This section from Lao Cai to Hanoi and Hue is the twelfth instalment of my bicycle ride from Yunnan to Cambodia – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Since all weather reports for northern Vietnam had report nothing even remotely satisfactory, I resort to cheating my way to Hanoi. That way, I’d skip a piece of dreadful mountain riding in bad weather, I’d go right to see my girlfriend and her family and I’d be able to rest my injured legs a few days. The soft-seat ticket went for a little over 200.000 dong (about 8 EUR) and the additional bike fee 40.000 (just over 1 EUR). Unlike China, where bikes have to be loaded on a separate train or packed in a luggage-size box, Vietnamese trains have special freight wagons large enough for my bicycle, some French tourists’ motorbikes, loads of fruit and foodstuff belonging to other passengers and goods hidden from view by green tarpaulin packaging.

Boarding the train to Hanoi
Boarding the train to Hanoi

The train, being delayed over an hour, took over 12 hours to arrive at Hanoi, but there was enough entertainment not to notice. The man next to me was what the Vietnamese would call a nice Ông, a grandpa. His beard and stature made him look almost exactly like a toothless Ho Chi Minh. I offered him my fleece to support his back in the slightly uncomfortable train chairs and his returned gratitude rains on me in the form of coffee and eggs. He also makes sure I’m not overcharged for whatever I buy from from the food trolley. A bit later a man comes round with tea and the dieu cay, or farmer’s pipe, a Vietnamese bong. I know from my experience in Hue three years ago that it’s not for the faint-hearted smoker. The nicotine hit leaves you at a loss as to whether you should laugh, cry or shit yourself. Given the state of the toilet in this train, I pass.

Dieu Cay or farmer's pipe
Dieu Cay or farmer’s pipe, with the Chinese characters for happiness 福, wealth 禄 and longevity 寿.

The reunion with my girlfriend is warm, the chicken salad she got me delicious and the cold beer on a corner of the capital’s bustling streets rockets me right back in time. Why am I even living in Kunming? Riding with the motorcycles is such an exhilarating thing, I love every bit of it. Hanoi, with all its street food, night-life and a large part of the country’s intelligentsia, is a mighty fine place to be in – if you have the dough. Prices have doubled or sometimes even tripled since my visit three years ago. Hanoi is no longer a cheap place, and it wasn’t all that cheap to begin with. I’m not any more the kind of traveller whose only foreign-language vocabulary consists of the words for cheap beer and cheap hotel, but to see a bowl of Pho rise from 15.000 to 40.000 dong is perplexing.

Famous coffee joint north of Hoan Kiem lake
Famous coffee joint north of Hoan Kiem lake

Tu and I bike to her hometown of Dong Anh (东英), a northern borough of Hanoi some 25 km from the city centre. Once a fairly small rural community, it is now growing increasingly popular with Hanoi’s ever more affluent elite for being quieter and cleaner. The place is indeed pleasant, and there’s a strong everyone-knows-everyone kind of atmosphere. Close to Dong Anh is also the country’s first capital, Co Loa (古螺, old spiral), which harbours the legend of the Magic Crossbow.

Much deserved haircut
Much deserved haircut

Tu’s family are the sweetest people I’ve ever met. Apart from their warm welcome without judgment, her father makes sure I don’t run out of alcohol (which he makes himself with all kinds of flavours) and her mother and sister see to it that I get fat for the coming ride. We try dog meat at a specialised restaurant (my occasional retching had nothing to do with the flavour – it tasted great!), grilled birds, all kinds of wrapped delicacies, sweets, snacks … you name it. I see things I’d never seen or tried on my last trip.

Co Loa at Dong Anh
Co Loa at Dong Anh

I get to visit the grandmother’s house, which is inhabited not only by the grandparents but also by the uncle and aunt, who are some of the richest people in town. All the children and grandchildren visit the giant house regularly to make use of the gym with squash wall, the hotel-grade karaoke room etc. The house even has an elevator. Tu’s little cousins, Tien Anh, Tu Linh (秀玲) and Minh Nguyet (明月) are adorable and playful kids that are making great progress in English.

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I even get to bring Tu Linh to school in the small family car. I’m a bit nervous because the cold weather outside makes the windows fog up and flanking the car are a million other kids going to school, vulnerably swaying on their bicycles and clutching their umbrellas against the rain. It makes me feel like a dick for being inside a car – but not as much as if I’d been in one of the SUVs attempting the same thing. Still, I’m impressed at how few cars there are in Vietnam. Compared to China, the number is nearly negligible. Is it poverty, or do people realise that driving a car in this sea of motorcycles is really entirely useless?

Döner Kebab in Vietnam is pork
Döner Kebab in Vietnam is pork

The weather has sucked all week. Cloudy skies, rain, and cold. Who’d have thought it could be cold in Vietnam. But the north apparently gets some of it. From the internet, however, I learn that it’s snowing in Kunming. We’re obviously in some weathery anomaly and I’m not liking it one bit.

When the skies finally clear up, Tu and I ride our bicycles to Hanoi to get train tickets to Hue. That way, we can skip the colder part of Vietnam. Also, we need some bicycle upgrades. She’s riding on unnecessarily knobby tyres that slow her down, and she needs a pannier of sorts. Between meals, snacks, and coffees, we get our gear from Mr. Quang, at 136 Le Duan. Despite being a tiny shop that you’d miss if you blinked while riding by, it magically contains everything we need in some nook or cranny. Mr Quang knows what he’s doing and prices are way below what we’d have paid in China.

Candied fruit
Candied fruit

Finally, the big day has come. We buy everything we need in terms of medicine, subject the bikes to a last check-up, bid the family good-bye and ride to Hanoi. We check in our bicycles at the luggage department and learn that they will arrive a day late. We should’ve bought our freight tickets at the same time with the passenger tickets. But hey, Tu’s battling with a headache, so it’s probably good to have another rest day at Hue.

Candied fruit portraying the tale of the turtle
Candied fruit portraying the tale of the turtle

Our train ride was smooth, albeit a bit long. The nice difference between Vietnamese and Chinese trains is that all compartments are closed off from the hall, so no one comes in to bother you and you don’t have to listen to everyone speak and smoke between the beds.

Just some traveller’s tips: at Hue we stayed at the Phong Nha hotel. A clean hotel with a decent bed and bathroom without any frills or views. It’s centrally located and we managed to bargain our room down to 180.000 dong (6 EUR) which is – in fact – a great deal, especially when you count the free ride we got from the train station. Another great tip is the Lien Hoa restaurant at 9 Le Quy Don street. Hue, being a very religious town, is home to several great vegetarian restaurants, but the Lien Hoa (Lotus) is probably one of the best I’ve eaten at in Asia.

Colonial architecture at Hanoi
Colonial architecture at Hanoi

Other specialities include banana/sweet potato pancakes, coconut/rice cake candy, Hue-style beef noodles (Bun Bo Hue) and little here-and-there’s on the way. I’m in heaven – if only this weather would clear up! Unfortunately, we skip a night out at Brown Eyes, the town’s only foreign bar in favour of a movie and a good night’s rest before our first major ride.

Grilled birds
Grilled birds
Tu crossing the Long Bien bridge
Tu crossing the Long Bien bridge

3 thoughts on “Slap the Belgian! Transferring to Hue via Hanoi”

  1. Did you ask Tu and her parents what they think is the reason behind such steep inflation in such a short period of time? Obviously, some inflation is a given in a fast-growing economy, but the increases you’re describing do sound outrageous.

  2. I’ve just asked her: she says the government is printing a lot of extra money to pay off debt, mostly to China, for all kinds of infrastructure projects, such as a Sky Train for Ha Noi. This of course leading to massive inflation.

    Apparently even concessions for relatively invaluable minerals such as bauxite are sold to the Chinese, at cost of losing valuable nature. Such is the precarious financial situation of Vietnam.

    Of course, with a rapidly booming economy such as the Vietnamese, most problems are to blame on government graft and corruption. Seems it’s becoming just another failing SEA state and no better than China.

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