses. My arrival was fairly late in the day and would liked to have spent a night at the hotel. But it was locked and empty. I did a little circuit of the buildings, got my passport stamped and found myself cycling along the lengthy road towards the Laos checkpoint of Na Phao. Border crossings are always so exciting! The Laos checkpoint was even more of a mess. I found a collection of wooden huts housing the various officials either side of a muddy road that had been churned up by construction vehicles. I had to climb wooden planks to reach the visa office. I had to wake the undressed official asleep in his bed in a small room at the rear of the office. $30 dollars and I had a shiny Laos  30 days visa. The whole process took about ten minutes and everyone was very friendly. Unfortunately I did not take advantage of an offer to change currency. With the light fading I needed to get a little distance between myself and the border and find a discreet place to wild camp. Turning a corner I cycled past a newly built border office building and then began my descent into Laos. Stopping to camp I was presented with a magnificent sunset view of the valley below. I fell asleep to the noisy sounds of the jungle. Laos!IMG_4165 IMG_4171 IMG_4174 IMG_4177

Ho Chi Minh Highway



I finally joined the Ho Chi Minh Highway (HCMH) at Thạch Thành just West of the Cúc Phương national park and approximately 80 miles from my original starting point in Hanoi. The trip to Halong Bay and Ninh Binh had been quite an exciting diversion. The 750 mile HCMH, which roughly follows the route of the original Trường Sơn or Hồ Chí Minh trail, extends from Hanoi along the length of Viet Nam to Ho Chi Minh City in the South. It presents as a fair challenge for touring cyclists with sections passing through the mid Viet Nam highlands and some quite extraordinary scenery. However it is fair to say that with the ongoing upgrading of sections of the route to a six lane highway it no longer holds quite the same attraction as it once did. Increasingly it more suited to a motorbike than a bicycle. Currently the HCMH through the central provinces remains a quiet, often very rural, road. But no doubt that will change.

 Over the next few days I cycled 200 miles South on the HCMH passing through Thanh Hoa, Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces. The highlight of this was all the wonderful friendly people that I met along the way. The weather was a little mixed and got caught in a major downpour. I had stopped to make coffee when the rain fell very heavily. People from a house nearby rushed across with umbrellas to help and insisted I take shelter in their home. The generosity of spirit expressed by everyone I met along the route was quite remarkable. Wild camping was relatively easy although I did take a room (and very welcome shower) at a hotel in Yen Cat.  One magical night whilst camping in a banana grove my tent was surrounded by dancing fireflies.

Looking at the map I was drawn towards the UNESCO world heritage site of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh province. But I became a little weary with the HMCH turning at times into a major road. My original intention was to explore Laos after Viet Nam and had marked the most Southern border crossing between the two countries as a possibility. However and having already passed one opportunity to head into Laos from the HCMH at Nam Phao I was presented with a turning and road sign pointing towards the Cura Khan Cha Lo border crossing.  I decided, somewhat impulsively, to head down (or rather up) the AH131. It was time for a change of direction.


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Bai Đính



Situated slightly West and part of the Tràng An Landscape Complex; Bai Đính consists of multiple temples and a pagoda built on limestone hills (Bai Đính ‘mountain’) close to the Hoang Long River.  Although mostly of fairly recent construction it is built in a traditional style and on a grand scale. It consists of a gateway by a lake, belltower, covered walkways, a series of three increasingly larger temples and many record breaking Russian bronze gilded Buddhist statues. Bai Đính took over 7 years to construct and employed local craftsmen to produce a classical influenced religious complex of breathtaking proportions. It boasts of Asia’s largest bronze gilded Great Buddha Sakyamuni statue (10 metres high and weighing 150 tonnes) and also the largest ‘Di Lac’ or ‘laughing buddha’. It  also has the largest bronze bell at over 50 tonnes and the biggest pearl well in Viet Nam. The pagoda, which provides a focus for the complex, is the highest in Viet Nam.


I felt a little uncomfortable leaving my bike and gear with a stranger on the Bái Đính – Cúc Phương road but it turned out to be a good decision. I ensured that I was carrying all the really ‘must not lose’ important stuff in my backpack. Once past the perimeter fencing and into the grounds of the temple complex I climbed up a muddy track that led past workmen’s huts towards the pagoda. The garden around the pagoda was being landscaped with lots of newly planted trees. I joined some workmen and clambered over a stone balustrade onto the paved walkway surrounding the monument. The pagoda, Viet Nam’s largest, provides great views over the surrounding complex and lake beyond. Steps nearby lead directly down to an international conference centre. Above and behind is a huge bronze ‘laughing buddha’. From this highest point I followed a route down to the Tam The dharma temple and the three huge huge statues of Buddha within.

The three temples buildings are connected to each other via steps and walkways which drop down towards the lake. These covered walkways are home to hundred of statues of Buddhist Arhats or masters. Each one is quite unique having been carefully modelled on their original subjects. They were created by masons at a local village using Ninh Bình stone.

Shortly before the final gatehouse, shrine and interior walkways is a bell house within which is the largest, at 36 tonnes, crafted bronze bell in Viet Nam. To ring it would require a large tree trunk as a hammer! IMG_3605 IMG_3604


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I climbed back up the hill past the ‘masters’ and returned to the pagoda. A little walk back along the lane, through a wood and I was back at the house where I had left my bike. All was good. The young lads sitting at a table out front offered some food but I was keen to get going to find the Ho Chi Minh Highway (QL45).. or at least somewhere to sleep. After a short while I found myself heading North on the busy QL 12b but then continued West on a smaller rural road towards the town of Phố Cát. Before the town I found a handy little bamboo forest stretching along one side of the road with fields and karst hills on the other. I pitched my tent and made coffee. It had been quite a day.

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Ninh Bình and Tràng An


With the wet weather easing  I took a short excursion on my bike into the ‘Tràng An Scenic Landscape Complex’ that begins a short distance out of Ninh Bình. This newly designated (2014) UNESCO Heritage Site covers over 100 square kms of spectacular limestone karsts, extensive inland waterways and cave systems.

As i made my way through Ninh Bình’s impressive Western gateway a few limestone mounds stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding flat fields. A little further ahead a car had overturned on the wet road and its occupants (unharmed I was told) had been whisked away.


The flat fields soon gave way to high limestone hills and towering cliffs.The road snaked between them. I spotted a well used track to explore. This led me past paddy fields and a few local houses before reaching a small village. The further I cycled the more I was taken aback by the beautiful and often mysterious looking scenery. The limestone cliffs, lakes and traditional village buildings created an almost fairytale appearance.  It was an exciting and wonderful ride!





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The karst scenery of Tràng An is on a similar scale to that of Halong Bay and show how that must have have looked before the sea laid claim to it all. Soon I found my way, more by luck than anything else, via paths between paddy fields back onto the main road. A little further West lay the Buddhist temple complex of Bai Đính. But with insufficient time remaining I decided to  circle back ‘home’ towards Ninh Bình. But this did take me past the tourist entrance to the Tràng An park. It was, as I had suspected, a major tourist site with an extensive coach and retail park. The main attraction is a scenic river boat trip which passes through limestone caves (Tam Coc and Trang An). I cycled over a bridge with the intention to ride around the main tourist reception building on the island where the tourist boats were moored but was shooed away by a security guard. No bikes allowed.


I found a small local road that led back into Ninh Bình. On the outskirts of the city I joined some road construction guys cooking on an open fire and refused their kind offers of food. Further along I helped an elderly man that was having some serious difficulty reattaching a metal flag bracket to a concrete wall. Hammering nails into concrete isn’t that easy especially when crumbling from previous attachments. But between us we managed it. A small victory for the day…

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That evening and after a bit of a wander, Steve and I finally got a table and excellent food in the popular ’24 Hour Noodle Shop’ on Le Hong Phong Road.  Cheap, wonderful and good enough for a repeat visit the next day before finally leaving Ninh Bình.

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Back on the road I had my sights set on visiting the temple complex at Bai Đính. My route took me, once again, through the  incredible karsts and paddy fields of Tràng An.

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My route to the temple at Bai Đính was a little tricky. I had to negotiate along the shoreline of a long wide lake until finally the temple gates and pagoda came into view on the opposite bank. I hoped that maybe I could get a boat across but had to continue some way. After a long muddy track I found a main road that appeared to be going in the right direction. But then it continued too far past the pagoda which then disappeared behind a hill. I turned back. A young lad selling noodles on a stall in front of his families house told me that there was a short cut to the pagoda and temple complex. This involved slipping past a fence, over a field, and then through an access tunnel under the main road. I left my bike and gear with him in an outbuilding and set off on foot. He showed me the spot in the fence before returning to his stall. It was turning into a bit of an adventure..


Thai Bình to Ninh Bình : Lost and Found.



After all the excitement of visiting Cat Ba our attention was drawn West towards Thai Binh. We were now a good week into the trip and still only 100km from our starting point! Initially the roads were not too taxing. The traffic was light and the weather was fair. However we soon found ourselves cycling on busy main roads through the flatlands of the Red River Delta. There was little alternative but to get our heads down and eat up the miles.

Out of curiosity I stopped at the Buddhist temple of Đền Đức Vua by the river Diêm Hộ. A woman kindly unlocked and opened up the interior so that I could view the shrine.

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Moving at a different pace; Steve and I had  became separated but kept in contact via text. I tend to stop fairly often especially when the moment grabs me. Steve was well ahead but unknown to myself had lost his bearings. Google Maps is not always such a reliable friend. I tend to use ViewRanger. He was sent along some odd route that led him out into the sticks off the main roads. I reached Thai Binh expecting to find Steve. He had messaged me earlier to say he was already on the bridge over the river leading to the city. I was impressed by his speed! I tried hard to catch him up. But then he messaged me with the bad news.. He was still miles away and darkness was closing in. I suggested he simply stopped at the nearest hotel. I had seen quite a few on the way. But Steve was determined to keep going. I found a cheap hotel in a prominent place on the main highway in the centre of Thai Binh. I gave him the map coordinates and provided directions. It became dark and stood by the road side hoping to see him amongst the traffic.

It took a while but eventually Steve came into view. He was not a happy bunny! ‘Bloomin’ Google Maps!’ It was a hard lesson. He didn’t feel like eating much either despite a very good food stall across the street. He retired to the hotel room and an internet connection. All part of the adventure? Not really. I do not think he was having such a good time. I found myself plied with rice wine and food by some cheerful local guys across the road that insisted on buying before I finally hit the sack.

We stopped at the city of Nam Dinh the next day for lunch. The city proudly boasts of the Thiên Trường  sports stadium or ‘Theatre of Dreams’ which provides the venue for international football matches or olympic events. We ate chips.


We continued West with the city of Ninh Binh in our sights. This time I cycled ahead stopping briefly to view some furniture workshops. But, and having stopped to have coffee and waited for Steve to catch up, we finally arrived together in Ninh Binh without too much trouble. We checked into the Lonely Planet recommended and somewhat plush, high rise Thanh Thuy hotel in the old district.





Ninh Bình is a very modern and busy commercial city. I cannot say I found it particularly charming. We were staying in the old town which has an interesting network of smaller streets. But it was nothing much to write home about.  They were simply avenues between the busy neon lit main roads filled with high street shops. That evening I circled the city on my bike past the Western gate with its elephant statues and then returned via the Tràng An road alongside Núi Kỳ Lân lake. At the city end is a little island with a buddhist shrine. It is set against rock part of which is split creating a little passageway to walk though. Perched on the rock above is another temple building which looks out over the city. With the night drawing in I regrettably did not have time to climb up.

As a busy modern crossroads Ninh Bình is viewed as a stepping stone to the sights beyonds the city boundaries. According to Wikitravel; ‘There is nothing to do in Ninh Binh itself aside from drinking with the locals..’ Steve and I set out that evening to find a beer or two in the streets alongside the hotel. We drew a blank! I guess it was getting late. But it was fun looking.

It was supposed to be an overnight visit but then the weather changed. The heavens opened up and some of the main roads became flooded. It  was wet on a big scale. We were well and truly grounded.

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Sadly at this point Steve felt that things were just not going as well as he had hoped. Maybe a little over ambitious with regard the timescale to physically cycle the length of Vietnam, this latest delay on top of what had been a fairly taxing ride was the needle that broke the proverbial camels back. His wife; always the tower of strength, supported his efforts to find a suitable solution to his dilemma.The train appeared to be the best option. We visited the station with a view to getting him and his bike on a train down South. It wasn’t that easy to organise. But the hotel was able to book him on a ‘luxury’ coach. However this involved leaving the bicycle. This was a little heart wrenching as it was his ‘baby’ and had spent a lot of time and emotional investment in building it. Thankfully he was able to sell it for a good price to the daughter of the hotel owner which cushioned the loss somewhat.. Less of an end to his cycling trip it was to be the beginning of another chapter to his adventures in Viet Nam. A few days wait and a relaxed coach trip carried him along the coast towards Hue and Hoi An. From there another trip into the highlands and Da Lat provided a brand new bicycle with which to ride down into Ho Chi Minh City. He did it! He had beaten bowel cancer, undergone chemotherapy, built himself a bike and realised his dream to cycle tour overseas.

Great stuff. It was an honour…


Steve writes:

‘Neither of us knew it at this point but, after a few days relaxing in luxury by the pool at Hoi An Paradise Hotel and belting around on their hotel bikes, I hatched a bold plan to buy a bike at Da Lat to finish the journey!

I may not have had the capacity to show it at the time but you were a tower of strength for me, too, buddy. For me, seeing your pics as you went inland doubled my trip and inspired me to finish by bicycle.
So thanks for suggesting we meet in Vietnam, for putting up with my newby’s culture shock and for understanding when I needed to go my way. Most of all, thanks for reminding me that it’s all only stuff and it’s all part of the adventure.’
July 2015

Cát Bà and Hạ Long Bay.



With the bikes and spare gear safely deposited at the hotel in Haiphong Steve and I set off to visit the island of Cát Bà (‘women’s island’)  and the surrounding UNESCO World Heritage site of Hạ Long Bay. Thousands of limestone ‘karsts’, the last visible remains of an ancient geological formation, have created an extraordinary natural spectacle. Cát Bà is the largest of over 350 islands in Hạ Long Bay. Much of the island is devoted to a national park and home to the rare ‘golden headed’ langur monkey. Although on a cycle tour we couldn’t resist a side trip to and around Cát Bà island. It was, to some degree, out of the way. But according to the popular guidebooks it is an experience not to be missed.

The public service ferry operated by the Thong Nhat Transport Co-operative at Ben Binh, Haiphong sails directly to Cát Bà Town. It follows the river Cấm downstream into the bay before navigating along the Western side of the island towards Cát Bà town. From our hotel in Haiphong it was a short walk to the quayside. In the street close to the quay a man approached us and appeared keen to sell us ferry tickets. I continued walking towards the terminal building thinking that he might be an opportunist tout (I had been warned to expect them)  but soon realised he was in fact the ‘official’ ticket seller. Please see Irene’s comment below this post.

The midday sailing allowed us plenty of time to walk back along Tam Bạc for another morning visit to the Giải Khát cafe for coffee and explore the street market before returning to catch the ferry.


The Cát Bà ferry tickets were emblazoned with ‘High Speed Boarding Ticket’ in big red letters. At just 150,000 Dong (£4.50) per person they seemed very good value. The hi speed hydrofoil moored alongside the terminal building looked as if it could complete the trip in double quick time. But this was not to be our transport. A little further along was our boat; a regular slow ferry. I was happy. I would rather a more sedate trip with time to enjoy the view from a deck than my nose pressed against a window on a super fast hydrofoil. The ferry had two big bright yellow engines and passenger entertainment was provided by a loud TV. One of the young hopefuls on the TV talent show warbled painfully out of tune. Local women brought food, drink and postcards on board to sell to the passengers.  Whilst watching the activities on the dock from the side rail I was given a big smile by one of the women and handed a free book of Halong Bay scenic postcards. It was all very exciting.


It would have been possible, with hindsight, to have taken the bikes. Cargo was loaded onto the roof and rear deck including a box with two live pigs wrapped up in a bag with just their snouts showing. I imagined that this would be their final journey.


The boat slowly chugged along the Cấm river towards the sea past towering cranes and huge shipping liners. One quick cargo stop and then we were out in the open sea. Amongst the distant mists the shapes of islands and limestone cliffs or ‘karsts’ came into view. It was not so spectacular but a lovely trip with good weather and calm seas. Increasingly the cliffs became a little more dramatic as we approached the island of Cát Bà and the ferry then turned into a bay towards the town harbour.




Once on the island we needed to find our way to the Whisper Nature bungalows situated some 7 miles away on the Eastern side and next to the village of Viet Hai. It is inaccessible directly from Cát Bà town except via the entrance to the National Park in the centre of the island. Alternatively it is possible to charter a local boat. We walked looking for the quay at Ben Beo. We walked uphill and then downhill without finding the road to the quay. Unperplexed we followed the road inland. This was to lead to the National Park entrance. We knew it was possible to approach the resort via this route but would take a bit of effort. It was a long road inland. Too long in some respects. We walked for miles. Steve wasn’t feeling too good on his feet and I worried a little about his health. I had promised his wife to look after him and this wasn’t going to help! It was getting late and the light was fading. Bad timing. We found the entrance to the park but by this time it was, in effect, closed to visitors. We followed the path towards our resort but was confronted by some park officials that advised us, in no uncertain terms, to turn back. We had already walked some way and returning to Cát Bà town seemed like a poor option when our booked accommodation was so much closer.

The park officials returned to the room in their building. Undeterred we pressed on with our torches lighting the well marked trail through the jungle. I warned Steve that the officials were likely to return to try and stop us. I figured that after some discussion they would soon decide that they could get into hot water should any travellers become lost, injured or bitten by a cobra on their watch.  Soon, and as anticipated, we heard the sound of a motorcycle heading towards us along the trail. The plan was to hide until the coast was clear. As they approached we dived into the bushes either side of the track. Steve was seen, stopped and questioned.  On their insistence he was dragged back to their office. He was interrogated and repeatedlly threatened with the police and ‘deportation’! They wanted to find me and get themselves off the hook. Getting nowhere they finally provided Steve with a lift  on their motorbike back to Cát Bà  town where he booked into a hotel for a very well deserved rest. We were able to contact each other via phone and confirm what had happened. Meanwhile I carried on along the trail. it took a good few hours to reach the resort. The trail was a little tricky and I had to cross several island ‘peaks’ with jagged rocks. It was serious stuff in daylight let alone at night with my Petzl headlight. But with a little determination I made it through the park and finally found a local boatbuilder at work in his workshop. He walked with me to a nearby shrine and showed me a room where I could sleep. But I insisted I find the resort which I knew was very close.  He gave me a quick lift on his motorbike and in return I gave him ‘petrol money’. I was glad that Steve had not had to spend those extra arduous hours walking and climbing. My own feet were suffering and had some nasty blisters.  I was very happy to find a bed at the ‘Whisper Nature’ bungalow.

The following afternoon Steve made his way to the resort and we booked our tickets for the next day’s activities via the hostel. We would tour the bay, transfer between boats, and then sail to Hạ Long City on the mainland. Then it would be a simple taxi ride back to our hotel in Haiphong. That was the plan.


I grabbed one of the shopper bikes provided by the resort in order to cycle to the village of Viet Hai and explore the local countryside. Much of the valley is used for cultivation and livestock by villagers and had, until recent years with the building of a new road, been fairly isolated with poor access. Viet Hai reminded me, in some respects, of small towns on the island of Hokkaido in Japan where I had cycled a few years before. Beyond the valley in every direction jagged limestone karsts stand proud amongst the thick jungle vegetation.  It is fairly unspoilt, peaceful and quite beautiful. I encountered the village refuse dump at one point which extends into a pond filled with floating rubbish. That was less appealing. No doubt some of it was the result of tourism.


The tour of the bay was fun. We were joined by a young German couple that had planned to do a little canoeing during the boat trip. We  stopped to visit Tien Ong; a cave which reveals evidence of early human (Hoa Binh Culture) habitation. A good lunch was provided on the boat and finally we transferred onto another boat heading in to Hạ Long City. Then we afforded ourselves the luxury of a taxi cab to whisk us along the coast road and back to Haiphong. Job done!  It was an excellent day out.


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Hải Phòng



By late Saturday afternoon Steve and I had cycled into Haiphong (Hải Phòng). Somewhat embarrassingly I had not even heard of the city before planning this trip! As the most important major port for the region and Viet Nam’s third largest city it is a bright and busy commercial centre. Once a nineteenth century French colonial acquisition it was fire bombed by the returning French navy following the retreat of the defeated Japanese forces at the end of the second world war. The ensuing first Indo-China war and negotiated settlement in which the communists took control of the region then provided the background to the US miltary intervention during the 1970’s. Haiphong, as the major port controlled by the Vietcong, was bombed heavily by the US army and navy. It was subject to a naval blockade and sea mines for much of the Viet Nam war. The museum in Hai Phong (pictured below) bears witness to these tragic events. The French architectural heritage now provides a charming backdrop to a modern vibrant city and deep water port. It lies on the Southern banks of the Cấm river which connects Hanoi with the Gulf of Tonkin in the China Sea. It also is the regional administrative centre serving the island of Cat Ba in Halong Bay with a connecting ferry service which brought Steve and myself there.

We checked into the posh looking but reasonably priced Bao Anh hotel a short distance from the Cat Ba ferry terminal. I figured a couple of nights stay to check out the city and take a ferry to the island.  I had initially anticipated taking the bikes to use on the island but given the timescale it was more practical to leave them at the hotel and stay an extra night on our return.






As night fell we hit the streets bright with new year holiday lights to explore and find food. Our search for dinner was less than successful as we found ourself at a street cafe with a limited and slightly expensive tourist menu. But the evening walk was fun. The city centre,roads, parks, trees and fountains are lit up in spectacular fashion for the new year festivities.  Kids were breakdancing in the park under the gaze of a statue of Lê Chân; the  female warrior general who led a successful battle against the mongols and, as legend would have it, founded the city.

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Up first thing the next morning I grabbed breakfast from street vendors close to the hotel before cycling to the early market spread out along Tam Bạc road next to the canal leading to the river Cấm. The local cafe scene would not have been out of place in Montparnasse in Paris. I couldn’t resist the fresh iced coffee at the excellent Giải Khát cafe that would, should I have stayed in Haiphong, have become my regular spot for morning coffee every day. Then on to the market that extends along the canal and the streets behind. Wow! Amazing displays of fruit and veg together with seafood and everything imaginable. I met so many wonderful friendly people along the way and found lots of happy smiles. It is a special place and a focus for the local community. Once again, and like Hanoi, whole streets were often devoted to particular trades or skills. I found the street (Ký Con) for bicycles repairs and parts with large displays of cycling kit spread out spilling onto the road situated between Tam Bạc and Hồ Tam Bạc lake pictured above.


IMG_3350..and coffee.




I made a mental note to return with Steve as he had said he needed to sort out a few things on his bike.

In the afternoon we walked and walked to take in a little more of the city. This led us to explore our options with regard the ferry to Cat Ba and then circle the old town partially via the disused railway line. Once again I was met so often by happy smiling people. Steve felt the urge to get back to the hotel and find some ‘relief’. At one point I was invited to join a small gathering by the railway line and eat but declined the hospitality to catch up Steve who had walked with some urgency ahead. But I couldn’t refuse a quick strong drink and a scallop. Some potential relief appeared for Steve in the guise of an automated public toilet but at this point we discovered that coins do exist in Viet Nam and we, of course, did not have any. He made a beeline for the hotel and I wandered a little more past stalls of flower sellers and partially back over the places we had walked during the evening before. A tidy little restaurant just along from the Bao Anh hotel provided our evening meal. It was pretty good and the staff were super attentive.












The hotel had an underground car park and attendant. I arranged to leave the bikes locked up there and gave the attendant a little money to keep an eye on them. The reception was kind enough to allow us to deposit surplus items in a small room behind the front desk. All we needed was enough stuff for a few days on the island of Cat Ba. I had booked a place to stay well in advance but we had not quite worked out the final details in terms of crossing the island to the resort’s location on the remote Eastern side. That would prove to be interesting. But with all the excitement of the boat trip ahead it did not seem to matter much.. and all part of the adventure. We would be back.


I would certainly recommend Hải Phòng as an excellent place to visit. Although often seen as simply a gateway for visitors to Halong Bay and Cat Ba I felt that in many respects, and like Hanoi, it holds a lot of attraction for anyone seeking a slice of everyday life in Viet Nam.


The Road to Hạ Long Bay


IMG_2969 With my bike loaded up I left my excellent hosts at Chez Linh Linh homestay in Ba Dinh and headed back into the old district where I  had arranged to meet up with Steve. This gave me another opportunity to look around Hanoi and the market in particular. People were already gearing up for ‘Tết’; the Vetnamese Spring festival and which coincides with the Chinese New Year celebrations. Given the short time I had to explore Hanoi I hoped to find my way back there at some point during this trip.  Maybe.. IMG_2825 IMG_2970 IMG_2972 IMG_2974

My journey was delayed a little by an overturned scooter that brought the flood of traffic to a halt.  I caught up with Steve just East of the Cho Dong Xuan; Hanoi’s oldest market. Once again we crossed Gustav Eiffel’s Long Biên bridge over the Sông Hồng or Red River. IMG_2979 IMG_2981 IMG_2982 I followed Steve’s chosen route out through Hanoi’s Eastern suburbs towards Haiphong via the QL18. It would take a day or two and involved some quite heavy road work along busy main roads. This in itself dampened spirits and not quite the bucolic journey that Steve had anticipated. Certainly Google maps aren’t always the cyclists friend when planning such things. Regardless the roadside cafes provided good food (Pho) and a cheap hotel magically appeared for an overnight stop. With heads down and a bit of determination we dropped South down via the QL183 and tackled the AH14 main road to Haiphong. It was altogether a bit crap and another heavy dual carriageway. But we did it without incident.. IMG_2996

Dinner! Oh yes. Delicious pho and cheaper than chips. IMG_3006

Back on the highway to hell. IMG_3002

The guy at the helm of this boat on the river Cầu near Bắc Ninh returned my wave. 🙂 IMG_3014

Cats and dogs remain on the menu in Viet Nam and so sad to see them caged by the roadside awaiting their fate. IMG_3015

Incense. I had a little supply of party balloons to give away and the little girl peeping around the door here liked them very much.IMG_3022

This scene reminded me of Sri Lanka: IMG_3021

.. and more incense drying in the sun. IMG_3019

The lovely AH 14. IMG_3037

Steve leading the way. IMG_3034

I had retrieved a discarded hat from a roadside ditch and a man had added a strap for me. For fun I wore it on my way into Haiphong. To her amusement I popped it onto the head of this lady who was running a roadside cafe by the main roundabout leading in to the city. I downed a very welcome celebratory Hanoi beer. Phew. IMG_3046

We had made it to Haiphong (Hải Phòng); Hạ Long Bay and the South China sea!