This is now an old story. But it’s still a story worth telling.
Much has happened since we left Vietnam on Tuesday March 10th. The coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world with many countries in lockdown. At the time of writing, the UK has sadly suffered more deaths from Covid-19 than any other European country. The government estimates that around 7% of the population or 4.7 million people have caught the virus with over 300,000 confirmed by a positive test.
In contrast, Vietnam has had 355 official cases, Cambodia 141 and Laos just 19. So far, none of these countries have recorded a single death linked to Covid-19. Indeed, Vietnam is now cited by many experts as having one of the best epidemic control programs in the world, alongside Taiwan and South Korea.
It seems that the Vietnamese authorities learnt a lot from previous viral outbreaks, including Sars in 2003 and Avian Flu in 2010. They took fast, decisive action as soon as the first case arrived from Wuhan on January 23rd.
The border with China was immediately closed, schools remained shut after the New Year Tet holiday and strict quarantines were placed around any local outbreaks. Most impressively, every single case was individually recorded and all the people they’d been in contact with were traced, tested and isolated. Then they traced the contacts of the contacts … and so on.
On Sunday March 8th we were enjoying a pizza in the old French hill station of Dalat, excited about our final 4-day bike ride back to Saigon and completing a round trip of over 2000km.
Another long cruise downhill would take us through some beautiful but remote mountain countryside, before reaching the outskirts of the city. Accommodation for the first two nights had been difficult to find, but eventually we’d managed to book a small guesthouse by a pretty lake about 10km off our route.
We were really looking forward to the ride. Until that is, we received this message from the guesthouse …
We’d noticed that concern about Covid-19 had grown significantly in Vietnam over the previous few days. Most people were now wearing masks and our temperature was taken at every hotel, restaurant and museum. This had surprised us a little, as the country only had 16 cases at that time and were proud to have gone 22 days without anyone testing positive.
After a little googling, we soon found out why visitors from the UK were suddenly less welcome. A Vietnamese ‘socialite’ had flown back to Hanoi from London, after visiting the Milan Fashion Show. She turned out to be a super-spreader, infecting all the people around her on the plane. Most of them were British tourists heading to Vietnam for a special holiday.
This meant that the headlines in the local news were full of the danger of any contact with Brits. And any other Europeans for that matter. On Instagram we learnt that other bicycle tourists were suddenly being turned away from guesthouses, restaurants and even shops.
We could see that people were becoming a bit wary of us. Smiles were replaced with nervous glances. Perhaps we were not quite as welcome as we had been? Maybe it was time to leave?
Instead of cycling back to Saigon, we jumped on a bus. Once there, we rode through the busy traffic in the dark to find a travel agent and change our flights. 48 hours after finishing that pizza in Dalat, we were on the plane home … a week ahead of schedule but pleased to be getting back to our families.
As things turned out we were leaping from the frying pan into the fire, leaving a safe country behind us and returning to a country where the number of coronavirus infections were accelerating quickly.
It was disappointing to leave Dalat by bus as we’d also arrived by car … not really the point of a bicycle tour!
The bike ride up to Dalat from the coast is beautiful but brutal. 150km and over 3500m of climbing with little along the way to break the journey. No lodgings, no restaurants, not even any small shops selling water. Many young adventurous bicycle tourists have had great fun going down … very few have tried to cycle up.
It was clearly beyond our capabilities!
Dalat itself is the cheesy-music love-capital of Vietnam, hugely popular with honeymooners and hen parties. A few dollars to one of the many street karaoke busking groups buys you a great night out. You get a backing band and an appreciative audience of several hundred like-minded romantics as you belt out “Killing me softly with his song … ” or “I-e-ii-ee-iiiii will always love yooouuuu … “
Our journey from Hoi An to Dalat had begun with yet another bus (we know … this is turning into a troubling theme). There was not enough time to cycle the rest of the way down the coast, so we picked a section that promised ‘a spectacular mix of craggy wind-lashed capes, fishing villages and pretty coves.’ Just as importantly, it also promised plenty of backroads away from the trucks rumbling down Highway 1.
This time it was one of the dreaded night buses, infamous with young backpackers. Built for small Vietnamese people, not for tall foreigners, Andy had to squeeze so tightly into his seat that he appeared to be trapped in an old-fashioned fairground ride!
After eight sleepless hours, the bus dropped us off at 3am on the outskirts of a sprawling and rather soulless city called Tuy Hoa. We didn’t particularly fancy cycling in the dark so looked around for a hotel to hang out in for a couple of hours. They all looked a bit seedy, with big neon signs advertising 24-hour massages. Sure enough, as we locked up our bikes, a lady-of-the-night tottered out, presumably on her way home.
The night manager then followed her out to find out what we were up to. Once he understood our situation, he couldn’t have been any nicer, offering drinks, power for our phones and a quiet lie down on the lobby sofa.
Just before dawn we waved him goodbye and headed off in search of the coast road, some strong coffee and breakfast. Everything was closed but eventually we came across a street stall offering delicious Bánh Mì (Omelette Baguettes), just the right energy boost for the 75km ahead of us.
This part of the Vietnamese coast is a land of contrasts.
Some parts of it are indeed very pretty … craggy capes, secluded coves, chalk-white beaches and small islands nestled in a turquoise sea. But there’s also a lot of industry here with oil refineries and giant ports dotting the horizon.
Most striking are the multitude of fish farms which stretch out across the bays as far as the eye can see. Farmers and their families live on the floating houses, growing fish, shrimp and crab to serve the incessant demand from city markets with their ever-expanding population.
Traditional fishing boats, each painted blue with a red trim, potter between the farms and head out at night in search of the wild tuna and bream.
The fish farms are an arresting site. Less attractive are the piles of rubbish that build up by the side of the road. Managing single-use plastic waste is global issue that is brought into sharp focus in this part of the world. People simply discard their leftovers on the ground as their forefathers have done for centuries. Unfortunately, unlike the waste of previous generations, plastic doesn’t degrade … so it just sits there waiting to be burnt every few months.
Occasionally as we cycled along a quiet road a bus would drive past us with empty bottles and cans literally raining out of the windows. It would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad.
This is a representative of a wider problem that applies to all three countries but especially to Vietnam, with its higher population density and rapid economic development.
Vietnamese people are rightly optimistic about the future. But many are also worried that their natural resources are being quickly exhausted to fuel the economic growth. Forests are being burnt down, cities rapidly enlarged, waterways polluted. They know that their country will need to nurture its natural resources much better in future for the good times to be sustainable.
Trying not to notice the piles of rubbish, we meandered down the coast at a gentle pace, pausing for a couple of nights on Whale Island and at a quiet beachside retreat called ‘Some Days of Silence.’ There was no need to hurry.
For our last night on the coast, we treated ourselves to a taste of luxury at one of the upmarket resorts that grace Ninh Van Bay and can only be reached by speedboat. Described in the guidebook as an ‘alternative reality populated by European royalty, film stars and the otherwise rich and secretive’, we were not sure what they would make of two sweaty cyclists.
Here we’d arranged to meet up with Richard and Sue, the friends from home that we’d bumped into by surprise back in Champasak. As the sun set over the hills that lead up to Dalat, we toasted both our trips with some very welcome crisp white wine.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be the end of this particular cycling adventure. A perfect celebration!
Here’s the map of our whole trip around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos:
We have to admit that there are a lot more red lines (for buses), green lines (for cars) and pink lines (for boats) on this map than usual.
But we still pedalled 1712km, climbed 18,629m and spent 126 hours in our saddles. That’s slightly more kilometres than our trips to Chile or to Australia.
And we only had two mechanical problems, both punctures to Andy’s rear wheel.
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are three very different countries, but they’re all great places to tour around by bicycle.
The scenery is spectacular … from the green rice carpets of the Mekong Delta to the rough red clay roads of Northeast Cambodia … from the temples of Angkor to the tranquillity of the Four Thousand Islands in landlocked Laos … from the cassava and coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau to the thick, high jungle of the Ho Chi Minh highway.
As you set out at sunrise in the cool morning air there are endless scenes of everyday life to entertain you … families cooking noodles for breakfast under their house, hawkers selling dried fish, women slowly pedalling back from the market in brightly coloured pyjamas topped with conical leaf hats.
Once you get used to the rules of the road it’s even fun to cruise through town, scooters buzzing past in every direction.
But four months after coming home, it’s still the sound of children’s voices that we remember most … “Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”
Whilst the world fights back against this terrible virus, we can conjure up this soundtrack to lull us off to sleep … and start dreaming about where to go next.
Until then …
Clare and Andy